Traveler not tourist

On the last night of our adventure cruise around the Sea of Cortez, the captain praised our ship of sixty passengers for being travelers and not a tourists. Travelers not tourists? Made me think about the difference.

A tourist may see a lot, as suggested by the title of a decades old (and very poor) movie, If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium. Looking at the world primarily from a bus, or following the raised umbrella of a guide, or gazing at the sea from the twelfth floor of a cruise ship are definitively being a tourist. I understand the attraction. For one thing, it’s often the most affordable option. It feels safe. You’re unlikely to stumble into the wrong part of a city or unclean restaurant and your guide is likely good at keeping pickpockets at bay. And it doesn’t challenge your lack of language while in a foreign place. All good reasons. For some tourists with physical challenges, tour buses and big cruise ships open up new horizons. These big trips may mean you miss some things, but at least you get to see and experience some of the world different from home.

What do you get on a small boat adventure cruise that’s different? For starters, you travel small. Even though there were 60 passengers on our latest cruise, our outings ranged from nine to twelve people with one or two expert guides. The guides could point out the Cardon cactus and explains the differences from its cousin the Saguaro. They explained why the elephant bush grew where it did. A fish skeleton on the shoreline could be identified. This was not a march through the Baja desert accompanied by a lecture, but an exploration of objects either the guide or one of us found on the beach or desert around us. A little bit of biology and a little bit of geology with some natural history thrown in. With every found object, those interested circled around as the guide pointed out the details. Others continued their search for the next object. Everyone’s curiosity was satisfied. It is the difference between a small seminar class and a huge lecture hall.

Secondly, you get into places big boats and tour buses can’t go. You end up in the wilderness. An uninhabited desert island, a marine preserve where they only thing you can take home with you is a picture or your memories, close enough to hear a glacier calving. More often than not at night you can’t see any lights from civilization, just the stars and moon. On our most recent cruise, we watched a total lunar eclipse in the wee hours of the morning. And while it may not factor into planning the itinerary, you also get off the grid —no cell phones, no internet, no news.

Small boat cruises mean you take the time to move slowly. A drift snorkel. A hike through the jungle for some bird watching. A kayak paddle through a lazy river past. Sure, some of these things can be seen from a big ship cruise or from a tour bus, but you don’t experience them. A big cruise ship has to run on a tight schedule, often set by the minute with no variation. Our first adventure cruise completely changed direction 45 minutes into the trip in order the follow a pod of orca — our itinerary was flexible.

The people who go on these adventures most frequently have had other adventures. So evenings are spent telling stories of past travels, recommendations for the best routes and tips on the best time to go. Friendship are made. Not necessarily something that can’t happen on a tour, but the conditions of the smaller experience make it more likely, if not impossible to avoid.

Of course, small group adventures tours aren’t for everyone. That isolation and escape from people costs a lot. The staff to traveler ratio bumps up the cost even more. Not everyone is prepared to pay the premium price or if they do pay that price, they want more comfort than an adventure cruise may offer. If you can’t use the all the gear — the snorkels, wetsuits, paddle boards and kayaks —you may not want to pay for the cost of this inventory. And most of these tours require physical agility and stamina that not everyone has. Big cruises are known for big food buffets, big pools and and entertainment — elements completely lacking on adventure tours.

But adventure cruises aren’t lacking in the finer things, depending upon your cruise company. Hot tubs, a sauna and massages were options on each of our adventure cruises. And for my money, getting up close to the animals, makes it all worth it. And that’s why I choose to be a traveler.

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