Leon, Nicaragua

Authentic Travel Experiences in Touristy Destinations

Derek India, Perspectives 51 Comments

Leon, Nicaragua
Not every traveler finds their experiences overseas to be rewarding and if you read enough travel blogs, you will come across posts and comments from people who were actually quite disappointed with the destinations they visited. Most of the disappointment stems from arriving in a town or city or even country that turns out to be far more touristy than anything they had imagined and as a result, they find themselves struggling to engage in authentic local interactions and local experiences, which are the type of experiences they had hoped for.

These travelers often claim to feel as if they are merely a tourist in a zoo when they arrive in such places, where the only option is to stare at locals as if they were on display and enter into interactions that exist only because of tourism. And so it is natural for some people to simply want to leave a particular region or country once they conclude that there is no way to experience anything real.

While I’ve heard people mention their disappointment with many countries around the world, one of the countries that seems to pop up more often than others in such conversations is India, the country I am flying to today, in one hour from now actually.

And this is what I sometimes read about India…

There are too many tourists. You can’t have a conversation with anyone without them trying to sell you something. Nothing is authentic.

Local man in Bundi

Okay, are there crowds of travelers in India, especially in places such as Goa and McLeod Ganj and Varanasi and Udaipur? Yes, there is definitely no shortage of travelers in many regions of this country.

Does this eliminate all chance of having authentic travel experiences? In my opinion, not at all.

When we travel, the only person who decides where we go and what we do each day is us. We determine the destinations we visit, we choose the places we eat and the activities we participate in and we even choose the streets we walk down. Therefore, we also determine whether or not we end up as a tourist in a zoo or if we fill our days with the kind of local experiences we hope for.

And it’s not so difficult to make the right decisions. Even in McLeod Ganj, the small Indian town in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Dalai Lama lives, and a town that is full of foreigners almost year round, you can choose to eat in a local Tibetan restaurant instead of the German bakery or the Italian restaurant, both of which cater only to travelers. You can choose to mingle with the other travelers or you can choose to head down to the Buddhist temple and strike up a conversation with a Buddhist monk.

While it might still be disappointing to find yourself in a town that is so touristy, we must realize that we are not the only people who want to travel and the reason why so many of us flock to the same destinations is because those destinations have something to offer.

I remember the last time I was in India and I traveled to Agra with two friends in order to visit the Taj Mahal, which is India’s most visited sight. After spending a few hours at the monument, we decided to get away from all of the other travelers and so, without hesitation, we flagged down a bicycle rickshaw. We then asked the driver to take us away from Taj Ganj, the main tourist area by the Taj Mahal, telling him to just cycle us to an area without any foreigners.

Cinema in Agra

Ten minutes later we were in a random neighborhood, standing in front of a local cinema where a crowd of Indians were waiting in line to enter. We joined the crowd, went inside, bought three tickets for the next Hindi film being played and within moments, found ourselves trying to communicate with a large group of people who had never spent any time with foreigners in their entire life. We talked, we sat together in the cinema, we laughed, we watched the film, we chatted afterward while sipping chai and eating samosas. This was as local of an experience as it gets, even though we were in the most visited city in all of India.

And it took no effort at all. In fact, it’s so simple to get away from the ‘zoo’ that I’m confident there is no place on this planet where travelers would not be able to find such an opportunity.

Even when I lived in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, another major tourist and vacation destination, all it took was a short walk away from the beach for me to find myself in a local tostada eatery (like the one where I gave a demonstration on how to stuff your face properly) or in a cafe without any foreigners around or in a park full of local vendors selling local specialties and without a word of English being spoken.

Loncheria en Valladolid

There were even sections of the beach where I could grab a patch of white sand and spend the day among locals, without any beach bars, jet skis or beach vendors anywhere in sight.

Again, little effort required. It just took a few conscious decisions.

In addition, if we really feel that a particular destination is far too touristy to give us the kind of experiences we seek, nothing is stopping us from hopping on a bus or train and getting off at a random station, wandering into a random town, being the only foreigner around, and seeing where the adventure leads.

