In this post I describe 12 off the beaten path destinations that I have visited through my job as an overland adventure guide and which you should consider putting on your travel bucket list this year.
From other worldly hot springs in Ethiopia to gas craters in Turkmenistan, from Zoroastrian canyons in Iran to ancient pyramids in Sudan, on this list there’s something to tickle the fancy of even the most intrepid of travellers.
If you’re looking for some really alternative travel recommendations for 2024, read on below!
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Off The Beaten Path Travel
I feel like the term, “off the beaten path” gets thrown around quite a lot these days. With new travel destinations being instantly shared with the world through social media, finding truly off the beaten path destinations is getting harder and harder to do.
For me off the beaten path travel often means going to the middle of nowhere. Or going to a place where few others dare to venture, along a route that is not easy to take.
Part of the adventure includes the journey it takes to reach that unfrequented destination. The end location might not be that spectacular but there is something very rewarding about reaching a fairly untouched part of the world.
Feeling like a pioneer of old!
Many of the remote locations in this guide can be accessed with local buses but some require off-road vehicles or dedicated tours.
1. Darvaza Gas Crater – Turkmenistan
What happens when you throw a match into a crater filled with natural gas? The whole crater catches fire and burns until the gas runs out. Well, in the small desert filled country of Turkmenistan that’s exactly what happened.
During the Soviet era engineers had set up a drilling rig to search for oil. However, instead of finding oil they drilled into a natural gas pocket which subsequently collapsed and formed the crater we see today.
In 1971 geologists set the gas on fire to burn off some of the poisonous gas that was leaking. Believing this would only take a few weeks, the crater has been burning ever since!
They have tried to put the flames out but to no avail. So, the powers that be in Turkmenistan have decided to let it burn.
The Gateway to Hell, as it known locally, has become Turkmenistan’s biggest tourist attraction but since Turkmenistan gets very few tourists, it’s a top off the beaten track travel destination.
Getting to the crater used to be an adventure in itself, as you had to do some serious off-roading across sand dunes. On my first visit in 2015 we saw only one jeep and were the only people camping there. It was a real unknown destination.
On subsequent visits in 2018 however, the crater was more “developed”. There is now a dirt road providing access to the crater and at the crater itself there are yurt camps complete with toilets. A safety railing has also been put up around the crater to prevent tourists from falling in!
The most challenging part of seeing Darvaza crater is getting into Turkmenistan in the first place! Visa’s are notoriously difficult to get and will most certainly require joining a dedicated travel group, such as those offered by Dragoman.
But if you don’t manage to get into Turkmenistan, fear not, there are plenty more ‘Stans’ on this list.
If you liked reading about the Gateway to hell, you might be interested in this post about dark tourism destinations.
2. Yaxchilan Mayan Ruins – Mexico
You’ve probably heard of Chichen Itza or Tulum in Mexico. Both incredible and beautiful Mayan ruins on the Yucatan peninsula. However, there are so many other Mayan ruins around this area which very few tourists manage to see.
Located on the banks of the Usumacinta River, Yaxchilan was once a very important Mayan city. Due to the remote location, this site doesn’t attract many tourists so is a great place to go off the beaten path in Mexico.
The ruin itself is famous for its sculptures and the carved lintels that cross temple doorways.
I personally love this site because it still feels pretty undiscovered and secluded. Much of the ruins are still shrouded in jungle, in fact they have only uncovered 20% of the city.
To access the site we took a narrow lancha (boat) from our camping spot in Frontera Corozal. We travelled 40 minutes up the Usumacinta River, which forms the natural border with Guatemala.
You could combine a visit to Yaxchilan with a visit to nearby Bonampak, famous for its brightly coloured murals. However, for that visit you will need a local escort/guide to accompany you.
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Keen for an adventure but not sure if the purse strings will stretch far enough? Discover all my money saving travel hacks in this guide.
3. Morteza Ali Canyon – Iran
Iran is a fabulous country to get off the beaten track and it’s even less touristy the further east you travel.
The desert in central Iran is a very hot and harsh environment, so the ability to dip your feet (and head) under some cold water is a welcome activity.
What makes this spring unique is that there is hot and cold water running parallel to each other. You can have one foot in hot water and the other foot in cold water!
As you wander up the canyon there are old Zoroastrian graves high up in the walls and at the end is the Shah Abbasi Dam. This is apparently the thinnest and tallest arcade dam in the world. (unconfirmed!)
