Immersive Family Travel: 6 Tips for Living Like a Local

Immersive Family Travel: 6 Tips for Living Like a Local

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.

A mom and daughter sip mate through  a bombilla.

Paige and Calla sample the mate.

 

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.

A Cicerone greeter with his group on a ship in Buenos Aires

Our Cicerone took us on a walking tour of Buenos Aires to introduce us to the city.

 

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.

A band of samba-reggae drummers in Buenos Aires

Paige joined Batala Baires for a month.

 

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.

 

A girl on the silks in aerial acrobatics class in Buenos Aires.

Magnolia joined an aerial acrobatics class in Buenos Aires.

 

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.

A ticket to see Fuerza Bruta at the Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires.

Standing in line with locals for free tickets to see Fuerza Bruta allowed us to meet more locals in Buenos Aires.

 

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.

La Loggia Irish Red at Bodega Cervecera

Our favorite brew at the Bodega Cervecera in Buenos Aires.

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.

Looking for an eco-friendly vacation for your family?

Looking for an eco-friendly vacation for your family?

I was recently walking along the National Mall in Washington, DC, when I saw a family leaving the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. As they passed a trash can, the mother tossed in her empty water bottle.

Her son stopped in his tracks and his eyes grew wide. “But Mom! That’s recyclable! You can’t put that in the trash!”

The mom sheepishly fished the bottle out of the trash and scooped it into the neighboring recycling bin.

We’re so careful at home to recycle, reduce our water use, and save energy, often at the urging of our children. So why shouldn’t we use the same consideration when booking our family vacations?

Here at All Over the Map, we try to be mindful of our environmental impact when traveling, but it’s not always easy. There is no one universal standard to tell us which destinations or tour companies are eco-friendly.

Greenloons to the rescue

Our friends at Greenloons aim to take the guesswork out of vacation planning by offering tours that have been fully vetted not only for their environmental impact but for their safety, comfort, educational value and fun for the whole family.

Greenloons Costa Rica tour

From a Greek Isles Culinary and Culture Tour, to surfing adventures in Nicaragua, to turtle conservation in Costa Rica, there is something for everyone in your family.

Don’t like surfing? Want an option for grandma while you’re out biking? If there’s something missing, most of the tours are customizable, and private tours can be arranged.

All Over the Map partners with Greenloons

We are happy to announce that while Greenloons director Irene Lane is out vetting some new European tour options this summer, we’ll be helping out in the home office with booking tours and spreading the word about the fabulous tours they offer. And we’ll be trying to figure out how we can manage to get our own families onto their Antarctica wildlife expedition!

See penguins on an Antarctic adventure with Greenloons

Antarctica wildlife expedition

Contact us for more information about any of the tours, or let us help you customize one for yourself.

No Tango: A Visit to Buenos Aires with Teens

No Tango: A Visit to Buenos Aires with Teens

“Aaaah, BA… happy memories,” wrote a friend on Facebook.

“Aaagh, I love it. My home for four years,” wrote another friend on Facebook.

“Ahhh, Buenos Aires, love that city,” wrote Adam Seper of Bootsnall in an email.

“The last time I was in Buenos Aires, something… magical happened. I can’t really explain it. Something karmical,” said a Brazilian woman we met on the street one day.No Tango - Buenos Aires with Teens title spelled out over mosaic tiles

The tree-lined streets of Palermo Soho in Buenos Aires

The tree-lined streets of Palermo Soho in Buenos Aires

There is something about this city. Its lovely Belle Epoque architecture, wide boulevards, quiet tree-lined streets, tango and music everywhere, colorful street art, and warm and open people draw you in and don’t want to let go. Or you don’t want them to. In either case, it was a tough place to leave.

Even though my family visited Buenos Aires for the month of June, the start of the antipodean winter, and I generally don’t enjoy being anywhere where sleeves are required, the city utterly charmed me. And it charmed my 13-year-old daughters, who both proclaim that it was their favorite stop of our round-the-world trip.

Buenos Aires hadn’t really been on my radar before this trip. I’d heard people talk about how “European” it was, and that seemed like a strange thing to say about a South American city. I mean, you’re going to South America. Don’t you want it to seem… South American? But I digress….

A fiber-bombed bike in Palermo Soho

A fiber-bombed bike in Palermo Soho

First, our neighborhood of Palermo Soho was really vibrant, with cobbled side streets lined with cafes and boutiques, most of which were far too expensive for us to shop in but showcased the city’s creative and fashionable streak.

At La Reina Junin pasta shop, the vintage machines make fresh pasta daily.

At La Reina Junin pasta shop, the vintage machines make fresh pasta daily.

But it also had fresh pasta shops that had been there for decades, small markets where we could buy vegetables for our young vegetarian – not so easy in a land of steak – and classic parillas so the rest of us could get our meat on.

Every day we went out to explore the city’s parks, museums, and customs, and every day we found something new to love.

