What is culture-conscious travel and why is it important? Read this Q&A with Champi Alvarez who provides an insider perspective on how Mexico is changing because of tourism and how we - as travelers - can do better.
For the last two and a half months, my travel partner/boyfriend and I have been slow traveling throughout Mexico, exploring parts both known and unknown to us.
Though we have spent time in Mexico before - mainly in Mexico City and exploring the Yucatan peninsula - this time, we decided to split our time between Mexico City, Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido, and Puerto Vallarta.
On any trip we take, we try our best to stay in places where we can enjoy the local culture and escape the trappings that plague touristic places. Namely, the price gouging, ex-pat gentrification, and what I call destination “instagramification” and “curated down-to-earth-ness”.
However, during Covid, there was a massive uptick in tourism from the US to Mexico due to the ease of travel and lighter restrictions on movement. As a result, I and others have noticed a cultural shift in many towns throughout Mexico, large and small.
Though this shift began long before Covid, the momentum built during the pandemic has magnified these effects ten-fold.
During these last two months of slow travel, we had a couple experiences at our destinations that stood out to us. Some places were almost curated. As though someone came in and tried to create an instagrammable bohemian Disneyland experience in a small Mexican town.
I’ll set the scene:
Imagine colorful buildings with tiki-themed South Asian décor, sub-par Mexican and other international foods, clothing boutiques that sell the same overpriced clothing and souvenirs that are made to fit and flatter only certain body types, advertisements for reiki massages and peyote circles plastered everywhere, littering the streets, foreigners driving around tricked out golf carts…
Call me a hater, a nay-sayer, a negative Nancy – whatever you want – but this was such a jarring and, frankly, bizarre experience that I immediately took to my Instagram page to rant about it.
To sum up the rant: “Don’t go to Sayulita!”
But then I realized it wasn’t just Sayulita. I was reminded of Puerto Escondido, Tulum, and other once-small fishing villages along Mexico’s coastline that have been turned into wannabe-hippy surfing villages specially curated for Instagram feeds.
I’m being harsh, but… this is the exact definition of gentrification and cultural displacement.
My blog and my Instagram are all about Slow Travel: creating genuine connections with your destination, seeing less but experiencing more, leaving places better than you found them, and responsibly investing in the local culture and economy.
I had to say something, and I couldn’t in good conscience post these places without a huge disclaimer. Mostly I just didn’t post about them at all.
When I was thinking about writing this blog, however, I realized that my perspective is not the one that’s needed. While I have traveled through a lot of Mexico and spent a fair amount of time there, I’m not Mexican. It’s one thing for me to stand on a soap box and be angry about the plight of my neighbors south of the border, but quite another to hear from the people actively impacted by this trend.
After all, I’m writing about how to be more culturally conscious when you travel! It would be a bit ironic for me to go on and on without the input and cultural perspective of someone actually from the country being affected.
This is why I’ve invited Champi Alvarez to co-author this blog, answer some questions I’m curious about, and provide a much-needed insider’s perspective on this issue. I first discovered her profile on Instagram, and I’m fascinated by her consistent content and messaging about more mindful travel.
The following is a Q&A between Champi and myself. First, I’ll have Champi introduce herself in her own words:
Q: Hi, Champi! Can you tell the readers a bit more about yourself and what travel means to you?
Hello! I am a Mexican woman who has traveled the world since a young age. When I began to travel more mindfully, it opened my soul to new ways of experiencing a place, to being present and taking responsibility for my actions as a traveler and human. It has shifted my mindset to leaving the most positive footprint I can wherever I am, choosing local as much as possible, and falling in love with my country and the natural world so I can share this passion and inspire others to do the same.
Q: So, having read my rant about Sayulita on Instagram and my reflections above, what are your initial thoughts?
A: I was actually very surprised when you mentioned on Instagram what you felt when you arrived in Sayulita. It was the first time I heard such a perspective from a foreigner, and it made me feel that my point of view on gentrification was even more significant than I realized.
I have had conversations with foreigners, but I truly believe that most of them do not see it that way. Quite on the contrary, when they arrive at a new place and see a familiar aspect or something they’re used to, it seems to please them. In my opinion, if you want to feel comfortable and at home, then that’s what you should do, stay home.
I know that might seem harsh, but you shouldn’t expect the same as what you have at home, quite the opposite, seeing a new place and how the lifestyle is there, that’s what makes traveling so interesting and beautiful.
"When [foreigners] arrive at a new place and see a familiar aspect or something they’re used to, it seems to please them. In my opinion, if you want to feel comfortable and at home, then that’s what you should do, stay home."
Q: What do you think are some of the positives and negatives of the tourism boom and the increase in digital nomads and ex-pats moving to Mexico?
A: Mexico experienced a huge tourism boom, as you mentioned above, especially with the pandemic. The country was open to anybody who wanted to travel, even during the peak of Covid times.
I first noticed it in Mexico City when I visited for a weekend. It was a surprise to see so many foreigners as I’d never seen before. They surpassed the locals everywhere we went that week, whether in restaurants, museums or even just in the street.
In a way, it was great that people were coming to Mexico during those hard times. The economy of course was going down and tourism did help a lot of the businesses to be able to keep running. However, it came to the point that it was just too many people.
