I am a huge nature fan and I usually plan my adventures to see isolated parts of the world with towering mountains but the most memorable and meaningful moments of my trips are always the cultural experiences and human connections I've made along the way. I enjoy visiting museums and seeing cultural presentations but even more important, is time spent getting to know local people. Visiting a friend in Northern Ireland and hearing her stories of growing up during The Troubles was much more impactful than a city bus tour of Belfast. Zip-lining through the rainforest in Nicaragua was exhilarating but even better was getting to know kids and teachers at a small rural school outside of Managua. Exploring the mountains and beaches of New Zealand was breathtaking but even better are the memories I made with all of my lovely host families. Sometimes those connections happen organically when I travel, but more often than not, they were very intentionally planned. If you want to really learn about a culture and have an authentic experience, don't just hope it will happen! Here are 6 things you can do to have the most authentic cultural experience:
1. USE LOCAL GUIDES
The direct involvement of professional, indigenous guides in organizing and leading your adventure assures you will have an exceptionally informative, well-executed, and authentic experience. Local guides will introduce you to their home like a friend and treat you as a personal traveling companion, which will make all of the difference in your trip. "Of all the local guides, Abdelaziz Naim was the best! He was incredibly well educated, anxious to share his knowledge and excited about helping us to truly understand his country. He was frank and willing to share his opinions, with an incredibly warm personality. Our lunch with him and his family was one of the most memorable experiences of the trip." - Wildland Travelers
Read more about the importance of a local guide: If You Really Want to Get to Know a Destination
2. EAT LIKE THE LOCALS
Trying new foods is one of the most exciting parts of travel. While traveling in Brazil, I got to experience a meal that a local chef prepared in front of our group, explaining the significant of each local ingredient, and weaving in the history of each dish he prepared for us. It was so much more than a cooking demonstration, it was a history lesson and a cultural exchange all rolled into one. To experience local food, arrange for a cooking class from a local chef or ask your guide where the locals eat instead of going to well known chain restaurants or eating in your hotel. In some locations we can even arrange for a home cooked meal with a local family!
3. ATTEND FESTIVALS AND EVENTS
Most festivals and events are centered around the history, religion or the agricultural cycles or a region so they provide a great way to learn about a culture, as well as seeing how the locals celebrate. I will never forget attending a friend's sister's wedding in Mexico. Unbeknownst to me, they pulled me into the wedding party at the last minute and I bewilderingly walked down the isle with a groomsman. It was a honor I'll never forget, and even though I didn't understand much of what was said during the ceremony, I learned a lot about the generosity and hospitality of my Mexican friends. Festivals can be crowded and attract travelers from around the world, so plan well in advance to secure accommodations and guides.
Read More - Celebrate Lao New Year
4. SPEND A NIGHT IN A HOMESTAY
A homestay is one of the best ways to have a truly authentic cultural experience. Being welcomed into someone's home and seeing how they live on a daily basis can be an enlightening and unforgettable experience. "Our homestay in Nebaj was with Elena Raymundo (a widow), and her daughter Maria Elena. We welcomed the opportunity to stay with them. We used two bedrooms normally used by the family, who found space elsewhere, and shared all of the other facilities.Various members of their extended family kept dropping in to meet us, it was great fun!" - Wildland Traveler. Depending on where you are, homestays may not always be an option, but if that is the case, look for small locally owned boutique hotels for a more authentic alternative to large, internationally owned hotels.
Read the full story of our traveler's experience at a homestay in Guatemala.
5. LEARN FROM THE EXPERTS
A great way to gain insight into a culture is to meet with local artists, professors, farmers, or any expert in a field you're interested in. Whether it's a history professor in the Balkans, a master weaver in Guatemala, a tobacco farmer in Cuba or a yoga guru in India, meeting with a local expert can allow you to see "behind the scenes". In New Zealand, I met with a professional in my field of study and it was such a rich experience to meet someone doing the same work but in different ways and with different resources. It added a level of connection and inspiration to my trip that would not have been possible otherwise.
Read more about meeting local artists and musicians in Cuba - The Importance of Music & Dance in Cuban Culture
6. ASK QUESTIONS
Ask your guide or locals you meet about their lives. What are their values and beliefs? Ask about festivals, politics or the economy and try not to have any assumptions. The ideas you may have about a country versus how the locals might see current issues or events can be vastly different. Always seek to understand their perspective first! The Reed family recently returned from Tanzania and were thrilled by the depth of their cultural experiences, especially what they learned from their guides. "Communicate with your guides, they want to share their country and people with you and have so much to give if you open up with them." - The Reeds, Wildland Alumni