Posted April 1, 2012 by in Backpackology 101

Weekend Destination: Top 10 Free Vacations (5/5)

This article is part five of the five part series, “The Top 10 Free Vacations.”

You can find destinations #10 & #9 in Part One, destinations #8 & #7 in Part Two, destinations #6 & #5 in Part Three, and destinations #4 & #3 in Part Four.

2. White Water Rafting the Colorado River

Like the trek to Everest Base Camp, white water rafting through the breathtaking Grand Canyon is one of the world’s classic adventures. The big problem is that doing the 225-mile, sixteen-day stretch that rambles and rages from Lake Powell to Lake Mead comes with a hefty price tag. And we’re talking hefty—unless you’re loaded, or sell your kidney to the black market, you probably aren’t going.

That is, unless you’re in-the-know… (That’s why I’m here).

Allow me to introduce you to: The Swamper—the lowly, bootlicking intern of the rafting world. To be a swamper is to be part-time assistant to the captain, part-time indentured servant to the crew, and full-time, kowtowing yes-man to the guests. As swamper, some of your responsibilities include pitching the tents, setting up camp, carrying the coolers, cooking dinner, cleaning up after dinner, collecting trash, scrubbing the pots and pans, lugging the guests’ bags to their tents, setting up their latrine, cleaning their latrine, emptying their latrine, and fishing that bottle of ketchup from the garbage. There’s some other stuff that I forget, but the basic gist of it is: Get your negro slave spirituals ready, cause YOUR NAME IS TOBY!

Great, Steve. Yet another fun-filled vacation fraught with toil and servitude. And all I asked for was a few, simple days in a beach chair. You suck.

Sure, being a swamper might sound as fun as a rectal prolapse, but I promise, when you’re thundering down the Colorado River, battling some of the best rapids in the world, pitched against a stunning backdrop of towering canyon scenery, it’ll all seem well worth the effort.

If you’re interested in braving the rapids as a swamper, no prior experience is required, but you’ll need to show all the enthusiasm and charisma of a game show host. Tell them you’re interested in learning more about rafting, and that you’re a *~*~**~*hard worker~*~~*~. If you land the job, just keep asking “What do I need to do next?” And when he tells you to empty the revolting, fifty-pound latrine, be sure to lift with the knees and demonstrate the utmost excitement and joy. Also, remember to bring your own alcohol.

For an idea of what to expect as a Colorado River swamper, check out Steve Hendrix’s entertaining article for the Washington Post:

When to Go: October is the month, bringing good climate and phenomenal river conditions.

Length of Time: The epic route from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek takes 16 days, though you can do shorter stretches of the river that take 3-7 days. It really depends on which gig you get. The guys at Arizona Raft Adventures are always happy to accept enthusiastic new swampers, and you can reach them at If that fails, another good bet would be Grand Canyon River Outfitters, whom you can reach at

Cost: Free, and sometimes even paid!

Airfare Estimate: New York to Las Vegas, $350 RT; Los Angeles to Las Vegas, $70 RT

1. The Golden Temple of Amritsar, India

If you’ve stuck with me this far, congratulations. You’re in for a treat. Our number one free destination is one of the world’s greatest spiritual sites—the spectacular Golden Temple of Amritsar, India. I could ramble on for paragraphs, waxing poetic about the astounding beauty and tranquility of this holy Sikh pilgrimage site, but I’ll spare you by simply saying: you must see it to believe it. And running with our theme, every aspect of visiting the Golden Temple is gloriously free. From the minute you arrive at the Amritsar Train Station, there’s a free shuttle waiting to take you to the temple, where free accommodation awaits.

So what’s the catch?

I bet you’re expecting me to launch into some horrific job description, but fortunately, you’re off the hook. There is no catch! The Golden Temple was built as a place of worship for people of all walks of life and all religions, where everything is provided and shared by the Sikhs, in the name of yatra (pilgrimage).

This sounds perfect in theory, but you’ll quickly realize its main conceit when you’re battling fifty other raucous backpackers for one of the thirty available bunks, and claiming your own space becomes a war of attrition. My advice: Show up early, and be prepared for a stakeout. Try to make friends with the people already there—they’ll likely know who’s leaving and when. If you get a tip-off, lurk in the corner and lecherously ogle the bunks. When somebody gets up to leave, pounce on their matress, lightning fast, before that other androgynous, French backpacker does. He/she’s been waiting for hours too. When you finally conquer a bed, it’s time to feast to your victory. Make a bee-line for the dining hall, where a top-notch team of Panjabi chefs crank out mountains of chapatti and curry for an estimated 70,000 hungry pilgrims each day.

And it’s all free, free, free.

Once you’ve had your fill, hit the street. Aside from drooling over temple views, Amritsar is chock-full of distractions to keep you busy. At the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre Memorial, visitors can pay respects to the poignant, bullet-ridden walls, where the British Army opened fire on a crowd of men, women, and children, killing 400 and wounding 1,500 more. For something more uplifting, the dramatic Pakistan Border-Closing Ceremony is a loud and whimsical display of silly marches, military pomp, and big, outlandish hats that would make Lady Gaga seethe with envy.

After three or four days, you might be ready to move on. Consider making at least a small donation to the temple, be it for good karma, or simply out of gratitude. An interesting alternative, however, is to volunteer to chip in with the Temple chores. Most people help clean dishes in the dining room, but you could do what I did:

One afternoon, while snooping around with my camera, I stumbled upon the temple kitchen and its huge curry-cauldrons. The next thing I know, I’m rolling chapatti dough with a feisty Panjabi granny, who was convinced she could transcend the language barrier by sheer will and indomitable volume. Spending the afternoon with her was a great experience, at least for the first fifteen minutes.

When to Go: October through February.

Length of Time: Stay forever, if you want, but you’ll probably get bored after three or four days.

Cost: Free in every sense.

Airfare Estimate: New York to New Delhi, $1,200 RT; Los Angeles to New Delhi, $1,250 RT


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This article is part five of the five part series, “The Top 10 Free Vacations.” You can find destinations #10 & #9 in Part One, destinations #8 & #7 in Part Two, destinations #6 & #5 in Part Three, and destinations #4 & #3 in Part Four.

For more crafty tips and tricks to budget travel, check out my fancy “Budgetometer“–the fruit of several hours of determined procrastination.

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