Of course visiting all 193 countries isn't my only travel goal. There are many cities I want to explore, historical sites I want to learn about first hand, and natural beauty I want to see with my own two eyes. I've never sat down and made a "bucket list" but I've always said that the top two destinations that I most wanted to see were Machu Picchu and Iguazu Falls. Luckily this past week, I've visited both!
First I visited Macu Picchu. This has been on top of my list because it perfectly combines incredible history with stunning architecture and breathtaking nature. An Incan town high up in the Andes, Machu Picchu laid mostly unknown for hundreds of years, with excavations of the ruins only beginning about 100 years ago. It had appeared on a handful of European maps, local communities knew of the presence of ruins, and two families were even farming on the land when the first Europeans arrived in 1912, but it wasn't until then the proper excavations took place and Machu Picchu was introduced to the wider world. Since then it has become one of the world's most revered sites, and this is utterly deserving.
Machu Picchu used to be a town of about 750 inhabitants who farmed on the steep cliffs of the mountains. The location is particularly unique because it lies low in the center surrounded by nearly a dozen mountain tops all around it. They say it's like a pea in the middle of a bowl. Because of the high altitude and mountain terrain, it is still difficult to get here. First we flew into Cusco, took a bus and a train to reach the town of Agua Caliente, and then zig-zagged up the mountain to the site.
When we arrived the ruins were masked in fog and we saw nothing. We stood at the top – at a viewpoint – and waited as slowly the fog lifted and like magic the ancient city appeared. It was truly like something out of a movie! What a way to arrive!
We had joked as we made our way up the mountain that because we were going so early we would have 8 hours to explore until it was closed. We assumed we would spend half that or less, but actually we stayed the whole 8! We first did a slow tour around all the key points of the site, pausing often for pictures. Then we did a short 1-hour hike to the "Inca Bridge" which is a narrow path carved along the edge of the cliff. I am not a fan of unbounded heights, so it was a bit of a mind-game for me to make it across, but we survived! Then we decided to again tour around the main site, since now, late in the afternoon, there were much fewer tourists. That was such a perfect decision as we really got to enjoy the location and stop and wonder at how amazing it truly is.
So many times places do not live up to the expectations we have of them. They can be smaller than we think or less interesting, or other circumstances like bad weather or large crowds can ruin the experience. However, our visit to Machu Picchu was perfect. From the magical first sighting, to the views as we walked and the history we learned, until the final, slow walk through without the large crowds, every moment was wonderful.
I've waited a long time to see Machu Picchu and I'm so happy with how it went!
After Machu Picchu we took the long journey back to Cusco and then flew down to Paraguay. It was country #173 and the gateway that we were using to the majestic Iguazu Falls. There is something about waterfalls that fills me with awe. The purity of water combined with the powerful flow and unbelievable heights makes all waterfalls stunning. I've seen some incredible and famous ones around the world- from Niagara on the border of Canada and the USA, to Victoria in Zimbabwe / Zambia, Angel Falls in Venezuela, Gulfloss in Iceland, and many others big and small. But I've always been missing Iguazu.
Superlatives in waterfalls are always disputed, but most consider Iguazu to be the largest and ask nearly anyone and they'll say that they're the most spectacular. Climbing up to 279 ft (82m) and reaching a width of nearly 2mi (3km), the falls at Iguazu left me speechless. The sheer power of the more than 60,000 cubic feet of water going over the edge every single second is mindblowing. Watching it from the viewpoints, especially at the "Devil's Throat" where you ssentially float above it, feels more like you're in a movie than experiencing real life.
Just like with Machu Picchu, getting to Iguazu wasn't straightforward. The falls are on the border of Brazil and Argetina, and only a few kilometers away from Paraguay. Because I would be spending time in Paraguay I entered through there. You can see the falls from both the Brazil and Argentina side, but without a Brazilian visa, I was limited to only the Argentine. If you have to experience only one- most recommend Argentina as you get to see the insane width of the falls. The Brazil side is interesting because you get to look up at the falls from a ledge below.
We took a 6 hour bus from Asuncion to Ciudad del Este, then one of the more unique bus routes I've ever been on, from Ciudad del Este, Paraguay to Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. Because there is no road link between the two countries, you actually have to drive through Brazil for about 20-30 minutes. However, the bus only drives through and doesn't stop at all in Brazil, so no need for a visa as you actually get to skip immigration! We spent the night in Argentina and woke up early to get to the falls. They're about a 40 minute ride out of the city and are part of a large national park complex. The park has a train up to the main lookout at the Devil's Throat and then a handful of hiking / viewpoint paths. The day that we were there, one of the paths was actually closed because a puma had recently been sighted! These large cats can be particularly dangerous and one year recently a park rangers young son was actually mauled and killed by one! Though we were safe from puma's we did encounter some sneaky coati who stole a danish from us as well as a group of monkeys who snatched the sandwich from some other tourists!
Just like at Machu Picchu, we thought we'd only spend a couple hours at the sight, but ended up spending the whole day. We walked all the open paths, took long pauses gazing at the falls, and made friends with an Australian couple who had sons around our ages. Once again, it was a perfect day. The falls exceeded my expectations – flat out being breathtaking. The power that they exhibit is simple not something that you expect to be naturally of this earth. Walking around this wonder of nature under the bright sun and with new friends made for happy memories. Even the kleptomaniac coati were more cute than anything. A truly ideal visit to another one of my top two travel destinations!
So now that I've visited my two biggest desires, I have to start thinking of what else I want to see! I'd love to see the unique flora on the Galapagos Islands and Socotra, dive at the Great Barrier Reef, explore Zhangjiajie in China, climb one of the seven peaks, visit the Potala Palace in Tibet, ride a hot air balloon in Cappadocia, and make Hajj to Mecca. And that's just to name a few!
Your turn. Tell me what your top destinations are below.