10 Travel Photography Tips to Help Take Great Photos

I’m an avid traveler and a semi-professional photographer (that means yes, I’ve been paid, but no, not very much) and obviously those two loves combine with travel photography.  I have photos from all over the world and they truly mean everything to me.  I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way and I’ve picked up tips along the way.  Here are the 10 most important ones I know and share with others all the time.

Keep in mind that it really doesn’t matter what camera you have.  You are the one in control and your camera is just a tool.  Learn how to use it, and learn how to take great photos.

Now, onto the good stuff:

1) Make sure horizon lines are straight

Straight Horizon
Straight Horizon - Fez, Morocco
Crooked Horizon
Crooked Horizon - Slight, but noticeable - Budapest, Hungary

One of the most common mistakes people make, especially when shooting landscapes, is not paying attention to the horizon lines.  It’s easy to hold your camera slightly crooked, so be sure pay attention and try to look for an obvious line to use as a guide if the actual horizon isn’t visible.

2) Use your flash when there is back lighting

No flash, strong back lighting
No flash, strong back lighting. Faces are in a shadow - Costa Rica
Flash used, subjects are lit nicely
Flash used, subjects are lit nicely - Costa Rica

Another common mistake and this easy fix can be used in many different situations.  Flash can be used when the sun is behind the subjects.  In this case, you see that we’re in the shade.  The beautiful rain forest is a major part of the photo, but we still need to be lit well.  Flash to the rescue!

You can also use this technique when posing in front of sunsets, at night if posing in front of a lit building, etc.

3) Offer to take photos of other travelers

Thanks Stranger!
Thanks Stranger! - Rome, Italy

Traveling alone but want a photo of yourself? No, you don’t have to hold the camera out as far as you can and snap a goofy photo of half of your face.  Chances are there are other tourists nearby who are thinking the same thing as you.  You’ll often see couples taking pictures of each other individually. Be friendly and offer to take a photo of them together with their camera.  Then run away with their fancy camera! Wait, that’s not what I was going to say.  Oh yeah, then ask if they’ll mind snapping one of you.  That’s how I managed to get this photo of myself in front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome.

4) Look for unusual perspectives

Thinking outside the frame, er... box?
Thinking outside the frame, er... box? - Fez, Morocco

You can only pose so many times in front of random things or places before all your photos start to get redundant.  Browsing this artisan’s shop in Fez, Morocco we noticed our reflections in these beautiful crafted mirrors and decided to make a unique portrait.  It’s not an amazing picture by any means, but we had a good laugh about it and it’s better than us posing in front of the mirrors or a photo of the mirrors alone.  Those would have been pretty boring, right?

5) Find a way to stabilize your camera at night

Blury hand held photo at night
Blurry hand held photo at night - Budapest, Hungary
Stability means sharpness
Stability means sharpness - Budapest, Hungary

If it’s night time and you want to shoot something that your flash can’t light up, chances are your photo will come out blurry.  The solution? Set the timer on your camera and find somewhere you can set it down.  You probably aren’t walking around with a tripod, so look for a post, fire hydrant, bench, wall, etc.  Line up your shot, click the shutter and take your hands off! Don’t be alarmed if your camera takes a few seconds to get the exposure.  It’ll open the lens for as long as it needs to get a decent exposure.


6) Get high

Birds have the best views - Cinque Terre, Italy
Birds have the best views - Cinque Terre, Italy

No, I don’t mean use drugs to help your travel photography.  Use your feet and start walking up, and up, and up.  Some of the best views are from above such as this photograph from the hills above Cinque Terre.  It was quite a hike, but well worth the effort.

7) Don’t use your camera’s digital zoom

Digital Zoom - Venice, Italy
Digital Zoom Reenactment, don't try this at home - Venice, Italy
No Digital Zoom. Nice and crisp! - Venice, Italy
No Digital Zoom. Nice and sharp! - Venice, Italy

There are very few reasons why you should ever use the digital zoom function on your digital camera.  So few reasons that I can’t even think of one.  Even if it does help you reach somewhere you couldn’t have without it, the pictures are so pixelated and blurry that you will probably never use it.  It’s truly a worthless feature built into cameras simply so they can advertise a bloated zoom number on the box for uninformed buyers.

