Our New Zealand travel itinerary starts in Christchurch and loops around the South Island for wildlife, camping, glaciers, and activities for adventure junkies. The route then crosses to the North Island for immersive indigenous culture, unique natural hot-spots, and, of course, filming locations from the Lord of the Rings films.
TIME NEEDED – 5 weeks
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1500 | €1700 | US$2000 | 3000 New Zealand Dollars
US$60/day is certainly doable in New Zealand but these figures are fairly rough and depend greatly on how you travel and what kind of trip you want. Hostels are reasonably good value with prices tending to range from US$10-20/night. Renting a car may cost roughly US$150/week + gas so obviously the trip will become more affordable if you’re travelling with other people. Many of the highlights on this route are natural ones and are generally free but if you plan on doing lots of extra trips/tours/activities, you could end up spending more.
This budget doesn’t include the cost of getting to/from New Zealand or any other pre-trip expenses. It is loosely based on November 2017 exchange rates. Read our more detailed Backpacking Budget for New Zealand which includes more typical travel costs in the country.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR COUNTRY
New Zealand has pretty relaxed entry requirements and citizens of visa-waiver countries are eligible to stay for up to 3 months without a visa (6 months if you are British). Working holiday visas are also quite popular and relatively easy to obtain for those aged 18-30 and will allow you to stay for up to a year.
Travel insurance is advisable. Australian company World Nomads are one option for adventurous trips in this part of the world.
NEW ZEALAND BACKPACKER TOURS
Stray Travel are a Kiwi company that have a number of options for exploring the country with other travellers if you’re not keen on going it alone. They also have hop-on, hop-off bus passes if you’re reluctant to travel by car/public transport but this route is based on travelling independently.
Backpacking route for New Zealand
New Zealand is easy to get around and is set up for backpackers, so you’ll have no problem finding places to camp or hostels to chill out in. Our recommended mode of transportation is by car. While getting around on public transit is possible, you’ll have less flexibility and miss out on that undiscovered lookout point when you stop for lunch. The roads in New Zealand are generally well- maintained and highways connect most of the spots on our itinerary.
This route summarises a typical path travellers in the country take and you could easily do it in reverse, depending on where you want to fly out of.
Take a day to get settled – you’ve probably had a long flight in. The next morning take a stroll to the Re: Start Mall – a mall made of shipping containers that was built after the earthquake in 2011. After stocking up on snacks and local crafts, take a stroll through the botanic gardens, and finish off the day with a beer in a container bar like the Retro-Politan.
If you’d like to spend a third day here, hop in your rental car to Akaroa for a day trip and charming seaside town.
The main reason to visit Oamaru is to see the yellow-eyed penguins. They don’t come out until sunset, so it’s worth it to stay the night. If you have time before sunset, check out the ‘Steampunk HQ’ in the centre of town.
Fur seals, sea lions, and more penguins can be found on the beach in Dunedin along one of the many coastal walking trails. Chocolate lovers can enjoy a visit to the Cadbury factory, and history buffs will have time to explore the many museums in Dunedin. This is also one of the few locations you can see the Southern Lights, or, Aurora Australis!
On the way to Queenstown, be sure to stop off at Slope Point, the Southernmost point of the South Island. You’re now closer to the South Pole than to the Equator!
In the winter season, you can enjoy skiing, snowboarding, or bungy jumping. In the summer, you’ll find hiking trails, white water rafting, skydiving, zip-trekking, or dirt biking. For those not into heart-stopping activities, you can spend a few days ambling around town, enjoying hot chocolate, taking in the scenery, and partying.
Best done as a day trip from Queenstown, unless you want to hike the Milford Track (3-4 days). The best way to see the sound is to hop on one of the many boat tours. Don’t forget the windbreaker.
Franz Joseph Glacier
Join a glacier hiking tour, or just enjoy the views from the ground. The Franz Joseph glacier is the best glacier park in New Zealand and offers a unique backdrop for your road trip!
To make your way back to to the east coast, follow the road north and then cross the country through Arthur’s Pass. Enjoy the scenic views while driving through, or spend a few days camping and hiking in the area. There are hostels and campgrounds available in various parts of the pass.
A nice place to stop on the way to the North Island. Here you’ll find a colony of baby seals and wildlife lazing on the beach.
Picton & Abel Tasman National Park
This seaside town is best known for its ferry connection to Wellington, but don’t miss the chance to spend a couple days here and enjoy the kayaking trails around Picton and Abel Tasman National Park. You can do one-day kayak trips or multi-day adventures.
You won’t run out of things to enjoy in Wellington. First, there’s the cool cafes, restaurants, and bars that litter the winding streets of the city centre. Then, there’s the harbour where you can catch university students jumping into the ocean on a nice day. History nerds can visit the Te Papa museum to learn more about New Zealand’s history, and Zealandia, an exhibition of New Zealand’s natural history. When you’re tired of the city centre, the hills surrounding Wellington make great day hikes or mountain biking adventures. For wine lovers, the Martinborough region is a days’ drive away from Wellington, and for movie, nerds visit the WETA workshop, famous for creating the creatures in the Lord of the Rings films.
Tongariro Northern Circuit
Ever wanted to cross an active volcano? A volcano better known as Mount Doom? The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of New Zealand’s 9 great walks and takes 2-4 days to walk (43km). Hiking huts are available to sleep in but need to be booked in advance. You can also do a through day hike (Tongariro Alpine Crossing).
Waitomo glowworm caves
If you’re into caves and glowy things, splurge on a boat trip through the Waitomo glowworm caves for a unique experience. After the caves, either spend the night in Waitomo, or head to Rotorua for 2 full days there.
Most people come to Rotorua for the thermal pools, but there are a few other reasons to visit. There’s a living Maori village that you can see, and many opportunities to learn more about the Maori culture and history. If all else fails, head to the volcanic hills winery.
Auckland & Around
The centre of Auckland may feel a bit dull compared to Wellington, but there is a lot to explore in the area. Stroll around the harbour, and visit some of the many galleries and gardens in Auckland. Waiheke Island is worth at least a day trip – rent some bikes and go on a self-guided wine tasting with stunning views. If you have the time, you can spend a few days on the Bay of Islands to enjoy the scenery and quiet pace of life.
If you haven’t gotten your LOTR/Hobbit fix yet, take a day trip to the Hobbiton Film Set – which is still a working farm. It’s a 2-hour drive from Auckland, which can make for a nice day trip, or you can stay overnight in the nearby town of Matamata.
Extending your trip
You can extend your trip by staying longer in any of the places on this route. Adventure junkies and nature enthusiasts may wish to spend more time in Queenstown, the home of the Southern Alps, known for its hiking, skiing, bungy jumping, skydiving, white water rafting, and more. Those more interested in culture might wish to extend their stays in Wellington or the Auckland area.
You can also extend your stay in Oceania by linking this New Zealand backpacking route with our Australia route.
Kayla left Canada to go on a round the world trip in 2012 and hasn’t stopped traveling since! She’s visited, lived, and worked in over 40 countries and writes about her travels, social enterprise, and the benefits of yoga and mindfulness. Follow her journey on her website, twitter, and instagram.
Our backpacking route for Mexico takes in the best the South of the country has to offer. If you follow it, you’ll travel from the tranquil seas of the Caribbean to the giant waves of the Pacific via a host of a ancient Maya cities, jungle ruins and pleasant mountain towns. The route then cuts through Mexico’s cultural heartland before ending up in the enormous capital city, one of the largest and liveliest on the planet.
TIME NEEDED – 5 weeks
If you’re not that fussed with beaches or not that interested in the Maya ruins, you could probably do this route in a month or less by spending less than the suggested amount of time at some of the destinations. Overall though about 5 weeks would be a suitable time-span.
Mexico is really good value on the whole and if you’re heading here from the States, immediately you will appreciate how much more you can get for your money. However heading North from Central America, it may seem slightly more expensive.
This budget doesn’t include the cost of getting to/from Mexico or any other pre-trip expenses. It is based on July 2017 prices and exchange rates. Read our more detailed Backpacking Budget for Mexico, which includes typical travel costs.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR MEXICO
Mexico is pretty chilled when it comes to entry requirements. There’s no long questioning or waits at the border like you often get trying to enter the United States. Visitors from EU countries, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and most Latin American countries can get a generous 180 days visa-free. You can use our visa-check tool to confirm whether or not you need a visa.
Travel insurance is always advisable, not just because of Mexico’s perceived dangers. We recommend World Nomads, who specialise in covering backpacking trips.
Backpacking route for Mexico
Our Mexico travel itinerary is convenient in that it starts in Cancun and ends in Mexico City, which are home to the two busiest airports in the country and the ones with by far the greatest options in terms of international flights. One of the problems with travel in Mexico is that domestic flights can be quite pricey so if you just head off with no real plan, it’s quite possible you’ll end up somewhere quite isolated. That could leave you having to fork out a considerable amount just to fly somewhere with an international airport or alternatively having to backtrack on a long bus journey.
Mexico is deceptively big and to put that into some perspective, a direct flight from Cancun in the South-east to Tijuana in the North-West on the US border takes around 5 hours. Therefore unless you have months to spare, it’s best to base your trip around one or two parts of the country rather than attempting to go everywhere. The Mexico backpacker trail primarily focuses on the South of the country, which is home to most of the more popular travel destinations and is generally considered to be safer than the North.
This route summarises a typical path travellers in the country take and you could easily just do it in reverse and there may be something to be said for ending your trip with some relaxed days on Mexico’s Caribbean coastline.
If you’ve had a long flight in then you may wish to book a hotel for a night in Cancun to get some rest but there are nicer places further South, that are generally much more to the liking of backpackers and budget travellers.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is a fun place to hang out for a few days. Yes it’s touristy but it’s nowhere near as trashy or expensive as Cancun and there are many hostels catering to backpackers. The beaches are great and the nightlife is pumping with many bars and clubs offering excellent drinks deals. The nearby island of Cozumel is also a nice option if you want some additional beach time.
There are two main reasons why travellers head to Tulum. The first is its gorgeous beach, which is among the best on the Riviera Maya and that is saying something. It is also home to the well preserved ruins of an ancient Mayan city so you can get a dose of culture and history too before cooling off in the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. At night, it’s nowhere near as lively as Playa del Carmen and is a much quieter destination overall, with yoga retreats recently cropping up on its cliffs.
(1/2 a day)
One of Mexico’s most famous sites. Chichen Itza is a complex of Mayan ruins, with the enormous pyramid known as El Castillo, its centrepiece. There are limited budget accommodation options nearby so it’s probably best to just stop here for an afternoon to break up the journey between Tulum and Merida.
The state capital of Yucatán, Merida is one of the biggest cities on this route, but by no means overwhelming with around 750,000 residents. It’s a fascinating cultural destination, founded by the Spanish in the 16th Century. Merida is a city of plazas, palaces, cathedrals and museums. While it may only take a couple of days to discover the city, there’s plenty to see and do around the town with nearby Maya ruins, a wildlife refuge and the famous cenotes.
In some respects, Campeche is not dissimilar to Merida. It’s a bit smaller but is another city with Spanish origins and its colonial old town has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. The nearest maya ruins are at Edzna, a relatively small site around an hour away.
Palenque is a large site that was once home to an ancient Maya city. Its ruins are some of the best preserved in the whole region, largely thanks to the jungle which offers natural shelter. It could take the whole day to explore the site but there’s little to do in the nearby modern-day town itself. You can either stay there or find somewhere on the edge of the national park near the Maya site.
San Cristobal de las Casas
Arguably the prettiest town on the route, San Cristobal de las Casas is full of colourful buildings and cobblestone streets. Its highland location offers a pleasant break from the heat and it can get quite chilly at night. Just strolling around the town is enjoyable enough and if you fancy a longer stay there are volunteering opportunities as well as host of reasonably priced Spanish language schools.
Zipolite & Mazunte
Zipolite and Mazunte are two beach villages on Mexico’s rugged Oaxaca Coast. It takes only about 10 minutes and costs only a few pesos to travel from one to the other in a colectivo so you can choose to base yourself in one and visit the other or spend a couple of days in each.
Zipolite is the livelier of the two although that’s only a relative concept. Both places are very small and although there’s only a limited amount of things to do, it’s about the only place in Mexico where you can still find a cheap bungalow/hut on the beach and fall asleep accompanied by the sounds of Pacific Ocean waves crashing into the shore. Zipolite is also Mexico’s only beach where you can go nude, while Mazunte has a growing reputation for impromptu live music. Like many destinations on this route, the ease of getting marijuana is an appeal to some travellers.
A bit further up the coast, you reach the much larger Puerto Escondido, which is popular with both domestic and international travellers. It’s a big surfing destination with some seriously large waves, which make swimming virtually impossible. There’s also a turtle conservation programme and you can assist every day at 5pm when baby turtles are released into the sea.
The city of Oaxaca is the capital of the state of the same name but it’s slow ride up from Puerto Escondido, which can take as long as 8 hours by road. It’s the state’s main cultural centre with a couple of interesting museums and a walkable city-centre. Nearby Monte Alban is another UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most impressive ruins sites in Latin America. Every Thursday and Saturday, trips run to the nearby village of Teotitlán del Valle by the non-profit Fundacion en Via and it’s a good opportunity to meet locals and make a positive contribution to fighting poverty in the region, whilst also having an interesting experience.
Huautla de Jimenez
One of the most curious destinations on the route. Huautla de Jimenez is a remote mountain town that was popular with the hippies in the 1960’s and the extremely strong psilocybe mushrooms that grow here during the wet season still attract some foreigners. Shamanic rituals still take place during this period but visitors also come to explore the stunning mountain range that surrounds the town and it’s a funky little place to hang around for a while.
Many travellers visit Pubela as a day-trip from the capital but given it’s en-route, it’s well worth stopping off here for a few nights to catch your breath before heading to Mexico City. Puebla is a city of around 1.5million people so it’s a pretty big place with lots of beautiful buildings and interesting landmarks, not to mention lots of tasty and cheap street-food. It’s surrounded by snow-capped mountains and volcanoes so it’s also well worth heading out of town and exploring the natural surroundings for a final dose of fresh air before the smog of the capital.
