It’s that time of year when grades have rolled in, plans are being made, and others are being put on hold as disappointments are digested. And when other schemes are being hatched, for travels into the distant yonder – for a few weeks, a few months, or longer.The list of gap year destinations is a reasonably familiar one. A dash of Australia here, a dose of New Zealand there, a soupcon of Thailand, perhaps a dalliance with the Inca Trail in Peru. This may not be familiarity to the point of cliche, but it is certainly good reason for a travel feature suggesting a few feasible alternatives to the old staples.
As an aside, this article does not suggest an alternative to New Zealand – which is also a gap year stalwart. Because, really, there isn’t an alternative to New Zealand – unless you want to stay in the UK and stroll the Scottish Highlands instead. Which rather defeats the object of taking 12 months off to follow your nose to the ends of the planet.
But as for Thailand, Australia, Peru et al, step this way for a spot of lateral thinking – and a few ideas for what you can do if you fancy “giving something back” while away.
Instead of: Thailand
Thailand is firmly inked on the gap-year wall-chart. British footprints are a permanent presence on the beaches of Phuket and Ko Samui. Malaysia, Thailand’s neighbour to the south, is not quite so obvious a statement – and it bears comparison. The sandy curves of Penang are as picturesque as anything north of the border, you can island-hop if you leap towards the palm-fringed edges of Langkawi – and if Kuala Lumpur does not have the wild reputation that clings to Bangkok, it is still a city where you can find late-night merriment aplenty in the bars and clubs dotted along Jalan P. Ramlee.
Weather difference: Negligible. Kuala Lumpur tends to be about 1°C cooler than Bangkok throughout the year, but there’s no need to pack extra jumpers.
Do something good: Voluntourism is a regular part of the gap-year process, and Malaysia is a viable setting for such projects. Not least because it comes in two parts – taking up a large chunk of Borneo as well as forming the tip of the Southeast Asian peninsula. It is on the former island that Responsible Travel (01273 823 700; responsibletravel.com) offers a 14-day “Wildlife Rehabilitation” package. This allows participants to work at Matang Wildlife Centre in Sarawak – a rescue hub for orangutans, amongst other creatures. From £1,280 per person – not including flights.
Instead of: Australia
No, the comparison is not immediately obvious. Australia has the long Southern Hemisphere summer, the laid-back lifestyle, the major cities and the surf spots. China definitely lacks the first – and, depending on your perspective, it is short on the second. But it has significant cities in the form of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and is sizeable enough that, like Australia, you can explore at great length (lest we forget, the Great Wall stretches to 13,171 miles). Hainan, an island off the south coast, is known for its breakers and board-friendly conditions – not least in the likes of Riyue Bay.
Weather difference: The monthly temperatures in Hong Kong and Sydney are oddly similar (if anything, Hong Kong is warmer), just in different halves of the year.
Do something good: Projects Abroad (01903 708 300; projects-abroad.co.uk) offers teaching placements in Chengdu and Shanghai – from £2,105 per person (flights extra).
Instead of: Peru
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is so well marked that you can practically see the groove in the soil from space – but Colombia, long dismissed as a danger zone, has emerged into a new era of (relative) calm since the turn of the decade, and offers trekking routes of its own in abundance. One is the increasingly popular path up to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) at Teyuna, in northerly Magdalena department. G Adventures (0344 272 2060; gadventures.co.uk) offers a seven-day jaunt in search of ruins which are believed to date to the ninth century (some six centuries before Machu Picchu dotted the Andes), starting and ending in Santa Marta. From a basic £449 a head.
Weather difference: Small beans. Colombia and Peru are neighbours, sharing a border on the north-west shoulder of South America. Admittedly, Santa Marta, at sea level (32°C), is generally much hotter than Cusco, up in the Andes (18°C on average).
Do something good: Volunteer HQ (0808 234 1621; volunteerhq.org) offers five projects in the capital Bogota – including providing assistance to renovation schemes in schools and hospitals. Prices start at US$270 (£212) for one week up to US$3,120 (£2,454) if you want to get your hands dirty for 24 weeks. Accommodation in a shared house, and meals, are provided – transportation to Bogota is an extra cost.
Instead of: India
Granted, Sri Lanka is much smaller than the giant country which looms immediately over its shoulder to the north-west, like a world of its own. But this island nation has a good deal in common with its enormous neighbour. Colombo does that thrilling urban crush in a similar style to Delhi, Galle offers the intriguing alliance of colonial heritage and sea breezes that makes Mumbai so splendid, and many of the beaches – on the west coast at Negombo, on the east at Trincomalee – are as lovely as anything in Goa.
