Looking to tick off some big bucket list items in 2020, but not sure where to start? My top 10 travel experiences should provide some inspiration… 

My Top 10 Travel Experiences (2020 Edition)

2020 has just begun, bringing with it a blank canvas of possibility. If you are anything like me, no doubt you’ll be day dreaming about trips abroad for the upcoming 12 months. And if you need some travel inspiration or ideas for the year ahead, you’ve come to the right place. Following on swiftly from my updated top 10 countries article, I’ve decided to update the list of my top 10 travel experiences to welcome in the new year. 

2019 was a good year and I enjoyed trips to the USA, Nepal, Spain, Argentina and Chile. Two experiences from this selection of trips have managed to squeeze their way onto this list. It’s with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to scuba diving in Thailand and a private island in paradise, which have fallen out of the top 10 (however, you can read about those experiences in last year’s list, here). The big question is whether Machu Picchu will manage to hold onto the top spot. Read on to find out… 

My top 10 travel experiences

10. Seeing Niagara from the sky (8)

The year was 2016 and I’d ventured over to Toronto with a group of high school friends for a wedding. We spent one of the days in full tourist mode and couldn’t resist a trip to see the famous Niagara Falls. It ended up being one of the best day excursions I’ve ever been on. On the way to the falls we stopped off at the picturesque town Niagara-on-the-Lake, saw the world’s smallest chapel and enjoyed some wine tasting. All of this was backdropped with laughter, as days with old friends often are. 

The highlight, undoubtedly, was being given the chance to see the falls from a bird’s perspective. The old me might have passed on the opportunity – “but will it be worth $90?” Thankfully I was in my ‘say yes more’ phase. An arial perspective allows you to really appreciate the sheer scale of the falls: the horseshoe bend alone sees more than 600,000 gallons of water crashing over each second. In the middle, the raging foam creates a swirling mist which hangs above the water. Later we would ride the Maid of the Mist to the foot of the falls. But for now, all I could do was gawp and snap away.

When to go: April-May & September-October are perfect times to visit Niagara (and Toronto).

An arial view of the Niagara Falls

9. Visiting Singapore for the first time (7)

2015 was a special year: I took my first tentative steps outside of my comfort zone (the US and Western Europe) and headed over to South East Asia. My first stop was the island city state of Singapore, where two university friends were living. As with any first love, Singapore holds a special place in my heart.

Singapore sank its seductive claws into me and, in truth, it has never let go (I went back in 2016 and 2017 and it’s only a matter of time before I visit again). Something about the city resonates with me. It is a vibrant meting pot of cultures. The food scene is special – Singapore gave me my first taste of sushi, dumplings at Din Tai Fung, and pure joy at the hawker centres (try the dark variety of carrot cake, it’s delicious). Then there’s the architecture – from the futuristic lines of the Marina Bay Sands to the rainbow facades on Koon Seng Road. Singapore is also clean and green. Make sure you check out the world famous Gardens by the Bay and the towering super tree grove!

But what made Singapore so special was the opportunity to catch up with my university pals. Experiences shared with close friends are the best kind of experiences. 

When to go: Singapore is warm all year round, however January through to April experiences the least rain and provides an ample opportunity to experience some winter sun!

My Favourite Trip - Singapore

8. The most spectacular sunset in Essaouira (6)

Sunsets are one of my favourite things to photograph. Watching the sky change through a kaleidoscope of pink and purple hues is extremely calming. The most fabulous sunset I have ever witnessed was in Essaouira, the chilled out port city on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. 

Late one afternoon I decided to take a stroll down the beach. It was low season and I had a vast stretch of the sandy shore to myself. As luck would have it, sunset coincided with low tide. The receding tide left a giant mirror of wet sand, which reflected the glorious sunset. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! 

When to go: for those who live in Northern Europe, Morocco is an easy to get to location for some winter vitamin D. In November, Essaouira enjoys daytime temperatures in the low 20s, although you might need a light sweater as it cools somewhat in the evenings. 

