So you’re ready to go and travel a new country. You rock up there, check into a popular hostel and…. figure out that you are surrounded by other travelers like you. You book a tour to see a beautiful natural sight only to be called ‘turista’ and dragged from one souvenir shop to the next. Though meant charmingly, that bothers you and all the other ‘turistas’ on the tour bus. Back at your hostel, you’re suggested to join a pub crawl to see some of the local nightlife – only to be stuck in a group of other travelers again. You hardly see locals hanging out where you are hanging out. They seem to be in different circles than you. Different worlds. Granted, locals most likely have a lot of things to do (and more substantial than hitting another famous church, I’m talking work, family, etc.) but still there should be places where you can feel more of the culture and where you can mingle more with locals than at the point you’re at. 

Having done the tours (on my first trip to Australia, a travel agency successfully sold me a bus tour through half of the country – I had no idea how to do this on my own at this point and wanted it the easy way!), I later realized that I wanted to do it differently and not feel so distanced and in a little tourist bubble with little local interaction.

Let me say one thing. I’m not saying at all that traveling like a tourist and using tours doesn’t have its perks. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed sitting in a tour bus, kicking back, earphones in, relaxing, knowing that I didn’t have to worry about a thing regarding when and where to get off and what to do. Also, when traveling by yourself, it is a great and easy way to make friends. When traveling in a group, you might enjoy this option because you want to spend time with your friends and see the highlights and aren’t necessarily out to meet the locals. Or you might have limited time on your trip and are trying to get the most out of it sight-wise. What I’m saying is, that everything has its time and place and if you are happy to spend your time traveling this way then that’s exactly what you should do 🙂

In case you’re still wondering how to do it otherwise (and save some $$$), please read on.

The following are ways to meet locals or experience the local culture that I have experienced. This list is by now ways exhaustive and should simply serve to give you some inspiration. As always it also depends on the country you’re in, so keep that in mind.

  1. workaway: I don’t even know how to express my gratitude for this website and the work-exchange programs such as wwoofing and others in general. What they offer are a place to sleep and food as well as the chance to live with a local family in exchange of a few hours of work from your side. I’ve lived with local people in their homes, eaten home-cooked food, participated in local activities, festivals and everyday life. It is my absolute favorite way to dive into a country and its culture. You will end up in places you had never heard of and see the many lifestyles different people can have. What’s more, you’ll learn how despite differences, all human beings have the same needs and similar desires, no matter which country they’re from and which culture they belong to.

2. Couchsurfing: A great way to meet locals is through couchsurfing. The website shows local hosts that offer to let a stranger stay for free. This can be a great chance to hang out with people of your kind/your interests who can introduce you to their favorite places. Even if the thought of staying with a stranger isn’t up your alley, there are many other ways to use couchsurfing to connect with locals: through events or catching up just for a coffee with a person. I’ve formed amazing, often lifelong friendships through this website, and connected friends with couchsurfers continuously.

3. hitchhiking: This might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I certainly advise seeing what the situation per country is like as it’s not a 100% safe way to travel. What I can say though is that through hitchhiking I’ve had the most extensive chats to locals about their country. After all, you have lots of time at hand, you are getting to know each other and both sides are usually eager to hear from the other. Locals can give you advice on what to see, where to stay etc. It just depends where you steer the conversation towards and how long the ride is 🙂
Of course you can also chat to your taxi or Uber driver!!! I’ve gotten travel tips, stories about indigenous cultures, life in the country in general and more in conversations.

Hitchhiking a very popular route from El Calafate to El Chalten in Patagonia, Argentina

4. In public places, such as parks/squares, often when you’re hanging around by yourself: Now, this is, of course, something that can happen in your own country and there might be times when you don’t want to be talked to by a stranger but I have had some amazing conversations with people who were simply curious about where I was from and what I thought of their country. I am always very stern in where my boundaries are in regards to where the conversation is going and it’s never wrong to walk away if you feel uncomfortable. Keep in mind that people in some countries are much ‘chattier’ than in others, i.e. this would hardly happen in my small hometown in German, yet in many South-American countries, people talk to others all the time.

whilst sitting on San Blas square in Cusco, a little girl sat on the bench next to me and was simply curious in what I was doing in her country

5. local markets: Local markets are where you can learn all about food, dishes but also about the price levels of a country, food preferences and how people interact with each other. I’ve had a lovely chat with a fruit vendor at a market in Quito who, when I explained my confusion about a lot of the fruit sold, took me aside to patiently explain every single fruit and its usage to me.

The juice section of a market in Sucre, Bolivia

6. small food stalls: I love food stalls on the street. They often serve something typical of the country, which is mostly basic food but I love the intimate atmosphere between the vendor and its buyers. Sometimes a few people end up hanging around a stall, starting conversations. I’ve had a nice short chat while sipping on hot tea, or eating my snack, such as in Peru, where a businessman in his fine clothing was sitting on a plastic chair eating fried donuts talking to me about life in Peru. In many places, people don’t walk off with their street food, but they hang around the stall and interact. It’s always a bargain to eat at as well and people give you a fair price from my experience and don’t overcharge you.

street food stall in Cusco – at night the streets come alive

7. supermarkets: I love going to supermarkets as they show you all the array of products that are sold. You might realize that Argentinians are not into your beloved peanut butter (as in – not to be found on the shelf) but love dulce de leche (a milky caramel cream/spread) that you can find in dozens of variations. It can be fun to buy some new ingredients and try them or try cooking with them. Don’t limit yourself to snacks you don’t know, buy some new grain, fruit and veg and let the good old Internet tell you what to do with it (or local people if you have the chance to ask, I always ask locals about products I don’t know)

8. public transportation: Cheap and often widely available (sometimes not so much). Ride a minibus, minivan, a tuc-tuc, a local train and simply pick up the vibe of this way of traveling. It might take you a lot longer than a tourist bus but you get to have an experience on its own and save a lot of $$$

One word of advice: you’re probably going to show as a non-local. Be aware that in many countries, people might try and take advantage of that and charge you more than what they would charge the locals. You can haggle and see where that takes you or accept the higher price if you are not bothered by it. It can also work out in your favor though and I’ve encountered many lovely people, who’d give me free samples of food to try or an extra something at no extra cost.

And last but not least. Get a little lost! Go to places, walk streets that you’ve not heard of, turn corners, look around your surroundings and take in what you see, no matter how small and insignificant it might seem. Everyday life can be full of surprises, no matter in which country you are (including your own).

2 thoughts on “How I travel to experience local culture

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