Every year I feel a twinge of excitement when Lonely Planet releases its article on the top countries to visit in the following year. Their suggestions are by no means a quantitative analysis masterclass. After all, how could you possibly assign countries any sort of accurate numeric ranking when there is so much to consider and people’s perceptions differ so widely! But what their list does demonstrate is the general level of excitement and buzz that countries are generating among the tourist industry and general public. If, like me, you’re keen to get planning on your 2019 travel schedule then you’ll be pleased to hear that the 2019 list has hit the streets and, as always, consists of ten stunning destinations. But out of those ten destinations, where should you focus your efforts? That’s what I’m here to discuss with the ‘Take Photos Leave Footprints’ personal top 5!
Sri Lanka (Lonely Planet Number 1)
After many years of political turmoil Sri Lanka is now well and truly back on the tourist map. With eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, countless national parks filled to the brim with elephants, leopards and bears and some of the best beaches anywhere in Asia this should hardly come as a surprise. From the rolling hills and tea plantations synonymous with the countries colonial past to the skyscrapers and rooftop bars overlooking the sun soaked ocean in Colombo, Sri Lanka has something on offer for everyone. It’s no wonder then that Sri Lanka made the #1 spot on the Lonely Planet list! Sri Lanka has far too much on offer to talk about in this one post, so what follows is a mere appetizer of what it offers visitors.
Abundant Wildlife: Whilst not quite rivaling Africa’s safari options (check out my analysis of the two here) there is no doubting that Sri Lanka packs one of the strongest punches when it comes to wildlife holidays in Asia. With an abundance of well stocked National Parks (some of the more famous being Yala, Wilpattu, Udawalawe and Minneriya) Sri Lanka offers ample opportunity for sightings of the country’s famous trio; the sloth bear, leopard and elephant. Hitting the waves also provides fantastic opportunities to spot blue and sperm whales in addition to humpbacks. Make sure to take the Take Photos Leave Footprints Ultimate Sri Lankan Wildlife Checklist with you on your trip to Sri Lanka!
Colombo: Colombo is best described as a ‘gateway city’ given that few people actually choose it as their final destination. In fact, many of those visiting Sri Lanka’s diverse cultural sights, wildlife reserves and tropical beaches choose to bypass Colombo altogether and opt for the more ‘touristic’ town of Negombo as their first base; particularly as it’s located closer to the international airport. Sure, Colombo isn’t on par with South-East Asia’s powerhouse tourist cities such as Bangkok, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur. But to skip it altogether is a travesty. This Indian Ocean-fringed cosmopolitan city is brimming with an eclectic array of soaring skyscrapers sandwiched up against colonial-era hotels and buildings; interconnected by bustling market streets lined with temples and clogged by tuk-tuks ferrying locals and tourists alike. With a vibrant multi-ethnic street food and night-life scene Colombo offers a first taste of Sri Lanka that shouldn’t be missed.
Kandy: Sri Lanka’s second largest city, Kandy, offers a fascinating contrast to the skyscrapers and frenetic pace of Colombo. Colonial-era architecture, fascinating culture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site all await visitors. The highlight of this sacred city has to the Temple of the Tooth – a Buddhist temple housing the relic of the tooth of Buddha – together with the temples of Embekke, Lankathilake and Gadaladeniya. From Kandy step back in time and hop on the train to Ella for one of the most beautiful train journeys anywhere on earth as it winds its way across the hillside tea plantations.
Zimbabwe (Lonely Planet Number 3)
After epitomizing the lofty and luxurious heights of Africa’s tourist industry in the 1990’s, Zimbabwe’s tourism landscape suffered a stunning fall from grace amid political chaos. But following the toppling of Robert Mugabe in 2017 Zimbabwe is seeing somewhat of a slow but steady resurgence. Considering that it’s the home of a natural wonder of the world, the greenest landscapes you’ll ever witness, and enough wildlife that you could be on the set of the Lion King that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Although it’s number 3 on the Lonely Planet list, we’ve chosen Zimbabwe as our number one destination for 2019 and will be heading out there in May for our second visit to Victoria Falls. So just what might we encounter during our visit?
