Some of the best experiences you have as a traveller will be those unexpected moments when you go off the beaten track and get away from where all the guidebooks tell you to go. Sometimes travellers worry far too much about sticking to pre planned routes on their gap year or only ticking off the major tourist sites, and they don’t realise the local wonders they are missing out on if only they got a little lost from time to time. Here is why getting lost when you travel can be a good thing.
The Great Wall of China, Mount Fuji, the Pyramids of Giza, the Inca trail, the names alone are enough to evoke vivid images of these truly awe inspiring locations. All of these destinations are popular for a reason, they are on endless bucket lists for a reason. They are quite simply epic, must see sites.
For many travellers they are one of the biggest reasons for visiting specific destinations and that is completely understandable. Every backpacker wants to see the famous Taj Mahal in India, everyone wants to see the famous ‘beach’ in Thailand. I get it, I really do, I wanted to see these sites too, and I did! There is nothing wrong with that.
But what I hope to do is give you all a reason to just slow down for a moment and truly take in the wider destination that you are in. Go and see those epic, awe inspiring sites by all means, but then slow down and look around you too. I want to tell you to – from time to time – just get lost.
Far From The Only Attraction.
One of the true privileges of backpacking is being able to truly discover any given place, to explore it in depth, meet local people instead of just other tourists and really get to the heart of the place you have travelled all of this way to see, but so many travellers miss out on this experience because all they want to do is tick off an endless bucket list of things to see and do.
But what about all the things you will miss out on if you simply rush through the major sites? What about the amazing local restaurant down that side street or the after hours bar that no tourist knows about? What about that conversation with a local who tells you more local history than the guidebook or the secondary attraction that few tourists go to? What about simply sitting at an outside cafe and just people watching for an hour or two?
Unfortunately some people have a tendency to pack their itineraries so tight they don’t leave any room for spontenaity at all. They want to try and see it all, to use their precious time backpacking to try and rush through every single ‘must see’ attraction, every scenery point, every activity, to see everything and tick them all off the list. It isn’t just package tour sheep who do this either, backpackers – especially new backpackers – fall into this trap too. I have lost count of how many times people have asked me on this site to list off for them all of the things that they have to see in any given place and they only have x amount of time to do it all, and every travel guide book and website is full of top ten lists of the things you just have to do.
Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons that people flock to these places, there is a reason that these major attractions are world class tourist draws and are listed in every single guidebook. Certain places will always be ‘must see’ by their unique beauty, ability to awe or inspire, or even simply by their sheer majesty, and of course you should use your chance to see them while you can.
By all means plan your trip around these things, there is nothing wrong with that, but don’t plan your itinerary so tightly that this is all you do. Leave some time free to just explore.
Sometimes It’s Good To Get Lost.
Sometimes it is better to put down the guidebooks, ignore the top ten must see lists and just wander aimlessly. I don’t mean follow the ‘off the beaten track’ recommendations in certain travel guides or articles, I really mean just wander aimlessly and get a little bit lost.
Getting lost and just slowing down and exploring a place can be a truly wonderful travel experience in itself. By moving away from the tourist hordes and exploring, you can discover some real hidden gems and explore the back streets and the architecture of the towns and cities you are visiting and you can get a real snapshot of the day to day lives of people other than the touts and taxi drivers that infest tourist sites. By just wandering aimlessly with no real plan or destination in mind you can find the true soul of a destination.
By simply wandering without any specific destination in mind and getting completely lost I have seen some amazing places that I never would have seen if I had just stuck to the sites listed in my guidebook. Getting a little bit lost when you are travelling is just code for having an adventure!
If I didn’t put down the guidebook and get lost once in a while, I never would have discovered an amazing street side restaurant devoted entirely to Kaya toast in Singapore, filled with well dressed people on their way to work, I never would have been invited to play a game of Tab with a group of old men in Egypt or had an impromptu hat makeover from a young girl and her family in Jodhpur, India, when she declared my head to be too bald for the sun! (I was sporting a closely shaved head at the time!) I certainly never would have found myself at a roadside impromptu bar drinking home brewed local beer with a bunch of random villagers, and I certainly wouldn’t have been invited to an underground Ethiopian club and roasted for hlf an hour by a comedian in a language I didn’t understand!