Mexico City & Around
Mexico City is enormous! First-time visitors often find visiting an overwhelming experience and it’s not easy to know where to base yourself or where to begin. Like any large city it has its hassles but the tourist areas are not considered dangerous and there is a heavy police presence in the old city. The giant Zócalo, the city’s main plaza and one of the largest squares in the world is a good starting point and there are many interesting museums and cultural sites nearby that document various periods of Mexican history. For a more modern-day experience take in a football match at the giant Estadio Azteca or get to grips with the entertaining world of lucha libre, a Mexican form of professional wrestling (live shows take place every Friday at 20:30).
There are also a number of day-trips that can be done from Mexico City. A visit to the vast archaeological site at Teotihuacan, Northeast of the city is one of the most popular. Nature and adventure sports lovers would be wise to check out Valle de Bravo and/or the Desert of the Lions National Park. Meanwhile new-age Tepoztlan is reportedly a UFO hotspot with a large number of the town’s residents having reported seeing one!
Extending your trip
This Mexico backpacking route only covers the bottom third of the country, where a lot of the travel highlights are located. It could be considered loosely speaking the most typical backpacker trail in Mexico although it’s not rigidly followed by everyone by any means. Perhaps more common these days is for backpackers to head South to Guatemala rather than North. You can easily combine some of this with our backpacking route for Central America, which does just that and carries on all the way down to Panama.
If you want to see more of Mexico then there’s plenty more cool places to go but the best destinations are quite spread out so be prepared for some more long bus journeys or consider forking out for a flight or two. Highlights further North include Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, which are reasonably easy to get to from Mexico City and could quite easily be added onto this route although you’ll most likely have to backtrack to the capital for an onward flight.
Baja California is another popular coastal region, great for surfing and you can even head all the way North to the US-Mexico border and continue your adventure in California. Alternatively you can take Mexico’s most famous train ride and head to the stunning and very remote Copper Canyon, which feels a world away from the tourist resorts of the city or the madness of Mexico City.
Cartagena in Colombia, where our South America backpacking route starts, isn’t a million miles away either so if you’ve got the time, you could certainly do plenty more travelling in the region.
Budget Accommodation in Mexico
Getting budget accommodation in Mexico is pretty straight-forward unless you’re travelling in peak tourist season (exact time varies from place to place) or during a national holiday. In most towns on this route, you can just show up and find a room or bed, with prices negotiable in a lot of cases, especially during low season. In the bigger towns it’s probably still advisable to book something in advance as the hostels and main backpacker options are often spread out across town.
Is Mexico Dangerous?
Mexico gets a lot of bad press and certainly is perceived as a dangerous country by many. However don’t believe everything you read on the internet or hear from a certain president. If you’re sensible and avoid a handful of places, mostly in the North, well away from the stops on this route, you should have no trouble. Rates of violent crime are high but this is massively skewed by drug-related violence and rarely effects visitors.
Backpacking in the Balkans is getting slightly more popular with budget travellers in Europe but it remains something of a hidden gem for the most part. To some, the mere mention of the word ‘Balkans’ immediately evokes the image of war and while the scars of the 1990’s conflicts which saw Yugoslavia divided up into several smaller states remain, things have changed massively in this region since.
Croatia has the most developed travel industry and attracts big numbers during the summer months. It’s where our backpacking route for the Balkans starts but once you leave charming Dubrovnik behind and head to Montenegro, slowly but surely you steer away from the crowds and find yourself on a real adventure in a beautiful and very budget-friendly part of the world. Our route then takes in Kosovo and Albania, which have a very different feel to the other countries before moving onto Macedonia and Serbia, finishing off in the lively cities of Belgrade and Novi Sad.
TIME NEEDED – 7 weeks to 2 Months
This is a rough guide and it depends a bit on the season and obviously your personal travel preferences. In the summer you may wish to spend more time in coastal places like Budva, Sarandë and the Croatian islands and 2 months plus might be good. At other times of the year you could probably skip them altogether and get it down to 6 weeks.
There are a lot of small towns that can be seen easily in a day and the distances between them aren’t massive so there will be few if any times where you spend most of the day travelling from A to B. Therefore don’t be put off by the number of stops on our route. By allowing 2 months, you are averaging just over 2 days in each destination, which is plenty. If you have a limited period of time to travel, you can easily just pick and choose part of the route.
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1250 | €1500 | US$1600
The Balkans is one of the cheapest parts of Europe overall. Croatia is the most expensive country with costs increasing and not far off what you find in Western Europe. Couchsurfing is a pretty good option though and will help you cut accommodation costs down to a minimum. Elsewhere in the Balkans, you can get extremely good value for money and roughly 25 Euros/day should be sufficient for a genuine shoestring traveller. Costs may be slightly higher in the busier summer months and these figures don’t include the cost of flights to the region or travel insurance.
Of the countries in this route, only Croatia is in the European Union. However EU citizens won’t need visas to visit any of the other countries. If you’re from elsewhere in the world you may do but most of these countries are busy trying to promote tourism so many nationalities can enter visa-free. You can use our visa-check tool to see if you will require a visa for anywhere on our route.
Also note that going from Kosovo directly to Serbia is only possible if you initially entered Kosovo from Serbia. There is more info on this topic at the bottom of the page and a possible way around the issue for some nationalities. Our route does not see you enter Serbia via Kosovo so you’ll have no problems if you follow it.
As always, we advise you to get travel insurance and are happy to recommend World Nomads, who specialise in providing cover for budget travellers.
Backpacking route for the Balkans
Note the route is one big loop so you can start at any point and just follow it around until you are back where you started. We’ve opted to begin in the Croatian capital Zagreb but Split, Dubrovnik, Tirana, Skopje or Belgrade could be other good options depending on where you’re coming from as they have international airports with decent connections.
Time Needed – 10 days to 2 weeks
Zagreb is Croatia’s capital and largest city and a good place to start off. It’s not as big a travel destination as some of the coastal towns but is a lively place with plenty going for it. It boasts a medieval old town while the newer parts are reminiscent of many of the central European capitals so it doesn’t have such a strong Balkans vibe but there’s enough to keep you occupied for a day or two.
Plitvice National Park
The Plitvice national park is one of the most beautiful natural areas in the Balkans and indeed all of Europe. It is like a natural water-world with large waterfalls and 16 interlinked turquoise lakes surrounded by lush forests. You do need a permit to enter the park though which costs 110 KN (15 Euros) for one day or 180 KN (24 Euros) for two. In terms of accommodation, some local apartment owners rent out rooms for as cheap as 10 Euros/night while there is also a camping site with some bungalows and tents for rent in the nearby town of Korana.
Zadar is an important historical city on the coast. It has a small old town which is easily explored on foot while there are plenty of beaches nearby to relax on. In the summer it gets busy and some of the beaches are big nightlife destinations so its many hostels fill up and there is a big party vibe during the middle of the year although it’s still worth a visit at other times although perhaps only for a day or two.
Split & Croatian Islands
The ancient port city of Split is another essential stop on any backpacking route for Croatia. The town itself has Roman walls, squares, and temples and will occupy you for a day or so. You can also kick back on Bačvice beach, which has lots of bars and clubs that come alive at night. Split is also the best place to get to some of the most popular Croatian islands such as Hvar and Brač while there are day trips you can do on the mainland too so it’s easy to spend several days in this part of Croatia, particularly during the summer months.
Dubrovnik is perhaps the most beautiful of all the Croatian towns with stunning bays and clear water as well as a most impressive old city which is circled by large medieval walls on all sides, which can be climbed and walked along. It gets very busy with numerous cruise ships coming in every day and tourist numbers and prices are high as a result but it’s certainly somewhere not be missed.
Possible Extension – Bosnia-Herzegovina
To get from Split to Dubrovnik, you have to briefly pass through Bosnia-Herzegovina so technically you will visit it anyway. However if you want to really spend some time there consider heading to Mostar, which is easily accessible from either Split or Dubrovnik and potentially on to the capital Sarajevo. If you do that you could rejoin the route at Durmitor National Park to avoid going back on yourself although it would be a shame to miss the Bay of Kotor, which is one of the real highlights of this Balkans travel itinerary. If you end up in Sarajevo, check out the War Hostel, which lets you experience a night or two in a city under siege (which Sarajevo was during the Bosnian conflict for almost four years) complete with bomb sounds!
Time Needed – 10 days
Certainly one of the highlights of the trip and the jewel in Montenegro’s crown. The ancient walled city of Kotor is a nice place to spend a day and an evening but you’ll need another day or two to explore the stunning bay which is dotted around with friendly little villages that are worth a visit. You could opt to spend one night staying in the town and then perhaps another couple somewhere further along the bay where you can really appreciate its beauty.
If you’re travelling in one of the cooler months you can skip Budva but in the summer it comes alive as one of the most raucous party-towns in the Balkans. The beaches are nothing to get carried away about in truth and there are more chilled out places further down the coast towards Albania, but Budva is Montenegro’s shameless party capital and attracts visitors from around the region so it’s a good place to let your hair down.
Durmitor National Park
This mountainous area is another major stop on any Montenegro backpacking route and nature lovers won’t want to miss it. Hiking is a popular activity while it contains the deepest canyon in all of Europe, which is great for rafting.
Biogradska Gora National Park
This is the smallest of Montenegro’s four national parks but arguably the most beautiful and is hugely diverse. It contains one of only 3 remaining rainforests in Europe as well as mountain ridges and glacial lakes.
Time Needed – 1 week
For a small city, there is quite a lot to see and do in and around Peja, which is of Ottoman and Serbian Orthodox heritage. The monastery known as the Patriarchate of Peć is its most famous site and there’s also a lot of natural beauty around with caves, waterfalls and natural springs in the surrounding countryside. Hiking, rock-climbing, caving and skiing are popular activities and at bargain prices compared to other parts of Europe.
For those of you interested in the complex politics and ethnic divisions in the Balkans and particularly Kosovo, Mitrovica is one place you definitely should visit. It perhaps sums up the Kosovan conflict better than any other city as the town is divided between Serbs, who live North of the river and Albanians, who live on the South. There’s not a great deal to see in truth but it’s just an interesting place to spend a day in although be wary of the current political climate as trouble does sometimes flare up given the divided nature of the city.
The capital of Kosovo, Europe’s newest and poorest state is changing at quite a rate. It’s small enough that you can visit everywhere that’s really worth visiting in a day and as of December 2016 many of the museums are still being renovated/worked on. It has some unusual sights such as a curiously shaped library and a statue of Bill Clinton, which is not far from the bus station. There are certainly more beautiful cities in the Balkans but Pristina is not without its charms and English is widely spoken which makes it easier to get a feel for the place. People in Kosovo are generally more welcoming to foreigners than other parts of the former Yugoslavia.
Prizren is much more attractive than Pristina and a must-visit for anyone backpacking in Kosovo. It is much smaller though and it’d be hard to justify much more than a day here. The main thing to do is walk up to the crumbling fortress which towers over the town and provides a stunning view of Prizren, its charming riverside centre the dozens of mosques, which really give it a unique identity and feel.
Time Needed – 1 week to 10 days
You’re now outside of what was Yugoslavia for the first time and Tirana is the best place to learn about Albanian culture and history. There are lots of interesting museums and sights but most are in or near to the giant Skanderbeg Square, which is the best location to base yourself. You could easily spend several hours in the extensive National Historic Museum, which offers a real insight into a country that has gone through some really dark times.
Albania is a really quirky country in many ways and decades of isolation have given it a unique feel that is distinct from even its neighbouring countries. Berat is a good example of that and it is known as the ‘town of a thousand windows’. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful in Albania but you’ll only really need an afternoon to see the town itself although a day trip out to Corovode and the Osumi Gorge is well worth doing.
This is another historic Ottoman city and one of the 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country along with Berat and the Butrint National Park, which form some of the main stops for anyone backpacking in Albania. It’s known as the city of stone with an expertly preserved old town and castle the highlights. There is also the old bazaar which still acts as the social and commercial hub of the town.
Albania’s best coastal destination is a great place to hang around in the summer. It has a few lively hostels and a bit of a backpacker vibe with the Mediterranean climate, sandy beaches and warm waters the main draw not to mention prices that are far lower than you get almost anywhere else in the Med. The best beaches are further along the coast but this is the most logical place to base yourself and it’s even possible to hop across the water on a ferry to the Greek island of Corfu which takes only about 2 hours.
Possible Extension – Greece
Sarandë is very close to the Greek border & the island of Corfu so it’s easy to visit Greece from here. The trip from Sarandë to Ohrid is a long one too so it could even be quicker to dip into Greece and head to Macedonia that way as the roads are better South of the border. The lakeside Greek town of Ioannina would be a possible stop.
Ohrid is the real travel highlight of Macedonia, which is a country that might just surprise you. The town looks out onto the giant lake of the same name and it’s a place of both historical significance and natural beauty. It is supposedly one of the oldest human settlements in all of Europe and you can certainly spend a few days here exploring the town and surrounding area.
Bitola is Macedonia’s Second City but it still has a population of under 100,000 so it’s not an enormous place. It’s known for its European vibe with colourful streets and monuments, as well as the most beautiful old bazaar in Macedonia. It’s also famed for its lively nightlife and is a good place to party and meet some locals.
Skopje is a real surprise and in parts it feels more like London or Paris than a formerly provincial city nestled deep in the Balkans. Like London, it has a river that runs right through its heart with several stylish bridges that connect the two sides of town. It boasts an enormous number of statues and monuments and the Macedonian capital seems to be on an all-out mission to have the largest statues in the world. The one presumed to be of Alexander the Great in the central Macedonia Square is quite a sight and towers over the others. There is really quite a lot to see and do in Skopje, which is one of the biggest cities on this Balkans backpacking route so at least 2 days and perhaps more are needed.
Serbia is now a landlocked country followed Montenegro’s marginal vote in favour of splitting from Serbia in 2006. Visitor numbers are low compared to neighbouring Croatia but it has some great cities to visit and Niš is one of them. It has always been an important strategic location and has a long and varied history. It is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and is full of old fortresses and churches. It is also the site of one of the few Nazi concentration camps that remain intact and that makes for a harrowing visit.