Victoria Falls: Spanning the northern border of Zimbabwe with Zambia, Victoria Falls is undoubtedly Zimbabwe’s most famous attraction. “The smoke that thunders” as it is more affectionately known is not only one of the most impressive and powerful waterfalls in the world (and one of the seven natural wonders of the world), it is also the center of Zimbabwe’s adrenaline tourism industry. After a morning of viewing the falls from the relative safety of any number of walking trails you can follow this up by white water rafting, bungee jumping, zip-lining, or wading in the devil’s pool (a natural pool of relative calm water right on the lip of the falls). Microlight or helicopter flights over the falls are another popular way to get a bird’s eye view of the action. If you’re looking for something a little more sedate then enjoy high tea in the Colonial-era Victoria Falls Hotel followed by a relaxing sunset boat safari along the Zambezi River; keeping your eyes open for elephants and hippos.
Great Zimbabwe: Prior to visiting Zimbabwe I’m not sure too many people will be aware of Great Zimbabwe or have any knowledge of what it is (in fairness it could quite easily sound like a tourism marketing slogan or the name of a national theme park). In actual fact this UNESCO World Heritage Site was, according to legend, the capital of the Queen of Sheba; a city spanning 800 ha and dating back as far 1100 AD to the Bantu/Shona people. The city ruins are divided into three primary areas of exploration; the Hill Ruins, the Valley Ruins and the Great Enclosure. As one of the best preserved stone cities in Africa it’s a must-visit!
Safari: An undoubted highlight of a trip to Zimbabwe is the opportunity to take advantage of the country’s first class safari destinations and National Parks. Zimbabwe is a ‘Big 5’ country, meaning you’ll have the opportunity to catch sight of lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and buffalo. If you’re wondering where the best place to head is then you might want to consider Gonarezhou National Park for elephants (its name does after all, translate as the ‘Place of Many Elephants’), Matobo Hills for leopard, the Nakavango Private Game Reserve for rhino, Hwangwe National Park for buffalo and Mana Pools National Park for lion.
Kyrgyzstan (Lonely Planet Number 5)
One of the biggest benefits of visiting Kyrgyzstan is that as a destination it still isn’t really in the eye line of most tourists. Now whilst this might mean you won’t reap the ‘benefits’ of an established tourist trail and infrastructure it does mean that your experience is more likely to be genuine, immersive and representative of life in the country. I spent two weeks hiking in the country’s Tien Shan mountain range and soon found myself being invited in to yurts to sample the family’s fermented sheep milk balls (otherwise known as Kurut and not as ominous a story as it initially sounds). So what exactly does Kyrgyzstan have to offer tourists?
Lake Issyk Kul: The lake is by far the most popular tourist attraction in Kyrgyzstan. Located slap bang in the middle of the Tien Shan mountains it’s also the world’s 2nd largest saline lake (the largest being the Caspian Sea) and the 2nd largest alpine lake (the largest being Lake Titicaca). In addition to lounging on the lake’s many beaches or swimming the area is a great gateway for hiking and skiing in the spectacular surrounding mountains.
Karakol: Hot springs (Ak-Suu and Altyn Arashan), trekking, mountain climbing, horseback riding and skiing (Karakol Ski Base) are all on offer in Karakol which is located at the far end of Lake Issy Kul. Of all of the hotspots in Kyrgyzstan Karakol is probably the town with the most tourist appeal. Once all of the adventure activities have you tired out Karakol offers a wealth of cultural attractions such as the Karakol Historical Museum, Dungan Mosque and Slavyonski Bazar.
Adventure Sports and Activities: A somewhat ridiculous 94% of Kyrgyzstan is covered in mountains so it’s no wonder that the country has been given the moniker “the Switzerland of Central Asia” (admittedly, I never said that it was a particularly catchy moniker). Anyhow, with so much undulation and stunning scenery it’s hardly a surprise that adventure activities play a prominent role in the country’s fledgling tourism industry. In addition to an abundance of trekking companies you’ll find plenty of options for white water rafting, skiing, mountain biking and horse riding. It’s an adventure lovers paradise!
