I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. — John Muir
When we first set out on our journey years ago, treks — especially of the long, multi-day variety — weren’t a priority on our activity list. Sure we enjoyed hikes and walks, but trekking wasn’t something we actively sought out. Instead, over the years we’ve found ourselves increasingly drawn to long walks in the mountains that allow us to disconnect from the busy world while connecting more with nature and ultimately ourselves. These days, we make an effort to take at least one long trek annually as a way to recharge and refresh.
We don’t always wish to disconnect entirely from humanity, though. Instead, we are attracted to treks that feature a cultural component, one where we encounter and engage with local people, often through homestays. These types of treks not only challenge us physically by pushing us to do more than the usual, but they often stir us emotionally by forcing us to widen the cultural lens through which we view the region and our world.
Finally, this approach provides us the opportunity to contribute to the local economy and community by staying with local families.
Having recently finished two treks this year, we began fielding questions about others we’d recommend, especially as we tend to choose ones that are lesser known, in unusual destinations. Taking a cue from the Offbeat Travel Destination List we published earlier this year, we offer our Offbeat Treks List, this time in conjunction with the adrenaline junkies over at Expedia.
Without further delay, we offer 11 of our favorite offbeat treks — some multi-day, others daylong — from around the world. We believe the following are worth a look if you are interested in unusual and immersive experiences, both in nature and local culture.
1. Peaks of the Balkans: Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro
Distance: 200 km / 124 miles
Why: To experience challenging climbs and stunning views from peaks in a relatively unknown part of Europe, while staying with local families in their farmhouses and shepherd huts along the way. This trek through the Accursed Mountains (sometimes referred to as the Albanian Alps) reminds us that sometimes the areas with the most beautiful landscapes are also the ones most difficult ones to live in. The Peaks of the Balkans, a relatively new concept trail, allows you to venture into areas and across borders that had previously been no-go zones for decades. The abandoned bunkers and border guard towers you’ll find along your way stand testament to this.
Update: We have just published the Peaks of the Balkans Beginner’s Guide with all you need to know regarding itineraries, recommended routes, packing, accommodation, and other practical details for this trek.
Buy the guide
How we did this trek: We booked our Peaks of the Balkans trek and guide with Zbulo! Discover Albania.
2. Gheralta Mountains: Tigray Province, Ethiopia
Distance: 10-15 km / 6-9 miles, but the challenge is more in the free climbing
Why: To see 1,000-year old Ethiopian Orthodox churches carved high into the cliffs in a landscape reminiscent of the red rock deserts of Arizona and Utah. In order to reach those churches you must do some free-form rock climbing. The experience includes a few sheer drops that might send those with vertigo into a temporary, protective fetal position (We speak from experience, by the way).
However, there are rewards. In addition to the stunning views throughout the climb, you’ll have the opportunity to go inside remote cliff-side churches whose interiors are covered with 600-800 year old frescos – all with a monk or priest in as your guide. Although there are several treks in this area, the two we opted for were those up to the Daniel Korkor and Maryam Korkor churches. We suggest climbing them in that order, since tackling the former will help prepare you for the latter.
How we did this trek: Highlights of Ethiopia Tour
More photos:Trekking in Ethiopia’s Gheralta Mountains
3. Lost City Trek: Sierra Nevada Mountains, Colombia
Days: 4 (can also do 5-6 day treks are also available)
Distance: 46 km / 28 miles
Why: To trek through the jungles of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada Mountains to reach Teyuna, the capital of the ancient Tayrona civilization. When travelers consider trekking in South America, their thoughts most often go to Machu Picchu and Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia. While we can recommend both of these treks, we suggest the Lost City trek if you seek an experience of the sort that is a little less developed, a little less known. Our Wiwa indigenous guide also shared stories with us that were passed on to him by the shaman (holy men) about the ancient Tayrona civilization and the city of Teyuna. This combined cultural and historical context added to the entire experience.
