Mexico Tia Stephanie Tours puts emphasis on immersion By Mark Chesnut / August 26, 2008 Share 1 -- For Stephanie Schneiderman, owner of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Tia Stephanie Tours, childhood experiences fostered a lifelong passion that would result in a business enterprise: selling tours to Mexico."My interest in Mexico started at an early age," she said. "I was 5 years old when my father was transferred to Mexico City, where we lived for eight years. During those formative years, my mother took us to climb pyramids on weekends and to visit communities known for their special tapestries and weavings."Schneiderman's early exposure to Mexican culture encouraged her to visit the country as an adult, which eventually led to her idea to found a tour company. "While on one of my expeditions, during Christmas vacation of 2004, I was gazing out the window of a collective bus, watching the landscape change from the jungle lowlands of Palenque to the mountainous highlands of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas," she recalled. "I'll never forget the moment that the light bulb went off in my head. I thought, 'Aha! This is what I want to do! I will help curious travelers get to know this amazing country and its people, beyond the well-trodden beach resorts.'"Tia Stephanie led its first tour in 2006, to participate in a Day of the Dead observance. Tia Stephanie now organizes small-group cultural journeys to a variety of destinations in Mexico. "Since our founding, the key thematic areas that have been developed at Tia Stephanie Tours are art history, archaeology, textile traditions, culinary arts, natural wonders and festivals."Destinations have grown to include Oaxaca, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan, Michoacan and Mexico City, with more regions planned. Schneiderman said the company will soon offer excursions to explore Baja California, the Copper Canyon and Chihuahua and what she calls the "Colonial Heartland" of Mexico: Guanajuato, Queretaro, Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel Allende, Zacatecas, Guadalajara and Morelia.Each tour aims to give travelers an insider's view of the destination. "The key differentiating point of Tia Stephanie Tours starts with the vision of what we are and what we are not," Schneiderman said. "Our trips are thoughtfully designed, our transportation and guides are carefully selected, and we contract subject-matter experts who enlighten our understanding of a region and/or topic. Establishing relationships in the places we visit allows our groups to experience our destinations from the inside out, not the other way around."Tia Stephanie Tours' target market includes travelers who are independent and curious about culture but appreciate guided tours."When I established my business, I recognized that on one side of the travel spectrum, you have the solo traveler who grabs a guidebook and a backpack and heads off to the mountains with the local shaman," Schneiderman said. "On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have travelers who purchase all-inclusive packages at the beach resorts. I decided to fall somewhere in between these two, to offer small-group and personalized travel experiences that would take people off the beaten path."Tia Stephanie's array of tours serves a growing demand for culturally focused product, said Schneiderman."People are looking for more out of their vacations than sitting on a beach," she said. "They want to learn, they want to experience different worlds and customs, they want a richer, more meaningful experience."Also, people are becoming more aware of the fact that Mexico is a destination where you can travel a mere four or five hours and be transported to an entirely different culture."For more information, call (734) 769-7839 or visit www.tiastephanietours.com.Tours for 2009 touch on nature and cultureThe following is a sample of culture- and nature-themed tours to Mexico for next year from Tia Stephanie Tours:• The Textile Traditions of Oaxaca (Feb. 6 to 15): This tour visits the traditional Mexican textile meccas of Oaxaca, including remote indigenous communities of the Amuzgo, Mixtec, Huave and Zapotec tribes. Participants learn about Native American cultural identity through dress and get to see weaving and dyeing textile arts traditions. Priced at $2,185 per person, double.• The Migration of the Monarch Butterflies (Feb. 28 to March 7): This nature-oriented vacation is an eight-day trek to see the winter home of the monarch butterflies in the high, fir-tree-covered mountains of Mexico's Michoacan state. Also included in this tour is a visit to the ancient Purepecha Indian site of Tzintzuntzan, founded in the 13th century, and a tour of the craft villages on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro. Priced at $1,685 per person, double.• Mexico City 101 (April 3 to 11): This vacation is an eight-night introduction to Mexico City tailored to those travelers who might not feel up to exploring Mexico's frenetic, sprawling capital, the largest metropolis in North America, on their own. The tour visits the city center, Alameda Park, Chapultepec Park and several museums. It also takes in San Angel, Coyoacan, Xochimilco and the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Out-of-town excursions to nearby attractions include day trips to Puebla and Cholula as well as the pre-Colombian ancient Aztec monuments of the Great Pyramids of Teotihuacan. Priced at $2,140, per person, double. -- M.C.