Avoid overtourism: visit these underrated destinations instead
These days, some of the world’s most popular destinations are so popular that they have quickly become crowded and expensive. Overtourism has become so rampant that many countries and cities have had to impose restrictions on tourism.
Overtourism is detrimental to the environment, heritage sites, and sometimes local economies. And for many tourists, it’s a deterrent. But this planet is vast which means that there is much to explore beyond the typical “Top 10 Destinations” lists. So here are 3 beautiful, underrated destinations that will keep you far away from overtourism.
Want to learn more about overtourism? Listen to this episode of Alpaca My Bags for more.
Instead of mainland Italy, visit underrated Sicily
In 2017, Italy hosted a whopping 58.3 million tourists. Overtourism has begun to impact Italy’s popular cities in a variety of ways, from interfering with local’s abilities to enjoy their own city to creating environmental concerns. Italy’s mass tourism also means that tourists face expensive hotels, tourism scams, and long line-ups. So, rather than hit up the hot spots of Rome, Milan, Venice, and Florence, consider going to the southernmost point: Sicily.
The island of Sicily is famous for its long, vibrant history characterized by Arab and Norman rule, its coastal beaches, historic towns, and traditional Sicilian cuisine. The less touristy nature of Palermo and Sicily’s other towns and cities has kept the island affordable in comparison to mainland Italy. In Palermo, you’ll enjoy delicious pastas for as little as 6 euros, Aperol spritzes (make sure you try this delicious cocktail!) for 4 euros, and 2-euro beers. Many of the city’s attractions, such as cathedrals and monuments, are free to enter. Sicily’s fascinating history is encompassed in the Capuchin Catacombs, which date back to 1599 and serve as an “open” cemetery, which shows the history of mummification in Sicily. Sicily, especially Palermo, is famous for its historic outdoor street markets. These markets encompass the traditions of Sicilian people, and there are at least three that are worth visiting in Palermo alone.
While Italian staples such as pasta and pizza are readily available, a visit to Sicily isn’t complete without arancini, cannoli and granita. All coffee shops and bakeries sell arancini, and there are many different types, so grab a couple throughout your stay. Cannoli are a decadent staple: tube-shaped shells of pastry dough, with a creamy ricotta filling. Granita is very distinctively Sicilian. It is a semi-frozen dessert made of ice and sugar, and is often flavoured with local ingredients, like fresh lemons.
Three must-sees in Sicily:
The second most active volcano in the world makes Mount Etna a must see. Book a tour guide to hike to the summit, where you will witness alien landscapes, craters, solidified lava flows, and more.
Scala dei Turchi
Scala dei Turchi is a rocky cliff on the coast of southern Sicily. It is famous for its beautifully smooth, white stone. On either side of the cliff are sandy beaches that provide a view of the surrealist white cliff. The cliff gently slopes upwards, making it easy to climb.
Cefalù is a coastal city in northern Sicily, known for its Norman cathedral, a 12th-century building with elaborate Byzantine mosaics and twin towers. Nearby, the Mandralisca Museum is home to archaeological exhibits. The city has several accessible beaches.
Instead of Costa Rica, visit underrated Guatemala
With its proximity to North America, Costa Rica is popular for its nature tourism. It has a well-established system of national parks, protected areas, and an infrastructure of roads that has resulted in tourism being one of the fastest growing economic sectors of the country. With its beautiful jungles and untouched beaches, it’s no surprise that Costa Rica is so popular. But this also means that it’s filled with tourists. If the crowds aren’t your thing, consider Guatemala instead.
North of Costa Rica and right below Mexico, Guatemala is known for its equally beautiful nature and landscapes: volcanoes, rainforests, and ancient Mayan sites. The country has Mayan roots that are evident today in local culture, from food to clothing. The capital, Guatemala City, features the National Palace of Culture and the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Antigua, west of the capital, contains preserved Spanish colonial buildings, busy markets, and nearby hiking opportunities. Lake Atitlán, formed in a massive volcanic crater, is surrounded by coffee fields and villages. One can easily spend a week (or more!) exploring the villages around the lake by boat, going cliff jumping, and going on horseback or hiking adventures.
