The indigenous peoples of the world offer a glimpse into ancient histories that live on today. By learning more about indigenous cultures and experiencing their lifestyles, we can better understand the places they call home.
From the ancient civilizations of Central America’s Mayan people to the nomadic families of East Africa’s Masaai, exploring indigenous cultures offers another level to travel that can further enrich our experience of foreign lands.
Discover Corps has a variety of trips that include cultural immersion. But there are so many more to explore. Let’s learn more about some indigenous cultures around the world!
The Quechua people have a rich history that spreads across multiple countries in South America. Quechua refers to multiple ethnic groups that speak the Quechua language, rooted in the Incan Empire of Peru. Prior to Christopher Columbus’s arrival, The Incan Empire was the largest empire in the Americas.
You can travel back thousands of years by exploring the remains of the Incan Empire. Machu Picchu is the most famous and expansive destination of Incan ruins, but there are many more in Peru, including Kuelap, Ollantaytambo, and Marcahuamachuco.
The past is alive in Peru, but so is the present. The Quechua people still live in regions that were once governed by the Incan Empire. About one-third of Peru’s population is Quechua, and most of them live in the Andes region where they subsist primarily on farming.
Despite impressive longevity in preserving their culture, The Quechua people still struggle to hold on to their indigenous roots with modern Peruvian culture often overshadowing their practices and beliefs. In Discover Corps’ “Spirit of the Andes” tour, participants are immersed in Quechua culture to help preserve and share it.
The Maya thrived in what we now know as Mexico and Central America from 2000 BC to 1500 AD, developing an expansive society and building awe-inspiring temples and cities.
Mayan culture lives on today through the descendants of this impressive civilization, who now comprise the indigenous culture of Guatemala. With over 50% of the current Guatemalan society made up of Mayan peoples, the culture is vibrant and visible.
The women still dress in traditional, colorful dress. Their crafts can be found throughout Guatemala, including intricate baskets, wood carved animals, and brightly painted toys. Visitors to Guatemala can peruse the crafts of Mayan culture at the traditional handicrafts market in Chichicastenango.
To experience the soul of the Mayan culture, travelers will want to head to Quetzaltenango, known as “Xela” by the locals. This Guatemalan town combines stunning scenery with intriguing history– a place where the Mayan culture still thrives, inviting the curious traveler to learn and explore.
In 1635, two Spanish ships carrying Nigerians to be sold into slavery, crashed on the shores of the island of St. Vincent. The survivors settled there, mixing with the locals and forming a unique culture over several centuries. A series of wars eventually pushed that population of Caribs out of St. Vincent. In the early 1800’s they landed in Belize.
Garifuna is the resulting language of that mixed culture of Caribs and Nigerians. The people are officially known as Garinagu.
For an authentic taste of Garifuna culture, visit Belize on November 19th, when the anniversary of their arrival is celebrated as a national holiday with music and dancing.
Garifuna have great respect for their ancestors, and that shines through in the traditional practices they are determined to keep alive. A ritual called “Dugu” brings together family members from all over to gather at a temple, presided over by a spiritual leader. Days of feasting, festivities, and healing ensue, in celebration of relatives who have passed.
You’ll find Garifuna villages along the Southern Coast of Belize. Indulge in some okra and coconut broth-soaked fish to experience the flavor of the Garifuna culture.
The Kalinago are the indigenous culture of the Caribbean, formerly known as Carib Indians. The Kalinago were the first inhabitants of Dominica (among other islands), and their culture has been sustained in this region for thousands of years.
Today, approximately 3,000 Kalinago people live in a combined 3,700-acre territory in the Caribbean, spread across many small settlements.
A visit to the Kalinago territory should include a stop at Kalinago Barana Autê, which includes an interpretation center to introduce you to the Kalinago culture. Here you can explore a model village made up of traditional huts, or ajoupas. The huts offer traditional cultural activities, like dancing, canoe building and basket weaving.
Any trip to Kenya or Tanzania should include some exploration of Maasai culture, the indigenous group of this region.
The Maasai are a semi-nomadic people who construct loaf-shaped houses made of mud, sticks, and cow dung as they move. Extended families live together and relocate as the weather demands to find new grazing land for their livestock. Livestock is very valuable to this indigenous group who use goats, sheep, and cattle for currency and trade.
Their history is well preserved through a rich history of storytelling, songs, and folklore. These capsules of Maasai culture offer insight and knowledge about traditional medicine, grazing practices, landscape ecology, gathering of wild plants, and more.
The Maasaai Association offers tours of Kenya that include interaction with Maasai villages who are eager to share their culture with visitors. You’ll enjoy a walking safari, led by Maasai warriors, and stay in a Maasai village.
The Maasai culture is rooted in deep respect for the land they live and work on. Experiencing East Africa from the eyes of the Maasai is a way to establish a genuine connection to this beautiful place.
Hill Tribes (Thailand)
The lush jungle of Northern Thailand is a must-see for those traveling to Southeast Asia, and visitin the indigenous people of the Hill Tribes has become a popular part of that experience.
There are seven main tribes, including the Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Akha, Mien, and Padaung. Each of these is further divided into sub-categories and clans, each with their own nuances to the hill tribe culture and language.
Most of the tribes practice subsistence farming — growing enough food for their familiar to live on. This can be a challenge in the heavily forested hillsides they call home. But surviving in this demanding landscape is part of what makes their culture unique.
The Tribal Museum of Chiang Mai is an excellent source of information on the history and culture of the hill tribes of Northern Thailand.
For a more intimate experience, travelers can visit certain hill tribes, located not far from the bustling city of Chiang Mai. Discover Corps’ Cultural Kaleidescope tour of Thailand includes a visit with the Hmong hillside villages.
Zulu (South Africa)
The written history of the Zulu people can be traced back to the 14th century. They are the best known indigenous people of Africa, thanks to the power and scope of the Zulu Kingdom in the early 19th century.
About nine million Zulu-speaking people still live in South Africa. Many of them still live in traditional, rural communities, but others have assimilated into urban areas and much of their culture has been mixed with modern practices.
There is a strong belief in ancestral spirits in the Zulu culture. Aging is seen as a blessing, and they believe in a life that continues, long after death. The Zulu mark special occasions like birthdays, marriages, puberty, and death, with animal sacrifices to their deceased relatives.
They have a lively cultural tradition of song and dance, which promote unity amongst the tribe.
A visit to a Zulu village is a must during a volunteer vacation in South Africa. Their culture, from their ornate clothing to their tight-knit family units, is still very much a part of the fabric of South African society.
Wherever your travels may bring you next, look into the history of the indigenous cultures. Who were the first to settle in that space? What does their culture look like today? By looking into the past, we can better understand the places we visit, today. –Britany Robinson
BIO: Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her works appears in BBC Travel, Mashable, The Daily Dot and more. Her blog, Travel Write Away, shares advice and musings on travel writing. When she’s not planning her next big trip, she’s scoping out Portland craft beers and local hikes.