“And now we will stop at the abandoned Kapachi village school to experience some radiation hotspots.” This is something I’ve never heard a tour guide say before. And I don’t really welcome it now, truth be told. I’m on a rural road near the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl, a few short miles from the site of the worst accident in humankind’s brief history of splitting the atom. I came here willingly. I paid to come here. But at this moment, I’m questioning the wisdom of that decision.
We hurtle toward Chernobyl on a tightly packed minibus, far faster than is comfortable on rutted country roads through the dewy post-dawn hours — drawing nearer, ever nearer, to the ominously named “Exclusion Zone.” I think back on a lazy summer barbecue a few months before, when I casually mentioned to some friends that I was thinking of visiting Chernobyl. Mouths dropped open and faces turned white, as our lighthearted evening pivoted into a full-blown intervention. They pleaded and begged me, for the love of all that’s holy, not to go. Only Karl — who I suspect doesn’t like me very much — was supportive of the idea.
Undeterred, I stuck with the plan and booked a $100, all-day tour by minibus from Kiev to Chernobyl. This morning I had shown up promptly at 7:30 a.m. at Kiev’s gritty train station. In the KFC parking lot, I met my tour group: a twentysomething couple from Austria, a gregarious bald Dutchman, a well-to-do retired couple from Seattle’s Eastside, and a tattooed bloke from Manchester who inexplicably wore shorts in spite of the chilly temperatures.
Now, bouncing recklessly in my springy seat, I look out the minibus window over a flat landscape with little definition: fields of wilted, unharvested sunflowers; peek-a-boo views of the dammed Dnieper River, which fills its broad basin like a great lake; and the occasional forest of skinny pine trees that recede infinitely — a haunting house of mirrors. It feels like we’re driving to the very edge of the civilized world, toward the edge of the treasure map marked “Here There Be Monsters.” At one point, an hour and a half outside of Kiev, we pass a lonely rural bus stop — so remote it’s hard to imagine who might possibly catch a bus there.
Our guide is dressed in a faux-military uniform. With his fatigues, his furry neck beard, his strong features, and his flat-topped cap, he’s the spitting image of a young Fidel Castro. I assume his getup is intentional — designed to tinge the experience with even more Cold War nostalgia.
Our guide — who has a generic Ukrainian name like Yuri or Volodymyr, but whom I’ve decided to call “Fidel” — is comfortingly knowledgeable. As we drive, he explains the history of the event: The V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station was built in the 1970s as a jewel in the crown of USSR technological achievement. A couple of miles away, they also built the planned workers’ town of Pripyat, where nearly 50,000 people lived in one of Ukraine’s most desirable communities.
In the middle of the night of April 25, 1986, a perfect storm of design flaws and human error brought about a catastrophic systems failure at the Chernobyl plant’s Reactor No. 4. A plume of radioactive matter was ejected high into the air and drifted north, across Belarus and the Baltics, before finally being detected at a power plant in Sweden. It was only then — a full two days after the accident, when the Swedes called Gorbachev and said, “Um, we think maybe you have a serious problem” — that the Soviet authorities publicly acknowledged the meltdown.
With the catastrophe out of the bag, the USSR scrambled to contain the damage. They sealed off an “Exclusion Zone” around the plant — at first 10 kilometers, later expanding to 30 kilometers — and evacuated tens of thousands of people from Pripyat and the surrounding villages. Firefighters, miners, and a half-million Soviet soldiers were mobilized. It took them two weeks to extinguish the fire at the core of the reactor; within seven months, a containment “sarcophagus” had been installed over the meltdown site.
An untold number of responders (or, as they’re called, “liquidators”) spent the rest of their lives grappling with health problems. While the official number of deaths stemming directly from the meltdown is in the double-digits, the radiation is thought to be ultimately responsible for deaths numbering in the thousands — or tens of thousands, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands — mostly from increased rates of thyroid cancer, leukemia, and other ailments. To this day, people living within the blast radius, who lack the resources to relocate, raise their children on food and milk contaminated with toxic levels of radiation. The legacy of Chernobyl is far from over.
But the legacy of the liquidators is that today, many parts of the Chernobyl area are safe to visit — provided you’re accompanied by a guide who knows which hotspots are best avoided. Fidel outlines the ground rules: Avoid touching or setting personal effects down on any surface within the Exclusion Zone; don’t take anything home with you; and wear long pants and long sleeves at all times. (Hearing this, the shorts-wearing Mancunian sheepishly reaches into his backpack and pulls on a pair of sweatpants.)
