Over the past few years, I’ve visited some pretty amazing travel destinations around the world. I’ve backpacked solo through most of Latin America, tackled my fear of heights on an adrenaline-fuelled trip through New Zealand, worked and toured in Australia, and taken the occasional city break to mainland Europe from my base in the UK.
Over the coming months, I’m heading to South East Asia, so watch this space for updates on Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Below is an overview of the places I’ve covered already, so click on the travel destination for a list of posts relevant to that place, or select a photo to go to a specific story. I’ve also highlighted some of my favourite spots.
Argentina is a safe and easy country to travel through. There are some amazing scenic spots, such as Iguazu Falls and the astounding Perito Moreno Glacier. If you like to stay active, you can go hiking around El Chalten, under the shadow of the mighty Fitz Roy, cycle the Chico Circuit in Bariloche, or even rally some people up to go paint balling. For culture and history fans, the capital of Buenos Aires won’t disappoint, wildlife lovers can watch elephant seals, and might even catch a glimpse of a killer whale on the coast at Puerto Madryn, and noone should miss Mendoza, where you can take cycling tours of the wineries and go horseback riding.
Though it’s not the cheapest destination, Australia is a very welcoming country with a lot to offer. Most visitors begin in Sydney, where its hundreds of beaches offer opportunities for kayaking and other outdoor pursuits. Day trips to nearby Hunter Valley and the Blue Mountains are also popular. Brisbane and Melbourne are other top cities to check out. The koala sanctuary near Brisbane is a top pick, while Melbourne is a great base from which to visit the 12 Apostles, do a spot of city kayaking, or even visit the Neighbour’s set! If you head up to the Northern Territory, Ayer’s Rock (Uluru) is unmissable. You should also splurge a little and watch the sun rise over the outback while hot air ballooning at Alice Springs. Working your way up the east coast between Sydney and Cairns, there are many opportunities for adventure, including surfing at Coffs Harbour, sea kayaking at Byron bay, jet packing and flyboarding on the Gold Coast, sailing the Whitsundays and bungy jumping in Cairns. If you’re into scuba diving, you have some of the world’s best sites, including Julian Rocks at Byron bay and the Great Barrier Reef, to choose from, and you can also try out night diving if you’re brave enough! Uncle Brian’s in Cairns is one of the best tours you will ever do, and Fraser Island‘s sunsets are unbeatable.
Belize is an anomaly in Latin America because English is one of its primary languages. This makes travel for Brits, Americans and Antipodeans really straightforward. One of its top destinations is the Caribbean island of Caye Caulker. Not only is it one of the best bases from which to take a diving trip to the Great Blue Hole, it’s also a fantastic spot for snorkelling. Many tourists are lucky enough to swim with manatees, but even if these unusual creatures aren’t feeling sociable, you’ll still love getting up close to sharks, sting rays, turtles and loads of tropical fish. San Ignacio, near the border with Guatemala, is a lovely town with options for tubing and fascinating cave tours.
Bolivia is a really diverse country. Its scenery ranges from dense jungle to desert and there are a multitude of fascinating activities on offer. Adventure enthusiasts will love cycling Death Road and exploring the depths of the Amazon pampas from Rurrenabaque. You can fly to this Amazonian base, but it’s more of a memorable experience if you hire a jeep. Pretty much every visitor stops in La Paz for a few days. You can see most of its main sights in one day, but make sure you stop by the witches market and the Museo de Coca. If you’re Peru bound, you should stop on the shores of the beautiful Lake Titicaca, which is worth a visit from both Copacabana (in Bolivia) and Puno (in Peru). Heading south towards Chile, there’s the chance to see the world’s largest collection of dinosaur footprints near Sucre and to take a tour of the Potosi mines where you’ll meet some really inspirational people. Few visitors to Bolivia ignore the Uyuni salt flats, which are explored on a 3-4 day jeep tour that also takes in colourful lakes, weird and wonderful rock formations, geysers and desert.
Most visitors to Brazil will spend a significant proportion of their time in Rio. Some of the top activities, aside from sunning yourself and people watching on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, are a visit to see Christ the Redeemer, a trip to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, a tour of a favela, and a visit to the intricately detailed and colourful Lapa Steps. It’s well worth timing your trip to coincide with the Rio Carnival street parties, and you should also splash out on a ticket to the Sambadrome parade. South of Rio, there are some great beach spots, including the quaint town of Paraty and the party island of Florianopolis.
