There are a number of travel tips that are widely talked about, like eating street food and staying in hostels to save money, using CouchSurfing to meet locals, and opting for local restaurants over venues with English-speaking menus for a more budget-friendly and culturally immersive experience. One tip I feel is important but isn’t discussed quite as much has to do with travel planning and choosing which cities to visit. When thinking about where you’ll go next, I urge you to consider opting for a destination you’ve never heard of.
Last year I did a three-month backpacking trip through South America, starting in Brazil and making my way through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. I would often write to my friends and family and tell them about some of my favorite cities: Paraty, Brazil; El Chalten, Argentina; Coroico, Bolivia; Mancora, Peru; and Vilcabamba, Ecuador, to name a few. Everyone loved the photos I sent, and many said they would love to visit South America themselves at some point.
“You would love Banos in Ecuador,” I told one friend, Maria*, who loves cycling and trekking. “They have some beautiful waterfall routes for biking and hiking.”
She laughed. “If I went to Ecuador I would just go to Quito. I know you’re adventurous, but I don’t think I would be comfortable visiting those other weird cities you mentioned.”
At first I thought I misheard her. Being that she’d never been to Ecuador I was unsure of where she got the idea these other cities were “weird,” or at least any weirder than Quito. Moreover, I couldn’t help but think to myself how much more dangerous Quito was than Banos or Cuenca.
I told another friend about the odd exchange thinking she would take my side, but she seemed to be in the same camp as Maria. “I wouldn’t say the other cities are weird, but I still wouldn’t visit somewhere unknown.”
I feel I need to set the record straight here. Just because you haven’t heard of a city doesn’t mean it’s unknown. Many of the cities I ended up visiting along my route in South America I hadn’t heard of before stepping onto the continent, but was told about by other backpackers. I can’t even imagine how limited my experience would have been if I’d only stuck to the well-known major cities, which, personally, I felt more unsafe in then the ones that aren’t as well known. That’s not to say you shouldn’t visit cities like Rio de Janeiro and Quito, but my personal experience was that I liked these places less than the others.
So, how can you plan a trip to incorporate cities you haven’t heard of? There are a few options. One is to plan a trip without making plans and get recommendations along the way from locals, accommodation staff and other travelers. If you’re the type of person who likes to have excursions and hotels booked before leaving home, you can also read travel blogs to discover new or lesser-known cities to add to your itinerary. Feel free to send your favorite travel bloggers an email for recommendations, as most love talking to their readers. You can also do a Google search typing in something like “where to go in Argentina” or “cities to visit in Chile” to find some possibilities.
Remember, the great thing about travel is that it’s selfish and, ultimately, you’re in charge of the wheres, whens and whats of your trip. If you arrive in a city and don’t like it you can always hop on a bus and head somewhere else. That being said, giving a city you haven’t heard of a chance can lead you to make some interesting discoveries you never would have guessed. For example, when you visit Paris and go to the Eiffel Tower you typically have an idea of what you’re in for beforehand. However, if you’ve never heard of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, you may be completely surprised to learn the lush valley is home to one of the world’s longest living populations due to its plentiful fresh fruit, pure mineral water and the active local lifestyle.
Traveling is all about having new experiences, and visiting a destination you’ve never heard of is about as new of an experience as you can have.