The Ultimate Experiential Travel Bucket List
The world is so full of extraordinary places that it is often overwhelming. Avid travelers can be found scrolling through their Instagram feeds and falling prey to existential dread as they realize that they will never be able to see everything there is to see. But before you stare into the eternal travel abyss, check out this ultimate experiential travel bucket list.
From swimming in the river that escaped heaven in Colombia to coming face to face with wild gorillas in Rwanda, this list will help you prioritize experiences that truly surpass human imagination. Some are well-known, others are more obscure, but they will all infuse you with a sense of adventure to start the new decade planning these travel experiences of a lifetime.
Swim in Colombia's Caño Cristales
Caño Cristales’ beauty has inspired many nicknames: “The River That Escaped Heaven,” “The Liquid Rainbow” and “The River of Five Colors.” From late May to early November, a special algae blooms on the bottom of the river, giving it hues of green, blue, black, yellow and red.
The result is an otherworldly experience that you’ll be hard-pressed to find in any other country. To protect this unique landscape, you can only visit with a certified tour group and must wear natural sunscreen.
Explore New Zealand’s Glowworm Caves
Going to find worms doesn’t sound like the stuff of dreams, but New Zealand has a way of making even the most mundane things seem straight out of fantasy.
A night boat ride into the Waitomo Caves allows you to see the miracle of the glowworms, which shine like fluorescent blue stars on top of the cave walls.
Ride Through the Dunes of Wadi Rum
As one of the New7Wonders of the World, Petra deserves the attention it gets. But Wadi Rum should also be on your Jordan itinerary.
This incredible red desert seems straight out of a space film, which is exactly why it has been featured in ones like “The Martian” and “Prometheus.” Camp out for the night to see stars as you’ve never before seen them.
Trek the Route of the Parks of Patagonia
Lovers of the outdoors rejoice! This 1,740-mile trek crosses 17 Chilean national parks, including the famed Torres del Paine Park and the Atacama Desert.
Even completing only part of the route guarantees some of the most incredible natural sights in South America, as the trail passes through 24 ecosystems with unique flora and fauna.
See the Monarch Butterfly Migration in Mexico
Every year, thousands of monarch butterflies fly from Canada to Mexico to hibernate. Entire forests turn a fluttering orange as the butterflies mate, fly and sleep for four to five months.
The area they cover is a Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The migration is considered one of the greatest natural events in North America.
Walk the Great Wall of China
Another one of the New7Wonders of the World, the Great Wall of China is undoubtedly something you must see for yourself. Taking hundreds of years to complete, its long history is a testament to its cultural and political significance to the country.
Head out early in the morning to avoid the inevitable masses, and whatever you do, do not buy parts of the wall from vendors!
Encounter Wild Gorillas in Rwanda
Wild mountain gorillas are sadly endangered, with only about 800 left in the entire world. Although not the only African park where gorillas reside, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is one of the continent’s most popular spots to see the species.
Local guides take you through a difficult trek into gorilla territory and ensure the safety of both visitors and animals.
Do the Alsace Wine Route in France
Unsurprisingly, France has several wine routes that invite oenophiles to spend days driving around beautiful villages trying local wines.
The Alsace route is the oldest of all, and it’s also the best known. Spanning 105 miles, it’s the perfect excuse to indulge in all the wine and cheese your body can handle — all in the name of culture, of course!
Cruise Through Antarctica
The seventh continent has always been inaccessible to most people due to its harsh conditions and remoteness. Prohibiting prices still make cruises impossible for the average Joe, but at least you don’t have to be a scientist or a great explorer to reach the driest continent.
If you’re able to afford it, this adventure is worth the steep price. Some expeditions like One Ocean use vessels for scientific research, so your dream trip to Antarctica could be contributing to improving the world.
Complete the Snowman Trek in Bhutan
The Snowman Trek is considered one of the most arduous treks in the entire world. This journey takes you to parts of the Bhutanese Himalaya so remote, you won’t even find some of them on Google Maps — imagine!
