So, as I mentioned in my previous post, last year I travelled for 11 months around the world to every continent with the exceptions of North America and Africa. I’ve been thinking about my favourite locations and I thought that I might share them with you in case you ever catch that parasite called the travel bug and it starts to poison your thoughts with images of Incan ruins, impossibly high snow-capped mountains and ancient walls that cover thousands of kilometres. At least now you’ll know some of the hot places to visit, according to Rosie of course.
1. Machu Picchu, Peru
This wonder of the ancient world was the highlight of my year long trip. We booked it on a whim, a day before we left Cuzco, from a travel agent near our hostel who explained most of the itinerary to us in Spanish. Thanks to a one week spanish crash-course in Panama, and a few months familiarising ourselves with the language, between the three of us we seemed to grasp that the Inca trail had been fully booked for months but we could go on an alternative five day trek called the Salkantay and it was only going to cost us a reasonable 180 dollars (compared to the 500+ you pay for three days on the Inca Trail). We paid immediately and were told to wait outside our hostel room at 5 am the next morning for pick-up.
During the next five days, we trekked through the Salkantay mountains in the Sacred Valley. The worst of it being a slightly crazy first leg in the back of a pickup truck where the rule seemed to be hold on to whatever you can find and dodge the branches that are coming straight at you. Luckily, one of the English blokes on our trip kindly started yelling “duck” at the appropriate times. Another not-so-pleasant aspect was the constant presence of coriander in the meals. You coriander lovers won’t understand, but it permeates the entire meal. Potato no longer tastes like potato, rice no longer tastes like rice. Everything tastes like the overwhelming obnoxiousness of coriander. To add insult to coriander-injury, it also seemed to be mud-season while we were there, so it wasn’t unusual to fall down potholes. Despite these small inconveniences, the walk was exquisite. More than I hoped for. It included a magnificent Incan ritual offering at the highest point of the trek, camping next to mountains that were higher than 4000 metres, an endless amount of cocoa tea and a stint in a natural spa that just happened to be the extension of a contruction site.
Of all the fun we had, nothing beat that last day of the trek. We woke up early in that horrible little tourist town called Aguas Calientes and realised that our alarm hadn’t gone off and everyone else had already left. I say ‘horrible’ because, apart from being a good landing spot to see the ruins, Aguas Calientes has the cultural appeal of an ant’s head.
We threw on whatever clothes we could find and blindly sprinted out into the 4 am shadow. Under my well-informed sense of direction we proceeded to follow the railway for fifteen minutes in the wrong direction, realised – and sprinted back along the train tracks and towards the place the guide had shown us the day before. We then started to run up the thousand and something stairs that led to the great ruin, only stopping mid way up when realising sprinting up stairs at an altitude will literally knock the breath out of you. I don’t know if you have ever tried to race against the sunrise before, but you have to be quite fast.
The build-up of the trek and the adrenalin from rushing around all morning filled my tummy like a balloon as we turned to see the mist covered ruins in the shadow of Huana Pichu. The site was unbeatable. The ruins towered above and all we could do was stare in wonder of them, in wonder of the people who built them hundreds of years before. They have this quiet, haunting superiority about about them. A truly wonderful experience, heightened by the build-up of a five day trek with an awesome group of people and two terrific guides.
2. The Antrim Coast, Ireland
Ireland is one of my favourite places in the world. It is bursting with green fields, rainy mists, friendly locals and mythic legends. We hired a car to explore the length of the country but, of all we saw, the Antrim Coast has held my heart like the memory of a lover. The Antrim Coast is a rugged coastline in the north of the country dotted with ripe-green national parks, rope bridges and, best of all, the famous Giant’s Causeway.
The first day we visited the Giant’s Causeway it was raining. Not unusual for Ireland. We stood over the sharp cliff and stared down at the result of an ancient volcanic eruption: thousands of uniquely shaped rocks heading out to sea. The waves were fierce that day, crashing unforgivingly against the volcanic formation and receding again. We walked down the cliff pathway towards it, getting more drenched with each step. I don’t know if you have ever been caught out in a sudden downpour and had that high where you scream, run and laugh at the same time. Maybe that’s just me, but it was that same adrenaline-fueled feeling that I experienced as I stood at the edge of the causeway trying to avoid being hit by the waves that were merely centimetres away from me.
Not only is the place a wonderful natural phenomenon but it is enshrouded in celtic myth. The legend says that the Causeway was built by an Irish warrior and giant called Fionn Mac Cumhaill or more locally known as Finn McCool. He built the Causeway to walk to Scotland to fight against his Scottish enemy, Benandonner.
Even though there is a scientific explanation behind the formation, you might run into locals who maintain that this mystical place was none other than the work of Finn Mccool himself. And really, when you’re surrounded by the towering rocks and overhanging cliffs, you’ll want to believe it anyway.
3. Naples, Italy
If you really want to experience the best pizza in the world, look no further than Naples. When people ask me how it compares to pizzas in Australia I tell them the pizza there was simpler, with rich recipies and secret ingredients. I tell them I haven’t tasted the same quality since. And if I’m to be blunt, I’ll say the pizza was orgasmic. That it melted in my mouth in a burst of fresh tomato, garlic and crisp thin, hand-made bread. Perfetto!
