On an overland journey from Vietnam, you can pass from the bright, lantern-lit streets of Hanoi into the remote northern reaches of Laos. Cunningly combine a few flights in South America and you can peer from the lofty heights of Machu Picchu, ramble along Spanish colonial plazas and spot marine iguanas in the Galapagos — all in a two-week trip.
Choosing a single country to visit can be a challenge, so we’ve highlighted some trips which cross borders for a dynamic combination of experiences, cultures and landscapes.
South Africa and Victoria Falls (Zambia)
How many passport stamps? Two (three if crossing the falls into Zimbabwe)
Landing in Cape Town, prepare to explore its turbulent history on a private walking tour, or stretch your legs with a hike up Table Mountain with a local guide. Flying to the opposite side of the country, spend a few days spotting the Big Five in Sabi Sands Game Reserve — a private reserve within Kruger National Park.
You then fly on to Livingstone, Zambia. You might hear the roar of Victoria Falls before you see it. Since the end of last year, the Kaza visa covers you for entry into both Zimbabwe and Zambia, opening up both sides of the falls. Altogether, the trip should take around 13 days.
- With a private guide, you take in Cape Town’s historic and cultural sites on foot. Stop at the Company’s Garden, Grand Parade and City Hall — some of the city’s most iconic buildings. You then visit Greenmarket Square to browse handmade local crafts, from bright beads and bangles to patterned scarves and bowls. We also recommend visiting Robben Island, where you’re shown round by former inmates.
- Follow a lesser-known trail to Table Mountain’s summit. Along the way, your private guide points out flora and fauna, such as rock hyraxes, and describes what everyday life is like in the capital.
- A safari in Sabi Sands Game Reserve gives you a good chance of seeing all of the Big Five. Being on a private reserve means game drives can continue after dark as you look for nocturnal species. Meanwhile, guided bush walks focus on the ecosystem’s smaller wildlife species and plant life — keep your eyes to the ground as you look for animal tracks.
- You can feel the power of Victoria Falls simply by standing close to it. But you can also take in Mosi-oa-Tunya (‘the smoke that thunders’) by boat, helicopter or microlight. Away from the falls, you can visit local villages, take a sunset cruise along the Zambezi River, looking out for birds such as Pel’s fishing owls and half-collared kingfishers, or explore Livingstone’s colonial history with a guide.
Tailor this trip
While at Victoria Falls, you could spend an evening dining aboard the Royal Livingstone Express — a restored 1920s steam train that runs past the falls along part of the ‘Cape to Cairo’ railway.
The Silk Route
How many passport stamps? Three if you follow the classic 22-day route
A network of trading routes, rather than a single road, the Silk Route is an odyssey spanning a miscellany of time zones, cultures, and landscapes. Flying to Beijing, you’ll have the option to take a high-speed train to Xian before flying internally to Dunhuang, which skirts the Taklamakan Desert. You then progress west and eventually into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan via a series of both internal and international flights, trains and long, scenic drives. Sights include the Torugart Pass and Kyrgyzstan’s mineral-rich Lake Issyk Kul.
Stops include Kashgar — China’s western frontier, which feels more like Arabia than the Middle Kingdom, and Bukhara, a nexus of Islamic architecture and scholarship. Your journey ends in Uzbekistan’s regal city of Samarkand, and you’ll take your long-haul flight home from nearby Tashkent.
- Xian’s army of impassive Terracotta Warriors are so much more detailed and intriguing when you see them in real life: each has a different facial expression, hairstyle and clothing, for example. While great pillows of golden sand might not be what you’d expect in China, this is what you’ll find outside of Dunhuang at Mingsha’s ‘singing’ dunes. Their epithet comes from the humming or groaning sound they seem to emit, which (scientists posit) is the sound of collisions between millions of individual grains.
- The Mogao Caves near Dunhaung are a series of underground frescoed temples whose murals are a complex palimpsest of Buddhist and Christian art and Islamic writing.
