With a new year comes new travel goals. And although we just arrived home from a worldwide adventure, we’re likely not the only ones who started our 2016 travel wish list on January 1st. Our goal? Visit destinations that ARE touristy enough to offer comfortable accommodations, restaurants and things to do, but are NOT tourist traps, overpriced or crowded. We always shoot for an authentic experience, hoping to get a feel for daily life in another part of the world.
To help build your travel list, check out our favorite destinations from last year that, we hope, are still a little under the radar:
1. Dalat, Vietnam
Home to Dalat University, this small city of 200,000 residents is tucked into the hills of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Surrounded by small villages and farmland, Dalat is Vietnam’s number one export of flowers. True to any good college town, it’s full of veggie friendly cheap eats, trendy coffee shops and small bars. Not typically on the Vietnam tourist circuit, this one is not to be missed. Tip: Venture an hour outside of town to the giant happy Buddha.
2. Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia
A short but adventurous boat ride southeast of Bali will take you to the little island of Nusa Lembongan. There are no cars - only motorbikes and your own two feet to navigate the island’s hilly web of old roads. A great place to get away, this sleepy island is quiet, relaxing, and home to a handful of beautiful beaches. Tip: Snorkeling the mangroves is highly recommended, as is lunch at the uber sustainable Bali Eco Deli.
3. Pai, Thailand
About four hours north of Chiang Mai, nearly to the Myanmar border, is the laid back community of Pai, Thailand. Growing in popularity, this little town has a few great hotels, a dozen delicious restaurants and is completely walkable. The drive from Chiang Mai has 762 curves through mountainous jungle, making getting there an adventure itself. Tip: Catch the market on Wednesdays.
4. Bologna, Italy
We stand firm that Bologna is Italy’s coolest city, we just can’t figure out why it’s not on the Rome - Florence - Venice circuit. Home to the oldest university in the world, Bologna has traditional architecture (including the famed porticos), but a young and lively spirit. Aperitivos, drinks served with an assortment of snacks, are fantastic here, and the food scene is constantly pushing the envelope. Add in the tallest tower in Italy and an outdoor summer film festival and there’s no question why Bologna should top your Italy list too. Tip: Pasta Fresca Naldi whips up the most mouthwatering takeaway pasta dishes in the universe.
5. Hamburg, Germany
Hamburg, northern Germany’s major port city, proves there’s more to Germany than just Berlin's rich history and Oktoberfest in Munich. Connected to the North Sea by the Elbe river, it’s home to hundreds of canals and waterways, as well as over 2300 bridges, more than both Amsterdam and Venice. In the center of the city, the Außenalster lake is surrounded by walking paths, parks and cafes. Tip: Go in summer and rent a canoe, kayak or stand up paddle board to explore the city’s canals.
6. Zadar, Croatia
Sorry Game of Throne fans; Dubrovnik is so 2015. Instead, head north to the unique and historical city of Zadar. Sitting on a small oval peninsula, the old town boasts incredibly maintained Roman and Venetian ruins, as well as the famous sea organ, a series of tubes and a resonating cavity that sits in the ocean and is "played" by the wind and sea. During the summer, the riva (seaside walkway) is packed with people sipping wine and watching performers. Tip: If weather permits, head to Kolovare beach to take the plunge from the high dive into the Adriatic Sea.
7. Valencia, Spain
Valencia really has it all. With temperatures between 50-80 degrees year round, this city is for people who love to be outside. Turia Park, an old river bed turned into an idyllic park with running trails and bike paths, spans 9 kilometers, weaving through the entire city. Wide golden sand and warm Mediterranean water is found at Malvarrosa Beach, and the Ciudad de los Artes y Ciencias is home to an aquarium, planetarium, science museum, and convention center. Did we mention it's the birthplace of Paella? Tip: Check out the central market for the best food you could ever dream of, including, cheese, wine craft beer and produce.
8. Guatape, Colombia
A small farming town two hours east of Medellin, Guatape, sits on a large man-made reservoir. With a population of around 5,000, this lakeside village attracts visitors with its quaint and colorful buildings, many restaurants and famous rock, La Piedra. The giant, vertical stone reaches 7,000 feet above sea level. Climb 650 stairs to the top to see the expansive lake and island landscape. Tip: Order a Michelada at the small cafe on the top of La Piedra.
9. Mancora, Peru
There’s really nothing better than a perfect little seaside surf town, and Mancora, Peru delivers. A stop along the Pan-American highway on the coast of northern Peru, Mancora is often overlooked by travelers in favor of Cusco and Machu Picchu. But this town offers big waves, a nice beach, great locally-owned hotels and tons of delicious restaurants. Grab a book, sit in the sun, eat ceviche and drink pisco sours all day long. Tip: Try cremolada from one of the small shops in town. It's like shave ice, but WAY better.
