IN THE beginning there are no tourists. Then the first adventurers arrive, attracted by the idea of breaking new ground as part of the West's almost evangelical mission to turn the world into one big theme park. At the forefront are students, adept at seeking out the best deals and places, faintly contemptuous of the more conventional destinations.
The criteria for an approximation to paradise are simple. Good weather (for at least a portion of the year), cheap living, a scattering of fellow spirits, rich local culture and stunning scenery. A lot to ask, but the world still has places that match the specification. The problem is what happens after the pioneers set up base camp. Even if the first travellers take only photographs and leave only footprints, their successors tend to take mainly liberties and leave unsightly litter.
Student travellers can at least argue that their approach is less invasive than that of package holidaymakers. They do not demand faceless concrete hotels nor airports capable of taking charter jets. Their requirements are rather different; the chance to live simply alongside local people, enjoying the climate, culture and cuisine - everything that makes for a good trip. There is also, it must be noted, a correlation between the presence of backpackers and the availability of soft drugs. It can be remarkably easy to score in long-standing idylls such as Goa, Koh Samui and some of the Greek islands, but be warned, the penalties are severe.
The first sign of a nation's embracing capitalism is when a McDonald's opens. The culinary key
to identifying when Western youth has moved in is when white bread makes an appearance. Backpackers have a strange predilection for hot buttered toast in the most unlikely parts of the world.
The following places are the best things in independent travel since sliced bread arrived.
HIKKADUWA, SRI LANKA
A long and bloody civil war in the north and east has cut tourist numbers to this tear-shaped Indian Ocean island. There is plenty of room for travellers along the 125- mile beach on the south-west of the island. The greatest concentration is at the resort of Hikkaduwa. In places it resembles an Australian surfers' colony, such is the attraction of the sea. Divers are tempted by the coral reef. You can rent snorkelling equipment or learn to scuba-dive. The July to September vacation neatly corresponds with the dry season on the south-western coast.
Hikkaduwa has everything for those worn down by exams. Eat at the fishermen's co-operative on the seashore, drink arrack (the Sri Lankan spirit, which the locals temper with 7-Up), and consume the junk novels that accumulate at all the travellers' guesthouses. If this existence begins to pall, Sri Lanka is just the right size for some unstrenuous exploring. Colonial remnants can be found north, in the capital, Colombo, and south, in the port of Galle. The usual itinerary, however, leads to the hills at the heart of the island.
The ancient city of Kandy acts as a travellers' hill station, 5,000ft above the heat. The Olde Empire Hotel, overlooking the lake, has basic but comfortable rooms for less than pounds 2 a person. A filling curry and a couple of beers might set you back pounds 1. From Kandy, trains and buses run to Nuwara Eliya - where the other half lives. The cut-glass accents at the Hill Club seem as out of place as the granite which was brought from Scotland to build it. Tea on the lawn has the added advantage of having been grown only a few miles away. As you sip Broken Orange Pekoe served in bone china, it seems impossible that a civil war is taking place elsewhere on the island.
TRAVEL NOTES: Aeroflot from Heathrow to Colombo via Moscow, pounds 400 return from Travel Cuts (071- 255 2082). Minibuses run from the airport to Fort station, from where there are frequent trains to Hikkaduwa; total transfer time is about three hours, cost pounds 1. Accommodation in guesthouses and beach houses costs around pounds 2 single/ pounds 3 double.
Central America's Utopia is satisfyingly tricky to reach from the UK. There are no direct flights to Guatemala City, and connecting services unerringly arrive at the capital's squalid airport late at night. After an uncomfortable night in Guatemala City, you have to track down the street corner from which the overcrowded ex-school buses run to the Western Highlands. Eventually, rather more than 24 hours after you left London, the bus eases its human load down a tortuous slope to an impossibly beautiful setting.
A silver lake, a mile up in the mountains, is guarded by two perfectly conical and docile volcanoes. Panajachel is a placid town patched with greenery and dotted with comfortable guesthouses. The market is a flurry of colour, and the local handicrafts are exquisite weavings made by the Indians who comprise the majority of Guatemala's people.
The days evaporate in a haze of gentle exertion. Many long-term residents simply laze around on the beach, while the energetic rent bicycles to explore the surroundings - including some delightful hot springs. Most visitors await the evening eagerly. The Recuerdo Totonicafa translates as the Last Resort, the ultimate travellers' restaurant. Fresh orange juice, juicy burgers and pancakes top the menu, but you can also find local treats such as guacamole hidden away. Given the volume of the restaurant sound system, you had better like REM.
This quiet Indian village has become a highly sophisticated version of Butlin's, with the role of Redcoats played by the more enterprising locals - such as the proprietor of the Last Resort. The children in the market are well enough imbued with the tourist ethic to demand a quetzal (the local unit of currency, named after the national bird) in return for posing photogenically. Living costs are minimal, the company is entertaining, the climate benign. What, apart from 'Automatic for the People' played at high volume, could intrude upon perfection?
The brutal civil war, for one thing. It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of serenity and overlook the fact that Guatemala's Indian majority has been terrorised by an undisciplined army for decades. The ferries that bob across the lake to Santi ago Atitlan take visitors to a sad village, depleted by executions and abductions. Beneath its over powering beauty, Western Guatemala is one of the saddest regions in the tragic isthmus that is Central America.
