When visiting the world’s travel icons, it pays not to follow the crowds. Here's how you can blaze a different trail at the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, the River Nile, The Great Wall of China and beyond...
Few icons inspire as much emotion as Machu Picchu. Your first sight of the sprawling Inca citadel from the Sun Gate is unforgettable: it seems to have been whittled from the very rock by a divine hand. And the trek to get there is just as exhilarating. The 43km Inca Trail is a testing route snaking past ancient ruins and across slopes carpeted in cedar, intimpa and laurel. It also requires forward planning: only 500 permits per day are issued for ‘the’ Inca Trail.
Some companies offer a five-day alternative rather than the typical four-day itinerary, staggering campsites and starting later in the day to avoid logjams on the trail. But there’s more than one Inca trail: some 30,000km of stone-paved tracks, comprising a vast network known as the Qhapaq Ñan, spider out from Cusco through Andes and Amazon to the far reaches of Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire. This network allowed the empire to thrive, but also paved the way for its destruction by enabling the Spanish conquistadors to access all areas with ease. The 74km Salkantay Trail, another surviving section of the Qhapaq Ñan, offers a back route leading almost to Machu Picchu (unlike the ‘real’ Inca Trail, it doesn’t arrive at the Sun Gate. Tougher on the feet than the more cultural Lares trek, walkers rise up through lowland jungle to ascend one of the sacred peaks of the Inca, but this is all just a prelude to the Inca sites at Llactapata and, eventually, Machu Picchu.
Many sections of the Qhapaq Ñan have been lost, eroded by livestock, but some are being resurrected as hiking routes. One such is a new five-day trek through the Cordillera Blanca to Huánuco Pampa, the ruins of an Inca administrative centre scattered across a windswept plateau at an altitude of 3,700m.
Trace these multi-day routes to discover three of Latin America’s most incredible ‘lost cities’
An Inca citadel reputedly three times the size of Machu Picchu – but with a fraction of the tourists – is the reward for a trek of at least two days (each way). A cable car to the site has long been mooted, and may soon appear – so now’s the time to undertake this tough haul through the jungle, across the Apurimac Canyon and up steep trails to around 3,000m.
Reaching the ‘Lost City’ involves a demanding 45km hike through the steaming northern foothills and indigenous villages of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Probably build around 1100 – centuries before Machu Picchu was constructed – this great city of the Tairona people was abandoned after the Spanish conquest and rediscovered only in the 1970s. The return trek takes four to five days, including the final climb up 1,200 steps.
The remains of the greatest Maya city of the Pre-classic era lie deep in the jungle of northern Guatemala, a testing 40km trek from the remote community of Carmelita. Hike through lush forest, pausing to explore the ancient ruins of El Tintal before following a huge Maya causeway to the main attraction: El Mirador, dominated by the 70m-high pyramid called La Danta.
The standard approach to this rock-hewn marvel, through the 1.2km-long canyon known as the Siq, is as claustrophobic as it is spectacular: just a few metres wide but 200m high, the gorge can seethe with tourists at busy times. The reward is the big reveal, when you emerge to be faced by the famed Treasury (AlKhazneh) – but this 2,000-year-old Nabataean city is so much more than just a dramatic entrance.
Rather than following that well-trodden trail from Wadi Musa through the Siq, consider the less-known ‘backdoor’ route via Siq al-Barid, known as Little Petra, thought to have been a suburb of the old city. This 8km path winds up an ancient stairway etched into a cliff and continues to the city’s largest monument: Al-Deir, known as the Monastery but in truth a third-century royal tomb. From here, you’ll enjoy those sweeping views over Petra – a glorious introduction to this astonishing site. The climb to the Monastery from the main site takes about an hour; an alternative but just as impressive viewpoint is the High Place of Sacrifice (Al-Madbah), above the Theatre. Continue west along the Wadi Farasa backroad to discover a cluster of little-seen monuments.
The four-day Dana to Petra walk is the showpiece section of the 650km-long Jordan Trail. Traversing Wadi Dana, watch for Nubian ibex roaming the hilltops and wind through sandstone mountains on the final approach via Little Petra (note: to enter the main site, you’ll need to arrange your pass for Petra in advance).
