We were in Mostar, Bosnia, certainly not a town you’d say was overrun with tourists. My wife and I were walking toward a historically significant site near the center of town (Mostar was torn apart by the Bosnian War in the early 90s) and I of course was looking around for a photo opportunity, camera in hand. She was carrying a guidebook which was opened to the map page directing us to the site. At that moment a young American traveler walked by us, noticed our not-from-around-here aesthetic and muttered too loudly to his friend, “We gotta get off the beaten path, man.”
It was there, in that well-off-the-beaten-path town of Mostar in the middle of Bosnia, that I came to the conclusion that the whole idea of “the Beaten Path” is one of contention, a hypothetical notion that exists purely in the minds of those not satisfied where they are.
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I suppose you have to start by actually defining “Beaten Path” before you can rightfully tell when you’re traveling off it.
I would define it as a pejorative term given to a place that has reduced appeal to someone because of the extra tourist traffic it receives from some kind of heightened notoriety. Conversely, Off The Beaten Path would be those other places, the ones that don’t get attention because they’re either lesser known or else uninteresting. The Off The Beaten Path places are thereby considered “more pure” to culture of the country in which it exists, or something like that.
In my experience it’s only well-traveled people who care about these things and go out of their way to either find or avoid them. But why?
There are plenty of arguments for going somewhere none of your friends or neighbors have been. But since your impression of a place is entirely a matter of opinion, who decides that it’s been over-visited? Your friends? You?
Many people really like going to Club Med or Sandals Resorts and have a perfectly wonderful time on those trips. So why do the big tourist destinations like the Pyramids of Giza or the Coliseum in Rome generate impatience while backdoor places like Torres del Paine National Park, or the Taktsang Monastery seem like a traveler’s Nirvana? All are equally stunning. But some people take potentially risky measures to reach these places not just because they’re stunning. Many want to make sure they’re the only one they know who’s been there.
The chances of encountering a beaten path place in your travels is highly likely. Why would you go somewhere that no one else before you has wanted to go? Many a seasoned traveling veteran says that going to the Eiffel Tower is not a unique thing to do in Paris, nor is the Imperial Palace in Bangkok or any other well-photographed site.
Looking at the experience in this way will almost always guarantee a hampered appreciation of it. You may not like the crowds, you may not think kindly of the swarms of locals trying to hawk you cheap souvenirs, but when the sun strikes the ancient walls of the temple just so, you will promptly forget about those corruptions and take the place for what it is, an otherworldly, totally enjoyable and worthwhile place to be.
It really only takes a reimagining of these places to make them fresh. I’ve lived in San Francisco for five years and am still finding off the Beaten Path places to visit right here at home.
I don’t admire the American backpacker we encountered in Mostar because he was searching for the dwindling adventure traveler’s paradise, that distant kaleidoscopic sunset, bejeweled waterfall or deserted beach, perpetually setting himself up to be annoyed by the other travelers he bumps into over the course of his journey. He’s devalued the Beaten Path with an insurmountable negative connotation, to the point where a glimpse of another traveler will cause an emotion that ruins his own appreciation of it.
Considering the ubiquity of international travelers these days in places widely considered to be worth visiting, it may be time to redefine our perception of well-visited places.
The Beaten Path is what you make of it. In the long run, it’s your own perception that makes it what it is. And anyway, Off-The-Beaten-Path is kind of like innocence — once you find it, it ceases to be.