I’ve highlighted many of my favorite travel destinations and experiences, but today I want to look at specific locations and moments in time that (amazingly) left me speechless.This was a really hard list to winnow down, but of the places I have visited so far I left these saying “WOW!”
1. Bartolome, Galapagos Islands – To be fair, most of the Galapagos archipelago produces this sense of wonder and constant state of shock that a place so beautiful and remarkable can exist. My wow moment though was early in the morning near the end of our cruise when I roused myself from bed for a climb on Bartolome Island. Like much of the Galapagos, Bartolome is desolate and almost completely devoid of plantlife, and yet it is one of the most photographed areas in the Galapagos. That’s due in large part to the remnants of an extinct volcano that created half moon bays and a beautiful tuff cone known as Pinnacle Rock. The path to the summit was clear and easy to follow, but that didn’t make it any easier. The Galapagos is a fun place to visit, but it is very much a working holiday. It’s always worth it though, especially when I reached the top to enjoy the splendid views. I stood there in one of the most remote places on the planet thinking not just how beautiful the area was, but how lucky I was to be there.
2. Masada, Israel – I expected to be wowed by Israel, as both a history and a nature lover it was bound to happen. The cradle of Western civilization and religious thought for thousands of years, Israel has a lot to offer, but I never quite expected the wow moment at Masada. Masada is an ancient series of palaces and fortresses that rise more than 1,300 feet and overlook the Judean Desert as well as the Dead Sea. It is also the legendary site of a Roman siege that prompted the residents to commit mass suicide rather than be captured. Masada is at the heart of the Israeli soul, but that’s not why I was wowed. I experienced that moment of awe overlooking the cliffs across the desert to the sea and looking below to still see evidence of Roman army encampments. The sense of history and age swept over me like a ghoul and the tremendous scale of the region’s history hit me all at once. More so than any church or relic, it was Masada that helped me conceptualize the enormous age and importance of this area and to begin the process of truly appreciating that impact on world history and culture.
3. Wadi Rum, Jordan – This desert location impacted me as well and made me say wow, but in a different way than did Masada. The moonscape-style desert of Wadi Rum in Jordan is a remarkable destination for its strange plateaus and rock formations, but that’s not what created my moment of zen in the desert. I was standing on a rock quite literally in the middle of nowhere, the wind circulating hot air and a Bedouin behind me was on his cell phone as we waited for the sun to set. This is a daily ritual when visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage site all journey to various prime locations to await the natural spectacle. I was there with just a few people as I looked across and saw a camel caravan pass in front of us and the sun began its daily show. The feeling that I don’t have a clue what most people’s lives are like around the world isn’t a new sensation, but it redoubled on this desert platform. I felt small, but in an incredibly positive way. Instead of a cog in a machine, as so many of us feel like, I felt more like a speck of sand on a beach, or a desert. It was a happy moment as I watched the marvelous sunset and left the rock in the desert a little more contrite and humble.
4. Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand – Before our trip to Thailand nearly five years ago, I had never before visited a developing country. A few spots in the Caribbean may count, but I wasn’t prepared for the frenetic pace of a city like Bangkok. At first I had some problems divining the beauty through the chaos, it was truly a case of sensory overload. On our second day though we took a river taxi over to Wat Arun, the famous Temple of the Dawn to explore and climb. The main ziggurat is about 219 feet high and visitors can ascend to the very top, in spite of shockingly few safety measures. I’m not a big fan of heights, but I made the climb anyway not daring to miss the opportunity. When I nervously reached the top, I cautiously looked around and saw for the first time the urban ballet that is Bangkok. River taxis and barges were zipping down the Chao Phraya, Thai flags were waving and across the way I could see countless numbers of people going about their everyday lives. It was at that moment that most of my caution and fear of the city evaporated and I began to understand that through the chaos, there is sometimes order and almost always beauty.
5. Middle of Nowhere Outback, Northern Territory, Australia – I like nature and landscapes, but I wouldn’t describe myself as outdoorsy necessarily. Throw me in the rough and tumble Outback in Australia and I was definitely a fish out of water. The journey in our rented van was only five days, but it was five days of work and wonder. Work at navigating the corrugated dirt roads of the region, but wonder at every new thing we saw. Early on during the drive we left the mostly paved roads and continued on sandy dirt roads that seemed to sway in the wind. I stopped the van and got out, frustrated at more hours of hard driving through barren no-man’s land. As I sipped my Diet Coke I looked around and saw not much actually. Some scrub, some strange trees and a land that had no end. In every direction, the flat countryside just extended without even a radio tower or telephone pole to interrupt its progress. Intellectually I knew and understood what to expect in the Australian Outback, but it wasn’t until this moment of clarity when the reality sunk in and my appreciation grew. I still got intensely frustrated at horrible roads, but I was also thrilled when I saw my first kangaroo and later when Uluru sprung up in the distance. Like most things in life, the process was an important part of the experience and I can’t imagine traveling through the Outback in any other way.
What are some of your favorite travel moments that made you say, “Wow”?