Whilst this site is quite busy with Iranian visitors who believe the spring water has healing properties, you are unlikely to see any foreigners venturing out this way. It’s a real untouched corner of Iran.
4. Moynaq Ship Graveyard – Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan used to be an awkward country to visit because of visa requirements but a few years ago they introduced a much easier e-visa which makes visiting much more straight forward.
Known as the gem of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is famed for its beautifully tiled mosques and mausoleums in Silk Road towns such as Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva. However, there are a few places in Uzbekistan where you can easily escape the crowds and embark on an alternative adventure.
The Aral Sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world, however over the last 50 years it has shrunk to 10% of its original size. The lake started shrinking in the 1960s after the Soviets had started diverting the two main rivers that fed the Sea.
The water from the diverted rivers was used for irrigation of crops, predominately cotton, also known as White Gold.
The price for this white gold has not only resulted in the loss of the Aral Sea, but in the decimation of a fishing industry and a swathe of health issues for local people.
The site of the former Aral Sea in Uzbekistan is the second man made disaster to appear on this list!
The pesticides used for farming the cotton has been left in the former sea bed. During sandstorms this gets swept up and inhaled by anyone in its path.
Scientists hope that planting thousands of trees on the dried up sea bed, will prevent the wind from picking up the contaminated sand and spreading it through the atmosphere. At current pace it could take 150 years to grow this sea bed forest!
Our visit took us to the town of Moynaq which is in the remote northwest corner of Uzbekistan. This town was once a thriving fishing port on the edge of the Aral Sea, but now it’s more famous for having a Ship Graveyard.
Viewing the Ship Garveyard evokes somber feelings but hey, nobody said this adventure business was all rainbows and unicorns! Tours to Moynaq and to the edge of the Aral sea are available from Khiva or buses are available from Nukus.
Top tip: Don’t visit Moynaq during a sandstorm!
If you want to learn more about Uzbekistan, take a look at this article!
5. The Danakil Depression – Ethiopia
The hottest place on Earth and the cradle of humanity. This hostile environment situated in the Afar region of Ethiopia is how you might imagine Mars would look. In fact, scientists are investigating this area to help understand how life might arise on other planets.
Fairly impossible to reach independently, jeep trips from nearby Mekele are the best way to access the Danakil Depression.
At Dallol, the hydro thermal features are constantly changing so you never know what you might find. But what you are guaranteed is to see something unlike anywhere else in the world. The Danakil Depression is a truly unique travel destination.
Before a visit to Ethiopia be sure to check out my Ethiopia travel tips!
2024 update: Much of Ethiopia is deemed unsafe to travel to at the moment and unfortunately the Danakil falls into one of those areas. Check back later in the year for an update or visit the foreign travel advise website for the latest information.
6. Karakul Lake – China
The drive from Kashgar to Karakul Lake in the Xinjiang province of China takes you on a breathtaking and bumpy trip along the Karakoram Highway. At 3600m it is the highest lake on the Pamir Plateau and a real feast for the eyes.
The lake is a gorgeous turquoise colour and is surrounded by several 7000m peaks. During my visit there were a few yurt camps along the lakeshore but in 2018 these had unfortunately all closed down.
The Xinjiang province has introduced some upsetting regimes in recent years, which appear to be persecuting the Uyghur people in the form of “re-education camps”.
Whilst being a perfectly safe country to visit, being a tourist in this police state had become an uncomfortable experience for me in 2018. I’m hoping rising media interest from outside countries might force a change here soon because Karakul Lake is an amazing off the beaten path adventure.
7. Aksu Zhabagly Nature Reserve – Kazakhstan
Aksu Zhabagly Nature Reserve is a beautiful mountainous area close to the border with Kyrgyzstan. In this protected area you can hike, horse ride or take off road jeep trips with the accompaniment of a Park Ranger.
The flowers here in Springtime are incredible and the views at anytime of year make it a worthwhile visit.
We stayed at Ruslan’s Camp which is in the sticks, on the edge of the Nature Reserve. Ruslan is an super lovely and happy guy who can help arrange all of your activities, while his mother cooks some mean dumplings!
Reaching this mountainous area of Kazakhstan is possible on local transport from the Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan border and takes half a days travel.
8. Khövsköl Lake – Mongolia
Mongolia is an overlanders paradise! Since this is a country where you can drive and camp where ever you want, it’s very easy to venture off the beaten path. In the north of the country, close to the Russian border is Khövsgöl lake.
This lake holds 70% of Mongolia’s fresh water. It is considered the younger sister to nearby Lake Baikal in Russia. During winter the lake completely freezes over with ice so thick that trucks can drive over it.