Travel around Guatemala is slightly more challenging than in Costa Rica because the country’s transport infrastructure is not quite as developed. But luckily, Guatemala is small enough that most distances are short despite being slow-going. Las camionetas (or “chicken buses”) are old school buses from North America and offer the most inexpensive way to get around Guatemala: a 1 to 2 hour trip will cost less than 2 USD. For a quicker transfer, you can go by tourist mini bus, and there are also flights that operate between Guatemala City and Flores, which connects you to Tikal, Guatemala’s most famous Mayan ruins. If you’re on a budget, meals and hotels can be done for under 10 USD.
3 must-sees in Guatemala
Antigua is a small city surrounded by volcanoes in southern Guatemala, about 2 hours from Guatemala City. This Unesco World Heritage Site is famous for its Spanish colonial buildings, many of which were restored after the 1773 earthquake that ended Antigua’s reign as Guatemala’s colonial capital. Around Antigua there is plenty to see architecturally, as well as sites like the park Cerro de la Cruz (which provides beautiful views) and Mercado de Artesanias (which sells artisanal goods).
This large volcanic crater lake is surrounded by villages and communities in which the Maya culture is still very prevalent. San Pedro is the popular spot for backpackers to stay, and Panajachel has more developed hotels. No matter where you stay, you’ll have access to all other villages by way of water taxi. You can spend endless days exploring this magical region, so take your time.
Volcan Fuego is one of Guatemala’s most active stratovolcanoes, known for its incredible small scale eruptions which happen in ten minute intervals. The action is best seen from the summit of another dormant volcano, Volcan Acatenango. From Antigua, visitors can hire a guide to take them on a two day hike up Acatenango for views like no other. Be warned, this hike is difficult, be very worth it. For more on this hike, read Guatemala: Hiking Volcan Acatenango.
Instead of the Thai Islands, visit underrated Cambodia
The Thai Islands are very deserving of their worldwide fame, because they are indeed absolutely gorgeous. But they are also very overwrought with tourists. In 2017, Thailand hosted a whopping 32 million foreign visitors. While this is great for Thailand’s economy, it has caused repercussions for local culture and has raised many environmental concerns - I discuss some of these in my Skeptics Budget Guide to Thailand. The good news is, there are other beautiful islands in South East Asia, especially in underrated Cambodia.
Cambodia is well known for the UNESCO temples of Angkor Wat - but there is plenty more to enjoy there, including beautiful tropical islands. Cambodia’s islands are easily reached by boat, and they offer experiences for every kind of traveler. Koh Rong is the most popular, known for its white sandy beaches and vibrant nightlife. For a more relaxed atmosphere, travelers can head to Koh Rong Samloem, which is less developed but has quiet, untouched beaches and options for diving. At night, you’ll see bioluminescent plankton in the water. If you’d like to fully disconnect, head to the islands Koh Thmei and Koh Ta Kiev. Both have only basic accommodations ranging from hammocks to small bungalows, and only generators for power. If you’re looking for the true island experience (and to unplug) these islands are where it’s at.
Most of Cambodia’s islands can be reached from the seaside city of Sihanoukville. From there, high speed ferries and traditional fishing boats can take you to the island of your choice for as little as 10 USD. It’s easy to stick to a budget once you’re on one of the islands, with accomodations starting at 10 USD a night. For more details on budgeting a trip to Cambodia, read this Cambodia itinerary.
3 must-sees in the Cambodian islands
This glowing plankton is found in only a couple places around the world, and it does exactly what you think: it lights up the ocean. The tiny star shaped plankton are barely visible to the eye, but illuminate the water by glowing bright blue and green. When you walk through the water or move it with your hands, the effect is exaggerated. This plankton can be seen from many of the Cambodian islands’ beaches as soon as night falls. To maximize your likelihood of seeing it, stay in parts of the islands where there is no power - that way light pollution won’t interfere with the magic.
If beach-hopping is your thing, then Cambodia’s islands are a must. Unlike Thailand, the islands are still relatively undeveloped, and not as popular amongst tourists. This means that in visiting them you have the benefit of less crowds. Depending on which island you go to, the possibility of completely untouched beach spots is high, which makes for a tropical island experience that is more private and relaxed.
Below the surface
Many of the islands have spectacular spots for scuba diving. With great visibility, it is possible to go to various diving sites where you can see trigger fish, large barracuda, nudibranch, stingrays, and coral. If you’ve never done diving before, some of the islands, like Koh Tang and Koh Rong Samloem offer diving certification courses for a reasonable price. Diving on the islands is possible year round, but recommended between November and May (dry season) for best visibility and calm currents.