How we did this trek: Lost City Trek
- The Lost City Trek: All You Need to Know
- Trekking the Lost City with an Indigenous Guide
- Colombia Travel: First Impressions
More photos: Lost City Trek Photos
4. Song Kul Lake: Kyrgyzstan
Days: 3 (but you can do up to 9 days with longer routes)
Distance: 35 km / 22 miles
Why: To go jailoo (high mountain pasture) hopping to witness Kyrgyz nomads at work on their horses tending to their herds of goats and flocks of sheep. The local experience includes spending the night and eating with local families in their yurts, which if it’s Ramadan, can make you the special guest worthy of an impromptu goat slaughter. And there’s nothing more special and warm than tea and retiring to sleep in a womb-like yurt of your own. After crossing several high mountain passes, your final destination is Song Kul, an alpine lake at 3,000 meters (9,842 feet), whose shores are outlined with yurts lived in by nomadic families.
We did this trek as a horse trek, which allows you to cover more ground each day. However, longer variations are offered that you can hike on foot.
How we did this trek: We booked our Song Kul Lake horse trek and guide with Community Based Tourism Kyrgyzstan.
- Kyrgyzstan’s Best Sights and Landscapes
- A Goat and Five Fingers: Our Ramadan Experience at Song Kul Lake
More photos: Horse Trekking to Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan
5. Markha Valley Trek: Ladakh, India
Distance: 75 km / 47 miles
Why: To challenge yourself in the high deserts of the Indian Himalayas by crossing 5,000 meter (16,400 foot) mountain passes, all while learning about traditional Ladakhi Buddhist culture through your local guide and host families. Ladakh features some of the most stunning scenery we have ever encountered. We include this trek here as most travelers think “Nepal” when they consider trekking in the Himalayas, and rightly so, as the Annapurna Circuit trek we did there remains one of our top experiences of all times. However, Ladakh offers a more remote, less explored trekking alternative. It’s also important to note that several trails and treks outside of the than Markha Valley are available if you are seek something even more far-flung and unusual.
How we did this trek: We booked our Markha Valley trek and guide with Ecological Footprint Ladakh.
- Ladakh Trekking: A Beginner’s Guide
- Simple Ways to Travel Responsibly in Ladakh
- Ladakh: India’s Hidden Himalayas
- Ladakh: 9 Memories
- Finding the Good Way: How to Meditate at 15,000 Feet
More photos: Markha Valley Trek in Ladakh
6. Svaneti: High Caucasus Mountains, Republic of Georgia — Mestia (Zhibeshi) to Ushguli
Distance: 45 km / 28 miles
Why: To trek through the High Caucasus Mountains to Ushguli, purportedly the highest inhabited village in Europe at 2,100m / 6,900ft, and stay with local Svan families along the way. Our trek in Svaneti was our first multi-day, home stay trek that enlightened us as to how trekking could not only be an immersive experience in nature, but also in local culture. We were hooked.
To say that local Svan people, who view themselves as the protectors of these mountains, are intense is perhaps an understatement. You’ll find the people of Svaneti welcoming — just as fierce in their present-day hospitality as they are in their historical resistance to outsiders. Just beware of your liver, as the endless toasts each night with local wine and firewater can add up.
- Svaneti: Why and How to Go
- Blue Eyes, Gold Teeth: The Fabled Land of the Svans
- Europe’s Fierce Fabled Villages
More photos: Trekking in Svaneti, Georgia
7. Xela to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Days: 3 days
Distance: 37 km / 23 miles
Why: To trek through mountains and hill villages between two of Guatemala’s most popular tourist destinations — Xela and Lake Atitlan — and to finish with a beautiful sunrise view of the lake from above. We were told that this trail was developed by a veteran of the Guatemalan civil war (ended in 1996) as a means of stealthily moving about the region.
Along the way up and down the volcanic mountains and into the valleys, you stay in simple guest houses (sometimes schools or community buildings) or with families, including one that allows you to try their traditional Mayan sauna. On the final morning, you’ll enjoy breakfast at sunrise from above Lake Atitlan. This trek might afford you a new appreciation for both the town and the lake after making the effort to trek the highlands between the two.