I saw it quite prominently in Tulum in the summer of 2021, when I visited for some conservation projects. The once laid-back and charming town of Tulum changed so drastically that you almost do not feel in Mexico anymore. When we were doing a beach cleanup, I saw a man passing by with coconuts, and when I approached him, he spoke to me in English and wanted to charge 280 pesos for a coconut!
If you go to the nearby beach town, they charge you 40, so I was mind blown. And I do not blame them; they are trying to get by and afford their lives in this region that is becoming so expensive.
Most of the people that now come here do not find that expensive, and they gladly pay for it, so it seems that this is just becoming a game of higher and higher prices every day for everybody, to a point where locals can't stay there anymore, and they are getting pushed out.
You can see the increase in prices in many places around Mexico, especially in apartments and restaurants in Mexico City and my own city, San Miguel de Allende. And sadly, it seems that many charming Mexican towns and areas of certain bigger cities are catered for the foreigners now. As a Mexican earning in Mexican pesos, that is a lifestyle – or even a life – that you cannot afford.
I love seeing people from around the world. I just feel that the country should not change for them. On the contrary, if you’re coming here, then the best way to have an authentic experience and be able to enjoy Mexico is by living the authentic culture, the traditions, and the places as they are, and it’s frustrating to see how they are rapidly changing for the tourists.
"If you’re coming here, then the best way to have an authentic experience and be able to enjoy Mexico is by living the authentic culture, the traditions, and the places as they are."
Q: We talked a little bit about this happening in your town. What’s the general feeling there among locals? Is there any concern, or are people generally happy to have the business?
A: People with businesses in San Miguel de Allende are definitely happy about foreigners living and visiting the city as they do bring money, and that helps their businesses keep thriving. The city has been home to many ex-pats for decades, so in a way, we are kind of accustomed to it. However, the city has certainly seen a huge influx of more foreigners in the past couple of years.
It is an expensive city to eat out, attend events, and rent an apartment, and you see it reflected in the prices everywhere, and of course, the huge demand for it is not helping.
In my personal opinion, I am always happy to see people from around the world in San Miguel. What I am not so happy about is that it all changes for the tourists I mentioned above.
One thing that irritates me is that if they stay for longer, a lot of them won’t even try to speak a bit of Spanish or learn about the local customs and traditions as well as other little details in everyday life that I feel can make such a huge difference on the way they are perceived and welcomed.
And I’m not asking for everyone that visits to be fluent in Spanish in a week but having the intention is what matters. I sometimes feel that intention is entirely lacking, so the experience of that massive wave of foreigners coming is starting to make us tired and somehow feel unseen.
"I’m not asking for everyone that visits to be fluent in Spanish in a week but having the intention is what matters. I sometimes feel that intention is entirely lacking, so the experience of that massive wave of foreigners coming is starting to make us tired and somehow feel unseen."
Q: How can travelers, digital nomads, and ex-pats do better by the communities they visit and may eventually become a part of?
A: It really has to start with being mindful and respectful. Mindful of the impact you are creating wherever you go, whether in your city or another country, always conscious about what it is you are taking and giving back, that you respect the local community and their traditions and culture, and of course, the environment.
And you can even have a greater positive impact when you research before going somewhere, that way you will know if maybe that place is for you before you arrive and suddenly find yourself wanting to change everything to your liking or even having a bad experience which will reflect in your actions.
Learn a little bit about the customs, the lifestyle. It is always so greatly appreciated wherever you go. When you do this, you give the place and the people the respect it deserves. A person that is genuinely interested and respectful is always welcome.
I would love for people coming to Mexico to experience what a Mexican town offers. To be open to changing their way of seeing life and learning something new. To understand that there are ways to share your point of view if it will make a positive impact but not to try to impose your way of doing things just because you want to without thinking of your surroundings.
Mexico is a very welcoming country, and it is like this because of the way we see the world. Come and see that for yourself, be interested and mingle with the locals, learn from our traditions and feel the love we have for our country, too.
This way, you will have a much more rewarding experience, and a genuine connection with Mexico, and your impact will definitely be much better, and you will always be welcomed back.
"Learn a little bit about the customs, the lifestyle... When you do this, you give the place and the people the respect it deserves. A person that is genuinely interested and respectful is always welcome."
To the question, “How do I travel while being more mindful of the local culture?” Champi sums it up perfectly:
“Learn a little bit about the customs, the lifestyle. It is always so greatly appreciated wherever you go. When you do this, you give the place and the people the respect it deserves. A person that is genuinely interested and respectful is always welcome.”
When we travel, wherever we travel, most of us… we want to be welcomed, right? It’s a good feeling to have someone smile at you, to treat you with kindness when there is a language or cultural barrier, to have something special shared with you, whether it’s food or a unique experience.
I wonder how many of us travelers forget this is a two-way street. Are we entitled to be welcomed at every destination we visit? No. Especially when we bring an attitude of entitlement.
Everywhere we go, we have a duty to be open to what that place has in store to teach us. If we go in feeling we know everything and expect places to have the same comforts as home, we learn nothing and disrespect the local culture and communities.
Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
Being more culturally conscious when you travel isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s the whole point of travel in the first place: expelling that part of you that’s narrow-minded and prejudiced.
Open your eyes, and if you want to be welcomed, be welcoming to new perspectives. If you wish to “vegetate in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime,” do it at home and don’t bring it with you when you travel.