If you look closely, you might just see Greg!
The second hat which has brought me to the most “off the beaten path” locations would be my PADI Divemaster cert. Not only does this allow me the opportunity to pick up work anywhere in the world there is scuba diving, it also allows me a gateway ticket into the unknown, the depths forgotten, the teeming shallow seas, the basis of all life on earth, the big blue. The ocean is still something we know so little about and yet its beauty and complexity surround us always, engulfing my thoughts whenever I am near. Diving has brought me to some of the world’s most intense and vibrant marine ecosystems. It has opened my eyes to the world beneath the waves, the one we don’t need a passport or visas for, the one that we have not evolved for, the one where we are NOT the apex predator. The ocean is truly amazing and will always have new and unique “off the beaten path” locations and experiences to deliver.
You’ve spent a lot of time travelling, but you’ve also spent a great deal of time living as an expat in a few different countries as well. Of course when you live somewhere, it’s a no-brainer that this is a much easier way of finding the off the beaten path locations to check out. What are the places you’ve lived for extended periods of time, and how would you rate the ‘ease’ of finding those off the beaten path spots for each country on a scale of 1-4 (one being hardest, four being easiest)?
I have lived as an expat in Costa Rica, Aruba, Ecuador, Tanzania (Zanzibar), and Argentina.
Costa Rica – Rated 3 for off the beaten path exploration
This rating is due to it being a small country and there are a lot of tourists, much of the area has already been explored and documented. This makes it a lot easier to reach the places where most people go and the other more off the beaten path spots where fewer people go. I tend to gravitate to the places that attract me most, beaches, dive sights, the mountains, and various trekking routes.
Aruba – Rated 1 for off the beaten path exploration
It is an incredibly small over inhabited island where everyone knows every nook and cranny. Even the dive sites have been thoroughly explored and there is not much new to find unless it is marine wildlife passing through.
Ecuador – Rated 3 for off the beaten path exploration
Similar to Costa Rica, this is a small incredibly diverse country with a strong tourism industry. Much of the area has been explored and documented and yet there are so many unique and interesting off the beaten path locations you could stay busy for years trying to experience them all. The transport is good, the people friendly, and the landscape incredible. Sounds like a trip!
Zanzibar -Rated 2 for off the beaten path exploration
I think that any small island presents its individual difficulties in finding those off the beaten path locations, as it is generally small enough that everyone knows where everything is. However, in the case of Zanzibar, add an interesting mix of people, cultures and religions, an incredibly powerful history, intricate architecture, and that feeling of mysticism the spice island obtains, here you have the perfect mix to possibly find some great little off the beaten path urban locations. Stonetown awaits.
Argentina – Rated 4 for off the beaten path exploration
This is a 4 because it is the biggest of the mentioned countries and is home to a portion of the Patagonia. The amount of “off the beaten path” locations in the Patagonia alone is staggering, not to mention the entire 3,000km Andean foothills, the northern desert, the eastern temperate rainforests, or the summer Atlantic beach locales. Argentina has an incredible wealth of “off the beaten path” locations which are yours to discover. The only thing needed to time, money and a keen sense of adventure. “Bueno, dale, vamos!”
When living as an expat, what factors do you reckon are at play (amount of spots, language barriers, accessibility/safety) for how easy or difficult it can be to find those off the beaten path treasures?
I think that language and access to good information is key. If you can converse with the locals it makes finding that unmarked trail incredibly easier and allows you to ask for directions in some of the most remote locations. Having access to local knowledge can be so much more beneficial then following a map (however, having a good map is pretty important). An internet connection is also extremely important. I find myself using the web more and more often as a resource to finding and learning of new and interesting locations. Whether someone has travelled to the locale before and written of the experience (i.e. blogs), whether there is any guide book info to be found, any travel warnings or updated environmental information, anything really. All of this can be found just by spending a few minutes doing a couple of specific searches online and makes a hell of a difference when planning your route. So yeah, as of right now language and access to good information are my most important factors to finding those “off the beaten path” locations.
When travelling off the beaten path, you tend to find yourself in situations where the locals aren’t quite as sure about how to deal with you being there, as seeing foreigners is just as much of a novelty to them, as they are to you. Do any situations stand out in your mind where a situation which may have seemed shady at first ended up being a life-changing memorable experience? (what happened and what made them special?)
Yeah, right off the bat, travelling to the Darien province of southern Panama at the ripe age of 21. I went far into the gap, into a world untouched by modern civilization, into a jungle thriving the same as it would have 500 years earlier, a land crisscrossed with small footpaths, inhabited by two first nation peoples and their trespassing Colombian rebel neighbours. I travelled to the far reaches of the Rio Sambu and stayed at the last Embera village, Pavarando. The only way in and out is by dugout canoe and the journey from Panama City took three days over land and sea. At first my Spanish speaking guide was incredibly helpful, however as we got further and further down river he spoke less and less, with only one word answers and nods to my questions. I could tell we were entering a world with its own set of laws and rules.
The people in Pavarando see an average of four tourists a year and I think I was number one of 2008. I stayed four nights, five days and the first day was the most awkward by far. Having your somewhat useless guide show you the hut where you’ll string up your hammock and the small children stare at you while the adults avoid all confrontation entirely. Luckily I am a somewhat outgoing character and can break the ice where necessary. All you need to find is a similarity and in Latin America (even in the most remote places) football usually does the trick. I found a small ball and started kicking it around with some of the kids, my local guide got involved and some of the older kids as well. Before you know, we had a small little game happening with the adults taking notice, smiling and even laughing. There it is, integration and the beginnings of a life changing and memorable cultural experience.
Over the next few days I assisted in tilapia farming and fishing, canoe building (which is amazing), hunting, and small scale farming/harvesting. The village families cooked for me and under individual firelight I sat with a simple dinner listening to stories of times past and of hopes for the future. By the last day I had learned a few simple words and sayings of the language and was offered an incredible goodbye of full body temporary tattoo art. This ceremony was done over a two hour period from my neck to my toes. The Embera use the Taugua fruit from the jungle to die their skin in intricate patterns and shapes. The die stays on the skin for up to two weeks depending on how often you wash. Over all the experience in the Darien was one I will never forget and still to this day the most remote and interesting cultural integration I have had the privilege to take part in as a traveller.