Since saying #yolo and going solo as a backpacker in October 2016, my travels have taken me across three continents and seventeen countries. From spelunking through magnificent underground caves to climbing radiant mountains with cascading colors, the world has taught me that the more I see, the less I have actually seen. There is so much out there to see and experience, but for now, these are the ten that have stuck with me the most.
Volcan Acatenango, Guatemala
This was a one-of-a-kind experience. After a brutal night out at one of Guatemala’s most famous parties, I began the trek running on no sleep and little energy. After hearing from many people, including hardened trekkers, that it was among the most difficult hikes they have ever done, my mental state was actually as bad as my physical state. Regardless, I forced myself to do this and it was worth every single step of suffering. The volcanic eruptions coming from neighboring Volcan Fuego made the ground tremble, but it wasn’t until we got to our base camp that we could see what the entire journey was about. There were six of us grown men on that hike, and you would have thought we were little children with how giddy and excited we were at every eruption. It was one of those things that you truly do not understand until you experience it for yourself.
I promptly passed out as soon as we got to base camp around 4 in the late afternoon. That gave me plenty of time to sleep until waking up at around 2 AM, just in time to watch the night show. I was the only one awake for several hours, in constant awe and amazement as eruption after eruption lit up the night sky. With thousands of stars visible in the sky, even the calm quiet between eruptions was an epic feeling. I was blessed with a clear sky and an active volcano, and very few experiences in my life rank up there with hiking Acatenango.
Rainbow Mountain, Peru
Rainbow Mountain is a newly discovered adventure but is quickly becoming one of Peru’s most popular destinations. Just a few hours away from Cusco, it is becoming a must-see side destination for travelers going to Machu Picchu. Admittedly, the iconic Rainbow Mountain at the end will never be as vibrant as it looks in everyone’s Instagram pictures, but the entire hike is filled with some incredible views. Snow-capped mountains, rolling green valleys, oddly-colored mountains and rock formations, and all the alpacas that your heart desires makes this hike one of my favorite adventures, even though the altitude sickness meant that I could barely remember it.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Of the seven new world wonders that I’ve been to, Machu Picchu has been the only one that I feel actually belongs on that list. The ruins of this once large city are perched atop lush green mountains nearing 10,000 feet in altitude. The mere idea of an ancient generation building this incredible city atop a mountain with minimal technology is enough to blow one’s mind, but the beauty of the city and the mountains just make it that much more breathtaking. No matter what journey you take en route to Machu Picchu, it will be a fitting end. I hiked the Salkantay Trek which had stunning views that made the epic journey just as good as the final destination. Seeing the clouds and the morning fog clear up to reveal the entire city was nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia
Although the Salt Flats were admittedly not as magical as everyone makes them look on Instagram, once you get over the slight pang of disappointment, you do realize how unbelievable this place is. Everyone has seen those pictures on Instagram of the Salt Flats with a thin layer of water, making it one of the most reflective places on Earth. We, unfortunately, didn’t get to see that, but we got our fun perspective pictures and carried on throughout the vast white expanses of the Salar de Uyuni. The sunset was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen… from the inside of a car because f*ck it was cold out there. I highly recommend doing a multi-day tour if you are going to Uyuni because they will take you to some insane scenery and quirky little things. A hotel made entirely of salt? Yup. An island of massive cacti in the middle of the Salt Flats? Yup. An abandoned train graveyard? Yup. You’ll also see white lagunas, green lagunas, and the stunning Laguna Colorada. Some of it is just as exciting and breathtaking as seeing the Salt Flats, so definitely go out of your way to do a multi-day tour.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
South East Asia is well known for its temples, but none as famous as Angkor Wat. This massive temple is the world’s largest religious monument, but its size isn’t the only thing that makes it impressive. The intricate details carved into the stone surfaces of the temple are incredible, and the amount of effort and precision that went into this temple does not get enough appreciation.
