Back to the future: 10 places I have to revisit…and why!
As is customary for most people at this time of year, including travel writers, thoughts turn to the year to come and travel wish lists are drawn up. 12 months ago saw me being oh-so-ambitious about my travel plans, only to have most of them scuppered for one reason or another.
This got me thinking about travel wishes in a different light. Rather than always hankering after new destinations for the coming year, my thoughts turned to those places I didn’t do justice to the first time around. Sometimes I was just passing through anyway or ran out of time, or I could have made a better choice in my itinerary. And sometimes I just didn’t know what was around the corner until it was too late.
I’ve put together a (non-exhaustive) list of some of the places I’d love to go back to, either places that beckon to be better explored or those where I missed out on something in particular. Let’s see if I can get you thinking about which part of the world is calling you back, and why!
Why: The origins of my love for Bolivia are lost in the mists of time, but I have forever felt drawn to this often bypassed South American treasure. My first visit in 2012 served only to increase my affinity for it and I’d go back in a heartbeat. The rarefied air of La Paz, the ruins at Tiwanaku, the (in)famous Death Road, the Badlands of Tupiza, the stark beauty of Eduardo Avaroa and the unique salt flats near Uyuni…I saw so much yet missed even more. I didn’t even get to the Amazon jungle, and then there’s the tragic history of the Potosí silver mines, the splendour of Bolivia’s proper capital, Sucre, and the western edge of the Pantanal, which contains the world’s largest area of tropical wetland. Bolivia is an incredible destination on many different levels and I’m never going to stop singing its praises, or wishing to return.
Q: Which was the first country to really tug on your heartstrings (and still does)?
Why: I find that on long and eventful trips you quite often forget your starting point, or perhaps don’t take it in enough. Slovenia’s gorgeous little capital was a case in point when I started my world trip bid a few years ago. We were only there for 2 nights, staying at the delightfully quirky Celica Hostel, and I recall the compact prettiness of it all, and the cosy, cosmopolitan ambience everywhere we went on our one evening exploring. But we didn’t do it justice. Most of my stories revolve around lakes Bled and Bohinj or my horse-riding and climbing achievements, and Ljubljana deserves better than to be a stepping-board to other parts of the country.
Q: Which city did you rush through and now wish you hadn’t?
Why: I’m horribly envious of everyone who has seen the luminous dancing ribbons of the Aurora Borealis in an arctic setting. I have seen the Northern Lights, here and there, across the years. A faint green glow on the south coast of England once, and a tease of purple and orange in Yorkshire another time. My one trip (so far) to Norway took me through some beautiful fjordic scenery and the pretty port towns of Bergen and Stavanger, but only as far north as Åndalsnes, not far enough to much improve my chances of seeing this often-elusive natural spectacle. Astronomy has been a life-long love of mine, and often features heavily in this blog, so I really need to plug this gap in my cosmic repertoire, and a return visit to Norway could help me do just that.
Q: Which ‘classic’ natural experience or event has eluded you so far?
Why: I’ve only ever seen western Canada, namely Alberta and British Columbia. I’ve adored every single part of it and I’d go back to the Rockies or the Sunshine Coast in a flash, I just feel that after several visits, I ought to head a little further east. It’s such a vast country and I’m fascinated by the idea of coasting across endless prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba or exploring the French culture in Quebec and maritime legacy of Nova Scotia. And how about the frozen tundra of the north? The very word ‘Yukon’ draws out images of the wild frontier of yesteryear, and I’d love to see how life ticks along up there, or in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories (watching the TV show ‘Life Below Zero’ is a poor substitute). I have a feeling it’s going to be a life mission to keep going back again and again.
Q: In which place did you feel you’d barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer?
Los Angeles, USA
Why: To most folk, LA is synonymous with Hollywood, and that’s about it. It’s a sprawling city that takes ages to navigate, and everyone there is either an actor or an aspiring actor. Or a former actor – sadly, many of which now line the streets with their worldly possessions in a trolley, begging for a dime or that one redeeming TV role. I visited as a favour to a friend, a lifelong Michael Jackson fan who wanted to visit his grave. What I didn’t get to do, was visit the former haunts of my musical hero, Tim Buckley – the avant-garde folk-rock poster boy known for his experimental vocals and for being the father of the more-famous Jeff Buckley. I planned to, especially the revered Troubadour music venue, but just ran out of time. Next time, Timmy, next time.