If we remember that it is our responsibility, not the responsibility of the destinations we visit, to create these positive experiences, then there is no reason why we should ever throw up our hands in disappointment and claim that a particular town, city or country does not offer authentic travel experiences.


Have you been to a destination where you feel it was impossible to have an authentic experience? What kind of experiences do you seek out or will you seek out when you’re overseas?

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Comments 51

  1. Pingback: Are All Tourists Really Seeking an "Authentic Local Experience"? - The Boutique Traveler The Boutique Traveler

  2. Dusty Soles

    Great post and totally agree. Some times it takes a little more than just hopping on that plane to get an authentic experience, you may need to push a little further out of your comfort zone. Funny you mention Mcleod Ganj – staying in Palampur for a few months, I used to enjoy visiting the Ganj just for its touristy feel.

    I’ve found in some islands in the South pacific locals are not sure at first how to deal with foreigners. They know there’s money to be made but it means it can end up with a sterilized version of their culture being portrayed. However, make a little effort and you’ll find people not wanting to sell you something and eager to interact.

  3. nomadic translator

    you are so right there. In fact, I have visited so many European destinations that are extremely popular, yet, have had nothing but authentic experiences.

    The first one that comes to mind is when I went to Barcelona. I stayed with a couchsurfer there and just saw a few of Gaudi’s buildings, in addition to La Rambla, during my whole stay! Sometimes I wish I would have seen more tourist sites, but then I remember how we got to go to a musical Catalan poetry reading + watch event at a local bar, surrounded by people speaking a mix of Spanish and Catalan. It’s so nice to remember this… 🙂

    so yes, my advice to everyone is to hang out with the couchsurfers in the area they are visiting! Even if you are staying in a B&B just because you don’t feel comfortable staying in the couch of a stranger, meeting them for coffee, a meal or drink. You’ll love the authentic experience!

    – Maria Alexandra

  4. Preeti

    I had a conversation about this same exact topic this morning. I just came back from Scotland & was talking to a fellow student on campus about how amazing it is. I did the touristy things in Scotland but most of the 3 weeks I was there were spent outside of the touristy areas. We really had no plans when we got to Scotland other than hotel reservations for the first 2 days. After that we just took off in the general direction of a place we wanted to visit & would stop wherever we felt like, on the way. If a local told of a cool spot to check out, we’d do it. Probably the best trip I’ve taken.

    Side note: What cities in Northern India are you going to? Amritsar by any chance?

    1. Earl

      Hey Preeti – Sounds like your Scotland trip worked out perfectly! And I will be going to Amritsar with the group I’m taking around India. We will be there over the weekend for two days. I’m excited to visit the Golden Temple again and to experience the ceremony at Wagah…it’s been a few years since I’ve been there 🙂

  5. Maureen

    Hi Earl! Congrats on making “TIME Magazine’s” list of 25 top blogs for 2012! Way to go! We enjoyed this post and agree wholeheartedly that in order to have that authentic experience you have to make a conscious decision. Last year we traveled through parts of South and Central America; one thing that greatly helped was speaking Spanish. (Not that it’s a necessity – S Korea was an fantastic place to explore and NOT speaking the language added an element of surprise (think food;-) Cheers, Maureen

    1. Earl

      Thanks Maureen! And knowing some of the language certainly can help us bridge the cultural gap and enter into an entirely different set of interactions. I believe that my time in Mexico also turned out so well because of knowing a good amount of Spanish.

  6. Kan

    You make a pretty good point about making conscious decisions Earl. I spent a good amount of time exploring Angkor in Cambodia and anyone who’s been there knows what the tourist hordes are like. However, simply getting there slightly earlier than everyone if you know when or exploring sections of these magnificent temples that are less traversed makes it far less of a gimmicky tourist experience and something far more authentic.

  7. Bama

    Luang Prabang is one of the most visited places in Southeast Asia. When I went there last May, of course there was no shortage of foreigners around. But then as you said, it’s really up to us how we want to make our visit as authentic as possible. I managed to eat local food, and to some extent also communicate with the locals. Even in Macau, when I was in Senado Square all tourists were also there – both Chinese and foreigners. But when I turned to a small alley just around the square, I found a completely different world filled with local authenticity.

