Sustainable Travel: Practicing Ahimsa on the Road

Here’s something that’s important to us: sustainable travel and moving through the world doing the least harm possible. Yoga’s foundational practice of ethics, as outlined by the yamas and niyamas, puts “do no harm,” or ahimsa, at the top of the list. Hence, at Baja Surf Yoga we put effort into mindfully choosing the locations for each of our Southern Baja adventures. By doing so, we stay true to our yoga first philosophy.

Sustainable travel means selecting locations, accommodations, tours, and activities that minimize harm to the area’s natural and cultural environment, and at best, benefit the place you’re traveling to.

Whether you take a trip with us, or travel on your own, consider the following to include the practice of ahimsa while on your next trip.

a group of hikers in the Baja dsert
Enjoying the Baja desert, sustainably. (all photos in this blog by Sara-Mai Conway)

Can We Really Do No Harm?

As human beings, merely existing means we’re doing harm. From the smallest particles we walk on and breathe in, to the energy we consume, to the plants and perhaps animals we eat, we live in a realm of give and take. Yet knowing we can never fully squelch our negative impact on the life around us, it’s lazy and inexcusable to throw up our hands and indiscriminately take. The practice of non-harming is ever evolving, so let go of perfection. We begin where we’re at to minimize the harm we cause others. This is also how yoga begins.

Ahimsa is the first of the yamas because to minimize the harm we cause is the least we can do along this path, and a necessary foundation for making any further spiritual progress. Ultimately, the path of yoga is the path of quieting our distracted minds. As a foundation, we clear our conscience, and our karma, through the practice of no longer being an asshole. Once we work that first part out, we can also work on being kind.

Sustainable Travel Defined

Sustainability has become a marketing buzzword. Our coffee, our beer, our clothing, our dog food, and our planned neighborhoods are now all suddenly “sustainable.” But what does sustainability really mean? The most common definition of “sustainability” comes from the world famous Brundtland Report, published by the United Nations in 1987.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

A simple and worthy goal. Go ahead and replace the word “development” with “travel.” We love Baja and we want future generations to enjoy the Baja flora, fauna, culture and places the same way we do. Thus, we work to minimize our negative impact in the following areas, commonly known as the three pillars of sustainability.

infusion jars sit on a bar
locally made at a local bar, the Todos Santos Inn

The First Pillar of Sustainability: Environmental Impact

Minimize harm to the planet wherever you are, and when moving from one place to the next.

Consider your means of travel. Flying leaves a massive carbon footprint. When there’s no alternative to flying, minimize its impact by taking fewer yet longer trips, bring less luggage, fly direct, and choose economy class. Once you land, rent the smallest car, take public transportation, or find a destination and stay put.

Consider your energy consumption, especially in areas like Baja Sur where the load on the grid barely keeps up with high season demand. If you’re lucky, the place you’re staying in runs on solar. Even then, conserve or you might be out of power by day’s end. Avoid traveling in the hottest months if you’ll need AC. Open the windows and enjoy the ocean air.

Consider your water consumption. Ever wonder where the water in the desert comes from? It’s not an unlimited source. Take shorter showers, turn off the water as you shampoo and soap up, and opt to do less laundry.

Why is the hotel you chose a “desert oasis?” Are they watering non-native landscaping all day long? Is the beachfront location primo because it was built on a dune? Did they push out local fishermen or farmers to grab the land? Do you really need three different swimming pools? Maybe you can do without even one. Research all you can about your hotel.

Outdoor adventure in Baja Sur is what we go there for. When playing in nature, be mindful of your activities and their impact on the wilderness and wildlife. Avoid driving on the beaches, which are important as habitat for nesting sea turtles and other critters. Follow the seasonal fishing regulations. When “off road” on dirt bikes, ATVs and trucks, take the path that already has tire tracks on it. Choose reef safe sunscreen before getting in the water.

Mexican ceramic sugar skulls
hand painted ceramic sugar skulls

The Second Pillar of Sustainability: Cultural Impact

Here we’re talking about minimizing harm to people. Specifically, the people who are native to the place you’re visiting.

First things first, have respect and let Mexico be Mexico. You travel to go somewhere different from home, so let it be so. In our opinion, that giant walled in resort hotel that helps you feel safe because it feels and looks familiar, where only English is spoken, where the menu offers everything imported from the town you left behind, and the wine is French, does not help sustain the culture of Mexico.

Consider why you travel. Step outside into the neighborhood and explore. Eat the street food, especially all the tacos. Try the local cuisine. When shopping for a souvenir, purchase a handmade craft from a local artisan in lieu of a t-shirt or a shot glass made in China. Hang out where you can meet the local people, and not just other tourists.

Choose activities that are culturally appropriate for the area you’re visiting. For example, in Southern Baja get out in nature, see the desert and the ocean, visit the missions, learn about the history of colonialism. Spending your time and money at places like Ripley’s Believe it or Not or Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum does not sustain the area’s culture. Thankfully, neither of those tourist traps have locations in Baja, yet should you be golfing in the desert? Is Seรฑor Frog’s a Mexican cultural institution? You decide.

a naturalist talking to a group of hikers
touring with a local naturalist from Todos Santos Eco Adventures

The Third Pillar of Sustainability: Economic Impact

Consider who profits. While some decry the effects of tourism on any locale, especially quiet surf spots, areas of natural beauty, and small off-the-grid towns as found in Baja, others are quick to point out the economic benefits that tourism brings.

And while it’s true that even foreign-owned hotel chains need local employees, are they earning fair wages? What percent of the profit stays in the local economy versus getting  siphoned off to the non-Mexican corporate office?

We personally prefer to spend our money on locally owned boutique hotels, restaurants, and adventure outfitters. We choose the kinds of places where we know the owner, can make friends with the manager, and begin to feel like family as repeat visits build over time. Our money goes further, and it’s the same principle behind why we shop locally and shop small whenever possible at home.

sponsoring a sea turtle nest
sponsoring a sea turtle nest at Tortugueros las Playitas A.C. in Todos Santos

Sustainable travel is not an all or nothing mandate, we do what we can as we become aware. It’s our hope that this post has in the least given you a few things to mull over, and that you’ll be encouraged to lessen your impact, and research your options.

Mindful travel brings us closer to each other, closer to the earth, and closer to the divine. This experience of the connectedness of all things is also the aim of the yogic path. Begin the practice with mindful travel, or begin the practice with yoga and ahimsa. It’s all the same, just begin.


Sara-Mai Conway is a yoga and meditation instructor with Baja Surf Yoga who aims to live like a local while traveling. While at home, she shuts off the lights when she leaves a room, takes quick showers, and resets the AC to 78 when her husband’s not looking. Join her for a trip.   

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