Get off the beaten path » Seeing the world from a different point of view

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  • Get off the beaten path

    It's so easy to stick to the tourist trail, stay in hotels the Lonely Planet recommends, eat where everyone else eats and visit all the famous sights you've seen on telly and in magazines. While these experiences can be nice, you'll have the best adventures if you wander off the trail. Who's to say that just because a sight is famous, that it's actually any good? In fact, as soon as you discover what else the world has to offer that is not in the guide book, you'll realise that most famous sights are astonishingly underwhelming - if you can get through the crowds to see them.

    As well as the fact that the greatest sights you'll see, people you'll meet and experiences you'll have are off the beaten path, it's also much cheaper to get off the tourist trail than to stay on it.

    I realise that as soon as you find a place that’s genuinely off the tourist trail you want to keep it to yourself, but if you share, then others will share, and the world will open up around you. I’m not talking about taking three flights, two boat rides and a lift on the back of a donkey cart just to find an empty beach, I’m interested in the gems that are simply hidden away from the regular tourist areas, be it a lesser-known Thai island, a unique area of a big city, an unusual hotel or just a sight that no one seems to have noticed.

    If you've ever come across anything like this, let me know and I'll share it on this site!

    That's me, by the way, jumping in the air at a sand dune in Punta Gallinas, the most northerly point in Colombia.

Football matches, English classes and partying hard in Brazil

I thought the border crossing from Colombia to Peru was a joke (it happened in a bar), but the one from Argentina to Brazil was ridiculous – it didn’t even require standing up. We simply got in a cab, gave our passports to the cab driver, who showed them to passport control through the car window and drove on into Brazil.

I chatted to the Argentinean cab driver in [attempted] Spanish just to hold on to the joy of being able to converse with people for one last moment, before he chucked us out at the airport and I had to go through the arduous task of buying a plane ticket in Portuguese, a language that may as well have been whatever the hell it is they speak in Star Trek.

We were on our way to Ilha de Mel, where all the streets are made of sand and there are no motor vehicles. We met a group of American, French and German travellers on the bus to the port, so we got the three-hour boat to the island with them – but not before buying three bottles of cachaça, six limes and a bag of sugar. One of the girls had a wooden cup and pestle to smash the limes and sugar together, and after a few goes we got pretty good at making caipiriñas, then after a few caipiriñas we became bad at it again… The stuff isn’t known as crazy juice in traveller circles for nothing.

The caipiriñas did fuel an awesome night though. Starting off with a barbeque at the hostel (after my failed attempt at fishing standing in the sea fully dressed in the dark using a hook and line tied to a Coke can), we ate steaks (undercooked by myself) and chicken hearts on crackers. It was delightful. Then the hostel manager chucked us out for being too loud, so we tucked the iPod speakers under our arm and made our way to the beach. As luck would have it in an only-when-you’re-drunk situation, we came across an empty bar (there were no other tourists on the entire island) with an extension cord trailing all the way out to the water’s edge. We plugged in our tunes and danced into the night…

Everyone woke up the next morning feeling a little worse for wear (except me, I was up and at ‘em at 8am – I seem to have out-drunk hangovers). Some of us spent the day lying in hammocks talking about the state of the Brazilian currency while the rest of us went out and had fun. We went on a little hike around the perimeter of the island and ended up in reggae town. We stopped for dinner and some beers then bribed a boat owner to take us back. By that point it had started raining, and we were flipping freezing in the open-air boat. We took it in turns to sing a line of any song we could think of with the word ‘sunshine’ in it to keep warm, and somehow it worked.

We left the island the next day, knowing we’d had as much fun as we could possibly have, and made the 14-hour journey to Rio, by boat, bus, plane and taxi. We arrived in the district of Lapa at midnight on a Saturday night. It was heaving. They close the streets off to traffic and it just turns into one big street party. You buy caipiriñas on the street, food on the street (including hotdogs with peas, sweetcorn, sauce, crispy bits and of course a hard boiled egg) and everyone just dances the night away. Well, we did anyway. We became the life of the party and everyone wanted to know us. We were being beckoned by the locals in every direction, Phil because he was wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt and me because they discovered I knew the words to Nirvana and Pink Floyd. And cos we rocked.

