Rating foreign tour companies that customize tours

This article appears on page 45 of the March 2017 issue.

In several previous issues (including last month’s), we printed letters from subscribers who responded to the information request of Yvonne Richter, who wrote, “My husband and I like to take customized private tours, and we prefer to use tour companies and guides that are local to the destinations. I would like travelers to write in about foreign tour companies and guides they’ve used for private tours, including as many of the following details as possible:

“The name and contact information of the foreign tour company or private guide (location, phone, email and/or URL).

Rating, from 1 (poor) to 10 (great). (Poor ratings are as important to know as great ones.)

“The itinerary used. Length of the tour (number of days/nights). When the tour took place (month/year). Approximate cost of the tour, and what was included.

“Plus any special or noteworthy experiences of the trip, both positive and negative.”

Subscribers have continued to write in, and here are a few more letters, these on trips to CENTRAL and SOUTH AMERICA. Each includes a rating from [1] (poor) to [10] (great).

My husband and I had a very enjoyable 15-night trip to GUATEMALA in February 2016 that was arranged by Alicia Campos of Voyageur Tours (6 Avenida Sur, 12A Antigua, Guatemala; phone +502 7832 4237, www.cometoguatemala.com). Alicia (alicia@cometoguatemala.
quickly responded to all emails, questions and requests. 

While Voyageur can arrange group travel, we decided to go with private guides for customization and the added flexibility. Alicia arranged wonderful, English-speaking guides who were a joy to be with and provided us with insider information and access.

We also decided to go with mostly 4-star hotels, except for four nights at the wonderful, 5-star Hotel Casa Santo Domingo (3a Calle Oriente 28 A; www.casasantodomingo.com.gt/default-en.html) in Antigua. With gardens, pools and museums, it’s a lovely hotel built into the remains of a colonial-era monastery.

Among hotels that we requested and Alicia was able to reserve were La Posado de Don Rodrigo (Final de Calle Santander; www.posadade
in Panajachel, where we had a large room with a patio and great views of Lake Atitlán and surrounding volcanoes, and Isla de Flores (Avenida la Reforma; www.hotelisladeflores.com) in Flores, where we had a nice room with a view of Lago de Petén Itzá.

The cost for round-trip airfare from Guatemala City to Flores (to see Tikal and the Petén jungle), 15 nights in hotels (including breakfasts), a private car between locations, six all-day private tours, two half-day city tours, private boat transportation for two excursions, a fee for climbing Pacaya Volcano, admission to Tikal and several museums, two lunches and a special birthday dinner came to $2,932 per person.

We paid in US dollars, half by wire transfer to hold the reservations and half in cash when we arrived, though we could have sent the remainder by wire. For such a wonderful, high-quality trip, this seemed well worth the money. 

For our half-day tours of Antigua and Guatemala City, Alicia retained the services of the Guatemalan guide Karla Peynado, who was outstanding — enthusiastic, knowledgeable, experienced and fun. She spoke great English, too. [10]

I’d be happy to answer questions. I can be contacted at gkparsons@sbcglobal.net.

Ann Arbor, MI


As winter approached in 2015, my husband, Dave Wiltzius, and I decided we wanted to spend some time in warm weather in a place that was inexpensive and not crowded but easy to reach. 

Looking through the world atlas, we decided on NICARAGUA. It seemed to have the characteristics we were looking for: beaches, mountains, rainforest, a low population and an interesting native culture and history. It also has 19 volcanoes along the Pacific coast and is one of four countries in the Americas where you can witness a major arribada, or mass nesting of thousands of sea turtles.

Concepción volcano on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua.

Being wildlife lovers, the decision was made to try to experience an arribada.

Online, we noticed excellent reviews for the guide service Julio Tours Nicaragua (León, Nicaragua; phone +505 8625 4467, www.julio toursnicaragua.com.ni). Engaging a local service in Nicaragua appealed to us, since all the funds would directly benefit the people in that country. 

In our email exchange, Julio was informative and quoted a price of $3,900 for the two of us for our 12-night itinerary, Oct. 9-21, 2015. 