Usually spanning 20 to 30 days, the trek goes through national parks, lets you peek at the majestic Mt. Jomolhari — Bhutan’s most sacred mountain — and brings you face to face with wild takins, the country’s national animal. Forget the lines in Everest and do this instead.
Scuba Dive the Great Barrier Reef
The largest living single structure in the world is teeming with life and color. The reef is home to hundreds of thousands of marine animals, including sharks, turtles and rays. It's so vast that it holds a third of soft corals on the planet and can actually be seen from outer space!
If you dive the reef, you can also help conservation efforts through programs like Eye on the Reef.
Camp in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia
Sleep under the stars in a traditional Mongolian gert as you get to know what life is like for the country’s nomadic people. Immersive tours give you the chance to help your hosts on their daily tasks, which makes for a rich cultural exchange.
You can also expect to spend your days exploring the largest fossil reservoir in the world and riding camels through vast sand dunes. If you visit during winter, you might also get the rare sight of seeing a desert covered in snow.
See the Northern Lights
Visible from several countries in the Northern Hemisphere, this natural light show seems to belong more in a fantasy novel than on planet Earth. The lights are elusive and capricious, and can be seen mostly from remote places and at sub-freezing temperatures.
But if you manage to see them in all their splendor, the effort is well worth it.
Road Trip Through South Africa’s Garden Route
Go on the road trip of a lifetime in this iconic South African route, which expands 190 miles. The trip extends from the country’s Western Cape to Tsitsikamma Storms River on the Eastern Cape.
The route is even a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, crossing several national parks, landmarks and gardens, and providing beautiful shoreline views.
Stare at the Expansive Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia
During the dry season, the largest salt flat in the world creates stunning optical-illusion pictures. And during the wet season, it transforms into a perfect mirror that reflects the seemingly never-ending sky. Either way, The Salar de Uyuni is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
The salt flat is difficult to reach, and the surrounding region does not have a reliable internet connection, which makes this experience that much more enticing for intrepid travelers.
Witness the Great Wildebeest Migration
Witness one of nature’s greatest miracles in Kenya or Tanzania. Every year, millions of wildebeest, gazelles, zebras and other animals move through the Serengeti and Masai Mara national parks looking for water and pastures.
Predators naturally follow them, making for a synchronized natural dance that is absolutely spectacular. Want a truly unique experience? Catch the show from a hot-air balloon.
See Australia’s Pink Lake Bumbunga
Australia is full of natural wonders, but its bubblegum-pink Lake Bumbunga leaves even Aussies in awe. Although there are several pink lakes in the world — even others in Australia — this is one of the best, as it also boasts an incredible mirror effect that reflects the sky.
The lake is about two hours from Adelaide, so it makes for an incredible day trip. Don’t forget your camera!
Hike Up Rainbow Mountain in Peru
No one denies the splendor of Machu Picchu, but if you want to give this world wonder a break from overtourism, head to Vinicunca instead.
Called the “Mountain of Seven Colors,” this range looks like a cake that has been sliced to reveal layers of red, pink, yellow, orange, green, purple and blue. The hike can be done as a day trip from Cusco.
Tour Tibet’s Jokhang Temple
Despite a complicated history, Tibet’s cultural heritage lives on in this beautiful temple, considered one of the most important in Tibetan Buddhism.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is Lhasa’s most-visited landmark. Walk along the short, yet significant walkway around the temple, which invites pilgrims to do some spiritual contemplation. You might even run into several friendly monks while on the path.
Hike Moloka'i's Kalaupapa National Historical Park
Moloka'i fervently guards Hawaiian culture and has managed to keep free of flashy hotels and crowded beaches. In fact, it is illegal for any building to be taller than a palm tree. The island also boasts one of Hawaii’s greatest natural treasures: Kalaupapa National Historical Park.
Once a leper colony due to its remoteness, the park is now one of the state’s most challenging treks and one that you won’t often share with other tour groups. The park’s rugged beauty has been featured in films like “Jurassic Park.”