If you really need to get closer for a shot, use your feet.  If that’s not possible, try a different perspective.  Get creative and you’ll enjoy your photo much more than by zooming in to 100x.

8) Keep an eye out for candid moments

Beggar candid - Florence, Italy
Beggar candid - Florence, Italy
Kids fighting over a tire - Fez, Morocco
Kids fighting over a tire - Fez, Morocco

Candid moments are usually my favorite type of photographs.  Sometimes you can capture someone’s expression when it is entirely genuine.  These kids fighting over a tire really stood out to me and I was really glad I managed to capture it.

This is the time to be incognito – think James Bond!  Haven’t you always wanted to be a spy?

9) Keep an eye out for something unusual

Unusual paint job - Budapest, Hungary
Unusual paint job - Budapest, Hungary

So long as it is safe, you should always carry your camera with you.  Even if it’s pouring rain outside, bring it along since you never know when you might see a SmartCar with the Death Star painted on it.

10) Take a lot of photos and don’t delete them

Memory cards are cheap.  Buy the biggest one that your camera will work with or, better yet, buy several.  It might seem like over kill but it can be a good idea to change cards a couple times throughout your trip.  This way, if one fails or your camera gets stolen, you still have photos on another card and you didn’t lose everything. If you’re feeling nice you can always donate it to a traveler in need.  I met two during my last trip and unfortunately I could only help one of them out of their bind.

I hope these tips help!  If you have any travel photography questions or have a tip you’d like to share, please use the comments below.

If you like this article please consider subscribing to our RSS or Email feed or following us on Twitter.

What to Pack For Morocco

This is the first in a series of posts about what to pack for specific destinations.  I noticed an unbelievable amount of Google traffic searching for information on what to pack for Morocco, one of my favorite previous trips.  Since I never touched  on what I packed for Morocco, I decided to write a post about it.  Occasionally I’ll revisit this topic for other destinations that require certain types of clothing or gear.

Morocco is a very unique destination.  Located in North Africa but still carrying the vibe of the Middle East.  Morocco is full of culture, languages, sights, great food, amazing landscapes, and best of all, relatively safe.  This makes it a popular destination for independent travelers and backpackers flock to the various areas around the country.

Morocco is not your every day tourist destination though.  Being a conservative Islamic republic, you should be mindful of Moroccan’s customs and be respectful in your dress.  This means that, despite the often warm temperatures, you should not plan on walking around in shorts and short-sleeved t-shirts.  This goes for both men and women.

For men, jeans, khaki’s and cargo pants are acceptable and long sleeved t-shirts, thin jackets, or lightweight casual button-down shirts are recommended.

Women can generally follow the above recommendations but just be mindful to not wear tops that expose cleavage or have short sleeves.  It may not be considered risque in western culture, but these items are generally unacceptable in Moroccan culture.

Recommended Packing List:

  • 4-5 shirts (or blouses) – preferably long sleeved
  • 1 jacket or sweater
  • 2 pairs of comfortable pants
  • swim suit – if you’re visiting the beach
  • hat – especially if you’re visiting the desert
  • enough socks and underwear
  • comfortable sneakers or hiking shoes
  • toiletries – don’t go overboard, but shopping for your typical toiletries in Morocco might be difficult
  • digital camera – smaller is better

Morocco isn’t particularly dangerous, but places like Tangiers do suffer from slightly more than normal amounts of petty theft.  If you are spending time in any medina areas and want to take photographs, a small camera is a better idea.  Remember, this is where Moroccan’s live and work and aren’t necessarily tourist areas, despite the popularity of them.

If you like this article please consider subscribing to our RSS or Email feed or following us on Twitter.

Staying Connected Abroad Without Going Overboard

Year after year more gadgets come out that help us stay connected.  Blackberries, iPhones, laptops, netbooks, etc.  There are an absurd amount of gizmos that we carry around.

