I‘ve loved traveling for a handful of years now but it wasn’t until I found myself venturing off the beaten path in Morocco last year when I started to realize the difference between the beaten path, and off the beaten path.
If you read this site semi-regularly you’ll know I talk a lot and recommend having a good guidebook for your travels. Many dedicated travelers frown on it as they want to see a place on their own terms and not how some underpaid guidebook writer tells them to. I see this point, don’t get me wrong, but most of my trips are condensed into two weeks or less and require some assistance with planning. My vacation time is valuable and that’s why I always use a guidebook.
I began to notice differences between those popular cities and smaller ones that are difficult to get to for the average tourist but it didn’t became clear until reading Thomas Kohnstamm’s book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism.
While working for Lonely Planet in Brazil, Thomas struggled with the attitude you hear so many travelers talk about. Once a guidebook is published it can literally change the entire financial focus of a small city. A small fishing village can quickly become nothing more than a tourist trap complete with hotels, pizzerias, drugs and prostitutes.
Avoiding the “gringo trail”
So how do you avoid these less-than-authentic places? One way is by closing that guidebook, putting it in your backpack, and start talking to people. Are you staying at a hostel? Ask some of the other guests where they have been, where they recommend, and most of all, why they recommend it. The guy with the scruffiest beard and most pungent stench is probably the best guy to ask, by the way. Well, usually!
Better than chatting up your fellow hostel patrons, go one step further and talk to actual locals. When I visited Morocco I flew into Casablanca which, much to my surprise, was actually very un-touristy. I found little to spark my interest other than plenty of friendly locals who were in town for shopping or business. It only took me a few minutes of walking around the town aimlessly for a local to chat me up and eventually invite me to his home in a much smaller nearby town. He gave me his address but unfortunately I didn’t make enough time to visit. Later in the week a man we met on a bus not only helped secure transport when the bus stopped earlier than expected, but he invited us for dinner two nights in a row. Not only was the food great, the company and hospitality offered was something I could have never imagined.
Depending on where you come from, this type of behavior might seem a little odd but in reality, this is pretty normal for most of the world. You’ll be surprised at the friendliness and welcoming nature of most people when you venture off the beaten path.
Paving a new path
Keep in mind that when you are walking in the forest and you venture off the trail, your footprints start to make a new path that others might follow. Is there anything wrong with that? Maybe, but probably not. Just understand that you might be blazing the trail for other travelers. What is considered a sleepy village now might change in a very short time after you visit, come home, and blog about it.
Does that mean you have to keep all of these places a secret? Not at all. Even if you try to, somebody else will sooner or later. When I was dragged to Cinque Terre, Italy in 2004 by three people I met in a hostel I was amazed and was sure that I found an undiscovered gem. We rented a room from a local family and were the only group dining at the lone restaurant in the village. Little did I know that tourism would quickly explode to Cinque Terre over the next couple of years. You would be hard pressed to find a traveler who has toured Italy and didn’t stop there.
I had nothing to do with Cinque Terre’s explosion, but you shouldn’t be naive to think that you have no influence over a place.
I get questioned by people from both sides of the travel community. The people who feel they are elite and too good to visit larger cities because Lonely Planet has an entire chapter on them tell me to get out and explore more. Others recommend sticking to those same places for a week or longer not only because it is easier, but because there are plenty of things to do and see in a large city. This may be true, but I can only visit so many museums and my wallet can only afford so many overpriced dinners. I prefer to stay for a couple of days and then make my way out and about the region.
That’s the balance I have found and it works well for me. Is it my travel rule? Not at all. Some large cities (San Jose, Costa Rica) are better to simply pass through on your way to paradise. Other countries may be the opposite for some.
Do you follow a “trail?” How do you find balance between the seen, and the unseen (or unwritten about)?