Trucks used to transport goods over this frozen lake since it provided a huge short cut, but it has since been banned for environmental and safety reasons!
Gur (yurt) camps surround the southern shores of the lake, provide very comfortable accommodation and various lake based activities.
I highly recommend a trip to Mongolia if you want to experience vast landscapes and witness a truly nomadic culture. There are many local operators that offer jeep tours of Mongolia, all starting in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
A trip to this undiscovered destination should be at the top of your adventure bucket list.
9. Meroe Pyramids – Sudan
Sudan has a very different feel to all the other African countries I have visited and I was pleasantly surprised at every step. The people are welcoming and the history dates back thousands of years.
Meroe was an ancient city situated on the banks of the river Nile. It was once the capital city of the Kingdom of Kush and home to the Black Pharaohs.
The environment has since changed and Meroe has been engulfed by the desert. This great city houses more than 200 pyramids, the best preserved of which now comprise the main tourist site.
Camping nearby to enjoy both sunset and sunrise, this is a site we enjoyed completely by ourselves. You don’t need to be part of a tour to visit this destination because it’s in driving distance of the capital Khartoum.
Sudan is home to several incredible historic sites and the people are some of the friendliest in Africa. However, visas require a little work which makes this country a very unique and unfrequented travel destination.
2024 update: Sudan is deemed unsafe to travel to at the moment due to civil unrest. Check back later in the year for an update or visit the foreign travel advise website for the latest information.
10. Altyn Arashan – Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan has gained in popularity over recent years (pre-pandemic) and more westerners are starting to discover its beauty. Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country in Central Asia billed as the Switzerland of Asia.
In the eastern part of Kyrgyzstan is a mountain region called Altyn Arashan. The only way to get to Altyn Arashan is to hike or bike 30km from the nearby town of Karakol or hire the services of a crazy Soviet truck to drive you there.
We opted for the later!
Since the route to Altyn Arashan resembles a river bed more than a road, the road is too rough, even for our overland expedition vehicles.
During our first visit where they had received a lot of rain, the track more resembled a mud bath. However, the reward for travelling to the end of this road is an incredibly beautiful valley and the starting point for some epic hikes.
There are now several camps in the valley that offer accommodation, one of which which utilises natural hot springs for Russian style bath houses. A day hike from here will take you to a high pass over Ala Kul, which is one of the most beautiful high alpine vistas I’ve ever seen.
Check out local company CBT if you’re interested in a guided hike of the region. They can also organise homestays and yurt stays all over Kyrgyzstan.
11. Fairy Meadows – Pakistan
The final Stan in this adventure travel guide is Pakistan. This is another country that started to gain in popularity pre-pandemic and hopefully troubles in neighbouring Afghanistan won’t set them back as the world opens up.
After my visit to Pakistan in 2019 I was quite literally blown away with its beauty and I couldn’t wait to get back. I lined up another visit for 2020 but sadly the world had other plans.
There are so many highlights for a mountain lover in Pakistan that its hard to single out just one, but perhaps the most magical place to visit are the Fairy Meadows.
This meadow is located in the shadow of Nanga Parbat and just reaching the meadow is an adventure of epic proportions. You can read more about that here but for now just know that this place is so stunning its worth risking life and limb to get there.
12. Suchitoto – El Salvador
I love an underdog country and El Salvador is one of those countries. Most tourists in Central America flock to Costa Rica which is without doubt a beautiful country, but for a more gritty experience head to El Salvador.
Travellers to El Salvador will likely flock to the beaches of Tunco or hike Santa Ana volcano but I encourage you to visit the small town of Suchitoto.
Here you can admire the colonial style architecture, take a wildlife trip on Suchitlan Lake and see the unique basalt columns at Los Tercios waterfall. (Los Tercios made it onto my list of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world!)
Also, be sure to visit Centro Arte para la Paz and be inspired by the incredible work the volunteers there carry out to achieve peace in the community through the use of art and music. If you get chance, have a chat with Sister Peggy O’Neill – a truly remarkable woman.
Final Thoughts On This Off The Beaten Path Travel Guide
Getting truly off the beaten track in this world of social media is getting more difficult to achieve. However, for the modern day explorer there are still places where it is possible to have a real adventure.
Hopefully in this off the beaten path travel guide, I have inspired you to escape the popular, over-crowded destinations and seek out an alternative adventure in the post-pandemic world.
If you have any questions or thoughts leave a comment below.
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