COURTESY KENT BLACK
Several years ago during a rafting trip from the Bolivian Andes down to the Amazon, I fell and gashed my leg attempting one ill-advised maneuver on a nasty stretch of river. Overnight, it became infected and the look on my Bolivian guide’s face told me I couldn’t wait four days to reach a proper hospital.
So we stopped at a tiny Indian village nearby and begged for help. I was introduced to their shaman, an ancient guy who examined me, rubbed a compress of mushrooms and bad-smelling roots onto the wound, and told me to stay put. I stayed put. The village made a two-day celebration of it, complete with unintelligible rituals, dancing and enough vile local beer to make the rest of the trip a bit hazy.
It wound up being one of the best journeys of my life. And, however unplanned, it was one of my first forays into the wild, unpredictable joys of experiential travel. These days it’s the hottest trend in excursions, and you don’t even need severe bodily trauma to make it happen.
Experiential travel is about participation, immersion and authenticity. It’s getting involved in the culture rather than just observing it —stepping into another guy’s shoes, even if he’s never owned a pair. It’s about experiencing local nature, customs and history without filters. Consider it a reaction against the corporate Disney-fication of resorts and the frenetic “if it’s Tuesday this must be Helsinki” multi-city tour mentality, where the goal is to cram in as many museums, churches, wineries or restaurants as possible.
Instead of resorts, you might exchange or sublet a house in Tuscany or Cuzco, mangle some foreign phrases and live like a local. Instead of visiting a dozen churches, you could volunteer to help with a landmark’s renovation. According to American Express Travel, 42 percent of American trekkers — many of them over 40 — are shifting their interests toward more immersive, culture-rich journeys. The trend has spawned a magazine (Afar), countless blogs and a stampede of tour companies looking to cash in on the trend.
“The market is shifting towards more meaningful travel experiences,” says Phil Otterson, USA president of the high-end travel company Abercrombie and Kent. “Travelers are looking for a different kind of experience, one that satisfies their curiosity and (provides) interactions with local people”.
Here are some ways to get off the (tour) bus:
Experience your own backyard. Experiential travel isn’t necessarily synonymous with distant lands. Sometimes the most meaningful journeys can be found surprisingly close to home. The CEO of an LA-based outdoor clothing company accepted an invitation from a colleague in Vermont to spend time in his town’s sugar shacks, diving into the annual rite of collecting maple sugar and making syrup. It’s hard work and hard fun, and he experienced both, shoulder to shoulder with the locals. “I don’t know how much syrup we made,” he said, “But there were a lot of empty Hill Farmstead beer bottles when we left.”
Charles Tatum, 49, a tech executive in New York, hooked up with a church-based organization rebuilding homes deep in the heart of southern Appalachia, the poorest region of the U.S. He wound up living in the shotgun shacks of some lifelong natives for three weeks. “Honestly,” he says six months later, “it was more different from my everyday life — and more unforgettable — then any of my trips to Europe.”
Experience the pros. For those who want to step off the grid but enjoy some security and professional guidance along the way, tour companies offer a compromise. Upscale adventure firms like A&K, Ker and Downe, Backroads and Butterfield & Robinson have expanded from their core cycling and trekking businesses to provide more hands-on and interactive cultural experiences for their clients. Some trips are structured around exotic local customs or events; one company, Mountain Sobek, even adds a dimension to its Tanzania expeditions by having their main guide, Onesmo, take guests to the Maasai village where he grew up to experience the daily life of his family and friends.
Experience the unexpected. As I learned on the Amazon, you need to be open to new encounters and situations — however strange and even uncomfortable they may initially seem. A few years ago, Andria Mitsakos, owner of a marketing firm, treated herself to a week at a small beach hotel in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her plan was simple: chill out, tan, swim, repeat. But shortly after her arrival, the service staff vamoosed following a dispute with the owners. On a whim, she took over the hotel’s abandoned kitchen, shopping in the local mercados for groceries, negotiating with fishermen for their catches and cooking up authentic Mexican meals for the hotel’s guests. At the end of the week, the grateful owner was able to restaff and keep the place running. Mitsakos never had time for the beach or her book. And she says flatly, “It was the best vacation I’ve ever had.”
New York real estate broker travel Cathleen Carmody, 56, also had a life-changing experience in Mexico, although kitchen duty wasn’t involved. A Mexican friend convinced her to travel to the small town Xoxocotlan for an event known as Day of the Dead, rarely seen by outsiders. She initially balked, finding the idea of celebrating death to be “macabre…impolite and morbid.” “We arrived by bus close to midnight,” she recalls. “Instead of a somber gathering of the grief-stricken, we came upon joyful celebrations of families singing and dancing around the graves of their loved ones. It has forever shifted my perspective in understanding how embracing the dead is a poignant celebration of life.”
Experience a slower pace. The philosophy behind the slow food movement has found its way into travel. It’s now a cornerstone of experiential travel that you need to ease up on the accelerator and take the time to fully get to know a place to receive the full benefit. Writing and photography team Lara Dunston and Terence Carter have made a career of it. Six years ago, they put everything they owned into storage in order to “explore more authentic and enriching ways to travel,” proclaiming themselves to be “proponents of slow and sustainable travel.” Their continuous trip has taken them all over the world, which they detail on their great website, Grantourismo!, an invaluable resource for advice on finding the authentic in dozens of destinations.
Experience total immersion. Reality check: The best way to fully experience a foreign culture might well be to ditch the tourist mantle and take up residence, but for most of us it’s little more then a fantasy. Still, you can do the next best thing. Swapping homes with a family overseas is an increasingly popular vacation option, and infinitely more immersive then a Marriott. There are a slew of time-tested websites (such as HomeExchange and HomeLink) as well as newcomers (e.g. CaseHop and Knok) that add social-media vetting and personalized recommendations to the party. For a nominal membership fee, you’ll be presented with plenty of far-flung locations and living options. You can do a full swap (aka “simultaneous exchange”), stay at an empty home with no reciprocal swap or be a guest while the residents are still there. However you pull it off, you’ll be doing a deep dive into an exotic lifestyle. More than likely you’ll temporarily inherit your host’s family and friends. Maybe even their dog, cobras, wallabees or Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Go with it.