The Torn Tourist: Tourist or Traveler?

One of the dilemmas that many long-term travelers face is how to be more of a “traveler” and less of a “tourist”.

It’s so easy to fall into the routine of a tourist: stay at the best rated hostel on Hostelworld, do all of the activities and tours in the area that are written out in big, bold letters on the chalkboard next to reception, eat at the most recommended restaurants on TripAdvisor, and then move on to the next destination listed on Lonely Planet.

Of course, almost every backpacker I’ve met (including myself) relies heavily on resources like TripAdvisor and Hostelworld. The modern traveler is lucky to have the entire internet at his or her disposal, and can easily avoid staying in hostels with bed bugs or getting food poisoning at a sketchy diner.

However, after a few weeks of travel you quickly learn that sticking to the routine of a tourist can be a detriment to two things: your wallet and the authenticity of your experience.

Organized tours may be the simplest option, but they’re expensive. As is eating at restaurants and choosing the hostel with wifi and supposedly hot showers.

For the long-term traveler, constantly being a tourist is unsustainable. And in my opinion, this is for the better.

The stories you tell your friends back home rarely come from the hostel tour or the nice places where you relaxed with all of the amenities.

The most interesting adventures are when you decide you need to save money so you stay on the farm outside the city with no internet, and awake to the rooster’s 5:00 am wake up call, the dog waiting by your door for you to throw her stone for her, and the cow giving you a look like you should feel guilty for oversleeping.

Iluman, Ecuador

Or when you choose to forego the $40 day trip to the crater lake, and instead spontaneously meet some people in your hostel and set off on a 3-day hike of the Quilotoa Loop that a few days earlier you would have said, “No fucking way,” to.

Quilotoa Loop
Quilotoa Loop, near Chugchilan
Quilotoa Loop
Along the Quilotoa Loop

Or when you’re trying to cook dinner for yourself on the tiny gas burner that you’re sharing with three other people, and all of a sudden it’s a team effort and the French guy is trying to caramelize your plantain while the Argentinian insists that you need to make it with salt (we did both, both failed).

It’s always prudent to use the resources that you’re lucky enough to have (AKA: the internet) to try to make the best decisions, but many times, it’s the trips you don’t plan, the hikes you do without a guide, or the off-the-path places you stay that really make you feel like a traveler instead of just another tourist.

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