'Off the beaten track': a travel cliche
It's one of the most overused phrases in the travel industry.
It is desired, advertised and sold so frequently that it has become an unashamed cliche: like a tribal tattoo or the slogan 'keep calm and carry on'.
We have been guilty of trying to find those places and experiences that are 'off the beaten track' in the past, but we now realise that no Google search or guidebook will ever get us there.
What and where is 'off the beaten track'?
The phrase is used by people and businesses so often and its meaning is often diluted. It is, ultimately, entirely subjective. For some, it means getting as far away from the standard tourist trail as possible, in geographical terms. For others, it relates to authentic experiences with local people, wherever they may be.
We have had a few 'off the beaten track' experiences, by our own definition. Visiting a small village called Magura in Romania's Carpathian Mountains was one; it was beautifully peaceful and we said 'hello' to locals as if we were passing dogwalkers on a hike through the English countryside. Our stay on the banks of the Kinabatangan River in Borneo was another. Although we were part of a small group of tourists at an organised jungle camp, we felt truly wild, as if we were in the middle of nowhere.
Do we really need to escape other tourists to feel like we are having an authentic travel experience?
IF IT'S ADVERTISED AS 'OFF THE BEATEN TRACK', IT PROBABLY ISN'T
Many of us have researched the hell out of a place (i.e. gone beyond page 2 in a Google search), found some apparent 'hidden gems', and reached them to find hundreds of other tourists expecting the same seclusion that was never going to be. As soon as something is labelled 'off the beaten path' in a guidebook or on a travel website, it becomes as frequented as the traditional landmarks.
Travel companies may also offer tours to a country or area that is difficult to travel around independently, such as North Korea. On paper, the tour may seem like the epitome of getting 'off the beaten path'. Yet what tour members see may not be the 'real thing' but a fabrication, and if tour buses are running through, is it even 'off the beaten track' at all? It's all a matter of perspective.
WHY DO YOU WANT TO GET 'OFF THE BEATEN TRACK' AND WILL YOU BE HAPPY ONCE YOU're THERE?
We understand the seduction of lesser-visited places. There's no camera-toting tourists, tour bus traffic and souvenir-sellers. You can go at your own pace and feel more connected to the country you're travelling.
If you plan to head 'off the beaten track', though, it may be useful to ask yourself why. Honestly. Is it to take unique photographs? Is it to meet locals? Is it to document your experience and raise awareness of the area? There's no right answer, but you should consider your motivation seriously.
If you're going somewhere in the hope of finding a paradise beach or breathtaking clifftop view, awesome! But you may be disappointed. Some places remain unvisited because there just isn't much there.
You may enter places of extreme poverty which could make you feel uncomfortable, or worse, make those you are visiting feel uncomfortable. Especially if you are taking unwanted photographs.
Many try to get 'off the beaten track' purely because everybody else wants to. You will not appreciate the experience if it is founded on the desires and reasons of others - visit places that genuinely interest you and you will get a lot more out of it.
THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH VISITING 'TOURIST TRAPS'
The Roman Collosseum, the London Eye, Sydney Opera House. These are all major attractions in fantastic cities that are seriously worth seeing. It is okay to visit the most popular temples in Asia, or the most visited ancient ruins in Central America. They became popular for a reason and, providing you don't mind sharing the experience, there is no need to avoid going there simply because others have before you.
'OFF THE BEATEN TRACK' TRAVEL IS OFTEN UNPLANNED & UNEXPECTED
Some of our most treasured travel experiences have been completely spontaneous. When we were in Gili Air, we spent an evening playing music with locals on the beach. We were walking along the sand when we heard the gentle strumming of a guitar and beating of a drum. The group invited us over so we pulled up a beanbag and to Matt's delight, they knew a few Coldplay songs! We tried some of their rice wine and had an awesome time - it ended up being our favourite night of our whole trip.
We know that tourists before us have enjoyed similar hospitality (and plenty will in the future), and that the Gili Islands are a popular tourist destination, but did that take away from our experience? Of course not.
It felt 'off the beaten track' because we strayed from the path we expected to follow.
GO YOUR OWN WAY
In the words of Fleetwood Mac...
There are millions of undiscovered places in this world worth exploring, and you don't always have to 'travel like a local' (there's another cliche!) to enjoy them. Before you put an 'X' on the map, define what 'off the beaten path' means to you and why you want to go there. Equally, if you want to visit Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal and Niagara Falls, just do it!