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Our world is filled with must-see sights and attractions, and some of them are far easier to reach than others. Seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Coliseum in Rome is easy on nearly any casual swing through Europe, whether it’s early in your life or late. Sights like those are also surrounded by hundreds of other worthwhile things, so working them into your schedule is best left to a regional trip where you can give everything the attention that it deserves.
But the world is also home to a nearly infinite list of excellent sights and attractions that are harder to see without going to great lengths and tremendous expense. Some of them are set among other things that could help justify a special trip, but many of Earth’s greatest attractions are spread around the globe in places that aren’t conquered so easily.
Those planning a Round The Word (RTW) trip have a special advantage in their sightseeing future, since just a short jump can put them in one of these outstanding places that seem so remote otherwise. The list below could be 100 places long, and a huge part of the appeal of a RTW trip is having the ability to invent your own itinerary, so really, anything goes. Nevertheless, here are 11 places that many people find to be huge highlights of a RTW trip, and it’s also fairly easy to string many of these together on the average global tour.
1 – Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil
It’s hard to classify the appeal of watching water rapidly changing elevation en mass, but for one reason or another nearly everyone who visits the Iguazu Falls finds it stunning and very worthwhile. Globally speaking, these falls are far more impressive than Niagara, and their only rival is Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, and that one is far too out of the way for most RTW travelers. There are actually 270 separate falls spread over 2.7 kilometers of curving forest, so the number of unique views of the falls is almost endless. Iguazu is spread between Argentina and Brazil, with each side having a very impressive and different national park from which to take in the views, and there are speed boat rides through the falls, among other things, located down below, so spending most of a day at each park doesn’t get old as quickly as you might fear.
Travelers counting countries also get a bonus as the falls are where Paraguay meets Argentina and Brazil, and short forays into that landlocked country are possible during your visit. You can reach the Iguazu Falls area on long bus rides from anywhere in the region, and also on short and cheap flights from Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro. Package deals including a flight, hotel, and tours of both parks are quite affordable.
Read our Buenos Aires Indie Travel Guide
2 – Machu Picchu, Peru
The Lost City of the Incas is something of a backpackers’ cliché at this point, but it’s hard to find past visitors who regret stopping off at one of the planet’s most famous checklist attractions. In case you haven’t heard by now, there are no roads that reach Aguas Calientes, which is the charming town at the base of the mountain. Your choices are either a 2 or 4-day hike along the famous Inca Trail, or a 5-hour train journey that leaves from Cusco each morning. If you are in a hiking mood you should investigate and probably book your trek well in advance since space each day is limited to 500 people. For people considering arriving by rails you can usually book the trip the day before at any one of about a thousand Cusco travel agencies.
No matter which method you will try, you’ll be leaving from the ancient Incan capital city of Cusco, which is actually at a significantly higher altitude than the Machu Picchu mountaintop itself. This makes it an ideal place to acclimatize to the altitude before the trek, but also reason to take it easy for at least your first day there. Fortunately, Cusco is an excellent, fun, and beautiful city on its own. There are many other worthwhile attractions nearby, and the nightlife and restaurant scenes are surprisingly good too.
Check out the Lima Indie Travel Guide
3 – Tikal, Guatemala
If you are going to see just one set of Mayan ruins in your life, you might as well make it the largest and grandest of them all. Located in northern Guatemala within the boundaries of the Tikal National Park, these amazing ruins have been discovered deep in a rainforest, and only a small percentage of them have been uncovered at this point. Tours start early in the morning, and one highlight is being serenaded by the many howler monkeys who live in the trees above you. The “howl” is really more of a roar, and is a sound you won’t soon forget.
To visit Tikal most people either take a short flight from Guatemala City or a half-day bus ride from Belize City. The ruins are about 30 kilometers from the small town on an island lake called Flores, which dates back to the 13th Century, has quite a few cheap hotels, and is a great attraction unto itself. The larger town of Santa Elena is just across the causeway from the island, and it has some even cheaper accommodations, but is far less charming.
