A Guide to Mexico's Many Cultural Experiences

A Guide to Mexico's Many Cultural Experiences

The growing range of cultural, natural and historical experiences provide visitors south of the border with endless options By: Mark Chesnut
<p>An artisan makes unique Huichol crafts. // © 2018 Riviera Nayarit</p><p>Feature image (above): Banyan Tree Mayakoba’s Haab dinner experience...

An artisan makes unique Huichol crafts. // © 2018 Riviera Nayarit

Feature image (above): Banyan Tree Mayakoba’s Haab dinner experience incorporates Maya culture. // © 2018 Banyan Tree

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Living Dreams Mexico

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Scott Dunn Private Journeys

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For many, sitting back with a cocktail is not the way to spend a vacation. As experiential travel — a form of tourism that immerses vacationers in a destination’s cultural and natural attributes — grows in popularity, it’s no wonder that Mexico’s travel industry is touting the many ways that visitors can get out of their lounge chairs and have unique, authentic and hands-on experiences instead. And travelers seem to be taking notice.

“The increasing general tendency to acquire experiences and memories, instead of objects, is well-documented,” said Ben Gritzewsky, senior independent travel advisor for Mexico at Frosch, a Houston-based travel agency. “I’m seeing a lot more interest in the attractions and activities that are unique to Mexico, especially among travelers already familiar with distant cultures.”

According to Gritzewsky, tourists are beginning to recognize and respect the rich diversity of Mexico’s natural and cultural offerings.

“The variety and quality of options; their accessibility and affordability; and more positive media coverage are driving the interest,” he said.

On a national level, Mexico’s efforts to promote experiential travel have garnered praise. The Mexico Tourism Board’s Indigenous Paradises program, which highlights destinations with large indigenous populations, was named the “best international active tourism product” at the International Tourism Trade Fair (FITUR) this year.

John Spence, president of Scott Dunn USA, a tour operator specializing in upscale vacations, reports an uptick in interest in lesser-known destinations and unique experiences in Mexico.

“People want to be on the cutting edge of what’s next in travel, and there are lots of undiscovered regions in Mexico that fall into this category,” he said. “What we’re finding is that what’s drawing people in aren’t the classic tourist towns, but magical, authentic villages like Loreto, Todos Santos and La Paz. If you combine all of this with an expert guide, you’re in for an unforgettable trip.”

To better serve the demand for this type of travel, Scott Dunn offers amenities such as exclusive access to museums and private tours of historical sites.

“Our knowledgeable guides have the insider scoop into all of the hidden gems — and in Mexico, there are tons,” Spence said.

Other tour operators report a similar surge in demand for authentic travel experiences in Mexico.

“The increase in interest for experiential travel in Mexico has been dynamic, especially from the North American market, which traditionally views Mexico as a sun-and-sand destination,” said Zachary Rabinor, president and CEO of Journey Mexico. “In my opinion, the growth in experiential/immersive travel in Mexico is due to a more focused approach in marketing it as a country filled with world-class opportunities for cultural, wildlife-focused and adventure-based travel experiences.”

Indeed, the term “experiential travel” can apply to a wide array of activities, especially in Mexico.

“Travelers are beginning to realize that there is so much more to Mexico than beach resorts,” said Stephanie Schneiderman, founder of Tia Stephanie Tours, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based operator that specializes in cultural tours to Mexico. “People are turning away from mindless consumerism and are realizing that what really fills the mind and soul are experiences, not things.”

In addition to Tia Stephanie, Journey Mexico and Scott Dunn, other tour companies with experiential itineraries in Mexico include Intrepid Travel — which offers a Mexico Real Food Adventure that visits Mexico City and Oaxaca — and Abercrombie & Kent, which has a Tailor Made Mexico product that features a private boat tour of the Yucatan’s Celestun Biosphere Reserve.

Another immersive operator is Crooked Trails, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that partners with several indigenous Zapotec communities to create tours that allow participants to interact with locals. Itineraries include visits to the Hongo festival in the village of Cualjimoyas and the Quelaguetza and Mescal festivals in the city of Oaxaca.

Immersive day tours — rather than multiday packages — are another option for travelers looking to mix authentic experiences with other types of travel in Mexico. Small tour company Turista Libre, for example, focuses on Baja California and Mexico City for its day tours. Options include food and street-art excursions in Tijuana, as well as a guided visit to the San Diego/Tijuana border fence while accompanied by Tijuana-based photographer Jill Holslin — who has been documenting the fence since 2009 — and members of Espacio Migrante, an organization that aims to protect migrant rights.

Beyond Tour Operators
In addition to tour operators, hotels in Mexico are more than ever focusing on creating unique experiences for guests.

“Whenever we develop a new product in a new destination, we integrate the local culture,” said Nicolas Dominguez, operations managing director for Cancun-based Hamak Hotels, the creative and management team behind the development of Chable Resort & Spa, as well as the new Hotel Cartesiano in Puebla and Chable Maroma, which opens in August. “People who are paying top dollar want something authentic. They want to go to the home of one of the best local cooks or a resident of the village, or meet local shamans for purification and spa treatments.”