Q: Is it worth going back to an area you don’t especially love, for just one thing that you really do?
Why: One of the toughest calls on a long trip is deciding what to leave out of your itinerary – you can’t do it all, right? In Peru it was the ruins of Kuélap, known as the northern Machu Picchu (although it was built by the Chachapoyas people, not the Incan Empire), which was left by the wayside. Our choice was this: head down the length of Peru, near the coast, and take in several significant pre-Columbian sites, such as Chan Chan and the Temples of the Sun and Moon…or drop all of those and veer east into the interior to take on the bigger challenge of Kuélap, far less accessible and logistically more of a palaver to get back on route for Arequipa and Cusco in the south. We opted for the former, which was more practical. But was it the right choice? I have no regrets about what we did see, but I had originally really wanted to get to Kuélap and there will always be something missing until I do.
Q: Which travel itinerary decision have you either regretted or questioned afterwards?
Why: Imagine a classic American road trip, back in the days before mobile phones were in common use. You’re exploring the desert plains of Utah, Arizona and Nevada, and you’re on your way from the spectacular formations of Arches National Park towards the surreal Monument Valley. Stopping at some roadside services, you spot an intriguing feature on a wall map of the local area, called ‘Paradox Valley’.
Well…could you resist taking a detour? Not us. Off we went (with no copy of the map available), knowing only that the valley was just across the Utah-Colorado border, several kilometres away on Route 46. Just after the state border into Colorado, the landscape widened out into a pretty, lowland vista and we were glad we’d made the effort. We took some photos and turned back sharpish, as dusk was approaching, and we were a good few hours from our next campsite.
The next day we discovered we’d turned around 3km too soon – what we had seen was just the precursor to Paradox Valley itself. That was the paradox – we never got there! Every time I think of it, a part of me feels there’s unfinished business and wants to go back.
Q: Should I return and complete the journey or leave it be as an amusing travel memory?
Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland
Why: In September I attended the first European Dark Skies Conference, staying at the appropriately-named Star Hotel & Restaurant in the dear little village of Twynholm. I couldn’t have wanted for a better base, but apart from a brief foray to the artsy coastal town of Kirkcudbright, I had no free time to explore. Yet there was something so impossibly unspoilt about this region that I already want to return as soon as possible. It brims with ecological and sustainable kudos, being home to Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park and the UNESCO Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere, but is relatively unknown, as most folk either aim for the Lake District to the south or skim past it on their way to Glasgow and beyond. Do yourselves a favour though – next time you approach Gretna Green, turn onto the A75 and keep going for a while.
Q: Which ‘nearby’ previously unknown area surprised you the most?
Why: Many years ago, in Bali. I remember lying on a sun-lounger on Sanur beach one star-spangled night, as the ocean waves nudged themselves against the sand. During this all-too-brief 5-night stopover, I gazed at Mount Agung volcano, although it was quieter then, and visited the Goa Gaja Elephant Cave in Ubud.
It was a tantalising glimpse into the richness of this fascinating island nation, but Bali is just one island from a 13,000-strong archipelago, including Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Komodo, Lombok and the Maluku (or Spice) Islands. Indonesia also has the world’s third highest level of biodiversity and a rapidly burgeoning industrial development, resulting in challenging times ahead for sustainability. I’m aching to return and explore more of this complex mix of environments and culture.
Q: Which destination has most influenced your views on sustainability?
Why: To see the Galapagos Islands. I say this tentatively because I’m acutely aware that the Galapagos Islands are on an ecological knife-edge when it comes to mass tourism. Recently, I’ve been seeing articles describing these islands as potentially suffering from overtourism. I wouldn’t wish to contribute to that, but I’d dearly love to visit nonetheless. My trip to Ecuador took me straight down the middle of its volcanic spine, through Quito and the equator, onto the Devil’s Nose train ride and into the dreamy ‘valley of longevity’ at Vilcabamba, but we chose to leave out the unique Galapagos ecosystem – the cost of a 5-day trip was enough to keep us going for a month in Bolivia. I suppose I always thought I’d get another chance one day, and if I do, I’ll be sure to offset the impact.
Q: When has an ethical issue caused you to change or cancel your travel plans?
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