People often ask me which country is my favourite, and it is very difficult to answer that question. I love different countries for different reasons. But there are a couple of destinations that I felt were a little more unusual, off-the-beaten-track or interesting in some way.
Now, the following countries aren’t exactly the distant backwaters of Kyrgyzstan or anything; all of these are not so alternative as to be super remote or difficult to travel in. However, they’re definitely something else from the usual Thailands or Mexicos (there’s nothing wrong with these countries, but they are kind of the backpacker staples that everyone goes to first). The following countries are wonderful to visit in their own right, or you might consider adding them to a larger regional trip…
Mayon Volcano, Legazpi, Philippines
WHY? I pretty much fell in love with the Philippines. The first and most obvious reason is that here you still have countless islands, jungles, and beaches without the crazy crowds found elsewhere. If you like adventure travel, then the Philippines can just feel like a huge playground—with plenty of less-discovered places for you to find. You can visit ancient rice terraces, go hiking and surfing, climb volcanoes, scuba dive some of the most amazing dive sites in the world, and much more.
WHAT TO EXPECT: Boracay and El Nido draw many backpacker travellers. Outside of these places, things get just slightly more adventurous. The vibe in the Philippines is somewhat different from the mainland Southeast Asia backpacker countries, with much less of a ‘party scene’ outside of the aforementioned places (which is not a negative per se, it’s just different). There’s a mix of different travellers in the Philippines including many scuba divers, ESL teachers who work in countries like South Korea and are on a holiday, as well as domestic Filipino travellers. As a solo traveller, you might sometimes have to work a little harder to meet people, particularly outside of Palawan or super touristy Boracay. It’s not quite as easy as in Thailand or Vietnam, but that’s also the charm of going here, as you’re treading ever so slightly off the beaten track.
Small town near Medellin, Colombia
WHY? Oh my, where to start! When I went to Colombia, I felt like I had discovered an incredible travel destination… it’s kind of been sitting there all along waiting to be visited, but past safety issues had kept it kind of a secret until now. The country has lots of wonderful culture to take in, there’s all the outdoors and adventure activities you might want, and it has an interesting geography that covers a huge range of landscapes ranging from the start of the Andes mountains, to two ocean coasts and the Amazonian jungles. Colombia is amazing.
WHAT TO EXPECT: Colombia feels very much like a typical ‘backpacker’ country, with lots of hostels, easy bus transportation, and so on. It’s easy to meet people and it’s fun to go out, especially in places like Cartagena or Medellin where there’s a buzzing nightlife. A few specific (though easily avoided) pockets of the country do remain dangerous, so do check up on travel advisories. Much of the country is surprisingly easy to travel through, though you can veer off the main path easily as well, such as making your way to the remote Punta Gallinas or the Choco region.
Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar
WHY? Myanmar (also known as Burma) opened up to the world only as recently as 2012, when the United States and other countries lifted their decades-long sanctions. This makes it somewhat of a last frontier in Southeast Asia, with visitor numbers just a mere fraction of those in neighbouring countries. Things might strike you as a little primitive in Myanmar from time to time, with frequent brown-outs and limited tourist infrastructure. But it’s also home of incredibly impressive sights (such as the golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon or the thousands of temples in Bagan), it has an amazingly delicious cuisine, and very welcoming people.
WHAT TO EXPECT: I should say that I went to Myanmar in mid-2012, which was just after it opened up and just a month following the introduction of the first international ATMs. I’ve been informed that things have been transforming rapidly. (A telling sign is that the first KFC just opened in Yangon.) That said, Myanmar is surely going to stay relatively ‘unspoiled’ for many more years to come. Expect beach locations to be undeveloped save for some beach huts and a resort or two; a far cry from the rows and rows of hotels in, say, Phuket in Thailand. Some backpacker hostels are beginning to open in the country, though it remains a much ’quieter’ destination than its eastern neighbours, especially outside the main tourist draws of Bagan and Lake Inle.
The Malecón in Havana, Cuba
WHY? Going to Cuba is like going back in time–go there now before it gets caught in the maelstrom of globalisation. The tobacco region is Viñales with its karst cliffs is just gorgeous, and the cities are alive with Cuban culture. Seeing vintage cars everywhere is a surreal sight (and one that might well be going away someday). One particularly surreal moment was when I was catching up on some Mad Men on my laptop at my guesthouse, then I went outside to buy some snacks and I saw some of the same cars pass by as were used in that TV series. With limited internet and a limited economy, being in Cuba feels a bit like travelling in a bubble. At the time of writing, despite the lifting of some sanctions, it remains difficult for Americans to enter the country (officially speaking), though it’s easy for travellers from other countries.
WHAT TO EXPECT: Cuban tourism is mostly focused on luxury travellers or Canadians flying straight to its beach resorts in Varadero. This has created the myth that you have to spend big to be a visitor in Cuba. Actually, it lends itself quite well to independent budget travel. There aren’t any hostels or cheap hotels as such, however there are Casa Particulares (homestays) all over the country, which are especially affordable if you can split the cost of a room with a partner or travel buddy. These casas are really fun to stay at as you get to interact a lot more with the locals. Cuba isn’t quite as popular as a backpacking destination as other countries in the region, probably as its perceived as ‘difficult’, but it’s a fascinating place to go and just a short flight from Cancun in Mexico or from Florida.
Of course, I have not been everywhere, but these are four destinations I like to tell people about. I’m always on the lookout for other interesting countries to go to! Currently I have my eyes on the Balkans, as it is a bit of a forgotten part of Europe.
Are there any alternative travel destinations that you would recommend?
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