Traveling independently, usually with nothing more than a backpack, limits what you can carry, and something is going to have to go.

I used to be guilty of carrying too much with me when I traveled for work.  Not only did I pack a suitcase for one week in a fancy hotel, but I also carried my Apple Powerbook, iPod, digital camera (often a large digital SLR in addition to a pocket digital camera), and my old Sidekick cellphone.  Once you include all the power adapters and other miscellaneous required junk, that’s 15-20 pounds of gear in a daypack!

I’ve learned to live a more simple life, even when traveling for work.  For instance, I no longer need to travel with a laptop.  In fact, the only reason I carried it was to watch movies on airplanes and in my hotel room.

I’ve also consolidated my iPod and cell phone with an iPhone. This lovely gadget never leaves my side and also does most of the work my laptop used to do.  I can easily check my email, surf the web, watch movies, listen to music, and even update my website!

When I travel abroad I turn the cellular data off as I don’t need or want to pay for expensive calls, text messages, or data charges.  I find that most hostels and hotels now have free wireless internet and I’m able to keep up on my email, send messages to my family, and of course, TWITTER!

I’ve also ditched the digital SLRcamera for most trips.  As much as I loved it, it was just too much to carry and in some places, a security liability.  I have a Nikon Coolpix S610pocket digital camera that fits in my pocket and takes great photos.  It’s not the same, but it’s all I need.  Er, want.  Plus, it shoots pretty good quality movies so there’s no need for a video camera either.

In addition to my iPhone and digital camera, the only thing I would consider or recommend carrying would be a Netbook.  These small portable laptops are less than 10″ and usually weigh only 2 or 3 pounds!  To me, they’re not a necessity unless you I was going to be traveling for an extended period of time.  They can come in handy for storing your photographs, writing emails and blog posts, or even using Skype to call back home.

ASUS is arguably the most popular maker of Netbooks today and their latest, the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE is quite appealing.

Consolidating is your friend.  You don’t need every gadget and gizmo out there!  Many people have iPhones and Blackberries that can connect to the internet via WiFi now and that can substitute a laptop for the majority of budget travelers.  Don’t forget that many hostels and hotels now provide computers and if not, internet cafes are always around the corner!

OK now, be honest. What are you guilty of carrying? Share  your good (or bad) habits in the comments section!

That Taxi Driver is Probably NOT Your Friend

Taxi drivers.  You’ve got to love them.  It doesn’t matter what country you are in.  They always have a unique trinket dangling from their mirror and are happy to provide you with lots of advice on wherever it is you are traveling.  Especially so if they pick you up at the airport and you have a big backpack or you’re dragging some luggage behind you.

Unfortunately the first person you usually meet in a new country isn’t always the most trustworthy.

You hop in the car and tell the driver where you’d like to go.  Often times they respond by telling you that hotel is booked, it’s dirty, or unsafe.  If you don’t know any better, you might believe him and let him take you to a place he recommends.

Of course what he doesn’t tell you is that he is getting a commission for taking you to that place.

This is the oldest trick in the book and happens more often than you might believe.  Just last week I had it happen to me.  Twice.

So how do you avoid this? First of all, stick to your plans and know what you are getting in to.  If you are arriving somewhere late at night, it’s probably a good idea to book accommodation for your first night.

Another trick is charging you a flat rate versus using the meter.  This hardly works out in your favor.  Some places I have been (Morocco for instance) generally don’t use the meter and offer you a flat rate before you get in.  My experiences were fair and the prices were very cheap.  Recently in Costa Rica though, we agreed to pay 4,000 colones (about $8) for the three of us to be driven across town to a restaurant late at night.  We had a tough time finding a cab so we just agreed and off we went.  After dinner we flagged down another cab and headed back to our hotel room.  He turned on the meter and it came to 1,000 colones.  We realized we were ripped off the first time and always insisted on using the meter from then on.

All this negative talk about taxi drivers probably makes me look like a pessimist.  In reality, I’ve had some great conversations with taxi drivers and they are often very nice and enjoy meeting foreigners.  Especially if they want to practice your language.  I’ve had full conversations about American politics, tourism and the economy–all in various, and probably butchered, languages.  Often they can be insightful and entertaining, looking for somebody to chat with just like you are.

