Deepen Your Travel Experience in Five Simple Steps | The Mochilera Diaries
Musings, Travel Tips

Deepen Your Travel Experience in 5 Simple Steps

It’s time for a dose of brutal honesty, are you ready for it?

Not all travel is equal.

There, I said it!

The never-ending buzz within the travel industry regarding whether there is actually a difference between a tourist and a traveler has led me to consider the distinction carefully myself, and I’m afraid I have to jump on board with the camp that believes yes, there is a difference.

As an aside, I’m not typically one to set New Year’s resolutions. I’m generally of the opinion that they are pretty pointless unless you actually plan to act on them and not revert back to your former self as soon as adversity rears its ugly head. I am one to set goals, however. To me, having a goal implies also having actionable steps to take toward achieving that goal, making it much more likely to be accomplished.

As the new year settles upon us and I’m barraged with articles about “travel resolutions,” I’ve realized I do have travel-related goals for 2015 that have nothing to do with adding more stamps to my passport or ticking items off an arbitrary “bucket list.”

Quite simply, I want to be better at this thing called travel. I want it to mean more. I want to look back on my travel-filled 20s and know that I did everything in my power to be present and that I didn’t coast through these experiences half asleep. Especially when living as an expat in one place for awhile, its easy to forget that every new day brings with it myriad opportunities for personal growth and discovery.

Ok, back to my main point.

In the literal sense of the word, everyone is a traveler. So long as you are going to new locations, you are, by definition, a traveler–it’s your actions upon reaching your new destination that determine if you are a tourist.

The Tourist

The tourist sees what he is supposed to see. The tourist arrives in a place knowing little about it and leaves knowing little more. The tourist takes others’ opinions at face value and follows the masses. The tourist may visit a site of great significance for the sake of photographic evidence of his great adventure, but he doesn’t interact with it, doesn’t absorb its meaning, is not moved by its grandeur, beauty or history. He has little regard for local customs and acts just as he would in his home country, as if his surroundings are static and his actions have no impact on them whatsoever.

The Traveler

The traveler seeks to understand. The traveler is perpetually curious and constantly questioning. The traveler wants to know locals, to interact fully with his surroundings, to absorb the energy of a place he is visiting. He diverges from the masses in search of intimate details and stories. The traveler is deeply moved by every place he visits. He leaves with a better understanding of it than when he arrived. He is reverent toward the local code of ethics and conducts himself in a way that reflects this.

Deepen your experience. Be a traveler.

My intention is not to imply that not all travel is important, because it is. Even the tourist can’t escape the little life lessons that travel imposes upon him; some type of personal growth is inevitable, even if the changes are small or imperceptible at first.

In order to create truly meaningful experiences, however, we must aim to be more like the traveler. This is an art I have not yet perfected myself, but among my goals for 2015 is to implement the steps I’m about to outline. If this is all new to you it may be quite uncomfortable at first, but it does get easier with practice.

To deepen your travel experience and be a traveler, not a tourist, follow these five simple steps.

1. Unplug.

Step away from the computer. Log out of your social media accounts. Be present. Not everything you experience is worth sharing, but everything you experience is worth appreciating in real time. Notice the sights, the smells, the sounds, and the life happening all around you. Walk down the street with your head up, not glued to a mobile screen.

Portland Rose Garden

Remember outside? Where there is no wifi, no Facebook, no Instagram?

2. Engage with locals.

Be curious. Ask questions. Start conversations. Not everyone will want to talk to you, but many will. Vendors and service people make perfect targets–talking to you is part of their job. Ask about their culture, ask about their personal experiences, ask about anything under the sun. Everyone has something to teach you; it’s amazing how much you can learn even in the briefest encounters. Don’t expect to make friends for life. The important part is simply taking the time to listen.

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

He wanted to sell me something, I just wanted to be friends

3. Try everything once.

This is easier said than done, but challenging yourself to be open-minded may lead you to discover that you love things you always assumed you would hate. So long as an experience doesn’t conflict with your personal morals, everything is worth trying at least once. If you hate it, you hate it–but at least you know for sure.


I’ll admit, this was not delicious! But now I know…

4. Get off the beaten path.

There’s nothing wrong with visiting popular sites or attractions, but discovering the things that not everyone sees will make your experience feel one-of-a-kind. Sure, toss a coin into Trevi Fountain when in Rome, but then get wonderfully lost down a back alley and create an experience that is uniquely your own.

Bus in Rivas, Nicaragua

Go where not every traveler dares to go

5. Document the details.

Take photographs. Keep a journal. Blog about your trip. Whatever form your documentation takes, be diligent about it. Even if it’s purely for personal reference, you’ll be happy to have more to rely on when it’s all over than just fuzzy memories. You’ll be able to tell more interesting and engaging stories as well if, for instance, you can remember your tour guide’s name and a few personal details about him or her or the name of the painting you fell madly in love with at the local museum.

Cartagena, Colombia

To most people this might just look like a graffitied wall in Cartagena, but to my friend Piper it’s so much more than that

This year, my aim is to improve on all of these points.  I want to absorb as much as possible from the world around me, even on the days when I just can’t be bothered.  I encourage you to set the same goal for yourself. Travel smarter.  Travel more meaningfully.  Make it count.

