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!

Costa Rica on 24 Hours Notice – Trip report

When I noticed that I had a rare five days off of work I immediately began looking for cheap flight deals. I’d never been to Hawaii and last time I looked, I found round trip deals for about $400. No luck for that particular week, but I did find a $375 flight to Costa Rica leaving around 11pm on the 4th of July! I booked it without hesitation.

True, I had never been to Costa Rica, really didn’t know that much about it, nor can I speak Spanish well. Sometimes you just have to jump though. I quickly went out and picked up the Lonely Planet Costa Rica Guide and began studying it as much as I could. When I left for the airport less than 24 hours later, I had no idea where I would be going, staying, or doing.

In fact, that continued all the way up until I landed in San Jose. I had narrowed it down to three places, Puerto Viejo, Quepos, or La Fortuna. I took a quick poll from the people sitting near me on the plane and the winner was La Fortuna. So I got off the plane and hopped into a cab heading to the appropriate bus station (I later found out that the bus now stops by the airport but my guidebook was outdated – don’t worry, it has since been updated).

Arriving in Costa Rica
Arriving in Costa Rica

The cab driver warned me to be careful because the area was not very safe. Luckily it was the day time but it was pretty obvious that it was a bad place.

I stood in the long line before I noticed a fellow gringo a few spots in front of me. Somehow we began talking and I found out that Garrett grew up about 20 minutes from me but has since relocated to Utah. Lucky for me, he spoke Spanish well and was able to talk to the ticket seller at the terminal. Turns out that the last bus for La Fortuna had already left but we could board a bus to Ciudad Quesada (about halfway) and then transfer to another La Fortuna bus.

The bus there wasn’t bad but there was no window in Ciudad Quesada so we had to speak to every bus driver at the station. Finally we found the right one thanks to a boy who dragged us and insisted we get on the bus. Honestly, we didn’t know if we would end up in the right place or not but we had faith.

Unfortunately that bus was over packed and we had to stand for over two hours. When we finally arrived in La Fortuna it had begun to rain pretty hard. I whipped out the Lonely Planet and navigated us to Gringo Pete’s hostel. Despite telling me they would have room when I called earlier, they were full. We walked to a couple more places but by 7pm at night they had all filled up too.

It was on the other side of the town (not that it’s a very large town) but I suggested we try Arenal Backpackers Resort which despite being more expensive than any other hostel, was the Lonely Planet’s recommended place to stay.

We were greeted by Diego, a friendly English-speaking Tico who luckily had two beds left. At $14 a night this is probably the priciest hostel in all of Costa Rica but it was a great place to stay. They have a nice pool, covered patio bar and restaurant (with the best and most affordable food I was able to find in all of La Fortuna), and very clean tiled bathrooms and showers. From the street it almost looked like a bar or a club since the patio was so busy.

Shortly after putting my bag away and grabbing a tasty meal at the on-site restaurant, I was invited to go out with a group that was heading to the local discoteca.

The place was booming with an odd mix of Spanish language dance music, American classic rock set to house beats and reggaeton. Nobody minded the $1 Imperial beers either.

Dancing at a La Fortuna Discoteca
Dancing at a La Fortuna Discoteca

After a long night of loud music and dancing we all called it a night.

The next morning I ran into a few people I met at the club the night before and was invited to do a hike to Cerro Chato laguna, a huge lake that has developed inside of a dormant volcano crater.

The hike up the volcano was amazing but difficult. The other three guys who came along didn’t stay back for myself and Anna, a nice girl from Louisiana who had been studying in Costa Rica for the summer. Her and I were slowpokes and took many stops for snacks and water. It didn’t help that I skipped breakfast.

45 minutes behind our c0-hikers, we finally arrived at the lake.  It’s a massive body of water filling the entire crater of the volcano.  After the long hike it felt great to remove our shoes and take a dip.  What is most interesting about Cerro Chato is the fact that there is no inlet nor outlet, yet there are fish living in the water.  Later we were told that the fish likely were dropped by birds flying overhead or that their droppings may have contained eggs.  However they got there, it was certainly an interesting experience.

