Why do we embark on journeys to far-off destinations? Is it a desire to escape our routines? To discover something new? To expand ourselves intellectually or emotionally? Whatever the motivation, travelers are united in their pursuit of a fresh experience. Traveling to a new environment can give a person a new lease on life; invigorating our senses, shifting our perspective and opening our minds. “Travel is both an outward and inward journey,” according to Naya Traveler; a new travel agency designing personalized and immersive vacations.
Naya is Sanskrit for “wise,” “with purpose” and “meaningful,” and it is these characteristics that are at the heart of Naya Traveler. The agency designs itineraries rooted in the first-hand experiences of its three founders. Sofia Mascotena grew up in the Pampas of Argentina; Sarah Casewit spent the first 20 years of her life in Morocco; and Marta Tucci’s documentary photography has taken her all over the world. Together they design enriching, culturally-vibrant trips to Argentina, Cambodia, North and South India, Myanmar, Morocco, Oman and Peru. They are united in their deep cultural knowledge of these particular countries and their personal connections to locals, both of which fuel their passion for ethical and sustainable tourism.
“A Naya traveler is someone who seeks to shatter the divide between the foreigner and the local to fully immerse into the centuries-old customs and rich heritage of a destination.” Whether it’s learning about the history of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge with Marta’s acquaintance Chum Mey, one of the last living survivors of Tuol Sleng Prison, or sharing stories over sweet tea with a local Berber family that Sarah grew up with in Morocco, Naya Traveler honors the power of authentic experience. By building itineraries around the specific interests of their clients and including local field expert guides, Naya Traveler cultivates rich experiences that catalyze the transformative inward journey we all seek when we explore the world.
Can you give us a brief overview of Naya Traveler and how you came about.
We launched Naya Traveler with the intention to bring back purpose and value to travel through immersive, cultural experiences that provide a unique space to discover a destination through the eyes and knowledge of those who know it best. Rooted in first-hand expertise and intimate knowledge, we craft highly personalized itineraries to culturally rich destinations, steeped in tradition and ancient customs. Having traveled with this philosophy our entire lives, we felt there was a real void in the travel industry to cater to people like us, and saw it as an opportunity to extend our knowledge and connections to like-minded individuals.
How did you women find each other?
Marta: We met in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Sofia and Sarah worked together for several years at a luxury travel agency. In the meantime, I had just relocated to Argentina to have a base in South America and pursue some stories in the region. It wasn’t until I returned from an assignment in Peru that we met up for dinner at a greasy spoon diner in Chinatown and unconsciously brainstormed the beginnings of Naya. We talked travel for hours, bonding over our love of sacred traditions and ancient cultures, the excitement of traveling to places that are yet to be tarnished by tourism, and frustration by the lack of diversity in the travel industry when it comes to ways to experience a destination. Before we knew it, we were creating a brand with a strong, distinctive message that would address everything that we discussed over dinner that night.
Where did your travels take you during your childhood? Do you remember the first place that had an impact on you?
Sarah: Growing up in Morocco, I had the opportunity to travel to a number of countries around the world that nurtured my love for vibrant cultures and ancient traditions. My childhood was filled with travel memories, from hiking through the Swiss Alps, to horseback riding around the Egyptian Pyramids, to visiting temples in Thailand. The most memorable journey for me was Mali, in western sub-saharan Africa, where I travelled across the country with my family. We stayed at far-flung villages and visited families in the intimacy of their homes. It was my very first experience, as a child, interacting with locals completely on my own and it was awesome. I hung out with kids in the market and bonded with people over home-made dishes. It was perspective-shifting and I developed a more profound relationship with travel, one that resonates with our vision at Naya Traveler.
Similarly, do you have a favorite destination to travel to? Or a favorite itinerary?
Marta: I’d have to say one of my favorites is Kashmir. I’ve always been drawn by the ancient tales of the Silk Road, and Kashmir was one of the most important hubs during its glory days. Beyond the natural beauty of this region, the melting pot nature of Kashmir is still reflected today in a truly beautiful diversity of beliefs, people of very different backgrounds, and cultures that could not be more opposite, but somehow merge together to create a unique set of customs and shared ideas. It is probably the place that has most challenged and transformed me while traveling, and I am eternally indebted to the kindness and grace of the people I met along the way.