Oh, and if you encounter any cute, curious foxes sniffing around in the woods, keep well clear. Some of them are rabid. There have been some…incidents. And, you must understand, it would be best not to repeat these.
The Exclusion Zone
We approach the first checkpoint, at the boundary of the 30-Kilometer Exclusion Zone, and have our passports checked — a mercifully brief exercise in bureaucratic posturing with machine guns. Soon after, we pull over on a gravel shoulder in the middle of nowhere.
Stepping out of the minibus, we’re greeted by three gregarious stray dogs. Having been warned about those rabid foxes, I recoil. But Fidel points out that these dogs are healthy: well-fed, vaccinated, and with tags in their ears. “You can even pet them,” he says. “But, uh, wash your hands after. Their fur may be contaminated.”
He means radioactive. Their fur may be radioactive. Hands in pockets, hands in pockets.
With our trio of mascots in tow, Fidel walks us through a dense forest. Soon, ruined houses begin to emerge from between the trees. “This was the village of Zalyssa,” he tells us. “It was evacuated after the accident, and never re-populated. The 3,000 or so inhabitants were resettled to a new village in a different part of Ukraine.”
First, radiation overtook Zalyssa. Then came the slow onslaught of nature. It’s astonishing to see how quickly a tidy community of businesses and homes, once deserted, is enveloped by brush and trees. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this place was abandoned a century ago — and certainly not within my lifetime.
We head up an overgrown path, once a paved street, past rusted cars and ramshackle cabins. The community hall still echoes with an endearing village pride. Stucco garlands ring the ceiling, directing the eye to a little stage at one end of the room. It’s easy to imagine this hall, 40 years ago, filled with revelers at a wedding reception, or with concerned farmers at a meeting of the collective. But today, the windows are mostly broken, the decor is weathered, and in a darkened corner of the stage, sinister black mold spreads unchecked. A cheery red banner preaches a sickeningly ironic message: “All hail communism — the bright future of all humankind!”
In the next room, the floorboards have been pried up, revealing a subfloor of chimney-like brick stacks and a few lonely joists. “Looting is a big issue here,” Fidel says. “People harvest wood and scrap metal from these buildings to sell on the black market. If you buy certain things at a flea market in Kiev, you have to wonder if it’s radioactive.” I imagine some poor, unfortunate Ukrainian hipster renovating a stylish urban flat with reclaimed wood floors and vintage fixtures.
As we hop on the bus and wave goodbye to our canine friends, Fidel explains, “The dogs are very nice, as you can see, and local people take care of them as well as they can. In fact, there’s a charity for getting Chernobyl’s stray dogs adopted in the United States. But…” He shrugs, matter-of-factly. “These dogs will probably be eaten by the packs of wolves who roam here in the winter.” Driving onward, all I can think is: wild carnivorous radioactive wolves.
Just beyond Zalyssa, as we drive past the jaunty “Welcome to Chernobyl” sign — topped with the local symbol, a friendly atom — I reflexively check my dosimeter. But the radiation levels here are about the same as in Kiev.
Walking around with a radiation dosimeter clipped to your belt is fascinating. Having spent a day doing it here, I’m inclined to try it at home.
Like most Americans (at least, those barbecue interventionists), I think of radiation in black-and-white terms: It’s bad, full stop. But visiting Chernobyl cultivates a more pragmatic way of thinking about radiation: Too much is bad, but a little is OK. And as long as you’re keeping track, you’ll be fine…probably. It’s not that different from deciding how many cigarettes or hamburgers you can safely consume. You could swear off smoking or go vegan, but most people don’t. They take a calculated risk in order to do something enjoyable…like visiting Chernobyl on vacation.
Is Chernobyl safe? Wild carnivorous radioactive wolves aside, the answer seems to be yes. The most hazardous forms of radiation released in the accident also had the shortest half-lives and have already stopped being dangerous. A patina of longer-lasting radioactive particles settled over the entire region, but these sink deeper and deeper into the soil with each passing year. Because of these factors, a daylong visit to Chernobyl will expose me to 10 times less gamma radiation than my flight home to Seattle.
