“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” — Robert Frost
We’ve all been there. Those overcrowded tourist traps where people are herded in by the busload and sold overpriced tickets for rushed, underwhelming experiences. Sometimes, you think maybe it would have been great had it not been taken over by exploitative tourist companies and hagglers hassling you to buy their merchandise. Other times, it simply doesn’t have the same charm its photoshopped pictures had.
That’s not to say, however, that all famous landmarks don’t live up to their expectations simply because they’re overcrowded. Places like Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, and the Eiffel Tower possess a magic that can’t be dulled by the tourist hustle. Paying 15 euros to see five rooms in Neuschwanstein Castle before being shoved out the gates in under 12 minutes, on the other hand, is not the one. In cases like this, it’s best to skip the most famous landmarks and opt for the lesser-known ones where you get more time to enjoy them for less money.
If only we knew how and where to find these lesser-known but equally rewarding hidden gems, right? It takes a fair amount of curiosity and creativity to find them, but there is often a greater sense of satisfaction as a traveler once we do. Anyway, it’s all part of the fun. Plus, this guide for finding hidden travel gems is about to make off-the-beaten-path adventure a whole lot easier.
Research and plan your own adventure
Ok so the first tip for finding hidden travel gems seems fairly obvious, and perhaps a little insulting at first glance. However, when it comes to famous landmarks, we are led to believe they are famous because they’re the best of their kind, which isn’t always the case. Often, they have just been marketed much better than their peers.
Take the Grand Canyon for instance. Now, no shade, it’s pretty darn cool and will undoubtedly leave you impressed. However, since it’s the most commercialized canyon in the world, people are surprised to realize it’s by no means the longest or deepest. In fact, most are astonished to hear that the Cotahuasi Canyon in Peru is actually two times deeper than the Grand Canyon — especially since they’ve never even heard of it.
While our own country is probably most guilty of claiming it owns the biggest and best of everything, the over-commercialization of certain landmarks and false claims of their superiority is a worldwide problem. Greece, for example, claims to have the oldest and most well-preserved Ancient Greek ruins, but you can actually find older and exceptionally more well-preserved Ancient Greek ruins in Turkey. Exactly — who knew?! To avoid being missold on our adventure, we must always do our own research on the trips we plan on taking.
Adventure to lower-ranking places of interest
Websites like Tripadvisor are fantastic for recommending the best things to see and do on your travels. Rather than being marketed by greedy travel providers, they are recommended by the people for the people like a grassroots organization. However, the drawback of this research method is that it can become biased. People assume higher-ranking recommendations mean better quality, but often, they are just more popular. Whilst the lower-ranking recommendations often don’t mean lower quality, they just haven’t had the chance to prove themselves yet.
This is where we off-the-beaten-path adventurers come in. Instead of perpetuating the popularity of the top 10 Tripadvisor recommendations, let’s give rise to the underdogs. After all, there’s nothing more satisfying than the feeling of ‘discovering’ a new cafe in LA or an obscure art gallery in Argentina. Not only will they often be cheaper and less crowded, but they will often be in neighbourhoods you might not otherwise have visited.
Talk to locals and be prepared to change your plans
Although it’s tempting to plan your travel itinerary before you leave on your trip, it will likely be more rewarding to just go with the flow once you arrive. Expectations rarely meet reality after all. When traveling, this is oftentimes because places are not quite as they were described on the internet. You might spend all day trekking to a hidden beach in Bali just to find 400 other people were ‘lucky enough’ to find it that same day via a shortcut. Besides, we all know one of life’s facts is that the most trustworthy information is always found at the source.
For travelers, locals are the most valuable and trustworthy source for they are far more familiar with your destination than any guidebook or blogger. Having lived in a tourist destination, locals spend their lifetime finding beaches, bars, restaurants, hiking trails, and markets where they can avoid the hoards of pesky tourists. If you get to chat with them and earn their respect, they are often happy and proud to share the lesser-known gems of their hometown.
Rewrite the travel adventure rules
At its essence, travel is about experiences that challenge our limited understanding of the world by immersing in foreign cultures and landscapes. Seeing the sights that make a destination famous only allows you to scratch the surface of a destination’s beauty. What’s the point in going to London, for example, if you’re going to spend all your time in museums, parks, and palaces when the city is truly found in the pubs, markets, and subcultures?
Sometimes, a reminder that travel is not one-dimensional is all the inspiration we need to discover new places. There’s so much more to it than ticking off famous landmarks from your bucket list. Forget about the things you feel you should see and do, and consider what you want to find out about the place you are going. This will inevitably lead you to stumble upon lesser-known places and adventures you didn’t know you could find. Rather than helplessly Googling “things to do in London” you’ll be inspired to Google things like “comedy shows in London this week” or “best real ale pubs in London”.
The benefits of slow travel and volunteering
One of the best ways to travel deeper and expand our awareness of new places, people, and cultures is to not actually be a tourist at all. It’s to volunteer. What could be more insightful on a cultural adventure than working alongside local communities for a cause that is meaningful to everyone involved regardless of background? Not only are you traveling more sustainably, but you are also getting to spend quality time with locals and learning about their way of life. You’ll have the opportunity to ask them questions, listen to their stories, and share their home-cooked meals.
Whether you volunteer at a fancy game reserve in Namibia or an old olive field in Greece, the attachment you develop to your surroundings at the end of your trip will be far greater than anyone trundling along the tourist trail. By investing your time and efforts in an unfamiliar place, you grow a stronger connection to it and, therefore, more emotive memories.
Scrap the map
When visiting a new place, we are often reliant on a map to dictate where we go and what we do. This is especially true for VW Bus travelers because we are too often preoccupied with how to get from A to B. Whilst maps can be good for avoiding roadworks, traffic, and unnecessary detours, sometimes you find the best adventures by getting lost. So every now and then, scrap your map, and see where the road takes you. Maybe your instincts will tell you to turn right down a dirt road and maybe there will be nothing but more dirt at the end of it. But just maybe, there will be a clearing with a gin-clear lake to swim in or a vista over the nearby city. If we’re really lucky, there will be free hot showers too.
It seems a little counterintuitive to get lost. But did you know that some of the world’s most famous and well-marked destinations like China’s Terracotta Army and The Dead Sea Scrolls were only discovered by accident? So get out there, seek adventure and be the Christopher Columbus of your VW Bus to see what you can new monuments you can find.
There’s a reason why they say the world belongs to the brave
Diverting from the tourist trail won’t always pay off, but when it does, satisfaction will be so much sweeter. Regardless of the success of your off-the-beaten-path adventure, there’s one outcome that is always guaranteed. An authentic travel experience. When we dodge the tourist traps, we are granted the opportunity to experience a place for what it really is — for better or worse Isn’t that what travel is all about? There’s no point in exploring the world just to be fed sugar-coated stories about it. Let’s stop reading the news and start digging for our own stories to uncover the raw unfiltered reality of our beautiful world. Let’s take the road less traveled, like Robert Frost suggests, and see what a difference it makes to our journeys.