Monthly Archives: March 2010

Natural Beauty in an Urban Jungle – Niagara Falls, USA/Canada

Top Backpacking Destinations Ranking: 5/10

Niagara Falls is undoubtedly an amazing sight, though its draw as an amazing backpacking destination has been tainted by the outrageous amount of urban development in the surrounding area. When comparing it to the other beautiful waterfalls around the world such as Victoria or Iguazu Falls it pales in comparison in my opinion.

Spread across the border of Canada and the USA, Niagara was formed when the Wisconsin glaciers receded in the last ice age. Whilst not particularly high it is extremely wide and more than 6 million cubic feet of water tumbles down every minute. If you could have visited 100 or even 50 years ago i’m sure it would have made a spectacular sight, but in recent years the area has been incessantly built up and is now surrounded by huge casinos, hotels and other unsightly urban sprawl. The Canadian side is particularly guilty of exploiting this natural beauty.

But, despite all this, it still makes an immense spectacle. The ability to get just inches away from the immense power of the falls makes for an exhilarating experience and this can be done at either end of the falls. You can make a day of the American side as there are various trails to wander and the length of the falls to stroll along, similar to the Argentinian side of Iguazu Falls. The Canadian side is more like the Brazilian equivalent at Iguazu and is better just for the viewpoint of the whole length of the falls. Access from the American side also allows you on to the Maid of the Mist, a small boat which takes you right up to the falls and allows to get covered in the mountains of spray which bounces off as the water crashes down.

Niagara Falls will always be an iconic spot for travellers, but the urban generation that has shot up around the falls themselves has ruined them in my opinion and i’d much prefer to visit waterfalls elsewhere that remain untainted. Nearby Buffalo is worth a visit to sample some of the famous bbq wings and this is probably where most backpackers will bed down when visiting the falls. Outside of this i can see little else to interest the visitor and would recommend other natural beauties above this one. Unless you’re a keen gambler wanting to look over one of the wonders of the world in between hands then i’d suggest bypassing Niagara and going directly to South America for your waterfall fun.

Find other spots to visit whilst your backpacking North America here and let me know if you reached the same verdict of Niagara as i have in the comments…

Prague, Czech Republic – Backpacking Photo of the Week #3

This week’s Backpacking Photo of the Week was taken in Prague and illustrates the beauty of the terracotta roofs that monopolise its skyline, as well as the series of bridges that disect the River Vlatva. You’ll struggle to find a city that looks so good from above, it’s one that every backpacker should get a glimpse of at some point on their travels.

Check out some more backpacking snaps from the Backpacking Photo of the Week series here.

Beautiful Backpacking off the Beaten Track – Kazbegi, Georgia

Top Backpacking Destinations Ranking: 9/10

Heard of Kazbegi? Thought not. But if you’ve got any hint of an interest in travel then you’ll want to get very familiar with it soon as it really is a special place. With glaciers, gorges and tiny mountain villages it’s a European cross between the Inca trail and Patagonia.

Kazbegi is situated in the north of Georgia just a few hours away from the capital Tblisi. It has the village of Stepantsminda at its heart and this acts a destination in its own right as well as a jumping off point to other tremendous spots in the region. It is home to the Tsminda Sameba church, a symbol for the country, and a great place to get spectacular views of the village and the Kuro Mountains.

From Stepantsminda you can head out on treks around the region which will lead you to breathtaking scenery at every turn as well as wonderful people in the tiny mountain villages you stumble across. Take your pick of the glaciers; Gergeti and Devdoraki are both stunning. If you want to go a step further after reaching the Gergeti Glacier you can continue to Meteo Station which is the base camp for Mount Kazbek for all the climbers out there. It also offers beautiful vistas of the glacier if you don’t fancy heading for the summit at 5033m! Once you’ve had your fill of the glaciers you can head for Darial Gorge which will soon host the second largest monastery in the country (it’s still being built). It’s also a superb spot for bird watching if that floats your boat.

If you’re looking for people rather than birds then Kazbegi delivers on that front too. The region is littered with tiny mountain villages such as Arsha, Jutta and Tsdo which all have their own character and quirky features such as mineral springs or thousands of bees(!) in Tsdo’s case. Not all will be well populated, Tsdo in particular only has a few people there in summer months (maybe because of all the bees!), but they’re all worth a visit.

You won’t be disappointed by the people you do meet in Georgia, they’re renowed as some of the friendliest in the world and you can rely on them to be hospitable and helpful whenever you’re lucky enough to cross their path. The best way to travel around the country is in little minibuses (called Marshrutkas) and it is testament to the wonderful people that this small, personal method remains a safe one.

It’s hard to find any drawbacks for the backpacker in Kazbegi. It is cheap, has wonderful people and is accessible yet unspoiled. The range of things you can see and do when you visit is endless and when you’ve done them all you can just sit down with the local folk and have a fantastic time. Sooo, bad things? Its name is quite hard to say i guess….