  8. Jeff @ planetbell

    Great post. One of my top travel experiences was in Cairo when we took local buses out to the Pyramids. Locals were so excitid to see us and talk to us. We had to change buses a few times and not being able to speak or read Arabic, or understand the confusing bus system, locals helped us the whole way. It was great fun, the highlight of the day.

  9. Maria

    Great topic – I do believe you have to engage perception and expectations. Also remember if you really can’t find a way to “make lemon-aide,” then leave.
    Any fee you have to pay to change your itinerary would be worthwhile at such a point.

  10. Agness (@Agnesstramp)

    You bring up an interesting topic Earl! I felt this way when being in Ha Long Bay and Hanoi, Vietnam. There were way too many tourists there, locals tried to rip us off and they prices were much higher. Some tourists drank a lot, participated in street fights and insulted locals. That was a bad experience ;-(.

  11. Pingback: Hitting the Travel Links -

  12. Pernilla

    Another great post Earl! Something I’ve been thinking a lot about too, and I truly believe that you can have an authentic experience everywhere, it’s just a matter of having the right attitude and actually be willing to search a little to find it.
    Looking forward to some great post about India!

  13. DanA

    Well said Earl. I’m originally from the Philippines and it’s quite sad to see that some of the non-touristy places are losing their untouched value as the years go by. I remember going to Borocay as a young kid and reveling in the natural feel of the island – now days its filled with all different types of tourist and it really has lost its old self.

    1. Earl

      Hey DanA – That does happen all over the world but hopefully there are still local experiences to be had…it just may take a little more effort to find them as tourism continues to grow.

  14. Lillian

    No problem for me in Playa del Carmen. I went off season and nearly suffocated from the heat. Ja ja! Seriously, I’ve missed some opportunities by avoiding touristy places and I hope I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll go back to yucatan when it’s cooler even if it’s crowded.

    1. Earl

      Hey Lillian – Even during the high season in Playa it’s easy to get away from the crowds. Avenida 30 is all you need for a break from the tourism industry.

  15. Laura

    Totally agree that even in touristy destinations it’s not all that hard to get off the beaten path! I usually do it through food, doing tons of pre-trip research (when possible) on what the local dishes are and where to find them, and then asking locals we meet there for their opinions. It’s always a rewarding experience, and it works anywhere–including 2 cities you mention, Udaipur and Agra. In the latter our favorite thing (after seeing the Taj) was getting this local breakfast, bedai and jalebi (http://eatyourworld.com/destinations/asia/india/agra/what_to_eat/bedai_and_jalebi), at a crazy-crowded street corner one morning…our driver, after getting lost a few times, could not even believe that was where we wanted to go! In fact, as you may have found in Agra as well, it seems like that city is basically untouched by tourists once you leave the hotel zone and major sights. I recall a similar feeling in Playa del Carmen when you go a few blocks in away from the beach, though I haven’t been there in a few years.

    Anyway, point is: Explore away from the crowds and you will soon escape them!

    1. Earl

      Hey Laura – Food is a great focal point to help get us away from the touristy areas. And you’re right, in places such as Agra, it really does take a five minute walk in a different direction to get away from all the tourists and end up in a completely different area. And when I’m in Agra in two weeks, I shall try out that breakfast myself!

  16. Lisa Niver Rajna

    Earl,
    Hello! Great post! Thanks for sharing your adventures.
    We are in Bangkok now just off Koh San Road and on Rambutri if you go through a hole in the wall—there is an INCREDIBLE monastery just steps from hundreds of tourists there is a 200year old tree and a very peaceful feeling!
    I love the authentic in touristy places!
    Lisa

    1. Earl

      Hey Lisa – I know that monastery as well and it is amazing how different the atmosphere is once you step inside the compound! You can also go the park next to the river on Phra Athit, just a few minutes walk from Rambutri, and in the evenings it’s a great place to sit and do some peaceful people watching.

