graham osborne/vancouver coast & mountains


The more picturesque side of Vancouver: Despite a condo boom, the city works hard to preserve its natural space.


“I’ve encountered urban squalor all over the world, but I never thought I’d find it in my own backyard.”

I’ve visited close to 50 countries, backpacked across six continents, stopped over in hundreds of cities, towns and villages but, believe it or not, very few of those destinations were in Canada. I hate to admit it, but until recently, I’d never been to Calgary, Edmonton or Vancouver. Shame, shame.

I place some of the blame on our regional airlines. For the same price as a trip to Vancouver, I could fly to most big cities in Europe, dip into South America or book a weeklong, all-inclusive package to the Dominican Republic.

That said, it was time to pay up, be true to my roots and explore the Great White North. First stop on my list was Vancouver.

With the 2010 Olympics on the city’s calendar, high-rise condos are springing up like mushrooms. Business is booming. But despite large-scale construction and an influx of new residents, the city manages to preserve its green space.

Only a few minutes drive from a cluster of new buildings, I found a network of national parks, gardens and unspoiled nature reserves. You gotta love it! Vancouver is trendy, too. In Yaletown, yuppies wearing Lululemon Spandex sip lattés and walk rat-like dogs. The area is made up of cute little boutiques, manicure-pedicure studios and garden terrace cafés.

But that’s not the full picture. I’d heard stories about the Downtown East side, an area struggling with homelessness, prostitution and drug addiction. but I wasn’t prepared for how bad it really was.

Human zombies loiter on street corners, junkies shoot heroin in plain view and prostitutes conduct business deals in the back alleyways.

I’ve encountered urban squalor all over the world but I never thought I’d find it in my own backyard. The intersection of Main and Hastings, pegged as the poorest postal code in Canada, isn’t pretty.

Though the area is apparently safe to walk through, I didn’t feel comfortable. And those who absent-mindedly stroll along Main, on their way from Chinatown to trendy Gastown, will get an eyeful. It’s a real wake-up call, the kind of in-your-face lesson travelling can hit you with when you’re not expecting it.

Julia Dimon is editor of The Travel Junkie, an online magazine for independent travellers. She can be reached at