The 20 greatest travel experiences

Over the years, you’ve told us your ultimate travel experiences – so here it is, the definitive travel wish list…

1. Cruise the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

One day you’re watching giant tortoises mate in swirling mists, then you’re nose-to-nose with a seafaring marine iguana, or snorkelling with a group of penguins. As Darwin appreciated, neighbouring islands have sub-species that have developed differently, leading to one of the most important, world-changing discoveries ever known: evolution.

Make it happen: The best way to explore is by boat. Although three- or four-night cruises are available, try to go for a week at least.

2. Arrive in Timbuktu, Mali

The small, dusty town of Timbuktu has long been a byword for isolation. Visit the bustling market, where salt was once worth as much as gold, and then cool down with sweet tea as you barter for silver with the Tuareg nomads. Come sunset, venture out into the desert by camel, and drift to sleep under a million stars.

Make it happen: Note that the FCO currently advises against travel to Timbuktu. If you choose to go, you can fly from Bamako to Timbuktu airport, or take a Niger River trip.

3. Meet mountain gorillas, Rwanda/Uganda

Alan Wood, one of our readers put it perfectly when he said, “Imagine our surprise when we came upon the family of gorillas all sleeping peacefully with only the silverback on watch. We sat enchanted at their feet and, after a while, they started to wake and stretch just like a human family in the morning. He was unperturbed by our presence and we felt privileged to be visiting.”

Make it happen: fly to Rwanda or Uganda. For Rwanda, fly to Kigali, and for Uganda, fly to Entebbe, near Kampala. In both countries, gorilla-trekking permits start from US $500.

4. Discover wildlife in Madagascar

Madagascar is the oldest island on earth, and its flora and fauna have evolved in isolation over tens of millions of years. Madagascar developed lemurs, a gentle primate. There are 86 different species recognised, ranging from mouse lemurs up to the indri, the size of a chimpanzee. A stunning 90% of Madagascar’s flora and fauna is endemic, and don’t miss the chance to see spectacular baobab trees.

Make it happen: Fly to capital Antananarivo (known as Tana). Apr/May and Oct/Nov are the best times to visit.

5. Snorkel in Bora Bora, French Polynesia

There’s no need to don your diving gear – just bring a mask and snorkel, immerse yourself in the shallow lagoon and wait for a graceful giant to glide silently by. While you’re exploring this underwater garden, don’t be surprised if you bump into a bat, leopard or eagle ray – the waters here host some of the most diverse marine life on earth.

Make it happen: Bora Bora is 250km north-west of Tahiti. Daily flights from Tahiti’s Faa’a airport take 45 minutes; some stop at the islands of Moorea, Huahine and Raiatea.

6. Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil

A fine force of nature straddling the border between Argentina and Brazil, this chasm is one of the widest waterfalls in the world, consisting of 275 cascades spread in a horseshoe shape over 3km. Make the journey on foot and let your anticipation build with the growing roar before emerging to soak up the spray on a walkway or boat ride.

Make it happen: Puerto Iguazú, Argentina, is a 90-minute flight from Buenos Aires. Buses run to the visitor centre; from here, walk or take a quick train ride to the falls.

7. Appreciate all that ice, Antarctica

The notorious sail to Antarctica across the Drake Passage can be a tough one, but that’s swiftly forgotten as you start to see more and more ‘bergy bits’. Of course, the wildlife is a reason to go to Antarctica too: the various penguins steal your heart while sightings of whales, leopard seals and snowy shearwaters will make any trip memorable.

Make it happen: Expedition cruises leave from Ushuaia (Argentina), Christchurch (NZ) and Hobart (Tasmania).

8. Sit on the summit of Stromboli, Italy

The climb up takes two to three hours, moving through fig trees, oleander and broom at the base to sparse shrubs further up and finally nothing but black volcanic rock. If you set off in the afternoon, you reach the summit at dusk. Hard-hat on, you spend an hour ooh-ing and ahh-ing as magma bubbles through the volcano’s vents.

Make it happen: Stromboli is a four-hour ferry or 1.5-hour hydrofoil journey from the Aeolian Island of Lipari. There is no airport.

9. Salar de Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia

In the dry season these vast expanses appear as an endless patchwork of hexagonal shapes, white as the Arctic; in the rainy season (December to April) the area becomes a 9,000 sq km mirror, giving the sensation of travelling across the sky. Drive out over the plains in a jeep and stay in a hotel made out of salt – beds, chairs, tables, the lot.

Make it happen: The hub-town of Uyuni is a seven-hour bus ride from Potosí; 12-15 hours by bus from La Paz. The seven-hour train ride from Oruro is a scenic option.

