The longest I’ve went without passing through a town was five days.  It was while crossing the Andes dividing Chile and Argentina.  Though doable in the moment, coming to a town only once a week isn’t sustainable.

While walking I’m performing a continuous balancing act of consumption and resupply.  I must have enough water, enough food, and enough rest.  I can’t run out of food or water while in the middle of nowhere.  And a few nights of poor sleep ripples disaster for at least a week.

A town is a walker’s harbor.

My constant balancing act and the inherent slow pace of walking means I must stop in nearly every town I come across.  Because of this I see places that are passed over by most everyone else.

Some of my strongest memories are from picturesque one-horse towns.

There are a hundred towns I remember solely because they offered relief from a difficult day on the road, but there are only a few towns I remember because they seemed the distillation of the country they reside in.

The list below is made up of such places.

They are not tourist towns.  They are small places.  They are towns visited by family and friends, and flown over by everyone else.  There are few, if any, attractions.

For each town listed I give suggestions of what to do, but there are three things which apply to them all.

First, you must go for a long walk until you’re unsure of your way back.  In this way you’ll know the space of the town and how people live in it.

Second, you must find a bench with good people-watching and not move from it until you feel the place grown into your bones (it’ll take an hour or two at least).  In this way you’ll know how a town and its people move through time.

Third, with all your senses you must seek out the details of the place.  Notice the smells, the cracking paint, the way people greet one another.  A long walk and good bench are critical to traveling well, but without an observant mind there is no point to traveling at all.

Here are my favorite places to go for a walk and sit on a bench:


San Pedro Tapanatepec, Oaxaca, Mexico

    • Where is it?
      • Southwest Mexico.  Center to the mountains, Pacific ocean, and jungle.
    • What makes this place unique?
      • Mango trees.
      • Brightly painted houses.
      • Moto-taxis.
    • Do this:
      • Get a room at the hotel across from the town square.
      • Wave down a moto-taxi and have it drive through every street in the small town.  It’ll cost you next to nothing and you’ll get the lay of the land.
      • Have the moto-taxi drop you at the edge of town by the mango trees.  If you’re lucky there’ll be ripe mangos on the ground.  Eat them.  Enter heaven.
      • In the afternoon walk around town until you’ve built up a sweat.  You’ll be hurrying from shaded spot to shaded spot, but the heat will reach you anyway.  With enough time in the heat you’ll gain a new appreciation for the ice-cream shop beside the town square.  Get an ice-cream or flavored milk.  Then get another.  Then buy one more to take back to the hotel to enjoy before you shower.
      • At sunset sit on a bench in the town square.  Since the houses are painted all sorts of bright colors the setting sun’s light will turn San Pedro Tapanatepec into something magical.


San Pablo, San Marcos, Guatemala

    • Where is it?
      • In the mountainous jungles near the border of southwest Mexico.
    • What makes this place unique?
      • Slightly outside of town, nestled in the jungle, is a gorgeous waterfall.
      • One dollar batidos (smoothies).
      • Great people watching at night in the town square.
    • Do this:
      • Put on your hiking gear and ask for directions to the waterfall.  Follow the roads further into town before parking your car at the town outskirts.
      • Hike the trail through the jungle towards the Waterfall of Equality.
      • Be awed at such an unknown beauty then cool off in the pool below the waterfall.
      • Return to town and have dinner somewhere across from the town center.  San Pablo is a town for people watching.  The air will be cool.  At night there’ll be kids setting off firecrackers, young lovers on park benches, and old men with leathered skin talking over coffee.


Playa La Perla, El Salvador

    • Where is it?
      • On the southwest coast of El Salvador.
    • What makes this place unique?
      • El Salvador’s surfing tourism thrives just a few miles south, but at Playa La Perla there are no hotels and no AirBnbs.  It remains a town of locals.
      • Beach front houses abound and neighbors walk along the sand to each other’s houses for dinner and drinks.
      • Local surfers cast themselves into the ocean to the backdrop of a mammoth cliff.
      • Incredible sunsets on the Pacific.
    • Do this:
      • If you surf, go surfing with the locals.
      • Otherwise, ask around for a pupusa vendor, get yourself lunch for a dollar, sit on the beach, eat, watch surfers, and take a nap.