How we did this trek: Xela to Lago Atitlan Trek with Quetzal Trekkers.
More photos: More photos: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
8. Lake Khecheopalri to Yuksom: Sikkim, India
Distance: 20-25 km / 12 – 15 miles
Why: To get a taste of Nepali and Bhutanese culture while still in India, and to appreciate a view of majestic Mount Khangchendzonga, the third highest mountain in the world (8,586 m /28,169 ft). When we first decided to visit Sikkim, a semi-autonomous region in northwestern India that borders Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet (China), our plan did not include trekking. Only after seeing the mountains and hearing that the trails were easy to follow, did we set off with a daypack to explore the area around Lake Khecheopalri and Yuksom. We stayed in family guesthouses and enjoyed all the interactions and tea stops in villages along the way.
Note: If you are interested in a more strenuous journey in this region, consider the route to Goecha La (4,940 meters) from which the best views of Mount Khangchendzonga are reportedly had.
More photos: Trekking in Sikkim, India
9. Trek to Big Almaty Lake: Tian Shan Mountains, Kazakhstan
Distance: 20 km / 12 miles (one way)
Why: To get a quick look into the Tian Shan Mountains, reach the turquoise waters of Big Almaty Lake and spend the night at a funky, former Soviet astronomical observatory. While the lake is beautiful and the hike up is pleasant enough, the highlight of this trek was the surreal experience of spending the night at the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory. During our visit, we felt as though we’d landed on a movie set, a time-frozen remnant, wild west outpost of the Soviet Union. Scientists still live and work up there, however, and they keep the high-powered telescopes going. If you pay $5-10, one of them will open the telescope and show you the stars.
Please do not do what we did on our second day and use a Lonely Planet guidebook map to guide your return to Almaty over the mountain pass and down through one of the river beds. The route to Kosmostancia, another bizarre scientific outpost up the mountain from the observatory, is easy. After that, however, we lost the trail and almost didn’t make it out of the mountains at all (here’s that full story). So, words to the wise: learn from our mistake. Return down the mountain to Almaty the same way you came. Otherwise, carry a usable trekking map, use a map app with trekking route overlays able, or hire a guide so you can enjoy yourself and return without unnecessary drama.
More photos: Trekking in the Tian Shan Mountains outside Almaty
10. Pic la Selle and Parc National la Visite: Haiti
Distance: 25-35 km / 15-29 miles
Why: To experience Haiti’s endless layers of mountains (the country’s name means “land of mountains” in the local indigenous Taino language) and its unexpected natural beauty while having the chance to meet and engage with people all along the way. You’ll meet school children on their way home, women carrying goods on their heads to market, and farmers plowing the fields. Haiti’s cities can be busy and frenetic, so spending a few days in the hills of Parc National La Visite with a walk down local paths towards Port-au-Prince provides a chance to slow it all down and absorb this fascinating yet complicated destination in a different way. Not to mention, spending the cool evenings in the hills drinking Haitian hot chocolate and listening to konpa music is something we’ll never forget.
How we did this trek: We booked our Haiti trek and guide with Tour Haiti.
More photos: Trekking in Haiti Photos
11. Kalaw to Inle Lake: Myanmar (Burma)
Distance: 61 km / 38 miles
Why: To trek through the hills of Myanmar’s Shan State between the town of Kalaw and the popular tourist destination of Inle Lake, and get a feel for rural life in Myanmar by staying with families and in a local monastery. What made this trek stand out for us was the interaction and engagement with people along the way, from the grandmother harvesting ginger roots to the ethnic Pao girls who wanted our water bottles so they had something to drink from while working the fields. Walking to Inle Lake makes you appreciate the work of hill village locals who carry their their goods several times a week to the lakeside weekly markets.
More photos: Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma)
What have we missed? Is there an offbeat trek you’d add to this list? Please let us know in the comments! We – and our readers always appreciate more trekking inspiration.