For those travellers who want adventure in a unique destination without the risk
My sister worries. My sister gets stressed out. Occasionally, my sister gets anxious. For these reasons, when it comes to travel, she tends to stick to low-stress options. It’s not that she doesn’t want to go to more so-called off the beaten path locations, it’s not that she doesn’t want a more adventurous experience, it’s simply that keeping to the tried and true means less planning, fewer risks, and hence less worry, stress and anxiety. There’s also the fact that, typically, she only has a week or two to devote to a trip, and so doesn’t have much time to spend getting to more exciting but less accessible destinations. So, she usually books a room in an all-inclusive (preferably child-free) resort and makes relaxation her primary goal.
But, like I said, she certainly would like to stretch a little outside her comfort zone, at least once in a while, and you may very well be in a similar position, wanting to try a more unique or unusual travel destination but simply unwilling or unable to risk your precious time and money on a region, country or city that might disappoint or prove too difficult to truly enjoy.
So, here’re three locations that are both adventurous and accessible, places I would recommend to my sister without reservation. These towns and cities are situated in regions that are less typically visited by somewhat gun-shy travellers like my sister, places like Borneo and the Balkans, but they are all easy to navigate and offer unique vibes and experiences with at least one of them likely to entice every type of traveller.
(A quick note: seasoned travellers should also consider any and all of these destinations as they are in no way, shape or form “beginner” spots and are, in fact, some of my favourite destinations in the world. They just happen to be accessible and appropriate for less regular travellers or people who tend to worry or stress when planning a trip.)
In Macedonia* but just across the border with Montenegro and near Albania, Ohrid is a beautiful little city with a charming Old Town, a relaxed energy and plenty to keep visitors busy. Ohrid sits on a large lake of the same name, giving it a seaside atmosphere without the traffic. And speaking of a lack of traffic, much of the city’s Old Town has been pedestrianized, with only local traffic allowed in certain areas. This, it should be noted, does mean that taxis may not be able to drive you right up to your hotel’s front door if your accommodation is located within the Old Town. Despite this, I highly recommend basing yourself within the historical district so as to best explore its narrow cobbled streets lined with stone walls dripping in bougainvillea.
The locals are friendly and not yet jaded by tourism the way you’ll find in many similar towns in Spain, France or Italy, making it a wonderful alternative to these over-touristed and overpriced destinations. In fact, Macedonia is an eminently affordable country with accommodation and food prices comparable to much of Latin America. The food is good, with excellent bakeries throughout the city and a rather surprising number of pizzerias. Be absolutely certain to try ajvar, a delicious spread made from bell peppers.
The atmosphere is distinctly relaxed with locals strolling the streets every evening, stopping only for a glass of wine or a pint of beer. Those evenings are a delight, with mosques and churches lit up, families walking dogs or pushing strollers, while you’re left to join the local crowd. It’s just one of the benefits of a city that doesn’t care quite so much about international tourists (most visitors to Ohrid are domestic or from one of its neighbouring countries): you won’t be bothered by touts or vendors and will simply be left to enjoy your time in their city.
That’s not to say, though, that there’s nothing to do in Ohrid save relax. The hills above the Old Town are criss-crossed with some lovely and well-maintained trails, some for hiking and others perfect for a lakeside bike ride or jog. Among the trails you might come across ruins to explore and the church of Saint John at Kaneo, Ohrid’s most famous landmark, is spectacularly photogenic, especially at sunset.
As for shopping, Ohrid is known for silver filigree and Ohrid pearls, handmade pearls that are often shaped and nestled within the aforementioned filigree to form exquisite and unique jewellery. Real Ohrid pearls are made using an age old method and “recipe” and it seems only two families still make them the traditional way—the Filevis and the Talevis—and so they’re the ones to see for your pearl purchases. Both the pearls and filigree items are shockingly affordable and make wonderful gifts.
So, to get to Ohrid you have three main options. The first is to simply fly into Ohrid via its small international airport, named Saint Paul the Apostle. This will certainly mean a connection but it’s the most direct and simplest option. Your second option is to fly into Tirana, Albania’s capital, and then take a mini-bus from Tirana to Ohrid, about a 4 hour ride plus the time at the border, which is a bit tedious but straightforward enough. Tirana is a nice city, also quite accessible, and certainly worth a two or three day visit if you have the time before heading off to Ohrid. The third option is to fly into Macedonia’s own capital, Skopje (Skope-yay) and bus down to Ohrid, also about a 4 hour ride. Skopje is a fascinating and bizarre city (in the best way) and also worth a couple days if you have the time and opt for this way in. Honestly, getting to Ohrid is the most complicated part of the experience and might turn some travellers off, but believe me when I say that, once there, it’s well worth it and an easy spot to fall in love with. After just a few days there I felt completely at home and it remains a location I not only would be glad to visit again but hope to one day.
* Though the country’s official name is North Macedonia, this name was forced upon them and locals refer to their own country as Macedonia and so I choose to do the same.