TRAVEL NOTES: Continental Airlines from Gatwick to Guatemala City via Houston, pounds 456 return from Campus Travel (071-730 3402). Bus to city centre, long-distance bus to Panajachel; total transfer time about four hours, cost pounds 1. Accommodation in beach houses for around pounds 1.50 single/ pounds 2 double.
TAQUILE ISLAND, PERU
On the basis that the independent traveller's kudos increases in proportion to the difficulty of the journey, this idyll is outright winner as the student's dream destination. Peru has been off limits for several years due to the Shining Path's policy of murdering foreigners, but Western visitors are returning.
It is easiest to approach Taquile from La Paz in Bolivia. The journey takes you across magnificent desolation nearly three miles above sea level. Yet halfway along, the bus passes the ancient city of Tiahuanaco - formerly one of South America's greatest civilisations. If you can get away by 20 June, you will arrive in time for the winter solstice celebrations of the Aymara Indians.
Continuing across the roof of the world, you strike the shore of Lake Titicaca. This inland sea is the most spectacular wonder in a continent packed full of them. The town of Puno resembles a bleak Scottish port, but from here launches set off across the steely waters for Taquile.
A stray volcano emerged long ago from the lake. It was settled by the Aymara, a gracious people who still comprise the local population. There are no roads, few birds and an eerie silence. Visitors are accommodated on a communal basis. At the entrance to the main village, travellers are allocated to local families. You curl up on an adobe bench to sleep the contented sleep of those who have stumbled on perfection.
TRAVEL NOTES: La Paz via Rio, pounds 669 from South American Experience (071-976 5511). Taxi to the bus station, bus to the Peruvian border at Desaguadero, walk across into Peru and take a minibus to Puno, then a launch to Taquile; about 10 hours' travelling time, cost pounds 10. Note that the prevalence of cholera in Peru means that you are required to undergo a medical upon re-entering Bolivia; it costs 50p and involves a great deal of stomach-poking.
The MTV network used to have a game show with a round called 'Dead or Canadian?' Contestants were shown pictures of musicians and had to identify whether they had expired or were merely from Canada. The image of Canada as a drearily earnest country is, however, being challenged on the west coast.
Western Canada is the poor person's USA. The Canadian dollar is almost as feeble as the pound, but the country is much safer than its neighbour. In Vancouver, the rough edges of the average American city have been ground down. It draws travellers from all over the world. One attraction is music; the jazz festival is in June, and the folk festival is held on Jericho Beach in July. Some good local bands show there is musical life after Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. More prosaically, the area around Chinatown is excellent for cheap Asian food. The ultimate cut- price travellers' bar is the Taxi Club on the waterfront. This is not some poseurs' haunt, but a workers' pub where off-duty cabbies go to relax.
Outside the city, you can hitch with reasonable confidence and enjoy the scenery of British Columbia. Take the boat across to Vancouver Island. You arrive at the insufferably twee town of Victoria (site of next year's Commonwealth Games), where casual work driving pedicabs is reputedly easy to find. You do not have to go very far west on the island to begin to confront wilderness - a commodity British Columbia has in abundance.
To see more, AirBC has an attractive deal. A seven-day airpass over its extensive west coast network costs costs pounds 119, and allows you to visit Seattle and Portland as well as the wild north of Canada.
TRAVEL NOTES: Non-stop flights from London with STA Travel (071- 937 9971) for pounds 312. On KLM from any UK airport to Vancouver via Amsterdam, pounds 366 return from Travel Cuts (071-255 2082). Buses run from the airport to hostels in the centre in 30 minutes, costing pounds 3. Hostels: pounds 7 for a bunk, pounds 15 a double.
BYRON BAY, AUSTRALIA
Unlike the South and Central American destinations, the only civil strife Australia's easternmost town has ever experienced is a wrangle about town planning. Most of the residents are against the kind of tourism developments which have scarred the Gold Coast, a little way north. Planning prohibitions mean this New South Wales resort is blissfully low- rise, and attracts the cognoscenti rather than the lager lout. If you do want to be loutish, the rugby club by the railway station is the place to go. But there are many more things to do besides drink. Each travellers' hostel provides free bicycles. You discover that Byron Bay is a tamed wilderness scattered with beaches, bars and restaurants. (Vegetarians are aggressively well catered for.) From the headland you can watch turtles basking in the surf. If you want to bask yourself, the state's only north-facing beach guarantees maximum sun.
The whole area is a kind of environmentalist's theme park. The greatest thrill is to hire a horse and ride it down through the hills to the beach. Wild horses would not drag many people away from a place where they have yet to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
TRAVEL NOTES: Northwest Airlines from Gatwick to Sydney, via Boston, New York and Osaka, pounds 545 return from Bridge The World (071- 911 0900). Bus from airport to Central Station, then high-speed train to Byron Bay; total transfer time around 10 hours, cost pounds 35. Accommodation in hostels for around pounds 6 a dormitory bed, pounds 15 a double room.
And this time next year . . . Indochina, the former Soviet Union, Uganda, Madagascar and Syria.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies