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

Rolf Potts

Dear Rolf,

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?

—Mark, Toronto

Dear Mark,

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.


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


11 Comments for Must I Get ‘Off the Beaten Path’ When I Travel?

Dyanne 02.01.10 | 3:19 PM ET

Your comments struck a timely chord for me today Rolf.  As most of us will be lucky to explore even a tenth of the wondrous corners of our Planet in our paltry lifetimes (ask me how I know - given my blog entitled “Global Granny”), the true challenge is choosing between the famed main (a.k.a. “tourist”) attractions of a far away place (and yes, surely for most anybody - apart from Beijingites - stepping toe on the Great Wall is indeed an awesome once-in-a-lifetime experience), and… declining the crowd-crunching, Nikon-happy mainstream “gottasees” in favor of instead spending more time wandering the dusty backroads of a place and breaking bread (be it puri, damper, bing, pita, roti, baguette, naan, Wonder, younameit) with a family in a rural village.

Indeed, it is TIME that most often we wanderlusts are so sadly slaves to.  Few of us can wander the globe perpetually at will, and thus it is precious and ever-limited time in a place halfway ‘round the globe that necessitates making HARD choices in our travels.

Case in point:  Presently I am enchanted with the notion of exploring the whole of South Asia next winter (poking a dent in the mass of India, as well as Nepal, Bhutan and especially Bangladesh).  Yup, I’m now knee-deep in (the splendid fun of) research here, and already soundly running up against tough choices.  I only have about 4-5 weeks to spare (both time and ruble-wise) and thus the question swiftly becomes:  “Do I bypass the usual ‘Golden Triangle’ and miss witnessing the legendary Taj Mahal at dawn, or… spend that time hanging out with the indigenous “Hill Tract” tribes in the remote mountains of Chittagong in Bangladesh?”

FWIW I’m leaning towards sleeping on a mat with the Bengalis.  But as Mark your questioner notes (and I too have learned from experience) many, if not most of those clichéd sites ‘round the globe, have indeed become legendary for very good reason.

Decisions, decisions.  Always the dilemma.

Peggy Coonley /Serendipity Traveler 02.01.10 | 3:31 PM ET

Sound advice for enhancing travels. Less is always more . Knowing when to travel enriches a destination and finding lesser known gems creates a distinctive experience.

Sabina 02.01.10 | 11:10 PM ET

Agreed - both the tourist trail and the paths less traveled hold their own charm and means for educating yourself about the area.  No matter the path(s) you decide to take, though, talking to the people native to the region can give you an even fuller and often entirely different perspective than is offered anywhere else.  If you really want to explore areas off the beaten path, listen to the locals and let them point you to the paths that they favor.  You’ll be able to see places truly unexplored by tourists and gain tremendous and unique insight that most people don’t get.

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 02.02.10 | 10:53 AM ET

Knowing when to travel can save you time and headaches.  Tourists attractions are great to visit when they’re not bursting will tourists.  It’s best to see these places in the off season because you can have them to yourself.  Getting off the beaten path can be an enlightening experience.  You may discover something new about yourself or the place you’re visiting.  You can find gems along the way that you may not have discovered if you stuck with the same old, same old places.

John R 02.02.10 | 6:26 PM ET

I really believe you should make a mix of on and off the beaten path.  People sometimes err too far in one direction and snub tourist attractions altogether.  I say take the world as it is and try to craft your own interesting itinerary that goes both on and off the trail.

Michael Shapiro 02.03.10 | 3:56 AM ET

Nice column Rolf, especially the ending. That brought to mind an anecdote in Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk, about one of his English students’ greatest memory: going to Beijing to dine on Peking duck. He describes the consumption of the duck in luscious detail; the kicker is that he’s never been to Beijing or even far from his city. His greatest travel memory is someone telling him about eating Peking duck in the Chinese capital. A good reminder of how jaded we can get when we’ve been so many places and seen so much.

Gypsy Girl 02.03.10 | 4:12 PM ET

How wonderful it always circles back to the philosophy of the experience itself, intertwined to the richness of time. On a beaten path or uncharted territory, tourist or traveler.  From the edge of the coin, of being a tour guide for the last decade, I shudder at how many vacation photos I’m in… but even mixed among the sheep herds of ‘typical’ chaos- are individuals. A few people still stand out in my mind, after joining beside them at the edge of their fear threshold and watching their comfort zone expand. You get out of your experience, what you are willing to invest of yourself into it.

masini 02.04.10 | 1:19 PM ET

History is a part of us. Knowing the history makes you stronger and healthier steps in life. Some of us feed off such historical information. Me doing my one life more beautiful. There are the first youth.

Worldwide travel recommendations 02.05.10 | 12:02 AM ET

Rolf offers a lot of great advice in this article. I strongly agree with the advice to spend a few days in one great place instead of blazing through multiple places too fast; and I also agree that there’s a reason why some great places are crowded….it’s because they are indeed great.

The idea of carefully choosing when to go to a destination, or the day or time of day to go to an attraction, are key. Visiting destinations in the rainy season, particularly in the third world, can sometimes take a lot of the enjoyment out of a place: There’s no blue skies in your photos, dirt roads become mud; bugs come out in force, etc. The challenge of figuring out how to plan trips around the right times of year is one of the reasons websites such as Triporati and FatPassport were created.

Laurie Peterson 02.05.10 | 10:59 AM ET

If you have children,there’s the obligation to show them the traditional - and to accidentally appreciate it. A fun post on this subject:  http://www.aaatravelviews.com/post/2009/12/11/A-Recovering-Travel-Snob.aspx

Elle 02.22.10 | 10:23 PM ET

Loved your last paragraph in this blog post. I think that captures an attitude that travelers need to be reminded of; sure, tourist packages, big tour buses, and picture-happy tourists can be a turn-off, but sometimes that is the way for these people to live their dreams of traveling the world.

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