Having the freedom to explore the globe on a gap year can be a life changing experience. Those before you have become diving instructors in Thailand, or worked in a lively bar on Australia’s Gold Coast. Although the usual gap year haunts are extremely beautiful countries with well-established traveller amenities, wouldn’t it be fulfilling to experience something truly new?
We all have a vague idea as to what it would be like to travel to the stereotypical traveller destinations, but why not break the mould? The three destinations below offer unique opportunities to be part of unusual cultures, and immerse yourself in a country so different to home.
For a student wanting to experience four aspects of gap year life neatly enveloped in one country, Iran is a keen contender. Dizin, in the north of Iran, is a fantastic ski resort. Ramsar, is an untouched beach on the Caspian Sea, and you cannot move in the country for archaeological sites and incredible Islamic architecture.
Iran, nestled between Iraq and Afghanistan, does not jump out as a likely destination for most students. However, the conflict in the bordering countries has not spoilt Iran. The country is a kaleidoscope of colour, and the senses are pushed to their limits with the aromas of local cuisine, and the range of languages – from Greek and Arabic, to Turkish and Mongol.
Granted, politics is inescapable in Iran and, if you listen to family and friends, you will never experience the melting pot of cultures on offer. Getting a visa can be a challenge, but the best things in life often come with an initial struggle. Iran is desperate to be seen for what it really is, and not how the media portrays it.
If you want the chance to experience a misunderstood country that has some of the friendliest and warmest nationals in the world, start planning your adventure.
Places you must visit in Iran:
- Qom – considered the Jewel of Iran and one of the holiest cities in the Middle East
- Isfahan – the former capital of Iran and the most popular tourist destination in the country
- Hamedan – one of the oldest cities in Iran and the entire world, home to Persian historical relics
Comprised of Argentina and Chile, Patagonia sits on the southern tip of South America. The sparsely populated region is expansive and silent, with just Mother Nature and indigenous people calling the region home. Patagonia is home to some of the most intimidating and awe-inspiring landscapes in the world, with grasslands and azure blue lakes, and rivers interjected with the violent crags of snow-topped mountains.
Gap year travellers should first visit Los Glaciares in Argentina, and Torres del Paine in Chile. Both destinations are national parks and the only sign of tourism to be seen in the unforgiving wilderness. In an area one and a half times the size of the UK, spanning over 400,000 square miles, visitors need to plan ahead. Once outside of the national parks, you are at the mercy of the elements.
Many who travel to Patagonia envisage staying a short amount of time, and end up in the country for months. Many of the hostels in the region are prepared for travellers and can arrange specialist expeditions and excursions to explore the land, part of which comprises of the southern portion of the Andes.
Although the landscapes of Patagonia are to be enjoyed, the coastal areas offer a plethora of opportunities too. Diving trips are a must, with the clear waters home to sea lions, penguins, and whales that regularly share the depths with divers.
Patagonia may seem a daunting prospect but, with ample planning, there is no reason why a year in the south of America cannot be a life changing experience.
Places you must visit in Patagonia:
- Futaleufu – hard to reach, the best rafting in the world, as well as incredible landscapes seen by few
- Port Moreno – home to an incredible glacier, a real chance to see the world at work
- Refugio Frey – an incredible hiking opportunity coveted by travellers who congregate around the great lake
What Swaziland lacks in size, it makes up for in wildlife, lively local culture, and adrenaline-boosting activities. Many who have visited Swaziland have commented that it is “true Africa”, particularly due to the native Swazi people. Despite colonialism, the traditions of the Swazi people (part of the Nguni tribe) remain untouched, and many stay in Swaziland to live as their ancestors have done so. It is the locals that can make a voyage to Swaziland so special and intimate.
Swaziland presents a unique opportunity to experience South Africa, without the tense underlying political ramifications that are notorious in other countries. Dancing and singing are a huge part of Swazi culture and traditions are proudly maintained.
There are a number of volunteering schemes for gap year students and travellers in Swaziland. If you are interested in working with the local community, there are placements in orphanages, or why not turn your hand to renovating and building schools? If your strengths lie with conservations and wildlife, there are several internships dedicated to these causes. The wildlife is incredible in Swaziland, and it is one of the few places on the planet where you can witness black and white rhino living in the bush.
Despite Swaziland’s stable and peaceful reputation, HIV, unemployment, and ivory poaching are very real issues. Therefore, volunteers are in high demand to support ongoing projects to protect the country, and help it blossom.
Places you must visit in Swaziland:
- Hlane Royal National Park – Swaziland’s largest protected park, the best place to go on safari
- Shewula Mountain Camp – get to know the local community, take part in song and dance, village walks
- Mbuluzi Game Reserve – a private conservatory of 3,000 acres with the opportunity to walk, cycle, and hike alongside herds of giraffe, zebra, and impala