10 places you can’t travel without a guide

Seeing the penguins of Antarctica will require a tour and a guide. Photo / Unsplash

From providing essential equipment to offering insider advice on itineraries, there are many benefits to traveling with a tour company or guide.

However, in some places they are not just a nice requirement to have, but a mandatory requirement. Here are 10 places you’ll need someone to show you the way.

Antarctic

Given Antarctica’s -60°C temperatures, polar storms, wild creatures and otherwise harsh conditions, it makes sense that tourists should visit a qualified travel agency. Plus, traveling with an expedition cruise line means you can see the incredible sights of the White Continent from the comfort of a ship equipped with all the gear you need to make the most of your time.

Depending on the cruise you choose, travelers can get up close to penguins and explore science bases, ride Zodiacs around giant icebergs, and cruise across icy tundra. Since the region is environmentally fragile, tours and vessels are subject to strict regulations and continue to improve the way they travel through this magical place.

Inca Trail

Peru

Of all the walking trails in the world, few are as famous as the Inca Trail. Wedged between the Andes mountains, the trail winds through cloud forests, ancient ruins and alpine tundra before reaching the infamous Inca citadel known as Machu Picchu.

Given its popularity, the Peruvian government only distributes 500 walking permits each day, and travelers must walk it with a registered guide. Visitors can choose one of three overlapping trails; Mollenpata, Classic and One day. The first two trails can take up to five days and climb 3660m above sea level while the last is a gentler one-day affair, still giving you incredible views of the surrounding mountains and Machu Picchu.

You may encounter a woolly companion while walking to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail.  Photo / Unsplash
You may encounter a woolly companion while walking to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail. Photo / Unsplash

Bhutan

An expensive daily tourist tax and the requirement for a tour guide haven’t seemed to stop demand for tours in this country famous for its dedication to happiness (which is the measurement of the country’s Gross National Happiness). In fact, it cultivates an air of exclusivity that inspires travelers year after year. Unless you have an Indian, Bangladeshi or Maldivian passport, visitors must hold a visa and book through a local tour operator.

Once there, you’ll pay between $260 and $450 per day, which covers a tour guide, driver, all meals, and a hotel with a minimum of three stars. Popular excursions around the country include Tiger’s Nest (a cliffside temple with stunning views) and archery at Changlimithang Stadium, as well as dozens of hiking trails. Licensed tour operators are listed on the Bhutan Tourism website.

The Eagle's Nest in Bhutan.  Photo / Unsplash
The Eagle’s Nest in Bhutan. Photo / Unsplash

Nihau

Hawaii

For a unique island experience, head to Niihau; Hawaii’s most remote inhabited island. Assuming you have an invitation from the island’s owning family or one of the few full-time Native Hawaiian residents, of course. Absent that, you can still visit “The Forbidden Isle” by joining a tour led by Niihau’s owners, the Robinson family.

Several low-impact sightseeing options are available, including a half-day helicopter tour. This takes visitors on an aerial tour of the island before landing on one of the many pristine beaches, leaving you free to explore, swim, snorkel and enjoy a packed picnic. Naturally, the exclusive islands don’t come cheap, and a half-day helicopter tour can cost $780 per person with a minimum of 5 people, or chartered for a flat rate of $4,400.

Mount Tarawera

Aotearoa

Much closer to home, Mount Tarawera is just a 15 minute drive from Rotorua and attracts many tourists with its incredible views and beautiful lake. Famous for its eruption in 1886, which destroyed the pink and white terraces, the mountain is not only an incredible sight to behold, but holds deep spiritual significance for Ngāti Rangitihi, who are the kaitiaki of Te Maunga ō Tarawera.

Several hiking trails surround Lake Tarawera, but those who want to climb the maunga itself must be accompanied by a local guide. Kaitiaki Adventures organizes guided treks lasting approximately 4.5 hours and offer visitors the breathtaking views of the maunga.

The view of Mount Tarawera in Rotorua.  Photo/Cameron Mackenzie
The view of Mount Tarawera in Rotorua. Photo/Cameron Mackenzie

Corcovado National Park

Costa Rica

Many places are described as remote and untouched, but few live up to the title as well as Corcovado National Park. Located on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, this highly protected park is considered one of the most biodiverse areas in the world and boasts 13 different types of ecosystems, from coastal beaches to misty cloud forests.

Where there is vibrant flora, magnificent creatures are not far behind, and visitors can get up close to thousands of species ranging from sloths and eagles to sea turtles or jaguars. Guides have been compulsory since 2014, but several tour operators operate in the area and offer hikes or boat trips in this unique environment.

Mount Gower

Australia

You might be able to visit Australia’s Lord Howe Island solo, but if you want to conquer its spectacular 875m-high Mount Gower, you’ll need to find a professional guide. Considered one of the best day hikes in the country, the climb is technically straightforward but requires sturdy footwear, moderate fitness, and eight to ten hours to spare.

Unmarked and strenuous, the climb should be done with a licensed guide who can keep you in the right direction. Along the way, they will offer you interesting information about the plant and animal life of the area. Island Tours and Environmental Tours offer day trips to the mountain.

Views from Blinky Beach towards Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird on Lord Howe Island.  Photo / Visit NSW
Views from Blinky Beach towards Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird on Lord Howe Island. Photo / Visit NSW

For the truly adventurous traveler…

ATM Caves

Belize

Deep in the Belizean jungle, on the east coast of Central America, you’ll find the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) caves; an ancient archaeological site famous for its breathtaking beauty and ancient artifacts including human skeletons of Mayan sacrifices. But don’t expect to enter unless accompanied by a licensed guide.

Only 125 people can visit each day with official tour groups like MayaWalk Tours or Pacz Tours and after seeing how difficult the caves are to find and navigate, you’ll be happy to be with an expert.

A one-hour hike through the dense jungle brings you to the cave entrance. From there, visitors must travel 800 meters through an underground river to reach several gigantic caverns. The journey is worth it, as you enter a fantasy world with towering cave walls, ancient stone altars and calcified skeletons of human sacrifices.

An unlucky sacrifice deep in the ATM Caves.  Photo / Peter Andersen
An unlucky sacrifice deep in the ATM Caves. Photo / Peter Andersen

Chernobyl

Ukraine

Thanks to the pre-pandemic HBO show of the same name, Chernobyl enjoyed a surge in popularity among tourists interested in the site of the 1986 nuclear explosion. Due to the radioactive hazard, much of the area was closed to the public until 2011. Even now, visitors must be accompanied by a guide when visiting certain areas.

These tours will introduce you to the now abandoned cities of Pripyat, Zalissya and Leliv, as well as the power stations that are still operational today. Fortunately, the reactor that caused the largest nuclear explosion in the world is well locked up. Due to its location in northern Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine, we may not be booking tickets anytime soon, but the historic site is definitely on the to-do list for those looking to are interested in “dark tourism”.

Korean Demilitarized Zone

Stretching 250 km long and only 4 km wide, the Korean Demilitarized Zone bisects the Korean Peninsula and is a fascinating destination for history and war buffs. Formed in 1953, the area was created to be a buffer and meeting point for North Korea and South Korea.

Ironically, while the area itself is demilitarized, the border beyond is said to be one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world. For this reason, travelers should visit with an organized tour such as Koridoor or Cosmojin. Once there, you can walk around the Joint Security Area as well as visit Nuri Peace Park, Mount Odu Observatory and the “Bridge of No Return”, where prisoners were exchanged at the end of the Korean armistice in 1953.

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