Originally posted on Go! Girl Guides on May 17, 2011.
When you plan a trip, you never expect that you may have to spend time in a place that turns out to be less than mind-blowing. After all, to travel is to explore, to immerse yourself in another culture and taking the good right alongside the bad. But sometimes, you may find yourself in a locale that just doesn’t jive with your idea of a good time.
In 2009, I took a trip to Torres del Paine, Chile. I traveled alone to the end of the world, in search of a journey filled with adventure, new frontiers and stunning scenery.
I found all of those things (and more!) in the magnificent Torres del Paine National Park, but what I didn’t anticipate was the less-than-exciting transient town of Punta Arenas, where I spent the day before and after my Patagonian adventure.
Now, I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly I found to be at fault with Punta Arenas. Maybe it was because I was there in the off season? Or perhaps it had something to do with the region’s bone chilling cold with wind so strong it could blow you right over. With weather like that, the last thing I wanted to do was wander and explore…
Through that experience I learned a lot about travel, what to do if it doesn’t necessarily live up to expectations and how to make the best of it so you still walk away feeling fulfilled with your trip.
Whether you’re just passing through or there for the long haul, here are some tips for how to make the most of a lackluster destination.
1.) Stay in a hostel
If you find yourself in a quiet town with time on your hands, being alone can compound the feelings of isolation and boredom. Skip the hotel and try staying in a hostel… you’re sure to meet fellow travelers who are most likely also in the same predicament and looking for something to do.
Organize a group dinner, exchange tales from your recent travels, play a game of cards… if you make some new friends, the down time will fly!
2.) Go on a photo safari
It goes without saying that if you’re feeling unmotivated and generally blah about where you are, the worst thing you can do is just stay put.
Try going out for a walk with the intent of taking photographs or video… Looking at the world through a lens may help you see something special that you may have missed on first glance and give you a better appreciation for the place you’re in.
For me, I decided it would be fun to capture the crazy Patagonian winds on video to show everyone back home. I still look back on this video and laugh, remembering how hard it was to even stand up through the gusty winds.
3.) Send postcards to friends and family back home
In this digital age of Facebook and email, it’s easy to forget the tried and tested vacation communication device… the POSTCARD!
Who doesn’t like opening their mailbox to find a cheery postcard from a loved one who’s out on a journey? No one, I say! Make someone’s day back home by using your downtime to hand write notes to those you left behind.
And the best part is that the whole process of picking out the perfect postcards, finding an appealing little café to write them in and locating the post office (and figuring out postage!) will take you on a well-rounded journey through wherever you are.
4.) Live it up with the locals
It’s so easy to stick to the guidebook and go only to the recommended places. But if you’re looking to kick things up a notch, get off the tourist trail and head someplace only the locals go. Talk to people on the street, your concierge, the guy behind the counter… ask them where they’d go if they had a free afternoon or if they were going out to dinner.
Don’t settle for the expected– try to get the true scoop. If you’re truly engaged and interested, they’ll be more than happy to open up and share.
I learned this the hard way in Punta Arenas.
For my first night, I went to the number one rated restaurant in town. While the food was good, it also had zero atmosphere and none of the Chilean flavor I was hoping for. (The theme from Titanic was being played… it was that kind of place.) I realized on my way out that they brought the tourists upstairs and the locals stayed downstairs in a much more lively space. Sad, all the Chilean flavor was kept separate.
On my return trip, I decided to skip the fancy spots and instead headed to this greasy spoon diner that I heard excelled at making steak and egg sandwiches. It was packed (clearly that’s where all of the town’s residents were) and it was just what I was hoping for. No one spoke English but while watching the masterful chef single-handedly manage the griddle while making small talk with regulars, I felt like I was getting a glimpse into the community- into real life.
I finally started to get what Punta Arenas was all about, and I liked what I saw.
5.) If all else fails, take a day trip.
If you’ve exhausted all of your options and you really are desperate for a change of scenery, there’s no shame in taking a day trip to pass the time. Sometimes getting out of dodge for a day or two will invigorate you and get you back in the right mindset for travel.
Even the most remote places should have something unique and distinctly local for you to see or experience nearby, and as with everything, the journey is half the fun.
And, at the end of the day, there’s something beautiful and interesting about all destinations. Sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper to uncover it.
Have you ever had a similar experience? What did you do to make the most of your time there?