Chile is so long and thin that you’ll probably find yourself weaving back and forth across the border with Argentina. This can mean that you miss a few spots that might otherwise have appealed. The capital, Santiago, feels just like a European city. The streets aren’t threatening to solo travellers, and there are plenty of museums, parks, churches, galleries and scenic viewpoints to explore. The nearby seaside city of Valparaiso is a colour explosion of street art and rainbow steps. In the far north of Chile, the Atacama desert hosts some fantastic tours, from geysers and hot springs to sand boarding lessons, while, at the opposite end of the country, the Torres del Paine is one of the world’s most beautiful hiking regions.
Most visitors to Colombia begin their journey in the capital Bogota. Top sights include a salt cathedral, a teleferico ride to a scenic spot above the city, and the Gold Museum. Heading up towards the north coast, you’ll pass through Colombia’s adventure capital – San Gil – where hiking, paragliding and rappelling are popular pastimes. Whether you choose to base yourself in Taganga or Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park’s beaches are a must see. It is also from here that you can take a guided 4 or 5 day trek through jungle and indigenous villages to see the majestic Lost City. Return to civilisation with a stop off in the gorgeous colonial port of Cartagena and don’t miss the chance to lounge in a mud volcano. The fluorescent streets of Guatape and Piedra de Penol make for an amazing day trip from Medellin, while the region of Salento is the perfect place to unwind, wander through the beautiful Cocora Valley wax palms and learn how to make coffee. For the most part, Colombia feels safe and extremely welcoming. In fact, the locals are among the friendliest in the world. Caution should be exercised in some of the more major cities, though, especially Cali. If you choose to take the bus south from Colombia into Ecuador, do it by day with a reputable company.
Although it’s significantly more expensive than neighbouring Central American countries, Costa Rica still attracts a huge number of visitors each year. It’s well set up for tourism, making booking tours and transport really straightforward. It’s also a fantastic destination for adventure activities. These include surfing in Dominical, white water rafting on the Pacuare, horseback riding in La Fortuna and zip lining in the cloud forest of Monteverde. If you’re looking for relaxation, soak yourself in the hot springs of La Fortuna or laze on the beaches of Manuel Antonio, where cheeky monkeys and racoons try to steal your lunch. Wildlife enthusiasts shouldn’t miss Corcovado National Park, which National Geographic has described as the most ecologically intense place on earth. The best base from which to explore this is Drake Bay, where other activities include snorkelling, fishing and quad biking.
Visitors to Ecuador will inevitably pass through its capital Quito at some stage in their trip. It’s a fascinating city, with an exciting church steeple climb and panoramic views from the surrounding mountains. Take a day trip to the Mitad del Mundo (equator museum), where you can balance eggs on nails and watch how water flows in each hemisphere. Nearby Mindo is a beautiful forest getaway worthy of a few days, where you can zip line, tube, hike and marvel at the diversity of bird and butterfly species. For those keen to stay active, Ecuador has some fantastic hikes, which are made much more challenging by the altitude. Cotopaxi volcano requires you to don crampons and leap over fissures, but rewards you with spectacular views above the clouds. A good warm up for the climb is the Quilotoa Loop walk, which takes in the aquamarine waters of Quilotoa Crater. Banos is great for relaxing thermal pools, cycling and museums, but for those who want to really immerse themselves in Ecuador’s culture, it’s well worth planning your itinerary around the Mama Negra Festival. On the coast, you’ve got the option of surfing and partying hard in Montanita or staying in the less than idyllic Puerto Lopez, which is a prime location for whale watching and visiting Isla de la Plata. Once you’ve whet your appetite for incredible wildlife, it’s time to hop on a flight to the incredible Galapagos Islands, where the best way to explore is on a Galapagos cruise.
Europe is a continent filled with culture and history. It’s great appeal is that you can pass from one country to the next and be greeted by completely different styles of dress, languages, traditions and cuisines. Europe’s cities are popular as weekend city breaks and are home to some of the most visited attractions in the world. These include the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Westminster Abbey in London, the canals of Venice and Amsterdam, and the Colosseum in Rome. Often the best way to explore is to grab a map, mark off the main attractions you want to see using your guidebook, and wander the streets all day long.
