"Sidestep Travel" is a simple way to find the real gems of your travels, just around the corner from the beaten path.
The magnificent terraces and views from the world famous Machu Picchu. The crystal clear waters of Sardinia's Emerald Coast, or Croatia's Hvar Island.
These are just a few of the many places around the globe that grace the covers of travel magazines, get named on must-see lists, and get written up in guidebooks and websites around the world. Places like these are famous for good reason, and for those planning a trip to Peru, Italy, Croatia, or any country for that matter containing noteworthy "must see" places, it's hard not to miss well traveled spots, no matter how much of an indie or locally immersive traveler you consider yourself to be. Just as you don't want to miss the Eiffel tower in Paris or the Coliseum in Rome, going to those major landmarks or areas should a part of every traveler's experience.
Yet, beyond a few days or less, it's important to realize that to truly experience things as a local, you need to take a sidestep. In many cases, you won't need to go far. The hot spots, the international cities, the great landmarks and trendy neighborhoods are well and good, but it's often what lies right next-door that has the travel gold that can often turn a more mainstream trip into something incredibly special. What's that? It's more engaged and friendly locals, lower prices, and an overall sense of separation from what is the international tourist circuit and the unfortunate aspects that go with it.
Since my experience living and studying in Rome over a decade ago, I noticed something that became more apparent as I grew older and continued traveling throughout the world. The sad reality was that the most visited spots, while positively impacting locals economically, often negatively impacted them emotionally, and in terms of an overall temperament. The pattern was clear from Thailand to Europe, Central and South America and beyond, and led me to the conclusion of a simple fact: Dealing with hordes of tourists everyday from all around the world, can wear down many individuals who live in or around what the international tourist circuit regards as a "must see" area or place. Local culture becomes replaced with tourist culture, and ironically, that same grind that many of us seek to escape while on vacation or traveling, ends up being expressed in the face of your bartender, at the wheel of your cab ride, or at the side of your table in a restaurant. Furthermore, prices are set for tourists, and just about everything from dining to lodging gets based on the average European or North American cost regardless of an often favorable exchange rate. Thankfully, while there are always many exceptions to price gouging and jaded locals even in the middle of a tourist trap, the odds are more than likely that you're going to get the cold shoulder at some point each day. The best way to remedy this, is to practice sidestep travel.
Sidestep Travel in a Nutshell
Sidestep travel is a fairly simple technique, and it goes something like this: Take the major spot you hear about, and walk around the block. Visit the major park that everyone in your hotel says is incredible and then check our what's next door. Visit that great village to see that famous church or temple, but stay just one town away. See those must see spots, but plan your exit quickly, and park yourself in an entirely different experience, just around the corner and off the tourist path. That is sidestep travel.
Sidestepping in the Andes
In 2010, I was fortunate enough to make the trek to Machu Picchu with some of my best friends and co-founders of Embark.org. We opted to take the longer 4 day hike that arrived at Machu Picchu on the final day, visiting various other archeological sites from our starting point several valleys away from the famed Inca city. On our third and final night, after getting to know the entire hiking group and witnessing day after day of incredible Andean high alpine scenery, we camped out next to the much less known archeological site called Winay Wayna. Arriving just before sunset, our small group dropped our heavy backpacks, had a brief lecture from our amazing guide Carlos, who explained the agricultural and strategic history of this site, and spent the final hour of twilight wandering this magical place overlooking the Urubamba River Valley. That evening, alone with friends both old and new, staring at the remaining structures of the Inca Empire under the most incredible starry night sky I've ever seen, was by far the highlight of my trip to Peru. It filled me with that incredible sense of connection to history, soul, and friendship that we all seek in life and in our travels. The next day's final trek to Machu Picchu while still incredible and absolutely memorable, did not reach the same level of enjoyment that I had experienced at Winay Wayna.
It was not because the final day in Machu Picchu was rained out, or because I got nipped in the butt by an angry Alpaca, but because I had the unique company to enjoy a special place with comparable traits to Machu Picchu, but in greater isolation and peace, and it was all just a sidestep away from one of the most famous places on earth. Arriving at Machu Picchu from above and seeing the zigzag line of bus after bus unloading on this site felt somewhat unsettling, as if all these people took a shortcut to our group's 4 day finish line. As we descended from above on foot, they arrived right at Machu Picchu's front door by bus, and despite the fact that many dozens of hiking groups joined us in our final walk through the sun gate, it was easy to tell who had hiked to Machu Picchu, and who just stepped off the bus.
Later that evening, back in Cusco contemplating our journey, most of us agreed that despite all of the magic and grandiosity of Machu Picchu, our previous evening at Winay Wayna was the highlight of our entire Andean adventure. It was just one valley over, reachable only by foot, but it turned out to be that perfect sidestep that my friends and I always try to find when we travel.
In recent years, as my friends and I have grown wiser about how to sidestep travel, we've found that it's almost always true, and that the distinctions can be quite extreme. The city of Hvar on Hvar Island in Croatia for example, was a great place to visit and see, but the prices were easily five times as expensive as the neighboring villages further south or on the opposite side of the island just a scooter ride away. The lesser known Brac Island (which you literally pass by on your way to Hvar) also has a reputation for the same scenery and offerings of Hvar, but with far fewer tourists and much lower prices.
In Italy, visiting Sardinia's Emerald Coast in the area of Palau, while breathtaking and gorgeous, the mood was somewhat spoiled by the stuffy atmosphere of various billionaires playing yacht wars and slighting the locals whose only reprieve is to charge an arm and a leg for everything they can. The nearby towns further inland, while lacking the prized coastal vistas, were filled with a much warmer crowd of locals whose generosity and humor won my business away from Palau. Other great gems on that island further south include places like Santa Maria Navarrese which has all of the incredible beaches and hidden coves you can dream of, but is largely unknown and for that, prices are lower, people are warmer, and the experience is that much better.
In the theme of the travel philosophy we hold at Embark.org, it's important to consider the value of true cultural immersion, and of redefining one's boundaries. If growth and adventure is something we seek in our travels, the question then becomes how to make that possible when we still want to see the famous spots. Sidestep travel often starts with a bit of wandering, a bit of leaving one's guidebook closed, and a bit of research, but the rewards are well worth it. It's inevitable that you'll get a bit frustrated by the more generic crowd when you do stop by those "must-see" places, but if you stay alert, check your map, and are prepared to adapt to local culture vs. trying to shape it, you'll be well on your way to being an expert sidestep traveler.