In Napoli, we stayed at a hostel called Giovanni’s Home Hostel. If you are ever in Naples, this is the place to be. Giovanni is a true Neapolitan defender and he spent twenty minutes with us explaining where to visit in Naples and skimming over its rich history. He walked down the street with us to his local coffee place and introduced me to a decaffeinated coffee and taught Justin the fine art of stirring sugar through his espresso. He cooked pasta for the entire hostel, entertaining us with his guitar and authentic versions of traditional Neapolitan songs. My favourite was the song about the cable car, Funiculi Funicula (still a song that brings a smile to my face). He recommended the Subterranea to us, a fascinating trip underneath the Napoli historical centre to see a Roman built sewerage system that locals retreated to during WWII. You can still see their inscriptions on the wall.
Naples is filled with a rough, authentic Italian feeling. It whispers of the mafia and has hot chocolate that is melted in a saucepan and delivered straight to the mug. Yes, it may have a slight rubbish problem but I promise you if you want to experience authentic Italy, don’t miss coming here.
4. Tulum, Mexico
I’ll be honest. I wasn’t keen on visiting Mexico. On our flight from London, in my sedated-state I was picturing dark alleyways, people shooting each other on the streets and drugs, drugs everywhere.
Oh, how was I wrong. After spending my first day in Mexico City glued to the bed and refusing to leave the hostel for fear of getting mugged, I was slowly prised from the hostel and at a snail’s pace began to realise I was being a complete, paranoid idiot.
The entire country is brimming with friendly locals, delicious food and colour everywhere. My favourite place was Tulum, a coastside city in Quintana Roo. Here, the city is divided in half by a busy highway – not the most appealing first impression of the town. But when we walked into our accommodation we felt miles away from any highway. As we stepped in the gate we were accosted by furry little half rat, half possum creatures that were gnawing at our shoes and trying desperately to get into our bags. I was screaming and doing a girly-dance from foot to foot to try and avoid them. Two minutes later the hostel owner picked them up and started treating them like an average pet cat. We discovered they were called Coati and were a creature natural to Mexico. This was not the first surprise at the hostel. Our accommodation was a tree house with cosy beds lining the wooden walls and a balcony overlooking the treetops. We were given bikes as part of the parcel and the guy who owned the hostel looked at me as if I were mad when I told him I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was ten. We rode our bike fifteen minutes to the north-east under his direction and I was gobsmacked when we reached stunning cliffside Mayan ruins overlooking pure-white sand and transparent water.
Tulum makes the list because it made me feel like the wild-free traveller I had become. I rode a bike along the busy highway at midnight with the warm air brushing against my face, I threw myself into the ocean like a fish despite my usual fear of sharks lurking below and I let myself wear considerably less than my usually preferred arm and stomach concealing attire. Tulum suited my new found sense of adventure.
5. Lijiang, China – Yunnan Provence
Imagine a maze of shops and red lanterns, people eating everything from yak yoghurt to chicken’s feet. Lijiang old town is the hot tourism town for Chinese holiday-seekers. It is a picturesque village, with rivers contaminated with bright green seaweed and traditional Chinese architecture everywhere you look. And it is only a stone’s throw from the idyllic Black Dragon Pool, where the mountains and pavilions reflect on the smooth pool’s surface like a mirror-image. In winter, when we were there, the pool was framed by a snow-capped mountain and members of the indigenous Naxi (pronounced Nashi) community were sitting by the pool playing a game of checkers decked out in their traditional garb.
A few hours in a bumpy van also got us to Tiger Leaping Gorge, a beautiful canyon located on the Jinsha river in Yunnan. Throughout the trek, there are Naxi locals selling everything from Mars Bars to less legal items. I made the mistake of undergoing the two day trek in my Converse All Stars. I don’t recommend this to anyone. Invest in a proper pair of hiking boots before doing what I did and ending up with a knee injury for the next two months.
We stayed at a hostel in the middle of nowhere on a freezing cold, mid-winter’s night. The owners of the hostel were Korean and had just slaughtered a pig in celebration of a certain festival. You can imagine my vegetarian joy as they proudly brought the pigs head over for us to examine.
But nothing beat the view of the gorge towering high over the hostel. Even on a toilet-trip in the middle of the night, I stopped in the freezing-cold to stare up at the looming mountain. It was much darker than the sky and made me realise how terrifying and wonderful nature can be all at the same time.
6. Isla Del Sol (Island of the Sun), Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
Many people criticise Isla Del Sol for becoming a tourist picnic. The indigenous locals sell Gatorade to hydrate travellers at the high altitude and Mars Bars to keep us energised. Although these additions do, slightly, take away from the authentic feel of the small island, anyone just has to take a look at the lake around them to see that the isla is part of the magic that the lake creates. At an altitude of over 3800, Lake Titicaca is the highest lake in the world. The air is thin and it is easy to become dehydrated on the island. However, standing at the highest point of Isla Del Sol, the natural wonder of the lake spreads around you. In the distance are the snow-capped mountains of the Andes. On one side of the island are the ancient ruins where the Incas believe the sun god was born. These ruins are significant to Incan culture as they are said to be the place of creation. One of the most magnificent aspects of the day was the image I saw when I first jumped off the boat. There were three indigenous Bolivians wearing their traditional bowler hats, holding a lamb and staring out onto the lake. This is how I remember the island. The main economy on the island is farming, with over 800 famililes using the area to farm fish.
