I’ve often found that the people most familiar with the intricacies of a city are those tasked with spending their days and nights navigating its hustle, hugging its corners, evading its secrets and archiving its political, social and architectural transformations. A knowledgeable taxi driver can be a tourism board’s most valuable asset: the person initially tasked with shaping our first feelings for whichever foreign city we’ve chosen to explore. Taxi drivers also have the potential of being extraordinary gate keepers to their town’s hidden gems.
This is why you need to make the most out of your next cab ride. Whenever I land in a city for the first time, I download as much data as I can store post flight from my driver. It is during those often chaotic and tiring rides that I learn things missed in the travel guides. That can include the best place to have a local meal, the neighborhoods that aren’t particularly friendly to tourists, where to find a picturesque panoramic view of the city or the current social or political climate. These people are historians by default … it’s a beneficial by-product of their occupation … so at minimum they can address some of these things IF you both speak the same language.
Here are some quick questions for reference just in case you trust Uncle Eric and take his advice:
- Where do the locals like to eat?
- What’s the best dish at that restaurant?
- What neighborhood should I avoid walking around?
- Where can I get the best view at sunset/sunrise?
- Is it safe to flag cabs down on the street?
- How far is my hotel from “x” destination?
- Is the public transportation here easy to use?
- Where’s a good place to get a cheap beer?
There are others, but these are good starter questions. As you’re shuttled across town, the conversation will play out and you can fish for answers to whatever else tickles your fancy. I’m a history buff, so I’m always pressing for tales about a country’s political evolution or devolution, or the origins of certain culinary dishes.
I also abhor wasting time which is why I found great pleasure in a chat with a driver Panama. He advised skipping a half-day tour to the Panama Canal because it was something I could visit in an hour. I ended up paying him $30 to take me from my hotel to the Canal and then through some of the local neighborhoods where I did a bit of street photography. That allowed me to make the most of my day opposed to shredding through time waiting on a tour bus and the patrons being escorted around like third graders on a field trip.