Travel Insights

GPS and offline maps: Have we lost the art of travel?

have we lost the art of travel


It was a triumphant feeling, navigating Fez’s old medina without using a map. But the signs were posted everywhere, in different scripts and different colours, all prompting us to continue walking towards Bab Boujloud, the city’s Blue Gate.

From there, we could easily retrace our steps to our hostel. It would have been a victorious moment; the old medina of Fez el Bali is a rabbit’s warren of tunnels and alleyways, a confusing labyrinth of laneways in which passage is made all the more difficult for the piles of wares teetering either side and the trolley couriers and mule trains charging through.

The few maps of the city on offer were useless. One wrong turn rendered the map ineffective – and a wrong turn was easy to make when so many subsidiary laneways weren’t deemed worthy of demarcation on the map.

We were getting close to our hostel, we could feel it. Soon enough, we’d be able to identify the quiet laneway lined with Moroccan carpets that distinguished our hostel’s road from the rest.

But something was off. The buildings towering overhead were petering out. Then, we were walking through a marketplace of tarps. The dirt road developed bumpy grooves and muddy patches. The fruit and vegetable vendors stared at us beneath their tarpaulin stalls. There were no tourists here; it was clear we were out of place.

Soon enough, we burst through the marketplace to see a clear expanse of ground leading up to the medina’s old city walls. There was a gate. But it wasn’t our Blue Gate.

city walls of fez

Where the heck were we?

As my travel companion began to curse and panic, I drew out my mobile phone and pulled up an offline map of Fez. Within a few minutes, the GPS located our position. Our little blue dot popped up on the screen, indicating that we’d gone one alley too far across.

Google Maps hinted at a thin passageway connecting our current road to our intended path. I followed it faithfully and we soon found ourselves back in the haven of familiarity that marked the main thoroughfare into and out of the medina.

I put my phone away and we steered ourselves back to our hostel using now-familiar markers such as specific stalls or restaurants.

The advent of offline maps

Before entering Morocco, I’d been an old-school tourist, flipping my paper map this way and that to guess my present location. When I arrived in a new town sans map, I tried to memorise the route online when I had WiFi. If it was feasible, I’d take a screen shot.

If all else failed, I did something remarkable for our times. I approached people. If they spoke another language I was mildly familiar with, I’d follow their gesticulations until I came to the next corner, where I would seek out another guide. Sometimes we’d have a short conversation. They were always helpful.

That was before I discovered the Google Maps’ magic trick. If you accessed the map when you had a WiFi network, then typed “OK Map” into the search bar, a prompt popped up inviting you to download the map offline. Turning my GPS on, I could locate myself in any city and follow the route back to my intended destination. Miraculous!

It’s not just Google Maps either. There are dozens of navigation apps out there now (among oodles of other handy travel apps), including City Maps and Offline maps and Navigation. Every one enables you to trace your route and record points of interest, and each one helps you out when you’re in a jam.

No more befuddlement. No more panic at being lost in a foreign place. It was life-saving.

And indeed, more than once, it was my saviour.

Like the time in Barcelona when I had to get to the airport. I was told it was 20 minutes by train from the city centre to the airport. So I followed some other suitcase-laden tourists into a carriage, relaxed into a seat and proceeded to stare out the window, reflecting on my journey thus far.

When I emerged from my reverie after half an hour, I knew I’d missed a beat. The train was cruising along the coastline, brushing right up against the waves. It was beautiful. But it was wrong.

I pulled up my saved map of Barcelona on my City Maps 2Go app and turned on my GPS to discover I was speeding away from the city – and the airport – towards a seaside holiday town.

After I finally realised my error, I jumped off at the next stop and suffered a torturous backtrack to the airport, arriving with just a thin slither of time to check in and race through security.

But if I hadn’t had that GPS-backed evidence of my mistake, I could still be soaking up the sun in Sitges … Not a bad thought, really.

map of barcelona

The art of getting lost

So thank God for GPS right? But I can’t help but wonder … With the advent of GPS and offline maps, have we lost our sense of adventure?

Way back when, the real explorers – those isolated from all forms of familiarity and thoroughly unaided by modern technology – suffered a kind of dependence on the people around them. Today, we modern travellers can enjoy total freedom, complete independence on the road. But have we lost something along the way?

I posed this question to a few of my fellow bloggers in the business, and found that some of the most remarkable adventures travellers have often happened because they’ve let go of all control over their destination, taking up the journey as the great adventure, and getting completely lost in the process.