7. The Galapagos Islands
Although it isn’t cheap to visit these famous islands west of Ecuador, but if you have the money, I highly recommend them. It is worth it to see the place famous for its endemic wildlife and to witness the environment where Charles Darwin made observations that contributed to his theory of evolution.
We organised our boat, Golondrina, through a hostel near our own called The Secret Garden. They were extremely accomodating to us there, got us a great package price and dropped us to Quito’s international airport, helped us organise our visa and made sure we were snug as a bug in a rug on the plane.
I have never fallen so in love with wildlife in my entire existence. I lay next to a dozen Galapagos sea-lions on the beach and they couldn’t have cared less that I was joining their pack. I stared into the eyes of a Blue Footed Booby, and watched hoardes of Galapagos lizards snuggle together to keep warm. What is most amazing about the islands is the lack of fear shown by the wildlife. They will look you in the eye like an equal there. The setting helps the magic as well, with listerine coloured waters and sand as white as toothpaste. My only regret is that I majorly chickened out of snorkling after our guide yelled “Quick! Shark! Everyone!”. I misread this warning and practically ran through the water to the boat screaming, threw myself in there and closed my eyes tightly. Everyone else had quickly followed the guide through the water to get a better look at the shark. It was, apparently, an amazing experience. “I’ve never seen one get so close” the guide said. Since that moment I was too terrified to rejoin my group in the snorkelling activities.
When I did finally venture back into the water, I got bitten by a Galapagos jellyfish and had sharp stabbing pains all over my body. It took the boat driver an entire bottle of vinegar to get the pain to fade – obviously I wasn’t meant to be in the water! That said, I had a fantastic time exploring the islands – even an old volcano – and I will never forget the friendly eager eyes of the sea lions, playing in the water. I hope for them that the strict rules of Galapagos visits remain so they can remain the fearless creatures they are.
Turkish people are the friendliest people I have ever encountered. Even, dare I say it, more friendly than the Irish and with a better sense of humour than your average Australian. As you walk down the street in Istanbul there are locals talking to you from every direction, asking you to come and buy a carpet from their fifth generation shop or to try their authentic Turkish coffee. But it’s not hard to say no to their requests, because when you do they laugh at their own good attempts and shake your hand anyway, welcoming you to their country. And what a wonderful capital it is, with picturesque mosques rising above the city and the stunning Aya Sofya open to share its history with all. In the Grand Bazaar, there is a never-ending maze of shopping with spices, an endless supply of delicious turkish delight and sheshas everywhere you look.
And if you get the chance, let yourself be seduced into a carpet shop by a sexy Turkish man offering apple tea. You will be treated like royalty and shown some of the finest carpets you’ll ever see. Just make sure you familiarise yourself with the characteristics of a good carpet so you don’t leave with a cheap and nasty carpet and a Turkish man counting his liras like the cat that got the cream.
9.The Great Wall of China, China
Nothing is more hauntingly beautiful than the view of China on one side and Mongolia on the other, separated by a splintered, winding wall that has lasted the test of time. In order to avoid the tourist-clad hordes I highly recommend visiting sections of the wall that haven’t been trodden on by millions of tourist every year. It took us almost three hours to reach our destination, but we were rewarded with hundreds of kilometres of the original, broken wall. The air was cold that day but we broke into a sweat climbing on top of broken segments and pushing ourselves up the ancient flights of stairs. For our efforts, we were rewarded with stunning views of the wall snaking off over the hillside, with no other tourists to be seen. Most hostels offer the easy trip to the more visited side of the wall but if you really want to see the true wonder of the ancient world you need to step outside that tourist box.
10. Cologne, Germany
What I loved most about being in Germany was I got a chance to practice my much-studied German. I could say more than the usual “Hallo! Wie geht’s”, and was at times forced to remember things I learned years ago in order to order something from a menu or ask a stranger for directions when we were lost. Although I admit to loving every part of Germany, from Munich to Berlin, there was something just a little bit special about Cologne. It seemed to have this relaxed feel about it, with uni students laying about reading books in parks and people sauntering past casually on bikes. The air seemed to be bursting with culture and, although there was nothing I can specifically point to and say “that was amazing”, I just liked the feeling of the place. And, sometimes, that’s all that matters really.
Although these are not all of my favourite places, they are ten of them. Whether cities or treks, quiet or hectic, exorbitant or el-cheapo, each of these places offers what every good traveller desires; experiences. Since having been travelling, I seem to have gained a small sense of adventure. It’s so easy to get the travel bug once you start travelling, it’s like being on a constant high floating between places and craving new experiences. I know not everyone has the luxury to give up their life for a short amount of time and go travelling, but if you can, do it. You won’t regret it.
I promise you.