Whether you’re looking for cultural immersion or simply to catch a glimpse of local life away from the tourist trail, there are a host of ways you can dig beneath the surface and learn about your host country through first hand experience. From studying Islam in Turkey to helping out in the rice paddies in rural Indonesia or bedding down in a yak-hair tent with Tibetan nomads, here are 8 of the world’s best “live like a local” experiences.
1. El Nomad, Ecuador
There’s no better way to perfect your Spanish than living with locals, andEcuador, with its equatorial climate and scenic landscapes, offers the perfect setting to inspire your learning. Based in the tranquil mountain valley of Cuenca, El Nomad specializes in cultural and language immersion programs, with a range of options for participants that combine homestays with a local family and Spanish language courses. Students can create their own program and those wanting to get more involved can take advantage of professional internships and volunteer programs in local schools and community projects.
2. Muslim for a month program, Turkey
This program stirred a little controversy when it was first unveiled, but whether you are interested in converting to Islam or simply hoping to understand and experience one of the world’s misunderstood religions, the Muslim for a Month program offers an enlightening mix of cultural and religious education that is sure to open your mind. On the 12 or 21 day packages there’s plenty of chance to explore the Turkish sights in-between spiritual teachings, and you’ll be able to stay with local families, visit the country’s most renowned mosques, and a even undertake a pilgrimage to the mausoleum of Mevlana Rumi in Konya.
3. Volunteer in Java, Indonesia
While most tourists stick to surfing in Bali or exploring the temples and volcanoes of Java, to fully experience Indonesia, you need to get out into the countryside. Volunteer in Java is one of a small number of homestays that offer a window into rural Indonesia – a land of sprawling tea plantations, tiered rice paddies, and traditional bamboo housing. Stay with a local family in the market town of Cianjur, eat home-cooked food, and haggle over spices at the local market with your host mother. It is run by a group of local English teachers and tour guides who offer plenty of opportunities to explore the area from visiting a nearby floating fishing village, touring a tea plantation or even helping out in the rice paddies for a morning! Visiting the schools and volunteering to help the children with their English is also encouraged, but you don’t have to volunteer to be involved.
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4. Phong Nha Farmstay, Vietnam
Tucked away in the surroundings of the popular Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Phong Nha Farmstayis not only a prime location for exploring the park, but an opportunity to experience rural Vietnam in an area still in the honeymoon stage of tourism.
Sandwiched between the mountains and the coast, the area is quickly gaining renown for its network of caves and is sure to see a surge in interest after the 2011 opening of Paradise Cave, reportedly Asia’s longest cave at an incredible 19.5 miles (31.4 km) long. The farmstay, set in a small village surrounded by rice paddies, is run by an Australian-Vietnamese couple dedicated to improving the lives of the local villagers and keen to share the unique culture and traditions of village life with their guests. As part of the family, you can observe or lend a hand with the daily farm work (there’s even a chance to help drive the water buffalo plough), swim with the village kids in the river, or head off on a bicycle to explore for yourself. Later on, listen as the villagers share their stories of the American war over a cold beer and a home cooked meal.
5. Huaorani Lodge, Amazon
Huaorani Lodge might be an award-winning eco-lodge, but here life is much more exciting than simply protecting the environment – you’ll get the chance to experience the wilderness from a tribe who have been living off it for years. Tucked away in the Ecuadorian Amazon and run by the Huaorani indigenous people, the lodge is a tribute to their sustainable lifestyles, attempting to marry tourism and environmentalism, whilst fighting to protect their homeland from oil exploration.
Guests can learn about medicinal plants, climb trees, and smear streaks of red achiote on their cheeks, then spend the night tucked snugly in a palm thatched cabin. If you’re still up for some action, try floating down the Shiripuno River in a dugout canoe or spotting monkeys on one of the many hikes through the jungle.
6. Uxu Dude Ranch, Wyoming.
If you’re heading to Western America, there’s no better way to explore the landscape and learn about the land, than hooking up with some real life cowboys at a working dude ranch. The Uxu Ranch is one choice, with a premium location just 20 minutes from the famous Yellowstone National Park and located on a road Former President Theodore Roosevelt once described as “the most scenic 52 miles in the United States.” As well shacking up in the ranch’s log cabins and taking to the countryside on horseback, there’s plenty of opportunity to hike and fly-fish in the Rockies, learn about western horsemanship, and of course, experience the thrill of a real western rodeo.
7. Green Palm Homes, India
A trip to India wouldn’t be complete without taking advantage of the country’s renowned hospitality, and GreenPalm Homes is one company organizing homestays where you’ll get to experience family life first hand. Staying in a community on the palm-lined backwaters of Kerala, you’ll be treated as one of the family and whisked around the villages by your host, who’ll happily introduce you to everyone you meet along the way. Once you’ve taken a cycling tour, canoed along the river, and visited the local Toddy brewery (a local drink made from coconut flower sap), you can settle down for the family meal – an array of India’s delicious home-cooked fare, with rice straight from the next door paddy, washed down with plenty of locally brewed Chai tea. Locals are keen to embrace their guests into the community, and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in village life, learn to cook, try pottery making, or take part in one of the region’s vibrant harvest festivals.
8. Camping with Nomads, Tibet
There are few experiences more authentic and potentially life-altering than camping out with a nomadic family and their yak herds on the wild plateaus of Tibet. This is back-to-basics living at its most primitive, so prepare yourself for sleeping on a bed of animal pelts and waking at the crack of dawn to help milk the yaks. You’ll spend your days herding sheep and yak, entertaining an ever-smiling flock of kids, learning to cook on a yak dung fire, and sipping cup after cup of yak butter tea.
The Qinghai region is one of the best places to organize a trip and is best done with the aid of a local guide, who can act as translator too, although a few tour companies do offer a similar experience.
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