There are many wonderful travel guides. My personal favorites are the DK Eyewitness Guides. Full of beautiful images, they paint a picture of why you might want to see and experience the many beautiful parts of the world. I also find Lonely Planet guides particularly useful. Although they are not as graphical, they are full of detailed information that you really ought to know when going to a new place. Travel guides are becoming increasingly popular in the form of mobile apps for smart phones and iPods lightening the loads in our backpacks. Travel magazines like my favorite National Geographic Travel, are another great source of ideas and snippets of useful information.
Despite all of the wonderful resources available, the best travel guide is a local. Well-informed locals who wants to help travelers to experience the places they call home are the best sources of travel knowledge. Not every local desires to help or knows the information that travelers need. The trick is finding and learning from those who do. Local "travel guides" are sometimes the person who offers you directions when you are trying to find your way. Other times they are part of the random conversation that points out a spot that you absolutely have to see. If you are extremely fortunate a local travel guide is one who becomes a friend with whom a mutual exchange of information enriches both.
When I was preparing to book a hotel for my recent trip to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, I remembered that awhile back someone had mentioned to me the idea of couch surfing. Looking it up online I found couchsurfing.org where people from all over the world offer their "couches" to travelers free of charge. All that the community asks is that those who couch surf also do what they can to either house other couch-surfers or if more suitable to be willing to meet up for coffee or to show travelers around their own cities.
Browsing through the list of guys offering their couches to travelers in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic I came across an individual whose profile made it seem like we had a lot in common. Orestes Noboa replied to my inquiry the same day. When I arrived, however, we had not yet made final confirmation so I sat down at the airport, discovered a coffee shop that had WIFI and began to browse for other accommodations. While still at the airport, Orestes contacted me again, let me know that he had been out of town and that he would be happy to host me. It was just in time.
He teaches at a local seminary and has received his training in the US. Having both the student and teacher roles in common, we had so much to talk about. Orestes also enjoys travel and between the two of us there was endless conversation about what life is like in our respective countries as well as the other places that we have traveled.
Staying with a local was an enlightening experience because I was able to see Santo Domingo through his eyes. He helped me to find a good guide to take me through the Colonial Zone. We visited local caves, the Christopher Columbus lighthouse, beautifully manicured botanical gardens, some of the area's best beaches, and many more local spots. When Orestes was busy he simply left me off at places that I could explore on my own. His home was comfortable and I enjoyed getting to sample the local cuisine. Couch surfing was a wonderful experience and reminded me again that the best travel guide is not a book or a website, but well-informed locals who are proud of their country and want you to experience the best of what it has to offer.