What are the most important aspects for you when you visit a place? Culture? Food? People? Arts?
Sofia: To be honest, it’s difficult to pinpoint one element out of an entire trip. My ultimate goal is to get to know the place from the inside out and to do that, I think the best way is to go through those who represent it best. When I travel to a new place, it is the people that have my full attention. They exemplify every aspect of their culture in the most authentic way possible and their firsthand knowledge is truly invaluable. By meeting them and getting to know their lifestyle, I am introduced to different aspects of their culture, including art, music, food and so much more, in an organic manner.
What’s one of the most memorable reactions you’ve had to a trip you curated?
Sarah: A traveler we hosted in Morocco returned from her trip completely renewed and inspired. In her own words, she said it was “life changing.” Before her trip, she was living a picture-perfect life in California, with all the comforts and amenities modern life has to offer. She felt her life was too easy and needed a challenge. After experiencing the cultural wealth of Morocco, she decided to move to Mexico and reconnect with her roots. Her journey with Naya Traveler transformed her perspective and inspired her to change her life around. It is the biggest compliment we have ever received!
What do you cherish most about what you do?
Sofia: Of course, being able to travel regularly is one of the biggest perks of my job, but travel is becoming more and more accessible, and it’s not something I wouldn’t be able to do if I hadn’t dedicated myself to Naya Traveler. I think one of the things that brings me most joy and satisfaction is enabling others to have experiences they desire, but might feel insecure about doing on their own. It can be daunting to go somewhere new, unknown, with language barriers and so on, but sometimes the only thing missing is a guiding hand to help you get there.
How did you meet the locals you send your clients to and why did you choose the ones you did?
Sarah: Collectively, we’ve lived in all our destinations at various stages of our lives and for different reasons. During these experiences, we developed both personal and working relationships with people who enriched our understanding of their cultures. When you travel, each person you cross paths with offers a unique perspective on their culture and each one comes with a fascinating life story. What all these personalities have in common is they provide travelers with a special window into their homeland, through their profound love for their country and desire to share it with others.
What is something about travel you want travelers to remember throughout their trips? How do you encourage this through Naya?
Marta: Each traveler that comes to us has an idea of what they want to see, experience or do. In return, we like to encourage them to let the destination unravel itself in an organic manner and embrace the element of chance, as the most memorable experiences usually result from the unexpected. For example, we were in Lalibela and had a flight out at 9am. Our host, Yared, had found out there was an important mass happening in one of the ancient rock-hewn churches we had spent the last few days exploring. We decided to wake up before dawn to attend this gathering, and it was extraordinary to see how the ancient churches came to life through the presence of hundreds of people who had come to share in their spirituality. This was completely unplanned and uncharted, yet it became the highlight of our entire trip.
You say you “take conscious measures to preserve the sacred forms of the traditions we explore.” In what ways are you doing this?
Sofia: Travel has been known to have a detrimental effect on societies and cultures if not carried out in a responsible, sustainable manner. Our ethos is to positively contribute to the preservation of the fabric of our destinations–its culture, traditions and way of life–as much as the ecological trace. We have sadly seen how ‘rushed’ tourism initiatives have dramatically affected communities, changing their lifestyle in response to the supply and demand relations. To achieve this, we carefully curate the way our travelers explore a destination, by crafting activities that leave zero trace, with partners who share our commitment to sustainability.
In Peru, for instance, the ancient craft of weaving is losing the war against the growing demands on tourism, and natural materials are being replaced by synthetic ones to meet those demands. This, in turn, is not only extinguishing this art form, but also leaving many families without security. We have partnered up with a local weaving cooperative that is striving to preserve the authentic form of their craft, and our travelers have the chance to meet them, see them at work, and purchase something directly from them if they wish. It is often the case that we might not offer or encourage travelers to partake in an activity that other companies might advertise, because we feel they are not in line with our commitment to sustainable travel.
I believe no one likes to feel that their travels or presence might be doing harm, and all our travelers are always happy to be part of the solution rather than the problem.