Editor’s Note: In gearing up for the announcement of the Top Destinations for Indie Travelers in 2013 on Janary 3, we thought it would be fun to republish all the top destination articles from the past 5 years. The article below is our list for 2009 and was originally published on January 6, 2009.
In early 2008, the writers and editors here at BootsnAll put our heads together to come up with our top 10 list of destinations for independent travelers. In case you are new to our site, we have the world’s best group of regulars and visitors using our travel forums, and there are always discussions between people wanting recommendations and informed travelers helping them out.
Be sure to check out our Top 10 Destinations from 2008.
So in 2009 we wanted to include our stellar community in this process, and we asked everyone for nominations for this list. We got quite a few suggestions, including many great destinations that those of us on the staff have yet to visit, so this list belongs to our entire community of travel fanatics.
Without further ado, here are 10 places you might consider visiting in 2009, and a few reasons why:
10 – Tasmania, Australia
When a country takes up a whole continent, it stands to reason that any island off its coast might often suffer from a case of overlooked-itis – and that’s definitely the case with Australia’s smallest state, the island of Tasmania. Tourists head for Oz in droves, but the vastness of the country (not to mention the cosmopolitan eastern cities) are enough to keep most travelers occupied for their entire trip. If you’re interested in seeing another aspect of Australia, however, you’ll head for Tasmania off the southeastern tip of the continent.
Well-known for its incredible landscapes, Tasmania is nearly 40% protected area (national parks, nature reserves, and World Heritage sites) and is understandably popular with outdoors enthusiasts. Biking, hiking, fishing, and sailing are all great options to fill your days on the island, and the capital city of Hobart is pretty and charming. Getting to Tasmania by plane usually requires a stop elsewhere in Australia, and once you’re there you’ll have the most freedom with a rental car. Just remember that the Aussies drive on the left side of the road, and be on the lookout for wildlife – you don’t want your first look at a Tasmanian devil to be when it runs out in front of your car in the middle of the night.
9 – Siem Reap, Cambodia
While Bangkok is by far the most popular entry point into the cheap, exotic, and fascinating world of Southeast Asia, it has its share of problems, even when the government is stable. Siem Reap is just a bit south of Bangkok, and it offers a far more authentic and less slick look into the culture here, while still having a well-developed tourist infrastructure to make things easy.
Most visitors to Siem Reap use it as a staging area for their time at the nearby and amazing Angkor Wat temple complex, and while that’s a good enough reason alone, that’s only one of the benefits. This Cambodian town has responded to the crowds by building out all the needed resources, while keeping much of the authentic beauty of the place in tact. Before or after your trip to Angkor Wat you can check out the various street markets, visit a landmine museum, take a trip to a nearby “floating village,” or just get a cheap and refreshing massage.
You can fly into Siem Reap from all the major cities and capitals in the area, or you can take a bus from Thailand if you are already nearby. Hotels starting around US$5 are fairly easy to find, but there are also plenty of tourist-class hotels for those who prefer to spend a bit more for air conditioning and satellite TV.
8 – Bariloche, Argentina
This city isn’t too well known internationally, but once you are in the region it will be recommended by nearly everyone you meet. The person who nominated this for our list helpfully pointed out that it’s considered the South American equivalent of Queenstown, New Zealand, which made our 2008 destinations list for being jammed with winter and summer activities, all within close range of an excellent tourist infrastructure.
Bariloche is located in the foothills of the Andes, very near the border with Chile, in the region of Patagonia. In addition to stunning scenery in every direction, you’ve got excellent skiing and snowboarding spots in the winter, and nearly unlimited amounts of summer activities including trekking, rafting, cycling, horseback riding, and many water sports. The city is also notable for its Swiss-style mountain resort look, including an abundance of chocolate shops ready to hand out samples. The food and wine are also excellent, and there are plenty of very affordable hotels mixed in among the pricy resorts.
Being as remote as it is, it’s not all that cheap or easy to reach from North America. You’ll have to connect through one of the major South American capitals, so it’s most popular among those touring the whole region. Consider adding it to a trip that includes Buenos Aires, the Mendoza wine region, or Santiago, Chile.