Užice & Around
Užice is a relatively small city nestled between hills on the river Đetinja. You won’t need more than a day to check out the town but there are several of Serbia’s best travel destinations nearby so it’s a good place to base yourself for a few days. Highlights include the Tara National Park, which is home to plenty of species including brown bears and is a good place to go hiking or rafting. Around Užice there also are a few monasteries that make for an interesting visit, caves and several mountains where you can ski. The Bosnian town of Višegrad is also very nearby and worth checking out not least for its iconic bridge across the Drina River.
As the biggest city on the Balkans backpacker trail, Belgrade will take a bit more time to explore than most cities on this route which are easily explored on foot in a day. The enormous Kalemegdan – Belgrade Fortress is its main attraction but its a cosmopolitan city with a large number of museums and cultural sights. The nightlife here is also famous while it’s a good shopping destination with everything from major shopping malls to independent stores selling original products as well as a dirt cheap Chinese market with imported goods from China of questionable quality.
Novi Sad is only 80km from Belgrade and is the country’s Second City. Like the capital, it has an imposing fortress, which has never been taken by any enemy. It now holds the Novi Sad City Museum and the town also has many art galleries and a student vibe which contributes to its lively nightlife scene. During July, it hosts EXIT Festival, the biggest music festival in the Balkans. If you’re ending your trip here, it’s probably easiest to head back to Belgrade to catch a flight as the city doesn’t have its own airport.
Getting from Novi Sad back to Zagreb
As we said at the start, this route is designed as a loop so you can start and end at any point or just do a small section of it, if you’re pushed for time. To get from Novi Sad back to Zagreb, our first destination you have various options, with a 5-6 hour train which can be taken from the nearby town of Sremska Mitrovica one possibility. You could though break up the trip by stopping over-night or just for an afternoon in the Croatian city of Slavonski Brod, which is roughly half way between the two. From there you have fast train and bus connections to Zagreb.
Budget Accommodation in the Balkans
There isn’t a massive backpacker vibe in this part of the world but most towns on this route have at least one or two hostels where you can meet other travellers and generally they are really good value. Croatia is noticeably more expensive than the other countries but does have more choice in terms of accommodation with many hostels in some of the cities. Booking online in advance is a good idea during the busier summer months. At other times of year they can be very empty so you don’t really need to. That said many of the hostels are small so it’s not a bad idea to let them know you’re coming to ensure there’ll be someone there to check you in on arrival.
Apart from Albania, this was all one country just 25 years ago so getting from one country to another is still pretty straight-forward and bus connections are quite regular although there are now border checks to contend with which slows things down a bit. In most cases at the border, you won’t need to get off the bus at all. The driver may collect everyone’s passports and they will be checked by the border guards, although most likely not that thoroughly. During busy times there can be pretty big traffic queues at the borders though so it can add some time to your journey although rarely more than 30 minutes to an hour.
IMPORTANT – Rules for going from Kosovo to Serbia
The one thing that every traveller in the Balkans should be aware of, regardless of where they are from involves Kosovo and more specifically travelling to Serbia from Kosovo. Since Serbia along with many other countries, doesn’t officially recognise Kosovo as an independent state, there are a few complications at the borders between the two.
You CAN enter Kosovo via any of the four countries it borders (Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia or Serbia) and will have no issues. You CAN also leave Kosovo for Montenegro, Albania or Macedonia with no problems. However if you want to travel directly from Kosovo to Serbia, this will only be possible, if you initially entered Kosovo from Serbia.
For example if you travel from Albania to Kosovo and then try to enter to Serbia you WILL NOT be allowed in. However if you are in Serbia, take a trip to Kosovo and then return to Serbia, it’s fine. So this is really important to be aware of when planning your trip and we’ve taken it into account with our route above.
If you are Serbian, Kosovar, Bosnian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Swiss or from the EU and have a national ID card, there is a way around the rule by showing your ID card rather than passport at the border.
This is all true as of November 2016. If you’re reading this in the future and have new information on changes then please use the comments section below to let us and other travellers know or contact us and we’ll update it.
The Thailand backpacker scene has changed dramatically over the past 20-30 years and some would say for the worse but travellers continue to flock to the so-called ‘land of smiles’ in ever-increasing numbers. The main backpacker destinations, particularly the most popular islands in the South have become much more commercialised and predominantly party-orientated, which is great if you want to party all night and recover by day on beautiful golden beaches. If that’s not your scene, it’s not hard to find quieter more peaceful destinations sometimes even on the same island.
Bangkok remains the beating heart of the country, a true city of sin which love it or hate it makes for a truly intoxicating travel experience. It’s almost impossible to visit Thailand and Southeast Asia for that matter without passing through Bangkok at least once or twice given it is the core of the country’s transport network and home to the biggest two airports. The North still retains much of its old charm and places like Chiang Mai are the ideal spots to really get to grips with ancient Thai culture while there are plenty of natural wonders to be discovered outside of the towns.
Many of the destinations on this backpacking route for Thailand have already been covered in our South East Asia travel itinerary but split into two separate parts to get around the need for a visa (see bottom of this page for info on sorting out a visa for this route). However given it remains the most popular backpacking destination on the planet, we figured it could use its only dedicated route and here it is!
TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS
Allow 2 months to get round the whole route although it could be done in less time particularly if you are not so fussed with the party/beach element.
Backpacker budgets in Thailand vary dramatically depending on the kind of trip you want to have. The lower figure we have quoted is a real shoestring budget and would involve staying in the cheapest places, eating local food and not going wild on the partying. The higher figure is perhaps a more typical backpacker budget these days but still requires some self-discipline as even though Thailand is cheap, there is temptation to spend almost everywhere, particularly if you are a party animal, in which case you should definitely allow for a bit more.
These figures were updated in January 2017 but DO NOT include the cost of flights to/from Thailand, visas, vaccinations or travel insurance.
Logical starting point with flight connections to all 4 corners of the world. The Thai capital has many faces and chances are you will find one that is to your liking. It has a reputation as a real life Sin City and certainly it’s seedy sexual side is hard to ignore but there is plenty more to it than that. Great shopping, vibrant nightlife, buzzing street markets, delicious food and a few stunning palaces mean you will never be short of things to see and do in Bangkok. Most backpackers head straight to the Khao San Road which is the biggest backpacker hub in Southeast Asia and the perfect place to make some travel buddies, which is handy in those lonely early days, particularly if it’s your first time travelling alone.
Can be done as a long day-trip from Bangkok or with an overnight stay. This ancient city, the 2nd capital of Siam was the largest city in the world in the early 18th century with 1 million residents. It is a shadow of its former self now but the remnants of its heyday are still spread across town and give clues to its former grandeur.
This chilled out riverside town has becoming a big backpacker destination in recent years. The bridge over the River Kwai is the main point of an interest and most of the sights relate to the dark history of the so-called Death Railway to Burma during World War II. Nature lovers will also find plenty of thrills around the town and there are several interesting historical sites dotted about too with highlights including the Tiger Temple (very popular but has come in for fierce criticism from animal rights groups), Hellfire Pass and Erawan National Park.
Thailand’s oldest beach resort is getting its groove on once again. It’s popular with Thais in Bangkok due to its proximity to the capital and gets lively at weekends and during national holidays. Budget travellers tend to prefer the islands further South but Hua Hin is still a popular stop and breaks up the journey from Bangkok down to Southern Thailand.
Getting to Southern Thailand from Bangkok and Hua Hin
You have many options, the most interesting of which is to take the train down to Chumphon and connect to a boat to Ko Tao (All-in-one tickets can be bought including train, bus to the ferry port and ferry to Ko Tao or one of the other islands). Hua Hin is on the main trainline from Bangkok to Chumphon so it’s very easy sort out.
Time Needed – roughly 4 weeks*
* This depends on how much you enjoy the beach and party life. The time-frames suggested for each destination are just a guide. It’s very easy to extend your stay on any of the islands if you are enjoying it. Each destination has its own subtle differences and points of interest but there is an element of ‘same same’ about the backpacker scene at each place so some travellers choose to skip a few of these destinations in favour of spending longer in one place and perhaps doing a diving course, a bit of voluntary work or if you’re low on funds perhaps finding a bit of work for one of the bars or hostels. Either way it’s probably best not to plan a rigid schedule in this part and just relax, enjoy the lazy beach lifestyle and move on when you feel ready.
Thai island life
The smallest and quietest of the 3 main inhabited islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Ko Tao is a beautiful island and very popular with backpackers, some of whom end up staying much longer than intended. It is a fabulous place to do a PADI diving course and many of the centres also provide accommodation.
Ko Pha Ngan
Home of the famous full moon parties. Once a month the travellers flock to Ko Pha Ngan’s Haad Rin beach for a night of debauchery under the moonlight. The island gets very busy during this time although the other end of the island is much quieter. It’s a good idea to book accommodation in advance here around Full Moon night, something which isn’t really necessary anywhere else. There are big parties every week though so you don’t have to come for full moon with black moon and jungle parties also worth checking out and arguably better than the main night itself.
The Southernmost island in the Gulf of Thailand is less popular with backpackers and is unquestionably very touristy but it’s a big island and there are so many different beaches that you are sure to find one to your taste and it’s a fun place to explore for a day or so.
Khao Sok National Park
Khao Sok National Park is the country’s largest natural reserve and home to the world famous Cheow Lan Reservoir, but it’s not like any man made lake you’ve ever seen. With it’s towering limestone cliffs and crystal-clear blue waters, it is surrounded by the world’s oldest living rain forest. One great way to see everything this place has to offer is to join a group for an overnight trip to the floating bungalows of Khao Sok Lake. You’ll ride a traditional long tail boat, sleep in a bamboo floating bungalow and eat three meals per day. You’ll also be able to explore the jungle on foot hiking to caves and waterfalls or spend your time relaxing in the water or kayaking.
Krabi (Ao Nang or Krabi Town)
Krabi is the name of the province and most visitors either stay in Krabi Town, its capital or Ao Nang, its principal beach resort, which is about 30 minutes by bus from the town. The town is full of dirt cheap accommodation and restaurants and has a few interesting things to see and do but nothing remarkable. Ao Nang is a lively beach town packed with bars, restaurants, hotels and massage parlours (mostly not of the ‘happy ending’ variety). There are a couple of great beaches to relax on.
Rai Leh (Railay Beach)
Rai Leh is only 15 minutes or so round the coast and although it is not an island, it can only be accessed by boat as it is engulfed by huge cliffs on all sides. Active travellers and anyone who wants to do more than just bum around on a beach and get drunk should definitely check it out and might want to spend a fair while here. It’s a great destination for climbing, perhaps the best in Thailand and is also popular for its hiking, kayaking and snorkelling possibilities.
Ko Phi Phi
Phi Phi is one of the iconic destinations of the Thailand backpacker trail. Phi Phi Don is the only island that is inhabited and possible to stay. 20 years ago it was a very quiet island and although it is still beautiful, the main beaches and village on Phi Phi Don are now full on party-orientated not dissimilar to Haad Rin on Ko Pha Ngan. There are numerous boat trips you can do around the bay, most of which include plenty of stops for swimming and snorkelling in beautifully clear water and a visit to Maya Bay, where the movie ‘The Beach’ was filmed.
If you found all the other islands a bit too crazy and just want some time to rest and most likely detox, then Ko Lanta is the perfect place. It is home to miles and miles of long white sandy beaches, clear waters and not many people!
Getting from Southern Thailand to Northern Thailand
Getting from Ko Lanta or any of the other Southern destinations to Northern Thailand is best done by flying unless you want to spend in excess of 24 hours on buses and trains and still end up spending roughly what you would have had you opted to fly. Thai Lion Air offer the cheapest flights and allow you to put your backpack in hold for free which is a big advantage on Air Asia that also offer good deals also but place heavy charges on anyone with more than just hand luggage.
From Ko Lanta, it is best to fly from Krabi Airport, which is about 2 hours away via boat/bus transfer. You may find it cheaper to book two separate flights to move onto the next leg of our route. The first would be from Krabi to Bangkok and the 2nd from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. If you are a bit flexible with your times and perhaps willing to spend a night in Bangkok, you should be able to do the whole trip for around 2000 Baht (roughly 50 Euros). Note flights will be to Bangkok’s older Don Mueang Airport (which handles domestic flights). A taxi to Khao San Road or Central Bangkok should set you back between 250-400 Baht and take 20-30 minutes depending on traffic and whether you take the toll road (which you will have to pay an extra 150 Baht or so for so tell the taxi driver ‘No Toll!’ if you are in no rush) or not.
Given you will most likely need to return to Bangkok to leave the country it is probably best to start your Northern Thailand adventure in Chiang Rai which is the furthest away from the capital and then work back. The town of Chiang Rai has 1 or 2 interesting sights and some nice museums that can occupy you for a day or so but its main purpose from a travellers perspective is as a base that will allow you to explore the region or even do a day-trip to nearby Tachileik in Myanmar (no need for a visa).
Most travellers also head to the golden triangle, which is a small area in Chiang Rai province where the River Ruak meets the mighty Mekong River and where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar. It was well-known as a famous opium growing region and there a few interesting sites where you can learn about the trade. Nowadays though the Golden Triangle is undoubtedly a tourist trap and is more or less completely dependent on tourism for income so those looking for a more authentic Thai experience, sometimes turn their nose up at the mention of it.
This can also be done as a day-trip from Chiang Rai but there are a few guesthouses with rock-bottom prices in town so it’s nice to stay overnight in what is a really small village with beautiful surroundings. It has a fascinating history and was the home of a group of 12,000 Chinese Nationalists who fled China to Mae Salong in 1949 following the rise to power of the Chinese Communists. They continued their insurgency, part-funded by the opium trade for several decades from Mae Salong. There are several museums relating to this in the village, which nowadays is famous for producing excellent oolong tea.
Another key destination on any backpacking route in Thailand. Chiang Mai is a cosmopolitan city with a very international vibe like Bangkok, but much smaller and more relaxed and without a lot of the hassles that go with the capital. It’s a great place to get to grips with traditional thai practices such as massage, muay-thai boxing and thai cooking and has a reputation as the country’s cultural capital.