Visit the Bornean Jungle
Split between Malaysia and Indonesia, the Bornean forest is one of the least-touched tropical forests in the world. The third-largest island in the world, Borneo holds incredible biodiversity and is home to endemic species like the Bornean orangutan and the pygmy elephant.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) recommends booking sustainable local tours as a way to show governments that there is money to be made from conserving rather than exploiting the forest.
Visit the Rock City of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka
Sigiriya is not so much built on top of a giant rock, as chiseled into it. Built during the fifth century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site welcomes visitors with a large lion rock statue that guards the gate. You can then climb up the steps that have been carved into the boulder and admire the frescoes that decorate its walls.
If you’re one to think all cities look the same, there’s nothing like climbing an ancient city built on a 660-foot-tall rock.
Cruise the Galapagos Islands
Famous for inspiring Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Galapagos Islands are one of the world’s greatest treasures. Endemic species like marine iguanas, blue-footed bobbies and giant tortoises abound.
The Ecuadorian government works hard to keep the impact of tourism at a minimum, with 90 percent of the species that Darwin saw still thriving on the islands.
Wander Through Lavender Fields in Provence
During summer, the French region of Provence blooms with lavenders that transform it into a purple wonderland. Medieval villages, cottages and small farms often surround the fields, adding to the quaint beauty of the scenery.
You can even hop on a hot-air balloon for a bird’s-eye view that will leave you breathless.
Catch South Korea’s Mermaids Hard at Work
Haenyeos — the female divers of South Korea’s Jeju Island — are known for diving up to 30 feet to catch seafood by hand. Because of their impressive skills, gathered through a lifetime of working underwater, they have been donned the “Mermaids of Jeju Island.” (The majority are more than 50 years old.)
To see these ladies in the midst of their impressive labor, go up Sunrise Peak at 1:30 or 3 p.m., which are their usual diving times.
Plunge Into Whale Shark–Infested Waters in the Philippines
As the whale shark capital of the world, Donsol is certainly the best place to interact with these gentle animals. To enjoy sharing the water with the sharks, you must go with a local guide, who will find them as they are casually feeding on the plankton near the surface.
Your guide will also ensure that you do not get too close — for their safety, not yours. If this sounds scary, let us assure you that the whale shark will be the first to swim away if it notices you.
Journey Through the Brazilian Amazon
Although the magnificent Amazon rainforest spans eight countries, almost two-thirds of it falls within Brazilian borders. Often touted as the "lungs of the world," the rainforest is one of the most biodiverse places in the entire planet and houses numerous endemic species.
You can float down the mighty Amazon River — the largest in the world by volume — join guided jungle safaris or learn from the indigenous communities that guard the forest.
Stroll Through Granada’s Alhambra
Spain boasts beauty in every corner, but perhaps its most incredible landmark is the gorgeous Alhambra in Granada. Built during the Moorish occupation of Spain, this complex is a testament to the finesse of Arabic architecture.
Every wall is an intricate piece of art, and the gardens and courts are equal masterpieces. We suggest planning an entire day here, so you can see every corner of Alhambra without having to rush through it.
Traverse the Grand Canyon in Arizona
One of the most beautiful natural wonders in the world, the Grand Canyon offers notable sites like Horseshoe Bend and the Wave.
No matter what part of this landmark you explore, you will stand in awe at the artistry of nature, which has graced the canyon with multicolored strokes that twist and bend along its vertigo-inducing walls.
Camp in Canada’s First National Park
Banff National Park seems like an artist’s rendition of a quintessentially idyllic mountain scene. Majestic snow-capped mountains stretch toward the sky, their grace perfectly mirrored in the crystal-clear glacial lake that lies at their feet.
As Canada’s first national park, it enjoys local and international popularity, offering numerous exciting activities like skiing, kayaking, hiking, biking and camping.
Spend Days Sailing Down the Nile River in Egypt
There are few ways to experience Egypt that are as thrilling as taking a multi-day cruise down the Nile River, one of the longest in the world.
You’ll pass through sites like the Pyramids of Giza, the only Wonder of the Ancient World that has not been destroyed, and Luxor, once the capital of Ancient Egypt where many Pharaohs are buried.
