Off The Beaten Path Interviews

An inside look at Earth’s explorers

Kicking off the New Year with our new series will introduce some of the modern world’s great explorers. It’s focus is on how they engage and connect with the disconnected planet… in other words – people who venture down the roads less travelled, and explore the world off the beaten path.

What better way to kick it off then with a SCUBA diving, tour leading, travel blogging, photographer expat? (I’m not sure how he fits that on his business cards!?). This earthly explorer’s writing and photos can be found on a number of publications across the web (including this one!), most notably on his personal travel blog From Shwa to Ushuaia, and his gorgeous travel photography site, Greg Snell Photography. It’s my personal pleasure to introduce mr Gregor Snell.

Off The Beaten Path - Gregor Snell Patagonia

Meet Gregor Snell – World Explorer

The Goods

Greg, you’ve been travelling for pretty much the majority of your adult life. This has taken you to almost every continent, finding yourself in some of the world’s most off the beaten path destinations, and you’re still going strong. As the saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – What was that first step, or hurdle, you had to overcome that got the travel ball rolling for you, and how did you push yourself to overcome it?

The first and most obvious answer that comes to mind is learning Spanish. I remember flying into Santiago, Chile with the ripe young mindset that I could easily get by with English and the limited Spanish I had vaguely attempted to learn in Canada. This was a huge mistake. Upon arrival I immediately felt like a hopeless infant treading water for the first time. Those first couple months in Latin America taught me that a necessary hurtle to overcome is learning at least something of a local language and truly being engaged with the people around you. Not just backpackers, but hotel and restaurant staff, tour operators and street vendors, taxi drivers and café owners, whoever. I love learning new languages, making mistakes and making people laugh at my brutal attempts to communicate. I pushed myself to learn Spanish and to become bi lingual in my early 20’s. I can now say that I am, and it is all my doing, and that was the first true hurtle I had to overcome.

Once you got the ball rolling, as most travellers soon realize, there’s a snowball effect. You had a taste of the world that awaited you, and you would forever be hungry for more. Has there ever been any situations where you thought about throwing in the towel and quitting your nomadic life for something more conventional? If so, what would that conventional life consist of, and would travel still play a role? If not, what other ways do you envision yourself perpetuating your travels? 

Shit, tough question. There have been times when I have thought about changing it all up and moving back to Toronto, however these thoughts are fleeting and don’t happen too often. Life on the road has its ups and downs, anyone who has travelled for longer than a year can understand that sometimes there are incredible highs and then like all good bipolar ADHD influenced travellers there are the incredible lows as well. I mainly think about moving back when I miss onetime events (i.e. friends getting married, a funeral, holidays, etc.). However none of these have led to any situations that have compelled me to throw in the towel on the nomadic lifestyle, I love it too much. I perpetuate my travels through serious dreams and goals for the future while still living fully in the moment and taking advantage of every opportunity that crosses my path. Our time is now and we need to act. Being on the road is a creative stimulate for my boundless energy. I finance my personal travels by working at least eight months a year as a G Adventures CEO in the Southern Cone of South America. I will always travel and always be a part of the travel industry, how that is done exactly doesn’t really matter, I will continue doing what I love (writing, talking shit, diving, guiding, social networking, blogging, reading, drinking coffee, whatever really) and I’m sure that will continue to perpetuate my travelling.  

You’ve worn a number of different hats when it comes to work while travelling as a means to keep going, and keep exploring. Which of these has brought you to the most off the beaten path places? 

Man, by far the hat I currently wear. As a G Adventures CEO/Tour Leader I have the travelled to some incredible off the beaten path locations. That being said, most of the destinations we travel too are considered “on the beaten path”, the trick is to find an activity or hidden location close by, one that not many know about, something unique. For example a lone waterfall in the centre of a beautiful forest, a set of cascading pools five minutes walk from a major road, an isolated fishing village 45min bus journey from our hotel, old prison ruins inaccessible by car and only seen by those who are willing to trek three hours through dense jungle, honestly I could go on and on. I am lucky to have the freedom to pursue these “off the beaten path” locations while working and will forever work towards keeping the ones found exactly as they are.

Off The Beaten Path - Gregor Snell cliff

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.

Off The Beaten Path - Gregor Snell Sunset

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.

Off The Beaten Path - Gregor Snell coconut

 

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.

Off The Beaten Path - Gregor Snell village tattoo

Giving each other tattoos in the Darien village

 

Off The Beaten Path - Gregor Snell Tattoo

Can you tell which tattoo is real, and which is temporary?

 

This question’s a bit of a ball buster, because I can’t really answer it myself – but if you had to choose a top…let’s say 3… a top 3 off the beaten path spots that you’ve found – what stand out as your highest recommendations for people to get on their bucket list? 

Yeah tough, well going on what I just mentioned, I would say the Darien Province of Southern Panama and specifically the gap itself is definitely one of the three. It may be dangerous and hold an intimidating reputation, but man I found the Darien to be such an eye opening incredible life changing adventure.

Number two I am going to bring a lot closer to home and primarily to switch things up a bit. Any small town in the centre of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Not Banff, or Lake Louise, or Kamloops, BUT Nakusp, Nelson, Revelstoke, Golden, Field, Fernie, Invermeer, etc. There are a number of quaint and beautiful little mountain towns found on the back roads of Canada’s rocky interior. The lifestyle and atmosphere is one of warmth (even in the coldest months), of safety, of friendship, of love, and of exploration and adventure. If you ever get the chance to do a road trip in Western Canada please allow at least a month to discover the interior of British Columbia, it will blow you away.

I think the third and final would be an isolated and rarely visited national park in Eastern Zambia. South Luangwa National Park is home to some incredible wildlife and was the first place I encountered a pride of lions in the wild (a life goal complete). It is also one of the best places to spot Leopards and I got super lucky witnessing a Leopard tear into the flesh of a young Antelope victim, hearing the slow crunch of teeth on bone and experiencing a chill down my spine as the predator stopped for a mili second turning its blood covered mouth directly towards at the lens of my camera as if inquisitively wondering whether I would taste as good. You can read more about this experience right here on Where Sidewalks End  AND on my personal travel blog, From Shwa to Usuhaia.

Off The Beaten Path - Gregor Snell leopard

Leopard with a fresh kill

Many thanks to Gregor Snell for sharing his stories and inspiration for off the beaten path travel! Don’t forget to check out his blog, and if you ever need any tips on some of the spots mentioned, he’s got a wealth of info at his finger’tips’ for you!

Tune in next time when we interview our next world explorer, and sign up for email or RSS notifications so you don’t miss any of the excitement! 

Disclaimer: All rights to the photographs in this post belong to Gregor Snell. If you are interested in using or purchasing them from him, you may contact him on his travel photography site, Greg Snell Photography.