Important Note: This list has already changed and probably will again. The most recent update can be found here. (Sorry, Thailand…)
For years now, I’ve avoided making a top five of favorite countries list. Why? Countries are diverse, no matter how small or large, they all have their pros and cons. Cities and experiences are easier to categorize. But as a professional travel consultant people often ask me, “what’s your favorite country?” And now that I am well over halfway to the 100 club, I finally feel knowledgable and well traveled enough to make such a list. Of course, this is as of now, 29 August 2017. As I continue to travel and see more of the world, things can change at any time. This was also one of the most difficult lists I’ve ever made, and believe me, I thought long and hard about it. Narrowing a list of over 50 countries to just five was not easy. Tough choices had to be made to whittle this down. There are some countries (i.e. Cuba) that were difficult to leave off. But these are the countries where I all around enjoyed most for various reasons. These are the places I would return to any day, despite the constant dilemma of visiting a new place verses returning to somewhere I loved. Without further ado, I present my five favorite counties I’ve visited:
5. Thailand: Yes, everyone and their mother has visited Thailand. It is probably THE backpacker’s default destination. And yes, parts of it are extremely touristy and maddening. But there is a reason so many people travel to Thailand. Thailand is almost perfect. From its cultural sites, crazy bustling capital, more manageable cities (such as Chiang Mai), delicious food, green jungles, wildlife, picture perfect beaches, and friendly people, there is not much not to love about Thailand. And the fact that it is still affordable just adds to its likability. Furthermore, Thailand is a breeze to get around. Busses, trains, ferries, and minibuses connect the entire country. Plus, where else on Earth can you get authentic (and vegan if desired) Pad Thai for about $1 from a street food cart and take it to go to eat it at a white sand beach with an amazing sunset? Thailand! The country is nicknamed “Land of Smiles,” and this is so accurate as its warm, welcoming locals are always smiling.
Thailand pro tip: Shop around for cheap domestic airfare, especially between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. If your dates are flexible, you can often find flights for almost as cheap as bus tickets. Flying saves so much time, especially when you only have a brief holiday.
4. Perú: Another country that seemingly has it all. While so many people come here for Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, and do not venture beyond that and the Sacred Valley, my personal favorite parts of Perú are Colca Canyon and the Amazon. Even with months, you will never run out of things to do in Perú. And if you do find yourself bored, snuggle with llamas and alpacas. And like Thailand, it is very possible to visit Perú on a budget. Getting to Perú is easy. Lima is just a short flight from many North American cities, and there are direct flights from Madrid as well. From the high, snowy Andes to ancient cities, to (sigh) Spanish Colonial Architecture, to the Amazon rainforest, if you can’t find it in Perú, good luck finding it anywhere!
Perú pro tip: Visting the Amazon is a Peruvian essential. Many of the packaged tours include a trip to Puerto Maldonado, which is not far from Cuzco, and is easily accessible. But I suggest visiting the real Amazon, on the Amazon river. Fly from Lima to Iquitos (there are no roads as this is truly the Amazon, so flying is the only option) and book yourself into an Amazon River lodge for a few nights to truly get away from it all. Iquitos offers many within a 2-4 hour boat ride down the Amazon River (boat transfers to the lodge are always included in the price). Here you can truly disconnect and enjoy the sounds and scenery of the Amazon Rainforest, unlike no other on Earth!
3. Tanzania: Tanzania conjures up every storybook image of Africa. Mt. Kilimanjaro towering over the plains of the Serengeti. All the African wildlife imaginable, and viewable (with some patience). Zanzibar, with its Indian Ocean waters and beautiful beaches. The Masai, who still live a somewhat traditional lifestyle. And campsites where the animals often come right up to your tent. Visiting Tanzania does come with a price, though. Sub Saharan Africa is not exactly a budget destination, even if you camp and self cater. But it’s absolutely worth it, because Tanzania is quintessential Africa. Safer than many of its surrounding countries, and with friendly locals, Tanzania should be on everyone’s bucket list. There is nothing like sitting around a campfire under the Southern Sky listening to the roar of the lions in the distance. Nothing!
Tanzania pro tip: Bring warm clothing, even if you are not climbing Kilimanjaro. Many people tend to think that all of Africa is hot all the time (HA!), but trust me, nights on the Serengeti and by Ngorongoro Crater can be very cold. Much of Tanzania is located on the high plains, above sea level. And it is not like a tent has great insulation. You don’t want to freeze to death at night.
2. Sri Lanka: When I decided to begin a new decade of life in Sri Lanka, I knew I would like it, but I never expected to write a love letter to it upon departure. Sri Lanka blew me away and then some. This little island nation is like a whole continent. Wildlife viewing that rivals Sub Saharan Africa, the highlands and tea terraces that are so breathtakingly gorgeous, a dry zone, a wet zone, and everything in between. Sri Lanka is also home to some of Buddhism’s most important relics, including one of Buddha’s teeth, which is housed in Kandy. And it is a diverse country. Here Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians live in relative harmony. Like most of my other favorite countries, the people here are fabulous! So incredibly friendly and welcoming of visitors after a bloody civil war. Eating local in Sri Lanka is such a treat too: roti with hot curry sauces at roadside houses. Another place where it is fairly easy to be vegetarian as well.
Sri Lanka pro tip: Take a train journey. Even if only a few hours, the train is a fabulous introduction to local life. And don’t book that air-conditioned first class car. Travel in third class where the windows can be open to truly take in the views. You will be traveling with the locals, making a third class Sri Lankan train journey so memorable.
And finally… #1 Spain: If you know me, this is the obvious number one. But to be honest, I debated putting Spain on this list at all since I live there half the year at this point and am no longer a visitor. But not everyone is as lucky to call España home, so I decided to put it on my list as it truly is my favorite country on this planet. Why Spain? Imagine a country that is small but has some of the tallest mountains in Europe, villages so cute you can not believe they are real, no fewer than five different languages, olive trees flanking the hills as far as the eye can see, beautiful beaches (and no, I am not talking about the Costa del Sol), coffee and wine for €1.50, some of the best food in the world, deserts, flamingos (yes, really!), Moorish fairytale palaces, cavernous cathedrals, beautiful architecture, world class cities, vibrant cultures, and THE friendliest people on Earth speaking THE sexiest language on this planet (do yourself a favor and listen to Castilian Spanish), plus so much more… you’ve got Spain. Another advantage of this amazing country is that Spain is much more affordable than much of Western Europe, yet it is safe and easy travel. Getting around the country is fun and very straightforward: the high speed AVE train links the major cities. Aside from the AVE, Spain has an extensive train network to some of the medium sized cities. But don’t fear, busses are easy to use and can take you off the beaten path, to places the trains do not go. And over landing it in Spain is gorgeous. Stay awake and look at the scenery. Soon you will be saying “te quiero, España” and taking a page from my playbook calling it “mi país precioso.”
Spain pro tip: Yes, Barcelona is a beautiful city. But it is not very Spanish. Barcelona is part of Cataluña, and many there want independence from Spain. Here you will not hear much Spanish spoken, as Catalan is the de-fecto language on this part of the Iberian peninsula. Barcelona is also often the only part of Spain that travelers visit. While I do believe Barcelona should be included on any Spain itinerary, your time in Spain should not be exclusively Barcelona. Sadly, many travelers make this mistake. Visit Madrid, the capital. Go explore some of the smaller towns. And by all means, go to Andalucía, Spain’s southernmost autonomous community.
There you have it, my top five countries as of today. Want to visit any of these fantastic places? Let’s get in touch. I can help you make it happen!