What exactly do travellers mean when they say they are looking for authentic travel experience?
Well, first let’s have a look what the Oxford Dictionary says about the word:

Authentic:
1. 
Of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine
2. 
Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original
3. 
Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original
4. 
(In existentialist philosophy) relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life

All the tourists (also tourists who call themselves travellers) what to live through authentic travel experience and their usually have some set ideas what this experiences should look like.
Let me ask you a question. How do you imagine authentic Colombia? Which of the places below should you visit to find out what the country really look like?

The photo of high-rise buildings, one of the first I took during my travels in Colombia, shows a modern part of Cartagena considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in South America because of the vibrant Old Town full of brightly coloured houses. Then you can also see a village in the Amazon and a poor neighbourhood in Medellin.

When I showed the first photo, people found it hard to believe that Colombia might look like that, however, without hesitation they accepted two other pictures as ‘showing the real country’.

People often mistake poverty, hardship and folklore with authenticity saying that only by getting off the beaten track, sleeping in dilapidated houses in remote villages and travelling by old uncomfortable buses you are really able to get to know a country. It annoys me every time I hear it and and I have a big problem with such a definition.

Firstly, I feel discomfort travelling in a way that is far different from my lifestyle. At home I don’t often eat in the cheapest bars as I am quite a good cook that would rather prepare quickly a good meal at home than eat out fast food. I live in a city now but I used to live in the countryside which was not more authentic but simply different.

Secondly, tourists have a choice. If they sleep in a ramshackle hut or eat bland soup in a chipped bowl it’s their choice. The thoughts of a warm bed (even if it’s faraway) with crisp sheets put their mind at ease and often prevent them from understanding the hardship that surrounds them.
Even if you happen to happen to visit a town hospital in a poor area (like the one below) and you might think you you’re like a local person…

… you’re probably mistaken because you can easlily take out 10, 20 or 30 dollars out of your pocket and pay and it then you’ll just have a story to tell back at home. It’ll become one of your adventures not an everyday life.

What is authentic travel then? I created a definition for the sake of my own travelling. I think of it as a way of travelling 1) which allows me to see as many varied things and places as possible: cities, town, villages, forests, mountains, the poor and the rich (and the middle class), places of historical interest and nature – I might not have or the chance to see everything but if it’s not a complete picture I hope it’s not a biased one either; 2) where some people that I meet would be somehow similar to me and then the understanding of the country is easier.

This is my definition. What is yours?

 

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  • You are right. Every country, even the small ones, have different standards of living, and people living in high rises, whether the luxury ones or the apartment buildings, would not feel “at home” in a village, even in their own country. To be as authentic as possible you need to stay as far from resorts as possible, but other than that, unless you’re staying with a local, you may never get that authentic experience.

    • You’re right – resorts aren’t the place where you can find any trace of authentic experience, the further you are the better for you.
      Unless you don’t care about the ‘real country’ and just want to relax – but that’s a different story.

  • A great post! Very nicely described about the colors of a city. It’s like a coin has two sides! Yes, for an authentic travel experience, a traveller should see both the sides of the city. Also, the powerful picture very nicely talks about the post.

  • Hear hear! I get annoyed too at the so-called ‘search for the authentic’, which so many people assume means going back to basics, hardship and rural areas. We stayed for a week in Luang Prabang last year, and whilst we loved it, others moaned that it was no longer ‘authentic’ because it was no longer full of farmers ploughing paddy fields, and shock horror, the locals were actually enjoying advancements in 21st technology and commerce rather than living in the past. So great post, and couldn’t agree more!

    • Oh yeah, Heather, I forgot about that: locals aren’t supposed to be happy with any advancements, it the place is to be ‘authentic’ ;)

  • Totally agree with standards of living varying wildly. For me, I always find the experience more “authentic” when I get to interact with the locals, they’re often moments I think back to the most, such as random acts of kindness.

  • I’ve said it before, there is no one right way to travel for everyone. We are free and able to experience a place in whatever way we choose.

  • Great post, I totally agree so many people think that to be authentic they have to go the the poor areas, or have a rustic looking accommodation that’s more often than not totally set-up for tourists and not actually real. I think to look for think to get an authentic experience you need to go to the places that the locals live, eat and spend their time. I love staying with locals through AirBnb, or local schemes and always look to stay in areas that locals live rather than that the tourists visit. My favourite experiences are usually where we’ve interacted with the people.

  • “People often mistake poverty, hardship and folklore with authenticity” — Couldn’t agree with this more. Take America for example, something close to home. It’s like saying I visited the slums of Detroit and got a really good feel for “America.” In actuality, America is about freedom and individuals carving out success for themselves. The slums of Detroit show nothing related to what America is about. I think authentic travel is really any sort of travel experience that allows you to glean essentially what a destination is all about and what makes it unique.

    Greig