By Miyo McGinn
Did you know that when the pre-Incan cultures of Chile’s Atacama Desert looked at the night sky, they noted the patterns not in constellations, but in the dark spaces between them? I didn’t, until an Indigenous astronomer-guide shared this knowledge on my recent trip to Chile with Cotopaxi. With the winter sun well below the horizon, we looked through the telescope he’d set up among the dunes and zoomed in closely on the moon.
I breathed in the cold air, absorbing this new idea of finding shapes in the darkness instead of in the stars. It was one of those moments when basic concerns (Am I drinking enough water? Did I remember to close the door of my tent?) dropped away as I became conscious of the mind-boggling scope of the galaxy. My mind stretched, trying to comprehend not just the near-endlessness of space, but also the near-endlessness of time, across which people have stood where I am, looking up at the night sky and trying to understand their place in it all.
“Immersive travel” is all the rage right now. This mode of traveling is defined by fully engaging with the environment and culture of the place you’re visiting. What does that actually look like in practice? For me, it’s that feeling in the desert, searching for shapes in the pockets of darkness around the stars. Not just seeing new sights, but finding entirely new ways of looking at the world.
In hindsight, it’s unsurprising that our trip created the space for this moment. We were out in nature with limited internet and cell service. And we sought out locals as guides who were knowledgeable about the places we visited. We were searching for places and experiences beyond the tourist circuit. And that is the crux of immersive travel, of intentionally pursuing transformative experiences: you’re seeking something, but you don’t know what. Sort of like willfully getting lost.
In her book Field Guide to Getting Lost, the writer Rebecca Solnit describes being lost as, “[when] the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.” Immersion, the good kind of lost—whatever you call it—the process is the same. It’s traveling with the goal of letting go of the familiar, opening up to the unknown, and emerging on the other end transformed, at least a little bit.
Mindset makes a difference—and Solnit is worth a read if you’re looking for guidance in that department—but there are also tangible steps we can take to become more immersed wherever we’re traveling.
In most of the trips I’ve planned, I’ve had the most success getting lost when I prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to destinations. After graduating high school, for example, I lived in a small, indigenous Ecuadorian farming village for ten months. It was as transformative as I’d always dreamed travel could be—a stretch of time when I was repeatedly losing myself and finding something unexpected.
I don’t think there’s any replacement for time, but over the course of my trip to Chile with Cotopaxi, I came to appreciate the depth of immersion that can be achieved in just a few days. It takes planning and intention, but the results are worth it. As Solnit puts it: “Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.”
There are as many ways to travel as there are travelers, and hopefully you’ll try different things to seek out that terra incognita, living a life of discovery. Below are just a few practical tips to get started, based on trips where I was able to get lost in the best ways:
Hire a guide
Let’s first acknowledge that not all guides are created equal. Sometimes, they can add an extra layer of complexity if they’re trying to take you on their trip instead of helping actualize yours. But on our whirlwind jaunt through Chile, guides enabled us to fully dive into the experience. I didn’t have to worry about getting dangerously lost in an unfamiliar country and environment, so I could relax and get lost in the fruitful, Solnit-y sense of the word.
Our guides provided us with lodging, transportation, and an incredible depth of knowledge about the regions. When you can trust that you’ll have a place to stay, good food, and someone to stop you from straying too far off course, it’s so much easier to let go of the reins and be open to the unknown. Guides who are local to the region where you’re traveling, in particular, bring an unmatched depth of knowledge to take you off the beaten path and ensure your visit supports, rather than burdens, local communities.
Stay somewhere besides a hotel or private rental
Hotels tend to prioritize privacy and comfort, which are great and necessary in some circumstances. Likewise, an Airbnb or other private rental lets you live basically in the same way you might in your own home—comfortably, but also independently. But if your goal is to be as fully engaged in a new place as possible, seek out lodging where you can rub elbows with fellow travelers and locals alike.
Hostels, with their communal spaces, are a great option. Bed and breakfasts might facilitate more personal connections, as would refugios, which are sort of like a cross between a remote guesthouse and a hostel. At the refugio we visited in the altiplano in Chile, staff and visitors mingled during meals. At the end of the day, the small group and remote setting broke down barriers that might otherwise have existed.
And farms and other independent businesses where you can work in exchange for room and board (like WWOOF-ing) offer a glimpse into the daily lives of people in the country you’re visiting.
The curse and blessing of smartphones is that we can be in touch with people everywhere in the world, watch endless content, read a constantly updating stream of news, and reference the vast trove of humanity’s collective knowledge whenever we want to. But forming new connections with people and becoming immersed in a place requires actually being present in that place—and that means looking up from your screen.
This is easier said than done, and there are a lot of reasons why leaving phones behind altogether isn’t an option. They’re just too convenient for taking photos, referencing logistics, and in emergencies. But there are a range of ways to keep phone time to the bare minimum. Personally, I try to stay off my phone when I’m out and about, and save scrolling for the hotel. If self-discipline is a challenge, consider a trip or tour that will take you somewhere without cell service.
Miyo McGinn (pictured above) is a writer and editor currently based in Bozeman, Montana. Her work can be found in Outside, Popular Science, Adventure.com, and elsewhere.