Cultural Travel Experiences Are More Likely With Slow Travel

Speed is the Enemy of Cultural Travel

When I set off on this four-month backpacking trip at the end of February, my cultural travel itinerary included Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Peru and Ecuador. I envisioned ten weeks in Mexico, followed by whirlwind tours of the other four countries, including hiking the Machu Picchu Trail in Peru and sailing to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. Some of you are looking at the calendar right now and noting that it is now nearly four months later and my blog posts are still all about Mexico. Yes, I am still in Mexico and will not make it out of the country on this trip.

Palm Sunday celebration in Mision Cinco Santos de Cusarare in Copper Canyon Mexico

This Palm Sunday celebration in Mision Cinco Santos de Cusarare in Copper Canyon Mexico is the essence of cultural travel

On my RTW (round-the-world) trip in 2007, I did 17 countries in six months. Although I’d previously traveled for a month each year, my RTW trip was my first foray into real long-term travel. I’d recently recovered from a serious illness that had filled me with fear of dying before I could visit all the places I’d longed to see, and I was determined to strike as many of the world’s travel wonders off my bucket list as possible. The trip was fascinating and exciting and educational, and exhausting. I well remember hitting the two month mark and wanting to pack up and go home. Fortunately, I took a couple of days of down time at that point and the urge to flee back home disappeared.

Strangely, the exact same thing happened on this journey, at exactly the two month mark. Not only was moving rapidly from one place to another exhausting, I had more obligations than in 2007. I had contracted to write four travel articles per week for one client, wanted to post to Hole In The Donut at least four times per week, and was writing an occasional feature story for other online travel publications as well. By day I would see the sights and try to learn about the local culture; by night I had to sort and catalog the 200-400 photos I took each day, decide which ones to use and size them, before finally writing and uploading my posts. I was averaging perhaps four hours sleep per night, sometimes less, and it finally caught up with me when I experienced chest pains in Queretaro. Fortunately, the pain was the result of a combination of stress and muscle stain rather than heart related, but it was a definite wake-up call. My inner guides were speaking to me, telling me to slow down, and I paid attention.

I finally realized that I don’t need to see everything, all at once. I also realized that my travel is more about immersion into cultures than seeing the sights and, speedy travel being the enemy of cultural travel that it is, I was stressed out by moving too fast. At that point, I threw my intended itinerary out the window and decided to just wander, which is what I do best. No plans, no schedule, no need to get anywhere at a particular time. If I needed to hole myself up in cheap hotels for days on end and write, then that’s what I would do. Rather than visit five countries, I would eliminate South America on this trip and only do Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.

But then I got caught up in Mexico: the desolate beauty of dusty plains and remote mountains in the north, fascinating history of the central plateau, jungles and ruins of the Yucatan, and the exquisite beaches on the Caribbean coast. I saw the folly of my initial plan clearly. I could spend years in Mexico and not see it all. My methods of traveling are evolving, but there is no doubt that I am favoring slow travel more and more. That certainly means focusing on fewer places during future trips. I leave for China on September 1st and had anticipated 5-6 months in Asia, SE Asia, Indonesia, and perhaps even the South Pacific. But I now know that I will eliminate about half of the countries on my list and instead immerse myself in the culture of those I most want to explore and understand.

I have long believed that travel may be the most powerful tool in our arsenal for effecting world peace. If we get to know one another, if we come to understand and accept other cultures without judgment, we are less likely to want to kill one another. But to do that, we have to slow down.

48 Comments on “Speed is the Enemy of Cultural Travel

  1. we very much enjoy your travel adventures we so pleased you chose health to speed. Stay well and keep up the wonderful accounts and that experience

  2. I had a strange combination on my trip — since I went RTW without flying, it was slow, but extremely fast. To get around in a year (actually took 16 months), I simply didn’t have time to stop anywhere too long. I actually really enjoyed the almost constant movement. On the other hand, I am now just basically hanging out for about 3 months and like that also. There are a variety of ways to travel — most all of them are interesting — everyone just needs to get into whatever comfort zone they particularly have.

  3. Great post. Sounds like you were really doing a lot! I’m beginning to realize the importance of slow travel. My boyfriend and I did 4 countries in less than 2 months, and about a month into it, we were exhausted! Although, I’m extremely happy with everything we were able to see, I’m just not willing to only give myself such a short amount of time to travel anymore.

    • Hi Ordinary Traveler: I have to say that the longer I do slow travel the more I like it. It’s addictive, especially since my main focus is culture.

  4. I’m struggling with the same thing. I have spent 3 months in South America thus far and only have 4 months left to do Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. I feel like there’s not enough time to be able to do it properly, I may have to make some tough decisions.