Read our Guatemala Indie Travel Guide
4 – Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
There are quite a few good pyramids in this part of Egypt, but the Great Pyramids of Giza really do live up to their name. It would be unforgivable to go anywhere near Cairo and miss seeing them in person, and thanks to an endless army of tour guides and touts, skipping this short trip is much more challenging than actually going through with it. Since about 99% of the photos you’ll ever see of the pyramids and the Sphinx are taken from the same side, most people assume they are located well out into a barren desert, but in reality they are right on the edge of the huge city of Giza, which is just across the Nile from Cairo. You can clearly see them from the freeway as you approach, and there are fast food restaurants located just outside the entrance.
Visiting the pyramids can be done effectively in half a day or so, especially since they are located only about 25 kilometers from central Cairo. When you get to Cairo you’ll be relentlessly harassed by touts who will offer to arrange a driver or guide for you and hook you up with other area sights and tours. Fortunately these tours are usually cheap and legitimate, but the process of choosing one can be maddening. Prefab tours also leave from some Cairo hotels each morning for those who prefer to be part of a larger group.
Check out our Cairo Indie Travel Guide
5 – Petra, Jordan
Most who visit Jordan find it to be a delightful introduction to the mysterious Middle Eastern culture that seems so menacing for those who only focus on newspaper headlines. This ancient city built into pink rock formations is only one of the many highlights for those who take the trouble to visit this relatively calm part of a troubled region. The standard tour of Petra takes most of a day, and there are plenty of add-ons available like renting horses or mules to help take some of the load off on what is otherwise a strenuous tour.
You can get to Petra as part of a tour after landing in Amman, which is about 3 hours away by car. You can also reach Petra from Israel, so those who include Jerusalem on their trip can skip backtracking to Amman and see more of the acclaimed scenery in the area.
Read the Amman Indie Travel Guide
6 – Rajasthan, India
Most who visit India have seeing the Taj Mahal at the top of their list, and as understandable as that is, it’s a huge shame if people zero in on that one palace in Agra, just a bit south of Delhi, and ignore this region that is filled with mysticism, camels, forts, temples, and a blinding array of bright colors. Rajasthan is the largest state in this huge country, and it’s also home to much of what people picture when they think of “exotic India.” Stop off in the capital of Jaipur for a mind-blowing urban experience, but also be sure to spend some time in one or more of the small towns. The extremely holy village of Pushkar is popular with backpackers, especially those willing to trade access to the spiritual aid of a famous bhang lassi for any possibility of finding alcohol or meat.
You can fly into Jaipur, Jodhpur, or Udaipur from any of India’s larger cities, or you can arrive on the country’s well-known train system, which is probably more luxurious than you expect as long as you spring a bit more for one of the still-cheap upper classes of service. There is also cheap, almost-daily bus service that connects all the points of interest, so as long as you do a bit of research you’ll find getting around to be quite easy and affordable. There are a few international-class resorts in this region, but aside from those you’ll find hotels and food to be amazingly cheap.
Read our India Indie Travel Guide
7 – Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Spending part of your holiday in Cambodia isn’t an obvious choice, but it’s a must for anyone heading into Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat is actually just one of the 12th century temples that make up this huge and mind-blowing complex. You can, and probably should, spend a whole day seeing this popular site, but it tends to be very crowded in the middle of the day so it’s recommended to go early or late, as the sunrise and sunset over the main temple is a magical experience for those lucky enough to witness it.
You can reach the town of Angkor by flying into Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, or you can fly directly into Siem Reap, which is about 5 kilometers from Angkor, and the second busiest airport in the country. There are plenty of 5-star hotels in the area, but plenty of low budget hotels and guesthouses that are ideal for the backpacking set.
From Bangkok you can book package tours that include Angkor Wat along with flights or various forms of overland transportation.