Kuching, Malaysian Borneo
First thing to know, Kuching is a prime gateway to Borneo. An island that has entered legend as the Amazon of Southeast Asia, Borneo is home to orangutans, crocodiles and tribes with a fairly recent history of headhunting. It is a land of adventure and potential brutality. And you can visit it, you can experience it, you can enjoy it. You can see orangutans, avoid the crocodiles, and go on treks with members of Dayak tribes. And your entry point to all this is the city of Kuching, in Sarawak, Malaysia.
The island of Borneo is shared by three nations, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. Malaysia occupies roughly the northern fourth of the island, with its region split between two provinces, Sarawak to the west and Sabah to the east (with Brunei tucked between the two). Kuching is located at the western end of Sarawak, just a short flight from Kuala Lumpur.
Kuching is an odd city. It retains a frontier vibe, set on cafe-au-lait waters and surrounded by jungle, but it’s also quite modern, with a lovely riverside boardwalk and a sculptural bridge that is lit up at night. Much like Ohrid, Kuching has a relaxed vibe, especially compared to other Southeast Asian cities of a similar size. Also like Ohrid, families in Kuching take strolls in the evenings along the riverside. They eat at the many street food stalls, listen to street musicians, watch their children play games set up for them.
The people are friendly and helpful and many speak English, though they don’t much bother you. In fact, the only times I can recall being approached by locals was not to be sold something but to be given directions (without asking, just being helpful) or to simply chat. Again, like the residents of Ohrid, the locals in Kuching aren’t yet jaded by tourism and still enjoy speaking and sharing with visitors.
The food is excellent, with Kuching offering some of the best laksa—a spicy noodle soup—in the country. It’s also wildly affordable with a large range of accommodation options. If there’s one drawback it’s that Kuching is very much a growing city, with the construction that comes along with that. This, however, was never a hindrance while I was there.
Kuching also has a lot of character, much of it due to it being the city of cats. See, Kuching, in Bahasa, means cat (actually spelled kucing but pronounced the same way) and so the city is dotted with cat murals, cat statues, actual cats, and even features an indescribably strange cat museum that is a must-visit for the absurdity of it alone. It’s a city that embraces its namesake without taking itself too seriously, which only serves to make it that much more welcoming and accessible.
And so, as for things to do, well this is where you strap on your Indiana Jones hat and head into the jungle. The Semenggoh Wildlife Sanctuary is nearby and can be visited on the way to Bako National Park, home to proboscis monkeys and, yes, crocodiles (though you are highly unlikely to see these). You can also easily organize kayaking trips along jungle rivers with Dayak* guides. This is adventure without any real risk, accessible to any type of traveller (save some mobility issues) and can be organized online before your trip or, in many cases, through your hotel. Many of these spots can also be reached independently if you did want to take the DIY route.
To get to Kuching simply fly there from Kuala Lumpur and, if time allows, definitely consider spending two or three days in the capital, a wonderful city in its own right that is, in my opinion, more accessible than Bangkok and more exciting than Singapore.
* Dayak is the term for any member of Borneo’s indigenous population, regardless of tribe, though they will all identify with their individual tribes, such as the Iban and Bidayuh. All Iban are Dayak, for example, but not all Dayak are Iban.
I visited Jerico (HEH-ree-ko) near the end of my month-long trip through Colombia’s Paisaland and it was an absolute revelation. It is a true hidden gem, less known than its neighbour, Jardin, but for my money, a lovelier and more pleasant spot to spend a few days or even a couple weeks.
Jerico is small and compact with a charming central square lined with cafes and bars and overlooked by a massive church. On most evenings the plaza turns into a street food market where you can sample local eats, including one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. As for things to do, simply walking the colourful streets is a great place to start. It’s the perfect spot to get a good overview of local Paisa life, complete with horses tethered outside diners and old men wearing wide brimmed hats and the traditional leather satchels called carriel. In fact, if you’re looking for a wonderful souvenir, these hand-crafted bags are beautiful and practical. Once you’ve explored the town, however, you can set out through the lovely biological garden which leads up to the statue of Christ situated atop a hill, offering gorgeous views of the city and surrounding countryside. Leave town for hikes farther afield in the nearby mountains.
To get to Jerico, start in Medellin and take a bus, which should take approximately four or five hours. Whereas I can wholeheartedly recommend Tirana, Skopje and Kuala Lumpur for a few days, even to the travel neophyte or worry-prone, Medellin is an admittedly harder sell. It is a great city but less accessible than the three aforementioned starting points. If you choose to stay a day or two in Medellin before heading out to Jerico, stick to the neighbourhood of Laureles, which gets a lot of tourists without being overrun, and take a free walking tour of the city with a local guide, a safe and efficient way to explore. Envigado is also a good option for a base. Though technically it’s own city, Envigado serves as a sort of suburb of Medellin, though it is much safer and quieter than its big sister, while remaining quite local. Take a taxi to the bus station from there when you’re ready to hit up Jerico.
And there you have it, three locations I absolutely loved, would and have recommended to many people, including my sister. These are destinations that are ideal for travellers, like my sister, who tend to get anxious or overwhelmed with the prospect of the unknown and untested but would still like to veer off the beaten path and leave the tourist trail once in a while.