    • I hear you Ayngelina. Really, the longer I travel, the slower my travels are
      becoming. I am seriously thinking about committing to never being in one
      place less than a month.

  5. I totally agree you can spend a lifetime in Mexico, and there were days I seriously pondered this…. But overall, I agree on slow travel. It’s never about the list, but more about a way of life.

    On my RTW, I decided to stop from 3-4 days and move on to a new approach – renting an apt. I selected Buenos Aires and yes, I wanted to see more of Argentina, but decided – nope, just Buenos Aires. and to quote Robert Frost, ‘that made all the difference.’

    stay adventurous,

  6. I travel twice a year for 2 to 2.5 months. One trip is a bit of a whirlwind trying to see lots. The second trip is where I find affordable accommodation and settle in. While I still enjoy my “whirlwinds” I love my “settle in” time. Getting to know the people and the culture of one place is so amazing.

    Summer is the time I do my “whirl wind”. This year that will be China and Japan. My travel is a bit shorter……one month China and two weeks Japan, and I will make the most of it.

    Great post Barbara.

  7. Barbara,

    I am so glad you are enjoying your trip and have “stopped to smell the roses”. Those signals (stress, etc) are important to pay attention to and it sounds like you did the right thing for you. I agree that the slower pace allows you to experience the life and culture of a place – and I think you enjoy it more! All those places you crossed off your list will still be waiting for you to visit soon enough. I also think a faster pace can burn you out as it will feel more like traveling. If you slow down and travel from place to place a bit less, it will feel more like just living.

    I truly have no desire for RTW travel, but I am thankful for folks like you who do – so I can live vicariously through you.

    Safe Travels.

  8. Great post and I know much of how you’re feeling. Having been on the road for nearly 10 months now and with 1 month to go before returning to our country of origin for a few months it’s been an experience in so many ways. Mind management plays an important part and building up our online business at the same time has been a steep learning curve.

    But the stresses of working on the road are ultimately rewarding. I’ve been a travel photographer for some time now and our website is growing in numbers every day. We’ve even started sharing our advice on how to prepare yourself for the highs and lows of long term travel as I think people often overlook the fact that it’s not all plain sailing when you’re working and travelling!

    Keep up the good work.

  9. Hi Barbara,

    This is a post that covers so much territory:

    – The struggle of writing while traveling – I know try to write and schedule many posts before I leave on a trip so that I can spend more time living the experience.

    – The choice of checking things off a list or immersing yourself in a culture. I go for the latter as well.

    – Whether one can burn out on travel. I have certainly been road weary in the past but it hasn’t diminished my desire to travel long term. However, the jury is out on my children. They traveled a lot with us. One was a 10 month trip. They don’t seem to be in a hurry to start their own travel adventures. I hope they do soon.

    Thanks for writing such an interesting piece encompassing so many issues.

  10. I’ve never done this kind of long term travel due to work and family committments – I do a week, see as much as I can and then have plenty of time at home in between to sort myself out and upload all those photos. I’m amazed you try to keep up such a pace on your own blog – your articles are so detailed that one or two a week would be enough – but then again, there’s so much to share before you’re on to the next place.

  11. Great article Barbara. This is exactly what we tend to do. We go, go, go for a little while and then our bodies tell us to slow down and we do. Slow is better. So far, we’ve been traveling for six months and we’ve only been to six countries. We feel a little unaccomplished but, on the other hand, we feel like we have really experienced those countries and know them and can make accurate decisions about whether we want to go back to them. More importantly, by traveling slowly, we have the opportunity to understand the people without making quick judgments about them.

  12. I’m so glad you listened to your body – and that you’re feeling better now. I’ll do “speedy” travel if I need to and I feel it’s better than nothing, but I really prefer taking my time and (as you say) slowing down.

  13. That makes a lot of sense that you’ve slowed down. I think it must be great to really take time to settle in and soak up the culture. My trips tend to be shorter, and often they’re a whirlwind of activity. I certainly couldn’t keep up that pace for more than a few weeks.

    By the way, that’s pretty impressive that you’re taking between 200-400 photos a day! Maybe you could do some posts abt photo techniques — I love learning new tricks.

    • Liz:
      Interesting that you mention writing about photo techniques because I just added that idea to my list of potnetial posts a week or so ago. I have what I think is a very unique take on stepping into a particular photographic style and a story about how and why mine developed, as I made the transition from film to digital.Look for that post in the next month! And thanks for the suggestion.

  14. You had me smiling all the way through your article. I did my last speedy trip in 1999 – 4 month through SOA. In the end, I was so exhausted, I spent 3 weeks in Hanoi and realized how much more I got from these 3 weeks than I did from the 4 month before. I wanted to see the whole world and knew there was never time enough to do so. But racing through the world is not the answer. You describe so aptly what’s important and why we want to travel.
    I wish you more “immersing travel moments” in Mexico!

