I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: Travel isn’t always glamorous locations. It may seem that way when you’re following your friends’ travels on Facebook (or if you’re keeping up with my ARoamerTherapy page). But I can tell you right now Facebook lies. These fleeting glimpses highlight the oases but skip over the barren desert and mirages you have to overcome to get there.
So here’s the truth:
Every destination on your journey is tinged with a touch of the unknown, which means there’s a chance – often a high one – that it might just not do anything for you at all.
Trust me, I’ve been there. In fact, for me the majority of my destinations are mere curiosities. But every once in a while, I hit El Dorado.
You know the kind of place I’m talking about. It pulses with energy, plucks at your sense of adventure and draws an uncontrollable twitch along the corners of your mouth. You’ve barely arrived, but you know you’ve hit something special. These El Dorados make all the other hit-and-miss destinations worth it. They’re what you travel for.
I’ve just left Granada, Spain, which was an undeniable El Dorado for me, hitting my travel nerve right on the spot and making it tingle with excitement. And it made me wonder just what it is that makes an unforgettable destination. Here’s my shot at answering why some towns and cities just make me smile and know this is it.
Compact and easily navigable
Now this is probably a personal preference, since you may have deduced from my previous blog posts – such as this one about New York City – that I’m not a fan of huge cities.
One of my main criteria for the ideal destination is the ability to feel like I’m intimate with the destination before I leave – and that’s just not going to happen in NYC, London or Paris.
So the ideal destination has to be reasonably compact, meaning all the good stuff is in a condensed town centre.
But it’s more than that. It’s got to be easily walkable – and that means zero or little traffic. The historical centre of Granada is filled with tiny alleyways that can barely fit a scooter let alone a car. And that means that I can get completely lost down the rabbit hole without the added stress of nearly being run over. In fact, my happiest experiences were getting lost in the laneways.
Our strongest sense as human beings is sight, which is probably why we go dewy-eyed over aesthetically pleasing images. There’s something about colourful facades and rustic villages that gives us a supreme sense of pleasure, as if we’ve found living art in our surroundings.
I derived intense happiness, for example, just meandering through the multicoloured streets of Cartagena, Colombia, where bougainvillea tumbled from wooden balconies, which were in turn framed by pastel facades.
And long after I’d run out of things to do in Hoi An, Vietnam, I still couldn’t tear myself from the enchanting nighttime streetscapes, where bulbous lanterns lit a warm glow over the surrounding petite colonial buildings.
Visible history and culture
This is a big one, especially for those, like myself, who like to walk the streets of history. History and culture give a town its distinct personality. It’s what sets it apart from the competition.
I could forgive Cuzco its overly tourist atmosphere because its history was written on the walls – almost literally! Everywhere you went in that Peruvian town spoke of previous people, previous adventures. The buildings were built upon the incredible stonework of the Incans, and it wasn’t too hard to imagine the streets clattering with the clip clop of conquistador horses some centuries ago.
Culture is equally important. On the day I arrived in Cuzco, ethnic groups from the surrounding hill villages had congregated in the main square in their traditional costumes to perform traditional dances. Their colourful clothes and vibrant jigs spoke of their pride in their culture and made me want to learn more about it.
San Cristobal de las Casas is one of my all-time favourite places on Earth, not because of its wealth of first-rate cafes (though that certainly helped), but because it was a town in the grip of social change. This place was home to the rebellious Zapatistas, who were vigorously supported by the townspeople.
The people embraced politics and held town meetings, opera performances and plays in the main town square. I felt like I was in the heart of Mexico there, even though it was a town of just under 200,000 inhabitants.
OK, so you are travelling after all, which means sometimes people watching just isn’t enough. And to have a beautiful, vibrant and walkable city with a solid dose of attractions to boot is a paradise.
Whether it’s shopping (Hoi An) or temples (Granada), attractions are what draw you to the town, and often what help you understand what the place is all about. And if there’s enough of them – as with the endless wonders of the Sacred Valley on Cuzco’s doorstep – they may be what encourages you to extend your stay far longer than planned.
Sometimes it just seems like you’re asking too much, but friendly inhabitants are often hard to come by. And when you’re a solo traveller, an unfriendly neighbourhood can be a real downer.
The locals can make or break a town. I’ve fallen in love with mediocre towns because the people were marvellous, while I’ve run from glamorous cities because of the alienating nature of their people.
My memories of Granada include many exuberant discussions with shop owners, ticket vendors and waiters, who all patiently allowed me to stumble over their language and then had the decency to compliment me on my fluency afterwards. In Cuzco, I couldn’t wander the streets without greeting a tour operator or waiter I’d interacted with previously.
Feeling like you have friends or even just acquaintances in foreign destinations far from home goes a long way to making you feel welcome, especially when you’re a solo traveller. And that sense of welcome and belonging is really ultimately what gives a destination the X factor.
So what about you? Do you have your own El Dorado? Is there some particular element you look for in each destination that can sway your opinion on the place? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.