Until planning a visit here, I never knew that long-haul, high-cruising-altitude flights expose their passengers to significant loads of cosmic radiation. And that’s to say nothing of dental X-rays, CAT scans, mammograms, and other medical testing. If you’re truly “worried about radiation”…you’ll never get on an airplane or go to the dentist again.
Dosimeters track the amount of gamma radiation you are exposed to, in real time. The “safe” level — meaning sustainable indefinitely — is anything under 0.3 microsieverts per hour (μSv/h). That’s the reading, more or less, when I get on the bus in Kiev, and it’s probably the reading in your hometown. And for most of the day, the dosimeter stays comfortingly below that number, with a few brief spikes to 1 or 2 μSv/h. That seems scary, but a commercial airliner at 35,000 feet would make your dosimeter ping at a rate of 2 or 3 μSv/h.
One thing you learn from the Chernobyl experience is just how localized radiation is. It tends to be low inside buildings and higher in overgrown areas. The classic Chernobyl tour-guide gimmick is demonstrating radiation hotspots: The group is walking on concrete sidewalks through a forest, where radiation levels are normal. But then the guide pauses and holds out a dosimeter near the roots of a tree or a suspicious-looking pothole, and the numbers shoot up.
The most striking example of this will come later in the day, when we drive across the path of that initial cloud of atomic ejecta that sowed radiation across a swath of Ukrainian and Belarussian countryside. Fidel suggests that we hold our dosimeters up to the bus window. They’re reading normal. But then, as we cross that invisible line, they skyrocket at a terrifying pace — up to 38 μSv/h. The bus driver, helpfully extending our adrenaline rush, slows down. While half of the passengers giggle with nervous delight, the rest of us shout, “OK, we get it — keep going!”
All of this is specific to gamma radiation. The Chernobyl site also has alpha and beta radiation, which can be carried by dust and other particles. Your clothes protect you from these, for the most part; that’s why visitors to the Exclusion Zone must wear long pants and long sleeves. (Full disclosure: I made a point to shower and wash my clothes when I got back to Kiev that night…just in case.)
Because careless visitors may pick up alpha- and beta-radioactive material on their shoes and clothing, everyone is required to pass through three special screening checkpoints: You step awkwardly into a giant contraption that feels like standing sideways in a metal detector, place your hands and feet on special pads, then wait for the green light. The technology seems comically antiquated, and we’re told that visitors are almost never flagged. If your shoes did set off the alarm, near as I could tell, they would simply have you wade through a rusty pan of dirty water and try again.
Before my trip, I was nervous about the danger involved in visiting Chernobyl. But ultimately, the most toxic thing we’re exposed to all day is the silent, devastating, eye-watering flatulence of the Mancunian, who eventually reveals that drinking the Kiev tap water has been wreaking havoc on his insides.
The Russian Woodpecker
Soon after passing through the second checkpoint — at the 10-Kilometer Exclusion Zone — we turn off the main road at a bus stop colorfully painted with a Ukrainian knock-off of Yogi Bear, collecting mushrooms in the forest. This ostensibly marks the location of a children’s camp. But that’s just a ruse to throw Cold War-era spies off the scent: A few miles down this road, through a rusted gate adorned with silver, five-pointed stars, stands an impossibly gigantic Soviet-era radar antenna array. Clearly not familiar with the adage about eggs and baskets, the USSR located this top-secret surveillance facility next to their top-secret nuclear power plant.
This was the receiving station for the Duga-3 Over-The-Horizon (OTH) radar, which picked up the signal emitted by a transmitting station 60 kilometers away. Fidel scratches a globe in the sandy soil to demonstrate how the radar worked: It bounced its signal three times, hopscotching between the earth and the ionosphere, to reach all the way over the North Pole and deep into North American airspace — allowing operators to detect an ICBM launch up to 10,000 kilometers away. This was the last gasp of the pre-satellite era, and mostly effective; false positives nearly caused global thermonuclear war only about two times — three, tops.
The Duga is nicknamed “The Russian Woodpecker” for the staccato interference it caused in short-wave ham radios and other broadcasts. One day in 1976, hams in North America turned on their radios to find this mysterious new chattering lurking at the edges of their signal. Nobody knew exactly what The Woodpecker was for, and conspiracy theorists believed it was some form of Soviet mind control. But one thing was clear: It drove ham radio operators nuts. They issued formal complaints to the USSR government, and bought “Woodpecker mufflers” in an attempt to filter out the noise. It finally went silent when the Duga radar was turned off for good in 1989.
