guidebooksTravelling on my own in Argentina a few years back, I read about the ruins of San Jose de Lules, a Jesuit mission outside of the small city of Tucuman. There wasn’t much to do in Tucuman. I barely spoke Spanish and I’d already seen the sights of the town, so of course I decided to go. It seemed easy enough. Climb on the bus, get out at the chapel, wave down a bus going back when I wanted to return home. There was a museum there, my guidebook said, which in my mind meant people, especially since it was summer holidays. Mid-January; hot as blazes.

Let out on the dusty side of the road, I followed a quiet dirt path to the chapel. Nobody was there. This was okay by me, as it meant I could actually be alone for the first time in ages without having to hide away in my hotel room, buried in Dracula, the only English novel I’d been able to find.

But the lack of people meant the presence of something else.

Dogs.

They entered the chapel, their low growls resonating in the empty stone space. There were three of them. As I slowly backed up, they barked ferociously. When I was far enough away, I turned around and hustled back toward the road, their breath hot on my calves. When I got to the road, shaking, I discovered they had torn the leg of my cargo pants.

It was terrifying. Needless to say.

Once I returned home, for months afterward, I kept meaning to write to Lonely Planet, to tell them about this omission of information that could have cost me my life. But I didn’t ever get around to it, a fact that still makes me squirm.

This is what I thought about today when I read blogger and traveller Julie’s excellent post on Matador about the inadequacies of guidebooks and her reasons for not reading them. I still use guidebooks but I learned a big lesson in Argentina. Namely, they are not the authority on any given place.

It is always better to ask a local, especially when planning to head out, innocently enough, into open, empty, countryside with no idea exactly what you’ll find.

Photo by Ian Hsu