Jordan (Lonely Planet Number 6)
Hearing the term ‘Middle East’ is enough to stop most ‘run of the mill’ tourists dead in their tracks. But Jordan is one of those rare commodities; a country in the Middle East that is both safe and welcoming of the tourist hordes. From the ancient city of Petra to the romanticism of the landscapes that captured the heart of Lawrence of Arabia, Jordan is a country full of surprises. Sure, it might take a little more planning than your average week on the Greek Islands, but Jordan will deliver culture, history and relaxation in spades. So what are Jordan’s highlights I hear you ask….
Petra: Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and undoubtedly the crowning jewel of Jordan’s tourist industry, was the impressive capital of the Nabataean Kingdom and is believed to have been founded around the 6th Century BC. It was pretty much lost to Western society until it was “rediscovered” by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. Since then its most famous moment (and probably how most people who haven’t visited recognize it) came when it featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989 (the building you probably remember from the film is better known as the ‘Treasury Building’). Since then it was also chosen as one of the New Wonders of the Modern World which has ingrained its position firmly at the top of the tourist map not only for Jordan but for tourist hotspots worldwide!
The Wadi Rum: If your mind immediately wanders to visions of Lawrence of Arabia-esque landscapes whenever you think of Jordan then the Wadi Rum is the place for you. Head into the moonscape-like desert on camel or by 4×4 and spend the night under the stars in a Bedouin Camp whilst listening to the sounds of traditional Arabic music. Alternatively, for a birds eye view of the stunning reds and oranges of the desert book an overflight in a hot air balloon.
The Dead Sea: We’ve all seen the Instagram photos of people in their bathing suits floating on the surface of the incredibly salty Dead Sea. In actual fact, the Sea is so salty that it’s essentially impossible to sink below the surface. If the mere inability to sink isn’t enough to tempt you into visiting then consider that the mud found on the shorelines of the Sea are said to contain medicinal and therapeutic minerals. So, not only can you float, but you can float whilst smothered in beneficial mud! Of course, if the spa-like atmosphere of the Dead Sea isn’t really your kind of thing then you could always focus on the nearby historic and religious sites including Bethany on the Jordan (the baptism site of Jesus), Mount Nebo (which provides a panoramic view of the Holy Land), or the Dead Sea Panoramic Complex and Museum.
Belize (Lonely Planet Number 10)
Sitting wedged between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize, although largely off of the radar of most Brits (which is particularly weird considering it’s English speaking!), is fast becoming one of the most popular eco-tourism destinations in Central America alongside Costa Rica. Together with its pristine white-sand beaches and tropical jungles Belize offers some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities in the world; largely thanks to it being the home of longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Throw in a whole host of Mayan archaeological sites and Belize has a fascinating allure for anyone with a sense for adventure.
Archaeological Sites: For budding Indiana Jones’ Belize has an abundance of Mayan archaeological sites including Lamanai archaeological Reserve, San Ignacio, Altun Ha and Caracol Natural Monument Reservation. Belize’s Mayan culture was at its height from 300 to 900 AD and despite their age a number of large Mayan temples remain largely intact and ready to explore in their jungle setting.
Ocean Habitats: Where to start?! Belize is one of the best spots on earth to be a scuba diver or snorkeling fanatic and with sites such as the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the Blue Hole and Turneffe Islands Atoll it’s no wonder that divers from around the world visit Belize. The Belize Barrier Reef spans and incredible 185 miles of the country’s coastline and the world famous Blue Hole is visible from space and home to remarkable levels of marine biodiversity.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Reserve: Recognized as the World’s first jaguar preserve the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (CBWS) is a stunning place for a day of hiking among crystal-clear waterfalls, mountain rainforests and an abundance of wildlife. Although the jaguars are predictably difficult to spot (they’re nocturnal after all) you’ll also stand a chance of spotting puma, margay, jaguarundi, ocelot, wildcats, tapir and deer.