  17. Dyanne@TravelnLass

    Spot on, Earl!

    “…we choose the places we eat and the activities we participate in and we even choose the streets we walk down.”

    Indeed, it seems so many head straight to the local “backpacker” hub in most any place in the world they land – and then wonder why they’re beset with hawkers, and it’s all so very “touristy”.

    That said though, I must admit – Egypt was surely a challenge. It seemed nearly impossible to avoid the “walking wallet” syndrome no matter where I went.

    Then again, hiring a Nubian felucca sailor to take me across the Nile to find a geocache on a stray deserted isle (and seeing the grin on his face when we finally found the cache) was surely a most authentic travel experience.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dyanne – Sounds like quite an experience you had in Egypt! And yes, it is difficult to avoid being hassled in some places but there are still genuine experiences to be had…it just might take a bit more effort to find them in a place such as Egypt.

  18. Nico

    Nice post, Earl.

    I agree with you on Playa del Carmen being very touristy but at the same time having a lot of places with no tourists at all. What’s difficult to find there is actual locals, as most of the mexicans living in the city are really coming from other cities and not Mayans. If you go to Tulum, then it’s a different story.

    If I had to think of a place where I left unsure of whether it is possible to have an authentic experience is Cuba, but of course, it is a country unlike the rest of the world.

    1. Earl

      Hey Nico – That’s true about Playa, although there are neighborhoods where you’ll find no shortage of Mayans. The first area I lived in, somewhere around 90th Street, was mostly Mayans. Even the signs around that part of town were in Mayan. I have yet to visit Cuba but I can imagine that might be a little different.

    2. Andy

      An authentic experience in Cuba? Definitely possible! But only if you speak at least decent spanish and are willing to settle down in a place for a while to truly immerse yourself. Granted, in most of Havanna and a few other tourist hot spots, that might be impossible since the locals just have to hustle the visitors to survive and there is so many tourists around anyway. But wander off the beaten track a bit, visit a smaller town, and things will change. The key is to make local friends and spend a bit of time with them to get to know them better. You’ll be rewarded with amazing friendships and experiences.

      Cuba has an incredible feel that is hard to describe. One must go there to experience it yourself. It’s unlike any other place in that hemisphere. For those who haven’t been there yet, don’t be afraid to start with a package tour. You’ll still see plenty of the island and get a good feel for it. Sure, it won’t be “authentic” but you will live in nice hotels, eat good food and won’t have to
      worry about anything. After that you can still return and carve your own path the rough way… which will be an adventure for sure.

  19. EarthDrifter

    Leon, Nicaragua and Chiang Mai are so touristy, but, with some effort you can get away from the tourist scene, and when you can’t, just embrace it. As for India, even in Agra, Varanasi or Udaipur, I think it’s ridiculously easy to get off the beaten path by simply walking away from it. Although I agree that in McLeod Ganj it’s next to impossible, it’s still a nice place that has a vibe all its own, and it’s easy to talk to Tibetans that will happily tell you their story.

    1. Earl

      @EarthDrifter – In a place like McLeod, just talking to a few Tibetans makes a huge difference. Most foreigners I’ve met up there just spend their days in the bakeries talking to other foreigners!

  20. Ron Baron

    GREAT points! This is an impressive article that puts the responsibility for each of our fun squarely on the person looking back at us in the mirror. Your points make sense and are equally applicable to those of us that may be temporarily land-locked in the U.S., even while travelling through Times Square in New York.

  21. Helen

    Hi Earl,
    So great to read your post about India! I spent an amazing 3 months in India and had an incredible adventure. It’s true what you say, adventure and getting off the tourist trail is up to the traveller and most of all speaking to locals and fellow travellers, which always uncovers hidden gems. I was so terrified of going to India on my own, but I remember the first 3 days in that wonderful country were some of the most surprising, heartwarming and best ever. I miss India so much, and it’s been on my mind a lot lately. Please send us some stories of your times there, I’m sure they will all be fabulous. One thing I particularly loved about India was eating all the food everywhere: stalls, trains, street vendors, cafes etc, and the trains, everything about the trains and overall just feeling like I had been transported to a different planet. I can’t wait to go back! Enjoy!

