The Origin of Budget Travel – Was Gemelli Careri The Original Backpacker?

An old world mapWhile there is no definitive answer as to the precise origin of contemporary backpacking, its roots were no doubt formed (or at least in part) by the travelers making their way along the so called ‘Hippie Trail’ of the 1960s and 70s. The Hippie Trail followed sections of the old Silk Road, as people hitchhiked their way from Europe to India and Nepal, and onto the far east. After this era came the drifters of the 1980’s and 90’s, of whom aided with more affordable air travel, began to backpack their way to many obscure, and harder to reach destinations.This era has now given way or evolved into the modern day backpacker (or budget traveler), who comes in many forms, ‘The Digital Nomad’, ‘The Flashpacker’ and so on. Were the hippies of the 60’s and 70’s the original backpackers, or could one look further back in time for the answer?

Were the Hippies of the 60′s and 70′s The Original Backpackers?

Whilst researching another post for my ‘Dromomaniacs – Worlds Most Traveled Series’, I stumbled upon a traveler whom very few would have read about. The reasoning behind this statement, is because he lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. A man who was completely frustrated with his chosen profession of law, and decided to put his life on hold to travel the world. A decision not unlike those made by today’s modern backpacker, or independent budget traveler. The name of this individual was ‘Gemelli Careri’.

‘Could Gemelli Careri be the original backpacker?’
This is a question that has been put forward by a few others over the years. After a small amount of research I tend to agree with this line of thought, and believe that if Gemelli Careri wasn’t the first independent traveler (or backpacker), then he was most certainly the first person documented to travel akin to the modern day backpacker.

A sketch of Gemelli Careri

A sketch of Gemelli Careri

Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri was born in Taurianova Italy, in 1651. Between the years of 1693 and 1698, he completed a 5 year ‘around the world tour’ unlike any other of it’s kind, at this point in time. His journey started with visits to Constantinople, Egypt and also stopping in the Holy Land.

Even so many years ago, a voyage to these parts of the world was still not considered to be adventurous, or out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until Gemelli left the Middle East, that the Italian backpacker would then take the path less traveled, to the far away and mystical lands few had seen before him.

Heading first to Persia, before sailing on to Southern India and overland into China. It was during this segment of his travels that Gemelli Careri realized that he could finance his trip by carefully selecting and purchasing the right goods at each stage on route. These goods would then have an increased in value at his next destination, where he would on sell them for a handy profit.

He noted in his journal that whilst in Bandar-Abbas on the Persian Gulf, “the traveler should pick up dates, wine, spirits, and all the fruits of Persia, which one carries to India either dried or pickled in vinegar, on which one makes a good profit”.

Gemelli Careri Would Trade Goods on Route To Fund His Travels

It was this activity that highlighted the fact to me, that Gemelli Careri was unlke anyone other traveler of his time. He didn’t travel for profit (as most people who ventured from their homelands during this time did) or under the flag of a nation looking to extend it’s riches, but purely for the experience and adventure. He also documented his journey in great detail within his journal, from which he would write a book upon returning home.

A page from Gemelli Cerari book 'Tour du Mondo'

A page from Gemelli Cerari's book 'Tour du Mondo'

Whilst in China Gemelli was granted a visit with the emperor in Beijing, attended the ‘lantern festival’ and toured the great wall. After leaving Macau, Gemelli sailed for the Philippines where he would wait for two months before boarding a Manila Galleon, heading for Acapulco Mexico. He documented this portion of his journey, as one of his most difficult. With large storms, bad food, and various epidemic outbreaks along the way. He also documented that this portion of his trip was also funded by trading quicksilver for a 300% profit.

After visiting several mining towns and the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan in Mexico, his five year around the world odyssey came to an end, and Gemelli headed back to Europe. For many years after his return, many European scholars and experts did not consider Gemelli Careri’s voyage as being authentic. Over time and many years after his death, the detailed descriptions of his writings were continually studied, and it was realized that they couldn’t have been obtained in any other way, other than experiencing the surroundings in person.

Was This Italian The Original Backpacker? – Maybe, Maybe Not?

Although his travels took place over three centuries ago, Gemelli’s reasoning for taking his round the world adventure, is not that uncommon from the circumstances of many backpackers today. Fed up with his profession of law, where he eventually decided to suspend his career for that elusive around the world trip. 

The wonderful people of Google have scanned and digitized every single page of his book ‘Giro del Mondo(written in italian of course – 1699). Gemelli Caseri was a true adventurer in every sense, and maybe, he just might be, ‘The Original Backpacker!”


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Jason has traveled the world extensively during the last 20 years, with overland journeys on six continents and across over 90 countries. This site serves as a chronicle of the images and tales from these journeys, as well as offering advice and general information for other like minded travelers.

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  • Recovering Vagabond

    Glad to have learned about Careri. Claims to being the first anything aside, he definitely seems to have embodied some of the backpacker spirit centuries before the term was popularized. I love the illustrations in his book, especially this one: (second image from the top).