  15. love this post – as i have loved reading of your stay in mexico. you’re right – the longer you can stay in one place, the more you can learn. glad you’ve slowed down!

  16. Great to hear that you embracing slow travel. There is just no better way to travel. Looking forward to reading your next blog.

  17. Barbara,

    Your decision to take time to immerse yourself in the culture of the countries to which you travel is brilliant. That to me is one thing that sets you apart as a world-class traveler.

    I could not agree with you more about travel being such a powerful tool for effecting world peace. It’s hard to hate someone when you come to understand and appreciate their culture.

    Thank you for being so dedicated to chronicling your experiences for the rest of us. You did a wonderful, wonderful job writing about Mexico. My parents are from there, and I was touched that a traveler would take the time to really see the country and not just collect photos and souvenirs as trophies. I wish I could print copies of your blog posts and hand them out to Americans who express their ignorance on the culture of their neighbors to the south!

    – Anis Salvesen

    • Anis: You just about made me cry. This is hard work but I do it because I love it. To receive a comment like yours means a great deal to me. Thak you from the bottom of my heart. Barbara

  18. As someone who is into their 4th year of an open ended, non-stop Round-the-world trip as a family, I couldn’t agree more with you! Despite visiting 32 countries, we have yet to experience travel burnout. I am grateful that I was warned by other RTW folks before we left that a year was just not enough time, so we planned around that.

    If you go to fast, you WILL burn out, get sick and you will so miss the whole joy of the experience. I agree with you that you don’t EVER have to stop traveling. I have good friends who have been traveling non-stop for over 25 years…but they do it slowly and immerse deeply as they go.

    I also loved Mike’s comment:

    “Learn the language, you unlock the cultureโ€™s collective mind, and you can *really* start digging”.

    I also love returning to places we love combined with finding new places as we roam the world. We are in Barcelona for a month now and it is our 9th time here on our world tour…each time we get to know it better and have dear friends here now. Spending 4 winters in the same small village in southern Spain where my daughter went to the local school was one of the wisest decisions that we ever made for cultural travel & we will always have connections to it and the people.

    I have to give you props with all that writing while traveling. I pull way back while on the move and one of my greatest pleasures of travel is being unplugged and in nature more.

    Take care of yourself and keep enjoying at YOUR best pace!! I’m like you, that I always plan more than is realistically possible, then scale back. It’s a good thing. ๐Ÿ˜‰ The eyes are always hungry, but rest and reflection must be part of long term travel.

  19. It’s really great to read your all travel adventures in Mexico. There are lot of things to explore, specially wild life in Mexico is one of the most adventurous.
    Keep updating your blog.


  20. When I read this I couldn’t help but nod along. You’re preaching to the choir and the choir is me. When you make travel your mission then you have plenty of time to see the places you want to see. Let each one breathe on its own.

  21. This too has crossed my mind lately – the pace at which most traditional RTWs take. I’ve never done one but imagine it must all blur together after a few months. I too, feel that staying longer you soak up more of the regular life of a place.

    Personally, I believe much of culture is subtle – the way people get ready for work, or walk through the streets, treat you after a few weeks or months. What breakfast is like everyday in a small home.

    It’s difficult to see all of that when you’ve already got one foot at the next destination. Very thought provoking post, loved it.

    • Thank you all so much for your positive comments and support of this post. I really feel it is an important issue and it looks live everyone agrees with me.

  22. Wow, what an output rate at over 8 articles/posts per week. My congrats. I think the highlight lesson of your travels is the adaptability. You have enjoyed places in Mexico and so, simply stayed longer than you first planned. Adaptability is on eof the keys to an enjoyable holiday – equally if you don’t enjoy a place, move on quickly and no harm is done. Thoughtful article.

  23. Excellent article Barbara. Wow, you have been busy with 4 articles and the 4 on the blog per week. I can understand why you decided to slow down. I am glad that you are loving Mexico and decided to throw the itinerary out the window. We very much enjoy your insights.

  24. Good to see that you’re discovering a travel pace that works for you, Barbara. I’m sorry that you had to experience a minor health stress in the process. Please take care of yourself and don’t over-commit with the writing. I don’t see how you are accomplishing all that you are doing. My hat’s off to you.

  25. Barbara, I share the same view with you that travel is more about cultural immersion than just speeding through the sites. I am a connoisseur of long term travel and love to hang out in a place for a few months, meeting local people, finding the best foods, and sometimes even getting a job. For me the most rewarding way to travel is trying to relate to local people and really experiencing local life. Great article and keep it up!