- We find that few markets compare to the mercantile tumult of Kashgar’s Sunday Bazaar. You’ll find piles of spices and traditional Uyghur Khan Atlas silks for sale along with donkeys, sheep, goats and mules.
- Kyrgyzstan’s landscapes include high steppe grasslands peppered with grazing yaks, glassy lakes, and snowy high mountain passes. Look up, and you might see golden eagles.
- Samarkand’s Registan Square (Uzbekistan) is a fitting finale: a jewel box of densely patterned, mosaicked madrassahs topped with elegant minarets and glazed turquoise-blue cupolas.
Tailor this trip
Try spending the night in a traditional yurt camp, or joining in with a craft workshop at a family’s home.
Grenada, Barbados and Bequia
How many passport stamps? Three (Bequia is part of St Vincent and the Grenadines)
Island-hop across the southern Caribbean, starting off on the spice isle of Grenada, where mountainous scenery is scattered with fragrant nutmeg, cinnamon and clove groves. Flying onward to Barbados, you’ll find a mix of lively bar-backed beaches and deserted coves, with an interior peppered with British-colonial plantation houses and vibrant botanic gardens.
This trip takes a leisurely two weeks, ending in Bequia for an extended beach-side stay. A laid-back island that retains an old-school charm many of the more developed islands have lost, days here can be spent on often-deserted beaches or idling around the markets of village-y Port Elizabeth.
- One of the Caribbean’s least developed islands, Grenada’s interior has a ridge of mountains running north to south, their steep-sided valleys covered in teak forests, flowering shrubs and frothy clumps of ferns. Grand Etang National Park and Forest Reserve is right in the middle of the island, laced with trails that range from 15-minute ambles to day-long hikes.
- Staying at the family-owned Little Arches hotel on Barbados’ south coast is an opportunity for a genuinely Bajan experience. Stroll down to the peaceful, sugar-fine Enterprise Beach or eat at Café Luna, the on-site restaurant whose pan-tropical fare draws diners from across the island. Stay on a Friday and you’re a short walk from Oistins lively fish fry where the community comes together to eat fresh-caught fish barbecued to a live-music soca beat.
- From Bequia, you can sail the gentle trade winds to Tobago Cays, a collection of five tiny, uninhabited islands surrounded by a horseshoe of coral. Spend the day snorkelling or diving alongside turtles, Caribbean spiny lobsters and psychedelic parrot fish.
Tailor this trip
Swap Bequia for a luxurious private island experience on nearby Petit St Vincent. Just 22 villas and cottages are scattered across the bougainvillea-flowered landscape, with uninterrupted views of the Caribbean Sea.
Northern Vietnam and Laos
How many passport stamps? Two
You’ll start off exploring Hanoi’s French-colonial architecture and tree-lined boulevards before escaping the buzz of motorbikes in provincial Mai Chau. Crossing the border into northern Laos, you’ll see remnants of the Indochina War in the Vieng Xai Caves.
Heading west through Laos’ wild frontier of jungle-covered limestone bluffs, you can paddle through national parks and hike to remote villages. From Nong Khiaw you’ll cruise down to Nam Ou River to your final destination, Luang Prabang. Here you can walk through the town’s mosaic of gilded wats and Indochinese villas. The trip takes around two weeks.
- Hemmed in by hills, Mai Chau is a landscape of rice fields and tiny, stilted-house villages. Spend the day cycling along routes too narrow for a car to visit far-flung hamlets and textile-producing communities against the dramatic backdrop of the Tonkinese Alps.
- Kept a closely guarded secret until the late 1990s, the Vieng Xai caves were once the headquarters of the communist revolutionaries, Pathet Lao. You can now visit the complex of caverns — which includes an underground school, hospital and chapel — accompanied by an audio guide recorded by the people who once lived there.
- The mountainous ravines of Nam Et-Phou Louey have been carved by the tributaries of the Nern River, which wind through thick jungle. You can spend the night in one of the park’s ranger stations, with a camp-fire dinner cooked by members of the local community. At dusk, paddle out in the darkness looking for deer coming to drink at the riverside, accompanied by nothing but the click of cicadas.