While long since decommissioned, the radar installation has been open to visitors only since 2013. And now, as we stand beneath it and gape up, it fills our entire field of vision. Like all of the best examples of the Soviet aesthetic, The Woodpecker makes you feel very, very small. It’s more than 30 stories high and stretches nearly 700 feet — as far as the eye can see toward the horizon. It looks like a wire frame for a giant dam, rising up from the middle of a forest. Its precisely located nodes and crisscross support cables create mesmerizing optical illusions.
Gazing up at this rusting masterpiece of Cold War technology feels like touring the Colosseum: a boldly ambitious, epoch-defining achievement of engineering that now stands as an artifact of a toppled civilization.
At a certain point in the day, the nervous gallows humor of visiting a nuclear wasteland on your vacation gives way to the somber humanity of the tragedy. For me, this happens on our surreal drive along a cooling canal toward the Chernobyl power plant. We drive closer. And closer. And — gulp — closer. And soon, we’re pulling into a parking lot across the street from Reactor No. 4.
When the reactor exploded on the night of April 25, 1986, the superheated nuclear fuel inside Reactor No. 4 began melting right through the floor. Liquidators drained the cooling pools located below the molten core, to avoid a steam explosion. Coal miners were brought in to build a protective barrier that would prevent the core from reaching the water table deep below — which could cause another massive explosion and widespread contamination. Helicopter pilots flew thousands of sorties to dump lead, sand, and boric acid onto Reactor No. 4, smothering the meltdown. And radioactive debris was carefully removed and disposed of. Workers were exposed to levels of radiation that were permanently injurious after just a 40-second shift.
To prevent another meltdown, the USSR embarked on the largest civil engineering project in history: building a concrete “sarcophagus” to safely encase the volatile reactor core. Over the course of six months, a quarter-million workers reached their recommended lifetime limit of radiation exposure as they put the sarcophagus in place. Meanwhile, scientists inspecting the meltdown site discovered what’s known as “The Elephant’s Foot” — a petrified column of molten radioactive material that is considered the most lethal object in the world.
Chernobyl had a pan-European impact. Radioactive rain fell in the Scottish Highlands, and the South of France saw an increase in the rate of thyroid cancer. But even as it’s easy to fault the Soviets for allowing the accident to occur in the first place, you have to credit them for saving Europe from something far worse. Ultimately, the cleanup was a success, the worst of the radiation was contained, and further meltdowns were forestalled — all at a cost of somewhere around $18 billion.
Not only did the Chernobyl incident — which is sometimes called “the final battle of the USSR” — contribute to bankrupting the already shaky Soviet economy. It also forced Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to live up to his recently issued pledge of glasnost (openness). As details of the accident became public, it eroded trust among Soviet subjects and cast severe doubt on the USSR’s much-touted technological achievements. While the fall of the Soviet Union had many causes, Gorbachev himself cites Chernobyl as one of the key dominoes to topple during that critical period.
The original sarcophagus has more recently been itself covered by another, more modern sarcophagus. Designed and built in conjunction with a French company, the new sarcophagus has an elegant arch and a shiny shell that seems designed to instill confidence — a stark contrast to the rusty original. Costing $2.5 billion and taller than the Statue of Liberty, the new sarcophagus was built a few hundred yards away, then slowly moved into place — the largest metal object ever moved by humans.
The meltdown site, now encased in matryoshka stacking dolls of sarcophagi, has surprisingly low levels of radiation. Standing at the monument honoring those who lost their lives in the accident, directly in front of the sarcophagus, my dosimeter shows that I’m absorbing about a third as much gamma radiation as I would on a long-haul flight. And yet, it’s still above the recommended safe levels for long-term exposure. The soundtrack of a visit here is the high-pitched chattering of dosimeters — like the insistent ticking of a stopwatch, reminding you not to linger.
But work is not done: The next challenge is to dismantle and safely dispose of the inner sarcophagus, to prevent a future collapse. And the long-term goal is to remove the plant entirely. Someday — 2065, they hope — this will simply be an open field.
