Getting “Off The Beaten Path”: Just Another Traveler’s Cliche

With adventurous travelers forging new trails to get off the beaten ones, I start to wonder what “getting off the beaten path” really means.

Traditionally, guidebook-featured locales are overrun with tourists following the recommendations as if they’re gospel. And when a guidebook finds a gem it identifies as being off the beaten path, it all too often consequently becomes as touristy as the next place.

Mountainside Shack, Svaneti, Georgia
Mountainside Shack, Svaneti, Georgia © Paata

Staying Away Because It’s Been Done Before

In traveler’s circles, Thailand used to be a sought-after destination. Now, it’s overrun with tourists, so much so that the people who “discovered it” years ago feel it has deteriorated. It’s no longer the untouched SE Asia it once was; now it’s almost too easy. There’s no adventure in visiting such an accessible place.

The same applies for Costa Rica; once a jewel, and now a haven for ex-pats looking to stretch their retirement dollars. Now, Cambodia is the “new Thailand”, and Nicaragua is the “new Costa Rica”. Great — a new country that is relatively undiscovered in relation to its neighbors. As they become more politically stable, we can expect the influx of tourism to increase in these “new” places, and soon they’ll be old news too. Then El Salvador will be the new Nicaragua. And on it goes. Soon enough, the whole world will be old and over-done and there won’t be any reason to leave home.

Should the “off the beaten path” traveler stay away from destinations like Thailand because it’s been done before? Or is the fact that it’s such a popular destination all the more reason to go? Should I stay away from Machu Picchu because it’s too popular, even though I want to see it?

Another drink please..
© Foxspain Fotografía

Drinking with the Locals

We previously looked at the different types of travelers who differentiate themselves from tourists. It seems that just being a tourist isn’t where it’s at any more; people want more. We want our trip photos to look like the “real deal” — no bewildered foreigners with cameras hanging around their necks in the shot, thank you very much.

We want to eat where the locals eat, drink where they drink, and generally peek into the local life wherever we go. To do this though, we know that locals generally won’t go places that are rampant with tourists; enduring the tourist’s curiosity and unwitting cultural faux pas will wear anybody down after a while. So we, as the unwitting tourists, try getting off the beaten path to find that slice of life where we can drink the night away at the hospitality of a local bar, sit in a café and observe how the locals interact, or hike a gorgeous trail that nobody knows about.

But really — if it’s a good bar to go to (as a foreigner), if it’s a happening café, or if it’s that gorgeous a trail, has it not already been discovered? Conversely, how will you discover it if it’s not yet been discovered?

Maybe for your first time in SE Asia for example, visiting a “touristy” destination is a good idea. Despite the accessibility built into places like Thailand, you are still guaranteed to be overwhelmed with culture shock; to feel like you’ve stepped onto another planet with the foreign language sounding more like a fax machine than words; to wonder at the effort required just to find your hotel, much less how to order dinner and not offend anybody.

Even though these places may be thoroughly trodden on the beaten path, they’re still worth seeing. If, after seeing all you can in these places and having become better acquainted with the customs and culture, you still want to get off that beaten path, then you can easily find what you’re looking for if you’ve done your homework.

In becoming acquainted with touristy-Thailand for example, maybe you make fast friends with a local who knows enough English to get by, and are invited to a family wedding. That’s about as far off the beaten path as you can get, and you’re still in touristy-Thailand. How about that?

Backstreet, Bangkok
Backstreet, Bangkok © Ahron de Leeuw

How Far Are You Willing to Go to Get Off the Beaten Path?

… and are you ready for what you may see if you get there?

With the advent of poverty tourism and doomsday tourism, people crave more and more of the gritty side of life in search of their definition of “off the beaten path”. They want to see how the “other side” lives in the poorest of townships. Why? Possibly so they can feel better about themselves (how sad), or so they can help or bring awareness to the world of what goes on in these run-down places, having seen it first-hand. Sadly, I suspect many people’s motives fall into the former category, whether or not they’ll admit it.

Doomsday tourists also want to see things nobody sees, or at least things that nobody will see in the future. They’re in search of the sights that will soon be non-existent for one reason or another. To be the one to say “I saw it, I was there” once it is gone is apparently worth money.

I understand these forms of tourism to a point. I am an adventurer and a story teller, so I would like to be able to say, “I saw that township and want to help”, and “I saw that relic before it was gone”, in the hopes that we can find a way not to repeat history. But at what cost do these trips come? Are the townships that people are touring really off the beaten path if there are tours going through? What do members of these tours see, in relation to what’s really going on in these areas? I would argue that they’re still not seeing the real thing — just a fabrication of what they want to see.

