Whether you call it immersive travel, cultural travel, experiential travel, or adventure travel, it is a kind of travel that takes you deeper into a destination – beyond a place to its people, its culture.
For my family it involves learning about a culture through the arts. For Vero’s family, it often involves leaping off of giant rocks, but she’ll talk about that in a later post.
During my family’s month-long stay in Buenos Aires, we made a real effort to immerse ourselves in the city’s culture, and as a result it remains one of our favorite travel memories. Here are some tips for immersing yourself in any new culture.
Stay in a neighborhood, not a tourist district
To get to know any place, its best veer a little bit – or even a lot – off the beaten tourist path. I like to start by finding a place to stay that is in a lively neighborhood away from the central business district. Vacation rental websites like HouseTrip, HomeAway, Airbnb, and others make this possible by renting furnished apartments and houses. It’s fun to find your local market and figure out the public transportation options, and it’s great language practice, too. And on that note…
Learn the language
It’s tough (but not impossible!) to get to know local culture if you can’t converse with the locals. We took a Spanish class that included cultural lessons as extracurricular activities. One of our first lessons was on how to prepare and drink mate, the ubiquitous Argentinian tea drink that has a culture and ritual unique to this part of the world.
Learn about the place from a local
Before we arrived in Buenos Aires, we contacted Cicerones, a Buenos Aires non-profit that matches visitors to the city with locals who can show them around. Part of the Global Greeter Network, Cicerones are volunteers who love to show of their city. Our Cicerone happened to be a native Colombian who had been studying in Buenos Aires for some time, and enjoyed sharing the city and practicing his English with visitors. Since we were heading to Colombia after Buenos Aires, we benefitted doubly from his knowledge.
Find shared interests
Back home, I participated in a Brazilian samba-reggae percussion group called Batala, which has groups all over the world. I contacted the Buenos Aires group and was not only able to join them for their regular practices in a part of the city I would not have found on my own, but even played a couple of shows with them as a performer. The members of the band took me under their wing and showed me all kinds of things about Argentinian culture.
My daughter had been missing her gymnastics classes, and we had had trouble finding her lessons on the road. But in Buenos Aires, we found several circus schools in the neighborhood where we were staying, and one allowed her to join an aerial acrobatics class for the month, which she loved. We worried she might have trouble with the language, but I guess the language of gymnastics is universal.
Do what the locals are doing
We saw in a local paper that Fuerza Bruta, the multi media show that has been playing in New York for several years, would be returning to the place it all began in Buenos Aires with a free show. The trick was that you had to stand in line mid-day on a Thursday. We stood in line and met several locals while we were waiting, who gave us tips on other fun cultural things to do in the city.
Become a regular
This one is my favorite. If you find a local spot you enjoy, why not go there repeatedly and get to know the staff and other regulars? You might find a local spot to buy your daily coffee and pastry, or a cheese shop, or even a place to play dungeons and dragons (oddly, we found such a place not far from our Buenos Aires apartment). We found a great craft beer bar just down the street from our rental apartment, and often ended our evenings there. When we had to leave before the band was to play one night, the lead singer gave us a private impromptu set at the bar.
Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to travel, but if you want to really get to know and understand the culture of the place you are visiting, it’s best to just jump right in and try living like a local, rather than sitting on a tour bus with all the other foreigners.