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Three Months in Santa Marta

When my short stay in Palomino came to an end it was time to return to Santa Marta. I’d been away for a couple of weeks and felt ready to get back to work. One thing I didn’t realise was that January is peak season in Colombia, proper peak season – like August in Southern Europe. To say I was surprised by how busy I found Santa Marta is an understatement. So much so I had to spend a week in a different hostel because República was full. Madness!

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#18 Baalbek, Lebanon

Despite the small size, Lebanon is a beautiful country with plenty of things to see and do. One clear advantage of its reduced dimensions is that you can base yourself in Beirut, the vibrant capital, and explore the rest of the country from there. Baalbek, easily reached by shared van in a couple of hours, is the one destination (aside from Beirut, of course) I’d say is absolutely unmissable.

Its biggest attraction is the archeological site that bears the town’s name. The ruins date back to Roman times and are some of the best-preserved in existence. The whole place is spectacular and lots of fun to explore, but it’s the Temple of Bacchus – its crown jewel – that makes jaws drop. The lookout within the temple grounds gives a good idea of how massive it is. A stunner, inside and out!

#17 Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

One of the biggest mistakes I see people making when they visit Sri Lanka is going to Sigiriya and skipping Pidurangala at sunset. Located practically in the middle of nowhere, Sigiriya is one of the most spectacular destinations in the country and one that features on most itineraries. Its biggest attraction is Lion Rock, a massive rock that sort of looks like a lion. You can climb to the top and explore the ruins of a former royal palace, which is pretty cool.

While Lion Rock is a stunner and well worth a visit despite the excessive admission fee, the outstanding view you get from Pidurangala – a nearby rock – doesn’t lag far behind. Better yet, it’s free. You can easily reach the entrance on foot or by tuk-tuk. The climb up can be challenging at times but the reward awaiting at the top is more than worth it. As beautiful as Lion Rock may be from the ground, this view is very hard to beat. Especially at sunset.

#16 Ouzoud Falls, Morocco

Despite being one of the most visited destinations in Morocco, Marrakesh is far from being its most exciting. Very far, actually. In my opinion it lacks the traditional charm of places like Chefchaouen, Fes, or Essaouira. It’s still worth a visit, of course, but I find that one of its major highlights is being relatively close to places like Imlil (for Mt Toubkal), the ancient fortress of Ait Ben Haddou, or the stunning Ouzoud Falls.

When I decided to visit the falls my expectations were little to none, it simply seemed like something cool to do. But when I got there my jaw dropped immediately. Measuring over 100 metres in height, the falls are a sight to behold. What’s best is you can actually explore the area via a path that takes you to the bottom of the dramatic cliff. It can get busy and feel a bit too commercial at times, but one quick look at this natural beauty will quickly make anyone forget that.

#15 Sydney, Australia

If I were to make a list of my favourite landmarks across the world, the Sydney Opera House would definitely be somewhere near the top. It’s one of those buildings that have always fascinated me, probably because of its uniqueness. Sydney was the last stop on my short Australia adventure and to say I was excited to finally see the Opera House in person is a wild understatement. It’s one of the most iconic buildings in the world for a reason.

Opened in 1973, its odd shape was actually inspired by a peeled orange! It is much bigger than people imagine and a lot of fun to explore. The whole area surrounding the Opera House is perfect for hanging out on a sunny day enjoying excellent views of the imposing Sydney Harbour Bridge and the harbour itself. Sadly, it was winter when I visited so I had to enjoy it in the company of a few raindrops. I look forward to going back one day, this time around in summer!

#14 Borobudur, Indonesia

When people think of Indonesia the first thing that usually pops into their minds is Bali. Can’t blame them, really. And even though I’m not a big fan of the island, I can appreciate why people would be attracted to the lush greenery, temples, and white sandy beaches with crystal clear water on offer. Me? I’m more of a Java man. Indonesia’s main island has a tremendous amount of things to explore and getting to them tends to involve a fair bit of adventure, which is just the type of thing I love.