Colossal tombs and 3,000-year-old temples, starlit nights, the scent of the North African night air – along the Nile, history is life. Your experience of this ancient land will hinge on what you see and how you see it. Luxurious boats cruise between Cairo and Aswan, and along shorter stretches from Luxor – but passengers are arguably detached from the subtle rhythms of river life.
From Agatha Christie-era steamers to two-masted vintage-style dahabiyya houseboats and larger modern cruisers, there’s a range of upmarket options. But perhaps the most intimate way of absorbing life on the Nile is aboard a on a small traditional felucca sailboat. It’s a no-frills experience, sleeping on deck in the warm night air, between hopping off to explore ancient temples and tombs.
In a remote spot in the desert 250km north-east of the Sudanese capital stand more pyramids than even Egypt can boast. Here, on the eastern bank of the Nile, you’ll find Meroë, ancient capital of the kings of Kush, sometime rulers of Egypt. Across its dual necropolis, some 200 pyramids rise from the sands, best visited on an overnight camping trip from Khartoum.
The Nile flows some 6,650km through Africa, with tributaries in nine countries and countless alternative ways of tracing its course
The waterway also known as the Kagera River is the most remote of the Nile’s upper headstreams, rising in Burundi. It also feeds Central Africa’s largest protected wetlands in Rwanda’s Akagera National Park. The park’s wildlife was ravaged following the civil war of the 1990s, but is again a Big Five destination following the reintroduction of eastern black rhino in 2017. Spot lion on the vast savannah and drift past huge pods of hippos on Lake Ihema.
The uppermost tributary of this branch rises at Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, where cruises hop between island monasteries famed for their bright frescoes. The river loops south through Ethiopia, cascading over Blue Nile Falls and through a 600km-long gorge, bending to flow north-west into Sudan and the confluence with the White Nile at Khartoum. Falls and gorge both afford spectacular views.
The longer of the two main tributaries lures whitewater addicts to Jinja, Uganda, where rafters and kayakers revel in the rapids. Downstream it surges through a 6m gap at Murchison Falls, then fans out into a bird-bustling delta at Lake Albert. Combine a day-cruise to falls and delta with chimp tracking in the forests of Murchison Falls NP.
The Camino de Santiago (Way of St James) is not one trail but many, spidering across the Iberian Peninsula to the reputed resting place of the titular saint in Santiago de Compostela, north-western Spain. One route is by far the most popular, though: some 300,000 hikers trace the 775km Camino Francés (French Way) from the Pyrenean town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port each year. Many tackle just the final 100km or so through Galicia from Sarria to Santiago – the minimum distance required to claim official pilgrim status and collect your compostela (certificate of completion) at the cathedral.
Of the couple of dozen different routes, some start as far afield as Geneva and Valencia, all gradually merging into eight main trails into Santiago. Each offers different scenery and cultural encounters. Take the Camino Portugués, for example: the full 616km route starts in Lisbon, though most hikers truncate it by beginning in Porto (a ‘mere’ 240km to Santiago), traversing trails through the port-soaked hills and villages of the Douro Valley.
Even the well-travelled French Way doesn’t have to be a blister-busting trek. Some 25,000 bicigrinos pedal this route each year; note that you must cycle at least the last 200km (from Ponferrada in León, perhaps) to claim your certificate; most pedal it in three or four days. Alternatively, that coveted compostela could be yours if you cover the last 100km on horseback.
You don’t have to leave the UK to taste the life of a peregrino. The Pilgrim’s Trail winds 47km south from Winchester to Portsmouth, following a medieval route ending at MontSaint-Michel. You could hike that stretch over a weekend, or catch the ferry to Cherbourg and add the final 202km to the hallowed mount.
Some sights are so iconic that you feel you know them before you see them for the first time. Arizona’s Grand Canyon – 446km long and millions of years in the making – is one such. But familiarity can have a downside: more than six million people visit each year, and if you head to the busiest viewpoints and routes of the South Rim, such as the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails, it can feel like you’re meeting most of them.
The North Rim is further from the nearest city than the south, and its North Kaibab or Nankoweap trails far less crowded. Remember, too, that there are lots of sub-canyons to explore. For example, try Havasu, with its five impossibly blue cascades accessible via a 16km hike down switchbacks into the redrock canyon and past a Native American village to the campsite near the falls. Book your permit and campsite place as far in advance as possible.