Essaouira - Borja El-Berod backdropped by a pastel sky

7. Taking a Tuscan road trip (4)

Yes it might have fallen three places from last year, but what can I say about the Italian countryside which hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot. It’s a ridiculously beautiful part of the world. In 2016, my friend Lucy and I drove through the Chianti region, from Florence to Siena to Pisa, with stop offs at a number of the tiny towns which dot the Italian countryside. It was spectacular – winding roads through vineyards and sun-kissed fields, ancient hill towns, mountain ranges on the horizon. And, of course, as much gelato as I could manage. 

My personal Tuscan highlight was Siena, which fuses the show-stopping nature of Florence (with its beautiful Cathedral and the Piazza del Campo) with the quaint, medieval style passages and alleyways usually found in the smaller towns and villages. We also treated ourselves to a wonderfully indulgent amount of beef in the form of a perfectly rare Florentine steak at Osteria Enoteca Sotto Le Fonti. Bellissimo!

When to go: visiting in April-May & late September-October allows you to avoid the summer holiday crowds and enjoy more comfortable temperatures.

A view of San Miniato and the surrounding Tuscan countryside as seen from the top of Friederick’s tower

6. Mountain Biking down Death Road (5)

On last year’s list, Death Road sat below the above abovementioned Tuscan road trip. What a difference a year makes… Whilst writing a couple of articles about my Bolivian adventure, I realised just how special the bike ride down Death Road was. You can read a blow by blow account of the exhilarating adventure here

If you’ve not heard of Death Road before, let me give you the lo-down. Yungas Road, known more colloquially as Death Road, has become a very popular attraction for adrenaline seekers visiting Bolivia. The idea of jumping on a mountain bike and hurtling down this 61km stretch of road attracts thousands of thrill seekers every year. And for good reason too – it’s bloody marvellous. 

Picture the scene: the wind rushes through your hair (or not, as the case may be) as you hurtle along a bumpy, rocky path which, in places, is no wider than 6 foot. To one side is a vertical green wall, swamped in mist and low hanging cloud. To the other, a 1,000 foot drop to the valley floor below. It’s an exhilarating, nail biting, white knuckle ride. If Death Road doesn’t get the adrenaline pumping, I don’t know what will. Thinking about having your own Death Road adventure? Here are 10 tips to successfully survive Death Road

When to go: for the best chance of clear skies, visit Bolivia during the dry season, which runs from May to October. This coincides with Bolivian winter, so you’ll need to wrap up warm in the high plains. Looking to avoid the crowds that the dry high season brings? I visited in April (the shoulder season) when it was slightly quieter and the weather was still decent. 

Death Road - Header

5. Walking with penguins (NE)

I’ve loved animals for as long as I can remember. I have vivid recollections from my childhood of watching Sir David Attenborough on ‘Life in the Freezer’. There’s one animal that stands out – the humble penguin. When I visited Patagonia, some 26 years after Life in the Freezer aired, I was lucky enough to walk amongst these quirky little creatures.
 
As I dropped from the boat down onto the shingle beach, a gentle noot noot drifted across the Patagonian breeze, greeting me. A pair of penguins waddled by and my face lit up with a huge grin. For the next hour I had the privilege to watch gentoo, megellanic and a King penguin go about their days. It was wonderful. If a trip to see penguins in Patagonia appeals to you, I have a blog post coming next week.

When to go: Patagonia is best visited between October and March, during summer in the southern hemisphere, and penguins colonise Martillo Island throughout this time. If you want to see the penguin chicks, aim to visit in December or January.

Penguins in Ushuaia - Stunning backdrop

4. Seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise for the first time (3)

I’ll never forget standing the time I stood side by side with two of my closest friends, as the unmistakeable silhouette of Angkor Wat materialised out of the darkness. We had awoken at some ungodly hour in the pitch black of the night. Fighting through our yawns we prepared to make the pilgrimage. In a state of excitement and anticipation we made our way across Angkor Wat’s surrounding moat and through the main gateway, passing the north library and heading excitedly towards the Terrace of Honour. There, at the bank of the Northern reflecting pool we waited. The sky began to change – from a burning orange, which faded to yellow and then deepened into blue, as the sun welcomed in a new day, revealing the temple in all of its glory.

