The Mayan culture has been getting a lot of attention lately. Especially yesterday, 12/21/12, the day that the Mayan calendar ended. The end of this calendar has been interpreted in a variety of ways, but that’s not what I’m going to write about. All this attention to the Mayans has made me think of the two different encounters that I have had with the Mayan culture, and the contrast of travel experiences that I had on those very different trips.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit 4 different locations with mayan ruins: Tikal, Copan, Chitchen Itza and Tulum. The first two sites were visited almost 20 years ago, when I spent 5 weeks backpacking in Guatemala in Honduras. The last two sites were day trips from an all-inclusive resort near Cancun about 6 years ago. Those two trips could not have been more different. The manner of travel and budget being the two biggest differences.
The first trip to Guatemala and Honduras was on a budget of less than $15/day, including food and accommodation. I was 23, single and broke. I stayed in cheap hotels, hostels, hammocks and slept on the deck of a boat. I ate beans, rice, avocados and lots of liquados (fruit smoothies.) I also spent about 10 days studying spanish in Antiqua, Guatemala. On that trip I met a lot of people, other travelers and locals. I would sit in the park in Antiqua and strike up conversations with strangers so that I could practice spanish. I rode public transportation, and constantly had to ask people for directions and other forms of help. During that trip I was able to visit the ruins of Copan and Tikal, and several small towns and villages that were populated mostly by people of Mayan descent. In general, I felt like a traveler, not a tourist.
Fast forward about 12 years; I’m married with a full time job, and a comfortable income. My husband and I took a trip to Cancun that was an all-inclusive package deal. We could have everything we needed for a relaxing vacation without ever leaving the confines of our resort. My husband and I booked this trip last minute during a very busy period, and we didn’t have much time to plan or choose, we just knew we needed a vacation. We were met at the airport by a driver holding a sign with our name on it. We had a room with a view of the pool and the ocean beyond. There was drink service without leaving our beach chairs, maid service and meals on site. It wasn’t an expensive trip, when you consider that airfare, lodging and food were included. It wasn’t a luxurious resort, but it definitely wasn’t shabby either. I venture a guess, that sounds like most peoples idea of a dream vacation, we hated it. Yes, the beach was nice, the drinks were refreshing, the service was good, etc… It was nice for about the first 36 hours, then we were bored out of our minds. We might as well have been in Florida. What’s the point of leaving the country, if everything is the same as home?
My husband and I made the most of that trip, by renting a car and escaping the resort for a trip to Chitchen Itza and Tulum. We also promised ourselves, “never again” to the easy allure of a package vacation. Those types of vacation deals are designed to keep the tourist away from the realities of the lives being lived around them. It’s hard to relax, when you’re face to face with the reality of the poverty of the people who are making your drinks and cleaning your rooms. Even more difficult, when you realize they’re probably barely making a living wage, and the money you are spending often goes to the big multi-national corporations.
So, how can we make the travel experience more authentic? There are many options of ways to create travel experiences that allow you to interact with local culture, and allow your travel money to have a greater impact on the people you are meeting. I believe very passionately in the idea of EcoTravel, which is a type of travel that does not damage the environment and helps to support local economies. It is the idea that local communities can benefit from tourism, without the tourism ruining the environment and culture that made the location a destination in the first place. There are a lot of ways that we can support these ideals. Here are just a few:
- Stay in small, family owned hotels or B&B’s.
- Strike up a relationship with the people who work there. Go out of your way to talk to them beyond the scope of “I need a towel, or a key”, etc..
- Study the language, so that these types of interactions are easier.
- Rent an apartment with a kitchenette, which requires that you…
- Shop for groceries at the local market or corner store.
- Eat at the locally owned restaurants, and avoid the fast food chains.
- Participate in an educational program.
- Be respectful of the differences in the culture.