“Oh look honey, these people are dirt poor, but they are smiling for the camera, and seem to be happy with their lot in life. It must be okay. Shall we have lobster or steak for dinner tonight”?

“Oh look, these fish are dying on this reef that will soon be obliterated due to global warming, That’s so sad. Quick — take a picture before it’s too late!” (These same people produce enough carbon emissions with their flight alone to do more than their part towards said destruction, then return home to commute in their gas-guzzlers).

Lost
Lost in Ontario © MSVG

Why Do You Want to Get Off the Beaten Path?

Do we really want to see what’s off the beaten path? And if so, why? No really — why?

If it’s being recommended in a guidebook, if it’s featured online, or if a tour goes there, you probably aren’t actually getting off the beaten path. But then again, is that really so bad?

Sure, none of us likes our trip photos to be littered with camera-toting tourists (it takes away from the beauty and drama of the location), but there’s a reason why places become touristy. It’s because they’re well worth visiting.

I’m not saying that there aren’t a million wonderful undiscovered gems in this world worth seeing — there surely are. But before blindly going in search of them, you would do best to first define what off the beaten path means to you, and why you want to get there. Don’t just search these places out because it’s the thing to do. This perpetuates the “off the beaten path” cliché; and if you’re a traveler looking to get away from travel clichés, this should mean something to you.

16 Responses

  1. Amanda Kendle

    Very good points, Nora. I have my own theory about getting off the beaten path. I think that to “really” travel (and get off the beaten path) means to “really” experience a city/country and my theory is that it takes two years of living somewhere before that happens. First year, everything’s new, second year, you’ve started to work out where to go when and you begin to really appreciate a place. The problem is, that gives most people a maximum of about 20 or 30 places to “travel” to in their lifetime. Not enough :)

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  2. Aaron

    Bravo!!

    How tired I am of hearing about how I should be riding on the locals’ “chicken bus” rather than on the air conditioned tourist bus. This obsession with meeting, eating with, traveling like, sleeping like “the locals” is inane.

    Recently an employee at a hostel in Krakow, tired of hearing people who wanted the “local experience”, posed a question to me: “Why feel the need to meet locals of another country when you don’t even know your own neighbors?”

    Aaron

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  3. Nora

    Wow – thanks for the comments, and I agree with you both! Here I thought I was going to come under fire for being so cynical! (I should watch what I say…it could yet still happen….)

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  4. got

    I understand your points. However, one of the reasons to travel is to get away from your normal surroundings, meet new people, see different ways of doing things, seek new experiences….and perhaps to challenge one’s perceptions, understandings and even physical limits. Otherwise, why leave home?
    And to travel thus means to take an informed decision to put oneself into a different and new envronment – and it’s up to the individual to decide how challenging they want this to be: a club in Ibiza, or the top of K2!

    I dont want to appear prententious (!) but you might like Baudelaire’s “Invitation au voyage” – he goes on an extraordinary journey to exotic places, and when back home he recounts his fascinating travels..only to conclude that all humans are consumed by greed, lust and sin. Happy reading!

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  5. singlewithluggage

    Interesting post that I found while researching my own post on ‘getting off the beaten path.’ I’ve lived and traveled extensively around the world. In terms of connecting with your self, your travel partner/s, and maybe even connecting briefly in a moment of pure joy with someone in a way that crosses cultural, language, and perception divides- nothing beats getting off the tourist trail. Using Thailand as an example- jump on your motorbike in Chiang Mai during earlyish morning, find one of those markets on the outskirts of town where everyone communicates only in Thai, huge plates of food cost 15 baht, and you may not be sure what you’re eating. Share a smile and a few moments communicating with someone, admire their food, TRY their food, be surprised, be uplifted, and then be on your way feeling very much the beauty of a simple moment of connection.

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  6. Sam

    Very good article Nora, I can relate to your thoughts.

    It’s easy to make the unfamiliar familiar. To make the familiar unfamiliar you’ve got to look much deeper.

    There’s a rewarding experience to be had in both.

    But for me, the latter is where the real experience lies.

    For the wannabe pioneers: If you choose not to experience things because others have experienced them before, you might as well experience nothing.

    “Why feel the need to meet locals of another country when you don’t even know your own neighbors?” So true Aaron!

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  7. Nora

    @Tom – I’ll respond to that question with another question: What is living off the beaten path? I think that once a place is largely “known” it’s no longer off the beaten path, even if it’s “known” for being off the beaten path!

    Who is defining the path, and if you’re talking about living (as opposed to traveling through), you open up a whole new set of criteria for what the beaten path is – and why you might want to be living there or not!