Cerro Chato
Cerro Chato

After making our way back, we decided that it was still early and took another trail from the bottom to a waterfall.  The walk was very steep but the steps had been formed so that it was easier hike without slipping and sliding your way to the bottom.  A nice outlook provided this wonderful photo opportunity:

Arenal Falls
Arenal Falls

After making our way all the way down, we decided to jump the water at the bottom of the falls.  While it wasn’t the largest waterfall I had ever seen, it certainly was powerful and the force could definitely injure or kill you if you got too close.  We played it safe but it was exhilarating to feel the water throwing you all over the place.

The following day I met up with three college students from Ohio.  They were going back to the waterfall I visited the day before and I decided to tag along.  We did some more swimming at the falls and got a little closer this time.  It was still scary!

I was thirsty!
I was thirsty!

We decided to cross the river and follow the path to wherever it may lead us.  There was another great lookout, a suspension bridge, and even a snake.

Snakes are scary no matter how small they are
Snakes are scary no matter how small they are

Later that afternoon we took a guided tour to see the flowing lava of Volcan Arenal.  It began with a guided, hour long hike where we found howler and spider monkeys, along with learning a lot about the local floral and fauna.  We even came across a large hanging vine and I insisted on swinging from it like Tarzan.

Believe it or not, there are monkeys in the trees
Believe it or not, there are monkeys in the trees
Danger: Volcano
Danger: Volcano

By the time dusk rolled around it was cloudy, as it almost always is there, but we were able to see a bit of lava flowing down the side of the volcano.  The tour was then followed by a few hours at the Baldi Hot Springs.

While Baldi is considerably cheaper than the competing hot springs, Tabacon, it was quite nice.  It resembled a fancy water park with beautifully tiled pools all filled with flowing spring water heated by the lava rocks below the surface.  There were pools of varying temperature, including one as hot as 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit).  A few drunk guys we were trying to dare each other to get in.  I managed to stay in for about 5 minutes before I realized I was likely becoming sterile.

There is also a very scary water slide which people were shooting out of at dangerous speeds.  I love to have fun and do stupid things, but I couldn’t get myself to go down that thing!  Especially since the water they were torpedoing into was only about three feet deep.

We returned to the hostel after the hot springs and hung around the patio bar for the rest of the night.  I spent most of the attempting to flirt in french with some girls from Quebec.  They had one male friend with them who told me, “Your French fucking sucks, but it is cool that you are trying.”  I’m still not sure if that was a compliment or an insult but I knew it wasn’t very good so I didn’t mind.

The next day would be my last day before heading back to San Jose to grab a hotel before my early morning flight.  It was rather clear in the morning and I was rewarded for waking up early with this lovely view of the volcano:

Volcán Arenal
Volcán Arenal

I spent the day lounging at the pool with the Quebec girls and got a pretty nice sunburn.  In the late afternoon I had to run to catch my bus back to San Jose.   I was planning on meeting up with Anna, who was doing the same thing as me.  We were going to meet up and share a hotel or find a hostel but I was never able to find her.  Her bus (from a different part of the country) was rescheduled and she ended up heading somewhere else.  No problem, except she had no way to contact me.

I was hanging around the extremely dodgy part of San Jose, the Coca Cola bus terminal for a few hours too long.  What a scary place.  I’ve been to some sketchy neighborhoods in my day but this was the worst.  There were people shooting heroin in the small alleys next to prostitutes going to town on lonely homeless guys.  Plus, an elderly guy grabbed attempted to mug me by grabbing my backpack shoulder strap and pulling me into an alley.  I pushed him away and headed for a small dodgy hotel whose name I recognized from the Lonely Planet.  It wasn’t very clean, but I was able to lock my door and stay safe for the night.  Plus, it was only a few dollars.  It would do for a few hours of rest before grabbing a taxi back to the airport at 5am.

While this final experience in Costa Rica may sound pretty bad, it hardly put a damper on my trip.  The rest of it was so beautiful that this didn’t even matter.   Next time I know where NOT to spend my night though!

From Casablanca to Tangiers – Morocco trip report

    Enjoy my travelogue about my week-long journey through Morocco.  Such an amazing place full of life, language, and culture.  Morocco ranks very high on my list of places I would recommend backpackers visit.