Before we get started, I just want to make something clear: I am NOT bashing tourists. Some people absolutely love being a tourist. For others, like me, it just isn’t enough. There’s no right or wrong. And it also seems there are various definitions.
So what’s the difference between a tourist and a traveller? OK, I know some people immediately thought of something snarky to say here. For me it’s all in the experience. A tourist typically goes to a place, hangs out in the trendy spots, the place where all the tourists go, and sticks to the basics of an area. They simply “want to get away.” They’re also usually the ones who are most likely to complain about how things are done in the foreign country, the culture, the food, the accommodations, etc. It’s almost like they want to go some place different, but still be close to what they left behind at home. I’ve never understood this concept. Yes, there are things about different countries and cultures I’m not so thrilled about when I’m there, but to me it’s all part of the experience. And it tends to be small things I’m not as enamored with, such as the Peruvian version of breakfast and coffee. A tourist is more likely to seek out the nearest Starbucks or McDonald’s. While travelling I refuse to go to familiar haunts. I can get that at home. I’m here to explore, to try new things. Although, I will admit I was SORELY tempted to hit the Dunkin’ Donuts in the Lima airport, and the nice cushy chairs at the airport Starbucks were definitely more inviting for my nap than the hard plastic ones elsewhere. Starbucks was even more of a temptation while sitting in the same airport waiting to go back home. After 2-1/2 weeks of Peruvian coffee, I was ready for something more like . . . well, more like coffee.
When I listen to tourists reminisce about their trips, the memories are different as well. They talk about shops, how wonderful a hotel was, the crowds, a great restaurant (usually having food similar to what they would find at home), and maybe some of the big spots. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you go to Paris and skip the Eiffel Tower just because it’s touristy. Some areas have their must-sees, but a traveler branches out as well. In Paris I bought the unlimited metro pass for the time I’d be there. I would often just take it to a station, get off, and walk around. In Cuzco I discovered places that people who had lived there their whole lives didn’t know about simply because I walked everywhere, picked out streets and just went up them. And I found a restaurant that had the most yummy alpaca steak and pisco sours for prices you’d never see in the tourist section. I stumbled upon it so don’t ask me it’s name. I’m not sure I could find it again either.
Had I been a tourist in Mexico, I would’ve missed being pulled over by guerillas outside Oaxaca and having our car searched (I was 15, talk about being excited!); getting our milk from steel containers carried by a little boy on horseback; running through the forest nearly screaming after walking through a giant spiderweb, wiping it out of my hair and dislodging the palm-sized green spider from the top of my head; sitting in a bathtub with water heated from a wood-burning stove while discovering a tick in . . . a very sensitive place that it apparently discovered while swimming up my trunks; and the first time I discovered how incredibly sweet pineapples could be. Yes, I’m aware the tick in sensitive areas and spider in the hair may not be selling points for visiting the woods in Chiapas, but it was still a fun memory in a weird teenage boy sort of way.
Besides avoiding tourist hotspots, one of my travelling rules for myself is that I MUST try new foods, and preferably at a place where I’m the only foreigner. That isn’t a major challenge for me because, as anyone who knows me will attest, I love food. But some things just don’t sound appetizing to everyone: octopus ceviche (out of this world good!), cuy (guinea pig–yes they’re edible and fairly tasty; reminds me of quail), horse tapas (tastes like soft beef jerky), and kite (uber-delish! like wet your pants good).
A tourist visits a place while a traveler lives it with all their senses, let’s it become part of them, absorbs it, and is forever transformed by the experience.