Check out the Cambodia Indie Travel Guide
8 – Great Wall of China
A stop in Beijing gives you a close-up look at one of the world’s most important cities, past and future, and it also takes care of two huge highlights for almost any traveler. The Forbidden City is a worthwhile stop on your visit, although it does tend to look pretty much how you expect it will. Seeing the Great Wall requires getting out of Beijing, but only by 70 kilometers or so. The Badaling section is the closest to the city, most crowded by far, and also breathtaking to see. You can get there on a tourist bus or as part of a private tour, but if you want a chance at some solitude there are many other sections.
The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is only a bit farther away, and yet it gets far fewer visitors. You can easily combine a visit to this snaking section of the wall with a visit to the Ming Tombs on a day trip. If you’ve got more than a couple of people interested you might consider hiring a private guide and car, which will help you avoid the crowds even more, and it won’t break the bank.
Read the Beijing Indie Travel Guide
9 – Bali, Indonesia
You’ve no doubt heard deafening raves about Bali from all who’ve gone before you, and a stop there on your RTW is the ideal time to find out what all the fuss is about. This small island is one of over 17,000 that make up Indonesia, and yet it has several elements that make it as unique as it is magical. Most of Bali’s over 3 million inhabitants practice their own form of Hinduism, which is a stark contrast to the Islam practiced by nearly all the rest of the country. The traditional morning offerings consisting of flowers, incense, and other items in leaf baskets can be seen everywhere you go, and also help add exotic fragrances to the pleasant assault on your senses.
Bali is usually reached by cheap flights from all over the region, although ferry service from the larger island of Java is possible as well. Flights land at Denpasar Airport, which is near the capital city and also near the infamous Kuta Beach area. Aside from being the site of the tragic bombings in 2002, Kuta is also known as a hangout for surfers and the party crowd. It’s worth seeing, but it’s the least amazing part of the island by far. Be sure to visit the art village of Ubud, and also to tour other parts of the island to really get the full experience. You can hire a driver and a van for a small sum, which will enable you to visit many ancient temples and see the stunning rice terraces at your own pace. Rooms in simple guesthouses can be found starting at around US$5 per night, and food and drinks tend to be amazingly cheap as well.
Check out our Bali Indie Travel Guide
10 – Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Seeing the largest collection of living things on the planet is understandably high on the list for any visitor to Australia. If you are a scuba diver then you are all set, but if not you can snorkel, fish, or fly over it, or even see many of the wonders through glass bottom boats and platforms. Most visitors concentrate on the Marine Park not far off the coast of Cairns, but those with more time and/or money have nearly infinite other opportunities to visit less popular sections or some of the spectacular islands in the region.
The best way to get to Cairns is to fly, since the distances from anywhere else interesting are great, and the scenery on the ground is not too spectacular. Fortunately, there are plenty of relatively cheap flights to Cairns available from all major Australian cities as well as major airports throughout Southeast Asia.
11 – New Zealand
This one is easily worth a special trip there from home, but if you are flying between North America and Australia it would be almost criminal to pass up a visit to New Zealand on the way. It’s hard to describe why people go on and on about their love of Kiwiland, especially as this pair of islands totally lack a checklist attraction that most people have heard of before they arrive. Auckland itself is actually a large city that isn’t as charming as you might expect, but it does make a fun place to stay for a day or two on your way in and/or out of the country.
There are regular backpacker buses that are always jammed with visitors going between all the major cities and attractions, so drifting around is quite easy. If your budget is a bit higher you might consider renting a car or campervan to take advantage of the hundreds of holiday parks all over both islands. The North Island has much to offer, and the hot springs of Rotorua are a highlight for most people, but the South Island gets most of the raves, so a flight there or a ferry trip down from Wellington is a must if you’ve come this far already. There is ever-changing dramatic scenery with each corner you turn, and don’t miss stopping at one of the two glaciers, and especially don’t miss staying at least a night in the lovely city of Queenstown.
Check out our Auckland Indie Travel Guide
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