When to go: Cambodia is a solid choice for winter sun, with November to April experiencing very little rain. Want to avoid the busiest times? Try visiting during the shoulder months of October and April. 

3. Witnessing the awesome spectacle of the Uyuni Salt Flats (2)

The landscapes of Bolivia, high up on the Altiplano, are some of the most jaw-droppingly awe inspiring sights on the planet. Here you will find volcanoes, ice-capped mountains, bellowing geysers, bubbling hot springs, blood red lakes and a train graveyard. There is one sight, however, which sits above all others…

The Salar de Uyuni is one of the most remarkable vistas on the planet. I’ve never seen anything like it. The thick crust of salt, covering some 10,500km² is all that remains of an ancient salt lake, long since evaporated by the unrelenting Andean sun. 

The salar’s flat tessellated surface stretches to the horizon in every direction, glistening white in the sunlight. To the eyes, it appears to be infinite in its scale. I’d wanted to see the Salar with my own eyes for a couple of years and I was overwhelmed by the staggering scale of it. If there’s one place on this planet to make you feel tiny, it’s the Salar de Uyuni.

When to go: as I mentioned earlier, for the best chance of clear skies, visit Bolivia during the dry season, which runs from May to October. 

Salar de Uyuni

2. Gazing upon Machu Picchu in the early evening light (1)

While Peru maintained its position as my favourite country, its crown jewel has dropped to second place on my list. Notwithstanding this, seeing Machu Picchu in the flesh is without doubt one of the great travel experiences. The day began too early – it was 3:00am when my alarm jolted me awake. We sleepwalked down to our pickup point and, after a snoozy stint in a minibus, we boarded the iconic blue carriages of the Inca Rail. A couple of coffees later I was raring to go, excited for the trek which lay ahead of us. After eight hours of hiking along the Inca Trail, we reached our destination… 

It was late in the afternoon when we finally received our reward for the day of trekking. There, right in front of us, was Machu Picchu. It sits perched on an impossibly steep mountain side, surrounded by jutting peaks and under the watchful gaze of Huayna Picchu. Photographs do not and cannot do this place justice – to see Machu Picchu through your own eyes is the only way to truly appreciate its majestic beauty. By late afternoon, the majority of day trippers had already departed and we had the place to ourselves. From our lofty vantage point, we watched on as the sun, barely hanging above the surrounding mountains, cast long shadows over the grass and ancient stones. 

When to go: April is the perfect time to visit Machu Picchu – the dry season has just begun, meaning that the days are long and the skies are blue. Additionally, you’ll be able to avoid peak tourist season, which runs from May to October. 

Machu Picchu - Peru Header

1. Reaching the Thorong La Pass (NE)

Taking the number one spot in my top 10 travel experiences are the magical two and a half weeks that I spent hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. My personal highlight was reaching the Thorong La Pass, some 5,416m above sea level. It was a 3am wake up call and the small matter of tackling a 1,000m ascent. The journey began under the beautiful canopy of the milky way, which slowly dissipated as night gave way to morning. Taking a break to watch the sun’s first rays hit the peaks of distant mountains, I temporarily forgot about the aching in my legs from the previous 9 days of walking. 

It’s a hard feeling to describe, the first glimpse of those multicoloured prayer flags fluttering in the everlasting wind. Knowing it was just a matter of steps until I would reach the pinnacle of the trip. All those tiring days of walking coming to a joyous mountain top crescendo. 

When to go: for the best hiking conditions, visit Nepal in either late September-December or late February-April.

Posing at the Thorung La Pass - Square

That’s a wrap – those are my top 10 travel experiences. Why not leave me a comment to let me know what makes your own list…  

By CHRIS BURCHILL

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