  • Jason

    Thanks for the comment and the link to the images. I scrolled through Gemelli’s book and noted a few images (a couple of which are in the post) but did not sight that one. I’m no history buff, but enjoyed researching this post, and reading about what was a monumental journey for it’s time. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Dave from The Longest Way Home

    I was reading this over dinner, really enjoyed it. Great research. Great “Backpacker”. I read about someone similar to Gemelli’s before, another person who would buy and sell products as went. Similar route, might have been the same guy come to think of it.

    I wonder how this could, and can if possible translate to today? Can a person actively trade goods to fund travel? I know of english teachers, webmasters etc. But these are skills not goods.

    Again, travel back in those days was epic. No guide books, no nothing. Just a journal and luck. Language problems must have been huge. Put’s todays “backpacker” culture to shame. I wish there was a different name for people like Gemelli.

  • Steve

    What an interesting story. I didn’t know anything about Gemelli Careri until this post so it was great to hear about this early of a backpacker. And what an innovative way to pay for your travels too.

    Have you ever come across the book “A Sentimental Journey” by Laurence Sterne? It is about his travels through France and Italy in 1765. It is credited as being the first travel book written from a subjective point of view rather than the objective. The book also created a boom in travel writing that has pretty much continued ever since.

  • Jason

    Hey Steve, Gemelli was certainly years ahead of his time, and from all accounts was quite the innovator as well. I haven’t read the book ‘A Sentimental Journey’ and I would dare say that someone such as yourself would be a little more read than I am. Thanks for you comment mate, and I will do a little research into Laurence Sterne’s book.

  • Jason

    Hey Dave, I reckon it would be tough to do today, with the wonders of modern transport and the free flow of information over the net. I think we may have missed out time, but that time wouldn’t have been to long ago. I could have seen the hippies of the 60′s picking up certain gem stones native to a certain country on route and trading them a little further afield., but today it would be allot tougher, but still possible if you knew what you were looking at.

    No doubt Gemelli’s travels were epic, and I could only begin to imagine the things he would have been dealing with, day in and day out. He certainly was a pioneer, that paved the way for all of us to follow, ever so slightly in his footsteps. Thanks for stopping by mate.

  • Anonymous

    Intriguing! I had never heard of Careri, but it really does sound as if he was not only the first backpacker, but all of those fancy new terms like location independent too – his motivations, everything is so spot on with the sentiments expressed by us nomads today as well! So toughtful! :)

  • Denis

    Great article mate!! Really throws a spin on who can claim the elusive tag of the ‘original backpacker’. I still hold Marco Polo as a bit of a legend in the original backpacking circles, the dude travelled for 24 years, puts Caseri’s 5 year RTW trip in another basket.

    Although its never about the amount of miles one covers, Marco Polo was as much of a slackpacker as he was backpacker, taking the long and slow road on a quest to really understand a place and its people. 24 years of backpacking. Solid nudge.

    Throwing down the backpacking roots…

    Nice post Jase

  • Jason

    Hey Shannon, As to whether Gemelli Careri was the original backpacker or not, will more than likely stay an open ended question for all eternity. There’s no doubt he was as you say ‘Location Independent’, and able to fund his travels through the buying and selling of goods, from one place to the next.

    The way he put his career on hold, and drifted around the world with no purpose except for the engagement with the local people and taking in the sights, is exactly what the modern day backpacker lives for. Thanks for your comment Shannon.

  • Jason

    Hey Denis, I was wondering when someone was going to throw Marco Polo’s hat in the ring. I agree wholeheartedly, that Marco Polo was no doubt one of the greatest travelers of all time, but I personally put him in the basket of explorer or early pioneer with the likes of Cook, Columbus and many others.

    This is why I posted my thoughts on Gemelli’s travels, because I feel his motive was not the same as that of an early explorer or pioneer, and that he was purely driven by the experience of traveling itself, with no real end motive.

    His decision on leaving his career, and trying to stay on the road as long as possible, buy trading goods en-route is also akin to the modern day backpacker. Thanks for your comment mate, and I appreciate you taking the time to ready my babel.

  • Dave from The Longest Way Home

    Will have to side on Jason with this one too. Even today there are many “explorers”, which I take as being different to travelers or backpackers etc. That’s not taking anything away from Polo or any of todays explorers, but they are usually highly sponsored! Even if sponsorship is from the King of Spain :)

  • Jason

    I’m not going to get into a debate with any History buff’s as I’m probably out of my depth, but Dave’s point above is what I was trying to portray. I believe there’s a difference between the two, not that there’s anything wrong with being a pioneer or explorer (some of these people I actually idolize).

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  • TotalTravelBug

    This is really interesting. I’d never even thought to research the history of backpacking but this has intrigued me. Great article. We like to think that we’re modern and doing something different by travelling around the world but, realistically, people have been doing this since the beginning of time.

  • Jason

    Hey Monica, I think your spot on with your comment, and it probably rings true for most things in life. People have been traveling for generations before us, and in Gemelli Careri’s case centuries. The one thing I liked most about reading about Gemelli was that his intentions were that of the same as the modern day backpacker. Thanks for your comment.