10. Puerto Natales, Chile
A small town located very near the end of the world, Puerto Natales is just 100 kilometers from Torres Del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia. What used to be a small fishing village has been transformed into a charmingly low-key destination with numerous restaurants, (a million) trekking outfitters, and even a microbrewery. It’s a perfect home base to explore the mind-blowing scenery of Torres Del Paine during the day. Tip: Skip the organized tours and use our 1 Day Independent and Sustainable Guide to Torres Del Paine National Park.
11. Granada, Nicaragua
On the northwest shore of giant Lake Nicaragua, Granada offers year-round warm weather and beautiful colonial architecture. This colorful little town is at the perfect crossroads, drawing enough visitors to offer top notch restaurants and hotels, but under the radar enough to keep prices and crowds down. Tip: Catch a local baseball game at Estadio Flor de Cana for about $1 - a truly local and awesome experience.
12. Flores, Guatemala
Location, location, location. The old town of Flores covers a small island that sits offshore of Lago Petén Itzá offering a small, walkable and historic experience. Shuttles leave twice a day to the nearby Tikal National Park, where you can wander (and climb) 1,500 year-old temples and spot monkeys, crocodiles, exotic birds, and (if you’re lucky) a jaguar. At night, the old town offers a large selection of affordable restaurants and bars, as well as shopping for Guatemalan art and textiles. Tip: Stay in old town for the true Flores experience.
13. Mahahual, Mexico
Mexico’s Costa Maya has skyrocketed in popularity over the past ten years, thanks to its modern infrastructure, tropical climate, white sand beaches, and turquoise water. Unfortunately the growth has increased prices, people and tourism in previously quaint towns like Tulum and Akumal. Our advice? Head south. The tiny village of Mahahual is on the cruise ship circuit, but has kept it's small town charm, quieting down each night and on non-cruise days. You won’t find any mega resorts here, just small boutique hotels and restaurants ranging from high-end eateries to local taquerias. Tip: Eat where the locals are eating. Tacos are about $1 and much better. The way Mexico should be.
Where are you planning to travel in 2016? Check out our Top 14 Travel Lessons to prepare for your adventure!
Is it strange being back in the U.S.? Yes.
After eight months, we arrived exhausted, a bit socially awkward, really bad at smalltalk (in English, at least), and overwhelmed with the amount of options at the grocery store. Now, three weeks later, we’ve had enough sleep and mindlessly binge watched enough Netflix to reflect on the last 8 months.
Bottom line, all of the cliches are true. This experience changed us. It opened our eyes to how most of the world lives. It inspired us, to aspire to be, global citizens, to think outside the comfy confines of our life. It made us feel free, alive, scared, encouraged and skeptical all at the same time. It separated us from the constraints of the American dream, the skewed definition of success, and inspired us to pursue a life that makes us happy, even if it means having less or relocating to somewhere new in the world.
While we’re desperately trying not to be the smug, enlightened traveler types, there are still many lessons we learned from our trip around the world. Here are our top 14, in no particular order.
1. Have a plan, but be flexible
We all want to be the traveler who goes to the airport and hops on the first plane to anywhere, but the fact is that a little planning, saving and research goes a long way for both your budget and peace of mind. We saved for six months, sold nearly everything we owned, researched the lowest cost flight options and left the United States vaccinated, knowledgeable, with a daily budget and a rough plan of where we would go. That being said, the benefit of long term travel is that you can be flexible in where you go and for how long. It’s all about balance.
2. Locate Life Jackets
While developing countries may have safety regulations for public transportation like ferries and boats, it’s rare they are followed or enforced. Needless to say, there were more than a few times throughout our trip (Indonesia and Vietnam, specifically) when boat safety was... questionable. At one point, we found ourselves searching for life jackets, thinking the boat we were on was surely going to sink (See: Ferry Ride From Hell in Thailand). We’re not exactly the dramatic types, so please know that this is not an exaggeration. Our advice, make sure they’re available, in the off chance you find yourself in the middle of a stormy Indonesian sea.
3. Unplug and Be Present
It may sound a bit new-agey, but it's 100% true. When you’re constantly on the go, it’s easy to get caught up thinking about the next place you’ll be visiting, the logistics it will take to get there, or what life is like back home. The only way to truly experience a place is to stop. Close your laptop, put your phone down and really experience it. This is when the best memories are created.
4. Choose Two Wheels Over four
There’s a reason “wind in your hair” is such a popular expression. Opting for a bicycle or motorbike over a car or bus instantly makes you more connected to the place you’re visiting and gives you the freedom to explore places on your own time. We rode bikes throughout Vietnam, Cambodia (to Angkor Wat), Northern Thailand and Germany. Motorbikes are also an exhilarating way to “feel the wind in your hair” and cover long distances.
5. But Wear a Helmet
It may be one of our best travel stories, now. But at the time of Ryan’s Motorbike accident on Thailand’s Mae Hong Song loop while attempting to avoid a VERY large monocled cobra, we were extremely grateful he was wearing a helmet. The fact is in any country where motorbiking is common (all of SE Asia, most of South and Central America), wearing a helmet is a MUST. Let’s just say the locals (whether it be a single person or family of five on a motorbike) are very skilled drivers and you are driving in their neighborhoods. That, and you never know what kind of crazy animal can slither out of a Northern Thailand jungle. Enough said. Be safe.
