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Here Are Some Must-Visit Indigenous Destinations Around The World

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Travel and culture go hand in hand. A resort or cruise can be fun under the right circumstances, but we don’t think you can truly experience a new place without getting to know the local people, food, and activities. It’s one of the reasons we love to travel. You can expand your horizon and become a more informed, empathetic person. Yet, when many of us travel, we still hit the most popular and Instagrammable places. It can be easy to miss the unique, the real, and the indigenous.

Traveling to the corners of the world where indigenous populations live is an eye-opening experience. Spending some time with the Maasai of Tanzania or the Sami of Finland or the Aborigines in the Outback is a multi-faceted education. You’ll come away with a renewed sense of the natural world and our place within it. And perhaps, you’ll force yourself to deal with the barbarism that is our history of colonizing indigenous populations the world-over to increase our own wealth. This is travel as introspection as much as it is about personal enlightenment.

Below is a small smattering of possibilities for spending a little time immersed in an indigenous community. Look at these travel options as a place to start a journey in a way that bucks the norm and embraces a culture you may have never even realized existed. While there are literally thousands of indigenous communities throughout the world, these communities are accessible and open to travelers. Others may not be, and thusly, their isolation demands respect. Lastly, indigenous communities around the world are often the most socio-economically oppressed. Tourism is a great way to take action and support these communities with your tourist dollars.

THE ABORIGINAL CULTURES OF AUSTRALIA

The aboriginal cultures and peoples of Australia are some of the oldest civilizations in the world. People have been calling Australia home for over 60,000 years — deadly snakes and man-eating crocs be damned. Australia’s Aboriginal people are also amazingly varied with languages changing from group to group — often by simply crossing a river.

These communities can be found from coast-to-coast-to-coast in Australia, and they offer a glimpse into an amazingly old chapter of humanity, art, and food. You’ll also have the chance to hear the stories of centuries of British and, then, white Australian colonial rule and the dire consequences they’re still dealing with (from loss of land to severe health issues to access to basic civic necessities).

Visiting an Aboriginal community is getting easier and easier in Oz. Australia’s Tourism Board has a great guide to visiting and engaging in Aboriginal life across the continent on their website, Australia.com. Likewise, individual territories offer their own glimpse into the indigenous culture and provide guides for getting in and spending your money directly within Aboriginal communities.

THE MAORI IN NEW ZEALAND

Though seemingly close to Australia, the Maori of New Zealand are a wholly unique culture. The Maori are the seafaring cousins to the wider Polynesian people whose reach extends all the way to the Hawaiian islands. And the culture has an intensity to it that’s awesome. The powerful Haka — an amping up ritual — will get you ready for any obstacle. And the Maori tattoo culture is another facet of Maori life that’s hard not to love. Though, we highly recommend you sleep on it before you get a face tat.

Maori communities are fairly integrated into colonial New Zealand. However, over the last 30-ish years, the New Zealand government has been returning tracts of land to the Maori, creating an ability for the community to build an economy.

Part of that economy includes a focus on tourism in New Zealand. NZ Maori Tourism offers a great guide to the North and South Islands’ Maori cultural touchstones and communities. Given that English is the lingua franca of New Zealand, you can also show up and do your research on the ground.

THE HAWAIIANS IN HAWAI’I

It’s easy to just think of Hawai’i as Hawaiian shirts, perfect bodies peppering idyllic beaches, and Jurassic Park. Sure, all of that’s there. The place is stunning and 100 percent built for tourism. But there’s also a deeply old culture of people who have spent centuries creating communities throughout the island chain.

Diving into Hawaiian culture means you have to leave the resort. Find farmers who are bringing back native food practices and share a meal with them. Go to Native Hawaiian restaurants. Maybe even go fishing with a native guide.

You can find native Hawaiian owned tourism-related businesses and a general guide to all things Native Hawai’i at GoHawaii.com. Likewise, Ma’o Organic Farms is a great way to support the local indigenous community (and at-risk youths) while also giving you a chance to eat amazingly grown local foods. They also have a great restaurant list and farmer’s market guide to help you parse where to eat around the island. Aloha!

THE LAKOTA ON PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION (SOUTH DAKOTA)

The harrowing history of the Lakota people is integral to understanding U.S. history as a whole. A visit to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a peek into an America often over-looked or flat out ignored. Walking through the small museum at the Oglala College you’ll get a chance to understand how this community wound up at the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum in America.