7 – Panama
When you mention you are going to Panama, you’ll probably get a bunch of raised eyebrows immediately followed by the question, “To see the Canal?” While you may not hear a lot about Panama, this Central American country has a lot more to offer than a passageway linking the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean.
From the colonial architecture of Casco Veijo in the modern and cosmopolitan city of Panama City, to the lush jungled highlands (and a volcano which you can spot both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea from the top), to excellent surf and beaches on the Pacific side, and picturesque white sand, palm fringed islands surrounded by coral reefs and turquoise clear water on the Caribbean, Panama has a little bit of everything to offer intrepid travelers. Add into the mix friendly people with diverse and rich cultural backgrounds, and cheap food and accommodations, and you have yourself an equation for a perfect travel destination.
While Panama doesn’t have the tourism infrastructure of Costa Rica, it is equally beautiful, easier to get off the beaten path, and a lot less expensive than its neighbor to the north. However, with tourism on the brink of expanding in a major way in Panama, the inexpensive prices and lack of tourist crowds won’t last long. For anyone who envisions a vacation with everything from mountains and rain forests to beaches and nightclubs, Panama has got you covered.
6 – Bangladesh
It’s true that Bangladesh is more known for poverty and natural disasters than for being the perfect vacation spot, but nearly every member of the BootsnAll community who has been here raves about it. The fact that it’s not an obvious choice certainly adds to its appeal, and yet the place is no gimmick just to prove how hardcore you are. Past visitors warn that it’s a place for “travelers” and not “tourists”, so this is not an ideal first destination in the region, though it’s definitely worth a look for anyone looking to get off the main tourist trail in Asia.
The capital city of Dhaka is the obvious place to start, and definitely worth a few days on its own, but it’s a chaotic and crowded city so the smaller towns and rural areas will be even more welcome when you reach them. The people are notoriously friendly as well as accepting of others, and even though Westerners are a constant source of curiosity for locals, there is unlikely to be any trouble. The port city of Chittagong and the resort area called Cox’s Bazar (which claims to be the world’s longest beach even though it’s not), are two more highlights out of a long list.
And even though there are plenty of great sights and things to do, visiting Bangladesh is more about the people and how they live than about checklist attractions. If you decide to go you will have to be patient and understanding because the tourist infrastructure barely exists, but once you settle in you’ll probably fall for the place just like so many others before you have.
5 – Sardinia, Italy
Travelers don’t need to be told to go to Italy – countless people head for The Boot every year. But many people do need to be told that there’s another big Italian island besides Sicily. Sardinia, which is off Italy’s west coast just south of the French island of Corsica, has long been a popular vacation destination for Italians who head for the island’s beaches every August. In fact, it’s so popular in August that the beaches are absolutely jam-packed with people and the prices for hotels are at their highest. Outside the peak season, however, Sardinia is still a haven for anyone who loves the outdoors.
The island is full of great hiking trails, and being surrounded by water makes it an ideal spot for things like kayaking and snorkeling. Public transportation is notoriously challenging on Sardinia, and there could be a bit of a language barrier for those who stray away from the bigger cities (not only do people not necessarily speak English, most of them are speaking Sardinian and not even Italian!), but if you’re willing to go off the beaten path in a country that’s been pretty well-trodden, you’ll be rewarded handsomely. Do note that getting a direct flight to Sardinia is pretty difficult (unless you’re starting in Italy), so you’ll likely be going through Rome or Milan – making Sardinia an easy addition to your existing Italy vacation plans.
4 – Senegal
Independent travelers looking to Africa generally start with Egypt, Morocco, or South Africa, and few get any deeper than that. But those looking to explore some of the “real Africa,” should consider Senegal as a great entry point. The capital city of Dakar is most famous for being the finish line of the Paris to Dakar Rally, but it’s actually a lively and relatively safe city with outstanding nightlife and a music scene that is the envy of the continent. Knowing French is more useful than English here, though it’s not terribly difficult to get along with just English, especially if you make a point to learn a few local phrases.
In addition to the fascinating and easily accessible culture in the capital, Senegal is known for its outstanding beaches. They have noted beach resorts, which offer sailing, scuba diving, and fishing, as well as a surfing scene that is starting to make waves internationally. From the resort areas you are also close to wildlife and nature reserves, so it’s possible to mix many things on your trip.
