When you are travelling, there is no worse feeling than the realisation that you’ve missed somewhere amazing. When you’ve come thousands of miles to visit this place — when it’s probably the only time you’ll ever be there — the idea that you’re missing a highlight is infuriating. This is why guidebooks and TripAdvisor and WikiTravel exist, right? They exist to satisfy the need which grows exponentially the shorter our trip and the greater the country’s reputation: the need to make the most of it.
I met a couple in Delhi airport on my way home from five months in India who said they thought the country was… only okay. They had been to Delhi, Jaipur, Agra — the classic ‘Golden Triangle’ route that most visitors to north India take — and then to Bikaner, which is a big, grimy city that has a temple or two and a camel farm, but which has a tenth of the tourist charm of nearby Jaisalmer or Udaipur. Such a waste!
With this in mind, I wanted to write about five places that are off the beaten track. The fist two are places that I visited for the sake of completeness because I had the time but which weren’t worth the hassle. And the second three are less popular than they should be: they’re neglected by Western tourists but deserve more attention and tourist revenue than they currently get.
1. Ascunsion – STAY
Ascuncion is the capital of Paraguay, and I spent a day and a half there at the start of my trip, and a few hours there at the end. It was all I had to see of the country, so I’m not about to say that you shouldn’t go anywhere there. But despite it being the capital there was very little for me to do, and the tourist activities I could find were official, dull museums, rather than anything that really showed me what the people of the country were like. When I was in the national museum the most exciting thing was looking out of the window on some kids playing football in the slum outside, and waving down at them.
My favourite activities in the city were just that — people-watching. Watching the men getting their shoes cleaned; walking around the market trying to make myself understood; tasting the national drink of terere. But I could have done that anywhere in the whole country. Asuncion itself had very little of its own to offer tourists.
2. Rameswaram – STAY
I had looked forward to visiting Rameswaram for at least six weeks before my public bus finally trundled over the bridge and onto this strange island. It is between Sri Lanka and the Indian mainland, and it is absolutely central to Indian mythology, it having featured in the Ramayana. (The Ramayana and other epic stories are sort of like the Iliad or Odyssey, but to Hindus, they are historical fact, and their characters are gods to be worshipped).
I made the simple but selfish mistake of assuming Rameswaram, being a place geared towards visitors, would be open to Western tourists. But that is not true: it’s a Hindu pilgrimage centre, and I was the out-of-place intruder that didn’t really belong.
I don’t regret going there, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are comfortable with being uncomfortable.
HOWEVER: the temple was beautiful. Pilgrims must immerse themselves in the holy water from 22 sacred teerthans or tanks/pools to wash away their sins. On my final day I was allowed to enter the centre of the temple despite not being a Hindu. It was quite magical: I got to see the holy lingums that were “made” by Hanuman and Sita. I also saw three men chanting in Sanskrit in a side room, some priests making flower chains, some really beautiful shrines, including one with a sort of “pile” of serpents carved from stone.
Seeing others’ excitement and trepidation on queuing to make darshan was amazing. Some had bought little pots of milk to “offer” (they give the milk to attendants, who pour it over the lingums), and while I was in the line there was a man chanting “Om nama Shiva he” to himself over and over.
3. Mount Abu – GO
Mount Abu is not, as my Dad said, a ‘first-division’ place — I wouldn’t visit it instead of nearby Udaipur, for example — but if you have a couple of days in southern Rajasthan (as one frequently does, of course), then you should absolutely pay it a visit because of its absolutely spell-binding Dilwara Jain temple.
The town is swamped with Indian tourists, mostly from the rich, neighbouring region of Gujarat. To cater to them, the town centre resembles an Indian Weston-Super-Mare or Blackpool: it has arcades and pedalos and plastic tat shops and ice-cream stalls. Depressingly, small children also hang out in the rubbish-filled green spaces, trying to sell popcorn or do magic tricks for anyone who passes. In case the vibe isn’t tacky enough, all the tourist paraphernalia was built in the 1970s or 80s and is definitely starting to show its age.
You may be wondering why I chose to come to Mt. Abu, and why I’m writing about it. The answer is that on the second day — my one full day in the town — I saw one of the most magnificent sights of my entire trip. In some ways it was better than the Taj Mahal, which I had seen a couple of weeks earlier. (My Dad straight-up didn’t believe me when I told him that).
4. Tiahuanaco – GO
Tiahuanaco/Tiwanaku is an interesting and important place because it is neither important nor interesting. It was the seat of an empire that lasted for fifteen hundred years, but now it’s a deserted, dusty collection of rocks and ruins about 100km from La Paz, Bolivia.
It reminded me of the (outstanding) archaeological sites of Ajanta and Ellora in Maharashtra, India — all of these places are UNESCO world heritage sites, but none of them know what to do with it. Tiwanaku has a railway station, ticket office, a few museums, a few cafés, and a lot of dust.
Much of its grandeur has been stolen by criminals or the archaeologists who uncovered the city. I wish I could tell you that Puma Puku, the ancient Tiwanaku palace, was beautiful, majestic, awe-inspiring, but it wasn’t. It was a pile of rocks. I was able to ‘hitch’ on a guided tour for a few minutes and learnt a little about the symbolism and masonry, and the fact that this palace faces west, whereas all the other temples face east to greet the sun. I also heard that the gates were originally ‘guarded’ by stone puma-men — but that they are in a museum in Germany. I struggled to get anything from the site itself apart from a vague sense of emptiness.
Jess remarked on how frustrating it was to walk around the place without being able to actually see what the buildings actually were. It certainly required a huge leap of imagination: a much bigger leap than we should have been forced to make.
5. El Toro Muerto – GO
100km from Arequipa in south Peru, El Toro Muerto is the quintessential place on my list. If you don’t like what I affectionately refer to as old shit, then it probably won’t interest you. But if Stonehenge and the Great Wall and cave paintings float your boat, then you’ll understand why I found it so breathtaking.
“Dead Bull” is an area of Peruvian desert so arid that even bulls would keel over and die from the heat, but which has outstanding art: five thousand petroglyphs or carvings, (patterns, animals, and people), have been scratched onto the rocks. No one knows why there are there, or who made them, but we do know that they are over 1,000 years old.
The fact that I had no idea what to expect meant that every time I saw a particularly good example, it was like I was the first person to discover it. I saw a few footprints and tyre tracks, and some of the stones were numbered. But otherwise I was completely alone. I kept thinking of the times I’d seen similar things on documentaries — mysterious, otherworldly things I’d never have otherwise known about. But here, I kept smiling and whispering “this is real“. I got to trace the patterns that these people chiselled with my finger.
It is a pain to get to, it only gets a dozen visitors a day, and there are no guides, paths or displays, but I loved it as much as I did Machu Picchu.