A trip to Pine Ridge offers the intrepid traveler a chance to immerse themselves into a wholly unique American culture. Every summer the Oglala Lakota Nation Wacipi Rodeo Fair takes place. The three-day event is part powwow, part fancy dance competition, feast, carnival, and rodeo. Trick horse riding is a major highlight of the event with young Lakota gathering to show off some seriously spectacular skills with horses.

Travelers need to remember that Pine Ridge is one of the most depressed communities in the world. So traveling through this part of the country can be difficult as infrastructure tends to be varied or non-existent. There aren’t a lot of restaurants outside of town centers and grocery stores are sparse. So plan ahead. If you can find it, hit up Bette’s Kitchen. It’s a small mobile home off BIA Road 28, and Bette’s fry bread and bison stew are worth the stop.

THE DINE IN NAVAJO NATION (AMERICAN SOUTHWEST)

The Navajo Nation is arguably one of the most magical corners of North America. The Dine (commonly called the Navajo) inhabit a vast expanse of desert where deep and twisting canyons, towering rock monuments, and ancient cities clinging to sheer rock cliffs dominate. You’ll feel like you’re in a completely different world.

One of the biggest draws of the Navajo Nation is the untamed beauty of the landscape. Places like Grand Falls offer a spectacular and rare experience. The massive muddy falls are bigger than Niagra and only appear a few select times a year after a high mountain glacial melt or intense flooding rains. You’ll need a special permit from the tribe, a Navajo guide, and their 4WD to get to the falls. But, trust us, this one is worth the extreme effort it takes. Few people have tread here.

Overall, a trip to the Navajo Nation offers you a chance to explore yet another unique American culture that’s rarely given any due. The food culture leans heavily towards foods you already know and love: Think braised venison tacos, bison tamales, and wild rice, beans, and squash bowls. If you’re looking for a little bit of real magic, you’ll find it in Navajo Country.

THE ZAPOTECS IN OAXACA (MEXICO)

There’s a bizarre sense in the United States that the people of Mexico are foreign. They’re not. The vast majority of Mexico is indigenous to this part of the world. In reality, the border between Mexico and the United States is an arbitrary line that prohibits indigenous North Americans from traveling to their former homelands and turns those people into “illegal immigrants”. This is why, now more than ever, it’s important to travel to Mexico and visit the people, eat their food, and experience their culture.

There are many places to experience indigenous life in Mexico, but, for us, the most accessible (and tastiest) is through visiting the Zapotec communities of Oaxaca. The region is a food lover’s paradise. And the tamales, bean stews, chilis, and tacos will remind you of how the American Southwest and Mexico are inextricably connected.

Then there’s the mole. The addition of Mexican cocoa to thick gravy means you’ll get a chance to taste some of the most unique sauces in the world. You’ll come home ready to put mole on everything (and we mean everything). Make sure to try some Tejate while in the region as well. The Zapotec drink is a mix of toasted corn, fermented cocoa, cocoa flowers, and mamey pits. The brew gets frothy and has a distinct earthy chocolate vibe that’s addictive.

THE URU OF LAKE TITICACA (PERU & BOLIVIA)

There are a lot of chances to visit indigenous communities across South America. The continent is one of the only places left that still has uncontacted tribes in the further reaches of the Amazon. Don’t attempt to “contact” them, please. You could infect them with a disease that could wipe out an entire community. Seriously. Instead, visit a community like the Uru on Lake Titicaca.

The Uru live on 120 or so handmade reed islands on the lake. The handmade islands were originally fashioned as a defensive dwelling as a whole island can (and still) be moved around the lake or up-river. The Uru have opened up their community to tourism to help supplement their economy of fishing, hunting, and growing reeds. The Uru use the totora reeds as their homes, medicine, and even eat the seeds when times are rough.

There are few floating cities on this planet so any chance to get to live on one or even see one is a great travel experience. The added benefit of being able to financially support an indigenous community by simply going there and spending a few nights is a win for everyone.

THE INUIT IN KALAALLIT NUNAAT (GREENLAND)

You might get a few blank stares if you tell someone you’re going to Greenland. A lot of people don’t even realize there are people there (much less towns). But Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland’s indigenous name) has been inhabited since about 2500BCE (that’s about 4,500 years). Calling a place as extreme as that home for over four millennia is pretty hardcore no matter how you cut it.