- Tucked into the bank of the Nam Ou River, we’re pretty confident that the petite town of Nong Khiaw is surrounded by some of Laos’ most spectacular scenery. Take a guided hike through the valley for views right across the limestone escarpments.
Tailor this trip
While in Mai Chau you can pay a visit to nearby Pu Luong Nature Reserve — an area of outstanding natural beauty with remote trekking routes through primary tropical forest.
Peru and the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)
How many passport stamps? Two (plus an unofficial, self-administered one from Machu Picchu)
Flying into Cuzco from Lima, you’ll dive head-first into Inca history in Cuzco, before taking the train to Machu Picchu via the Sacred Valley. This fertile, mountain-lined corridor is littered with the skeletons of yet more Inca citadels and terracing.
Then, retrace your steps to Lima for your connecting flight to Quito, spending a day exploring its colonial old town — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — before flying on to the Galapagos Islands. Here, you’ll embark on a multi-day expedition cruise led by expert naturalist guides. The entire trip takes a little over two weeks.
- Straddling a fault line between two cloudforest-cloaked peaks, we think Machu Picchu has the power to beguile no matter how familiar you are with its image. With your private guide, you’ll delve into this multi-layered granite maze, exploring the enigmas of Inca cosmology, their sophisticated irrigation systems and precision-fitted, crazy-paving-style stonework.
- In the Sacred Valley, visit the warship-like, temple-come-fortress of Ollantaytambo, situated just where the valley becomes less agrarian and more subtropical, and the vortex-like terraces of Moray. Or, hike to the lofty ruins of Huchuy Qosqo — invisible from the valley floor.
- Quito has a raft of well-preserved Spanish colonial plazas, monasteries and churches, but we also like its artisanal markets and boutiques selling polychromatic handicrafts and textiles.
- The Galapagos could see you following trails over volcanic terrain and red-sand beaches as you observe birdlife such as red-pouched, piratical frigatebirds, or blue-footed boobies up close. The islands’ dramatic personae also includes sea lions and marine iguanas. You could even watch giant tortoises amble around at a breeding project at the Charles Darwin Research Station.
Tailor this trip
Get an alternative view of the Sacred Valley and its archaeology by exploring its dirt roads and llama tracks by mountain bike — tours can be adapted to all abilities.
Laos and Cambodia
How many passport stamps? Two
A trip in two parts, go on an active tour through southern Laos before heading further south to some of Cambodia’s UNESCO-protected temples. You’ll start by cycling the languid streets of Laos’ capital Vientiane before journeying east to explore caves and little-visited national parks.
Then, you’ll begin to trace the Angkor Road, an ancient trading route that passes the pilgrimage sites, paddy fields and Hundi architecture from the Champa Kingdom. You’ll finish in Siem Reap where you can admire the legacy of the Khmer Empire: Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples. The trip takes just over two weeks at a comfortable pace.
- Until recently, visitor numbers to Nam Theun National Protected Area were in single figures. Only accessible by river, you can cruise past riverine forest and pine stands to camp overnight on the riverbank. In the daytime, you can hike barely-there forest trails listening out for the screech of gibbons.
- Subterranean rivers have honeycombed central Laos’ limestone landscape with cathedral-like caverns. You can kayak through the 11 km (7 mile) Xe Bang Fai Cave, stopping to admire the bat-filled grottoes and bulbous rock formations along the way.
- The Angkor Road passes Wat Phou, a Khmer temple that predates the Angkor complex, whose hillside location affords views across the valley to the Mekong River. You tread the staircases around the well-preserved Preah Viear Temple which, after years of ownership dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, has recently re-opened.
- A homestay near the elaborately carved Banteay Srei temple allows you to arrive as the sun rises, before you visit the root-bound Ta Prohm and Cambodia’s showpiece — Angkor Wat.
Tailor this trip
En route to Banteay Srei, you could camp overnight in the jungle of Phnom Kulen National Park.
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