What better way to really discover the country you are traveling in than to stay amongst its people and experience their lives and culture first hand.
Indigenous home stays are part of a growing trend in cultural and eco-tourism that serve to benefit both the tourist and the local community. If you're accustomed to five-star hotels and room service, this may not be your style of vacation, but for those interested in more than lying by the pool at a resort, a homestay can provide you with a greater appreciation of indigenous lifestyles as well as cultural differences.
During a homestay, visitors typically get to join their designated family for meals and other daily activities. Some hosts may offer to be your personal guide, while others provide suggestions about local sites. Living amongst a different culture can be incredibly rewarding, but it is important to be aware that staying with a family requires some consideration and possibly adjustments of diet and habits. You'll need to be somewhat flexible and open to new experiences, like different customs and often a lack of amenities that you would normally take for granted (like an inside bathroom).
There are numerous websites and companies purporting to provide authentic homestay experiences. Before making your booking, you should ensure that a substantial percentage of the money you pay goes back into the community where you will be staying. Homestays also come in the form of single nights on more traditional tours, for example most tours of Peru will include at least one night's stay with a local family on one of the islands on Lake Titicaca. A one-night option may strike the right balance between a traditional tour and one with an educational slant.
Intrepid Tours (www.intrepidtravel.com/trip.php?region=ecuador&code=GREE) is one such company that gives you the best of both worlds with its 18-day Ecuador Experience (in association with GAP Adventures). This highly active adventure covers Ecuador from the lush tropical Amazon basin to the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra, down to the sandy shores of the coast. In the Highlands and the Amazon, experience the day-to-day life of Quichua communities while encouraging local ecotourism projects, taking a glimpse into the customs, beliefs, food and ways of life of the indigenous people. The $710 per person land-only cost includes all transportation (train, bus and motorized canoe),13-nights accommodation in simple hotels, two nights of homestays in the Amazon and two-nights of homestays in an Andean village. Add $250 for local land payments. Trips depart regularly throughout the year and group sizes are limited to 12 participants.
In Thailand, Responsible Ecological Social Tours (REST) (www.ecotour.in.th/english.files/02.homeframe.html) is a non-governmental organization that manages and develops programs for tourists who are interested in learning about Thai communities and their relationship with the natural environment by spending time with participating host families. REST offers a variety of trips usually from two to four-nights duration in various communities throughout Thailand. For example their three-day "Touch Karen's Life and Culture" program in Ban Huai Hee, departing from Chang Mai enables you to stay with the Karen people and experience life without electricity. Depending on the season, learn how to plant and harvest rice, pick vegetables and fruit and collect traditional herbs and plants from the forest. The cost for the tour, which runs between October and March is $120 per person if you are in a group of four to six people and includes transportation (4WD), a guide, meals, a one-night homestay, campsite entrance fees (for one-night camping) and a donation to the village and insurance. The "Andaman Sea and Small-scale Fisherfolk" program is a four-day / two-night tour starting in Phuket from October to April. For $205 per person (for groups of four to six participants), this trip includes local transportation by boat, fishing with the locals, displays of Thai boxing, Thai dessert-making lessons, a guide, meals, a two-night homestay, entrance fees, a donation and insurance. An optional kayaking and cave discovery trip is an additional $80 per person. If you are traveling individually or in smaller groups, REST can still provide these trips at additional cost.
Kerala, one of the smallest yet culturally richest states of India runs for 360 miles along the Malabar coast on the western side of the Indian peninsula. Homestay Kerala (www.homestayskerala.com) is an ideal opportunity to experience local life, culture and customs. Accommodations varies from beachside bungalows, treehouses and mountainside tribal huts to historic plantation houses and villas. The company ensures that homestays are clean and posses the right ambience to host visitors. They also assess locations for quality of food, efficiency of services and the hosts' capability to transcend language barriers and social differences with their guests. Prices vary but all include full board and accommodation, generally starting at approximately $30 per person per day. Properties are located near areas of tourist interest in Kerala, including jungles, rivers for canoeing, bird watching national parks and beautiful beaches. Homestay Kerala can also arrange transport for your transfers, English speaking guides, optional tours and additional travel bookings.
Fijian Families (www.fijianfamilies.com) is a community website that acts as an intermediary between 20 Fijian villages and visitors who may wish to visit and live amongst the local population. As a way of generating income, the villagers have opened their native lands to visitors by offering traditional Fijian hospitality. Villages can arrange activities from kayaking and basket-making to snorkeling and boar hunting so your stay will be memorable. The website does not charge any booking fees, but it is recommended that you donate $24 per person per night to your village host. When visiting a village it is customary to present a gift of yaqona, which is also known as kava, which costs approximately $9, and to give a tip to your travel guide.
FijiBure.com (www.fijibure.com) is a sustainable tourism organization that also provides visitors with an opportunity to stay in a traditional Fijian village community and participate in unique activities and adventures. Homestays in bure (traditional Fijian houses) are available from $42 per day per adult or half that price for children under 13, and include a meet and greet service at Nadi airport, all meals, laundry services and even babysitting if required. As there are ten different villages as part of the program, transport costs vary.
Experience Vietnam from the perspective of its local people. Vietnam Homestay (www.hotelvietnamonline.com/Tours/homestay/index.htm) features a number of different homestay options ranging from a two-night stay in Maichau from $155 per person to a four-night stay in the Sapa area for $215. For a unique adventure, try their six-day "Sapa and Victoria Express Train" trip from $385 per person which includes accommodations on a luxury train, at a hotel and a homestay. Packages include an English speaking guide, all transportation (sleeper trains) and transfers, accommodations on a share basis in a family home, meals, admission fees to various tourism attractions and museums and permits where applicable. The two-night "Mekong Delta" package features a one-night homestay and one-night in a hotel, transfers, excursions to markets, islands and temples, a boat ride down the Mekong River and all meals for $265 per person. All packages start from Hanoi or Saigon.
To truly get off the beaten track, a vacation in Bangladesh including a homestay is the perfect way to interact with indigenous communities while enjoying unique adventures like trekking through lush forests to discover hidden Mru villages, boat rides down peaceful and remote rivers, secluded palm-lined beaches and exploring ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples on islands in the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh Ecotours (www.bangladeshecotours.com) arranges specialized tours with homestays in small tribal villages. For a basic idea, these ecotours usually range between US$ 75 to 120 per person, per day, depending on the number of guests, length of tour and specific facilities. Transportation, guides and meals are included. Group sizes are kept small -- usually around four to six people to ensure a quality experience.
A stay amongst the indigenous tribes of the Amazon River in Brazil is a fascinating journey into the lives of communities that have remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Amazonarium (www.amazonarium.com.br/servicos_estadia.asp) is a travel organization whose mission is to promote and facilitate visitation to the Brazilian Amazon through support of fieldwork, educational and scientific activities and the operation of ecological and culturally sensitive tourism in the region. Their programs are especially designed for those who want to go beyond the limits of a conventional visit and have access to accurate and updated information about the Amazon; the status of its biodiversity, the culture and traditions of its peoples and the challenges of combining development with preservation. During an Amazon homestay, learn about local food production techniques, collect brazil-nuts, tap rubber, fish and raise crops, weave baskets, make pots and find medicinal plants in the forest. Amazonarium offers literature and briefings to minimize visitors' impact on the local cultures. Preparation for the homestay can include survival Portuguese language classes. Prices vary according to length of stay and area requested.
Read helpful tips about traveling to these destinations "off the beaten path" and share your thoughts about indigeneous stays at the Frommers.com Cultural Immersion Message Board.