Greenlandic culture is a unique mix of Inuit and Scandinavian that leans more indigenous than European. The food culture of whale and seal hunting is still a cornerstone of the society alongside caribou and cod fishing. Animal skins are integral to Inuit life and are worked into art and even clothing. From a food culture POV, you’ll have an experience unlike any other.

We can’t talk about a visit Kalaallit Nunaat and not talk about the drastic natural beauty of the place. The stunning mountains, glaciers, and dark seas make this massive island nation breathtaking at every turn. A lot of nature here is untouched. So it’s very, very recommended you hire local guides and tours to see the more remote regions safely and responsibly.

THE SAMI IN SCANDINAVIA & RUSSIA

The Sami have been living in the Arctic regions of northern Scandinavia and western Russia for over five millennia. That’s a long time in the cold. The Sami culture tends to center around reindeer herding with the cervines serving as transport, food, and goods (like clothing, homes, and art).

Of course, the Sami culture is more than just all things reindeer. The art, culture, literature, and music of the Sami people are easily accessible in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. There are museums, cultural centers, and homestays that’ll give you an in-depth experience with Sami culture. The Sami even have their own parliaments in Norway, Sweden, and Finland (Russia’s interactions with indigenous communities remain fractured from Soviet times).

Visiting the Sami is a great way to access the further reaches of the Arctic region. You’ll have a chance to experience some of the harshest environments in Europe (and the world) with people who’ve been living in it for eons. Learn to herd reindeer. Eat Arctic fare. Sing Sami songs around a campfire. Go!

THE MAASAI IN KENYA AND TANZANIA

The Maasai are one of the most accessible indigenous populations on the African continent. Their lands stretch across the great plains of Kenya and Tanzania where they inhabit some of the most richly diverse nature on the globe. The quasi-nomadic hunter-gathering culture is a chance to see eastern Africa through the eyes and culture of a group of people living close to the land and animals. It’s not so much as a step back in time as it is a chance to see the world through a different lens.

Visiting the Maasai is a bit hit-and-miss. A lot of people tend to visit this part of the world via Safari. But right now, those safaris are actually encroaching on Maasai lands to deal with the increase in tourism. This leaves us in a bit of a conundrum. The Maasai thrive with extra income from tourism. However, there needs to be a balance and respect for the people and their homes. Our suggestion is to do your research before you go to make sure that the companies and guides you use are legit and connected to the Maasai in a positive way for the Maasai.

Once you find the right way to get there, enjoy what’s likely going to be a bucket list travel experience. Drink fresh cows blood with local warriors. Stay in a tent out on the Serengeti plains. Watch the elephants. It’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

THE AFAR IN ETHIOPIA

Just north of Addis Ababa, you’ll find the ancient Afar people living in one of the more beautiful corners of the planet. The Afar region is also the place where the bones of our eldest ancestors have been found. In theory, this is where we’re all literally from.

Today, the Afar Region is a place as volatile as it is beautiful. The chain of volcanoes and the Great Rift create a dynamic landscape of geological and volcanic wonders. The people who inhabit this truly wild land are primarily herders who roam the lands with their goats, sheep, and cows. The experience of living with the Afar for a spell is like a step to the left or right of mainstream society where the distractions of everyday life will melt away.

Visiting the Afar Region and people is not that straightforward. The region is very, very dangerous due to all the volcanism right on the surface. Places like the Danakil Depression, Erta Ale, and Dalol are literally called Hell on Earth. So, please, do not attempt traveling around these places without a guide. The Ethiopian government has only started building a real infrastructure for the region this year. So go slow, do your research, and travel smart.

THE KURDS IN IRAQ

Travel is political. There’s no getting around that. Your preconceived perceptions will be challenged, and we believe there are few places more important for an American to go right now than northern Iraq. For one, it’s relatively very safe in the Kurdish parts of the country. So, yes, you can go there easily and safely via Erbil. But there are dangerous areas around Erbil, so do your research.

