Megan Brumagim—student, editor, and jungle-trekker—has been writing about travel on a shoestring budget since her freshman year at Harvard. As an editor for the Let's Go guidebooks, the Pennsylvania native immersed herself in South American culture to report on the best places to hang up a rucksack and grab a meal in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Travel + Leisure caught up with Megan on a study break to find out how to be a responsible tourist, what it's like to travel on a freighter through the Amazon, and why that matronly woman in the market can be your best ally.
1) How did you become involved with the Let's Go! series and what sort of hands-on research does it entail?
I was a freshman and saw posters all around campus that said, "We will pay YOU to go to India (or Peru or Europe) and do research for us." I thought, wow, I love to travel and this sounds like a great opportunity, so I applied to be a researcher and I've worked for the company ever since. You travel by yourself on an eight-week itinerary. It's your job to check every single establishment listed in the guide, update the information, rewrite anything that needs it, and cut establishments that aren't good enough to be put in the guide or no longer exist. You also add new coverage. It's certainly more than a nine-to-five commitment. You get up every morning around seven and hit the road. You do research throughout the day, and into the night if you have bars and clubs to investigate. At some point in the evening, you're also writing the copy for that day.
2) Obviously over eight weeks of researching restaurants and hostels, you can't try out every single one. How do you address such logistical constraints?
It's really important when you're researching to talk to other travelers and to the locals. And while you may not be able to stay in every single establishment, you certainly visit them. Generally we try to be undercover when we're researching. So I would go into a hostel that I wasn't staying at and ask, "How much does the room cost?" and check all the information out. I'd ask to see a room without really letting on that I'm writing for a travel guide. If they knew you were a travel writer, they might show you the nicest room, whereas what you want is really the average room that any traveler would get.
3) What is the one thing you always have to have with you?
A good book. When it comes to packing, I lay out all the clothes that I absolutely need, then I take half the clothes and twice the money. It's a good rule to live by.
4) Do you ever find it difficult traveling as a woman?What are some precautions young women should take when traveling, both alone and with others?
Sure, it's challenging. In retrospect, I'm very glad I did it because I feel that much more empowered to do anything. I think it's especially important for women to do their homework before they go somewhere, to understand not only the political climate but also the gender roles in the area. Before I went to Peru, I didn't anticipate how much attention I would attract as a foreign woman traveling alone. Some Peruvians have the custom of hissing at women who walk by, and that bothered me. After a while I got used to it, kind of accepted it, and kept walking. Also, it's really important to be very aware of your surroundings. And when you're in a town or a country where you don't feel comfortable, a good tactic is to try and talk to some of the older local women. No one messes with those women a lot of the time. So many times on the road, I found that it was really helpful to seek them out and ask their advice. Just being in their presence sent a clear message to people around: that you were not to be messed with. We often recommend that women who are traveling alone wear a gold ring, like a wedding band. Then you can always say, "My husband is meeting me at the hotel in five minutes. He's big and burly."
5) Of the places you've visited, what is your favorite?Why?
Buenos Aires, because it is just an amazing city. It is so European and at the same time it is very distinctly Argentine. The people definitely have a strong cultural history. I found them to be incredibly friendly and welcoming. I am still fascinated by tango, which is very much a part of their identity. You can walk down the street in Buenos Aires and see couples dancing.
6) You stayed with a family in Argentina and in the Amazon basin of Peru. Do you recommend home stays to other travelers?What did you gain from the home-stay that you couldn't get anywhere else during your trip?
I definitely would recommend home stays. It is up to the traveler's comfort level to determine whether they want to plan their home stay ahead of time—like I did in Argentina—or whether they want to do an impromptu stay, as I had in Peru. I think that home-stays give you a lot of insight, perhaps even more than budget travel, into the people of the country and their way of life. But it's a two-way street. At the same time that I was learning about them, they were learning about me and my life. It was a fascinating experience.
7) What is your best bit of travel advice?
Be flexible, because if you are willing to travel with a little flexibility you find many opportunities to explore things that you wouldn't otherwise find. If you are able to take yourself a little out of your comfort zone—whether that means sitting at a restaurant by yourself or walking up to someone and asking directions—initiating conversation with locals and remaining flexible really pays off. I recall a vacation in the Scottish Highlands where I was driving with a friend and we saw two hitchhikers on the side of the road. They were an older couple, and the man was wearing a kilt. We pulled over and picked them up and they directed us to places we would not have found with our map. They were familiar with the area and pointed us to an amazing coral beach, a lighthouse, and some good off-road hiking.
8) What's been your most unusual travel experience?
In Peru's Amazon Basin a lot of the transportation relies on the waterways as opposed to the roads because the roads are unpaved and pretty treacherous (especially in the rainy season when they get washed out entirely). One town I had to visit was really remote so I actually had to take a cargo ship to get there. What is surprising is that this is fairly common practice for Peruvians. When I think of a cargo ship I think of something very massive, and this actually was not. On the bottom deck were bananas, chicken, and corn, while the top two decks were for people. Before you got on the boat, you would buy a hammock in the marketplace, and then you'd string it up on board. I was on this boat for about two days. In a cage on the top deck was a black puma; I have always loved big cats so I decided to string up my hammock pretty close to the puma. Every time the ship docked, people would come on board to sell things like coconuts. Spending two days on the boat allowed me to really get to know some of the people, such as a group of schoolteachers from the Northern Highlands who were going to do conservation work in the jungle.
9) Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia are gaining more attention as eco destinations. Do you think that outfitters offering eco-trips are marketing to compassionate sensibilities to turn a buck? Or do you think that trips branded as green and eco are actually doing their part to preserve the natural landscape and promote responsible tourism?
I cannot really generalize and say that it is one or the other, but I think there is definitely some of both. It is up to the traveler to be responsible and it is also up to us as travel guides to do that research and to keep people as informed as possible. I definitely think that while there are many organizations out there just to make a buck, there are plenty that are genuinely concerned with preserving the ecosystem of the area while promoting tourism. Be sure to check out the tourist office in the area because some tourist offices (in Peru, for instance) keep records of both positive reports and complaints that people have filed against establishments, tour groups, and private companies. The best thing is to ask probing questions about what specifically the trip will entail and how each leg of it works. Another good idea is to ask about the tour company's mission. If they do not seem to have something they can clearly and passionately speak about, that may be an indication that maybe this is not as thought-out as they would want you to believe. It's important to know where they dispose of trash and what the policy is on hunting and fishing as it is illegal in much of the region. If they plan on catching the food on the excursion, it is probably not a group that you want to join in your quest for an eco-friendly experience.
10) With the world seemingly becoming smaller, there appear to be fewer unspoiled destinations. Have you ever stumbled across an interesting new destination and left it out of the guidebook in order to preserve it?
That is a challenge we always face. Last year, when I was training my researchers for "Peru/Ecuador/Bolivia," that question came up a lot. We know that there are some amazing villages and unspoiled communities out in the jungle. We know that occasionally foreigners will go with a guide who is trusted by that community and have a really amazing experience, but we do not want to send lots of people into villages that are not prepared for that kind of influx. I think we have a responsibility to the local community as much as we do to the traveler. Ultimately, I hope that we are promoting responsible tourism that not only provides wonderful experiences for travelers but is somehow also beneficial to the community.