I feel like the term, off the beaten path gets thrown around quite a lot these days. With travel and information about where to travel being so easy these days, visiting truly off the beaten path destinations is getting harder and harder to do. For me getting off the beaten path 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!
In this post I describe 10 off the beaten path destinations that I have visited through my job as an overland adventure tour leader/driver. Some can be accessed with local buses but some require off-road vehicles. That’s where having an overland truck comes in handy!
Not sure what overlanding is? Check out this post where I explain exactly what is involved in an overland expedition.
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.
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. 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!
Visited: November 2015, June 2018, September 2018
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 the site doesn’t attract many tourists. 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. 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.
Visited: May 2014, September 2014, January 2015
The beauty of overland travel is the access it gives you to places that you would other wise fly over. 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.
Visited: June 2018
The site of the former Aral Sea in Uzbekistan is the second man made disaster to appear on this list! 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 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. 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. Top tip: Don’t visit during a sandstorm!
Visited: June 2019, September 2018
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.
Visited: April 2019
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 surrounded by several 7000m peaks. During our 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 perfectly safe country to visit, being a tourist in this police state had become un uncomfortable experience for me in 2018. I’m hoping rising media interest from outside countries might force a change here soon.
Visited: October 2015
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 on the edge of the Nature Reserve. Ruslan is an incredibly lovely and happy guy who can help arrange all of your activities, while his mother cooks some mean dumplings!
Visited: June 2018, September 2018
Mongolia is an overlanders paradise! As a country where you can drive and camp where ever you want, the whole place becomes mostly 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. 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, which provide very comfortable accommodation and various lake based activities.
Visited: August 2015
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 exclusively to ourselves. Sudan is home to several incredible historic sites and the people are some of the friendliest in Africa. Let’s hope they can overcome their political deadlock soon and restore peace in the capital.
Note: As of June 5th FCO changed their travel advise to all but essential travel for all parts of Sudan.
Visited: March 2019
The only way to get to Altyn Arashan is to hike 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 it resembles a river bed more than a road, the road is too rough, even for our expedition vehicles. During our first visit where they had received a lot of rain, it 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.
Kyrgyzstan is one of my favourite countries. To discover why take a look at this post!
Visited: October 2015, June 2018, August 2018
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