Before your trip, make an effort to research where you are going. Guide books, the internet, the local library; whatever you can find. Your efforts will be rewarded. People the world over love to talk about what they know. When locals realize you have a genuine interest in their culture and history, they are more likely to open up and be genuinely friendly and helpful.
GUIDED OR INDEPENDENT?
In First World countries, the majority of people hike without the assistance of guides, porters or travel agencies. Yet, when many of these same hikers travel to developing nations they make the decision to go on guided treks. Why?
Guided treks offered by adventure travel companies provide their clients with a relatively “worry free” wilderness experience. Details such as getting there and away, route finding, navigation, potential campsites, language barriers etc, are all taken care of by the people in charge. You have your tent set up for you, your food cooked for you, the bulk of your gear carried for you. In addition, a guide can provide insights into local flora, fauna and the nuances of village life. If you are short of experience and time, and just want a hassle-free holiday out in nature shared with potentially like-minded people, then a guided trek may very well be for you.
In contrast, hiking independently means the acceptance of all responsibilities. If something goes wrong the onus is upon you to make it right. Pre-hike preparations can at times be lengthy, complicated and dealing with Third World bureaucracy is rarely easy. However, despite the logistical challenges, the majority of independent trekkers will attest that the rewards far outweigh the inconveniences. Principal amongst these benefits is a sense of freedom – the freedom to choose where you camp, what you eat, whom you walk with (if anyone), when you take a break, how fast or slow you walk, etc.
Whilst a guide may provide valuable insights into regional culture, it is equally true that when local people see someone hiking independently, carrying their own pack, taking the same dodgy buses and broken down pickup trucks that they do, an affinity is created without a single word being exchanged. In a sense the independent hiker represents a more empathetic figure, simply because he or she is attempting to accept and adapt to local conditions without the safety net of a guided trip.
Whether you hike independently or with a guide comes down to personal preference. We all have different motivations, family and work commitments, levels of fitness and experience. Ultimately, the most important thing is to go with an open mind. If you can put aside preconceived ideas and accept a place and its people on their terms rather than your own, chances are you are going to have a fantastic time no matter how you choose to hike.