For a truly immersive canyon experience, though, you’ll need to get wet. Rafting the Colorado River (trips run Apr–Oct) gets you up close to those sheer canyon walls, gazing up at condors soaring overhead, taking side treks to magical grottoes and sleeping out on sandy beaches under a canvas of stars. Day trips are possible, but most floats last three to eight days, starting at Lees Ferry or Phantom Ranch; it takes two weeks to traverse the whole canyon in a non-motorised boat.
Arizona isn’t short on impressive canyons. The hike into candy-striped Antelope Canyon is Instagram gold, while Canyon de Chelly is home to Puebloan dwellings built into the cliffs almost a millennium ago; take a trek with a Native American guide, on foot or on horseback, to explore even older relics dating back 5,000 years.
The Mutianyu and Badaling sections of the Great Wall – both within an hour of Beijing – receive more than 10 million visitors each year. In addition, many sections around Beijing and in nearby Hebei province have been heavily ‘restored’ (read: utterly smoothed over) in recent years. In short: pick your destination with care.
Escape to the wild wall. The locally based Great Wall Adventure Club claims to be the only company legally allowed to camp on these ancient barricades. It runs two-day trips to remote stretches near Gubeikou, where travellers can bed down in an old watchtower at night.
Another option is WildWall; this company’s owner, William Lindesay, has written extensively on the fortifications, and his Chinese wife and two sons complete the hosting team. Travellers joining his tours stay at an old converted schoolhouse in Huairou district, around 67km north of central Beijing, enjoying homemade food and walks on remote stretches of the wall with this hugely knowledgeable guide.
Remember, though, that the various stretches of the Great Wall reputedly total 21,000km long – that’s a lot to explore. Head to Shanhaiguan to see the waves of the Bohai Sea lap against the ‘Old Dragon’s Head’ – the eastern end of the wall – at Laolongtou, then head a couple of hours’ drive north to Dongjiakou, where some of the best-preserved stretches of wall provide a picturesque backdrop for a challenging and remote ramble.
For more solitude, head to the wilder west: the ‘Last Gate Under Heaven’ at Jiayuguan in Gansu, the Ming-dynasty western terminus of the Great Wall. Still today there’s more than a whiff of Central Asia about the place – and with good reason: the original barrier here was built to protect the Silk Road trade flowing between the ‘Stans and Xi’an through the Gansu corridor, with the Tibetan plateau to the south and Gobi Desert to the north.
Much has been written about the ancient Khmer temple complex – much of it on how best to dodge the crowds. As a rule of thumb, the peak summer rains (Jun–Aug) rarely strike before noon; if you arrive early in this season (Angkor Wat and the major temples open at 5am), you’ll find the key sites less crowded, especially if you cycle to the more remote temples while the tour groups break for breakfast. But don’t limit yourself to Angkor: the Khmer were avid builders, and it’s well worth visiting their other monuments elsewhere.
Banteay Chhmar, built in the 12th century by Jayavarman VII, is adorned with gorgeous bas-relief carvings and huge Boddhisatva faces – a little like the Bayon at Angkor, but with a fraction of the crowds. Take the three-hour journey north-west from Siem Reap for a glimpse of what a visit to Angkor was like before it was thronged with 2.5 million visitors a year
Another, more remote temple to tempt is Preah Vihear, high in the Dangrek Mountains on the border with Thailand. Long off-limits due to Khmer Rouge activity and border disputes, it’s once more safe to visit. Built from the ninth century, this sandstone complex is older than Angkor Wat and, like that monument, was originally a Hindu temple before becoming a Buddhist shrine; developed over three centuries by successive kings, it combines a fascinating mix of styles.
If money is no object, take a helicopter trip combining Angkor, Banteay Chhmar and Preah Vihear for unmatched views and easy access to the key sites.
The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s mausoleum for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, completed in 1648, remains one of the world’s most in-demand sights. Attempts to thin the crowds have included increasing ticket prices and introducing daily caps on the domestic tourists who make up the bulk of the crowds. Whether it makes a dent in the 8.5 million visitors that mill around the marble each year remains to be seen, but finding a quiet spot to capture the perfect shot is still the dream.
It’s rumoured that the cleaning of the Taj’s iconic dome will start in April, so it might be worth heading there pronto in case scaffolding appears to mar your perfect shot. Winter (Dec–Mar) is the coolest season; for a less-hectic visit, avoid weekends and public holidays, and arrive before the west and east gates open at 7am to get through security faster.
