Top 10 most disappointing travel experiences

To come up with the top 10 best travel list? Thats too hard, there are so many to choose from!

But the top 10 most disappointing, that’s more manageable. I’ve always believed that I can find something to enjoy, to appreciate, anywhere I went. And the vast majority of the time that has been true. But let’s be honest, sometimes, not very often, I am really, really, disappointed.  Maybe it doesn’t measure up to the hype, maybe something else interferes with my enjoyment. So at the risk of generating a bit of an argument, in no particular order, here’s my 10 Most Disappointing from 28 years of travel:

  1. Venezuelan beaches. The beaches along the Venezuelan coastline are beautiful, but are ruined by the locals. In short, the beaches are junk yards, with litter throughout the sand and the water. It’s particularly bad if it’s a weekend and the beach is within a daytrip from Caracas. Playa Colorada looks beautiful, but the sand was full of glass, bottle tops, cigarette butts and other litter, and many of the families visiting the beach disposed of their litter each day by throwing it into the sea.

    Playa Colorada, Venezuela, hiding a lot of litter
    Playa Colorada, Venezuela, hiding a lot of litter
  2. Taj Mahal. I have never met anyone else that didn’t love the Taj Mahal so I know I am out on my own on this one. But I can’t help it, when I visited the Taj Mahal I thought “great, looks just like the post card”, then I thought “I should take a photo” , and then I was bored. All those lovely large alcoves are empty,  it’s a big hollow tomb and has no atmosphere. However I loved Agra and I spent hours enjoying the Red Fort, and found the distant view of the Taj Mahal from the Red Fort the most interesting way to see the Taj Mahal.
  3. Alcatraz. Reputedly the most visited attraction in San Francisco, and I cannot understand why? The boat trip to the island and back is very enjoyable and provides a great view of either the bridge or the fog, depending on weather. Maybe if I had grown up with the history, with Alcatraz stories, it would’ve seemed more atmospheric. But it’s some old, not really ruined, buildings on a rock, that was once a jail. And Hollywood made some movies about it. I even did the night tour to try and amp up the atmosphere, but it still felt like a school trip to a not very exciting museum.
  4. Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco. It’s sounds good doesn’t it? The harbourfront wharf, the famous clam chowder. Maybe a few decades ago it was like that. Now it  is a plastic theme park of fast food and tacky souveniers. There is so much good food, great shops, interesting neighbourhoods and great views in San Francisco, so avoid this bit and enjoy the rest.

    Alcatraz, more interesting than it looks
    Alcatraz, more interesting than it looks
  5. the Mona Lisa, the Louvre. Mona Lisa’s smile is the most visited (and best known) art work in the world, housed in a massively impressive building. So by the time you search through the vastness of the Louvre and queue for a while, it’s a bit disappointing to discover the painting is so tiny, and for its own protection hidden away behind perspex. Maybe if I could see if alone, instead of from beneath a rugby scrum, I could appreciate it more.
  6. Dallas, Texas. To be fair, I didn’t choose to go to Dallas as a tourist destination – I was sent there on a work trip – for seven weeks. On the first afternoon I had covered the two things worth getting excited about – SouthFork Ranch (preserving the iconic Dallas TV show) and the Grassy Knoll. With hindsight I kind of wish I had done the second one with the “JFK death route” tour company who drive you along the same route that he took, in an open top limo, and they even play a gunshot sound in the car as it passes the appropriate spot. Sick and yet at least not boring. After that afternoon I was done, Dallas beat me down into sheer boredom. I saved my sanity by racing to the airport every weekend and jumping on a Southwest flight to anywhere else!
  7. Salar de Uyuni. This is a very different kind of disappointment. I was really keen to see this, one of the world’s largest salt lakes and at a high altitude of over 4000 metres, with it’s quirky salt hotels and traditional villages and cottage salt businesses. It’s immense and links Bolivia and Chile. We arrived there during floods. The arid salt flats were under water, not just a normal downpour but a real flood.  The owners of the 4×4 tour vehicles that normally take tours around the salt lakes were not running, as they feared their vehicles will stall and break down in the wet. We finally found one guy who took us a few hundred metres into the vast flats and then chickened out and took us back to the town of Uyuni which was also completely flooded. I am absolutely sure that I will go back one day and see Salar de Uyuni and not be disappointed.
  8. Riding camels. If you read my blog about camels in Morocco, you will understand why I find camels disappointing (as well as scary and distinctly dangerous). Suffice to say, do not ride a camel that is in heat, or is being mounted by another camel. Actually just don’t ride camels, end of story.
  9. Riding elephants. Yes, it does seem like a theme is developing here. I love elephants, they are beautiful, fun animals. In Laos I went to one of the many good elephant sanctuaries that are dotted around South East Asia. I fed the elephants, I stroked them, I talked to them. They were in an idyllic riverside setting next to some stunning shallow pools under the tropical jungle foliage.

I thought an elephant ride would be slow and majestic. It turned out more like an out-of-control rollercoaster. I sit on a wooden plank (seat) with another thin plank for a backrest and a tiny dowling rod across the front of me, to keep me in the seat, all tied loosely to the creature’s back. Suddenly we were climbing up near vertical 3 to 4 metre high mud banks and back down near vertical drops of the same scale – all in deep slippery mud, me at a right angle to the banks. And the elephant was sliding everywhere. Gravity was trying to claim me, and most of the time I had my eyes squeezed tightly shut and was hanging on to the dowling rod for dear life. The mahout, who seemed about 10 years old, was finding it very funny. This picture shows the misleadingly pleasant part of the ride.