Our little gymnast learns the ropes in an aerial silks class in Palermo Hollywood

Our little gymnast learns the ropes in an aerial silks class in Palermo Hollywood

Within a few blocks of our apartment we found a circus supply shop (think giant clown shoes, juggling pins, lots of sequins) and no fewer than three circus schools, where our young gymnast took an aerial silks class. She was nervous before the first class because her Spanish was a little rusty, and, duh, she was going to be flipping upside down on tiny little ropes. But after just a few minutes, she was laughing and stretching and, yes, flipping with her Argentinian peers.

Exploring contemporary art at Fondacion Proa

Exploring contemporary art at Fondacion Proa

On weekends, the nearby plaza was the site of a bustling clothing market that reached inside several bars and out into the streets. A short walk would bring us to one of the larger flea markets in the city.

You might be surprised to know that we spent a month in Buenos Aires and did not see a single tango show, only a casual outdoor milonga we happened upon one evening. But we did stand in line with a bunch of locals for free tickets to Fuerza Bruta, a spectacle of a sight and sound show that originated in BsAs and became a hit around the world.

The Fuerza Bruta dancers are underwater above the audience.

The Fuerza Bruta dancers are underwater above the audience.

We’re happy we chose to stay in Buenos Aires for a month, not because there’s so much to see (there is) but because it’s a very comfortable place to settle in for a while. Unlike many places we’ve been, where tourists are treated like a commodity to be consumed and forgotten, here people are genuinely friendly. In the building where we rented an apartment in the happening neighborhood of Palermo Soho, our neighbors never failed to greet us with “Hola! Qué tal?” And shopkeepers were happy to offer us local tips even when it was clear we wouldn’t be buying their $200 shoes.

We never quite got accustomed to the Spanish-style late nights, and we constantly found ourselves dining by ourselves at 8pm, finding most places really filling up closer to 10. My husband and I found a friendly neighborhood bar where we were greeted like old friends on our second visit. But it took us 3 or 4 visits to realize that what we thought was our own private beer tap at 9 or 10 pm became very crowded after midnight, and that our bartender and her guitarist would start their musical performance at 2 am. When she heard that we were too old and lame to stay up that late, she coaxed her partner to get out his guitar so they could play a few tunes before we left, like Cinderella, at midnight. And this girl could sing! We were happy to risk turning into pumpkins to linger a little longer and soak in the magic of the Buenos Aires night.

Escape for a visit or move in for a while and you’ll be entranced, too. Book your flight through CheapOair for the best deals, and help keep our website afloat while you’re at it.

Travel Fatigue

Travel Fatigue

I’ve just run out of Q-tips.

I have 5 ibuprofen tablets left.

I finally threw out my trusty black pants from Uniqlo that I wore every day it was under 75 degrees Fahrenheit. And that was more days than I’d hoped. They had developed a hole in a rather obscene location, and my repairs weren’t holding.

I’m about to toss the semi-cute back flats I bought for $6 in London to avoid wearing hiking shoes to the theater. I’m still not fooling anyone. And they haven’t gotten cuter with age.

John just cut the toes out of my hiking shoes to make them into sandals so that I could bear to wear them for our last three weeks of hot weather.

Photographic evidence of the alteration of Paige's hiking shoes. John cut the toes our of her Chaco clogs to make them into somewhat convincing sandals.

John cut the toes out of Paige’s Chaco clogs to make them into somewhat convincing sandals.

I may not have made much of an effort to speak Spanish this week in Medellin. (Though I did manage to surprise a Swiss family by speaking French to them. Unfortunately I flubbed my subsequent sentences, so their expectations were ultimately met.)

I believe I have travel fatigue. I know I am ready to go home.

After a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, the girls sleep in the Lima airport.

Sleeping in airports.

I’m so glad we decided to take it slow in our last three months in South America. Our three weeks in Ayacucho gave us culture shock in the best way, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Our month in Buenos Aires let us jump in and pretend like we really lived there. No, we really did live there. We made friends, we mastered the bus system, Magnolia went to circus school, I played with Batala Baires, and we even found a local pub (something we don’t even have at home). And now in our last month Colombia has given us surprises upon surprises, and all of them good.

 

The members of Batala Baires take a bow.

Paige with the members of Batala Baires after playing a show together.

 

But I’m tired. And not just of my clothes. (Although I am really tired of my clothes.)

I want to wear my bathing suit all day and play with my nieces and nephews. I want to have grown up conversation over grown up drinks with my girlfriends. I want to wear my pajamas all day. I want to bake bread. And cookies.

I have treasured almost every minute of togetherness with my kids, because I know we’ll never have this much time together again. But I am looking forward to having some conversations, maybe even a few hours, that do not involve them, and I’m sure they are, too.

At the beginning of this trip, I wasn’t sure if we would want to come home at the end of it. But now I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than go home. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it again, because I absolutely would, or that I won’t do it again, because I absolutely could, but for now I’m looking forward to the comforts of home.