Backpacking Around Narnia – Patagonia, Argentina

Top Backpacking Destinations Ranking: 9/10

patagonia glacier

For many people Patagonia is a mythical land that they will read about in books but never get anywhere near in real life, rendering it a destination out of a storybook that might as well not exist in real life. And this doesn’t seem far from the truth even once you’ve arrived. It constantly delivers mind blowing sights, incredible experiences and a backpacking trip that you’ll never forget.

Patagonia is so big that it’s hard to put a finger on where it actually starts and ends – it stretches down from mid-Argentina to the very southern tip at Ushuaia as well as sprawling out and over Chile – but the majority of backpackers who visit will go to El Calafate, the destination of flights from Buenos Aires and the hub for many trips out into the snowy abyss. From there it’s possible to do everything you could want within a week if your time is tight, as it often is on backpacker trips. The jaw dropping Perito Moreno Glacier is the first spot on most people’s lists and it lives up to expectation; a giant monster of an ice sculpture that continues for ever up into the mountains and beyond view.

But that’s not the only glacier out there. You can visit any number of them, all of which have their own records whether it’s longest, highest, biggest mass (the list goes on!). The one thing they have in common is that they will blow your mind. And that they’re big lumps of ice of course. It’s even possible to see a few of them all in one day as there are boat trips around Lago Argentino which stop by 3 or 4 for you to compare and contrast. You’d think that once you’ve seen one glacier you’ve seen them all but this is the perfect proof against that theory. It’s a great way to see a lot of the area in one day and also allows you to get frighteningly close as huge chunks of the ice fall from the wall and splash into the water beneath. That’s a sight I won’t forget for a long, long time.

And it’s not all about the glaciers either. The environment right across Patagonia is awe inspiring and any trip out to the towns outside of El Calafate are well worth it. One I would recommend is the trip up to El Chalten. This is at the foot of the impressive Mount Fitz Roy and the trekking opportunities are abundant. As you wander around you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled through the back of a wardrobe and into Narnia. I didn’t spot any lions though…

You can go to Patagonia on an extensive trekking trip or just for a few days as a stop on your backpacking adventure to see the glaciers. Either way, I can guarantee you won’t leave disappointed as Patagonia is one of those places that gets under your skin and makes you hungry for more. The only problem is deciding where to go next that can live up to it…

You can try and find that next place on the itinerary from the other backpacking destinations in South America on here, or maybe you’re ready for all the details in a hard copy like the Argentina Lonely Planet Guide or the Patagonian Trekking Guide.

If you’ve got even more of your own tips on Patagonia it would be great to hear them all in the comments…

My 3 Best Kept Backpacking Secrets

This is a slightly special post as I have been kindly nominated by Marta and Chris at A Travel Around the World to contribute to Tripbase’s 3 Best Kept Travel Secrets project. If you haven’t heard about it then you must have had your head in the sand (a distinct possibility for the beach bound travel community) but the general idea is that you share your 3 favourite travel gems and then nominate 5 more travel bloggers to do the same.

Anyway, enough of the admin, let’s get to the good stuff:

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

Puerto Lopez isn’t too much too shout about as a place. It’s a small, coastal town with an only ok beach and a couple of nice restaurants (and one particularly nice pizza place!). Fishing boats are strewn along the beach and bob on the water’s edge and it’s all very nice without being incredible. You can easily arrive there one morning and leave the following evening and do everything there is to do. So why is it a travel gem then I hear you cry…

Puerto Lopez has a secret. Between the months of June and October Humpback Whales head there for mating season and they’re not shy. Backpackers can take a boat out with one of the many local fishermen and get a front row seat of all the action. The whales put on quite a show; jumping out of the water, slapping their fins and generally having a merry old time. The best bit is you’re almost guaranteed to get a sighting as there are so many tours out on the water and they all communicate to ensure they all get a piece of the action. And the even better bit is it will only cost you about 5 English sterling for a once in a lifetime experience. If that’s not a gem I don’t know what is.

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Eastern Europe has become more and more popular as a place to go travelling so this probably isn’t as much of a secret as it once was, but Lake Bled is a must visit for any traveller worth their salt. It has all the benefits of any Eastern European destination; easily accessible, great value and good beer! But Bled has even more on top of this.