Weather difference: Barely a hair’s breadth.
Do something good: Travel Eyes (0113 834 6094; traveleyes-international.com) offers an innovative type of break – pairing holidaymakers who are happy to act as guides with blind travellers who consider their lack of sight no barrier to adventure. The idea is that guide describes the destination in as much detail as possible – while the weather conditions, food aromas, traffic noises and surrounding sounds fill in the rest of the gaps. The company runs regular group tours to a wealth of countries, and has a 14-day tour of Sri Lanka scheduled for February 15. The sighted price – from £1899 per person including international flights – includes a discount in return for guidance given.
Instead of: Vietnam
The tourist route through Vietnam is increasingly well known – a few days in Ho Chi Minh City, then a journey up the coast, pausing in Hoi An and Hue en route to Hanoi and Halong Bay, with perhaps a few days on the beach in Da Nang in the middle. The sliver of a country that is Laos, immediately to the west, is, it is fair to say, a little more of an unknown concept. It is entirely land-locked (so you can forget the shimmering sands which have made Da Nang a rising destination), but the capital Vientiane is alive with temples and stupas on the banks of the Mekong (not least the golden spire of Pha That Luang) – while Luang Prabang, the former royal seat, delivers Unesco-listed grandeur.
Weather difference: None whatsoever. Laos and Vietnam share the same latitude. Low Thirties Celsius for much of the year? You got it…
Do something good: GVI (01727 250 250; gvi.co.uk) offers a range of volunteering opportunities in Laos, including a 24-week “Teaching and TEFL [Teaching English as a Foreign Language] Internship” in Luang Prabang. From £4,665 per person, including a 170-hour teaching course – as well as (shared) accommodation, and some meals.
Instead of: Brazil
For the biggest country in South America, read the third biggest country in North America (assuming you don’t view Mexico as Central America). The USA’s neighbour to the south is not without its issues, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) currently gives it a green-map bill of health in terms of areas you can visit. And there is much to love – from the Aztec and Mayan history of Mexico City and the Yucatan Peninsula respectively to the splendid beaches of Baja California, Colima and Jalisco.
Weather difference: Much of a-muchness in terms of temperature – although Brazil holds its head at around the 30°C mark for much of the year, while Mexico can dip to the low Twenties during its “winter”. Mexico can also find itself in the path of the Atlantic hurricane season from June to October. The rains hit Brazil from December to April.
Do something good: GVI runs a “Community Development Short Term Internship” which sees participants work with Save the Children, teaching in Playa del Carmen – just south of Cancun on the Caribbean coast. A six-week placement costs from £2,005 per person, including shared accommodation – and can be stretched to a full 12 weeks (at a higher cost).
Instead of: Argentina
Now that the long, tapering country on the Atlantic side of South America has become a mainstream tourism staple, the long, tapering country on the Pacific side of the continent offers more context for wandering away from the beaten path. And you really can wander in Chile – not just amid the lively districts of the capital Santiago and the slanted streets and faded grandeur of Valparaiso, but in the dusty confines of the Atacama Desert and in the glacier-laced extremes of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
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Weather difference: None, really. The two countries wrap their arms around the same lines of latitude (though Chile juts further north), with the Andes as their divider.
Do something good: Responsible Travel operates a 12-week (English) teaching placement in Coyhaique, in Chilean Patagonia – from £3,315 per person (flights extra).
Instead of: South Africa
True, this is not a like-for-like comparison. Tanzania does not have the metropolitan gleam of South Africa and its big cities (although there is something endlessly evocative about Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar, while Dar Es Salaam is a case of urban Africa at its most chaotically thrilling). But it offers some of Africa’s greatest beaches (again, Zanzibar is a kingpin) and wildlife zones (the likes of Ruaha National Park, as an example, are far less crowded than the game reserves outside Cape Town).
Weather difference: Where South Africa has defined seasons, Tanzania does hot, hot and hot (expect temperatures around 30°C all year and heavy rain from March to May).
Do something good: Raleigh International (020 7183 1270; raleighinternational.org) offers “expeditions” of up to 10 weeks in Tanzania – where activities might include everything from improving toilet facilities at a rural school to assisting on reforestation schemes. Such placements cost £3,450 a head – not including international flights – although you can opt for a shorter stint of four weeks, at a cost of £2,050 per person.