Drive Around the Azores Islands
Until very recently, flights to the Azores were fairly uncommon, meaning that these volcanic Portugese islands in the Atlantic have been beautifully preserved. Far from the woes of overtourism, the Azores can proudly boast unique landforms, imposing mountains and beautiful beaches.
The best way to explore the rugged beauty of the Azores is to pick an island, rent a car and explore every possible fold and corner.
Learn About Sustainability at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore
Gardens by the Bay is what we hope the city of the future will look like. The urban park’s signature feature is the Supertree Grove, where gigantic vertical gardens mimic real trees to gather solar energy and collect rainwater.
The “trees” also provide a habitat for insects, birds, plants and reptiles that would usually struggle in a modern city. The gardens also boast the largest greenhouse in the world, a Cloud Forest where visitors can rest from the humid heat and two beautiful conservatories.
Interact With Humpback Whales in Tonga
Located in the middle of the Pacific, Tonga is a place that many people don’t even know exist. And while this is a true crime in the age of the internet, it has helped the island nation to remain relatively unexploited and unscathed.
Travelers find quiet beaches and impossibly clear water as well as healthy and thriving coral reefs. During the right time of year, you’ll be able to share the water with humpback whales that come close to the shore to birth their calves and nurture them in their first days of life.
Travel on the Longest Railroad in the World
Many a bucket list includes wistful wishes of riding the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway. Connecting Moscow to Vladivostok in Russia's far east, the entire journey takes about six days, crosses seven time zones and spans 5,772 miles — effectively earning the honor of being the longest train ride in the world.
If you picture instances of gazing out the window into expansive scenery previously unseen and unimagined, you’re not far from the truth. Just don’t forget that, in exchange, you’ll spend days on a train without showering and with very limited Wi-Fi. Is it worth it? We definitely think so!
Cross the Lycian Way by Foot
The gorgeous Lycian Way was an ancient trade route that ran along Turkey’s Mediterranean Coast. You can trek through what’s left of the route, passing through ancient Lycian ruins, rock tombs and Roman baths.
Perhaps the highlight of the route is Mount Chimaera, where eternal flames rise from the cracks between the stones to form a sight straight out of Greek Mythology.
Dive Belize’s Great Blue Hole
Its name might not be too imaginative, but the Great Blue Hole is arguably one of the most awe-inspiring places on Earth. It is the largest sinkhole on the planet and was named one of the best scuba diving spots in the world by the famed conservationist and diver Jacques Cousteau.
Even if you’re not too keen on diving into deep, dark waters, you can swim in the shallow outer rims of the hole and appreciate this unique wonder of nature.
Stand Next to the Tallest Pre-Columbian Structure in the Americas
Guatemala offers some of the most impressive Maya sites in Mesoamerica, but Tikal National Park might be the best known. Set deep within the jungle, this complex was once the former capital of the Maya empire.
Its Temple IV rises 270 feet above the ground, making it the tallest existing pre-Columbian building in all of the Americas! There are several other pyramids and temples in Tikal, including the iconic Temple of the Great Jaguar.
Foster Tolerance at Rabati Castle in Georgia
The ninth-century Rabati Castle is as beautiful as it is large. Its well-preserved structures and expansiveness make it one of the most-important and -visited landmarks in the small country of Georgia.
But besides its physical allure, the fortress represents tolerance and openness, as a minaret, a synagogue, a mosque and a Christian church reside within it.
Enter Iran’s Most Colorful Mosque
The stained-glass windows of The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque create a colorful light show that dazzles whoever is lucky enough to witness it.
Dubbed the "Pink Mosque" because of the tiles that decorate its ceiling, the structure is a spectacular example of Arabic architecture and is considered one of the most beautiful places of worship in the entire world.
Wander Around the Otherworldly Socotra Island in Yemen
Remote and isolated, Socotra Island has developed over time to be one of the most unique places on the planet. Several endemic species of flora and fauna reside here, including the incredible Dragon Blood Tree, which evolved to look as if its branches were stumpy roots reaching up toward the sky.
