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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.
Grand tour of the British Isles
How many passport stamps? One
Though you’ll only get one passport stamp from this trip, these four countries all have their own distinct cultures, histories and landscapes. This grand, three-week tour gives you a chance to explore both their contrasts and commonalities.
Flying into London, you’ll begin in the seat of the British Empire, with a side jaunt to the Roman Baths in Bath and Stonehenge. You then head north via train to the flinty Scottish city of Edinburgh. Fly to Belfast and then onto Dublin, enjoying trips outside both capitals to explore the wild Irish coast and countryside.
- Arguably the two most important buildings in London, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London are both venerable and vast. The sheer enormity of the buildings’ size and history can be frankly overwhelming. With your private guide, navigate around the crowds and discover the stories embedded in these stone halls, where monarchs, monks, poets and rebels have lived and died for centuries.
- Take a guided tour of the castles and palaces that dot the countryside around Edinburgh. See a masterwork of stonemasonry inside Rosslyn Chapel, drink in a panoramic view from the top of Linlithgow Palace and admire the Firth of Forth from the stolid gray ramparts of Blackness Castle. End the day with a tour of Hopetoun House, a sumptuous grand manor with extensive gardens and grounds.
- Marvel at the eerie regularity of the stone columns of Giant’s Causeway, which has inspired folklore for thousands of years.
- Ireland’s legends range from heroic myths of the hunter-warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill to comic modern tales of enterprising countrywomen. To properly experience these living, breathing pieces of Irish culture, you need to hear them told aloud. In Dublin, you can spend an evening in a pub listening to a seanchaí (traditional Gaelic storyteller).
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