Like Nikhita Obeegadoo’s story. She’s a member of the Tripcipe team and her off-the-grid story offers the kind of adventurous travel story that really can happen, if you’re willing to let it:

New Delhi, September 2013. I got into the tiny rickshaw and carefully enunciated “Chor Bazaar”. The driver nodded, and the vehicle’s engine sputtered to life.

Twenty minutes later, he came to a halt at seemingly the middle of nowhere: the central knot in multiple threads of crowded, winding streets full of people and screeching vendors. This was nothing like the glitzy shopping mall I had expected; instead, we were in what I much later learnt was the heart of the capital’s “thief market”, a treasure trove of stolen goods at bargain prices.

I tried to explain to the taxi driver that I was trying to get completely somewhere else; he spoke none of the languages that I did, and so finally he drove off leaving me in a cloud of dust, hopelessly and utterly lost in what seemed to be New Delhi’s busiest, poorest, rowdiest area yet.

There were two choices: panicking and trying to get home as soon as possible, or trying to make the best of the situation. Perhaps because no taxi seemed readily available, I let my curiosity get the better of me and began strolling down one of the alleys. Immediately, my senses were assaulted by a spectrum of scents and sights and sounds: fried dough sputtering as it was tossed into oil; tailors humming Bollywood songs while stitching together sari blouses; women arguing over the price of half-rotten vegetables.

I ended up spending the whole day winding between food stalls and clothing racks, breathing in the scent of the real India, the one that never made it to the glossy brochures distributed abroad. I had real chai, the steaming hot kind with the remnants of fragrant tea leaves and full-fat milk and a panoply of crushed spices; engaged in conversation with men sitting cross-legged in front of huts half-destroyed by the 1984 anti-Sikh riots; bought samosas on from street side vendors and shared them with two beggar children whose eyes sparkled with joy and called me “Didi”, elder sister, when the meal was over.

That was the first time in my entire life that I was so completely and utterly “lost” – with no idea of where I was on a map, how or when I was going to get home, or to what extent the area I was in was “safe”, “clean”, or “tourist-worthy”.

It was also the very first time that I “found” a city in such a deep, meaningful way: unfettered by expectations, unworried by time and location constraints, completely immersed in the environment surrounding me because I had no other prior information or second-hand opinion to fall back upon.

After all, isn’t that how the saying goes – you never really know a place until you have been lost in it!

Putting away the GPS requires a lot of trust too. Take this story by travel blogger Matthew Perkins, who defied both map and GPS to take what looked like a short cut during a self-driven safari through Kenya and Tanzania:

Half way along our short cut (as it was getting dark and we were hurrying to get to our accommodation) we got bogged in a muddy section. On our own in the middle of the Masai Mara, we were pushing this car and doing everything we could to get unstuck to no avail.

By this time it was pitch black and we were working off torches and the car headlights – and we were worried we were stuck for the night. Then out of the darkness we started seeing these Masai warriors in full garb appear. They gathered around and, with a bit of hand signal communication, ended up offering to help.

Fifteen of them came and joined us in ankle- to knee-deep mud pushing the old Landrover which was flinging mud in all our faces as we pushed from behind.

Five minutes later we hadn’t made much progress and more from the village arrived, including some of the women who started offering us space in their huts to sleep for the night. Whilst a generous offer, we really did want to get on, and so kept trying, digging out the car, and adding sticks to help with traction.

Finally we managed to get some momentum with everyone pushing and all the extra traction underneath and we got out! Everyone was covered in mud and cheering. We thanked the Masai villagers, giving them some soccer balls we had and some cash in our appreciation.

It was an experience we’ll never forget and a great example of the generosity you’ll encounter on the road!

Image courtesy of Matthew Perkins.

Image courtesy: Matthew Perkins.

Sometimes when you’re lost, you find that true local experience you’ve been searching for for eons. At other times, what you encounter is such a surprise, you can only marvel at your luck. That happened to The Tropical Dog blogger Maria Himmich:

We were in Greece in a mountainous region. I had checked out the itinerary on the Internet before hitting the road and memorized the name of the main villages.

There was a beautiful church I had heard about that I really wanted to visit. I thought I knew where it was, but the truth is there was no sign on the road and nobody to ask for directions. So I just got off the main road and went on a path that led me to other paths…

I drove for almost an hour before realizing I was totally lost. I never found that church but I certainly didn’t lose out! I discovered one of the most amazing views I have ever seen (seen below)! My advice: don’t be afraid to get lost, that’s where real adventure begins!

view of greece

Image courtesy: The Tropical Dog.