Workers at the facility do shifts — two weeks on, two weeks off — and wear badges that monitor how much radiation they have absorbed. If they hit their annual limit, they’re done until next year. We’re told that the French workers appreciate the safeguards…while the Ukrainian ones, eager for a steady paycheck, would prefer the limits to be increased.
As if to emphasize the safety of the site, we have lunch in the humble canteen for Chernobyl workers, in a building a short walk from the meltdown site. We’re told the cafeteria ladies — who pile our plastic trays with mountains of hearty food — don’t like having their photo taken. Checking my dosimeter while eating my borscht and chicken schnitzel, I see that the radiation here is no higher here than in Kiev.
The Ghost City of Pripyat
The grand finale of our tour is just a couple of miles from the plant: Pripyat, an entire city trapped in a postapocalyptic time warp, and now completely overtaken by nature. Pripyat seizes travelers’ imaginations. It’s what you picture when you imagine visiting Chernobyl.
Founded along with the plant in 1970, the planned workers’ town of Pripyat showcased the ideal Soviet lifestyle. This was as good a place to live as you’d find in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Because of the importance of the plant, Pripyat was directly supplied by the Soviet government, making its shops unusually well-stocked. At the time of the accident, Pripyat had just completed work on a new amusement park and sports stadium, and was laying out plans to expand the city across its little river bay. From a dock below the trendy café in Pripyat’s town center, you could hop on a public hydrofoil and zip downriver to Kiev faster than driving. The mid-1980s was a prosperous time, with no inkling of the lurking disaster, much less the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. Having a good job at Chernobyl and a flat in Pripyat was a blissful existence that many Ukrainians aspired to.
The 50,000 people of Pripyat (including 17,000 children — the median age was 26) were perhaps the cruelest casualties of the accident. While the firefighters, miners, pilots, soldiers, and scientists who threw themselves into the radioactive cauldron did so with heroism, and more or less knowingly, the civilians of Pripyat were simply not told that they needed to leave until it was too late.
After 36 hours of cover-up and obfuscation, the authorities finally gave the order to evacuate Pripyat. And when it happened, it happened all at once. One night, as irradiated firefighters were slowly dying in the Pripyat hospital, the ballroom in the town’s big hotel was hosting a wedding party. The next morning, 50,000 people were carried away from their toxic hometown, in a column of buses 10 kilometers long, within a matter of hours. They were told to turn off the lights, close the windows, and bring along a few supplies for this “temporary” evacuation. They were told they’d be back in three days. They were told many things. But the truth is that nobody will ever live in Pripyat again.
Most of the people of Pripyat survived the initial exposure, but were sentenced to a life of creeping, unpredictable health problems — which, thanks to the cruelly insidious nature of radiation poisoning, are now reverberating well into the next generation.
We set out to explore the forests that have filled in the empty space between buildings. Concrete apartment blocks, standing in formation like platoons of rigid soldiers, are tattered and dilapidated. Just inside the entrance of one, a hand-lettered directory lists each family that resided here, circa 1986.
The apartments are still sort-of furnished, with dribs and drabs of vintage furniture. But the wallpaper is peeling off the walls in crooked rolls, and the appliances have been looted of their copper wire. Fidel tells us these apartments are a popular place for squatters to sneak in and hole up for a weekend bender. (Apparently, Ukrainian partiers know how to turn their self-destructive tendencies up to 11.)
At the town’s fancy café, once-cheery mosaics and stained-glass windows are shattered and scattered around the hauntingly still interior. The indoor swimming pool — recently made famous by one of the first-person shooter video games that have found inspiration in Pripyat — is filled with black muck. The local cinema, which was named for Prometheus, the god who brought fire to humans, is decisively closed for business.
We walk through an open field of sturdy trees and dense brush. Only after Fidel points out the faint echoes of a grandstand do we realize that we’re crossing the center line of a soccer pitch — in the middle of what was Pripyat’s sports stadium.
Inside a school, a few tattered notices hang on bulletin boards, locker doors gape open, and long-forgotten homework litters the muddy floor. In one room, someone has assembled the creepy dolls into macabre little tableaus — as if this nauseating site needed to have a fine point put on it. A teddy bear wearing a toddler’s-size respirator mask toasts a doll that winks one dead eye from under wispy, matted hair. It’s a postapocalyptic island of misfit toys.