Angkor Wat is part of the larger Angkor Archaeological Park, which has several other temple complexes and ruins. Many of these are also worth seeing if you want to get the full experience. Angkor Wat is by far the most rebuilt and reconstructed, so you should definitely check out the other ones if you want to get a more authentic experience. Although some are overgrown and in deep disrepair, it is one hell of an experience crouching through crumbling buildings and pushing through vegetation like you were in Tomb Raider.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Over three thousand islands and limestone karsts call Ha Long Bay home. I’m not much for tropical destinations, but Ha Long Bay is unbelievable. Taking a boat ride through the islands gives you a taste of how stunning this area is, but you should try to do more than just the typical tourist cruise. Kayaking and meandering leisurely gives you an up close and personal experience, and going on a hike to a viewpoint in Cat Ba gives you an idea of the vast expanses of Ha Long Bay.
Paradise Cave, Phong Nha, Vietnam
For those who are looking for something different than beaches and jungles, Phong Nha is the up and coming destination for travelers in Vietnam. A vast, lush national park is filled with caves, including the world’s largest, the world’s third largest, and several others, including Paradise Cave. I accidentally ended up in Phong Nha because I fell asleep on the sleeper bus to Ninh Binh, but thankfully was contacted by Phong Nha Discovery and decided to go on a tour with them. Paradise Cave was the highlight, and it was hard to believe that anything like this actually existed. After Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay, I was skeptical that Vietnam had anything else that would arouse anything more than a “meh” from me, but Paradise Cave genuinely left me in awe.
Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand
We got to Bangkok at around 5 in the morning after a long day of traveling, jet lag, and exhaustion. We couldn’t check into our room for several more hours, so we dropped our bags off at reception and decided to push ourselves into exploring Bangkok. First up on the list was the Grand Palace. Seeing the magnificence of this place was probably the only thing that could have woken us up at that point. I could not even begin to accurately describe the intricacy and extravagance of this place. In one direction, there were majestic golden spires sitting atop impeccably detailed temples and shrines. In another direction, giant statues of guardians, equally shiny and equally intricate. A massive mural spanned the entire interior of the temple grounds. Honestly, save this temple for last if you go to Bangkok. The other temples are also incredible, but there’s no denying that Wat Phra Kaew blows them all out of the water.
Related: 10 Things You Need To Do In Bangkok
Being a backpacker in Cuba was one of the more challenging stretches of traveling I have ever had. From the lack of Internet, hostels, English-speaking Cubans, and American-friendly ATMs, I was well out of my comfort zone. It took the majority of our time in Cuba to finally adjust to what had been the biggest culture shock I had had in recent memory, but once we started accepting that Cuba was not going to accommodate to us, Cuba started becoming a lot more enjoyable.
Havana is unlike any other city I have ever been to, and it goes beyond just the classic cars and colorful architecture. The vibe in Havana is just a lot of fun, and the people are extremely friendly. The cars and lack of corporations definitely contribute to the feeling that you are in some sort of movie set, but Havana itself is one of the most unique cities regardless of the whole “going back in time” thing.
Related: The Backpacker’s Guide To Cuba
Death Road, Bolivia
Few things have made me feel as alive as cycling down Bolivia’s notorious Yungas Road, nicknamed Death Road due to being the world’s deadliest road. When it was in use, it accounted for 200-300 deaths a year. Naturally, it became a tourist attraction once it was closed down. Cyclists still die occasionally on the road, and despite being a tourist attraction, it is not very safe. While you’re actually biking, you might neglect to pay attention to the incredible scenery. It really wasn’t only until after I got to look at my GoPro footage that I realized all the stuff I was missing while my eyes were laser-focused on the trail ahead of me. The exhilaration is indescribable, but the scenery is amazing as well. Even before actually starting on the dangerous gravel road, the foreboding black mountains spiking up from the background serve as an ominous reminder that you are about to bike down a road called f*ckin’ Death Road. The mountains literally remind me of the ones surrounding Black Gate from Lord of the Rings, if that gives you an idea.
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