The grand tour of Central America
After college I craved adventure, so I’m working as a guide taking tourists from Mexico to Panama, says Antony Wolfe
Having grown up and gone to college in south Dublin, I hadn’t travelled much in my life. When I graduated from Economics and Spanish in Trinity last year I decided to look for work abroad. I wanted to do something completely different to my classmates, who were mostly heading for jobs with accountancy firms in Dublin.
My roommate had been on a tour with Tucan Travel in South America before, so when I was thinking of going to that part of the world to work I contacted them. My application was turned down initially because of my lack of travel experience, and also because at 23, I am still very young for the position.
Plan B was to go to Argentina on a work visa with a friend. Ten days after arriving in Buenos Aires in November I got an email from Tucan offering a Skype interview with their office in Cuzco. They needed a guide in Mexico City in two days. I made the decision there and then and haven’t looked back.
After three weeks’ training shadowing another guide, I’m now an adventure tour leader, taking a 49-day tour of seven countries beginning in Mexico City. I’ve just finished my first solo tour.
It is exciting coming over to Central America, not knowing much about the region. It has been a steep learning curve though, taking a tour group to places I had never been before. They knew it was my first tour and were very understanding. It has been really exciting, like leading an expedition.
The only time I got lost was arriving in San Jose in Costa Rica after a 14 hour journey and I navigated the group into quite a seedy part of town at night, but it thankfully worked out OK and we found our way back to the hotel.
I was given a lot of notes and maps to study, and tips on where to go and what to do, but every day was like cramming for an exam. I had to learn as much about each place before we arrived as I could, as well as doing all the administrative planning and sharing my new knowledge with the group.
Spending an average of 12 hours a day with the group for weeks at a time, you get to know each person very well. I was told by other leaders I would never forget my first group, and they were right. It was genuinely sad saying goodbye.
My favourite place so far has been Caye Caulker in Belize. There are no cars, just golf buggies, and the roads are paved with sand. It is the most laid-back place I have ever been. We spent Christmas in Mérida, an old colonial Spanish city on the Yucatán peninsula. There was very little open so I organised take-away pizza on the rooftop of the hotel, overlooking the city.
I’m on an 18-month contract. The itineraries are tight and technically my next day off is in August! You couldn’t do this job forever, it would burn you out. You can’t ever switch off. Even days when you are not guiding the group somewhere, you still have to be around in case anything goes wrong.
I spend a huge amount of time on buses and ferries, but I always have something to read or to plan. And there’s the reward of an interesting place at the end of each journey. If you have a good group that you enjoy socialising with, it is a lot of fun too.
I haven’t done much forward planning for after the contract finishes, but I would love to stay in this part of the world, perhaps working in economics in South America somewhere. I’m hoping the experience I get here will distinguish me from other economics graduates if I do decide to go home. This job is all about organisation, planning and problem solving, which are some of the most important skills employers look for.
I chose to study economics because I thought I’d get a job out of it, and Spanish because I liked it. But it has turned out to be the opposite. I am thankful to have another language which allows me to do a job like this.
- In conversation with Ciara Kenny
This article appears in the Life pages of The Irish Times today.