Tia Stephanie Tours: Transformative Experiences of Mexico
Photo courtesy of Tia Stephanie Tours
At a time when travelers are intent on having authentic in-depth experiences, Stephanie Schneiderman is particularly well suited to the task of providing them. She grew up in Mexico and now operates Tia Stephanie Tours, a specialist in culturally focused tours to Mexico and Colombia.
For those whose experience of Mexico is limited to travel to Cancun for a beach vacation, it may be surprising to hear Schneiderman talk about Mexico.
“Mexico has a depth of cultural richness that is almost unparalleled,” said Schneiderman. “The typical traveler has no idea. In my case I am so lucky to have grown up in Mexico and chosen to travel there for many years to learn about it firsthand.”
She spent her formative years there, from kindergarten to junior high school. “My whole childhood was immersed in Mexico,” she said.
Schneiderman actually began her days in Cuba. She was born in Havana when her father was working there for Chase Manhattan Bank. Stephanie was born in 1959; not the best year to be born in Cuba. It was the year of Castro’s revolution and with his nationalization of U.S. banks that year, “We had to get the hell out of Dodge,” she said.
Schneiderman was still an infant when the family moved to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. A couple of years later they moved to Panama, and then in 1964 they moved to Mexico City for her father’s next assignment. By then she was five years old. She remembers boarding the Pan Am flight and landing in Mexico.
“That begins my aware years as a child,” she said. “I don’t remember Cuba. I do remember some of Panama. St. Thomas I remember because it was so remarkable, the ocean, the beauty. I have a very clear memory of swimming on the beach.”
For the first two weeks the family stayed at the Sheraton Maria Isabel, which had the grandeur to impress even a small child.
“It’s an iconic hotel in the middle of Reforma Avenue, the Champs-élysées of Mexico,” said Schneiderman. It was an area rich in fine architecture and culture, much of it imported from France.
The family moved around from place to place for a few months until they finally were settled in a home in the upscale Jardines del Pedregal district.
Schneiderman’s mother took it upon herself to show her children Mexico. She had been born in Nebraska, moved with her family to Chicago and later went to Mexico and learned Spanish.
“I often say it’s my dad who got us there because of his career, but it was my mother who showed us Mexico,” said Schneiderman. “On weekends we were always going somewhere to see Mexico. We’d go to the Pyramids of Teotihuacan. We would walk through the cornfields surrounding the pyramids and we’d find arrowheads and shards of pottery. We felt like young archaeologists, my brothers and I. She’d take us to small villages, small textile communities. My mom really took her time to make sure when we were growing up in Mexico that we didn’t just live there, that we learned about the country and the people.”
When Schneiderman was 13, the family moved to Florida, but every year she traveled either to Mexico or Italy, her other favorite country.
“I’ve traveled to Mexico my whole adult life,” she said,. “through the jungles of Chiapas, the canyons of Chihuahua, the valleys of Oajaca, the beaches… I traveled high and low.”
People often ask her, “Why do you keep traveling back to Mexico?”
“I would explain that every place I go in Mexico feels like an entirely different country,” she said. “Last year was in Chiapas in the jungle. This year I’m going down to the bottom of the Copper Canyon. Next year I’m going to go to La Paz and the Sea of Cortez, Every year I would go to a different place.”
Schneiderman was following a career path in sales of automotive equipment when the idea came to her to start a travel company.
“I was still traveling to Mexico when I had an epiphany moment,” she said. “When you are working in Corporate America you have only a set amount of time to travel, you’ve got to get back. I was trying travel from Palenque in Chiapas to San Cristobal to get my flight to start making my way back home and the guy next to me bought the last ticket for the bus. I was upset. I thought, How am I going to get back? I’ve got to get back to work in a day. The people there started laughing at me. They said, ‘Lady don’t get upset now. There are plenty of ways to get to San Cristobal.”
Someone told her she could catch The Collective, a van that the locals used. She grabbed her suitcase and went running for the van. She ended up catching a ride that was leaving four hours earlier than the bus she had missed.
“I said, ‘Yay, I outsmarted the bus!’”, she said. “Then the bus is going through the jungles of Palenque toward the mountains and there was literally a ray of sunlight that came through trees. I saw this ray of sunlight and I said, ‘I’m going to start a travel business. I love traveling to Mexico. I’ve been coming here for so many years it’s time I start sharing it with people so they can see what an incredible country this is.”
As she rode the bus she brainstormed about how she would create her tour company.
“I asked myself how I would design tours so they wouldn’t feel like tourism,” she said. “I wanted the tours to feel like what I was experiencing as a traveler. I wanted everyone to feel like travelers, not tourists.”
Schneiderman wanted to target the traveler that fell somewhere on the spectrum between the beach vacationer and the solo pilgrim who takes a travel book and heads into the mountains to meet a shaman.
“I said somewhere in between in this spectrum there is the traveler who would love to experience these places, people, traditions, culture and diversity, all these things I was seeing, and these people maybe don’t speak the language. Maybe they don’t know how to go about it, how to negotiate cultural and physical landscape, and I can provide that. Through the design of our tours we can help facilitate traveler experiences.”
That was in 2004. Since then the company has become a recognized specialist in cultural travel to Mexico, providing tours for organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Slow Food California, Florida International University/Frost Art Museum and the Toledo Museum of Art.
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The company provides a wide range of tours to various regions in Mexico, focused on various special interests, such as culture and cuisine, textile traditions, ancient civilizations, art history and festivals. It also creates custom tours.
It’s not only the clients whose lives are touched by the experiences.
The company created a tour to study the African heritage of Mexico for the Du Sable Museum of African American History in Chicago, and during the tour, Carol Adams, the then-director of the museum, addressed a group of Afro-Mexican people gathered with a group of Afro-American visitors.
“Something incredible happened,” said Schneiderman. “Dr. Adams said, ‘We have come to meet our brothers and our sisters, our aunts and our uncles and cousins. We were separated. History separated us but, here we are together again.’
“Everyone was so moved. I learned then that they weren’t just learning about African heritage, they as people from the African diaspora who came to the U.S. involuntarily as slaves were meeting their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins who left from same place they did and instead of going to the United States they went to other places. That’s when I learned that travel is transformational.”
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