On the other hand, I’ve been ripped off (usually for such an insignifigant amount it’s laughable) and attempted to be taken advantage of.  So be careful and have a plan.  Don’t let a taxi driver boss you around.  They usually will take “no” for an answer very easily so insist on going where you want to go.

Have any funny (or horror) stories about taking taxis around the world? Share them in the comments below!

Photo credit: daveknapik

Five Destinations for First-Time Backpackers

Sunset in Cinque Terre, Italy
Sunset in Cinque Terre, Italy

The other day a friend of mine wrote to me and said he has been reading the site but was curious as to where I would recommend he and his wife go for their first adventure.

That question inspired me to write this post. Here are five destinations that I would highly recommend to first-time travelers:

Italy

Probably the first thing that comes to mind when people think of visiting Italy is the food. And it should be, because eating out in Italy is a treat and worth the trip even if it’s all you manage to do.

Of course Italy has a lot more to offer. You can spend weeks enjoying the wonderful ocean villages of Cinque Terre, the canals and neighboring islands of Venice, the great art in Florence, or the amazing history of Rome. Italy has so much going on that you’ll quickly realize there is not enough time to enjoy it all.

Italy is certainly well visited by tourists and Italians are very welcoming. When I went in 2004 I was prepared to use my poor Italian that I had learned but everybody I met was happy to speak English and would chat me up for hours on end if time allowed. The train system goes everywhere you’ll need to go and is easy to use. And best of all, the major cities are all wonderful walking towns. Rome has a metro system, but you’re better off walking to where you need to go and seeing the great sights around town.

You’ll also be able to find hostels and budget hotels everywhere you go. I rarely recommend booking in advance, but Italy has a lot of visitors and it’s not cheap either. It’s best to book things in advance if possible.

France

Who hasn’t dreamt of the city of lights? Whether you’re a hopeless romantic, wine connoisseur, or art buff, Paris is a place that everybody can enjoy.

Spend a day (a week is easily doable) in the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa. Check out the Van Gogh paintings in Musee D’Orsay. Walk around the Latin Quarter and practice your French by chatting up a Parisian student. Head up the steep cobblestone walkways of Montmartre and enjoy the views of the city from the Sacre Coeur. Buy some bread, cheese, and a cheap bottle of wine and enjoy a picnic lunch on the banks of the Seine. Don’t forget the obligatory trip up the Eiffel tower!

If you are there for a few days, take the train to Versailles. Enjoying dinner there is expensive, but viewing a castle like that is certainly an awe-inspiring sight.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a little more challenging for first time travelers but there is a lot of upside. Many hardcore travelers would consider Costa Rica “touristy” but it is far less visited than any of the other countries listed so far.

On the negative side, Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jose can be dangerous and offers very little other than a large airport. If you do some research though, you’ll find you only need to go into the city for specific buses and staying in neighboring Alajuela is a much better option for overnight stops. Stay away from the Coca-Cola bus terminal at night and you’ll be safe.

On the positive side, Costa Rica offers some of the most beautiful nature in the world. While the bus system may not be the smoothest in the world, it does exist and can take you around the entire country. It’s also very cheap!

The influx of tourism to Costa Rica over the past few years has increased prices, but it still will only cost a fraction of what a trip to nearly any city in Europe will cost. Hostel beds for less than $10 are common and eating a good meal at the local sodas (cafes) can cost as little as $2-3.

Whether you want to enjoy surfing on the Pacific or Caribbean, explore a rain forest with monkeys swinging overhead, go white water rafting, kayak mangroves, or peer into a Volcano, you can can do it all in Costa Rica. Spend as little as a week or as long as a year, and you can still manage to not go to the same place twice. This tiny country is a real gem in Central America.

Peru

Many people dream of visiting ancient Inca and Mayan ruins in Central America and Peru offers one of the most amazing opportunities to do so.