Set around the stunning emerald lake, the town oozes charm and you’d be happy just to kick back and soak it all up forever. But there’s too much else on offer to just laze around. You can rent a boat and row your way out to Bled Island, a tiny piece of land set it in the middle of the lake with just a church and a few trees to keep you company. Or if you’re feeling especially active there’s incredible hiking, rafting and skiing in the surrounding mountains which provide a jaw dropping backdrop to the beauty of the lake.

One thing’s for sure, Bled is less of a secret than it once was. Get yourself there before the hoards ruin it.

La Mosquitia, Honduras

La Mosquitia is an inhospitable place. It covers 32,500 square miles and to get there you have to get on a tiny plane which lands on a strip of grass in the middle of nowhere. From there the only way to travel into its bowels is on a cayuco (a dugout canoe) and you can do this for days on end without seeing anyone at all. It is the ultimate jungle trip.

It’s obviously nowhere near as well known as the Amazon and this makes it far less visited and much more authentic. The indigenous people you find in the tiny villages dotted along the riverbanks are not set up to receive tourists, they are simply friends of the cayuco owners who transport you from one end to the other. This makes for an incredible journey which exposes you to real indigenous people going about their daily life as well as an amazing amount of wildlife and environments. One minute you’re in your canoe in the pitch black of night crocodile spotting, the next you’re drinking pure water out of a tree branch.

There’s no other experience like it and, whilst it’s not an easy ride, it’s certainly worth the effort.

So there you have it, my 3 best kept travel secrets. And, in the spirit of the game, here are the five people I’m nominating to contribute their three gems. Can’t wait to read them!

Spunky Girl Monologues
Suzy Guese
Nomadic Chick
Discover Northern California
Around the World “L”

Auschwitz, Stews and Cheap Backpacking – Krakow, Poland

Top Backpacking Destinations Ranking – 7/10

Many backpackers visit Krakow simply as a jumping off point to Auschwitz, but they find there is much more on offer in one of Poland’s oldest cities than just that. You will leave there with the sobering memories of a historical landmark, but also happy recollections of a beautiful city.

Krakow is another city that is a must for backpackers taking the interrail route around Europe. It is easily accessible and perfect if you are heading down from Riga or Czech Republic heading south through Eastern Europe. The trip to Auschwitz is the one that most head to the city for and it is certainly one i’d recommend to anyone. The history of the camp is incredible and really brings to heart the sufferings felt there and, whilst you’ll probably spend the whole day in stunned silence, it is certainly something that people should do when in the area.

But there’s more to Krakow than that. The city is up and coming and is quickly becoming a popular destination for people in Western Europe looking for a cheaper option to the likes of Paris or Barcelona. The Stare Miasto (old city) is one of the areas that draws most interest and rightly so, just a ten minute walk from the train station and home to Wawel castle, many beautiful churches and the main square. You could be forgiven for thinking you were in Paris in the square, surrounded by pretty little cafes, beautiful monuments and fancy shops. But it adds its own Polish flavour to the mix with people in traditional dress wandering around and the possibility of a hearty stew in any of the cafes.

Whilst it is becoming a more mainstream destination it is still very much a great spot for backpackers as it provides great value, plenty to do and has backpacker accomodation everywhere. It’s worth a visit on its own, so if you’re travelling around Eastern Europe then there’s no excuse for missing it out.

It’ll be interesting to hear what you think of Krakow; add you thoughts, agree or disagree and leave even more tips for other backpackers…

Here’s some ideas of other destinations to go backpacking in Europe

Terracotta Backpacking – Xian, China

Xian is an unpronounceable yet fantastic backpacking city in Central China. Xian reads to Westerners as it should be pronounced as if you were talking about a dog in French, but no matter how Westerners pronounce it they can never be understood. This only proves a problem when sorting out your travel to Xian. Once you eventually arrive and move beyond the language barrier (which exists for the whole of China), Xian is a great place to spend a few days as there’s so much to see and do.

You can hire bikes and ride around the ancient (or in many places now restored) city walls. There are temples and pagodas to see, including Big Goose Pagoda, which is a top attraction, even more so as it has such a fantastic name. There’s also the Bell Tower where there are regular musical displays.

Xian sits at the end of the ancient silk route and is a cultural melting pot. The Muslim quarter has one of the most colourful and vibrant markets you will see anywhere in the world, with souvenirs, silks, cloths, clothes, food and musical instruments. You name it and they’ve got it. Some of the food though is for the real adventurers among you. On the far side of the market is the largest mosque in China which is well worth popping into.

