Traveling as a local sounds simple enough, but it can be difficult to conduct; most independent visitors certainly had trips where they ended up being surrounded by other individuals from their own country, no matter how far they went. Or perhaps they couldn’t figure out where the “real” locals went and ended up being an eternal outsider, either here or there.
How is it possible to find the secret entrance to a truly local, indigenous experience? It turns out that both tour operators and self-booked methods of traveling like a local, and sometimes through a mixture of the two, have great opportunities.
A Local-Only Approach to Guided Tours A number of tour guide amenities have appeared that provide a more intimate and unique “guided experience” in response to the growing demand for real “insider” tours that are not forced to march among swarms of individuals from the same country.
Poring over ToursByLocals ‘ website, I discovered your guide is highlighted almost as much as the journey he or she will be leading. In bigger cities where numerous guides are available, you can pre-determine the spirit and emphasis of your journey through the guides ‘ own descriptions of their background and type of tour.
The accommodation site of Airbnb has also recently jumped into the tour space with its new item Experiences. So far, the offers are somewhat limited, but they sound intriguing — think about learning the art of ancient pottery in Tokyo or exploring the Havana music scene with a local singer.
VRBO, Airbnb, HomeAway, and other vacation rental places offer you interesting opportunities to travel like a local, as by nature you end up staying in neighborhoods where other people genuinely live rather than being cloistered away in commercial/tourist hotels. Then again, many vacation rentals are grouped together with other vacation rental structures, so you can end up in a “tourist ghetto” even if you live in an ordinary rancher that no one would ever think was a tourist hangout.
An admittedly more dangerous strategy in terms of quality (and sometimes safety), joining the couchsurfing revolution is an extremely effective way of approaching full immersion in a culture, as not only do you hang out with locals, but you also sleep in their spare beds, on their couches, on their floors while they still live there. Couchsurfing.com is the leading website for this practice, which, if the sheer abundance of options is any indication, is an enormous and growing travel strategy.
Local activities such as bar or restaurant conferences are also hosted on the site. Users tend to skew young and somewhat adventurous, though not strange or spooky in any way, based on the site name, as you might expect — that is, it doesn’t seem to have turned into a drifter website. When you speak about 23,000 options in a single city alone, stereotypes tend to falter relatively quickly. AWAYN.com is a portal where you can select a local adventure in a particular city. This is the best way to get a good idea of the area without been bombarded buy biased ads or sellers. The website offers very high-quality images and description of each place, along with the amenities, and activities you can do, not to forget it is also to check at the weather!
Another option is Airbnb, which we have written about in the past. Airbnb could be considered a hybrid of a vacation rental and Couchsurfing site, as the site lists both very upscale vacation homes and “sleeping in someone’s spare bedroom” options.
The best way to gain access to local culture is often to invite people to your own personal cultural experience based on their own interests and passions. This was my goal over the time-a strategy. Below are some examples of how I got this to work for me; all you have to do is plug in your own interests, figure out where and how to make the first contact, and you’re on your way. Some have to do with my own long association of rowing, which has led me to many unique experiences.
While trying to visit a (now gone) rowing club in Hawaii, sitting around the locked boathouse looking at the outrigger canoes resulted in a day’s wave-riding session in the outrigger canoes with a local semi-pro wave rider.
I asked a friend at a boathouse in Spain about local surfing, and he shouted to some colleagues that I loved surfing; we all liked the famous Mundaka break within hours.
A small guitar stuffed in the back of a rental car in Punta Arenas, Venezuela, resulted to a local request for playing it, followed by an invitation to a massive gymnasium party for local individuals.
A fairly serious interest in photography can open doors; taking nice photos of local individuals and kids and then showing them the images gave me countless fruitful introductions. Even something as simple as getting your children to playgrounds instead of expensive theme parks can offer tremendous opportunities to meet local individuals.
With all these, the rule is that when you are ready to show and share a little bit of yourself, how you like to live your own life, many people become much more interested in sharing with you how they live their lives. You can’t walk around with your metaphorical arms folded and expect to be welcomed with open arms. Give a little, sometimes get a littleSe or a lot.