By getting lost I have had the opportunity – the privilege even – of interacting with locals on a level far deeper than I had experienced at the usual tourist destinations. By getting away from the calls of ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Sir, I have a shop,’ ‘suit for you sir?’ Or ‘Taxi, taxi, taxi,’ I had the chance of talking to some real locals who weren’t out to service tourists or scam money out of me.
If I had never put down the guidebook I never would have had the chance to discover a wonderful little Medieval town outside of Cologne on a bike ride near the Black Forest in Germany, I never would have had a surreal but unforgettable conversation on religion with a Padre, a Catholic Nun and Muslim at a train station in India, (no that really isn’t the start of a joke!) And if I didn’t decide to simply wander aimlessly around the parks and street surrounding the Grand Palace I never would have been invited onto am army barracks shooting range by a Thai Army Master Sergeant in Bangkok!
Getting lost has given me the opportunity to explore destinations in more depth than I ever would have been able to otherwise, and without the ability to wander off and lose myself, I certainly wouldn’t have had half of the amazing and unique experiences I have been lucky enough to fill my life with.
This is why it is important to stop and smell the roses once in a while. This is why it is important to leave enough time in your itinerary to explore a little and get lost. Getting lost can lead to some of your best travel stories!
Is It Safe To Get Lost?
Now I get that getting lost in a destination may seem daunting, it may seem scary. Getting so far out of your comfort zone and not being able to rely on guidebook maps or being within touristy areas with easy access to transport and the safety of your hostel is worrying, I get that. But it doesn’t have to be.
First of all there are absolutely safety considerations you always have to take notice of, and I am in no way suggesting you go so far off the beaten track you put yourself at risk, or that you ignore common sense precautions and go hiking into the vast wilderness or wandering off down dark alleyways by yourself. What I am suggesting is just exploring a little bit more of the destination you are in, and you can easily do that with safety in mind and you can still easily put in place common sense precautions to reduce risk and keep yourself safe.
In the modern world of wifi and smartphones (remember I started travelling when these, or even Google, didn’t exist, and I survived just fine!) A lot of problems are solved with simple Google Maps, or screenshots if you have no wifi, and remember, in most destinations – especially major towns or cities – you will never really wander far enough that you can’t find a main road and flag down a taxi or a tuk tuk to get you back to your hotel, hostel or familiar territory if you need to. Grab your hostel or hotels business card before you leave for the day and keep it in your pocket to hand to the driver, and having a few small notes in local currency in your pocket for this exact reason, more than enough to cover an average taxi ride back to your accomodation, can ease your mind on this.
If you are visiting a major attraction and simply want to explore the area then using that as a landmark to find your way back to it is the easiest thing to do, or if not and you are just exploring the streets around your accomodation, look for something that is distinctive and memorable that can be seen from a reasonable distance. By using landmarks you pass along the way as waypoints, you will always have a route back if you need to retrace your steps.
Finding a transit stop, an MRT or bus stop for example will always help you to get your bearings as many of them will have helpful maps on too, or you can simply use them to get you back to your starting point.
And finally remember that people are in general very nice and helpful, and can always be stopped to ask for directions. Even if there is a language barrier that hotel business card and pointing is useful, or you can always find a good hotel whose staff will often be glad to help or call you a taxi.
So now that the worries about safety and security have been laid to rest, that potentially terrifying experience can suddenly become a potentially wonderful one, full of excitement and opportunity, full of the sense of adventure and the unknown that is a hallmark of true independent travel.
So by all means, go and see the major attractions that probably drew you to a particular destination in the first place, there is nothing wrong with that. All I’m saying is every now and then just slow down a little. Take the time to look around and soak in the destination you are in. Put down the guidebook, ignore the itinerary and just get lost. To paraphrase Mark Twain, sometimes the best travel experience can be to get lost, explore and discover.
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ahhh! Sounds wonderful!
It is! ;D
Excellent advice!! I myself have “gotten lost” time and time again and have wonderful memories because I did. I truly agree with your view on taking just a few steps off the beaten track to discover a whole other world.
Thank you for the comment Siobhanjs, I’m glad to see I’m not the only one!
Definitely agree wih the getting lost allows you to meet the locals, which i found was sometimes much more interesting and fun that the attractions! Nice read!
Thank you very much, and thanks for commenting. Definitely agree with you, the attractions are often a reason to head to a place, the locals and the hidden gems you find while getting lost are the reasons to stay longer than you planned.