You can actually fly into Senegal non-stop from Atlanta, as well as from many different cities on the European continent, so it’s one of the easiest African countries to reach, in addition to being among the most friendly, welcoming, and safe.
3 – Berlin, Germany
As one of Europe’s largest cities, Berlin is plenty well known, but it’s definitely not an obvious choice for a vacation in the way that is true for London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Rome. Of course, visiting was quite complicated before Germany reunified in 1990, and the entire country still has a reputation as being productive and efficient, but not really fun-loving. However, today’s Berlin has plenty going for it, including a feeling that is still somewhat exotic compared to most of Europe’s tourist-filled cities, and it’s noticeably cheaper than most as well.
The area that was once East Berlin is fairly compact, and filled with interesting WWII and Cold War sights, as well as some amazing new attractions that have come together just recently. And since real estate prices were so cheap after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are vast areas filled with experimental art shops, colorful coffee houses, and unique bars and clubs. This new and edgy style probably won’t last forever, so it’s great to be able to see it now before the chain stores move in and spoil it all.
Most trendy locals have moved on to the Prenzlauer Berg district for their nightlife, but the touristy area along Oranienburger Strasse is still very worthwhile, as it’s lined with unique bars and restaurants that still live up to the hype. And those who don’t speak any German will be happy to learn that Berlin is now a place where English works just fine by itself, as nearly all locals welcome the chance to practice as they are giving you tips for your stay there.
2 – Damascus, Syria
As the person who nominated Damascus for this list put it, “There are few destinations left in the world where you can feel like you are truly stepping back in time. Damascus is one of them.” Syria’s capital and biggest city, Damascus is also one of the oldest cities in the world, so that feeling of stepping back in time is completely justified. Never mind that the market stalls stock thoroughly modern wares – the winding streets of the old city will transport you to the Damascus of hundreds of years ago, when this part of the city looked, sounded, and smelled much as it still does today. Aside from the markets, other major sights include the Umayyad Mosque (one of the world’s oldest and biggest, and housing what’s said to be the head of John the Baptist) and the Citadel of Damascus, but it’s hard to look anywhere in the old part of the city and not see one historic site or another.
Budget travelers especially should put Damascus on their list, because in addition to being full of history it’s also incredibly affordable – even spending less than US$50 per day will still allow you to take taxis all over town, do some shopping, and dine in fancy restaurants. It’s easy to get to Damascus as well, because there’s a big international airport a short distance outside Damascus with regular flights to and from major cities all over the world.
Find a flight to Damascus
1 – Colombia
Even before Anthony Bourdain featured the Colombian renaissance during his 2008 season of “No Reservations,” this country had plenty of momentum in the stakes to be “a place you just have to visit.” No longer does the chatter only center on drug cartels and random violence, as it’s been replaced by discussions about friendly people, natural beauty, and a country that is fun and safe to explore.
The coastal Caribbean city of Cartagena has long had a great tourist infrastructure mixed in with its colonial architecture and history, but now that things are under control many visitors are also visiting Bogotá and Medellin to get a bit deeper into the culture. However, most independent travelers will tell you that this country is filled with hidden delights in the smaller towns, where tourism is only starting to take hold. Salento is one of those towns that happens to be in the heart of the fertile coffee-growing region in the Andean Highlands. Taganga is a small fishing village on the Caribbean coast that sucks in nearly everyone who visits with its friendly locals, ideal setting, and subtle charm.
All the major cities in Colombia have fairly large international airports, and flights from North America are often easier and cheaper than you might expect. There are plenty of tourist-standard hotels in the major cities, as well as small guesthouses and hostels that can make the country extremely affordable for the budget travel crowd.
Check out the Bogota Indie Travel Guide and read Why You Should Ignore Everything You’ve Heard & Go To Colombia
Check out more of our Top 10 Lists from other years:
- Top 10 Destinations for Independent Travelers in 2008
- Top 10 Destinations for Independent Travelers in 2010
- Top 10 Destinations for Independent Travelers in 2011
- Top 10 Destinations for Independent Travelers in 2012