Must I Get ‘Off the Beaten Path’ When I Travel?
Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel and the world
02.01.10 | 11:15 AM ET
A lot has been written about the merits of “getting off the beaten path” when you travel, but is there really anything wrong with staying on the tourist trail? Aren’t the classic, clichéd destinations popular for a reason?
I’m a big advocate of getting off the beaten path, but I would agree that there’s nothing wrong with the attractions of the “tourist trail.” These standard attractions—from Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat right on down to small-town museums and curiosities—are part of what inspires people to travel in the first place. Even the kitschiest corners of the tourist trail carry a kind of charm—and you can meet some interesting people in these high-traffic areas. (Just watch your back, since targeted petty crime is usually worse in tourist areas than off the beaten path.)
So why do salty travelers tend to prefer roads less traveled to the tourist trail? I think there are two main reasons. First, big tourist attractions (naturally) attract lots of tourists, which can make these places feel overcrowded, inauthentic and only tenuously connected to the host culture. Second, major tourist sights tend to be the default activity when you are traveling too quickly or unimaginatively to truly experience a place. Instead of trying to see, say, the Colosseum, St. Mark’s Square and the Uffizi Gallery over the course of four days in Italy, I’ve found it more enjoyable to just stay put in Rome (or Venice, or Florence) for all four of those days and mix in some spontaneous, unconventional experiences with the obvious local attractions.
That said, some of my favorite places in the world happen to be smack on the tourist radar. Cusco, for example, is probably the touristiest town in Peru, but it also happens to be a gorgeous and extraordinarily fun place to linger. Similarly, I can’t imagine going to Moscow without spending serious amounts of time in area around the Kremlin—and it’s a jaded travel-snob indeed who wouldn’t enjoy an Eiffel Tower-accented picnic on the green grass of the Champ de Mars in Paris.
In getting the most out of a tourist-trail experience, it’s useful to keep a few things in mind. First, your experience of a given tourist mecca might well depend on when you visit. In the summertime, the Bright Angel Trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon can feel as crowded as a shopping mall, but in the winter you’re much more likely to have Arizona’s sprawling geological grandeur to yourself (and the requisite investment in cold-weather gear will be worth it). For similar reasons, the springtime rainy season in Myanmar is a good time to visit Bagan, and “shoulder season” (spring and fall) is a better time than summer to hit the iconic attractions of Europe. And even when you can’t avoid high season, it’s good to consider what time of day to visit the tourist hot spots. On a given July day in Paris, the Louvre is much less crowded early in the morning than later in the day, whereas certain Mayan sites in Central America are best experienced toward the end of the day, once the big tour buses have gone home.
Even if you do find yourself in the midst of a huge crowd when visiting the Acropolis or Uluru or Iguazu Falls, it’s good to be respectful of the individuals around you, since a given tourist crowd can hold its own dynamic and diversity. One of my favorite books of recent memory was Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which tells the story of Junior, a poor Spokane Indian kid living in Washington. Junior dreams of visiting the Great Wall of China, and one of the more moving scenes in the book is when his best friend Rowdy realizes that Junior is actually going to do it someday.
This is the kind of story I want keep in mind should I ever go to, say, the popular Badaling section of the Great Wall near Beijing and find myself in a sea of tourists. At one level, dealing with a big crowd of people might feel distracting, but at another level it can be humbling to realize that many of those people may well be in the midst of the most amazing experience of their lives.