Chable Resort & Spa, for example, has its own spiritual shaman on staff to conduct traditional ceremonies. Even resort hotels, where some guests may spend their entire vacation on property, have upped their immersive offerings. Grand Residences Riviera Cancun is among the resorts with activities such as cooking and Spanish classes. And at Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun, guests can interact with contemporary artist Leon Alva — and even participate in his creative process — when he sets up his easel and paints at the hotel’s chic fine-dining restaurant, Basilic.

Farther south, Thompson Playa Del Carmen partners with local tour operator Living Dreams Mexico to provide guests with guided visits to the Maya village of Tankah, where they have a traditional Maya meal and visit a local family’s home.

Mayakoba, the Riviera Maya resort development that includes four upscale hotels, offers numerous immersive activities. At Banyan Tree Mayakoba, the Haab dining experience commemorates traditional Maya cultivation techniques, with Maya “warriors” dressed in face paint and feather headdresses leading guests into the jungle for a sundown ritual that’s complemented by stories of ancient Maya life. Andaz Mayakoba, meanwhile, has an on-site “experience curator” who oversees programs such as Mayan language classes and the Frida’s Wardrobe experience — a Frida Kahlo-inspired program during which participants get their hair and makeup done, then are photographed while wearing traditional Mexican clothing.

Nearby, Rosewood Mayakoba offers the Mayan Melipona Bees Farm tour, which teaches visitors about the preservation of the Melipona bees, as well as the region’s centuries-old medicinal traditions.

On the luxury side of immersive vacations is Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, where cultural concierge Enrique Alejos offers free nature walks and lectures on local history and cuisine. The culture of the indigenous Huichol people, who still live in the region today, is a major focus of Alejos’ programming; he can also organize Huichol weddings and special ceremonies.

For additional exposure to Huichol traditions, vacationers staying anywhere in Riviera Nayarit can pay a visit to the fishing village of Sayulita, where nonprofit Huichol Center for Cultural Survival operates an arts-and-crafts gallery and cafe.

Smaller hotels can be equally well-versed at connecting travelers with unique experiences. Playa Viva, located between Zihuatanejo and Acapulco, offers the Sierra Tour excursion, which takes participants into the hills to meet farmer Don Jesus Gutierrez to learn to cook with his family while using produce grown on the farm. And while staying at Hacienda de los Santos, located in the village of Alamos, Sonora, guests can participate in indigenous events and join colonial home tours.

“Travelers are realizing that each region in Mexico is so different from the others, making it an ideal destination to return to over and over again,” Tia Stephanie’s Schneiderman said. “Mexico is a veritable kaleidoscope.”

How to Sell Experiential Travel in Mexico
The key to selling immersive vacations in Mexico lies in a travel agent’s knowledge about the product and knowing how to match the experience to the right clients. Luckily, the potential audience for experiential travel in Mexico is broad, according to Ben Gritzewsky, senior independent travel advisor for Mexico at Frosch, a Houston-based travel agency.

“All types of travelers seek experiences in Mexico because of the array of possibilities,” he said. “Most are interested in the culture and history but also enjoy nature. Many have visited Mexico previously — usually a popular beach resort — so they have had a taste of Mexico’s charms and are keen for more.”

For Stephanie Schneiderman, founder of Tia Stephanie Tours, the demographics of experiential travelers is broad.

“Baby boomers are trying to get rid of things; best-selling books are helping people unclutter; and millennials are not interested in mindless consumerism,” she said. “People have enough things. They want deeper meaning and experiences, and travel can provide this.”

John Spence, president of tour operator Scott Dunn USA, says that travel agents are ideally positioned to sell experiential travel.

“People come to a travel specialist for ease and knowledge,” he said. “It’s a bit like successful dating. You want to ask the right questions to get to know your guests and, even more importantly, actively listen to their answers. Knowing someone’s likes and dislikes will create a more interesting trip. This understanding will also help build an important relationship with guests that will make them want to work with you again.”

While the appeal of immersive vacations may be great, certain demographics may be a better fit, according to Zachary Rabinor, president and CEO of Journey Mexico.

“Right now, the boomers still dominate, with more time, money and an interest in real experiences and getting ‘under the skin’ of destinations,” he said. “Gen X is the next opportunity as their children grow, along with their savings and time, allowing them more opportunity to venture away from the practical, traditional family-oriented beach stays. And then there are the millennials, who will define the future — once they have money.”

Schneiderman advises agents to go beyond the expected when it comes to suggesting experiential travel. She says advisors should not underestimate travelers and only give them what they ask for, as they may not realize more opportunities exist.

“Be proactive and push travelers to travel to see, do and experience people and places they themselves are unaware of,” she said. “They will thank you for it.”

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