Santa Leticia, Puracé, Cauca Department, Colombia

    • Where is it?
      • Southwest Colombia, set deep in the Andes.
    • What makes this place unique?
      • Santa Leticia is thirty miles from the nearest village, but feels as though it’s a thousand miles from anywhere.
      • It’s surrounded by jungle.
      • The road connecting Santa Leticia with Popayán is one of the most gorgeous and peaceful I’ve walked.  It passes through Parque Natural Puracé which consists of the rare Páramo ecosystem – a lush landscape above the timberline only found in the Andes.
      • The hotel with three dollar rooms and Blink-182 posters on the wall.
    • Do this:
      • From Santa Leticia head north towards Popayán.  Near the start of the Páramo is a shack on the left hand side.  Get breakfast or lunch there.  It’ll be chilly so order both a coffee and an aguapanela (water with cane sugar traditional to Colombia).  Enjoy eating in such a remote place.
      • In the Páramo, leave your car at the small information center and go for a few hour walk.  Listen to your feet on the gravel.  Feel the clouds just out of reach.  Put your hand on the moss and push in yet never feel the rock it’s grown on.  Find a waterfall and always be ready for movement in your peripherals.  If you’re exceedingly lucky you’ll spot a páramo wolf or spectacled bear. 
      • After a good long time in the quiet, return to Santa Leticia for dinner.  Once the sun has set, walk the southern road out of town.  The road will curve and rise.  You’ll see Santa Leticia lit by a dozen or so failing lights and have the strange sensation of being underwater.
      • Have a few drinks in the restaurant beside the hotel, then head back to your room to get one of the best sleeps of your life under heavy blankets in the cool high-altitude air.


Macará, Ecuador

    • Where is it?
      • Down from the Ecuadorian Andes, in the dry lowlands, sharing it’s border with Perú.
    • What makes this place unique?
      • The Andes mountains can be seen between the streets.
      • A small airstrip running through the middle of the city.
      • Terra-cotta roofs and beautiful single-story homes.
      • The city’s wide sidewalks are used as front porches where families talk, drink, and read in the shade.
      • Hammock hooks are on nearly every post propping up those terra-cotta roofs over the sidewalks.  Hammocks are strung everywhere.
    • Do this:
      • Stay at Hotel Arrozales.  It’s superb and just a short walk from the center of town.
      • In the morning wander the streets until finding a café for some coffee and eggs.
      • After breakfast, and before it’s too hot, drive east of Macará to the forest of ceibo (SAY-bo) trees.  The trees are green, bulbous, leafless and spiked; like something from a fantasy novel.
      • Upon return, head to the market and slurp cheap fruit smoothies until your stomach stretches your shirt.
      • After smoothies, either head back to the hotel for a siesta or string a hammock on the posts outside the hotel and take your siesta there.
      • As the sun sets roam the wide sidewalks, enjoy the brisk air, and find a place with plastic Coca-Cola chairs to get yourself some ceviche.  Macará is on the outer reaches of the Peruvian ceviche (said to be the best in the world).


Ilo, Perú

    • Where is it?
      • The south coast of Perú.  In the freaking desert.
    • What makes this place unique?
      • Before the Panama canal Ilo was a hub for intercontinental trade.  Now the waters are occupied by fishermen and their wooden fishing boats.
      • Since there are some prominent copper mines nearby there are a good amount of hotels, some of which are pretty darn nice.
    • Do this:
      • Head down to the market a block from the pier and find the seafood restaurant on the second floor.  Get the ceviche.  It’ll be cheap, the fish will have been caught that morning, and just in front of you will be the waters the fish were caught in.
      • Find a street vendor selling fruit and buy granadillas.  Crack them open and suck out their delicious, gooey innards.
      • As night approaches walk along the rambla following the shoreline.
      • At sunset return to the pier to watch the fishermen tying their boats together against the backdrop sand dunes.  As the sun sets the waters will turn red and the dunes orange.  The cool ocean air will be a relief after another warm Peruvian day.


Susques, Argentina

    • Where is it?
      • The town of Susques is high in the Andes, seventy miles from Argentina’s northernmost border crossing with Chile.  But what I’m recommending is not only the town, it’s the entire 150 miles from Purmamarca, Argentina to Argentina’s border with Chile.
    • What makes it unique?
      • Between the border and Purmamarca are some of the most stunning landscapes you’ll set eyes upon – salt flats, desert, and yellow-tufted plains.
      • There’s a stretch of road following the quebradas (ravines) where cacti grow from stone walls towering over each side of the road.
      • You can either sleep at the border where there’s a gas station with four rooms or you can sleep in the town of Susques where there are two hotels – either way you’re sure to feel the remoteness of being seventy miles from the nearest town.
    • Do this:
      • Start at the salt flats.  Walk them, lick them, take some gnarly photos of them.  Then if you’re hungry double back eastward where you’ll find a restaurant on a hill owned by a retired salt miner.  He makes wonderful empanadas.
      • Then drive west, beyond the salt flats and into the altiplano.  When the mood strikes park the car and take a hike out in the wild plains.  It’s important to feel the loneliness of the landscape.
      • Halfway to the border you’ll enter the town of Susques.  Get a hotel room there to drop your things.
      • From Susques, drive the seventy miles to the Argentinian/Chilean border.  The landscapes will astound you and you’re sure to pass plenty of wandering alpaca.
      • At the border grab a coffee and some snacks in the gas station.  Then follow the road back towards Susques.  If you have the cold-weather gear for it, pull over somewhere you can’t see any artificial light (just about anywhere).  When the stars come out you’ll have whatever’s troubling you put in perspective.