Places still exist where travelers can run away, in reality as well as in spirit, from the cacophony of modern life. In most cases, you don't have to put aside modern comfort - sometimes quite the opposite - but you do have to look at the world around you in a different way.
Here are four destinations to stoke the fires of your imagination. They're all perfect for a week-long immersion experience, but they're as different from one another as hip hop and opera!
Not exactly frozen in time, but still true to the traditions of the past, Lake Atitlan is unspoiled as yet by encroaching civilization. This spectacular body of water is rimmed by a mountain landscape that is alien enough to be on another planet. At an elevation around 5,000 feet, the water is a deep, clear pond, and the volcanic peaks surround it like a protective shield.
If you're fit and active -- and it definitely helps if you are, hike to nearby Mayan ruins or up the steep grassy slopes of a volcano. Visit a coffee plantation or spend a day exploring the ring of lakeside villages. Locals here are descended from the Mayans, and their traditional dress and culture still exists. It's just one highlight of this place.
Strike up conversations with strangers who are destined to become friends, share a meal or an adventure. Book lodgings at a hillside resort where you share meals with visitors from around the globe. Relax with a book while lazing in a hammock strung across a private balcony. You may find it just too peaceful to move -- if so, simply sip on a tall, cool one and enjoy the view of the sun setting over the lake.
The Mayan people are welcoming; prices are extremely reasonable, scenery is beautiful, food is varied. When your week ends, you probably won't be in any hurry to return home. It's comforting to know that you can return again and again to Lake Atitlan and never have to repeat an experience. It's that good!
Reality Check: Although beautiful and the deepest lake in Central America, Lake Atitlan is not that easy to get to, but it's a prime destination for backpackers and budget travelers, and there are a fair number of expats who came to see and stayed on. Remember, it is Central America. Always be aware of your surroundings and watch your belongings! Also, unless you're very brave, rely on scheduled transportation from airport to lake, and don't plan to hike after dark.
There once was a time when I couldn't understand why anyone would return a second time to the same vacation spot, no matter how special it was. Then I met Tankah Bay on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. I have friends who have been returning there to a private rental home each year for decades. Now I understand why!
The Belize Barrier Reef, second-longest coral system in the world, lies just offshore, stretching from Cancun all the way to Honduras. Belize is a short excursion away. Mayan ruins at Tulum are close by, and the step pyramid at Chichen Itza is only a day trip. You must fly into Cancun, but you'll want to get away from the crowds and the glitz as quickly as possible.
Simply being close to the sound of waves lapping at your private beach is enough. But that beach is just steps from a private pool at a private compound, within walking distance of a beach bar and a local cafe where you'll be welcomed as family -- these are the things to savor.
In the fall, with luck, you can watch baby turtle hatchlings return to sea, or help them on their journey. Every season brings its own delights, but Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated with joy, food and reverence on November 1st and 2nd.
Long known as one of Europe's popular playgrounds, the island of Mallorca (Majorca) off the eastern coast of Spain, is a delight. Stay in Palma and enjoy a week of long days spent lazing on the beach. Fill late nights with classical guitar, tapas and sangria. Pick a friendly, casual pension in Old Town, a hostel near the beach or a luxury resort hotel. No matter where you stay, you can easily rent a scooter or hop on a bus to see the rest of the island.
Strutting peacocks will greet you as you enter the grounds of the Caves of Drach on the other side of the island. The thrill of descending underground to view the formations is good enough, but the experience of hearing a classical music concert as you drift across an underground lake in a small boat is one not easily forgotten. It was the highlight of my trip, for sure! These connecting caverns may not be the largest or the best known, but the "journey to the center of the earth" in beautiful Mallorca is one of my favorite memories!
Another favorite is a day spent on horseback. I was there during the cooler season, not really beach weather, but riding through the surf on horseback is every bit as much fun. So is riding across the plains with a "real" cowboy! We stopped at dusk for home-cooked barbecue and sangria with the warmth of a glowing fire, and rode home by the light of the moon! What a magical experience!
Bangkok has become a modern, world-class city, and it's a great experience. Who doesn't love Thai food? The people are a national treasure, warm and welcoming in the best of ways. But there are other treasures in Thailand. Away from the city are other wonders, including tropical beaches and tribal villages, waterfalls and wildlife, temples and palaces, the Emerald Buddha and magnificent ruins in out-of-the-way places.
There is also the Monkey Festival in Lopburi, a celebration like no other in the world, something that really must be experienced to be believed. To say it's quirky doesn't begin to explain the sight of more than 3,000 monkeys feasting on a spread of fruits, vegetables and cakes set out in their honor and strictly for their pleasure. Initiated in 1989 to boost tourism in this province north of Bankok, the festival now attracts thousands -- it's a kind of "spectator sport," but the long-tailed macaques are not shy, and they also are attracted to keys and cameras!
These unusual creatures, also known as crab-eating macaques, fill up shamelessly on the treats laid out at their November festival, but the rest of the year they are as likely to grab your sandwich or hop on your back. They live primarily among the 10th Century ruins of the Khmer dynasty and coexist, more or less peacefully, with human inhabitants. So, for "monkey business," just visit the ancient ruins of Lopburi!
Travel is all about you, so choose the places and events that amaze, excite, inspire and refresh you. Relax on a beach with a great book if that's what you need. Hike in the wilderness. Explore ancient ruins. Swim with dolphins, sharks or rays if you dare. Immerse yourself in another cultural tradition. Practice another language!
There are sights to see, things to do and secluded hideaways all over the world -- it just depends on what you're looking for. But, as you rack up the miles and check off items on that Bucket List, remember to collect great experiences as well as snapping great photos. The stories you'll share will get better with every retelling -- and that's one of the best reasons to travel.
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