Machu Picchu is one of the most impressive sights in the world to visit ancient ruins despite it being 8,000 ft above sea level. While this elevation might make it a little more difficult to get to than other places, it still manages to be an extremely popular destination for travelers.

The common practice is to stay in nearby Cuzco for a couple of days to acclimate to the elevation. From there, you can book a multi-day hike and camping trek and enjoy the Inca Trail.

There are many providers for this tour and most provide the supplies you need. You should be aware that the number of visitors to the trail is limited so you should book in advance. I’ve heard as few as three weeks is required, and as long as nine months. Your experience may vary, but definitely plan ahead of time!

Canada

Canada is one of my favorite countries in the world. I have been all over the country and enjoy every little bit of it. It may not be as cheap for Americans as it once was, but there are still budget places to stay.

Vancouver is a wonderful city surrounded by the beautiful nature that is British Columbia. Enjoy the city for a couple of days, be sure to check out Stanley Park (Think Central Park but better!), then head up route 99, the Sea to Sky Highway, and stop in Squamish. The self described “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada,” Squamish offers a great place for backpackers to call home for a while. Enjoy the outdoor activities like kayaking, mountain biking and hiking, or use it as an affordable base for Whistler. Located about one hour up the highway, Whistler is one of the best ski resorts in the world and its village provides great shopping and eating choices year round. Hitchiking is safe and popular from Squamish and you won’t be waiting for long before a fellow snowboarder or mountain biker picks you up and gives you a free ride to the mountain. Canadians are so darn friendly!

If you fancy the eastern side of Canada, Quebec is a wonderful place to visit as well. Although a bit pricier, there are several hostels in the Montreal area and English is spoke everywhere. In fact, I dare you to use your high school French and see what happens. They’ll automatically respond in English and you’ll feel a little stupid, but hey, that’s Montreal!

Hop on the train for a lovely three-hour ride to Quebec city and enjoy the more traditional French-Canadian culture. Quebec is a lovely city to simply walk around and go sightseeing. From statues to architecture, Quebec city will easily fill a couple of days and put a few miles on your feet.

There you have it. In no particular order, five great destinations of varying costs and level of adventure.

Do you have a recommendation for a good place beginner travelers should check out? Please share them, or your experiences in the comments below!

Why Working a Regular Job is NOT an Excuse to not Travel

19 02 07 - Office Ninja
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cliph

Americans generally have the shortest amount of vacation time per year (2 weeks on average) and this is the reason I hear from people all the time as to why they do not travel often. Yes, this is a limitation, but is it a reason to not travel abroad?

I vehemently disagree.

Just because you only have two weeks free every year it doesn’t mean you must stay home or spend your vacation in an American tourist trap like Las Vegas. OK, maybe that’s what you truly enjoy, but if you’re here, you’re likely interested in traveling abroad to slightly more engaging destinations.

I’d like to consider myself a vagabond, going all over without much of a destination. But unfortunately I am like you. I have two weeks of vacation every year, and I also must take them separately. This gives me a guaranteed two trips per year, but they are quite short. Many people can take their vacation at the same time and have much more time to enjoy their trip. I definitely recommend doing so if it is an option for you.

When meeting other travelers around the world I constantly hear the same remarks about my trip.

“You’re only here for a week?”

“That hardly seems worth the plane ride!”

“What a waste of money to only get a handful of days here.”

I certainly understand where they are coming from, but the truth is that most people (especially Americans) do not have the luxury of extended travel time.

Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t do it though. Just adjust your travel plans to enjoy a smaller area and don’t try to cover too much ground. Stay rooted in one or two cities and plan day trips to the surrounding areas. Doing this will keep your travel time on buses and trains to a minimum and you can maximize your time wherever you may go.

As far as expenses are concerned your largest will likely be plane travel. There are plenty of ways to seek out the best price for airfare so shop around and check sites like Kayak and Expedia to find the best fares.

When booking airfare, look for red-eyes that allow you to depart Friday night after you are finished with work.  Depending on the time zone, this can also allow you to land in the morning instead getting in late at night.  Pop in some earplugs and take a long nap.  Wake up halfway across the world.