The deceptively calm part of the elephant ride, Laos

10. Juliet’s balcony in Verona. Firstly, it is a fake. The “balcony” is an ugly recent addition to the outside of a house, to con tourists out of their money. The queue to get in is like standing in a particularly crowded and dirty subway. Most of the courtyard is a shop selling a variety of red synthetic plush love hearts to separate romantics from their cash. Again, Verona is a beautiful town with much atmosphere, much to see and do, and this little bit of fakery is not a good example of that.

Is there somewhere you’ve been that didn’t live up to your expectations? Anywhere you’d recommend against going as you found it disappointing?

Camels, Dunes and an Oasis in Morocco

Liked the oasis, loved the sand dunes, hated the camels! – a twitter length summary of travelling in Morocco in 1988.

An Oasis in the desert

We head south from Fez for nine hours through red hard barren deserts. At one point we find ourselves above the snow line – well, it is January after all. We also pass the reputed original headquarters of the Foreign Legion, as in “I’m running away to join the foreign legion” – does any one even say that any more?

My naive expectation of an oasis is a half a dozen palm trees around a green fringed waterhole, with desert encroaching from every direction. Meski oasis however is much bigger than that, surrounded by irrigated fields in every direction. I definitely did not expect a large concrete swimming pool with umbrellas and sunloungers, created by diverting a local stream through the pool. As I gingerly tiptoe into the very cold water, I realise that the pool is also full of fish, and they seem to like nibbling on my legs, a very freaky feeling which does tend to put me off swimming. Little did I know then, that this would become a trendy spa treatment throughout Asia twenty years later.

Meski Oasis swimming pool, Morocco
Meski Oasis swimming pool, Morocco

Instead of swimming we wander off to explore the village and surrounds, quickly attracting a crowd of kids, who are already a bit bored with tourists giving them pens as gifts, but they take them anyway. We can see the old Casbah on a nearby hill, just across the stream.

At this time of the year the stream is more of a river, and the locals are suggesting that we don’t try and cross it – there are no bridges within sight. We decide to wade in and give it a try as it doesn’t look that deep, but it turns out our problems will be swamp and mud, not water.

As we inch forward, trying to feel for firm bits of ground to stand on for each step, I place my right foot down and find it is now knee deep in the swamp. I try and pull it up and out, and I am now thigh deep in the swamp. I need the help of two of my friends to pull me back onto dry land, leaving my right flip flop in the middle of that swamp forever.

At this point, we decide we don’t need to visit the Casbah at all, and head off to the little collection of stalls we had seen earlier. Meski is where I finally buy my first small Moroccan carpet – after haggling long into the night, I get it for the very good price of $10 plus a six pack of beer.

Sunrise on Sand Dunes in the Sahara.

post dawn sahara sand dunes
post dawn sahara sand dunes

Flat dry deserts are all very well, but how about some real Sahara, with huge rolling sand dunes? We set off at 3.30 am to drive two hours to a point where the sand dunes start. Its a really strange sight, all flat dry desert and then there is a sand dune, and from the top of that dune, all I can see is sand dunes to the horizon. An immense rolling pink open space.

We climb to the top of the highest sand dune we can see and wait for sunrise. This might be the desert, but pre-sunrise it is very cold. This is not a red sky sunrise, the sky gradually turns from black to a light greyish blue, while the sand dunes turn a delicate shade of peach.

Then, after it already seems to be daylight, the bright ball of the sun appears over the sand dune horizon, and the sand dunes that face west start to glow a beautifully red. Now I’m warming up. We sit and watch from the top of dunes for a while longer, it is immensely relaxing.

Once we leave the dunes we stop in Rissini to visit the local livestock market and check out the prices of the best goats and donkeys, just in case that comes in handy somewhere down the road. I wonder if a donkey might come in handy for the next day’s fourteen km hike through the long canyon of Todra Gorge.

Camels on the beach in Tangier.

Just outside Tangier on the coast are the ancient Caves of Hercules. There is an large silhouetted opening in one of the caves that supposedly looks like the map of Africa, and it is also claimed that you can see two profiles of Hercules face in the same map. There are supposedly old roman bath walls in the caves, which unfortunately look remarkably like modern concrete.

On the beach outside the caves, we meet our camels and camel wranglers for a beach ride. These are one hump camels, and I am soon sitting precariously on a bunch of rugs tied to the camel’s back. And this is where the nightmare begins. Most of the camels are female, including the one I am on. One of the camels is male. And it seems this is the season for the female camels to be in heat, therefore the male camel is now very randy.


Camels in heat on the beach at Tangiers
Camels in heat on the beach at Tangiers

So we start our rolling walk down the beach, with the sun out and beautiful blue surf to our side. The male camel starts getting excited and comes comes racing up behind the one of the female camels and starts trying to mount it, much to the consternation of the people sitting on the back of both camels.

The local camel herders shoo him away so he makes for the next female, which happens to be the one I am riding. Not wanting to be squashed (or dribbled on) by the front half of the male camel as he tries to mount my ride, I kick and yell and desperately try to get my camel to run, which it eventually does. But not willingly, I suspect she would prefer the male camel to catch her.

Before long there are half a dozen female camels running down the beach, topped by out of control riders trying to hang on for dear life but too scared to slow their camels down. And the girl on top of the male camel isn’t exactly enjoying herself either. For a while the local camel herders are mainly rolling around laughing but eventually they catch up with us, and one by one slow down our camels and get us off them.

The last one they went to get was the male camel, who had been waiting for his opportunity, and before they could grab him he managed to successfully mount one of the now fortunately riderless female camels. Suffice to say the rider of the male camel made an extremely quick dismount. It is now a long walk back up the beach to our transport, but preferable to having to get near camels again. I think we’ll need a beer tonight.