It’s so difficult to answer that question because I absolutely believe that favorite destinations change based on a time and experience continuum, but here’s how I feel right now at this point in time. Although I always love the energy of a city and Rio and Cape Town have left undeniable impressions, my favorite destinations always tend to be off the beaten path, much more peaceful, and less well known. I like to find the hidden gems that haven’t been over publicized in all of the travel books.
The photo to the left is from Ollantaytambo. This is the town that I stayed in for only a night before I visited Machu Picchu. The time was brief, but the views, history, and people were incredible. I swear I could feel the native energy of the land much the same way that I could when I was staring down on Machu Picchu, but the difference was that far fewer people visited this place. So, when I stayed overnight there, it felt like I was tucked away in my own little private part of the mountain. Additionally, I arrived here in the late afternoon by bus from Cusco and sat at the top of the ruins to watch the sun set. I had dinner in a small corner restaurant that donates a large percentage of their sales to ensure children in this rural countryside were getting school supplies and food. I counted thousands of stars, slept in peaceful slumber listening to the waters of a creek running by my hotel, and I awoke to an absolutely spectacular pink sunrise. That’s how I started the day of my Machu Picchu journey and it couldn’t have been any better. So, for anyone making the journey, my recommendation would be to stay in Ollantaytambo, instead of Aguas Calientes, which is more popular, to absorb a little piece of that magical countryside the night before and the night after going to Machu Picchu. There is a train that goes to Aguas Calientes and it is a beautiful ride and a good build up to the grandeur of what your undoubtedly going to experience.
In Argentina, I would have to say that Iguazu Falls, one of the new 7 wonders of the world, was my favorite spot. Again, it ended up being just a weekend gateway, and a mostly rainy one at that, but I could have stayed to listen to and stare at those falls forever. Nature’s design here is so beautiful and the falls were so immense that I felt infinitesimal. Unless you’re doing a driving tour of South America, to make this trip, it is best to fly, as it is nearly 14 hours north of Buenos Aires. There are plenty of tour companies available to make arrangements and in general I found that they were well organized and provided a great experience of the park and the falls themselves.
In Brazil, I visited a town called Paraty, which is right on the coast but also extremely close to the mountains. It’s filled with a rich history, cobblestone streets, mason built buildings, and tons of visiting tourists and brasileiros alike. There are several sets of waterfalls in and around the town of Paraty that are a short and inexpensive bus ride away. The forest is so lush and alive that I felt like nature was vibrating all around me. The falls themselves aren’t large, but the currents are strong and the water is cool and refreshing coming down out of the mountains. With Brazil’s balmy summer weather, it felt great to jump in the water after taking in the view and the sun. A short trail walk away from the waterfall in this picture is what the locals call “the slippery rock”. You can see a photo of it in my Journey through Brazil and I highly recommend a visit for an entertaining afternoon. The locals have created a new sport by surfing down the rock and it’s fun to watch or try yourself! (caution: many walked away bleeding after slipping) After a day amongst the trees, it was easy enough to head back to town for a lively night out. It will remain a very memorable trip in my heart.
Most recently, in Cape Town, after some very rowdy city nights, I decided to retreat to wine country for some peace and reflection. I stumbled upon La Vie de Luc, a farm in Franschhoek that has a main estate, plum trees, grapevines, and very comfortable guest houses. In general, I believe when people think of wine country in South Africa, they think of Stellenbosch, but Franschhoek and Paarl are only a 20 minute drive away from Stellenbosch and I found them to be far more inviting simply because they’re a little smaller and less crowded. Franschhoek in particular has a main street that is situated just below the gorgeous mountains in this photo, and is lined with artistic shops and delicious restaurants. It has a sophisticated feel that would appeal to even the most refined pallets. It is an easy one hour drive outside of Cape Town and I would recommend renting a car because the countryside, with it’s winding roads and valleys filled with grapevines, is not to be missed.
If you have a favorite spot that is off the beaten path, I would be thrilled if you would share it here. I don’t care if it’s in your back yard or somewhere far, far away… do tell!