  22. Noah

    There was this one time I was trying to interact with the locals of Anaheim and it was just really impossible. I never thought it could be worse and then I went to live among the locals of Orlando. It was the same exact experience.

    To be serious, I think you can always find an authentic experience, you just have to seek out the places the locals gather. In other words, use the blogs and guidebooks to establish a plan of action, but ignore many of the suggestions.

  23. Sarah

    This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about too- especially after I visited Istanbul. I think you can have an authentic experience anywhere. As long as you’re looking for it and have the right attitude.

    1. Earl

      Hey Sarah – Absolutely and in Istanbul, all it takes is turning down a random street and you never know what you’ll uncover. That’s one of my favorite cities for just leaving my hotel and wandering wherever the road leads me…so much to explore and uncover!

  24. Will

    Earl,

    Good points about finding your own “authentic experiences.” It’s not always going to fall into your lap – you have to make a concsious decision.

    The first place that comes to mind is the downtown area of Manilla. It looked so western and the shopping malls are basically like high-end malls in any developed country. The fun part of the trip was before when I was in the country side hearing the roosters call in the morning.

    Overseas I will look for different national parks with unique animals to photograph.

    1. Earl

      Hey Will – Even in shopping malls you can have a local experience…often times there are great local places to eat or local businesses that few foreigners ever see or learn about. And looking for unique animals to photograph seems like a good goal for your travels!

  25. Bruce

    I can really only think of one place….Hampi. Can’t get a non-touristy experience there without actually physically leaving Hampi 🙂

    I have a slightly different take on the whole issue, though. I feel every place I go to is authentic in its own right. It has become what it was destined to become. The fact that it doesn’t meet with my expectations is my failure. And after years of struggle I have found the best answer is if you can’t beat them (which you can’t) then join them. Every place you visit will have a travel style that will best fit how to enjoy it. As such, when I am in a touristy place, I just become a tourist and hang out with other tourists, join in their groups, etc.

    1. Earl

      Hey Bruce – That certainly works as well and I think it just depends on what a person looks for when they travel. There are certainly times when I do the same as you described when in a touristy locale but there are also plenty of touristy places where I would rather spend time with locals and learn how they go about their daily lives. Either way, it’s important to remember that both experiences exist everywhere we go.

  26. Sarah Somewhere

    Good point, Earl. I have experienced such feelings before (funnily enough, in Agra, but we both got sick so that didn’t help!), but you’re right, it’s up to each individual to make their own travel choices and not get ‘caught up’ in the tourist trap if they dislike it. Can’t wait to get back to India either, all the best for your trip!

    1. Earl

      Hey Sarah – Getting sick is an entirely different story…that is always hard to deal with and certainly doesn’t make travel fun at all!

  27. Cam @ Traveling Canucks

    You bring up an interesting topic Earl, we recently posted a similar thought on our blog -http://travelingcanucks.com/2012/10/what-is-authentic-travel-anyways/
    I think you’re final sentence hits the nail on the head. At the end of the day, it comes down to setting proper expectations and taking the initiative to create your own experiences, rather than waiting for a tour operator or destination to craft the experience for you.

    1. Earl

      Hey Cam – That’s the thing and sometimes it’s probably easier to just blame the destination or the tour operator if your experiences don’t match your expectations from the start. But instead of placing blame, one should put more effort into creating those experienced they desire. Hope you guys are doing well as always! And hello to Nicole!

  28. Neelima V

    Such a nice post this one! I completely agree with you, it just takes a little effort to get away from the touristy places. I always found awesome places were just a boat ride away or just a bus ride away. Turns out they are also just a rickshaw ride away like you said. 🙂

    On another note, have you decided in which city you are going to stay?

    1. Earl

      Hey Neelima – After my tour of North India is over I’m still not too sure where I’ll be going. I know I have to be in Chennai on December 22nd for a speaking engagement but that’s all I have planned so far 🙂

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