Should you take a guided tour with a local?

Carlos seemed fairly enthusiastic at first. He greeted me with a huge smile outside Havana airport, shook my hand, showed me into the back of the vintage Chevrolet that had been organised to drive us into town.

He pointed a few sights out on the way into the historic centre, chatted to me about Cuban life. Yes, Fidel was still alive. No, not everyone drove vintage cars. Yes, there was internet. No, it probably wouldn't be working.

Carlos was to be my personal tour guide for the next six days, so it was fairly important we got off on the right foot. We'd be spending 24 hours a day together during my time in Cuba. This had to go well.

And it started well. But it didn't stay that way.

It took me about a day to realise that Carlos didn't really want to be a tour guide. I discovered this on a long drive to the town of Vinales when Carlos turned to me and told me that he didn't really want to be a tour guide. Great.

He was a whiz with languages, he said. So much so that he used to be a professor of languages at a university. And he wanted to go back.

But that's not a choice in Cuba. Such is the way there that Carlos needed to get his hands on "CUCs", the unit of Cuban currency that's designed purely for foreigners to spend, but which is also now required by locals to purchase many essential items. No one in Cuba gets paid in CUCs. The only way to earn the currency is to be tipped by foreign tourists.

So Carlos, as with so many of his compatriots, was forced into the tourism industry, forced to travel the length of the country showing visitors like me the charms of his communist paradise out of pure necessity.

And so there I was, stuck for a week with Carlos, the tour guide who didn't want to be a tour guide. He was a professor – he'd rather be teaching. He was a father – he'd rather be at home with his young daughter.

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All of which is totally understandable. But it doesn't make it any more enjoyable when you're the visitor, excited and unaware, and your almost sole point of contact with this new and amazing country is the guy in the seat next to you who doesn't want to be there.

Tour guides: they can make your holiday, they can break your holiday.

A good tour guide is worth his or her weight in whichever currency they most prefer to be paid in. A good tour guide will be informative and funny, flexible and helpful. A good tour guide will tell you everything you want to know and some things you don't about their home, their city, their country, without prejudice or fear.

You can form an opinion of an entire country through your tour guide. Get a good one and you'll love their home for the rest of your life. Get a bad one – a grumpy one, a disorganised one, an unhappy one – and that becomes your key experience in that destination. Those are your memories.

I've had some amazing tour guides on my travels. There's a guy called Sean Blocksidge in Margaret River who runs day tours combining adventure and wine-tasting, who manages to tell you everything you need to know about his home without ever seeming forced or intrusive. There's a walking guide in Yorkshire called Dave Gallivan who spends most of his tours dryly making fun of his clients, but does so in a such a friendly, casual way that you're charmed by the whole experience.

I have great memories of places like Margaret River and Yorkshire because of those guys.

In the same way, unfortunately, I don't have amazing memories of Cuba. I can't share in the love that so many people who've visited have for that country.

When I think of Cuba I don't think of the music or the rum or the feeling of being in a living museum – I think of sitting there in the car with Carlos on a long drive, listening to him glumly talking about the things he'd rather be doing. I think of the lunch I had with him and another tour guide, where the two of them ignored me and spoke Spanish to each other the entire time because they really couldn't be bothered doing the tour-guiding thing at that point in time.

It's not fair to Cuba, that I now think of its people as being rigid and unfriendly. But that's the experience I had with Carlos: not just my tour guide, but the Cuban I came to know best. A guy who didn't want to be there.

b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

See also: Don't let social media ruin your holiday

See also: The only time it's OK to talk on a plane

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