Having spent a few days doing all this, there is also, of course, the Terracotta Army, which is easily reachable by bus from Xian centre in an hour. Leave a whole day for the Army, as it’s quite a sight to behold building up to the largest excavation, which is the size of a few aircraft hangers.

You can then spend your night dancing away in the largest fountain and lights show in the world. It’s pretty simple; they turn on a lot of fountains, put some Hollywood style red carpet beam lights on, play loud classical music and everyone dances around in the fountains for half an hour every night at 9pm. Not to be missed. But take a change of clothes. Best of all…it’s free!

Leave two or three days for Xian, it’s well connected to Beijing and Shanghai by train and flights but you will need to book ahead in peak season. However, once you get there and see everything Xian has to offer, you may not be in that much of a hurry to leave.

This is a guest post from Adam Ellis, you can follow him on Twitter at @adam_ellis

Culture Shock That’s Worth It – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Top Backpacking Destinations Ranking: 8.5/10

Whilst not the capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City can boast to being the largest and, arguably, the most significant. It eminates an incredible energy and has constant activity flying around you along with the humdrum you would expect of a huge metropolis. For backpackers visiting the city the most important thing is to avoid being fazed when faced with this seemingly uncoordinaated, sprawling monster. When you acclimatise to its many oddities you will see it is a wonderous destination and one hard not to fall in love with.

The first thing to remember is to look both ways before you cross the road. Or the pavement. Or anything for that matter! With a population of over 9 million people there’s no space to move and it seems like every one of those people rides a motorbike. If you went up in a plane above the city you could be forgiven for thinking it was a swarm of flies! And it’s not just people that are rife, attractions are abundant around the city too. Choose from the Chu Chi tunnels, Thong Nhat Palace or one of the many beautiful pagodas dotted around. As you’d expect from a city so steeped in history there’s also a healthy amount of museums, of which the Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum is the stand out in my opinion.

But the great thing about this backpacking destination is that you don’t need the attractions to visit, the culture and the people are enough on their own. You could sit on a bench and watch the world go by on their motorbikes for a lifetime without getting bored. And that is exactly what many of the backpackers who visit the city do. Backpacker accommodation is easy to come by as is scrumptious food at prices way cheaper (and tastier) than your local Tesco.

The incredible time lapse video below shows the magical choreography that emerges from the madness of this incredible city:

Traffic in Frenetic HCMC, Vietnam from Rob Whitworth on Vimeo.

As long as you can handle the initial impact and culture shock of this amazing city then you’re in for a treat and it should definitely be high on your list. Just remember to pack your motorbike…

Backpacking for Beginners – Riga, Latvia

Top Backpacking Destinations Ranking – 6.5/10

Riga has become the pretender to Prague for the crown of ‘Best Eastern European City for Stag Weekends’. So much so that the Latvian government have tried to put a cap on the number of Brits who can visit on such trips. This, though, is good news for the backpacking community as it allows the city to maintain its charm and character which is the reason people started visiting in the first place.

The fact it is so popular for stag weekends stems from the fact that it is so accessible for visitors. Not only can you fly there as cheaply as you can fly to almost anywhere in Europe but the city boasts excellent value when you arrive and no element of culture shock for even the most inexperienced backpacker. If you’re after an introduction to living out of a backpack and staying in hostels then this is a great place to start before working your way downinto the slightly heavier spots in the likes of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

One of the stand out attractions in Riga is the Freedom Monument which has a sacred place in the heart of every Latvian after it managed to survive four decades of Soviet rule. This sits alongside the cathedral as one of the most viewed buildings in the city and they both illustrate the beautiful architecture on offer in the city. This is further exemplified by the central market which is about as far from Oxford Street shopping as you can get. It is based in five old zeppelin hangers and still provides the locals with a place to come and get their cheap fruit and veg. It’s a great way to soak up the lifestyle of a local Rigan but some of the lower level citizens have latched onto this as an opportunity to get some freebies so keep your hands on your pockets!

Riga can be a great introduction to the backpacking lifestyle but is in danger of being overrun by rampant tourists heading over for a quick weekend of cheap debauchery. If this is kept in check and the city maintains its wonderful character then it will continue to be a fantastic destination to go backpacking.

Like these ideas or got better ones to offer? Share all in the comments so everyone can enjoy!

Click here to check out other backpacking destinations in Europe

It might also be an idea to buy the Latvia Lonely Planet Guide