  26. Couldn’t agree more. As you know, I’ve been looking at lots of travel blogs over the past, few weeks, and am appalled at the point of view of some of them, even well-known ones. It’s like “let’s party our way around the world”. When my nephew did a RTW some years ago I was so jealous, grounded, as I was then with a young family, but his blog soon revealed that he had travelled with blinkers, never really venturing from the shell of his own experience and attitudes.

    I can see why you distinguish between traveller and nomad. We used to distinguish between tourist and traveller, now it’s moved on even from that. That said, we each do what we can. You have come to this at such a good time of life. Youngsters need to return to insert themselves into the job market before they lose credibility etc etc, people with families need to establish stability when the kids get to school age, some people are limited physically and so on.

    Given my druthers though, I’d do exactly what you have done!! Please do take care of yourself. No point in abandoning the rat race to find a new form of it, even if you are doing something you love!

  27. No need to rush, Barbara. You will never see everything in your lifetime, but to run through as many places as you can squeeze in on one jouney would be equivalent to browsing through a travel brochure. You are doing it now the right way. And please take care of yourself. We miss you!

  28. Great decision, Barbara. Savor everything along the way — and South America will still be there when you have more time. Your enjoyment of Mexico is infectious.

  29. Great point Barbara! When I originally planned my trip to Mexico, I had it all mapped out. When I got here, I decided to accept the fact that I would get “stuck” everywhere I went, which I loved. Guanajuato for 2-3 days… no way! How about 8 days, and that was too short. Same thing happened everywhere I went (as long as I liked it). Finally going to settle down for even longer in Mazatlan, let me know if you come back over this way.

    We aren’t travelling to see the sites and buy the trinkets, we are travelling to understand what else is out there in the world and to change our way of thinking. That takes time, so travel slowly.

  30. I’ve enjoyed your postings so very much and the discussions about when “more is less”. We’ve all heard someone say “If I see one more castle…” or “…one more church”. I personally like to settle down in one place for a month or so, never pack and unpack too often. If I find a good restaurant I want to go more then once. I want to meet people and talk for more than five minutes and if I like them, see them again. I want to shop in a supermarket and learn the local names for fruits and favorite dishes and watch the sun set over the same beautiful spot for more than one evening. And then I want to go someplace else and do it all over again some place else. And that spot for me is usually in Southeast Asia. And if I can say “Im not ready to leave here”…it’s been a perfect experience. I am fortunate that I’ve been able to do this..over and over again. Continue to enjoy..and savor..and learn…and love..what you do so well.

  31. Bravo, Barbara. I agree, slow it down, enjoy more, learn more, live longer – so we can travel with you longer.
    Stay safe and take good care of yourself!

  32. So true Barbara. Words that anyone preparing and planning a RTW trip would do well to read. Like you, I have tended to plan too much in an itinerary. And like you, I’ve gradually moved towards cutting the speed and allowing more time in each place to enjoy and experience. Otherwise you run the risk of making travel little more than an arduous journey between A and B.

    Great post as always; glad you’re enjoying Mexico so much.

  33. Sounds like my trip 2 yrs ago, set the intention to make it from Mexico to Peru, ending with the Inca trail…well, you know the rest of the story…i will get back to SA, in time, for now back to Costa Rica for an extended stay…love Dizy

  34. I was wondering about that. You’re obviously loving Mexico, and each post shows you’re eager to know more. That’s a difficult call to shrug off.

    I’m glad you’re not. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Very much on my mind right now, this topic.

    I’m with you. I want to see lots of places, but I want to sink deep into them. That’s the appeal for me: not seeing places, but *being* places. Fitting into different rhythms, experimenting with new ways of living. You can’t do that on a tight schedule. Take language. Learn the language, you unlock the culture’s collective mind, and you can *really* start digging. But I’m pretty terrible at learning new languages. I’d need extra time.

    So while I definitely want to go round the world, I don’t think I’ll be a RTWer. As Sherry notes, there’s a fuzzy, maybe invisible line between traveler and nomad – but you know in your gut when you’re on one side or the other. I’ve never been anything other than a traveler, and that’s not enough for me.

    Take your time. We’ll always be here, reading away. ๐Ÿ™‚

  35. I much enjoy your travel adventures. I’m so pleased you chose health to speed. Stay well and keep up the wonderful accounts.

  36. You reAd my mind. I was just thnking that u had been in Mexico way longer than intended. I think I have personally switched from traveler to nomadic as I like to stay in one place for a while and then move on to a new one. It’s less abt the travel and more abt the culture! Enjoy the remainder of ur time … Slowly! See u at tbex!

  37. Pingback: Topsy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *