Tips for Independent Travelers
Tip #5 Get Off the Beaten Path
It’s so easy to stay on the road more traveled. Tourist services provide food, accommodations, and transportation that are convenient and cheap. Your traveler partners came 10,000 miles to go to famous places, not some area that no one will have heard about back home.
Resist the temptations. Without exception, my greatest exhilarations, most insightful learning, and best cultural and interpersonal experiences have happened when I ventured off the beaten track.
During mid-summer in southern Chile, when the sun treats the sparsely populated region to 16 hours of light, I was camping with an Israeli backpacker. We had been hitchhiking for hundreds of miles through the crisp Andean air, and were dropped off for the night in a small town, Ibañez, not mentioned in our guidebooks. With no bus connection until the next morning, we settled into a bus stop shelter on the outskirts of town. When the sun set at 10 p.m., we made a campfire to warm ourselves through the 50° F night; we didn’t have sleeping bags. An hour later a weathered pickup truck stopped by our makeshift shelter. The driver stunned us with polished English, “What on earth are you guys doing here?” During the following cordial exchange of personal information, Omar revealed that he had studied sheep dog training in California for three years. He insisted we come back to his ranch for dinner and sleep so he could repay the overwhelming hospitality that locals had shown him in the U.S. The stocky 34-year-old man laughed as two rich Westerners closed a homeless shelter and climbed into his truck.
Eight miles down a dirt road he parked next to a wooden cabin and introduced us in Spanish to his surprised wife and 7-year-old daughter. Over a steak dinner around a wood-burning stove, Omar explained that we were the first foreigners his family had ever seen near Ibañez. We shared memories and photos from the U.S. under a gas lamp until 1 a.m. After sleeping solidly on benches with cushions next to the toasty stove, we were treated to a country breakfast of hot buns, fried eggs, and sausage.
Omar was eager to demonstrate the skills he had developed while winning sheep dog competitions in the U.S. We walked outside into a majestic vista of spongy green fields, endless blue skies, and distant snow-capped mountains. His three sheep dogs were running excitedly around us, their breath forming mist in the morning air. Omar pointed to 150 sheep grazing on a slope about 500 feet away. Placing his index and middle fingers from both hands into his mouth, he whistled like a navy officer. The sheep dogs sped off instantly and literally ran circles around the woolly creatures, herding them to the right. Anytime one group member strayed more than 30 feet from the pack, the sheep dogs barked it back into formation.
My friend and I were so amazed that we offered to volunteer on his ranch for the next week. He went on to explain to us the current debate about the government’s limits on wolf hunting, and how it threatened his chicken and sheep populations. We were ecstatic to encounter such a kind, insightful teacher, far from any school listed in our guidebooks.
Away from commercialized tourist spots, locals are much more eager to engage you. Just minutes after stepping off the bus in Muzaffargarh, a Pakistani city with nothing extraordinary to entice travelers, I was befriended by Nawaz, a 25-year-old social worker. He made me the guest of honor at a 500-person music, dance, and comedy show the next evening to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence.
One afternoon in central Brazil I was walking around a small city that few other foreign tourists had heard of, Juiz de Fora. I wandered into a pharmacy located in an ordinary shopping center, looking to practice my nascent Portuguese. After mentioning that I hadn’t communicated with my family for a few weeks because it was so expensive, the pharmacist whisked me back to his stock room. He sat me down in front of a 7-year-old computer and let me use his personal e-mail account to contact my loved ones. The first one I wrote to was my stay-on-the-beaten-track friend, who had just returned from a disappointing trip to the Great Wall of China.
The road less traveled is usually cheaper—and more rewarding—than the big-name destinations. Also, it’s good to spread the wealth by patronizing less-frequented communities and businesses. Most of all, local people are just as eager to learn about you as you are of them.