Pretty neat, huh?

Co-founder of digital detox travel website HUSH Brittany Poole had a similar experience when she and her fiancé learned to go off-the-grid on their travels around Europe. They learned to plan their day on the hotel WiFi before heading out with a traditional map. Here’s how that panned out for them:

The difference in our experience without navigation was palpable. We grew to learn the cities so much faster. We took in the surroundings more. We let ourselves get lost down side alleyways, only to discover the best cup of coffee, the best fish, the best glass of wine we’d ever had in our lives.

We met strangers eye-to-eye and asked for the best places to eat or grab a beer. And it’s this choice that led to some of the most priceless experiences in our time abroad.

Top of mind: through a local recommendation in Barcelona, we found ourselves in the gorgeous town of Cadaques, Spain.

Traditionally, we would have Googled the heck out of where to eat that first night. But instead, we walked the entire little town and our eye caught the entrance of El Barroco.

It turns out, the original restaurant was a local favourite of Salvador Dali’s, who preferred to bring guests here rather than have them in his nearby house.

The owner played us a private song on the piano, as his grandchildren giggled around our table. All in all, it was one of the most magical nights in my memory.

So, now we look to replicate that feeling of getting lost any time we’re travelling, by shutting off our phones or intentionally seeking out places without cell service. Those experiences led to the co-creation of Hush, a curated database of the world’s best destinations for a digital detox.

When getting lost leads to self-reliance and perseverance

These bloggers’ stories reminded me of how open and trusting of the world you have to be when you go offline. You never know quite where you’re going to end up, and you have to trust yourself and your resolve to get you to your destination – such as the time I followed a non-existent path into the jungle on Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands and had no choice but to bush-bash my way back to civilisation.

When you’re in a foreign place, you usually have a rigorous checklist to follow. A plan of action for the day. But when you get lost, you have to let all that go, and trust that the universe is conspiring to deliver you something different but equally pleasurable.

Even the tall girl tells all blogger Kelli Klaus recognised the value of getting lost after ending up in the “wrong” end of of town in Paris.

She’d ventured out with her 13 year old companion Leen to view the sights around Montmartre, but all things romantic Parisian turned stale when they entered that rough kind of neighbourhood filled with “graffiti-marked walls, cramped apartment buildings built nearly on top of one another, littered gutters, and clusters of people; mostly men in sweats and wife-beaters watching these two dazed … females amble down the road, consulting their tattered metro map”.

What followed was an agonising and uncomfortable search through the streets to reorient themselves. Eventually, they encountered a police station – that beacon of security in an unknown destination – and were guided to their intended destination. But Kelli still acknowledged the lesson to be learned from getting so lost:

If you’re a real traveller who does more than just the handholding-guided tours, getting lost can’t be prevented, it’s inevitable.

Real travel where you explore outside the beaten track whether on purpose or not, will always have a level of vulnerability involved. Moments of danger and uncertainty heighten the feeling of being alive.

So what do you think? With the convenience of modern technology developments, including the GPS system and offline navigation apps, have we strayed too far from what it means to travel? Or have these modern technologies helped to push us out there and see more of the world than we would have ever thought possible?

To be honest, I’m not sure. But I’d sure love to hear your opinion in the Comments section below. And if you want to read any of my other travel stories and musings, head over to ARoamerTherapy’s Travel Therapy section today.


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  • Reply
    The Thrifty Issue (Kylie)
    January 6, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    So true. I think we don’t connect as much as we used to when travelling. I try not to use Google Maps when travelling or exploring. I have had some amazing adventures, become completely lost and thoroughly loved it. I have found my way with the help of others by asking for help and had wonderful conversations.

    Lots of food for thought in your post. Thank you.

    • Reply
      January 14, 2016 at 8:01 pm

      Hi Kylie,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. We are certainly a little bit more tech-distracted on our travels these days (I’m certainly a victim of social media obsession!). I’m glad you’ve discovered that going with the flow often provides wonderful results 🙂

  • Reply
    October 21, 2015 at 6:27 am

    Great post Amanda! I really enjoyed the reading! Happy to learn about your experience and other bloggers viewpoints, but also to have contributed 🙂 I guess I’ll remain an old-fashion traveler but I love your Google Maps’ magic trick. I’ll use it for sure!

    • Reply
      October 21, 2015 at 7:18 pm

      Hi Maria,

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading it! Thank you so much once again for your contribution. I think I’m in favour of traditional maps as well 😉

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