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Indigenous people of the world

by Martha Hales

published

Travel is the original and best way to broaden your horizons, open your mind and understand our complex planet. Discovering new places, meeting new people and enjoying new experiences are all part of the lure of travelling, and what better way to do it than with the help of our handpicked local experts who are living in your destination and know it inside out? This local expertise comes into its own when your trip includes time spent with indigenous communities - these experiences can be valuable cultural exchanges when carefully managed and responsibly undertaken.

A West African tribe

Namibia

Immerse yourself in the inspiring surroundings of the Kalahari Desert, where you can join your San hosts in their bush camp to learn the secrets of their handicrafts - how to craft a bow and arrow, for example. Head out into the bush for an educational experience led by San Bushmen who will show you their hunting techniques honed across the generations - how to track animals, build fires and source edible roots and plants. The evening will be just as memorable as you will share time with your hosts and learn traditional songs and dances under the stars.

A San Bushman leads the way through the Namibian bush

Kenya

Kenya has around 52 separate tribal peoples, the best known are probably the Samburu and Maasai groups, partly because they have closely guarded the culture of their forefathers and maintain a traditional way of life. These people are the true experts of the Kenyan wilds, and their knowledge of the animals and the landscape is unrivalled. A walking safari with a local guide goes beyond spotting the big animals and gives you a deeper understanding of how life has gone on here for centuries in harmony with wildlife.

A Maasai man blows on a horn

Vietnam

Northern Vietnam's remote hills and valleys are home to dozens of minority tribes such as the Hmong and the White Thai peoples, each with distinctive dress and close-knit communities that are often self sufficient. Visiting some of these minority villages is a chance to interact with these groups and to find out more about their daily lives, perhaps share some tea and join them in appreciating the rare beauty of the surroundings - hillsides terraced into stepped rice paddies are a photogenic sight.

Two hill tribe women look out over the surrounding landscape

China

Yunnan province in China's southwest is hugely ethnically diverse, and it is famous for its charming, historic towns set amid stunning landscapes, and traditional yet distinctive local cultures. Two standout destinations in Yunnan are Dali and Lijiang, home to the Bai and Naxi ethnic minority groups respectively. The Bai have traditionally worked in fine handicrafts while the Naxi have always been associated with breeding horses.

The beautiful village of Dali in China's Yunnan province

Peru

There are still around 15 uncontacted tribal groups living in the depths of the Peruvian Amazon, but obviously these should remain separate from modern humanity as much as possible. Of the official population in Peru, as many as half identify as indigenous, many belonging to the Quechua and Aymara ethnic groups. If your Peruvian itinerary includes a trip to the amazing Lake Titicaca you will encounter local people who have made their homes on the floating islands, and who are expert at weaving using the reeds from the lake.

An indigenous woman stands outside of the house she has built from reeds in Puno, Peru

Brazil

With the largest number of uncontacted indigenous peoples of any nation, Brazil is a fascinating destination for anybody interested in anthropology, though of course for many important reasons the uncontacted tribes must stay that way. It is possible during a tour of the Amazon to visit certain indigenous villages where the majority of the population is made up of Amazonian tribespeople that are used to contact with others. It is interesting to meet some of the community members and find out more about their daily lives, traditionally based on fishing and smallholding agriculture.

Two indigenous men in the Amazon rainforest, Brazil

Belize

The Garifuna culture is strong in Belize despite the fact that the Garifuna people have lived here for only a couple of centuries, having fled from nearby Honduras. The culture has settled on the Caribbean Coast around Punta Gorda, where the distinctive Garifuna dress, cuisine and creative arts are thriving. One of the major cultural landmarks in the Garifuna areas is the importance of drumming to their musical heritage - There are two major categories of drum, the Primero (tenor) and Segunda (bass) which are played by seated musicians. Drums are made of hardwood with stretched skin and played using the hands.

A traditional drum played by the Garifuna community in Belize

Guatemala

In the pre-Colombian era, Lake Atitlan was an important area for the Mayan people who were the original inhabitants before the arrival of the Europeans. Several Mayan communities still live around the lake and maintain many of their traditional activities particularly in the cultural and religious spheres.When you visit a Mayan community you can see first hand their adherence to ancient practices such as weaving and beekeeping.

A Mayan man at a market near Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Indonesia

Sulawesi is home to the indigenous Toraja people who have populated these highlands for many centuries. Their culture is particularly distinctive and it is known primarily for its elaborate funeral rites and burial traditions. The Toraja villages in the highlands of South Sulawesi are stunning, constructed in the traditional style with intricate carvings and huge protruding roofs. Visit when a funeral is taking place and it is likely you will be welcomed, as overseas visitors are considered to be a sign of status. The region where the Toraja live is impossibly scenic, with rice terraces, bamboo forests and high peaks.

A Toraja village in South Sulawesi, Indonesia

Ethiopia

Southern Ethiopia is home to some of the most fascinating tribes in all of Africa. The Omo Valley tribes in particular are known for their elaborate body adornments, which have made them well-recognised around the world. Tragically this has meant that some tribes have been exploited and displaced. Tourism here must be undertaken sensitively, which is what our local experts strive to do. Visiting tribes for meaningful exchanges such as learning about their craft skills is very rewarding for both sides, and if you happen by on market day it's an even more immersive experience.

A young tribeswoman in the Omo Valley, Nicaragua

Borneo 

Throughout central and southern Borneo there are numerous indigenous groups. A good place to experience the culture of the Iban people is along the Lemanak River, where you can take a boat which weaves through the lush wilds of Borneo and frequently encounters ancient Iban longhouses which tend to be located on bends in the river. Some longhouses, where up to 20 families may share one large communal home, welcome visitors to see their traditional way of life. Communities are justly proud of their unique heritage, and you may be lucky to learn about their ancient weaving techniques or the skills required to hunt by blowpipe.

A traditional Iban longhouse in Borneo

Panama

On the Caribbean coast of Panama, the San Blas islands are of keen interest to the tourist industry with their idyllic palm topped islands and authentic local culture. Impressively the indigenous Guna population have retained control over tourist access so the islands are never overrun, development is limited and the Guna people directly benefit from tourist spend.

A Guna lady makes traditional chaquiras in Panama

Make it happen

Encounters with cultures and peoples whose lives differ so much from our own is a privilege and a profoundly rewarding experience. When the approach is one of mutual respect and a genuine desire to support and learn about one another, everybody benefits. Our handpicked local experts choose their interactions with indigenous people carefully, and we only work with scrupulous teams who understand the potential harm these interactions could impose if not handled professionally and with utmost care. To find out more about the destinations and itineraries above, click on the links in the text. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.

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