We eventually hit the wall and went to bed in the hostel above the Irish bar, where the mattresses and pillows are all plastic-covered. The next day we moved on to Paraty, a small sea-side town. We stayed at Che Lagarto hostel, again the only place with actual people. Spent the next few days eating street truffles (men stand around selling sugar-based treats from trailers) and going on a boat trip to some small islands. It was bastard freezing out on the boat but at least we got to feed small orange monkeys bits of banana from our hands. Had to jump in the water to get to the monkeys first though – took me a long time of standing on the edge of the boat and just dipping my toe in to actually brave the water. We also met two American guys in Paraty. We found them wandering the streets holding their Lonely Planet upside down trying to find their hostel. They were the funniest people I’ve met – two gay guys, friends not partners, who said everything with a flourish and made our time in Paraty one big belly-laugh.

We also did a spot of teaching in Paraty. We were accosted by a local in the street who said he’d seen us earlier speaking English and asked us if we wanted to take over an English class at the school where he was a teacher. Offering to take us to the natural waterslide/giant slopey rock the next day to say thanks, we couldn’t say no, especially as the American guys had paid about £25 each to do it as a tour.

And so began our first morning of getting up and getting ready for school. I tried to fake tonsillitis, but there was no getting out of it now. It was when we discovered the kids were not six but 16 that we started pooping our pants a little.

We walked into the classroom, legs wobbling, and I immediately regretted wearing my llama-shaped bag. Quickly tucking it away on the teacher’s desk, I scanned my classroom: lots of kids, all wearing their own clothes and all looking straight at us, sniggering and murmuring in Portuguese, which I don’t understand a word of.

They quickly warmed to us though, and I happily embarrassed the girls by pointing to a boy one of them was talking to through the window and asking ‘is he your boyfriend?’ Then the unthinkable happened: Phil got the shits. A girl escorted him to the toilets and he didn’t come back until after I’d finished my second class of the day…

We spent the rest of the day buying a ridiculous amount of Havaianas before the teacher picked us up for our trip to the waterfall (Phil’s bum squirts had finished by now). The idea of this waterfall is that it crashes down onto a huge, smooth rock and flows into a freezing cold pool. Kids spend their weekends sliding down it, running round to the top and doing it all over again. I have a video of one local doing it standing up…

I chickened out after seeing Phil’s face when he landed in the water. It was a flipping freezing day as it was (in London it would be sunbathing weather, in Brazil it’s stay indoors weather). The teacher then saw a banana tree on the trail by the waterfall, looked up at the bananas and said “I’m going to get those bananas down.” He stood there looking at them for a while as we wondered how he was going to do it – shimmy up the tree, use a stick to knock them down. Then he pulled a machete out of his bag and in one hit, chopped the entire tree down. That’s one way to get something you can’t reach out of a tree I suppose. He didn’t give us any of the bananas though.

After all the excitement of wielding a machete, embarrassing kids and sliding down rocks, it was back to Rio. We decided to stay in Ipanema, where the hostel had a black and white cat and lots of awesome people, plus a British guy who happened to be on my three-leg flight home a week later. The weather was a bit crap, so we just kind of wandered around for a couple of days, being initiated into the city’s rival football team’s gang, eating our bodyweight at an all-you-can-eat restaurant and going to see Christ the Redeemer on the one clear, sunny day.

Getting bored of Ipanema and Copacobana we all moved to Lapa, as it was the weekend and we wanted to get our party on one last time before we went home. But first we had a football match to go to…

It rained like hell at the football and only about 12 people turned up to watch, including an old man who thought he was the team’s manager and was shouting and gesturing in a way that, well, in a way that you’d have to be there to appreciate… Anyway, we ate some hotdogs and drank some alcohol-free beer that we were scammed into buying but that was kindly paid for by the head of Sony Music Brazil, who we met on the train half an hour earlier. It transpired later that he has a private box to watch the game from, but wanted to sit in the stands with us lot, just cos we’re so very awesome.

We went out later that night in Lapa for some actual beers (and caipiriñas of course), and the whole place was times 50 on the crazyness scale from last time we were there. The streets were heaving and we had to promise the guys that the good-time, laid-back reggae vibe would be back the next night. The next night it rained. Hard. The good-time reggae vibe up and left in a puff of smoke – literally.

It was an appropriate way to spend our last night in Rio – and my last night of travelling, preparing me for what to expect when I got home. And true to itself, Britain was grim when my plane finally touched down at Heathrow.

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