For a mesmerising and quite different perspective (and great photos of the Taj reflected in the water), cross Agra’s Yamuna River to the north bank; the charbagh (garden) complex at Metahb Bagh is great for sunset shots of India’s icon. Back on the southern bank, a riverside pathway running alongside the eastern gate offers unusual angles on the Taj; be aware that, though you may be offered a boat ride here for even better views, such jaunts are officially not permitted.
The Bibi-qa-Maqbara in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, was built a few decades after the Taj by Shah Jahan’s grandson, Azam Shah, and is strikingly similar to that monument. Like the Taj, it was created as a mausoleum (for Azam Shah’s mother, the emperor Aurangzeb’s wife Rabiaud-Daurani) and, though his cost-cutting father demanded that it was finished in limestone rather than marble, it’s a dazzling sight – and far less crowded that its counterpart in Agra.
Six established routes ascend the lower slopes of Africa’s tallest peak, converging onto a trail circuiting the mountain at around 4,000m, then joining one of three summit paths; in total, the ascent to Uhuru Peak (5,895m) takes five to eight days. Of the 50,000 climbers tackling Kili each year, perhaps two-thirds choose to climb the Machame or Marangu trails from the south; on the latter, dubbed the ‘Coca-Cola Route’, trekkers can stay in huts rather than camping.
The Umbwe route is the shortest by distance, but involves steep sections with tough scrambling, with less time for acclimatisation; that’s a problem shared by the Shira route, which starts at a higher altitude. A good alternative is the Lemosho route (7–8 days) climbing from the west which, being longer, is both more expensive and allows more time for acclimatisation, improving your chances of summiting. On this route you’ll spend more time in the lower rainforest, where there are opportunities to spot game and birdlife. Guides are able to stagger camps on this trail to avoid overcrowding, and it’s possible to follow the lesstrodden northern circuit to reach the summit trail, rather than the busy southern circuit used by most of the other routes.
The Rongai route is the only one climbing from Kenya, to the peak’s north, rather than Tanzania; the start of the trek is a long drive from the usual bases of Moshi and Arusha, so it’s more expensive, but also less busy, with great views of savannah, Mawenzi Peak and Kilimanjaro itself.
Many argue that the ascent of Mount Kenya (5,199m) is superior. Hikers first traverse forest rich in elephants and monkeys; higher, you’ll spot rock hyrax and malachite sunbirds. The highest peak accessible by non-technical climbers is Point Lenana – at 4,985m, still a breathlessly lofty challenge, with astonishing sunrise views.
Calls for a cap on visitors to Canada’s busiest national park grow louder each year. In the peak summer months, hotspots such as Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise and Moraine Lake seethe with tourists.
To dodge crowds on popular hikes, visit in shoulder season and start early in the morning. Alternatively, tackle less-trodden routes – for example, the Plain of Six Glaciers trail south-west of Lake Louise is far less busy than the track up to the Lake Agnes Tea House, but still offers fine views over the turquoise waters. Or come in winter (Dec–Apr), when snowshoeing routes around the big lakes reveal their beauty in a completely different light.
To skip the scrum in Banff altogether and discover other rugged patches of the Rockies, head over the border from Alberta into British Columbia to explore Yoho and Kootenay national parks. Neither receives even a fraction of the four million visitors that descend on Banff each year, yet their glassy waters and remote rocky trails are more than a match for Alberta’s scenery.
The blue-green waters of Yoho’s Emerald and O’Hara lakes rival those of Louise; a quota system limits numbers at O’Hara. Elsewhere in Yoho, Iceline Trail provides spectacular views of Takakkaw Falls. Kootenay, meanwhile, boasts an alluring soak at Radium Hot Springs, and a trek with dramatic vistas along Marble Canyon.
Board a chopper to whisk you away from the crowds. Heli-hiking tours are typically offered between June and September from Banff and Canmore. Within Banff National Park, day trips reveal aerial views of the Three Sisters Peaks, the Bow River valley or Mount Assiniboine. But a multi-day escape is the ultimate indulgence: with a helicopter at your command, you can soar beyond the park’s borders to remote mountain lodges up in the Bugaboos and Cariboos, to find solitude among towering ridges, alpine meadows and untrammelled wilderness.
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