We arrived in Managua late in the evening and were met at the airport by Julio’s son Cesar, who delivered us in five minutes to Hotel Camino Real Managua (www.caminoreal.com.ni). It had a colonial, tropical feel to it, and the grounds, rooms and service were excellent.

The next day, after breakfast, we drove about two hours to Parque Maritimo el Coco (www.playa elcoco.com.ni), where we would stay three nights in one of three apartments on the beach. It was only a mile-long drive down the road to La Flor Beach Natural Reserve, where we could view nesting olive ridley turtles, one of two species of sea turtles that exhibit arribada behavior.

Olive ridley sea turtle nesting on the beach at La Flor Wildlife Refuge in Nicaragua. Photo by Dave Wiltzius

Since nesting events for these turtles are generally nocturnal, we went there at 8:30 p.m., finding nesting turtles scattered around the mile-long beach. For the next few hours, we joined dispersed groups of people witnessing about a hundred turtles crawling out of the ocean to dig egg chambers in the sands, lay their eggs and return to the ocean. 

The next day, we checked with the ranger’s office and learned they had counted 2,000 nesting turtles the previous night.

At breakfast that morning, Julio informed us that baseball is Nicaragua’s national sport, then he offered to drive us to a game between two small villages. We spent a half hour watching the game and were awed by how well the young people played. 

The following day, we made a short day trip to Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua. During a short hike in a botanical reserve, our local guide shared his knowledge of the flora. We traveled to an archaeological site to view some astounding primitive petroglyphs before taking a ferry back to the mainland.

In the beautiful colonial city of Granada, where colorful horse-drawn buggies line the street of the main plaza, a local guide gave us a fascinating tour. At the start, we were told about the modern revolutionary period. (Julio fought in the Nicaraguan revolution, and he, too, told us interesting stories.)

Our last day in Granada began with a boat ride among the 360 islands that had been formed by the erupting Mombacho Volcano. We saw many birds and monkeys plus beautiful houses tucked into the islands’ forests. 

After lunch at a market, we visited Laguna de Apoyo, a beautiful volcano-crater lake, and stopped at the home of a potter, who worked his potter’s wheel to make colorful pots.

The next day, we took a scenic drive into the rainforested mountains for a 2-night stay at the Selva Negra Ecolodge (www.selvanegra.com), a sustainable, organic-coffee plantation that looked like something out of a fairy tale. There, the rainy season caught up with us. On our last night, we were in our outlying cabin from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. because of the torrent. 

Cabin with its roof overgrown with vegetation — Selva Negra Ecolodge in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Photos by Dave Wiltzius

While at Selva Negra, we fell asleep and awoke each day to the calls of howler monkeys. We also were given an interesting environmental tour, did coffee-tasting and enjoyed a few jungle hikes.

We continued on to León for a 2-night stay. With a local guide, we visited notable sites in the city, including the Revolutionary War Museum for a thorough background on that historical period several decades ago.

On following days, Dave went volcano boarding down Cerro Negro, and we stayed overnight at a sweet little resort on Laguna de Apoyo and another night in Managua.

All in all, it was a fabulous trip, and everything progressed smoothly thanks to the exceptional guidance of Julio and his son Cesar plus the local guides. With the wonderful accommodations, the mix of wildlife and hiking activities, our learning about the culture and meeting the helpful, friendly people of Nicaragua, it was an unforgettable experience. [10]

Livermore, CA


My wife, Patti, and I had already been to 10 South American countries when, a year out, we started investigating a trip to GUYANA and SURINAME. When we finally decided to book, none of the tour companies we contacted responded. We surmised that many of them work only during the peak travel time for Europeans (usually summer). 

Ultimately, we discovered Oetsi Tours (Parijsstraat 40, Paramaribo, Suriname; phone +597 442988, www.oetsitours.com) and got an email response within hours from Dinesh Ramial, the founder and director. 

After exchanging a few emails, we settled on an 8-day customized trip, with a one-night stopover on TRINIDAD in Trinidad & Tobago. We traveled Aug. 1-10, 2016, at the cost of $6,431 for two people, including round-trip air from Tampa, an internal flight, hotels and touring. 

All hotels were deluxe: the Hilton Port of Spain (Trinidad), the Marriott Georgetown (Guyana) and the Royal Torarica Paramaribo (Suriname).

