I sat across the table from Jack forcing myself to chew the tough, flavorless beef. We were at what was supposedly one of the best restaurants in Aguas Calientes, the town at the base on Machu Picchu. Stunning green mountains and a winding river were visible from the restaurant window, yet I found myself wondering why the hell we were there. With another three hours before our train left and nothing but terrible Wi-Fi to keep us entertained, all I wanted was to be anywhere but here.
Like many who are visiting Peru for the first time, a trip to Machu Picchu was the top destination on my list. I was overjoyed to be visiting one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, with the love of my life in tow.
After a stunning train ride from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, my expectations for the trip were at an all-time high. We set off to explore the charming little town, since our itinerary didn’t put us at Machu Picchu until the following morning.
The first red flag came at lunch time. Unable to find the original lunch spot we had scouted out for its great reviews, we settled for an authentic looking spot on the main drag. The service, the food, and the prices were all abysmal, but the food really took the cake for worst part of the experience. Later that night at a highly rated dinner restaurant, an equally terrible experience.
I should point out that Jack and I are hardly picky eaters. In fact, we are big fans of pretty much any food that someone puts on a plate in front of us. And after years of joint experience working in restaurants, we’re just about the friendliest and easiest table a server can get.
Regardless, we were willing to put all that behind us in anticipation of spending the next morning at one of the most beautiful places on the planet. So we headed to bed at an early hour to prepare for an early rise to get to the bus stop the following morning.
When the alarm went off at 4 AM, we weren’t even slightly annoyed. It’ll be worth it, we thought, to beat the crowds to the bus station and some of the first people to arrive Machu Picchu. Right?
Wrong. When we arrived at the bus station at 4:30 AM, the line already stretched multiple blocks. It was extremely frustrating, especially given that the gates to Machu Picchu don’t even open until 6:00 AM.
When we finally arrived at Machu Picchu a few minutes before the gates opened, we had to wait in line once again to present our tickets at the gates. We waited again to take pictures at the spots with the most beautiful views. And again to visit the coolest parts of the ruins. And then once more as we were waiting for the bus to take us back down to Aguas Calientes.
Overall, Machu Picchu really just felt like a whole bunch of waiting. And then we had that terrible lunch experience with the gross beef, before waiting another three hours for the train to take us back to Cusco.
An experience that was supposed to be the highlight of our trip ended up being our least favorite part. And I don’t bring all this up to complain or somehow blame Peru for our bad experience, because our time spent in Peru’s less-touristy areas of Puno and Chivay were nothing short of incredible.
There’s a point I’m trying to make, and I don’t think it’s exclusive to Peru’s tourism industry. The famed places that we are often the most anxious to visit aren’t necessarily the best places for us to travel.
I’m not saying it isn’t worth it to see some of the most famous cities in the world like Paris and Rome; those cities are beautiful and you should absolutely visit if given the chance. What I am saying is that people who exclusively seek out these types of vacations are missing out on a much more rewarding and invigorating travel experience.
To back up my point, here are a few reasons why your next trip should be somewhere under the radar:
1. A more authentic cultural experience.
Locals of famed European cities will be the first to tell you: If you want to truly experience the culture of a country, it’s often best to start with an area that doesn’t have a tourist economy. This is because cities that have become accustomed to tourists tend to offer different foods and entertainments, simply because they are catering to their audience.
If you’re heading to Italy, visiting Rome will allow you to see the Coliseum. Pretty cool, right? But traveling to a smaller town on the outskirts of Rome might allow you to have dinner a tiny restaurant owned by an Italian grandmother who makes the best spaghetti of your life.
These more authentic experiences can lead you to meet and interact with some pretty incredible people, which brings me to the next thing on my list.
2. Meaningful interactions with new people.
As human beings, we are programmed to need meaningful interactions with other human beings. Travel can be a great way to satiate that need. It’s often difficult to find that experience in big bustling cities where people are rushing around and used to tourists coming and going.
In contrast, it’s far easier to find meaningful conversation and experiences with individuals in less touristy areas. By taking a genuine interest in those around you, you’ll be surprised what you learn.
When Jack and I were in a tiny little town in rural Peru, our Airbnb host offered to make us dinner one night. We took him up on it. Not only did he cook us the most incredible meal of our trip, we also learned that in addition to running his 8-room Airbnb he’s going to school part-time. He also speaks 4 languages fluently.
We will probably remember our conversation with our incredibly hard-working, kind, and intelligent Airbnb host more than we remember any part of our trip to Peru.
3. More bang for your buck.
I’ll just say it: Tourist cities can be a total rip off. Everything will cost more: your lodging, food, transportation. Everything. People who live in these cities are well accustomed to tourists, and have learned that they can charge more and get away with it. Good for them–we’ve all got to hustle to make money somehow, right?
But when you take time to visit a city or town that’s a little further off the grid, you’ll notices the prices decrease. And we’ve noticed that the quality often stays just as high as the big cities, but you pay half the price. Without the people trying to extract more money from you, you’ll also notice that they take a more genuine interest in you and they’re more likely to help you.
Traveling to a more rural spot is definitely worth considering for the budget-minded traveler.
4. Travel as a learning experience.
Traveling to a more rural destination can be a meaningful learning experience in a few ways. First, you’re more likely to learn and experience what the country’s authentic culture is like. You can’t visit Paris and presume to understand France’s culture. The French will be the first to tell you that’s not true. Traveling to southern France, you’ll learn more about France’s culture while encountering people who are more willing to help you experience it.
Secondly, if you are traveling to somewhere foreign, the people in more rural areas will likely have very different culture norms and are less likely to speak English. This will force you to do your research as to not offend anyone, and also maybe learn a bit of the language while you’re at it. We’re big advocates of learning some key phrases of the spoken language in whatever country you are visiting.
5. Raise the standard of living for rural communities.
This last reason to travel somewhere off the beaten path may be the most important one. When you travel to places less accustomed to tourists, you are bringing tourism to places that probably really need it. Tourism is a huge money-making industry, and not every place can be as famous and desired as Tokyo or Rio.
So remember that every time you chose to travel somewhere more rural, you are bringing money to a community and raising their standards of living. And while you might feel a big of culture shock coming from a developed country traveling to underdeveloped areas, remember that you can literally change lives. It’s traveling for a cause.
We first started thinking about the benefits of rural tourism because of a sign in a rural bathroom! The sign explained that every time you chose to go somewhere rural instead of a big city, you are helping distribute money and resources to the people of that community.
Today’s social media climate can make you feel pressured to visit ultra-famous Instagram-worthy spots like Paris and Rome. Both these cities are incredible and have plenty of things worth seeing, but try rounding out your trip with a visit to somewhere a little less-known.
Being somewhere off the beaten path can be so much emotionally renewing than attempting to beat your way through swarms of tourists to take a picture. And you can actually improve the standards of living for people in more rural areas that you choose to visit.
For your next trip, try spending the night somewhere under-the-radar. Who knows, it might just be your favorite part of the trip.
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