Erbil (or Hawler if you’re speaking Kurdish) and the surrounding mountains to the northwest are the Kurdish heartlands. The 7,000-year-old city is a wondrous sight to behold. The ancient inner city is one of the oldest human sites in the world that’s still inhabited. It’s the epitome of a bucket list spot. Further afield, you’ll find idyllic and verdant mountain villages along river valleys. It’s basically the opposite of the arid Iraqi desert you’ve seen in countless news cycles about Iraq.

The hospitality of the Kurds cannot be denied. You’ll be invited to feasts that will last the whole day. The food will always be a fantastic mix of fresh, local vegetables, dried fruits and nuts, stews, and the tastiest bread you’ll ever eat. The darkly sweet tea will flow and you’ll make new friends for life in the last place you’d expect … Iraq. Think of a trip here like a trip to Vietnam in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Soon this place will be just another stop on an Instagram tourist trail.

THE YAKUTS IN SAKHA REPUBLIC (RUSSIA)

Saying Russia is vast is like saying water is wet. It’s amazingly diverse. About 77 percent of the population is what we probably think of, white Russians. But the rest of the country is made up of 160 ethnic groups and indigenous populations. Six of those groups have a population over one million. So, yeah, Russia is an incredibly vast and varied place that’s sure to surprise you around every corner.

A great way to experience a unique Russia is to visit the indigenous populations and the people living in the eastern reaches of the continent. The Yakuts of the Sakha Republic have a culture that has adapted to the dense forests of Russia and the extremes of the sub-Arctic climate. The people are spread through cities and the countryside with some still herding reindeer in the bush. The natural beauty of the area is one of the biggest draws. The Lena River is a magnificent place with walls of rock towers and literally untouched wilderness. Seriously, when you leave a city or town in the region, you’re in a truly wild place with zero infrastructure.

The cuisine of the Yakut makes a trip here amazingly worthwhile. The Yakut drink a lot of “kumis” which is a fermented mare or reindeer milk. It’s an acquired taste that leans towards a funky cottage cheese without the curds. There’s also a fair amount of venison (from the reindeer), salted white fish, and millet porridges (often thickened with horse fat). The Yakut also use mare’s milk to make a thickened sort of sour cream that’s mixed with wild forest berries and it’s lips-kissing-fingertips delicious. Eating with the Yakut is a culinary experience you won’t get anywhere else in the world.

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THE TAIWANESE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE IN TAIWAN

Taiwan is a wonderland of food. A trip to Taipei is a great vacation in every sense of the word. Then, there’s the rest of Taiwan Island. There are green forest hikes to waterfalls, hidden surf breaks, and diversity that’ll surprise the most seasoned traveler. The indigenous communities of Taiwan offer an insight into the pre-Sino days of the culture on the island. What’s fascinating is that the indigenous people of Taiwan were living in relative isolation for over five millennia before the arrival of the Han Chinese and Dutch in the 17th century.

So far 16 indigenous groups have officially been recognized by the Taiwanese government with several groups still trying to achieve recognition. There have been centuries of forced assimilation, and yet, there are still distinct communities from the beaches to the mountains to the plains of Taiwan that you can visit right now. Taiwan’s government has started embracing ethno-tourism around the indigenous people’s of Taiwan, opening up economic opportunities for the historically marginalized people. Places like the Taiwan Indigenous Culture Park are a great place to start your journey to get a handle on the communities. From there, explore a little, talk to people, eat great food, and enjoy the beauty that is Taiwan.

THE AINU IN HOKKAIDO (JAPAN)

Visiting the Ainu of Hokkaido will give you a very different experience of Japan. The indigenous people of the northern islands have a culture that feels almost more in line with Kamchatka, Alaska, and Vancouver Island than Japan. Forests of totem poles, elaborately decorated longhouses, deliciously smoked salmon will all transport you to a different place and time.

Visiting the Ainu is largely academic and historical at this point. The community is a little harder to visit than most on this list since assimilation of the group is almost complete. In fact, it’s probable that less than 100 people still speak Ainu today. Museums and cultural centers are where you’ll find the bulk of Ainu culture.

The Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum offers an educational glimpse into what life was like for the Ainu on the island before conquest and assimilation. The Shiraoi Ainu Museum and Village offers another chance to get an in-depth experiential tour of Ainu life. For a non-museum experience, head to Lake Akan Ainu Kotan which offers a glimpse into the modern life of the Ainu. Lastly, don’t forget to enjoy the Ainu smoked salmon! It’s rad.

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