You could potentially split your time in Chiang Mai into two separate stints as you will probably need to return after Mae Sariang in order to take a train down to Sukhothai as there are no easy and certainly no direct connections between Mae Sariang and Sukhothai.
For volunteering opportunities near Chiang Mai, check out Mindful Farm:
Pai is another stop which has turned into a real backpacker place and it’s not hard to see why. With only 3000 permanent residents it is very small and is located in a really beautiful valley North of Chiang Mai. There are a whole range of different ways to witnessing the nature from lazily chilling out in one of Pai’s plentiful backpacker bars and taking in the views to tubing, trekking, zip-lining, white-water rafting and plenty more.
Mae Hong Son
This is another very small town not far from Pai. You probably won’t need as long here but it’s certainly worth hiring a motorbike or at least a bicycle for a day or two and getting out to the surrounding areas which are home to a few points of potential interest including a mud spa, a bamboo bridge, a waterfall, a palace and a fish cave!
Close to the Myanmar border and without the crowds of Pai and Chiang Mai, this is a good place for trekking in the mountains and getting to see small local villages and tribes. Its remote location means the ‘hilltribe’ experiences are much more authentic here so be sure to get out to the Karen and Lawa Hilltribe villages.
Thailand’s original capital is located 1 hour by bus from Phitsanulok, which is on the main trainline between Chiang Mai and Bangkok at almost exactly the halfway point (express trains take about 7 hours to reach either city from Phitsanulok) so it is a convenient stop if you opt to get the train back to Bangkok for your flight home or onwards. The train journey alone allows you a glimpse into the remoter areas of Thailand away from the travelling hordes so it is well worth doing although price-wise there is usually little difference between flying from Chiang Mai to Bangkok or taking the train.
Old Sukhothai is 12km west of the modern city and quite a lot of effort has been put in to restoring it to something like its 13th Century glory and it has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Consider renting a bike (which you can do for as little as 50 Baht) and exploring the ruins.
And that’s the end of our Thailand backpacking itinerary although you may want to spend another day or two in Bangkok taking advantage of the great shopping centres to grab a few bargains while you wait for your flight home. Certainly don’t rely on the train to deliver you from Phitsanulok to Bangkok on-time for a flight the same day.
Extending Your Trip
There are plenty more destinations in Thailand that are worth a visit and where it might be easier to escape the crowds and get a more authentic Thai experience. Head over to Indie Traveller for an in-depth Thailand travel guide.
Most travellers in Thailand these days, visit at least one of its neighbouring countries too. Our Vietnam backpacking route takes you on a train-ride to remember from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with numerous stops in between. Alternative options include neighbouring Myanmar.
Check out our Burmese backpacking route for some inspiration there. Leaving mainland SE Asia behind you might also want to check out our Indonesia route, which takes you around some of the country’s most popular islands.
Budget Accommodation in Thailand
Advanced booking isn’t important as there are backpacker districts or streets almost everywhere on this route and some of the beaches on the islands are almost entirely full of hostels and backpacker accommodation that rarely sell out. That said advanced booking during festivals and certainly for full moon parties is an absolute must.
Do I need a Visa for Thailand?
If you are from Korea, Brazil, Peru, Argentina or Chile you get 90 days visa-free and therefore won’t need a visa for this route.
If you are from one of those 52 countries you have a few more options. Seen as this route is scheduled for 2 months, the 30 days visa exemption will not be enough so here are your choices:
Option 1: Get a tourist visa valid for at least 60 days before you enter Thailand
This is something you should do before you leave home but it can also be arranged at a Thai Embassy in other countries if you are doing a long trip visiting various places. It’s best to sort it well in advance of your trip though and you most likely won’t be required to visit the embassy in person. Prices vary from country to country but this is certainly the most hassle-free option and once you are in Thailand you can relax and not have to worry about such issues.
Option 2: Visa Run
You can do a visa run, which basically means you will leave Thailand for a neighbouring country before your 30 day visa exemption expires and then return immediately or after a few days and you will get a fresh 30 days visa-free in Thailand. Note that only people from UK, USA, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Macau, Hong Kong, Laos and Vietnam get 30 days when crossing at both airports and land borders. Other nationalities get 15 days at land borders but 30 at airports.
The most obvious points for visa runs on the route are to Malaysia from any of the destinations in Southern Thailand (particularly Krabi, Ko Lanta or Ko Phi Phi) with Penang or Pulau Langkawi on the Andaman Coast of Northern Malaysia a nearby popular destination for a couple of days or so. Alternatively in Northern Thailand you could head to Laos and the town of Huay Xai very close to Chiang Rai although the need for a Laotian visa makes this option a bit less attractive unless you particularly want to go to Laos.
It may also be tough to fit this into this route without rushing your time in Southern Thailand although you could always leave the first section (Bangkok & around) until the end of your trip (i.e. spend 4 weeks in Southern Thailand first, leave then come back and do Northern and Central Thailand within your new 30 days). You can also often get very cheap flights to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore from cities across Thailand, which may be handy especially if you are from one of those countries who only gets 15 days at land borders.
Option 3 – Extend your 30-day visa-exemption while in Thailand.
Since August 2014, you can now extend your 30 day visa exemption to 60 days by visiting an immigration office in the country and paying 1,900 Baht (roughly US$55). The immigration offices are plentiful enough and wherever you are, you won’t be far away from one but queues can be long in some centres and it isn’t the most enjoyable way to spend a morning or afternoon so getting a visa in advance seems more logical if you’re certain you will be spending more than 30 days in Thailand.
PLEASE NOTE – This is correct as of March 2016. The Thai government does from time to time change these visa rules so try to verify this info is still correct if you are reading this at some point in the distant future ;).
Feel free to post a comment below if you know of any changes to these rules and we will update this info. Also let us know what you would include in your backpacking route for Thailand and any of your favourite off-the-beaten track destinations, which can be a welcome relief from the tourist trail.
We’ve not featured Africa much on MFT yet but hope to change that in the coming months and years. This is our first route for the continent and also acts as a mini backpackers guide for Morocco with info on getting in, getting around and the cost of travel in the country.
Although Morocco does receive a decent amount of foreign visitors these days, it has never really taken off as a massive backpacking destination which given its proximity to Europe and all that it has to offer is a bit strange. People instead have tended to opt for short breaks most typically to Marrakech, sometimes fitting in an overnight trip into the Sahara Desert.
However Morocco has all the stunning natural sights and cultural thrills and surprises that anyone could ask for and to make matters better it is only a 2-3 hour flight from most Western and Central European cities. It’s cheap to get there and cheap to travel in and although there are a few hassles, it’s an incredible country to spend a few weeks travelling around and if you happen to be European, it is right on your doorstep.
Getting to/from Morocco
The most common way to get to/from Morocco from Europe is via budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet that have an abundance of cheap flights from right across the continent to cities in Morocco including Fez, Marrakech, Nador, Agadir and Tangier.
If you’re coming from further afield then Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport is you’re most likely arrival and departure point and it is the biggest airport in the country and one of the busiest in Africa. As the hub of Royal Air Maroc, the country’s national carrier, there are flights to cities all over the world. You may though still find it cheaper and more convenient to fly to a major European city like Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt or London and then take a budget flight to one of the more popular travel destinations like Fez or Marrakech. Casablanca isn’t quite the romantic wonder that you might think of given the film and although it’s still an interesting visit, it doesn’t make many travel itineraries for Morocco.
One final option and highly recommended is to make your way to Southern Spain and either Algeciras, Tarifa or even Gibraltar and then take a ferry over to Tangier in Morocco, where our backpacking route starts. You could easily combine this with our backpacking route for Spain and Portugal. From Tarifa it is only a 30 minute ferry to Tangier and you get to experience the dramatic instant change between Europe and Africa much better than you would by flying in. Ferry tickets are about 30-40 Euros one-way with FRS.
TIME NEEDED – 3 weeks
3 weeks is a sufficient amount of time for a backpacking trip in Morocco unless you have any specific aim other than travelling around and visiting the most interesting places. Most of the destinations on this route can be seen in a day or two. Your biggest decision may be choosing how long you want to stay in the Sahara Desert and there are two points on the route where you can get out and spend several nights in it if you so wished.
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £530 | €610 | US$650
These figures are based on January 2017 prices and exchange rates. It is not an expensive country to travel in by any means and US$30/day is considered a safe benchmark figure for budget travel in Morocco but it’s possible to get by on less if you’re savvy. The figures above are based on that but don’t include the cost of travel in/out of Morocco. Your costs will also depend on how many organised trips you take with the Sahara trip likely to be your biggest single expense.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR MOROCCO
69 nationalities can enter Morocco visa-free for up to 90 days. This includes all EU countries, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. If you’re from elsewhere use our visa check tool to find out whether you will need one.
Tangier is Morocco’s main coastal gateway to Europe and the Mediterranean and has an international flavour but if you’re someone who likes a culture shock, it still represents a sudden, in-your-face introduction to Morocco and everything it represents. Its steep central streets are bustling with life, teeming with touts and full of decaying yet charming buildings that give it a really authentic feel. In short it is a microcosm of Morocco but in terms of genuine sights the Kasbah and ancient medina are the main things to see and are located right next to each other so can easily be done in one day.
Getting from Tangier to Chefchaouen: Frequent buses serve the route and take around 3 hours to cover the 100km or so between the two cities with most buses stopping in the city of Tetouan en-route.
Chefchaouen is a beautiful small city in North-Western Morocco just beneath the dramatic backdrop of the Rif Mountains. It is really popular with backpackers and other nomads, some of whom are unquestionably attracted to the town for its proximity to the numerous nearby marijuana plantations. Although there are plenty of touts trying to sell hashish, which can be highly annoying it is still a very relaxed place and known as the ‘Blue Pearl’ for the colour of its buildings. It’s worth staying a few days here and getting out to explore the Rif Mountains and nearby national park.
Getting from Chefchaouen to Meknes: Buses take about 4 hours to get to Meknes from Chefchaouen.
Meknes is free from the hassles of some of the more popular tourist destinations as most travellers tend to overlook it in favour of nearby Fes. However this imperial city is full of interesting historical sites with plenty of palaces and mosques while at the same time it is also a good example of a flourishing modern Moroccan city and if you’re looking to shop in Morocco, the medina in Meknes is perhaps the most reasonably priced of all the cities on this route and it’s a great place to land a few bargains.
Getting from Meknes to Fes: Very close and very well connected cities with at least one train leaving per hour. It costs just 22 Dirhams (roughly US$2) for a 2nd class ticket and the journey takes about 30 minutes.
Fez is one of the real travel highlights of Morocco. This ancient walled city is a giant maze of souks, shrines, tanneries and tombs and the only certainty when exploring the enormous medina of Fez is that you will get lost! It was the medieval capital of Morocco and is widely regarded as the most well-preserved old city in all of the Arab world today so it is well worth spending a few days here.
Getting from Fes to Merzouga: It takes about 10 hours by overnight bus and is almost certainly the longest journey you’ll need to take in Morocco. The Supratours buses do the route in full and can be booked easily once in the country and you shouldn’t have any problems getting seats if you book a couple of days in advance. Alternatively you can take a bus from Fez to Rissani with CTM (165 Dirhams) and then take a taxi to Merzouga.
A trip into the wilderness of the Sahara Desert is a must for anyone backpacking in Morocco. While trips are easily arranged from Marrakech or any of the main cities, heading all the way to Merzouga yourself is the most rewarding way to do it. The village is much deeper into the desert than a typical short trip from Marrakech will reach and given you are based in the Sahara, you have much more flexibility to do the things you want to do rather than the typical tours which you basically have to do everything as a tour group. Options here include camel treks with the possibility of spending several nights in the desert, off-road 4 x 4 or motorbike trips around the dunes or you can simply get out and explore them on foot from Merzouga, which is a very small settlement.
Getting from Merzouga to Tinghir: There is one Supratours bus that leaves Merzouga in the direction of Marrakech at 8:00am each day and takes the tourist route, stopping close to the Todra Gorge. Alternatively you can take a Grand Taxi (shared taxi) to nearby Rissani for 10 Dirhams and from there you should be able to reach Tinghir by taking a local bus. Best to ask in Merzouga for advice on this leg as most visitors do it as part of a tour group and it’s not a route locals would regularly take so options are limited.
Tinghir & Todra Gorge
Tinghir is a small and fairly unremarkable place in the stunning High Atlas region of Morocco and it is a good base for exploring the nearby spectacular Todra Gorge, which is a popular stop en-route between the Sahara and Marrakech. From Tinghir, you can take a taxi up to the gorge, which has a well marked 2-3 hour hiking trail and is also a good place for rock climbing and you can also take trips to the surrounding oasis, which is wedged between the High Atlas and Little Atlas Mountain ranges.
Getting from Tinghir to Ouarzazate: Direct Buses leave at 5:30am and 1:00pm and take 3 hours costing 55 Dirhams (about US$5.50). Other departure times may be available.
(1/2 days – more if you skipped Merzouga)
Situated at 1,135 metres above sea level but just inside the Saharan region of Morocco, Ouarzazate is another popular stop. The town is far bigger and more developed than Merzouga and there is a bigger tourism industry so there are more options for tours into the Sahara and a wider variety of types and lengths of trip to take. If you feel you’ve had your fill of the Sahara Desert in the more remote Merzouga though, you could perhaps skip it as there isn’t an enormous amount to do in town.
Getting from Ouarzazate to Aït-Benhaddou: Only 30km between the towns so it doesn’t take long but there are no direct buses. Instead take a bus from Ouarzazate Bus Station towards Marrakech and tell the driver you want to go to Aït-Benhaddou. He will drop you off at a crossing (around 9km from Aït-Benhaddou) from where there are plenty of taxis waiting to take you up to the town. The whole journey should only be about 20 Dirhams if you wait for a shared taxi to fill up rather than getting your own.