In the town amusement park, which was slated to open just weeks after the accident, stands the icon of Pripyat: its Ferris wheel, a perhaps too on-the-nose symbol for innocence lost. It looms above Pripyat like a rusted skeleton — childhood joy filtered through a grotesque prism of Cold War nuclear paranoia. The abandoned bumper cars (which, Fidel warns us, are likely “contaminated” — there’s that word again) are welded by rust to the mossy floor.
The most notorious corner of Pripyat is the former hospital, where those first responders were treated for radiation sickness — pointlessly, yet humanely. While heroically extinguishing the initial fire, they were not told about the meltdown, and took no special precautions. They noted a metallic taste in their mouths, and a tingling sensation on their faces. Coughing and vomiting came next. And soon it was clear: They had absorbed a lethal, delayed-reaction dose of radiation. They had just enough time to come to the hospital, strip off their gear in the basement, and climb into their deathbeds.
Today, that basement — and those clothes — remain irrevocably contaminated. Jackets and boots sit in heaps, right where they were dropped more than 30 years ago, too dangerous to move — or even get close to. Although it’s strictly off-limits, there’s a cottage industry of amateur YouTube daredevils who sneak into the basement for a selfie with a summiting dosimeter. Having traveled extensively in Eastern Europe — with its brutal, war-torn history — I am used to hearing a guide say, “That building over there? In the basement, many people were killed.” But this is the first time I have been told, “That building over there? If you stay in the basement for too long, it’ll kill you.”
As we pass through what was the main square of Pripyat, Fidel calls us over to a humble memorial of photographs pinned to a wall. Scanning the faces of those who lost their lives at Chernobyl, we hear their stories:
The middle manager who showed up to deal with the crisis on his day off, even though he was stinking drunk. Fortunately, his high blood-alcohol level helped insulate him from the worst of the radiation (he survived for decades).
The plant worker who stayed as long as he could to help, until he was removed to a hospital for his final days. His wife refused to leave his bedside — until she, too, was doomed to radiation poisoning.
And the firefighters who initially responded to the meltdown, sacrificing their lives in those critical first hours to prevent a catastrophe that could have been far worse. Perhaps it’s hyperbole, but local authorities insist that if the liquidators had not acted so quickly — had they allowed the meltdown to worsen — it could have tainted much of the European continent. Imagine all of Europe carrying dosimeters for each hike in the woods.
At this poignant moment, I consider all of the reasons why a traveler would want to visit Chernobyl. Is it simply gruesome rubbernecking at human tragedy? For some, yes. But it’s also an opportunity to learn about one of the most dramatic events of the late Cold War era. It’s a chance to gain a better understanding of the actual risks of nuclear power — and the unexpected safety of a cleaned-up radioactive site. You see old Soviet Bloc towns trapped in time, in their native state, untouched by the modernization and westernization of the post-Cold War world. And you see how rapidly and without hesitation nature overtakes a depopulated civilization.
But standing there, looking into the eyes of the people who contained that first horrible wave of radiation, I think of yet another reason: to honor the memory of those who died to make this area safe for future generations. People may no longer be able to live long-term in certain parts of the meltdown zone. But we don’t have to stay half a country away, either — wondering nervously when the next meltdown will come. At Chernobyl, it’s humbling to see how human ingenuity can bring about horrifying problems. But it’s also inspiring to see how it can solve them.
A 100-kilometer, two-hour drive north of Kiev, Chernobyl is ideally situated for an all-day excursion. Several companies operate Chernobyl day trips, all of them covering essentially the same stops: the town of Chernobyl (today a humdrum administrative center); abandoned villages and towns that have been overtaken by nature (including Pripyat); the “Russian Woodpecker” antenna array; and the reactor site itself, with lunch in the cafeteria.
For an all-day round-trip excursion from Kiev, departing around 8 a.m. and returning around 8 p.m., you’ll pay in the ballpark of $100. Two-day and longer tours are also available. Visitors to Chernobyl are carefully regulated, and your tour company must register your passport details with the authorities 10 days in advance — so don’t wait too long to book. My tour was through Chernobyl Welcome, and I had a great experience, thanks largely to the knowledgeable tour guide. But as my tour crossed paths with others as the day went on, it became clear that the companies are essentially interchangeable, and — as with many such trips — the most important part, the guide, is potluck.