You can check out other backpacking destinations in Europe here to see if any measure up to Kazbegi and it would be great to hear from you in the comments if you’ve been lucky enough to visit yourself.

Bangkok, Thailand – Backpacking Photo of the Week #2

The Backpacking Photo of the Week this week was taken in Bangkok, Thailand and features the famous tuk tuks that fly backpackers from a to b in double quick time across the city. I love the photo as i think it captures the hectic nature of Bangkok, particularly at night, and sees the tuk tuk in full flow dodging and diving between the busy city traffic.

See more great snaps from the Backpacking Photo of the Week series here.

Luxury on a Backpacking Budget – Hvar, Croatia

Top Backpacking Destinations Ranking: 6.5/10

Hvar is quickly changing from a beautiful backpacking destination to a five star hang out for the rich and famous. But that shouldn’t put you off. The reasons for its increasing popularity are obvious – gorgeous beaches and secluded coves hidden under tall, ragged mountains and quaint towns with marbled streets. Who wouldn’t want to go?

And it’s still affordable for people travelling on a budget despite the influx of the well off. When you arrive on the boat fom Split you are met by hoards of locals desperate to have you stay in their home. This is how many of the locals make their living and i’d recommend doing it, most are very friendly and will give you a more authentic stay on the island. Plus there is very limited backpacker accomodation so unless you’re ready to splash out then it’s the only option!

When you’re there it’s very easy to keep yourself busy. Wander the beautiful streets and take in the medieval delights that will lead you all the way down to the crystal clear waters where you can relax all day long, day after day. It’s hard to get bored of that sort of scenery, but if you do there’s always a party on offer in Hvar, whether it’s day or night. Head to Carpe Diem, a bar in central Hvar, which will allow you to party your heart out even if it’s 3 in the afternoon.

And that tends to be what Hvar’s visitors want to do. They may be wealthy Italian youngsters on their summer holidays or they might be backpackers in search of some sun and luxury, but Hvar manages to keep them all happy with it’s array of scenic offerings. Throw in 24/7 parties and it’s hard to find a fault…

Discover more of the beautiful destinations in Europe and share your own thoughts on Hvar in the comments, i’d love to hear if you agree with the opinions here.

If you want to book a hostel in Hvar then visit Hostelbookers

Lares Trek, Peru – Backpacking Photo of the Week #1

One of my favourite things when looking at other people’s travel blogs and websites is the chance to look at photos of the beautiful places other people have been backpacking. I think photos provide an instant snapshot into the culture and feel of a place and gives a great insight into other destinations you might want to visit. This being the case, i thought i’d introduce my own series – Backpacking Photo of the Week. This will start as the pick of my own photos that i’ve compiled on my travels and may well develop into including the fantastic photos on offer from you, the dedicated Top Backpacking Destinations readers!

The first snap was taken on the Lares Trek in the school of a tiny mountain community in Peru:

Get in the Backpacking Market – Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Top Backpacking Destinations Ranking: 6.5/10

Destinations can be fantastic for various reasons; beautiful scenery, incredible activities and wonderful people amongst them. Many places are lucky enough to have many or all of these features, whilst others rely on having just one and doing it well. Chichicastenango falls into the latter category.

All its appeal is based around its biweekly market where the hustle and bustle of Guatemala’s best traders flock to the town and try and get the best deals possible. It is a hive of colour and activity and you’re exposed to all the sensations possible from beautiful spice smells to fluffy wools and soft furs. It’s easy to get overawed by it all but it pays to just take a second and take it all in before diving in head first and haggling your heart out. The stall owners are always out to get the most for their items, and they’re not conscientious about your needs! Fight to the bitter end on price and be prepared to walk away. Half the fun is in the exchanges with the locals anyway, I know I didn’t really want the whole alpaca poncho that I fought over for ten minutes but I had a great time doing it. And I would’ve got a great price in the end!

The town itself is high up in the mountains north of Guatemala City and many head there having been backpacking in Antigua and, whilst the town is very quaint and pretty on its own, it doesn’t really warrant a visit outside of market days on Thursday and Saturday. But when those days come around it gets outrageously busy and you need to book ahead to get a reasonable deal. Much of the backpacker accommodation in the area looks to cash in on late arrivals and don’t offer a great price or service. This is easily avoided by booking ahead and I highly recommend it to prevent disappointment.

Chichicastenango is exactly what it says on the tin; a bustling market town which is electrifying if visited on the right days. If you can hold yourself together then it’s possible to have an incredible time and soak up a world of culture in just a few hours. And you might just come away with a bargain too!

Add in your own tips in the comments below, I’d love to hear them, especially any good backpackers hostels that you can recommend in the area. And why not check out the other backpacking destinations in Central America?

If you’ve been convinced and are jumping on the plane right now then you can get the hard copy of the Guatemala Lonely Planet Guide to take with you here.