Ait Benhaddou has one of the best preserved Kasbahs in the country and is frequently visited as part of a day trip from either Marrakech or Ouarzazate but it is well worth staying overnight as this Mud Brick city on the edge of the High Atlas Mountains is beautiful when lit up at night. Be sure to climb up the hill to the Granary for spectacular views of the town and surroundings. Most of the appeal here is the town itself which has featured in numerous movies including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator but again you will only really need a day or so to see it. Budget accommodation is pretty limited in town so you’ll need to either fork out for something a bit more expensive or stay a bit further out.
Getting from Aït-Benhaddou to Marrakech: Either return to the crossing via taxi and try to flag down a local bus to Marrakech (this can be tricky as most signs are in Arabic) or return to Ouarzazate and get a bus from there. There is one leaving Ouarzazate at 4:00pm and arriving in Marrakech at 8:30pm costing 80 Dirhams.
Marrakech is perhaps the most famous city in Morocco these days with travellers at least and it has become a popular place to visit for Europeans with the number of cheap flights going in and out of it on a daily basis. As such it is more touristy than a lot of the other cities on this backpacking route for Morocco but it’s still a unique and special place.
It’s a bit like two completely different cities in one with the ancient medina still a mysterious maze of narrow passageways and colourful stalls and shops. There is an array of souks, squares, museums, mosques and palaces to visit so you’ll need a few days in town for sure. Visits to one of the many hammams for traditional massages and spa treatments are popular while accommodation choices include stays in typical Moroccan Riads, which can be a wonderful experience in their own right.
For a complete contrast head to modern Gueliz district which feels more like Europe with excellent restaurants and larger department stores. Another nice option is to take a day trip to Amizmiz, a nearby town in the High Atlas Mountains with a large Berber Souk every Tuesday.
Getting from Marrakech to Essaouira: This is a popular route with visitors to Morocco so buses are quite frequent and take roughly 3 hours usually costing 70 Dirhams (US$7).
Morocco has tried to develop a few coastal resorts in recent years with varying success but by far the most charming remains Essaouira. As an 18th Century fortified town it has plenty of interesting history and its unique coastal location gives it a different climate and feel to the other destinations on this route. The beach dominates life here although high Atlantic winds mean kitesurfing, windsurfing and other water sports are more popular than swimming and relaxing.
You may need to return to Marrakech to leave Morocco although there is a small airport in Essaouira with flights to London (Luton), Paris (Orly) and Marseille.
Budget Accommodation in Morocco
You may be able to find accommodation just by rocking up but some of the cities are immensely complicated to get around so it can be easier to book online and get a cab there when you arrive.
Is Morocco Dangerous?
Unlike fellow North African countries and popular travel destinations Tunisia and Egypt it hasn’t yet been the victim of any major ISIS-linked terrorist attacks although the terrorist threat is listed as ‘high’ by the UK Foreign Office. Whether you choose to take any notice of such warnings is obviously a personal decision but it is worth noting that the Foreign Office lists a similar threat for a huge number of countries around the world, while the threat level in the UK itself remains ‘severe’.
While trips to Morocco are very rarely dangerous these days neither are they completely hassle-free. There are many scams and irritations which can be avoided if you’re assertive and have your head vaguely switched on. You are likely to be approached by many people, particularly in the main tourist centres trying to offer you unofficial tours, take you to restaurants (probably with the aim of extorting money from you) or sell you some ‘flower power’. The regularity of these approaches particularly if you’re travelling alone can get irritating and although it may seem rude, you will have to be assertive or just outright ignore such people. Don’t let these incidents put you of Morocco or Moroccans as a whole as they are naturally sociable people and typically very friendly and welcoming to visitors.
Many girls are put off travelling alone or visiting Morocco full stop but provided you are respectful of the local culture, you shouldn’t have any issues although again it is not without irritations. Although there are those with more traditional views, Morocco is not the most conservative of countries in the Arab World by any means but you should still dress moderately.
Getting Around Morocco
Getting around Morocco is cheap and easy with one of the most extensive train networks in Africa and plenty of regular bus and rail connections, many of which are surprisingly fast. You can book train and some bus tickets online by the ONCF website (in French but translates well into English) or easily on the day at stations.
The main bus companies that travellers tend to use are Supratours (website doesn’t seem to work well) and CTM and they also have extensive connections in the country.
More Local geared buses also run many of the connections on this route but info is hard to find and almost always in Arabic so it’s difficult for foreigners to use unless you speak the language. In cities, shared taxis are the cheapest way to get around although you may be the victim of minor overcharging as a foreigner.
This article was published in January 2016.
The budget at the top was updated in January 2017.
India is one of the world’s great travel destinations and ticks almost every box you can think of when you sit there wondering where to go for your next adventure. It’s such a big country, it would be impossible to see it all in just 2 or 3 months but our backpacking route for India aims to take in the best it has to offer and give you a taste for life in various different parts of the country from the wonders of Rajasthan to the beaches of Goa with chaotic cities, heavenly temples, cultural delights and ancient settlements all part of the fun. By the end of your trip, for sure you will have discovered the many faces of India, for better or worse and immersed yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of this incredible country.
TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS
Depends greatly on your travel preferences. Some travellers end up spending months in Goa or Kerala alone but based on the time you might need to see the best of each destination and have enough time to get around the country which can be very time-consuming then 2 months should be sufficient and 10-12 weeks would be more relaxed.
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1000 | €1150 | US$1200
These figures are based on prices and exchange rates as of January 2017. India is very cheap to get around by train and food and accommodation is also inexpensive. Real shoestring types should be able to get by on less than this by travelling on insanely cheap sleeper class trains and eating in more local restaurants, although your body might not always take kindly to either experience. Some travellers reckon it’s possible to get by on under $15/day in India but you should probably allow for a bit more, certainly if it’s your first time.
Almost all nationalities need a visa. You can confirm that is the case for you by using our visa check tool.
Most likely you will need to contact the Indian embassy in your country. They often outsource visa services to an official provider. If you are from the UK, it is VFS Global and the last we knew it was £90 for a 6 month multiple-entry tourist visa. Allow several weeks for your application to be processed.
You should also definitely get travel insurance for your trip, we recommend World Nomads.
INDIA BACKPACKING ROUTE
Formerly known as Calcutta, this is India’s cultural capital and one of its largest cities. It has produced some of India and the world’s great poets and writers and amongst the chaos, there are some incredible buildings and remnants of life gone by, particularly of colonial periods when the British tried to turn it into the London of the East. Be sure to visit the Victoria Memorial.
It’s a good place to start your trip, especially if you’re coming from Southeast Asia as it is the closest of the big Indian cities to the region and flights from Bangkok can be found for as little as £50. From Europe there are regular flights with Qatar Airways and Emirates amongst other airlines although you may still find it cheaper to fly first to Mumbai or Delhi and then take a national flight to the spacious modern airport in Kolkata.
Kolkata to Bodh Gaya – 470km
This is the place where the Buddha Sakyamuni is said to have attained enlightenment and it is the first of the great spiritual destinations on the route. Inside the main Mahabodhi temple complex you can experience the lotus pond and meditation garden, while there are plenty of other temples and monastries from predominantly Buddhist countries in walking distance of Mahabodhi.
Bodh Gaya to Varanasi – 250km
Varanasi is to Hindus, what Bodh Gaya is to Buddhists and already you should have a taste for the rich religious diversity that exists in India. Located on the banks of the River Ganges this is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities of the world. Pilgrims come from all over India and beyond to perform devotions here and you can witness the incredible sight of them bathing in the river in front of some incredibly old temples at sunset each evening.
Hindus often come here as they are approaching death, as some believe dying in Varanasi brings salvation and you can witness funeral ceremonies and the burning of corpses from the banks of the river provided you are respectful to the dead and don’t take photos.
Be warned Varanasi is a dusty chaotic city and is certainly not the peaceful place you might imagine it to be. Varanasi is a real attack on the senses and is a fascinating place to visit just don’t expect to relax and beware of irritating hawkers who will try to extort money out of you by the riverbanks.
Varanasi to Khajuraho – 410km
A small town home to some wonderful Hindu and Jain temples and one of a number on this route to have achieved UNESCO World Heritage status. Check out the erotic sculptures that have been skillfully carved into the walls! If that’s not enough to get you excited then you can just spend some time relaxing or doing yoga, which is very popular here, in the outdoors in front of a stunning backdrop thanks to the Vindhya mountain range that looms large over Khajuraho.
Khajuraho to Agra – 410km
A popular stop on almost every backpacking itinerary for India. Agra is the home of the world famous Taj Mahal, India’s grandest temple. The city itself is fairly grim however there are two other interesting sites of interest in and around Agra besides the Taj Mahal. Nearby Fatehpur Sikri and the Argra Fort in the city itself are both worth a visit and help take your mind back to the glory days when this was the capital of the Mughal Empire. You won’t really need more than a day or two in Agra though.
Agra to New Delhi – 220km
The Indian capital is an enormous city with plenty of famous sights such as the Red Fort and Humayun’s tomb. You can shop in giant bazaars, explore some of the best museums in the country and just watch life go by in one of the most chaotic places you will ever visit. If you’re not a fan of big cities, you probably won’t enjoy New Delhi though or perhaps any of the main cities on the route but it’s worth a visit just for the experience of life in India’s capital even if you only stay a few days.
New Delhi to Jaipur – 270km
The last leg of the so-called Golden Triangle of New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Known as the ‘Pink City’ there is so much to see and do here with amazing temples, palaces, forts and stunning gardens dotted around town. This is also the biggest city in the state of Rajasthan which forms the core of many backpacking routes in India. Once you’re done exploring, there are excellent transport links west into the desert towns.
Jaipur to Pushkar – 150km
This small but pretty town is made up of predominantly white buildings and temples set around a lake of great religious significance. It’s a nice place to hang around for a day or so and learn about the legends relating to it and find out why Pushkar forms one of the Hindu religion’s Hindu Trinity. For the record alcohol is forbidden within the city limits, although the coffee is said to be excellent!
Pushkar to Jodhpur – 190km
Literally on the edge of the great Thar desert, Jodhpur is a very hot city where the sun always shines bright. If Jaipur is pink and Pushkar is white, then Jodhpur is most certainly blue and almost every house and building in the old town is of some shade of blue and it can make for stunning photos, especially at sunrise and sunset with the best views to be had from the menacing fort that looms large over the town. This is the biggest city in the state and there’s lots to occupy you here in a town which has a fascinating history dating back to the 15th Century.
Jodhpur to Jaisalmer – 280km
Known as the Golden City, Jaisalmer is dominated by its enormous Fort which unlike many in India, is still inhabited and operational. Perhaps the most popular thing to do and a real highlight for many backpackers in India, is to take a camel tour into the desert. Multi-day trips that go right up to the Pakistan border are available and are highly recommended although speak to other travellers before choosing a company.
*Jaisalmer is a bit out of the way and you will almost certainly have to back-track to Jodhpur to continue on to Udaipur and further south.
Jaisalmer to Udaipur – 500km
The last destination in the wonderful state of Rajasthan, Udaipur is perhaps most famous for its lakes and enormous lakeside Palace that was featured in the 13th Bond film, Octopussy. Indeed many movies have been set here and with plenty of beautiful romantic backdrops, it’s certainly one for the lovers.
Udaipur to Mumbai* – 750km
*Consider flying if you’re not on a very tight budget. Daily flights between the cities with Air India, Jet Airways, and SpiceJet.
Formerly known as Bombay, this is India’s biggest city and its most prosperous. It serves as the country’s finance capital, complete with glitzy skyscrapers, modern shopping malls and lively nightclubs. It’s a cosmopolitan town with residents from all over the world and is a complete contrast to those further north. It is also the centre of the Bollywood film industry which fills billboards and cinemas across this country and also has a large worldwide audience.
Of course this is still India and the wealth has by no means trickled its way down to the poorest and the city still has large slums where poverty is a daily fact of life. If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire you will have probably seen a few of them and there are a few companies that now offer slum tours to travellers where you can visit local families and although it is a little bit voyeuristic, the money helps them put food on the table.
Mumbai to Aurangabad – 340km
India backpackers come here for the magnificent caves at Ellora and Ajanta. There are spectacular cave monasteries and temples cut into the rocks which are an important holy site for the Buddhists, Jains and Hindus. Aurangabad itself is an old city with over 400 years of history and is perhaps most famous for its 13 historic gates which are still proudly upstanding.
Aurangabad to Hampi – 650km
Almost certainly the best ruins in India are found at Hampi, a small village just outside the unremarkable city of Hospet. The ruins are spectacular though and cover an enormous area and date back to the days when Hampi was the imperial capital of Vijayanagar, a 14th century empire. It’s a great place to spend a few days and the surrounding nature is also awesome with leopards and swath bears often found roaming around the nearby hills and countryside.
Hampi to Goa (Vasco da Gama) – 350km
The smallest state in India it may be but it is perhaps the best known outside of the country and one of the most popular with travellers, some of whom end up staying for weeks, months and even years. This former Portuguese colony has a unique blend of cultures but is generally speaking far more westernised than any of the other states, which still isn’t saying much. It is home to some of the best beaches in India and every now and then you can find the odd wild party but its heyday as a party destination was in the 1960’s and 70’s so don’t expect anything too crazy now, especially during the off-season.
Vasco da Gama and Panaji are the main ‘cities’ and best places to arrive at but neither are anything more than small towns in reality with populations of less than 100,000. There is a lot of debate about where the best beaches are to be found and you are quite literally spoilt for choice. Anjuna (the hippy beach) and Arambol are among the most popular options with backpackers but it’s worth exploring a bit to try and find one that is perfect for you.
Goa (Vasco da Gama) to Gokarna – 150km
If Goa’s not chilled out enough for you then head south to Gokarna which has great beaches and a very relaxed atmosphere with fewer foreigners than you find in Goa which can get crowded during peak times. Hindu pilgrims also visit the town to experience one of Shiva’s holy temples and what is claimed to be an original image of God!
Gokarna to Kochi* – 640km
*Night Trains take around 15 hours.
The coastal city of Kochi is a major port and your first introduction to Kerala, which certainly has a distinct feel to it and is much different to the North. Kochi is a bustling town with a large navy presence and it has a few interesting sites although nothing remarkable so consider spending just a day or two here. It is a good place to sample the excellent cuisine that can be found in these parts. Don’t expect anything to happen quickly here though and waiting and customer service in Kerala on the whole is often comically bad. It is also worth noting that Kerala is a fairly dry state where alcohol can be hard to find.