Not only is Guatemala relatively cheap to travel through, it has a wealth of great destinations for backpackers. Tikal is one of the most impressive sites of ancient civilisation in the world, the gorgeous colonial town of Antigua threatens to hold onto you forever, and the shores of Lago Atitlan provide stunning views – not to mention the chance of leaping off a huge platform into the lake. Speaking of leaping, if you’re a bit of an adventure junkie, head to Semuc Champey for one of the best day tours you will ever do. If peace and quiet is what you’re after, the remote riverside retreats of Rio Dulce are good for a jungle massage, as well as providing a base for canoeing and visiting the sandy beach near Livingstone.
The majority of travellers to Mexico head straight for the Yucatan Peninsula, and there’s good reason for this. The beaches along the Riviera Maya seem to go on forever. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll discover a world of fascinating experiences. From June to September, you can swim with whale sharks at Isla Mujeres, scuba divers are spoiled for choice with hundreds of cenotes and caverns to explore, and while Tulum and Coba are among the best ruins in Mexico, especially due to their striking locations, there are plenty more across the country, including the famous Chichen Itza. If you venture further inland, there are some great spots along the road from Palenque all the way to San Cristobal de Las Casas, including waterfalls and gorgeous swimming holes. In Oaxaca, you can learn how mezcal is made on a tour that also includes a massive tree, a petrified waterfall and yet more ruins. Mexico City deserves at least a couple of days so you can look around the old town, as well as visit Teotihuacan. Another place that should be on everyone’s list is Laguna Bacalar – a small slice of heaven on the route down towards Belize.
There are two aspects of New Zealand that make it such a popular travel destination. One is the scenery and the other is the huge variety of adrenaline-fulled sports on offer. Pretty much any place you go, there’ll be the chance to do a bungy, a canyon swing, a controlled base jump or a skydive. Some particularly adventurous highlights include canyoning in Piha, hiking on Franz Josef Glacier, jet boating at Huka Falls, blackwater rafting and extreme caving near Waitomo, rafting and sledging in Rotorua, and piloting a stunt plane in aerobatics! As far as scenery goes, you can take a flight over Franz Josef Glacier, hike the footpaths surrounding Mt Cook, take a cruise of Milford Sound or a train ride through snow-capped mountains, kayak in Abel Tasman, or explore the thermals of Wai-O-Tapu and Waimangu. In Auckland, you can sail in the harbour, dive with sharks, or jump off the Harbour Bridge. Other great cities include Christchurch, which is still recovering from the earthquake of 2011, and Wellington.
Peru’s number one tourist spot has to be Machu Picchu. While it’s common for people to sign up months in advance for the Inca Trail, there are other options on offer, including the Jungle Trail, which includes rafting, zip lining and high-speed cycling. Arequipa is a gorgeous town with a fascinating monastery called Santa Catalina. From here, it would be sacrilege not to explore Colca Canyon and seek out the condors that soar and swoop over Condor Cross. If you’ve got a head for heights and can stomach a tiny plane, take a flight over the ancient and mystifying Nazca lines. Nazca is also the spot from which to visit the eerie Chauchilla cemetery, which features in Indiana Jones. The nearby desert Oasis of Huacachina is also worth a visit, if not to sand board and dune buggy then to sip cocktails in the sun. Hikers will enjoy the 4-day Santa Cruz trek, which takes in Paramount Mountain of movie fame. Also departing from Huaraz, and acting as good acclimatisation for the trek are a selection of great day trips to glaciers and turquoise lakes. To really immerse yourself in the culture, try a homestay on Amantani Island combined with a trip to the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca. The foodies among you should also try eating cuy.
Tanzania is a great place for those who are interested in volunteering overseas. While many opportunities cost an arm and a leg, Hostel Hoff in Moshi was set up as a way of helping match up travellers with free placements in the local area. If you have the time, you should think about climbing Kilimanjaro – a great way to raise money for the cause you’ve chosen to work with – and go on safari to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. Another worthwhile experience is visiting a Maasai tribe.