Do you agree that there’s a difference between a tourist and a traveler?  If so, what else sets the two apart?  If you don’t agree, I would also love to hear your thoughts. 

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  • Reply Polly January 4, 2015 at 10:22 am

    I’ve not made up my mind totally about the traveler v. tourist debate, but I think you did a great job of outlining your opinions without being too ‘pfft, tourists are so LAME’ as some bloggers tend to get 😉

    Food for thought!
    Polly recently posted…WTF is propolis?My Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera January 4, 2015 at 1:46 pm

      Thank you Polly! That’s exactly what I don’t like is when people get overly self-righteous about being a traveler and not a tourist. I’ll happily admit I’ve been a tourist on many occasions, it’s not so black and white as you’re ALWAYS a tourist or you’re ALWAYS a traveler…definite grey area! Trying to do better though 🙂

  • Reply Ashley January 5, 2015 at 8:01 am

    Great post, Leah! I believe that all travel is beneficial, but I agree there is a difference between a traveler and a tourist (not to say one is better than the other necessarily). I’ve also had a few authentic experiences in completely inauthentic settings (e.g., on a Caribbean cruise), so I think the way in which someone chooses to learn about and explore a destination can make a world of difference. Being present and documenting the details are two things I also want to improve upon this year!
    Ashley recently posted…Bringing La Pura Vida Home: A New Year’s ResolutionMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera January 6, 2015 at 7:22 am

      I’m glad you mentioned having authentic experiences in inauthentic settings, as that’s something I didn’t touch on at all and totally possible if you’re in the right mindset! My biggest goals are to come out of my shell more to connect with locals and disconnect from technology more often. Cheers to being better travelers!

  • Reply Justine January 5, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    Love this! I completely agree that there’s a big difference between being a tourist and being a traveler. Not that one is better than the other or anything! When I read the part about engaging with locals it made me realize that some of the most interesting little factoids that I’ve learned about Jakarta are from taxi drivers. They LOVE to talk and I’ve learned so much about life, politics, etc. while sitting in traffic. I’m right there with you when you say you plan to really be present every day. I feel like my time in Jakarta is flying by and I’m going to make more of a point to learn as much about this crazy city as possible this year!
    Justine recently posted…From Backpacker to Expat: A Year in TravelMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera January 6, 2015 at 7:20 am

      OMG yes taxi drivers! They have so much wisdom to impart. I find they can be really hit or miss though, some of them love to chat and others just kind of snarl at you if you talk too much! It’s cool the ones in Jakarta are so chatty! My time in Medellin is coming to an end VERY soon, it’s a little scary so I definitely need to get the most out of my remaining time!

  • Reply Kate January 6, 2015 at 6:16 am

    Yes to all of these, particularly engaging with the locals. Most of our friends in Germany our locals and it has made for an entirely different experience to what we have had in other countries where we only associated with expats.
    Kate recently posted…My Home Office Has Finally Been Born!My Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera January 6, 2015 at 7:19 am

      Totally! I am having a much different experience in Medellin this time as opposed to when I came through as a traveler last year, because more of my friends are Colombian than not. You learn so much about a place that way!

  • Reply Jason January 7, 2015 at 3:31 am

    Another refreshing post, Leah!

    I’m coming down from a ten-day high of a more tourist than traveler variety and wondering what on earth I am doing leaving the paradise I am working for a late-winter NYC. Just last night, I was comparing travel experiences in India and Thailand with a new friend and we both agreed that it is much easier to have genuinely enriching cultural experiences in India than it is here for most travelers, something we pinned down to the ease with which most travelers can connect with locals in India. I gladly walk into tourist traps in Thailand and know that I could be more of a traveler if I want to be, but it is so easy not to be, especially when you have to overcome norms and expectations that seem to have been established between locals and travelers in places the way you do in most of Thailand.

    Do you have any thoughts on the ways in which a country/city/region’s culture and experience with/development of the tourism industry can promote more tourist-oriented or travel-oriented experiences for those who visit? Do you think those craving travel naturally seek out destinations where they are less likely to feel like tourists and vice versa? I believe one can go off the beaten path almost anywhere, but it is in places where the most well-traveled path is hardly beaten at all that I find it easiest and most natural to be a traveler rather than a tourist…even if, much to my chagrin, I almost always have to make being plugged in a priority.

    • Reply LaMochilera January 9, 2015 at 11:05 pm

      Hmm, you make an interesting point about India versus Thailand…I’m a little shocked actually to hear you say India feels so much less like a tourist trap. Having never been myself, I only suspected (erroneously, it seems) that visitors would be treated much like they are in parts of Thailand…as nothing more than walking ATMs that can be taken advantage of. I certainly agree that the local/traveler relationship is messed up beyond repair in southern Thailands (the islands, specifically), but I always found northern Thailand to be different.

      I think before actually visiting a place it’s hard, maybe even impossible, to know whether you’ll be treated as a tourist, which I guess means it’s in the traveler’s hands at that point to just do whatever they can to move beyond that and try to connect with people anyway.