Kochi to Alleppey – 50km
For many travellers, a backpacking route around India is not complete without a trip on a houseboat along the famous Kerala backwaters. They are basically a chain of lagoons, lakes and rivers that stretch an astonishing 1500km in total although you probably won’t get that far out of Alleppey, which is the best place to start your trip and has the widest selection of boats. If you can get a group of travellers together you can hire out your own boat for a few days and explore the backwaters at your own leisure. It is quite pricey though and it is worth getting to the houseboat pier in Alleppey (aka Alappuzha) early (around 9:00am) to view some boats and negotiate your price although fixed price government houseboats are also available.
1 Bedroom Houseboats start at around 6,000 Rupees per day, while 2 bedroom houseboats will be 9,000+. The fee includes 3 meals and the costs for a crew of 2-3 people who cook your food and drive the boat. Use a forum like India Mike to get up-to-date info on prices and for tips on how to go about finding the best boat at the best price.
Alleppey to Varkala – 120km
After your boat trip, head to Varkala for some more chill-out time in one of India’s most beautiful beach destinations. The main traveller area is along a huge cliff facing West over the ocean and after a not so hard day on the beach or taking advantage of the Ayurvedic massage spas, you can kick back with a Kingfisher beer and a curry while looking out onto the most perfect sunsets.
Into the final state on our route now and Madurai, another of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world with life here dating back to the 4th Century before Christ. It’s most popular thing to see is the Meenakshi Temple which is a spectacular Hindu temple in a city which is known as the City of Temples! It’s a great place to visit if you’re not all templed out and also has some interesting museums, mosques and hosts a wonderful 12 day carnival every year, usually in April or May.
Madurai to Mahabalipuram – 420km
This makes for a nice stop before ending your Indian backpacking trip in Chennai. Mahabalipuram is most famous for some wonderfully artistic stone carvings, some of which have admittedly seen better days but efforts are being made to restore the town to its former glory. It also has a beach which you can share with turtles and it is a pretty popular destination with surfers.
Mahabalipuram to Chennai – 50km
The state capital, formerly known as Madras is the main gateway to Southern India and with the 3rd largest airport, it’s a sensible place to end your trip. You may need to fly to Delhi or Mumbai for a better connection home but there are direct flights to London Heathrow (with British Airways) and Frankfurt (with Lufthansa) as well as cities across Asia.
While in town, you can spend your last few days in India (or first if you do this trip in reverse) getting your taste of local culture with vibrant arts, music, dance and culinary scenes prominent. There are plenty of remnants to the British empire to be found in town and there is a large amount of religious diversity here with plenty of churches, mosques and temples.
Budget Accommodation in India
Hostels and hotels in India are like most things, great value but the size and difficulty of getting around the cities means its usually better to sort them out a few days in advance by booking online.
Extending your trip
You can find more inspiration by checking out our main India page, which has links to plenty of useful resources that will inspire and help you to plan your India trip.
There was plenty we had to leave out here and everyone’s idea of the best backpacking route for India is different but it should be fairly easy to adapt. Some of the other highlights including heading into the far North and the regions of Kashmir and Punjab, which are a bit further removed from the typical Indian traveller trails.
Another way to extend your Indian travel itinerary would be to take the famous Darjeeling express up towards the Himalayas and sample the beautiful mountain views and perfect tea in Darjeeling. For many travellers this part of the country is their favourite as it more peaceful and relaxed. Read our Top 10 things to do in the Indian Himalayas for some inspiration.
Of India’s neighbours Sri Lanka is a definite highlight and many backpackers head from India to Sri Lanka or vice-versa and it is easy enough to fly into Colombo from any of the main Southern cities. Sri Lanka is a lot more relaxed than India and has nicer beaches where you won’t have to deal with as much hassle of gawping stares. Prices are only marginally higher too although hostel style accommodation can be hard to find in places.
Nepal is pretty easy to visit too and there are plenty of flights and land connections but most of India’s other neighbours aren’t the most accessible or appealing. Pakistan is largely considered dangerous for foreigners so few head that way while at the other end Bangladesh isn’t really considered much of a travel destination. The Chinese controlled region of Tibet which borders India can be a difficult place to get a visa for, likewise tiny Bhutan which can only be visited on an organised tour and independent travel is forbidden.
One route that is likely to become more popular with backpackers as Myanmar loosens its travel restrictions is the overland route from Thailand to Eastern India (through Myanmar). You might be interested in our backpacking route for Myanmar for a bit of inspiration and it’s not hard to combine a trip with our mainland Southeast Asia route.
Australia has long been a popular travel destination and tends to attract young and energetic crowds to its main backpacker trail. It’s a fun place to visit and its only really challenge is the size of the place, given that they speak English and it is relatively safe and well organised compared to other popular budget travel destinations. Our backpacking route for Australia takes in six states, all the main cities, the best beaches, idyllic islands and loads of nature.
TIME NEEDED – 2-3 MONTHS
Although many travellers turn it into a working holiday so stay for much longer.
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £4100 €4750 $5000
This is based on January 2017 prices and exchange rates and works out at just under 7000 Australian Dollars but doesn’t include flights to Oz which can be very expensive. You may also need a visa and travel insurance for your trip (costs not included in this budget). Consider joining couchsurfing or finding some casual work in order to cut down on costs.
EU citizens are eligible for the eVisitor program which enables stays of up to 3 months with no cost. Most other nationalities need to apply for a visa. Due to the cost of travel in the country, many travellers opt for a working holiday visa for Australia, which gives you more time in the country and the right to work.
It may be a city and quite a decent one at that but Cairns is a base for exploring some of nature’s great wonders. This is the best spot to check out the Great Barrier Reef with plenty of skuba-diving options available for you to get close up to the coral. Thrill seekers will enjoy the opportunity to bungee-jump or sky-dive while the Wet Tropics Rainforest is another essential visit.
Townsville & Magnetic Island
Sparsely populated Magnetic Island is reachable from Townsville. It’s good for jet skiing, bush walks and boozy nights and is Australia’s best destination for full moon parties.
Airlie Beach (gateway to the Whitsundays)
Airlie Beach is a big backpacker hub with a predictably chilled out vibe in the day and raucous nightlife that parties on well into the small hours. The Whitsundays are gorgeous and are made up of 74 stunning islands. Don’t be surprised if you end up spending weeks rather than days here!
This was the site of the original landing spot of Captain Cook in 1770 which was effectively year 0 for Australia as we know it today. It’s a nice spot to relax on the beach and read up on a bit of history at the Agnes Water Museum which documents the life of Cook and his voyages.
Hervey Bay (for Fraser Island)
From late July to early November Hervey Bay is a fantastic place to spot some whales. Its other main attraction is for access to Fraser Island and the southern Great Barrier Reef. Fraser Island is 120km long and with a mild year-round climate and lots of beautiful scenery including crystal lakes and endless beaches, it’s a great place for camping out for a few days. Swimming isn’t recommended though due to dangerous tides and lots of hungry sharks.
Noosa (Sunshine coast)
Yet more glorious long sandy beaches and nearby national parks make Noosa another popular stop with backpackers in Australia. Make it to the Glasshouse mountains and you will get a terrific panoramic view of the whole Sunshine Coast.
City lovers rejoice as this is the capital of Australia’s sunshine state and a good chance to stock up on anything you need at the 700+ stores in the city’s central shopping mall. It’s a youthful lively city famed for it’s live music and large numbers of bars and clubs. With a relaxed riverside location, Australia’s third largest and fastest growing city generally leaves a positive impression on visitors.
Gold Coast (Surfers Paradise)
Just South of Brisbane is Gold Coast, a city of around 500,000 people based as the name would suggest on the coast. Surfers Paradise is its touristy hub with an array of high rise structures, late night venues (some very seedy) and lots of drunk people. It’s a popular destination with Australian teens celebrating the end of high school. An Australian equivalent of Ibiza, Malia or Cancun. You’ll either love it or hate it.
A relaxed beach setting but there is still lots and lots to do here. It’s a popular place to learn to surf, you can kayak alongside dolphins and do a bit of skydiving. An essential stop on almost every backpacking route in Australia.
Nimbin has gained a reputation as a bit of a hippy town and is a nice inland spot if you just can’t handle any more beaches. Can be visited on it’s own or on a daytrip from Byron Bay. The nearby Nightcap national park is home to an array of peaks, waterfalls and wildlife.
One of the most easily recognisable cities in the world thanks to the iconic Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. Its setting is one of the best of any major city in the world and a boat trip or water-taxi in and around the Darling Harbour area is a must. Add to that a few world-famous beaches and an array of fine restaurants and nightlife and you will realise that you are in one of the world’s most liveable cities.
With a distinctly different vibe from Sydney, Melbourne is less brash and maintains a European cultural vibe with plenty of quaint remnants of Britain. Melbourne residents are sports mad with major international events such as the Australian Open Tennis and Formula 1 taking place in the city as well as numerous teams in Australia’s sports leagues. There are enough museums, galleries and theatres to entertain culture vultures while the multicultural population serves a range of different cuisines. Melbourne is full of lively neighbourhoods worth checking out and you will need several days here to take it all in. Trips out of town include a visit to Phillip Island where you can see the nightly penguin parade.
Great Ocean Road
This 150 mile stretch of road that runs west from Melbourne features numerous points that are worth short visits but perhaps not overnight stays. These include traditional fishing villages, surfer beaches, lush rainforests and the bizarre cliff formation of the 12 Apostles.
Possible End Point
For those travelling on a tight budget or heading onto New Zealand, this may be a logical point to end your trip having seen the main cities and more than enough of Australia’s golden coastline. However for travellers who want the full Australian experience the route continues through South Australia into the wilderness of Northern Territory before finishing in the Western Australian city of Perth.
A reasonably large island off the coast of Southern Australia home to an abundance of wildlife including you guessed it kangaroos! It’s a very scenic place and has a few settlements so pick one and base yourself there.
Adelaide is the capital of otherwise sparsely populated South Australia. It’s the fifth largest city in the country and although it might not have as much going for it as some of the other big cities it makes for a nice stop for a couple of days. This is also a big wine producing area so vineyard visits are popular.
The trip from here to Northern territory is long but you can break it up by visiting one of the many mining communities for a perspective on a less glamourous side to Australia which isn’t all about sun, sea and surfing.
Ayers Rock is a giant lump of earth in the middle of the world’s largest island. For some it’s an amazing sight, but non-rock lovers may end up moaning about the distance and time it takes to get here (although oddly it does now have its own airport). It is found in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park which contains a couple of other sites that are considered sacred by the Aborigines. You will have to stay outside the park though probably at the nearby resort of Yulara where camping is possible.
There is a sense of achievement for anyone who reaches Alice Springs. Most people have heard the name but given that is 1200km from the Ocean 1500km from the nearest city, few make the long trip here. Alice Springs is a base for exploring the surrounding outback and learning about the extensive indigenous history in these parts.
Unless you have a sadistic love of coach journeys that last days then you will probably need to fly from Alice Springs to Perth. Qantas has daily flights that will set you back between 350 and 500 Australian Dollars and take just under 3 hours.
Perth is a large but relaxed place and incredibly isolated from the rest of the county’s urban areas. Days can be spent on the beach, cycling around the city or visiting nearby nature reserves. At night enjoy a drink in one of the many pubs or delve into the lively indie or drum and bass music scenes.
As the Westernmost city in Australia, ending in Perth will probably make your onward journey or journey home a fraction shorter and many major international airlines fly in and out of the city. If you are planning on visiting New Zealand after Australia it would be more sensible to do this trip in reverse and start in Perth before ending in Cairns.
Off the Beaten Track in Australia & Extending your trip.
Check out this great guest post on 5 Unusual Things to see in Oz, most of which you won’t find on a regular backpacker’s itinerary for Australia.
New Zealand and Fiji are the other most popular travel destinations in the region and you can easily combine the two. Check out our backpacking route for New Zealand. The main cities in Australia and New Zealand are well connected so it’s a pretty easy connection although you may wish to skip Perth or visit it first and maybe do parts of the route in reverse if you are planning to head onto NZ.
The Northern part of Australia, where this route starts is very close to Indonesia and therefore it’d be easy to combine this with our backpacking route for Indonesia. There are loads of flights to Bali from all over Oz so it would link in nicely and would provide a bit of contrast to your trip.
If you follow this route right through to Perth, you could consider flying on to South Africa or one of the East African countries such as Kenya. This would be a nice option particularly for anyone flying home to Europe or North America. Alternatively you could fly home via Southeast Asia or take on our India backpacking route.
You may be able to find accommodation just by turning up and asking in the smaller, more backpacker-geared destinations but it’s advisable to book in advance in the cities, where the hostels are spread all over and the better ones often sell out during peak periods.
Trains in Australia are quite expensive but they do represent a nice way of seeing the country and there is actually a fairly extensive network which serves almost everywhere on this route. Seat61 has good information on prices and timetables of trains in Australia.
Although it is such a large country, travelling by bus is by far the most popular way to get around Australia. Excellent ‘hop-on hop-off’ passes offer a great deal for backpackers and give you the opportunity to travel at your own leisure. Oz Experience provide several different passes, for example the Sydney-Cairns pass enables you to travel in one direction from Sydney to Cairns (or vice versa) and stop as many times as you like along the way. As of January 2017 the cheapest package cost 639 Australian Dollars (roughly $480, 450 Euros or £400) and includes three extra tours/activities along the way.
The Oz Experience passes enable you to travel on Greyhound buses along your chosen route. They are Australia’s only national bus service and also offer their own hop on/hop off passes which are cheaper than the Oz Experience ones but don’t include the extra activities. You can also purchase KM passes where you purchase an amount of kilometres and then can travel in any direction until you run out of kilometres, which might be a better option for those that like to do their own thing and never bother with organised trips.