When you arrive at your destination find a good hostel, bed or breakfast, or guest house and you’ll save some more money.

Is it ideal? No.

Is it worth it? Yes!

Don’t let your job get in the way. Find a way to balance the two. A nice week-long excursion every six months isn’t a bad way to see the world.

How to Get Into the Independent Travel Mindset

Have you traveled independently/solo before?

If not, it probably sounds a little scary doesn’t it?

It doesn’t have to be.  In fact, now that I have been traveling independently for the better part of my adult life, I’ve really come to love it.  When I’m not traveling, I’m thinking about traveling.  All but one of my backpacking trips have been completely solo.

So what does it take to get into the mindset?

All it took for me was a little push.  My first trip to Europe was to be with one of my good friends.  Two days before, he canceled for reasons I still don’t know.  There I was, about to leave for Europe.  No accommodations booked, no real schedule or plan.  Top it all off, there was a bomb found underneath one of the French railways and terrorist threats of more that had not been found.

Yeah, I was a little nervous.  I stayed up all night before my early morning flight stressing over whether or not to go.

Obviously, I’m glad I went.  I had the time of my life, met some great people, and visited places I didn’t even plan on going to (or had even heard about).

You will not be alone

Costa Rica Dinner Party
17 of us from the hostel in La Fortuna, Costa Rica enjoying dinner together

Stay at almost any hostel and you are almost guaranteed to meet other travelers.  You may not the best at meeting and talking to random strangers, but when you travel all that will change.  Regardless of what language you speak or where you are from, you share at least one common thing with everybody else there.  You are travelers in a strange place and you’d probably enjoy some company.

I truly can’t think of a time when I had nobody to hang out with, share a meal, or just talk to in a hostel.  They are unbelievably social places and by staying in one, you will meet others and before you know it, be going out sightseeing, grabbing a bite to eat, or partying it up at a club or bar (ask the person in charge of the hostel for that information!).

Your guidebook is your friend

Unless you venturing off into uncharted territory, somebody has probably been there already and written an entire book about it.  Pack your guidebook and read as much of it as you can.  Need a hostel recommendation?  What about a good place to eat? How about information on safety and tips to avoid trouble.

Your guidebook has all of that already!  Read it and follow it–but don’t be afraid to stray a little.

Be willing to explore

Some of the best days you will have are when you simply venture out on your own (or with others).  Many cities are great to simply walk around all day and explore.  See the sights, but walk down those streets that look interesting.  Visit shops, eat some food from street vendors, look at the architecture, talk to people! There are many things you can do without an itinerary.

Please feel free to share your experiences of traveling alone (or with a small group) and the encounters you’ve had! Tips are always welcome as well.

How to stay healthy while traveling

first aid
photo credit: TheTruthAbout...

Whether you are traveling for a week or for a year, your health is always a concern you should have.

Traveling in a foreign country usually is an experience to remember, unless you get sick. If you’ve been under the weather while traveling you know first hand what I am talking about.

I’m going to go over a few of the ways I combat sickness and attempt to stay healthy while traveling.

1. Water

You must remember to stay hydrated. Keep in mind that even if you’re just walking around the city with your pack back at your hostel, you’re probably still doing more physical activity than you are used to back home.

Make sure you know if the water in your area is safe to drink though. If not, buy bottled water or if you’re hiking and using stream water, you’ll want.to be sure you can purify your water. There are iodine tablets, filters, and probably the most impressive, the SteriPEN which you can use if you bottle your own water and want to be sure it is safe for drinking.  Be sure any reusable bottles you purchase are BPA-free.

2. Vitamins

A good multi-vitamin can go a long way in keeping your immune system up and fighting the multitudes of germs and bacteria.  Some people use fancy multi-vitamin packs with a handful of various pills and others prefer a simple one-a-day vitamin.

3. Hand Sanitizer

Be sure to wash your hands but if you can’t, a small bottle of hand sanitizer can come in handy. No pun intended.