6. Learn to Survive Travel Curve Balls
Sometimes (often times, in fact), things don’t go as planned. Whether you’re stranded in a city with no transportation for the night, miss the last ferry ride off an island, or are forced to eat french fries and white rice for dinner, one of the most important things you can do is learn to “roll with the punches.” First, this means letting go of any control you have of the situation. There’s nothing you can do but make the best of it. When things go awry, we suggest having healthy snacks on hand, music or podcasts downloaded (for that 12 hour bus ride), a few beers to make things less stressful, and a good attitude - because it’s never the end of the world, is it?
7. Eat Local Food
It sounds obvious, but a language barrier and less touristy areas can make eating local pretty intimidating. Our strategy: learn to say (or write down and show the server) what you CAN’T eat, and be open to what you are served. For example, we eat fish, but no meat, and learned the Vietnamese word for vegetarian (chay) right way. This, combined with a paper that read “peanut allergy” (written by our homestay host), made us confident in any dish that was put in front of us.
Our all-time favorite food experiences:
8. Drink Local
With the risk of coming off as complete lushes, drinking is BY FAR one of our favorite parts of travel. Where can you get a beer for 15 cents in Vietnam? What is the local spirit in Bali? How do you not drink a corretto (shot of espresso + sambuca) every afternoon in Bologna? Why wouldn’t you travel to Peru JUST to experience a real Pisco Sour and side of ceviche? Is there anything more fun than sipping a stein of Hefeweizen in a beer garden in Germany? Did you know that wine tasting in tuscany is a four-hour affair? Who knew Fernet Branca was so damn cheap in Argentina? All we’re saying is, if you appreciate a good drink, this is your moment.
9. Do Things You Want To Do (and Find Cool Things To Do!)
This may sound obvious, but many people land in a new place and feel an obligation to go somewhere or do something. This is NO way to travel! If you aren’t into fine art, or cathedrals, or museums, or whatever… that’s okay. Spend your time and money experiencing the things that are unique and meaningful to you. For example, we often spent a full day wandering the streets of a city, which we prefer over a museum any day. We looked for hikes or bike rides. And we opted to experience art through local performances and music festivals. The point is, spend your precious travel time doing things that you find fun and interesting.
10. Locate Hospitals and Know Each Country's Emergency Number
This really isn’t being overly cautious. A million things can happen when traveling for long periods of time and you never know when you’ll need assistance (police, ambulance, a hospital/clinic, etc.). The emergency number is different in every country (it’s not 911, people!), so know what it is and where you can get to a hospital if needed. It’s also advisable to learn the word for “help” in every language. We somehow managed not to get robbed during our travels (surprising given how many places we visited). We were only moderately sick (no malaria or dengue, hooray!) but still visited the ER twice. This is one of those situations where it’s just better to be prepared.
11. Be Self Aware
Check in with yourself. This could be the single most important lesson we learned. If you feel tired, hungry, sick, or even just worn out, nowhere in the world is fun. We learned to rest when we were tired, find AC when we were overheating, drink tons of water, and always carry snacks so we were rarely left hungry. We also learned to give ourselves a break if we didn’t see every attraction in every city (we traded the touristy Royal Palace in Bangkok for a quiet afternoon at the park and have zero regrets).
12. Take Risks and Get out of Your Comfort Zone
Leaving our jobs, selling all our stuff, and moving out of our home to travel the world was a pretty big risk. It’s the best decision we’ve ever made. Riding motorbikes 500 kilometers through the Thai jungle, making our way from Fes to Marrakesh by train, and hiking 35 kilometers at 15,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes (with zero training time) were all well outside our collective comfort zones. Yet these experiences are easily some of the best parts of our entire trip. Things we would do again, in a heartbeat.
13. Ditch the Stuff
For eight months, through our entire trip, we lived out of two 44 liter backpacks. The surprising part - it was easy. While we passed backpacker after backpacker with packs that were twice as big, we were content with our minimalism. We didn’t need more stuff (but we did need more laundry). Since getting back, we’ve been tempted to get more stuff and we can agree that it’s nice to have options, but it often feels like we’re getting more simply for the sake of having more. And at no point has more stuff actually made us happier.
14. Support the Local Community
If you want to be a socially responsible traveler, make sure you give back to the community you’re visiting. What does this mean? Support locally-owned and operated businesses and publicly maintained historical landmarks. Seek out volunteer opportunities (like we did with Thai elephants) or choose tours, restaurants and businesses that benefit local non-profits (see Visit.Org for tours around the world). Be socially conscious - understand local history, etiquette and customs. At the minimum, learn and practice a few sentences in the local language. These are the experiences that connect you the most with the local community, and these are the experiences that will be your most enriching.
Find more lessons in our 15 Best and Most Forgettable Moments in South East Asia
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