10. Venture to Shibam, Yemen

In the words of our Wanderlust reader Jane Baxter, “As you approach Shibam by plane, you get spectacular views of the mud-brick towns of the Hadhramaut built high into the rugged flat-topped mountains. Shibam dates from the fourth century and all the houses – which rise up to nine storeys – are made from mud-brick, with decorated doors and windows.”

Make it happen: Yemen is currently off-limits: the Foreign Office advises against all travel to the whole of the country.

11. Visit the temples of Bagan, Myanmar

It’s the sheer scale that astounds: the remains of 2,217 ancient stone temples, scattered across a vast, barren, copper-coloured plain. From the 11th to 13th centuries this 41 sq km complex was the biggest religious and cultural centre in the world. Now dusty and abandoned, what is left is best toured by bicycle or by horse and cart.

Make it happen: Bagan is 140km south-west of Mandalay.

12. Watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

It’s the combination of beauty and scale that provides the wow factor for this temple, the principal monument in a complex that includes Hindu and Buddhist temples in their hundreds. Arrive early to catch the sunrise and miss the crowds, and make the most of that famous view from across the moat, where Angkor Wat is reflected in the water.

Make it happen: Siem Reap is the hub town for Angkor, served by flights from cities including Bangkok and Hanoi.

13. Get a glimpse of ancient Petra, Jordan

Deep in the Jordanian desert, hemmed in by sandstone crags and approached along a slither of a canyon, suddenly an ancient facade looms out of the rock. And not a weathered outline: a crisply-defined colossus, six mighty pillars guarding the entrance as if the Nabateans (who built them two millennia ago) had just popped out for lunch.

Make it happen: Allow two days (or more). See our Petra travel guide for more information.

14. Take a mokoro through the Okavango Delta, Botswana

Traditionally carved from a tree trunk, the mokoro was the common means of transport of the Bavei tribe. Today, fibreglass is increasingly common, rather than wood, but these canoes are still the best ways to explore the channels and waterways of the largest delta in the world.

Make it happen: Maun is the gateway into the region. Pick up a safari there, or pre-book with a specialist.

15. Travel the Karakoram Highway, Pakistan

This is the stuff of travel legend. The route wriggles from north of Islamabad to Kashgar in China, and there are plenty of adventures on the way: you’ll drink tea with polo players, see peaks soaring over 7,000m and spot ancient rock art by the roadside. You’ll be whiplashed, bruised and exhausted. You’ll have the time of your life.

Make it happen: UK nationals require a visa to enter Pakistan.

16. Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

How did they do that? How did those 15th century Inca architects construct a city of mortarless stone, 2,500m up in the Andes? This is engineering of the tallest order, in the most dramatic of settings – one so remote even the conquistadores couldn’t find it. Today, access is a little easier – but the views and the achievement no less impressive.

Make it happen: The classic 43km Inca Trail hike from Km88 to Machu Picchu takes 3-4 days; permits are necessary – independent trekking is not allowed.

17. Watch the Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Sail up to Perito Moreno’s terminus to appreciate its scale: the white-blue cliff is up to 70m high, advancing into Lake Argentino. Keep a safe distance: every now and then the glacier heaves, and huge chunks calve off into the water below.

Make it happen: Los Glaciares NP is 78km from El Calafate, accessible by car or bus. Boat tours can be taken from Puerto Bandera;

18. Hike the Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand

It’s touted as New Zealand’s – if not the world’s – best day walk. It’s a manageable challenge – at six to eight hours it will test but not break you. Then there’s the variety: from the shrubby Mangatepopo Valley, to the lunar Red Crater, the sulphurous sparkles of Blue and Emerald Lakes and, finally, the descent into lush forest.

Make it happen: The Crossing starts from Mangatepopo Roadend, 6km off Highway 47; it finishes at Ketetahi Roadend. Local operators can arrange transfers.

19. Meet moai in Easter Island, Chile

Polynesians first arrived on the isolated outcrop of Easter Island around AD 300. And here they stayed, unbothered by anyone, until Europeans arrived in the 18th century. In that time, they got creative, constructing nearly 900 stone moai. Believed to represent ancient ancestors, many of these spirits continue to watch over the island today.

Make it happen: Easter Island is 3,800km west of mainland Chile. Flights from Santiago take around five hours; onward flights to Tahiti are around five hours.

20. Lounge on islands, Malaysia

These coral-fringed islands offer lush forest scenery, unspoiled white beaches and plentiful opportunities for scuba diving in their pristine turquoise waters. Get hands-on with turtle conservation projects or stretch your legs on a trek through inland jungle brimming with wildlife (including exotic birds, monkeys and giant monitor lizards).

Make it happen: The Perhentian Islands can be accessed by boat from Kuala Besut, 110km north of Kuala Terengganu. Ferries to Tioman run from Mersing.