4. Anti-Diarrheal medicines

I’ve saved the best for last. There is absolutely nothing worse than being so sick that you can’t leave your room. Loperamide (Imodium) works very well if you’ve eaten something bad and are having diarrhea.  Make sure you drink plenty of fluids as you can easily become dehydrated.

5. First-aid kit

Finally, a small first aid kit with basics such as bandages (useful for blisters, not just cuts and scrapes!), antibiotic ointment, and even burn cream if you might be around campfires. There are a plethora of small first-aid kits available everywhere that will take up hardly any room in your backpack.

Have any other suggestions or tips that you use when traveling? Please share them in comments below.

Off the Beaten Path Destinations – How to find the highlight of your trip

Ask anybody who has backpacked for any amount of time what the highlight of their trip was and they’ll likely tell you about a place that you’ve never even heard of.

That’s right, I’ve never met anybody who said the Eiffel Tower was their favorite part of their trip to Europe.  Nothing against the Eiffel tower, it’s wonderful, but often the small, out of the way places that you never planned on visiting are what really make your trip.

For me, it was Cinque Terre, Italy in 2004.  It was my first backpacking trip and I was all by myself.  Made my way from Paris to Venice and met three Americans who were studying in England.  They were in my hostel and we decided to go out for dinner.  We ended up spending the next day together exploring the neighboring islands before heading to Florence which so happened to be both of our plans.

After a couple of days in Florence they invited me to Cinque Terre.   “Where?” I asked.

I looked it up in my Lonely Planet.  At the time, there was just one paragraph that said that the olive farming villages of Cinque Terre had no hotels and you had to find a local to rent you a room.

It sounded interesting, but the last thing I wanted to do was be stuck in some place I didn’t know with nowhere to sleep.  I was also convinced I needed five days to explore Rome.

Somehow they talked me into it, and after a brief obligatory stop in Pisa, we ended up in Vernazza, one of the villages of Cinque Terre.  It was there that an old lady met us at the train station and offered us a room.  Thanks to my Pimsleur Italian level I audio tracks and a lot of body language, we secured a room for the night.

The village was beautiful, located right on the water and offered the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen (keep in mind I live at the beach in Southern California and it’s hard to beat our sunsets).  We had an amazing and affordable dinner at a restaurant up on a cliff that overlooked the ocean.  The sky was lit with nothing but bright stars.  No lights from any nearby metropolis polluted the sky.

View from above of Vernazza, Cineque Terre, Italy
View from above of Vernazza, Cineque Terre, Italy

The following day we hiked between the villages along a path that had previously been used by the olive and grape farmers.  Some of the hillside had been carved specifically for the harvesting and that way of life hadn’t changed for many of the residents of Cinque Terre.

These days many Cinque Terre has become quite the hot spot.  Located on the Italian Riveria, it’s surprising that it took this long for it to become such a great spot for tourism.  Now, nearly every body I speak to who has backpacked Italy has told me they stopped in Cinque Terre.  I haven’t looked at the latest Lonely Planet guidebook for Italy but I would bet that there is MUCH more than the same short paragraph that I took a leap on five years ago.

I had a similar experience in Morocco when I visited Chefchaouen.  While I had read a bit about it in the guidebook, it certainly wasn’t the destination that bigger cities like Casablanca, Fez, and Tangiers were made out to be, but it ended up being the highlight of my trip for both its beauty, and the wonderful locals who invited me into their home for a great meal.

My point is that you never know what is out there when you are traveling.  Your guidebook is a necessity but you can never expect that the author visited every square mile of the country.

There are still many of places that have yet to be bombarded with tourists and in the case of Cinque Terre, they soon might be, so go see them while you have the chance!

Chefchaouen, Morocco
Chefchaouen, Morocco

Talk to other backpackers at hostels or ask a local their opinion on places you can visit to get a real feel for the culture.  You’ll be surprised with what you may find.  Just because a guidebook doesn’t listen a place, or doesn’t provide you with a lot of information, doesn’t mean it won’t be the highlight of your trip!

Have you found a great off the beaten path destination in your travels?  If so, post a comment and let us know where and how you came across it!