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  8. Shivya

    Very interesting points, Nora. For me, offbeat travel is just about going to places that are not swarmed with tourists. If it’s a popular tourist attraction, I have Google. But if I can land myself in a place that doesn’t even have a tourist map, I can discover it in a way that no one might ever have. That to me is going off the beaten track.

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  9. Cob

    I have no problem sharing my travel experience with lots of strangers. I even enjoy meeting them and hearing their stories. What I do have a problem with is what happens to a place when it becomes frequented by tourists. Things become tacky and the people change. I get really sick of interacting with locals in tourists locations. Both at home and abroad it’s the same story no matter where you are. They get very pushy and are not shy about getting in your face to try and get you to buy something. When you get away from this stuff you can experience genuine friendliness and hospitality. I also have a passion for learning new things. Especially about how people live their lives in different parts of the planet or even another part of my own country. I’ve had the disneyland type of experience enough times. Seems like everywhere you go frequented by tourists it’s the same thing. I want something different than that and I want to experience people and culture unaffected by the desire to profit off of visitors (Not because I have a problem boosting a local economy). To accomplish that it’s best to “get off the beaten path”.

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  10. Lena

    Nora – I found your article interesting. I’ve been travelling extensively during the past 35 years and for me it’s never been about getting off “the beaten path” but contrarly trying to get a sense of “belonging”. For instance, I’ve travelled China many times but always from a point of view of being on the outside looking in. This time I’m taking a three week course in Mandarine, living with a family in the outskirt of Beijing. This doesn’t make be a “local”, but still …. when I ride my bike to school in the morning, when the women in my food stall greets me with a smile of recognition, when the guy in the elevator down from the 17th floor of the Wang’s apartment building laughs when I enter because now he knows that I’m either going to say: “it’s very hot today” or “it’s not as hot today as yesterday” in my very unsteady mandarine. And it gives me great pleasure.

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  11. Ginger Carney

    Excellent article, Nora. It gives me reason to think – Let’s stop deciding what exactly “the beaten path” is for everyone else. I like to explore, even if it is just down a road I’ve never ventured upon before. The tough part about traveling for only a couple weeks a year is you have to know where you want to go, what not to miss in such a short span of time. It is always a disappointment once we arrive and there are thousands of other people “not missing” the same thing, but that should not diminish the beauty of the experience. We are still exploring. I admit I am less likely to want to climb Half Dome in Yosemite now since there are thousands of people doing it, and yes I wanted to go to Machu Picchu but I think I may have missed it and it will probably be ruined before I can get there – so we will just have to find our own undiscovered country, and relish it! Recently we explored Milos, Greece and we couldn’t find hardly any information about it in guidebooks before going – I almost decided not to go! The thought of going somewhere we aren’t going to like is so scary when we have such a small window of time and money to get us there is a fear. Milos was our favorite of all the islands we visited (Santorini, Syros, Milos) and it was the cheapest. I wish we could go back every year. But then, we would be missing whatever we could be seeing for the first time… it’s a vicious circle. Still more to think about. Thanks for continuing the conversation in such an insightful way.

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  12. Vivian

    Such a good article, thank you! With so many travel articles about “fitting in with the locals”, it’s so refreshing to read one that finally pokes holes in that thought. Every travel advice includes “go where the locals are”, which I find to be one of the most inane things you can say to someone. How do you know? Where do you go? If you knew where the locals are the moment you land, then it’s not really a foreign place, is it?

    I travel quite a bit in between work, I don’t have a nomadic life because I also value my career but I try to see at least 5 countries every year. I don’t have time to immerse myself in a culture or country, as much as I would love to. I want to see the best of each place, and eat the food and drink in the atmosphere but I don’t need 2 years to do that.

    It really depends on what traveling means for you. There are a lot of articles here written by people who are nomads or studying/working abroad, but not nearly enough from those who travel as a hobby. I love seeing the world, I just also have other things I love to do as well.

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  13. Marie-France

    Well thought out article! As for me, I just try to avoid places with too many large tour groups. Beside getting in your pictures, they tend to transform a place: bland food restaurants and cheap souvenir shops pop up everywhere, etc.

    On the other hand, being the only foreigner in a place probably wouldn’t be very practical or comfortable (one exception: the ruins of Angkor Wat – that would be heaven). I don’t mind hanging out in places that have a fair amount of backpackers. Backpackers are usually a friendly bunch and fun to meet!

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  14. Annie@GreenGlobalTravel

    Such a good post, I am slowly tiring of people thinking the only way to travel is to live in a cave fifty miles from the nearest living human. There are so many places “on” the beaten track that deserve a visit without having to question a traveller’s entire integrity in the process ;-)

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