While not my favourite (or most adventurous) of the lot, Borobudur – an 8th century Buddhist temple, the largest in the world – offers a sunrise that rivals many of the best I’ve had a chance to experience across the world. Once you make it inside the complex you rush to the top of the temple to get a jaw-dropping view of these gorgeous bell-domed stupas (of which there are over 70, most of them with a Buddha statue inside) overlooking a misty Mount Merapi. It’s magical, there’s no other way to describe it.

#13 Shiraz, Iran

Iran is a country of many beautiful mosques and while I’ll admit I’d probably have a hard time listing the prettiest (because there are so many!), whenever I think about it there’s always one that immediately comes to mind: the Pink Mosque. Its actual name is Nasir al-Mulk Mosque and it is located in Shiraz, a city that does not lack spectacular attractions. While the mosque itself doesn’t differ much from most of the other mosques in the country (it is actually a bit underwhelming in comparison to some, which is crazy given how impressive they all are) it stands out for different reasons.

So, what makes it so special? Well, this is a mosque that you should visit early in the morning in order to witness a unique spectacle; once the sun reaches a certain height in the sky and the rays start peeking through the coloured glass panels, the whole prayer room transforms itself into a massive kaleidoscope. It’s unbelievably beautiful, and a truly surreal experience. Those who get out of bed early are rewarded with the chance to briefly enjoy the moment in peaceful silence before the groups of noisy tourists eventually arrive to completely ruin the mood. Worth it, though!

#12 Durdle Door, England

One of the downsides of living in London is the lack of wild nature. There are plenty of parks, but fans of the outdoors like me are unlikely to be fully satisfied with a green lawn and some trees. Thankfully there are a few good options just a couple of hours away by train, one of them being Durdle Door – a massive rock formation on the Dorset coast that is nothing short of stunning. You can reach it the easy way by driving there, or the hard way by taking an early train to Weymouth and walking to Lulworth Cove for the train back to London.

This is actually a very popular hike (not as popular as the Seven Sisters, though) and chances of being completely alone are quite slim. Still, the 18-kilometre trek offers excellent views of rocky cliffs throughout. It also offers a decent physical challenge since some of the cliffs are very steep and the wind is relentlessly ever-present. Despite this, since the Durdle Door is located near the end of the trail, the reward for the effort couldn’t be better. One of the funnest day trips from London, no doubt.

#11 SE3 Train, Vietnam

One thing that always breaks my heart is talking to people who’ve been to Vietnam and learn they took a bus from Hue straight to Hoi An. A bus! It’s a shame because, even though it may be easier, it doesn’t quite compare to the beauty that is riding the SE3 train. Granted the train doesn’t go all the way to Hoi An and a taxi may be needed to complete the last stretch of the ride, but with views like this does it really matter?

The train ride starts slowly but quickly picks up the pace. For about an hour or so nothing really happens apart from passing the odd town, but then… the quick change of scenery hits you like a brick. Suddenly you’re surrounded by lush greenery that seems to swallow the train whole, not to mention the outstanding views of the sea! This stretch of the SE3 route is considered one of the most scenic in the world for a reason, too bad so many tourists overlook it.

#10 Chichen Itza, Mexico

For lovers of ancient civilisations, few places are as exciting as the Yucatán Peninsula in southeastern Mexico. The amount of incredibly preserved Mayan ruins to discover, each one better than the next, makes it an authentic playground for explorers and history lovers alike. While not my favourite of the lot (that would have to be Palenque), Chichen Itza is by far the most impressive. There’s a reason it is the most recognised Mayan ruin in the world!

Contrary to popular belief, the famous limestone pyramid is actually called Temple of Kukulcán and is part of a much larger (and very interesting) complex called… Chichen Itza! The pyramid sits in the middle of an archeological site where a large Mayan city existed some 1,500 years ago. While the surrounding ruins are extremely well preserved and a delight to explore, its imposing scale unsurprisingly makes Kukulcán the crown jewel of Chichen Itza.