London - There are certain sights that have entered the cultural canon as world wonders worthy of the bucket list, not to mention your time, money and energy – but how many of them are actually worth the hype, and how many are likely to disappoint?
The Independent travel team – correspondent Simon Calder, head of travel Nicola Trup and deputy head Laura Chubb– give their verdicts on the world wonders they’ve visited.
Simon says YES: Go to the Great Pyramid of Giza, on the southern outskirts of Cairo, while tourism to Egypt is depleted so you can enjoy the solitude and support the local economy. Remind yourself that this, the oldest of the seven wonders, was the tallest man-made structure in the world for nearly four millennia – taking into account technology, probably the greatest human achievement of all time.
Laura says YES: One hundred per cent worth the hype. And don’t just stop at that magical moment you emerge from a narrow canyon to face the pink-hued, intricately carved Treasury; there's an entire city to explore. In truth, one day is barely enough to see it all. But a sweaty slog up through a gauntlet of donkeys to The Monastery is particularly worthwhile – the carved edifice is a worthy challenger to The Treasury and far less crowded.
Great Wall, China
Nicola says IT DEPENDS: I walked the Great Wall at Badaling, one of the most popular sections that you can access from Beijing. Of course, it’s an incredibly impressive structure, but the crowds of other visitors (particularly those keen to have their photo taken with a foreigner) slightly dampened the experience. Worth it only if you pick a lesser-known spot and head out early to avoid the tourist hordes.
Mount Everest, Nepal
Simon says NO: The world’s highest mountain is much better to look at, standing proud over the Himalayan horizon, than it is to climb (or so I’ve heard; I’m too scared and feeble to try). Go hiking in Nepal, by all means, but savour the majesty of the mountains and the warmth of the people at an altitude where you don’t need oxygen. Or crampons.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Laura says YES: Doesn’t disappoint – and even better if it’s the reward at the end of the four-day Inca Trail trek (taking the train here just doesn’t have the same effect). Don’t expect to see sunrise at the Sun Gate after a dawn get-up on the last day, though – more often than not, it’s obscured by mist.
Grand Canyon, US
Nicola says YES: Spending one day walking along the rim of the Grand Canyon and the next rafting on the white waters in its depths is an amazing experience. Stay over in one of the charming national park lodges, and avoid the touristy glass-bottomed Skywalk at all costs.
Yellowstone National Park, US
Simon says NO: Just because it’s the world’s first National Park, and embraces an area nearly half the size of Wales, doesn’t make Yellowstone a wonder. Sure, it’s got an impressive geyser, but Iceland has the original (after which all others are named) and is easier and cheaper to reach; in America, parks such as Zion and Yosemite are wonder-class.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Laura says YES: An utterly joyous trip in the company of a giddy array of weird and wonderful animals – all of which couldn’t care less about the parade of gawping humans and studiously ignore you instead of scrambling away. The goofy blue-footed boobies, evil-looking marine iguanas and dopey giant tortoises were my favourites – do yourself a favour and splash out on a proper cruise ship instead of the cheaper, scrappy boats so you can enjoy every minute of it (visiting the islands ordinarily entails a few days at sea).
Nicola says NO: Anyone who’s driven from London to the South West will probably have found themselves stuck in traffic alongside Stonehengeas drivers and passengers rubberneck at this huge ring of rocks. I can’t say it really blew my mind, though, and a Wiltshire-born friend assures me the nearby Avebury Stone Circle is far more impressive.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Simon says YES: What’s special about the 1 400-plus miles of coral reef that decorates the eastern coast of Australia is that you can reach it really easily and safely (for you and the reef), to marvel at the beauty, colour and abundance of nature.
Taj Mahal, India
Laura says YES: As long as you don’t visit in January. The weather in Agra at this time of year is catastrophically misty and after what felt like a cab ride through the afterlife (fog so thick you couldn’t see the cars in front or behind), my prized sunrise shot turned out as a cloud of impenetrable grey without even the hint of an outline of the famed monument to love. But even in these conditions, once up close, there was something beautifully mesmerising about the Taj – so I can only conclude that on a clear day it would be nothing short of spectacular.
Laura says YES: You have to really want to go – literally a journey to the end of the world. First you must haul yourself down to the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia in Argentina, and then endure two days crossing the DrakePassage, renowned for its stormy seas (there’ll be sick bags tucked behind the handrails of the corridors on your ship). But man oh man, is it worth it: a version of the world virtually untouched by humanity, its epic landscapes are so pristine they look CGI. And you’re not alone: I sighted orcas, humpbacks, vast colonies of penguins and sea lions, and even paid a visit to the world’s southernmost pub at Vernadsky Research Base.
Niagara Falls, US/Canada
Simon says NO: The cascade of waterfalls is certainly a worthwhile stop on the overland journey between New York City and Toronto, with the added interest value of an international frontier across the Niagara River. But South America has waterfalls you’ve never even heard of that are more impressive than Niagara’s three cascades. And they even turn the flow down at night to conserve water.
Nicola says YES: After 10 minutes of watching the sun rise over Australia’s iconic red rock, my friend said “Okay, I’m over it now.” I wasn’t, though – watching Uluru change colour in the shifting light, and then spending a couple of hours walking around it, was unforgettable.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Laura says YES: Definitely get there in time to see sunrise – the silhouette of this temple complex mirrored in its reflecting pools is a properly awesome sight. But don’t stop at Angkor Wat – there are so many astoundingly evocative, fabulously carved temples to be discovered in the jungle here, and it’s well worth spending a few days getting your Indiana Jones on.
Laura says NO: If we’re talking about truly unforgettable, wonder-filled experiences, the sort that swell your heart and make you feel acutely alive, then I'm afraid the Colosseum just doesn't make the cut. Worth a visit if you're in Rome? Of course. Worth spaffing your savings on for a bucket list trip? You’ll manage to rest in peace if you miss this.
Easter Island, Chile
Simon says YES: The best thing about the new non-stop flight from Heathrow to Santiago, starting in January, is that Britain is now just one stop from one of the most beautiful places on the planet. On a Jersey-sized volcanic fragment in the South Pacific, you can experience extreme geology, relaxed Latin life and the eerie remnants of one of humanity’s strangest cultures.
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Nicola says PROBABLY: This is a bit of a cheat, as I’ll be making my way up Kilimanjaro when this story goes live. But by all accounts it’s an incredible hike, especially for the feeling once you get to the top. I’ll report back on my return.
Iguazú Falls, Argentina/Brazil
Laura says YES: You can view the falls from either side of the border, but I reckon the Argentine side has the best action. Observing the mad power of this 3km-long chain of roaring falls up close – accessed by walkways through the rainforest and, on the Argentine side, also boat – is a genuinely humbling experience.
Christ the Redeemer, Brazil
Laura says YES: Rio de Janeiro just might be the world’s best-looking city, and I’m not only talking about those bronzed beach bodies: surrounded by tropical mountains, jungle, beaches and sea, it’s pretty hard to beat. Taking the narrow-gauge train up to the city’s mascot is the icing on the cake – if the weather’s playing ball, of course (some friends of mine had a similar experience on their visit as I’d had with the Taj Mahal).