The ‘Best Guide in the World’ Shows Travelers the Real Ecuador

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One thought never escapes Diego Torres. It comes to mind whenever he feels tired or stressed, or simply when routine raises its apathetic face. That thought is this: “For me it can be the 160th trip to the same place, but for the tourists I’m guiding there, it will be their first and perhaps the only visit.”

The Ecuadorian trailblazer was designated the “Best Guide in the World” in a 2009 survey by the British magazine Wanderlust. Prior to that, in 2006 and 2007, he was nominated for that title, and in 2008 he was a finalist along with seven other guides. But in 2009, after being included in a group with two other finalists (from India and Jordan), he was awarded the prize over 160 candidates from around the world.

Torres has a very clear objective: To be the decisive factor in the journey of each tourist who he guides through Ecuador. He knows that a guide is largely responsible for the impressions, experiences and images that visitors from whatever country take away with them.

From Quito, though educated in the Ecuadorian mountain city of Ambato, he began establishing his life’s vocation in his early childhood. In those early years, Diego began developing as a guide, though his wasn’t yet conscious of what was happening.

“I remember our vacation travels, with my brothers and sisters and my mother. We would stop anywhere on the way to appreciate nature or talk to people.” During these getaways, his mother would tell Diego and the rest of her children about the awe that was inspired in her by all the things she saw along the way. It could be a volcano, a lake or a market. She would ask her children to focus on the details and colors of the landscapes, as well as the lifestyles of people who were so different from them.

“We would stop for lunch and my mother would talk with the lady selling corn on the side of the road, or with the man at the market or with whoever was around.”

As a child, Diego watched and learned – perhaps with the same transparent look and serene expression that he possesses today. Guided by this sensitivity, and his own sense of curiosity and adventure, he began to understand that traveling is much more that looking at monuments or taking snapshots. He learned that visiting a country is to absorb its experiences, its voices, its nuances, the everyday life of its people, its beauty …but also its imperfections. He describes all of this as “experiential and authentic tourism,” which is what gives him the passion, enthusiasm, and motivation for his work.

Are you sure you’re our guide?

At the age 16, when he graduated from high school and had to choose a college career, he didn’t hesitate for a second: he wanted to be a tour guide. He enrolled in Ecuador’s Technical University (UTE) in Quito, the nation’s capital, where he earned degrees as a Professional Travel Guide and in Business Administration. He later earned a third degree as an Ecotourism and Management Natural Areas Specialist.

At the age of 19, he earned the first of those degrees. With youth, education and enthusiasm as his letters of introduction, Diego began guiding his first groups. “When tourists landed at the airport, they would look at me for a moment and then ask ‘Are you sure you’re our guide?’” At that time he surely had the same thin build and youthful air that he retains at 38. “Yes,” he would respond with aplomb. The initial hesitation of travelers didn’t affect his desire to become the best version of himself as a professional. “I am not and I’ve never been in competition with others …I’ve always just wanted to do my best.”

In this way, from his early days he laid down his own challenges. One of them, perhaps the most challenging, was to perfect his English. “At school, I almost got sent back a year because of my difficulties with English… now I give tours only in that language.” Today he is a member of the staff of a British company.

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With this company, he has found the ideal place to develop an idea that has become his philosophy of work: “One must show a country exactly how it is, because that’s what makes it a beautiful destination. Obviously there are landmarks that tourists want to see…things they want to know and attractions that brought them to Ecuador. However, also around those touristic icons are the life and culture of a place, which are expressed in thousands of unexpected ways.”

Diego experiences these contrasts on a daily basis. Showing his emotion, he recalled, “When I lead a group from Plaza Grande or the Carondelet Presidential Palace, for example, I explain to them the history, the important events, and the architecture of these sites. Nevertheless, on any given day, at those same sites, or very close to them, there might be the classic evangelical preacher, megaphone in hand, seeking to win new souls, or a street vender hawking their host of products. Or if it’s on a Sunday, there might be entire families on the bicycle path. All this and more, these are parts of what I as a guide, and as someone who loves his country, shows travelers.”

The visit to the Mitad del Mundo equatorial complex, he says, is an opportunity to give color, excitement and life to what could be a barren landscape or an almost routine visit. For this guide, memorized scripts and still lifes don’t work. “This place is a tourist site, true; but it’s also a sacred ancestral site. There’s a lot of history to tell. And if that’s not enough to wow tourists, there are the volcanoes surrounding the monument, the people who live in the area, and commerce taking place all around.” All of this is part of the living landscape that Diego wants to show visitors.

“The question is how deep the traveler wants to delve into this country?” For him, the answer is “as much as possible,” since seeing a place aseptically and from afar isn’t really experiencing it.

Letters from a Thousand Destinations

Diego Torres was, of course, proud the day he received the award from Wanderlust Magazine. “First, I was among three finalists. Then, when I learned that I had won and traveled to England to receive my award, it was unbelievable. But beyond the personal pride, I — as a resident of Quito — felt that this recognition was an opportunity for the Ecuadorian travel industry itself to value the work of guides, who are the faces the tourists always see.

On more than one occasion, he has had to confront difficult situations. Diego recalled traveling from Misahualli (in the Ecuadorian Amazon) to Quito, when the tour bus he was guiding faced a roadblock of angry protesters on the highway.

After he negotiated with the demonstrators and managed to get the bus through, one of the bus’s wheels exploded on the road. “I thought, ‘That’s it! What else can happen to us now?’” Nevertheless, he kept his cool and spoke as calmly as possible to build the confidence of the tourists. During such times, confesses Diego, he calls his wife, which is just enough to reassure him.

He thinks back to those tense moments without losing his smile. However, his face lights up completely when he relives emotional moments of communion with his groups, such as when they came upon some stunning scenery or a moment of unexpected beauty. He points to this as happening during a tour in the Galapagos Islands, when a group of about 50 dolphins surrounded the boat that was carrying his group from one island to another. On another occasion, a majestic condor appeared from out of nowhere and landed close to him and his group on a mountain in the Andes.

Always willing to take risks and innovate, this world-renowned guide has found his best reward in every day feeling happier with what he does. Added to this is the appreciation of his tourists, which is expressed in the host of letters and emails he often receives. In these, travelers who Diego guided through Ecuador reflect the emotions of their unforgettable experiences, and they thank this simple and affable man who showed them the real faces of Ecuador.

 

(By Gabriela Paz y Miño)

 

 

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