Top 10 Underrated Backpacking Destinations

Blue Nile Falls

If you’re tired of the typical travel stories of backpacking in Thailand or following the Inca Trail in Peru, you might just find some inspiration here. Below, we’ve selected ten underrated backpacking destinations around the world that travellers often tend to skip altogether or race through without fully appreciating.

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10 Underrated Backpacking Destinations

1. Fes, Morocco

Morocco backpacker in Fes bazaar

Most international visitors to Morocco head straight for Marrakesh, the country’s best known travel destination. While there are many good reasons for that, the city of Fes is a great alternative if you’re looking for somewhere a bit more authentic with far fewer tourists, but just as much history and culture.

In some respects, Fes trumps Marrakesh with its giant medina the largest in the world. It is a huge maze of narrow streets and secret alleyways, within which you’ll find everything from market stalls and local restaurants to places of worship and buildings that have stood for many centuries. There are enough riads and hostels to ensure you won’t struggle to find a budget bed for the night and overall Fes is well worthy of its status on this countdown of underrated places to travel.

2. San Gil, Colombia

Thrill seekers, adventure sports enthusiasts and nature lovers need look no further than San Gil high up in mountainous Colombia. Grade 5 rapids provide for great high speed rafting, while there are plenty of other rivers in the area which offer a tamer introduction to the sport. For a fun but bumpy experience try hydrospeeding which is basically going down the same river as the rafts but on a bodyboard.

There’s also paragliding and abseiling down a 200 metre waterfall on offer for the adventurous, as well as 140 metre bungee jumps. Bikes are available for rent and the mountainous surroundings make for tiring but thrilling bike rides.

3. León, Nicaragua

Nicaragua is popular amongst anyone backpacking Central America, but most people who haven’t been don’t even know where it is, let alone its complicated political history. Much of that history revolves around the northern city of León, a rebellious town that was the birthplace of the 1979 Sandinista revolution. It is still staunchly socialist and mostly supportive of leftist president Daniel Ortega.

The revolution is everywhere from impressive street art to the bullet holes that still scar the city. To find out more take a guided tour of the revolution museum in the main square. Your guide may not speak English but may still be prone to the odd insulting remark about certain former US presidents.

At night, mix with a varied crowd in the city’s bars selling cheap local mojitos and other local cocktails. There are also plenty of volunteering opportunities to be found here in what remains one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

4. Potosi, Bolivia

For better or worse, there’s nowhere else quite like Potosi. As the world’s highest city, the altitude can be a great shock even for the fittest, while the sun shines strongly throughout the day before the temperature drops sharply as the bitterly cold night sets in. You wouldn’t know it now, but the city and its infamous mines once funded the Spanish empire and was once dubbed the wealthiest city in the world. It still has the odd hint of its colonial riches, but things are very different now with many families struggling on just a few dollars per day.

Its nerve wracking mine tours are the main draw for backpackers. Chew coca leaves, set off dynamite, creep around the dangerous mines and meet the miners, a large percentage of whom will tragically not live past their 40’s due to the toxic gasses that they inhale every day during long shifts underground. That’s if they are fortunate enough to evade the constant dangers of gas explosions and collapses.

Some historians estimate up to eight million people have died in Potosi’s mines over the centuries, mostly African and indigenous slaves during Potosi’s “golden era”. In many respects, it is one of the most depressing places on Earth, but it’s a travel experience that will certainly stay with you.

5. Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An river

In central Vietnam, which bore the brunt of the American War (as it’s known in Vietnam), lies a hidden gem. The Old town of Hoi An is home to some beautiful Vietnamese and colonial architecture while the muddy but oddly charming river makes for a picturesque waterfront setting.

The town is most famed for its tailor made clothes markets where you are literally spoilt for choice and this is definitely the place to perfect your haggling skills with many a bargain to be found here. Although in truth, travellers often seem to end up in rather comical looking suits and wholly unsuitable backpacking attire after a few days in Hoi An.

You can find abundant budget-friendly and pretty high quality accommodation in Hoi An and what’s more, you are only a short moto taxi away from a fabulous beach. By night, there are plenty of lively bars including a local brewery and some surprisingly hip places playing alternative international music.

6. Tartu, Estonia

Tucked away in the Baltic corner of Europe, Tartu is a charming place, especially in winter when the snow and ice covers the historic old city. It’s also a thriving student centre with an international crowd as well as a mix of Estonians and Russians. The nightlife is surprisingly lively and full of strange quirks from underground cellar bars to Soviet era themed discos.

While it boasts some of its small town charm, Tartu has a very different feel to the capital Tallinn which is a relatively popular city break destination in Europe. Among its unique attractions, Tartu is home to the world’s oldest continuously operating observatory and a song festival which dates back all the way to 1869.

Estonia is easily one of the most underrated backpacking destinations in Europe, and Tartu is a great option if you’re looking for something slightly different from a city break or short backpacking adventure.

7. Yangshuo, China

While Yangshuo can be touristy and wouldn’t be viewed as one of the most underrated travel destinations by Chinese people, it’s still relatively unknown internationally. Its setting is inspiring and the place feels like it is in a different world to the many major Chinese cities. This is certainly a good spot to hop on a bike and cycle out of town through the amazing countryside which features karst mountains, caves, rice paddies and winding rivers.

Rafting and hot air ballooning are other options for visitors to Yangshuo on a slightly larger budget. You can also hang out in the parks or shop the markets, although there are more authentic cities for that in the region, both on mainland China or for anyone who opts for the slightly simpler challenge of backpacking Taiwan.

8. Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Blue Nile Falls

Bahir Dar is perfect for those looking to experience a vibrant African city whilst being close to nature. You can easily see this Ethiopian city and its main sights and markets, which sell traditional Ethiopian crafts, textiles and tasty food, by bike as this is how most locals get around.

It is the surrounding natural wonders that attract most backpackers however. Lake Tana feeds the Blue Nile River and there are many boat trips out onto the lake where you can visit monasteries and look out for hippos. A bit further out of town you will find the incredible Blue Nile Falls.

It is worth noting though, that as of April 2023, some governments do discourage their citizens from travelling to Ethiopia due to the current political situation and high risk of conflict and civil unrest.

9. Huacachina, Peru

Huacachina is a tiny desert oasis, just west of the town of Ica in Southwestern Peru. Anyone on a long trip backpacking around South America may find this place a welcome change of pace and it’s certainly not like anywhere else on the so-called “Gringo Trail”. The main attractions are what are almost certainly the biggest sand dunes you’ll ever have seen. Stunning views await if you make it to the top of one of the big ones.

The town itself is tiny, home to just 200 or so people and a lot of tourists and travellers. There are a few pleasant hostels with nice pools to hang out in during the heat of the day, when the sand is baking hot. By mid afternoon the heat has died down and this is the best time to go sandboarding or on one of the bumpy buggy tours which see you race across the desert landscape.

10. Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor, Montenegro

One of Europe’s newest countries, Montenegro is a beautiful, emerging travel destination, still experiencing a wave of pride at their relatively newfound status as an independent nation. This makes it a great time to visit with friendly, welcoming people and historic Kotor is undoubtedly one of the best backpacking destinations there.

Spectacularly set in a giant bay, close to the limestone cliffs of Mount Lovćen, its beautiful old town is full of historic churches while you can climb the 4 kilometres of ancient fortifications to get a spectacular view of the city. The summer festival is party time and a great time to visit but winter is equally charming. Kotor features on our backpacking route for the Balkans which also takes in Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Croatia and Macedonia.

This look at underrated backpacking destinations was updated in April 2023.

Top 10 Underrated Backpacking Destinations

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