The fastest way to get between any of the big cities and usually cheaper than the train and sometimes the bus. Budget airline Jetstar have very cheap fares and daily flights on many internal routes. The 1 hour 40 minute flight from Sydney to Melbourne for example is typically just 40-50 Australian Dollars provided you book at least 2 weeks in advance. Fares like this make flying a better alternative to the bus in some such situations so think carefully before committing to a bus-pass. Qantas are the national airline but are usually more expensive although they do have a more extensive network.
On our route it might be best to do a Cairns to Byron Bay bus pass as there are lots of fairly short stops and then take flights from Brisbane to Sydney and Sydney to Melbourne given fares are low and there is little in-between really worth visiting. The final sections are clearly much quicker by air but much more of an experience overland.
Backpacking Route in the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland & Russia)
Okay, so this part of the world isn’t exactly a backpacking hotbed. It doesn’t have glorious golden beaches or ancient temples nor does it boast great food or weather. But the Baltic region is not without its charms. There is no well-trodden backpacker trail here. Every traveller you meet will tend to have their own unique reason for being in the Baltics while the locals are friendly and appreciative of anyone who has chosen to visit their little corner of the planet.
As well as visiting the three Baltic States (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) our route sees you dive into Finland for a quick taste of Scandinavia and also takes in a little bit of Mother Russia. On the whole this is an underrated and very budget friendly part of Europe.
TIME NEEDED – 3 WEEKS
You can see most places in a day or two and it’s quite a small area so 3 weeks should be enough.
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £700 €800 $850
These figures are based on January 2017 exchange rates and prices and DO NOT include any visa costs. Getting into Russia can be expensive not to mention complicated and you may wish to focus on the Baltic states and Finland if your funds are limited. For more see our backpacking costs in different European countries.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR RUSSIA & BALTIC STATES
All the countries are in the EU (standard European entry requirements apply) with the exception of Russia, which has strict entry rules and almost everyone needs a visa. However if you are from the UK, Japan or a Schengen-zone European country you can get a 72 hour stay in Kalingrad without the need for one. This is subject to change though so please check. Russian visas should be arranged well in advance but if your trip is coming up in a few weeks you can get a fast-track Russian visa however it will not be cheap!
Russia’s second city is one that has gone through many transformations and several name changes over the centuries but has always retained an almost magical feel. The Hermitage Museum (Winter Palace) is the main attraction here but there’s so much culture in the form of world class opera, ballet and contemporary art that you can easily spend many days in this city and discover plenty of new things all the time. Backpacking in Russia isn’t too common but some of the hostels in St Petersburg are fantastic with well-run trips, city tours and bar crawls to get involved in.
Getting to Helsinki is possible via a pretty quick 3.5 hour train or overnight ferry across the Baltic.
It’s probably fair to say that Helsinki isn’t one of Europe’s beautiful capital cities. The expense of pretty much everything here will also put you off from staying long. However it does have it’s intrigues with highlights including ice skating in the city’s squares during the long dark winter and joining the normally sedate Finns in moshing to (very) heavy rock music in the bars and clubs.
The medieval city of Tallinn perches on a hill overlooking the icy Baltic Sea. It’s only a very short hop on a ferry from Helsinki but after decades as part of the Soviet Union the differences are still very evident. It’s Old Town is beautiful and the grand castle still dominates the skyline but it is also a city moving forward and has some lively and cheap nightlife which attracts visitors from all over Europe.
A small but charming riverside city in Southern Estonia. It’s a thriving student centre full of young intellectuals who get together in one of the many traditional underground cellar bars when night falls.
Located in a deep valley this is definitely a place for the adventure-traveller. Castles, caves and eerie ruins are there to be explored. Meanwhile other exhilarating activities include breaking the laws of gravity in the state-of-the art flight simulator. There is also the opportunity to rapidly slide down the town’s bobsled track (if you come in summer it the track is converted for ‘wheel-bobs’).
With an impressive old town and some very lively nightlife, the Latvian capital draws parallels with Tallinn. However it is much bigger than it’s Baltic neighbour and is a bit ‘rough around the edges’ shall we say. There are plenty of hostels and some backpacker geared bars which isn’t always the case in this part of the world and a night out in Riga is one you’re not likely forget.
This seaside town boasts some of the best beaches in the Baltic and is a must-visit if you come during summer when it hosts some top music festivals. The Northern part of the city (Karosta) used to be a secret Soviet military town and makes for a fascinating visit. You can even stay overnight in Karosta Prison where you will be treated just like the military prisoners who were held here until as recently as 1997!
Klaipeda & Curonian Spit
Klaipeda has a history which stretches back to the 13th Century and the coastal town is one of Lithuania’s most culturally significant. From the town’s harbour you can visit the Curonian Spit, a World Heritage site that separates Lithuania from the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad. It is basically a narrow but very long (100km) sandy strip of land with some enormous dunes reaching a height of 60 metres.
A curious little region in between Lithuania and Poland. It is part of Russia despite being totally separate from the rest of the country although it belonged to Germany until the end of the Second World War. It’s coastal capital (also called Kaliningrad) is home to half a million people and is one of the biggest cities in the Baltics. Kaliningrad has some important relics related to the war and also bygone eras such as the 19th Century fort that now holds several interesting museums.
Back in Lithuania and the ancient city of Kaunas. Over the centuries it has survived numerous occupations by various foreign powers but is now flourishing as part of independent Lithuania and in some respects is more significant than the capital city, Vilnius. The Old Town boasts some fascinating Gothic and Renaissance architecture while the newer parts are a hub of Lithuanian culture.
Finally Vilnius which is home to a fascinating mix of people with many Poles, Belarusians and Russians calling this city home. The once thriving Jewish districts that played a significant role in the development of Vilnius are still there but Jews only represent a small portion of the population today. Cemeteries and Sculpture Parks are amongst the curious attractions here whilst the food is perhaps the best in the region with a healthy mix of tasty yet affordable cuisines on offer.
Getting Around the Baltic States
To do this route you have various options for getting around. The only major hassles really revolve around moving in and out of Russia, although this is primarily to do with getting a visa before you set out.
Ask in your hostels for their suggested transport. Your average cost for moving between two towns on the route should be roughly 10 Euros. The St Petersburg-Helsinki and Helsinki-Tallinn legs will probably be the most expensive.
Once in Estonia, coaches are probably the best way to go as travelling by train is still pretty slow in the Baltic States. Eurolines are a reliable cheap bet when you want to move between countries and seen as the whole region is pretty small, you won’t be spending much time travelling anyway.
Advanced booking is the norm in Europe and is advisable along this route, particularly in Russia. In the smaller cities you might be able to find somewhere on foot.
When to Visit
Winters are bitterly cold and you’ll certainly need to wrap up very warm as you work your way around the frozen Baltic Sea. Advantages are some wonderful Christmas markets and the snow which blanket covers this region from December to February and certainly adds to it’s charm. There is also the outside chance of witnessing the beautiful Northern Lights but you may need to head even further north.
Come in summer and the contrast is huge. Days are long and the sun doesn’t set till 11pm in places like Helsinki and rises again a few hours later. The coastal resorts suddenly come alive and are packed with thousands of locals in party mood.
Backpacking in Brazil is challenging due to its sheer size and relative cost in comparison to its near neighbours. Nonetheless it is a hugely rewarding challenge. The country makes up a giant chunk of the South American continent with thousands of miles of stunning coastline, wonderful waterfalls and national parks. You can spend months alone visiting all this before even contemplating venturing into the vast Amazon Rainforest which makes up the North and West of the country. Developing rapidly it may be but Brazilians have not forgotten how to party and visiting during Carnaval season is an experience you will never forget.
TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS
If time is no object you could do a week long river trip along the Amazon to Manaus and visit a few other places but 2 months would be a decent amount of time for this route.
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £2450 €2850 $3000
This is based on January 2017 prices and exchange rates. That’s just under 10,000 Reales in local currency. Brazil isn’t cheap these days and is considerably more expensive than most countries in South America. This does not include the cost of flights to/from Brazil, visas or travel insurance.
Sao Paulo is South America’s biggest city and with three major international airports it is very accessible from wherever you’re coming from and a logical starting point for a trip around Brazil. Opinions of the cities are its fair to say mixed amongst travellers and Brazilians alike. To some it’s a large and dangerous crime-ridden city that’s difficult to get around and has little of interest to visitors anyway.
Others see it is a lively and diverse 21st century metropolis with great shopping and by South American standards an open-minded attitude towards issues such as homosexuality which is still considered a taboo in much of the continent. Even if it’s for just a day or two, it’s worth experiencing and if you don’t like it then move on.
The football museum is well worth checking out for a glimpse into the nation’s main obsession.
This cosmopolitan city in the south of the country has a great history and is home to a mixed population that descends from various parts of Europe. It boasts a lively arts and music scene and has a famous ‘old city’ district in the centre which is over 300 years old. If Sao Paulo was too much for you then Curitiba may be much more to your taste as one of the safest and cleanest cities in Brazil.
ILHA DO MEL
This island is a nice escape from the cities with pleasant beaches, no roads and some great scenery. There are plenty of other nearby islands you can get to by boat either on trips or by hiring your own vessel. The island is very quiet during the week so this is the best time to come if you want to relax. However there is much more in the way of nightlife and parties at the weekend and during holidays.
In and around this city you will find some of the country’s most stunning beaches. The city has a few decent sights such as the 18th century fort and some colourful markets but for backpackers in Brazil, it’s primarily a beach destination. There are some decent budget places to sleep, eat and drink and there is even a party bus complete with bar and DJ that takes visitors to the city’s major nightspots. During the day from the centre you can catch buses to any of Florianopolis’ 42 beaches.
FOZ DO IGUAÇU
It’s a long and tiring trip out to Foz do Iguaçu and is probably best done via a night bus with two direct daily services from Florianopolis. (You may prefer to visit Florianopolis first and then backtrack to Curtiba from where there are more regular and shorter bus services to Foz do Iguaçu). The city is of a medium size but mainly serves as a base for exploring the Iguaçu Falls which are truly one of the natural wonders of the world.
The stunning waterfalls, arguably the most impressive on the face of the earth are one of the undoubted highlights of backpacking in Brazil and indeed South America. The Falls dissect three countries meaning short trips into Argentina and Paraguay are possible from this point.
A popular eco-tourism hotspot which allows you to see more of the Pantanal than the areas around the more visited Campo Grande. The town is surrounded by waterfalls and rivers which are clean and clear enough to snorkel in and check out the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the waters in these parts. It is a long journey from the falls to Bonito, taking around 16 hours including a change of bus in the town of Dourados.
CAMPO GRANDE (For the Pantanal)
Some people opt to skip Bonito as there are regular direct buses going from Foz do Iguaçu to Campo Grande taking 12-15 hours with several companies running the route which is popular with backpackers. The Pantanal is a vast area of wetland that is home to an incredible array of wildlife including caiman, jaguars, anacondas, piranhas and much more. Various types of trips can be arranged in Campo Grande or you can use it as a base and explore the region on your own.
This is a nice stop to break up the long journey back to the coast. Depending on the time of year, you may be able to find a reasonably cheap flight from Campo Grande to Rio but going by bus is normally cheaper if a little more time-consuming. Ribeirão Preto is around 14 hours from Campo Grande and is served by direct night buses. It is a lively city but not really on the regular backpacker trail. This however is part of its charm and with some bustling bars and a reputation as the draft beer capital of Brazil, it can be a very enjoyable little stop.
CAMPOS DO JORDÃO
This is another hidden gem that doesn’t receive much in the way of foreign travellers. The somewhat dodgy looking teleforico is worth a ride as it transports you in individual seats to the top of Morro do Elefante which at 1700m above sea level has stunning views of the town and its surroundings which you can see more of on horseback. In the town the architecture and streets are distinctly ancient and it feels somewhat like stepping back in time to a bygone era. The rickety bondinhos (streetcars) offer a unique way to take in more of this quite unusual city.
Back on the coast and for the first time in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The coastal town was first settled upon by the Portuguese in 1667 and is one of the oldest in Brazil. It’s another place where you feel as though time has somewhat stood still and it is incomparable to the glitzy modern cities of Rio and Sao Paulo which lie a few hundred kilometers on either side of it. In town, wander around the cobbled streets and admire the churches.
There’s plenty of nature around too with hikes, boat trips, kayaking and diving all popular. It’s also famous for the Bloco de Lama (Mud Carnival) where crowds go to cover themselves in mud and chant but sadly it only happens once a year on the weekend before Carnival. It’s well worth visiting if you’re planning on doing the Rio Carnival.
This island 150km west of Rio de Janeiro is another of Brazil’s best beach destinations. By night locals and backpackers alike gather in the main square and drink beers in a chilled out atmosphere with local bands playing live music as the backdrop. If you get hungry there are often beachside barbeques. It also holds a dark past with a history that includes slaves, pirates and leper colonies not to mention the ruins of a jail that once housed the most dangerous criminals in Brazil. Reports of ghosts roaming the beaches are not uncommon!
Once the summer retreat of Brazilian emperors thanks to the cooler temperatures and pleasant mountain air, it is now of more interest to day-trippers from Rio. The Museu Imperial and Palacio de Cristal are worthwhile trips that point to the town’s significant history. It’s also popular with the more energetic kind of travellers who come for hiking and rafting trips.
Rio is by some distance Brazil’s most iconic destination and it doesn’t fail to disappoint. The highlight is undoubtedly the famous Carnival in March when the city puts on one of the greatest parties on Earth. It’s a giant street festival with exotic samba performances and all night drinking, singing and dancing. If you can’t make it then, don’t fret as even during the rest of the year this city is easily one of the most exciting on the planet.
It is a city of great contrasts. From the famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana to the violent slums than sit on the slopes of the mountains perched over the beautiful harbours and wealthy districts, this is a city that takes some time to understand. There are of course plenty of museums and sights but you will experience more just by being in Rio for a week or more and living and breathing the pulsating Brazilian way of life in the country’s liveliest city.
It is also a great sporting city with the recently renovated Maracana, which hosted the World Cup Final in 2014, one of the world’s most iconic sporting arenas. Brazilian football is world renowned and an obsession for the people in this country. Nowhere is this more evident than in Rio with numerous clubs boasting loyal and passionate fan-bases and matches played throughout the year with the exception of a small break during the heat of summer.