We were met at the Trinidad airport by the guide Glen Simmonds. Glen is a retired high-ranking police officer, and we were treated to a tour to places with no other tourists. We had been to Trinidad once on a day tour from a cruise ship but had not seen the inner country’s beautiful peaks and valleys plus the spectacular views of the sea. 

As for Guyana, the main reason to visit is to see the vast protected areas of  jungle and rainforest as well as Kaieteur Falls, with its straight drop of more than 700 feet. 

Unfortunately, two days prior to our departure, we learned that the flight to the falls had been canceled. We added an extra night at our resort at the end of the trip. 

The canceled flight left us free time to walk around Georgetown, a city of beautifully restored, wooden colonial buildings (with many more waiting for restoration or replacement). We walked about a mile to the city center, meeting smiling people; it seemed everyone wanted to say “Hi.”

The next morning, we were picked up for the short flight from Guyana to Suriname in a 10-passenger, single-engine plane operated by Gum Air. There was a baggage limit of 20 pounds per person.

While the flight was smooth and the view spectacular, the landing was a bit more exciting. Looking out the front windows, I kept expecting to see an airport. Instead, we began descending toward what appeared to be a house with a long driveway. It was an airport, but it was the smallest I have ever seen.

Unlike Georgetown, Paramaribo is a UNESCO World Heritage city, with perfectly restored, traditional green-and-white buildings everywhere you look. It abounds with really good dining, including Indo-Caribbean, Chinese, Amerindian, Javanese and Dutch fare (Suriname is a former Dutch colony) plus venues serving local curry. The majority of visitors are from the Netherlands. 

English is widely spoken, and many establishments accepted credit cards and US dollars. 

It was only a few hours’ drive to a butterfly factory (where pupae were being raised for overseas shipping) and a restored old plantation, both worth the visit. 

The highlight was a Maroon village, where people were living much as they did a hundred years ago. Our guide knew the village captain and some of the elders. Once our guide told the elders that Patti and I had traveled to a lot of Africa, we were especially welcomed. 

There was lots of conversation and laughter as the elders enjoyed their cigarettes and beer (we supplied the beer as a token of respect), and we left with fist bumps and smiles all around. 

Our last two nights were spent at the Berg & Dal Eco Resort (www.bergendalresort.com/en), just inside the edge of the rainforest and fronting the Suriname River. Each guest facility was a single cottage, with some cottages higher up in the forest and others right on the bank of the river. On the last morning, we were picked up at 4:30 a.m. for the drive to the airport. 

We are glad we finally visited Guyana and Suriname, and we appreciated the flexibility of the management of Oetsi Tours. They met our expectations, we would use them again, and we recommend them with a rousing [10].

Tarpon Springs, FL


We had an extraordinary 16-day tour of PERU organized by Jackelyne Rosas of PeruTourism (Av. Larco, Suite 1301, Miraflores, Peru; phone +51 511 241 4724, www.perutourism.com) in May 2013. PeruTourism works in conjunction with the ground operator Condor Travel (Armando Blondet 249, San Isidro, Peru; phone +51 615 3000, www.condortravel.com), an excellent company with locations in most Peruvian towns and cities. 

This was our trip of a lifetime, made possible by Ms. Rosas’ listening to our desires and turning them into reality! Our personalized itinerary gave us days full of sights and activities as well as free time to explore at our own pace. 

We visited Lima, Arequipa, Chiva (for Colca Canyon), Puno (at Lake Titicaca), Cusco, Ollantaytambo (in the Sacred Valley) and Machu Picchu. 

Throughout the tour, we had guides who were experienced, knowledgeable, helpful and friendly. Each was waiting for us when we arrived at airports, and they picked us up from hotels to start the tours. All of our selected hotels were clean and comfortable, and the food was delicious.

For both of us, the total cost was $5,060, which included all the hotels, 15 breakfasts, five lunches and two dinners. It also included all air and bus tickets inside Peru, car service between airports and hotels, all entrance fees (including two days spent with a guide at Machu Picchu) and the Vistadome train to Machu Picchu.

We highly recommend both PeruTourism and Condor Travel! [10]

San Diego, CA