In 2020, I left my Sydney law job behind and booked a one-way ticket to Mexico to pursue a dream career as a travel writer, photographer and videographer. I'd always enjoyed keeping my plans to a minimum. Still, it was only when I had no fixed schedule or itinerary that I began to appreciate the beauty of immersing myself in each destination. My travel experiences shifted, focusing more on my encounters with the local communities in the places I visited, and ironically, by moving less, I felt like I could see and experience more.
Unbeknownst to me, I was slow travelling, or at least unintentionally embracing the principles of the movement. Eating home-cooked lagman (Central Asian noodles) with a local Kyrgyz family (who I met at a bus stop) and later being presented with a traditional kalpak (hat) would never have arisen if I hadn't adopted the principles of slow travel.
What is slow travel?
Slow travel is more than simply checking off a list of sightseeing attractions. Instead, it’s a deliberate and immersive approach to exploring the world and deep-diving into the local cuisine, meeting the people and learning about their culture and traditions. Unlike the typical tourist experience where you feel rushed from one attraction to the next, slow travel allows you to take your time and savour each moment. And the best part? You don’t need to travel indefinitely to embrace the movement and its principles.
Reasons to slow travel
To see a destination from a different perspective
One of my favourite ways to experience a new country or place is through land travel (particularly public transport) instead of flying or private transfers – which I consider a last resort. This approach often leads to meaningful and unscripted encounters with locals that we might otherwise miss. Moving slowly and overland serves a dual purpose: you're also minimising your carbon footprint, so there's an environmental benefit too.
I've had the pleasure of sharing chai (tea) with an elderly woman during a 48-hour train ride, spent an entire afternoon with a family from the Puerta Vallarta Motoracing Team after hitching a ride with them, and even received a personal tour of a small Kazakh town (Kegen) and accommodation – all while conversing over a translator app. Language barriers can be challenging and awkward sometimes, and moving between destinations may take longer than expected, but don't let that deter you from a potentially breath-giving experience. It can be an excellent opportunity to learn and connect with locals, leaving you with an exciting story to share.
Develop meaningful connections
Meeting like-minded locals presents an opportunity to gain insight into the daily life and culture of someone living in that city or town. My experience in Aktau, Kazakhstan, was completely transformed after writing to Nesta and Artur on Couchsurfing: a website that connects travellers and hosts. They introduced me to some of the best eateries and took me in their 4WD to explore some of their favourite beaches in a remote section of the Caspian Sea. What was meant to be a single night's stay became 2.5 weeks of laughter and exploring – and in fact, we have plans to meet later this year. Needless to say, a stranger can become a friend for life, and, of course, the people you meet are often more important than the destination itself.
Creating Unexpected Surprises
One of the great joys of slow travel is its ability to surprise and create opportunities you could never anticipate. By purposely keeping my plans flexible, I was invited by a local family (whom I met in a cafe sitting at the table next to me) to join them on a 4-hour drive to Monterrey, Mexico, where they showed me some of the best hiking destinations in the area. And before entering that cafe, the only thing set in stone was a desire to grab a cup of coffee.
While it's understandable that not everyone can afford long-term travel (lots of us will at most only get 2-3 weeks off at a time), having a flexible approach to planning and leaving some room for spontaneity (such as only booking your entry and departure flights or leaving some aspects of your trip unplanned) can lead to extraordinary opportunities and experiences. That being said, this may not apply to every situation. For example, specific hiking trips may require a tighter planning schedule.
During my stay in Buenos Aires, I had the privilege of meeting Alejandra. We shared many conversations about her country's economic challenges, and I gained a newfound appreciation for the people's resilience and fortitude. But it wasn't just about talking. Something monumental also happened while I was there: Argentina won the Football World Cup! Being in the capital during this momentous occasion allowed me to witness the victory's immense impact on the local community. I was swept up in the celebrations on the streets and saw how important football is to Argentinian culture.
Less is more
Concentrating on fewer locations or destinations when you travel is perfectly ok. For example, it felt like a huge undertaking when I considered exploring my hometown of Sydney in just a week. So, it wouldn't be fair to expect the same level of in-depth exploration when travelling to a city or town. Instead, I prefer to beeline towards a neighbourhood or select a region to avoid glossing over a location and ultimately give me a deeper understanding of a place. Better yet, you don't have to be abroad to put these elements into practice. You can do this in your own city or country too.
Other ways to have a local experience
If you're stuck for ideas, separately, language exchanges and groups you'll find on Meetup and Facebook offer a way to join a community and experience a place from a different perspective.
Fundamentally, travelling slowly is a privilege that not everyone can afford. I'm incredibly lucky to do so without any time restrictions while pursuing my dreams.
Sure, slow travel is fantastic, but remember that just because a destination or activity is popular or frequently visited doesn't mean you shouldn't go. You'll still find me taking a dip at Coogee Beach or riding the sightseeing double-decker bus to get familiar with a big city (they happen to be some of my favourite things to do despite being overly popular and on-the-beaten path). Ultimately, we're in charge of our travel style and should make choices based on our preferences and interests.
The principles of slow travel aren't groundbreaking, and there's no hard or fast rule for implementing them into the way you move – it's totally up to you. But embracing this movement has opened up a new world of experiences, and I'm not looking back.