      It’s fine to be plugged in sometimes, heck, working remotely is what’s allowing so many people to see so much of the world these days. It’s when people choose devices over human interaction or even just being aware of their surroundings that our technological obsession becomes a problem. It should compliment, not take priority over, our travel experiences.
      LaMochilera recently posted…Friday Snapshots: Street Scenes and Beach Scenes in Santa Marta, ColombiaMy Profile

  • Reply Franca January 7, 2015 at 6:34 am

    Did you read my mind? Yes, yes and yes to all of these.
    For me it’s so very important to interact with locals mainly because I found that those are the times when I had the best experiences and I get to know the local culture more. I also agree to try to say yes more even to something we wouldn’t normally think of doing or trying (as you said), we might be incredibly surprise of the results 🙂
    Franca recently posted…Feeling Like A Foreigner At Home – The Downside Of TravelMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera January 7, 2015 at 2:21 pm

      I think for long-term travelers it’s a little bit easier to connect with locals as we have a cushy surplus of time to form real relationships with people in addition to the tendency to diverge from the backpacker scene (we can’t party every night like the short-term travelers, let’s be honest) which I am thankful for! I agree, it adds so much to the experience and you learn so much more about the culture!
      LaMochilera recently posted…Quick & Dirty Panama, Part 2: Panama CityMy Profile

  • Reply Sky January 7, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    I love this. Being a tourist is perfectly okay in some situations because, you know, I might just REALLY want to see That Famous Site but I’m definitely making a point of immersing myself and learning as much as possible while I travel this year. I think #1 is definitely the most important point of all, as we all seem to be so glued to our screens, especially as bloggers.
    Sky recently posted…Spanish by the River – Learning Spanish in Boquete, PanamaMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera January 9, 2015 at 11:09 pm

      Yes, as bloggers we do sit hidden behind a screen quite a lot! I noticed when my friends were visiting recently that every time we got to a place that potentially had wifi, there was suddenly this urgent need to connect…as if we couldn’t just sit and enjoy each others’ company. And this is where I think technology is a problem. We’re not content with checking emails or messages once or twice a day, it is constant! And in the end it only takes away from our experiences because we’re not able to be present.

      I’m sure you will do much better on your travels! The wifi’s not the greatest in Central America anyway so you may have no choice 😉
      LaMochilera recently posted…Friday Snapshots: Street Scenes and Beach Scenes in Santa Marta, ColombiaMy Profile

  • Reply Marie January 17, 2015 at 4:58 am

    You’re right about the difference between tourist and traveler.
    I’m studying Tourism & Hospitality at the University in Copenhagen, and one of the first things we learned was “What defines a tourist?” 🙂
    In general, I don’t like the word tourist. It seems like being a tourist is a negative thing, a person who is only going to All Inclusive Resorts.
    But aren’t we all tourists while being travelers at the same time? Sometimes we also travel to place, look at the Eiffel Tower and don’t think more about after taking a picture of it.
    I agree that we should all be travelers and engage in the local culture. But I also think there’s a little tourist hidden inside of us all.
    Marie recently posted…The Secrets of GstaadMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera January 17, 2015 at 6:08 pm

      I definitely agree with you that people aren’t necessarily good “travelers” all the time, just the way that tourists, in some ways, are travelers without even really trying. I guess the two are never really mutually exclusive, and that’s important to realize. That said, we can all probably try a little harder not to be tourists 🙂

  • Reply Kim | The Wanderlist July 17, 2015 at 1:35 am

    Leah, I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog whilst researching for my own, I love your writing style.

    I definately agree there’s a difference between the traveller and the tourist, and it’s a difference that’s defined by state of mind – not the length of your vacation or how many countries you’ve visited, like some people think it is.

    There was a point for me recently, after a good six months travelling around Asia, where I was so burned out and apathetic, I couldn’t possibly absorb or process anymore information since my senses had been overloaded! It felt like I was only visiting specific famous attractions to tick them off the list. Just like a tourist. I guess even the most thoughtful of travellers get like that sometimes… right?

    So, I stopped doing the predicatable tourist stuff. I arrived at the Prambanan temple in Java, took one look at the entrance fee and turned around to drive back into the city. I didn’t want to waste my money on a completely superficial snapshot of yet another temple, just to play the tourist, if it didn’t move me or excite me in any way.

    It’s always the tiny details, the surprises, and interactions with locals that make a visit to another country profound anyway, not the grand monuments you see, or the beaches you swim on 🙂
    Kim | The Wanderlist recently posted…Volcano diaries pt. 2: The Ijen PlateauMy Profile

    • Reply Leah Davis July 17, 2015 at 10:07 am

      Welcome Kim! Ah, yes, state of mind! You’ve summed up quite succinctly exactly what I was trying to say. I absolutely agree that even the best “travelers” have moments when they are less than engaged and act more like the “tourist” instead. It’s not black and white.

      Love how you resolved your apathy, sometimes it’s so much better to focus on the little details than the major attractions, like you said. Thanks for reading! Hope to see you around more often 🙂
      Leah Davis recently posted…This is MY Athens: Not Your Average Walking TourMy Profile

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