Literally meaning ‘black gold’ this is one of the most significant cities in the history of the Americas. In the mid 18th century over 100,000 lived here (double the population of New York City at the time) and it was very much the epicenter of the gold rush. Today numerous funky little museums give you a fascinating insight into life at that time and the city has maintained much of its architectural charm. Several of the famous gold mines can also be visited.
(If you are pushed for time or fed up of buses, you might want to consider flying from Rio to Salvador and missing out Ouro Preto as it is a long way)
The city and its people are noticeably different from those in the South of the country with Salvador and indeed the whole state of Bahia renowned for being friendly and easy-going. Culturally there is a strong African influence while the city possesses arguably the finest Old Town in the country with an impressive church, some colourful buildings and ancient cobblestone streets. By night it is a great place to party with plenty of cool bars and nightclubs and a varied live music scene that pumps out some of the best beats in Brazil.
The coastal cities of the North East are also known for having the best carnivals in the country. They are all great fun and don’t attract anything like the hordes of tourists that head to the Rio Carnival which bumps prices up for budget travellers. The carnival in Salvador is fantastic and actually bigger than the one in Rio, claiming to be the biggest of its kind in the world.
It’s around 10 hours by road from Salvador to Recife and there aren’t any particularly obvious stops in between but there are long stretches of deserted beaches along the route which could be worth a visit. Just south of town is the coastal city of Maceió which is worth seeing.
Recife is famous for having some of the best urban beaches in the world. Culturally there is a Dutch influence and there are many churches, museums and interesting buildings that reflect the distinct culture of this region. It is also a culinary hotspot with great seafood and sizzling local dishes served up in local restaurants and by plenty of beach vendors. Not a huge backpacking scene though and prices are quite high in the main tourist area.
Only 7km north of Recife is Olinda, which justifies more than just a day-trip from its near neighbour. Since the town was founded almost 500 years ago it is has changed hands several times between the Dutch and the Portuguese and the remnants are very evident in the stunning architecture. Olinda also has a fabulous Carnaval and it is this that the town is most known for. It is basically a 24 hour street party from Friday night to Wednesday morning but with a more local and distinctive small-town feel than the ones further south.
Just south of Natal which is where you will need to head to for your onward journey is the lively beach village of Pipa. Popular with Brazilian students, it has some great parties at weekends especially. By day hit the gorgeous beaches or nearby dunes. Some of the beaches attract dolphins which come very close to shore enabling you to potentially tick the ‘swam with dolphins’ box on your bucket list.
Fortaleza is a large coastal city in the North-East of Brazil. It has vibrant music scene with various festivals throughout catering to many different genres including the local forró music. Shopping is also excellent here with the Iracema Beach market popular with visitors. The city has a seedier side but this is easily avoided. It is also a good base for exploring some fabulous nearby beaches.
The city has a fairly large international airport and is a decent spot to end your trip or extend it by flying to Manaus, the only real city in the Amazon region of Brazil. From Fortaleza there are daily flights to Lisbon with other European and North American destinations available. You can also fly to pretty much any major Brazilian city.
MANAUS (for the Amazon)
Located right in the middle of the Amazon Jungle on the banks of the Rio Negro which flows to form the Amazon River proper just outside town. The only real way to get in is by plane or by boat. The boat trips are stunning but take around five days from Belem on the Atlantic Coast so following this route it would take around a week to reach Manaus from Fortaleza if you don’t fly.
The city is surprisingly big (Population: 2.5 million) considering its isolated location and has a few interesting sights including a pretty opera house that holds free shows. Naturally though the main attraction is exploring the surrounding rainforest and the humongous Amazon River. There are a huge number of tour operators in Manaus and it’s best to ask around before booking one. Bear in mind you need to travel at least 100km from Manaus to see real virgin rainforest and it is possible to stay for a few nights in the rainforest proper. The best time to visit is probably May to August (visiting in the dry season can be seriously hot!).
From Manaus there are flights to many destinations across South America and also some to Miami. The city also hosted games in the 2014 FIFA World Cup so the airport has been expanded to cater for more flights.
Getting Around Brazil & Accommodation
For flights avianca seem to be the cheapest of the domestic airlines. Sometimes it can be cheaper to fly than catch the bus and obviously it is much quicker between some destinations. Brazil is enormous! Otherwise just head to the bus station (often a long way from the centre) and there are usually very regular buses between most nearby cities.
Hostels in Brazil are on the expensive side in comparison to much of South America. Most of the good ones charge a minimum of US$10/night for a bed in a dorm although cheaper options can be found. The quality of hostels vary. Booking in advance is essential if you are visiting during popular times such as Carnaval and is advisable in big cities where you don’t really want to be wandering the streets with all your belongings, looking for somewhere to stay.
Carnival in Brazil is in February or March. It normally begins the Friday before Ash Wednesday and carries on for at least five days, sometimes over a week. The main carnivals are in Rio and Salvador (above) but it is celebrated nationwide.
Many travellers plan there backpacking trip in Brazil around Carnaval and it is certainly a great time to visit. It won’t be possible to take in all the big ones but it is possible to take in the festivities at more than one. Consider doing two days in Salvador and two in Olinda for example.
Extending your trip
In a country the size of Brazil, you will always have to pick and choose locations, even if you spend the best part of a year in the country. We’ve tried to include the main Brazilian travel highlights but it’s not hard to get off the beaten track. Working in the country is also an option and there is a big drive to improve the standard of English so you may find work in the TEFL industry.
Ricardo Moura Idiomas in the city of Juara is one school that is actively looking for native English speakers to come and work for 1-2 months and help out with advanced students and conversation classes. The position includes accommodation, food, Portuguese lessons and a decent income.
Travel-wise, you can leave Brazil and explore other parts of South America. Some destinations in this article feature in our main South America route but the two could be combined into one massive trip if time is no object.
Nature lovers may also want to check out our Patagonia backpacking route which heads to the very South of this continent whilst taking in some of Argentina and Chile’s great sights.
Mexico aside, the countries in this part of the world are really small but there’s loads to see and do. Backpacking around Central America on this route will see you pack in 6 countries, Mayan ruins, fiery active volcanoes, stunning lakes, colonial-era towns and chilled out Caribbean beaches while trying to avoid the generally unpleasant capital cities in the region (Panama City is the exception). You may well need to change buses in Managua or Tegioculpa for example but even if you’re a city lover, you seriously won’t want to hang around long. As well as plenty to see, it’s a cheap region to learn Spanish, which is handy especially if you are heading onto South America.
It’s not just Spanish lessons that come cheap though as Central America is widely regarded as one of the most budget friendly regions in the whole world. If you are willing to travel like a local, you can get by on seriously little. For some great tips on how to travel on as little as $10/day and plenty more, get Will Hatton’s backpacker bible.
TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS
On average we’d suggest spending about 10 days in each country although you could squeeze it all into 6 weeks at a push. With lots of volunteering and learning opportunities you could easily stick around for longer.
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1350 €1500 $1800
This is purely for your travel expenses in the region itself and is based on travelling on a shoestring budget using local transport and hostels and being quite disciplined in terms of your general expenditure. It doesn’t include flights in/out of the region or other pre-trip expenses. It is based on prices and exchange rates as of January 2018.
Mostly not required for stays of up to 90 days. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua have a mutual agreement in place enabling you to travel freely around the 4 countries for 90 days without passport checks.
Cancun – Consider flying into Cancun, the 2nd busiest airport in Mexico with good links to Europe and North America. However you might not want to hang around long. The beach is okay but it’s fairly seedy, expensive and doesn’t really cater for backpackers or people travelling on a tight budget.
Playa del Carmen – Only an hour South of Cancun, it’s also a resort town but it has plenty of hostels and budget options. With nice beaches and vibrant nightlife, it’s a fun start to your trip and you can party till dawn in one of the many bars and clubs (girls drink free on some nights).
Tulum – There’s a great beach in Tulum with beautifully clear blue waters. There a few small Mayan ruins, which is a taster of things to come as you progress further on this Central America backpacking route.
(Night bus to Palenque)
Palenque – It’s a long trip to Palenque (pictured above) but worth it once you start to discover the ancient ruins in the dense jungle nearby an unremarkable town of the same name. There is a sense that your adventure has truly begun when you hit Palenque though. It’s also popular with some travellers for easily available magic mushrooms.
San Cristobal – Colonial town at altitude and a pleasant break from the heat. It’s a popular hangout for hippy and bohemian types.
Quetzaltenango AKA Xela – Loads of volunteering options here, which makes it a popular stop for longer stays. You should immediately notice that your money goes further in Guatemala. Xela is also a good place for salsa classes and clubs, while the local markets in surrounding villages are worth a visit.
You may be able to find free volunteering projects one you arrive in Guatemala. Many come with a cost although you should at least get your accommodation and perhaps food paid for. Here are 11 volunteering options in Guatemala.
Lake Atitlan – Stunning scenery here with a huge lake surrounded by volcanoes and dirt cheap backpacker towns. You could probably spend a week just visiting the different lakeside villages which all have a slightly different vibe or just relaxing and taking in the beauty of the place. Most visitors only stay for a few days though. See Destination: Lake Atitlan for more.
Antigua – Colonial town surrounded by volcanoes that can be explored on foot (one of our top 10 latin america experiences). It is also a hugely popular and cheap place to take some Spanish lessons which will certainly be handy as you progress further along this backpacking route for Central America.
Copan – More ancient ruins. Copan was a major centre for the Mayans over a 1000 years ago and is home to some of the finest pre-Columbian art around.
San Pedro Sula – City with decent nightlife but a bit dangerous! San Pedro Sula has been described as the most violent city in the world so it’s probably not advisable to hang around long but you may need to pass through it anyway to reach the next two coastal destinations.
La Ceiba – Reasonably sized city with some nice beaches and the best place to catch the ferry to Utila. If you visit in May, be sure to check out La Ceiba Carnival, the largest festival of its kind in Central America.
Utila (Bay Islands) – Scuba diving hot-spot and one of the real highlights of the region. The Bay Islands are perhaps the closest thing you can find to a Caribbean beach paradise on a budget! They also feature in our article on 5 budget-friendly Caribbean destinations.
(Long day of travelling between Utila and Leon)
Leon – Birthplace of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and still a staunchly pro-revolution town. It’s home to some cool street art (above) which helps tell its story and is one of the few genuinely interesting urban destinations on this route. Read more about funky Leon!
Granada – A colonial-era town and perhaps the most beautiful and best preserved in the region. It’s a real contrast to its traditional rival Leon with lots of churches and relics to an altogether different, distant past. It’s also nicely located on the banks of Lake Cocibolca, the largest lake in Central America.
Isla de Ometepe – Island in middle of the giant lake with two volcanoes. It’s an excellent location for mountain biking or hiking. Here are six things to do on Ometepe.
San Juan del Sur – This is the first stop on the route on the Pacific Coast and that means two things. Giant waves and lots of surfers! If surfing is not your thing, then it’s not an amazing place to visit with a fairly average beach and a few cheap, decent bars but nothing remarkable.
Monteverde – Nearby Volcan Arenal is the third most active volcano in the world and there are also some awesome cloud forests nearby, one of the many natural wonders in Costa Rica.
Montezuma – Another great destination for nature lovers. Get lost in a world of waterfalls, nature reserves and nude beaches!
San Jose – The capital city of Costa Rica is a bit rough but better than the big cities further north. It could be easily skipped but it might be worth hanging around for a day or two with some interesting museums while there are also a few options for day-trips and tours in the surrounding countryside.
Puerto Viejo – Surfing, beaches, marijuana. Those are probably the three main draws in Puerto Viejo, a chilled out Caribbean town popular with surfers and backpackers. With the number of foreigners so high, there are certainly more authentic Central American experiences to be had but it’s a nice place with Cahuita and Manzanillo National Parks also nearby making for excellent day-trips.
It is worth noting that the cost of travel in Costa Rica, is slightly higher than average for the region and things are noticeably a bit more pricey than in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Bocas del Toro – These are more chilled Caribbean islands covered in thick jungle. With largely calm conditions, it’s a great spot for some skuba-diving with affordable prices.
David – Pleasant town on Pan-American Highway with good hostels. There are plenty of things to do with lots of options for adventure sports while a trip out to the Los Pozos de Caldera hot springs is also popular with travellers.
Panama City – A good place to finish your travels in Central America or potentially move onto another region. Unlike most of the other destinations on this Central America itinerary, the capital of Panama is a vibrant modern city. Check out the famous Panama Canal and hit the shops if you’ve still got money left to spend.
More on Budget Travel in Central America & Introducing the Chicken Bus!
Our Central America backpacking itinerary aims to give you an idea of popular travel spots but if the hostel scene is getting a bit repetitive then it’s well worth heading off to some of the less touristy parts (although mainstream tourism only really exists in small parts of Mexico and Costa Rica).
Outside the capitals, the people are generally very friendly and it’s really not that dangerous. While you could do this route in 2 months there are many places that you will find hard to leave and adding a few other destinations you could do as much as 6 months in Central America, particularly if you get involved with some volunteering projects or study Spanish.
Border crossings are relatively pain free. You can normally do direct buses between destinations in different countries but it is much cheaper and more of an adventure to get a local bus (known as a chicken bus and found across the region) to the border and cross on foot. There will always be buses to the nearest town at border posts and the budgets at the top are based on using local transport which is very cheap rather than tourist options. There is some good info on travelling across Central America on chicken buses here.
Central America is one of the most enjoyable regions to travel in and it has a really good hostel scene. Typically each of the destinations on our Central America backpacking route will have a few hostels (in the European sense of the word), one of which might be generally considered the main party hostel. A bit of research online or just from talking to other travellers and it should be quite easy to work out which one it is.
In addition to the hostels, there are lots more very small budget hotels or ‘hostals’ which are little more than homes converted so some rooms are available for daily rent. They may be better value if you are travelling as a couple or with friends but single travellers may prefer to opt for a dorm in one of the bigger hostels. Expect to be paying anything from $3-10/night for budget accommodation in these parts and perhaps slightly more for better places in the more touristy parts of Mexico and Costa Rica.