Besides an arid, rocky landscape that is surrounded by emerald waters, the UNESCO-listed island has deep caves, white sand dunes and a deep local fishing culture.
Volunteer at an Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
Large, diverse and beautiful, Thailand is one of those countries you never finish exploring. If you want to do something unique and worthwhile on your visit, consider gifting your time and labor to an elephant sanctuary.
These places often take care of rescued elephants that cannot be reintroduced into the wild, so you’ll be helping out a worthy cause. Just make sure to do your research, so you don’t fall victim to greenwashing by fake sanctuaries.
View the Sunrise Over Angkor Wat
The largest religious structure in the world, Angkor Wat is always beautiful, but it’s at its best during sunrise. While some people will make the sacrifice of waking up before the sun, most will be resting from days of temple trekking, meaning that you’ll have to share this usually overcrowded wonder with a much smaller crowd.
Watch as the first rays of light illuminate the ancient stones, casting shadows on the beautiful figures carved into them.
Go Heli-Skiing in Iceland
If regular skiing doesn’t fulfill your need for adrenaline, consider the sports’ steroid-pumped cousin: heli-skiing (short for helicopter skiing). This relatively new extreme sport takes you on a helicopter ride to remote and otherwise inaccessible points.
Once there, you can ski off-trail back to where you started. The rugged landscape of Iceland’s Troll Peninsula has become a prime spot for this unusual yet extremely fun winter activity.
Enjoy Beach Days at the Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique
Intact reefs, white sand dunes and beautiful beaches make up the breathtaking Bazaruto Archipelago. Although it seems as if this collection of islands could easily fall prey to high-end resort chains and crowds, it continues to be remote enough that most people simply don’t have the time or money to get there.
The best part? You may share your beach day with the archipelago’s resident horses, who love playing in the sand and splashing around in the warm ocean as much as you do.
Roam Silk Road Routes in Kyrgyzstan
Connecting Asia, Africa and Europe, the Silk Road is one of the most extensive trade networks in history. Explore this feat of the ancient world in the fascinating yet often-overlooked Kyrgyzstan, where you can still find whispers of the route.
Pass by Tash Rabat — an ancient monastery that eventually became an inn for traders and travelers — visit the Burana Tower and bargain for goods at the Osh Bazaar, which is more than 3,000 years old!
Photograph Wild Tigers in India's Ranthambore National Park
Forget posing with captive tigers, and opt for observing these magnificent felines in their natural habitat. Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan offers safaris where you can track tigers (along with other animals like crocodiles, cobras and monkeys) and get close enough to photograph them.
You won’t be able to pet them, but that’s exactly how nature intended it.
Marvel at the Natural Beauty of Halong Bay in Vietnam
Imagine waking up to scenes of limestone formations rising up from emerald waters covered in mist. This is what awaits those who splurge on an overnight cruise in the bewitching Halong Bay. With more than 1,500 islets, the bay provides numerous activities for travelers, including kayaking, hiking and swimming.
But really, the landscape is so absolutely captivating that simply floating around while taking it in is more than enough. You can also visit one of the last remaining floating villages in the area to learn about how their inhabitants have adapted to life away from the land.
Find a Lost City Within the Jungles of Colombia
Up until the 1970s, nobody outside of the indigenous groups of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta knew about Teyuna, the ancient capital of the Tayrona civilization. Today, the “Lost City” is one of Colombia’s most arduous but rewarding treks: You’ll have to cross the jungle for two days before reaching the tiered stone terraces that distinguish this archaeological treasure.
The trek can only be completed on a guided tour led by members of one of the four indigenous groups — Kogi, Arhuaco, Wiwa or Kankuamo — that guard and protect this sacred region.
Row Through the Pool of Arches in Israel
If you’re a fan of “The Phantom of the Opera,” pack your bags for Israel right now.
Located in Ramla, this reservoir was created in the eighth century and still allows visitors to row through its underground arches. (Sadly, you must keep your amazing rendition of the musical to yourself.)