Today’s guest post is by Stephanie Cohn.
We sat on the veranda as we sipped Malbec, enjoyed warm Medialunas (similar to croissants) oozing with chocolate, and stared out upon the breathtaking vineyard. I couldn’t believe this was my job.
I work for a small travel tech startup called LocalAventura that connects local guides with travelers for more authentic tours in Latin America. In doing so, we as a team have collectively met with over 50 guides in Peru, Argentina, and Chile, all in the hopes that we could find truly local experiences. When I first joined LocalAventura, I wasn’t quite sure what it exactly meant to be “authentic.” Is it going to the right spots, learning the right facts, meeting the right people? How were we to define what tours were “authentic” and which ones were not?
After 4 months of living in Chile, I know I can’t call myself a Chilean, but I can say that my experience interviewing guides has been made up of little moments of cultural epiphanies.
Here are my top moments of authenticity in travel:
Meeting the Gonzalez family
Let’s flashback to Medialunas and Malbec for a moment. The team and I had been in Mendoza and were scheduled to meet with nearly 30 guides in just 5 days – meaning a nonstop schedule. Our tour at the Gonzalez Family Hacienda; however, made us stop and remind us what true Mendoza life was truly about.
When Ines Gonzalez invited us into their small estancia, we were instantly welcomed as a member of her family. Our tour started in their nearly 100-year-old home, where we were immediately immersed in her family’s history and tradition. After showing us around the vineyard and tasting some of their wine, we sat, chatted, and enjoyed our Mendoza-style breakfast. Ines told us about all the events that had taken place in this very location – the family weddings, baby showers, harvests, asados, all mixed in with little moments of sitting with a glass of wine and medialuna. Sitting there on the veranda, finally stopping and taking in my surroundings, I understood for the first time why family is so important in Argentinian culture.
Taking a photo tour with Cat
Cat is the opposite of a traditional Chilean: she’s blonde, tall, and British. Yet, talking to her about the city, I could never deny her status as a “local,” although when we first met her I was skeptical. I first met her on a photography tour, and before the tour had even begun I was questioning how a British woman was going to show us around Santiago like a local? The answer to that question would be through her camera lens.
Cat is an international photojournalist, whose work has been published in Reuters, The Guardian, and National Geographic. Her photographer’s eye allows her to see and appreciate aspects of the city that most people – even locals – miss. Everyday, she explained to us, she finds something new to love about Santiago, from a new piece of street art to a quirky sign at the entrance of a restaurant. Not only has her attention to detail has made her both a great photographer, but it has solidified her status as a Santiago local. As we walked the city with Cat on this photography tour, she pointed out the small and big details, and for the first time since moving to Santiago I felt like I really appreciated the nuance of the city. That’s when I realized, that there’s definitive amount of time required to feel like a place is your home.
Talking Politics with Mariana
They say not to bring up politics at the dinner table, though this is certainly not a rule in Argentina. I had only met Mariana once, and the second time we talked, it wasn’t long before we entered into a conversation about politics. I like to stay away from politics, and so Mariana was much more equipped not only to talk about Argentina’s politics but also about American politics. I told her how impressed I was by her knowledge. She replied “well, it’s just part of being Argentinian.”
Argentina has experienced such a tumultuous political history, with six coup d’états in the 20th century alone. While the country’s politics are still quite controversial, Argentina is nonetheless a democracy. After years and years of oppressive military regimes, the people are free to speak their minds about politics, and they certainly do not take this freedom for granted. Growing up Argentinian, Mariana explained to me, it’s an integral part of the culture to become involved in politics.
Sitting in Patagonia with Felipe
As we walked down the path weaving along the river, the only sounds were the trickling of the water and our footsteps. For me, daily life felt so far away, and it’d only been my first day in Patagonia. For Felipe, this was daily life. Growing up in the area and with over 12-years of guiding experience, Felipe knew every single corner, branch, rock, and detail of the Torres del Paine National Park. He could take you down a secret trail, to the best condor watching spots, and no doubt knew exactly where all the best photo opportunities were.
Does it ever get old? I asked him as we walked down the path. “How could it? My office is the most beautiful place in the world,” he responded. I’ve met few people in my life with this sort of unwavering admiration for their home. For me this is part of Patagonian culture. You grow up with the perspective that no matter how messy the world is, places like Torres del Paine still exist, and that in itself is enough to be happy about.
So, I can’t exactly tell you how to have an authentic experience, because its different to everyone. To the Gonzalez family, it’s gathering at the veranda with a glass of wine; to Cat, it’s exploring the city through her camera lens; to Mariana, it’s talking politics with her friends; and for Felipe, it’s breathing in the fresh Patagonian air every morning. Truly experiencing a country for me is defined by these little, unique moments of appreciation that you feel when you are truly immersed. As a traveler when a guide can share these feelings, then that’s when you know you’ve had a truly authentic experience.
About the author: Stephanie is a fourth year journalism major at Northeastern University with a Latin American studies minor. After studying abroad Costa Rica her first semester freshman year, and then in Argentina for a month, she became infatuated with Latin America. Determined to return and continue to explore the region, she accepted a six month internship in Chile at a travel startup called LocalAventura. The startup focuses on connecting local guides with travelers, giving Stephanie the opportunity to explore South America, meet interesting locals experts, and pursue her passion for writing. Stephanie is also a self-proclaimed foodie and has loved eating her way through Chile, Argentina, and Peru. Follow Local Aventure on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.