Tag Archives: Tikal

Top 10 National Parks

In my attempt to list out all my favourite travel places before I leave for my RTW trip, I’ve already covered off countries, cities, world heritage sites and islands, to give me a base to compare against when I get back. Given my growing love of the great outdoors, I figured it was time to tackle my favourite national parks.

1. Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Temples & jungle in Tikal

Temples & jungle in Tikal

Not just my favourite World Heritage Site, but my favourite National Park too. Not many national parks have huge ruined Mayan cities in the middle. Even fewer have howler monkeys too. If you haven’t heard a howler monkey in the wild, you haven’t lived (you can get an idea of the sound from myvideo). Everywhere you go you hear them make their strange strangulated roaring noises. While they howlers steal the show, the place is crawling with wildlife – in the brief time I was there I also saw spider monkeys, leaf-cutter ants, coatimundis and oscellated turkeys. Sadly I didn’t get to see a jaguar though.

2. Blue Mountains National Park, NSW, Australia

This was very close to topping my list of most disappointing national parks – the day I arrived from Sydney, the fog was so thick, the view was like this:

Blue Mountains in the fog

Blue Mountains in the fog

Luckily, the next morning the fog lifted, the sun came out, and we saw that the view was stunning:
same spot, much better view

The next day: same spot, much better view

3. The Lake District National Park, England

Lake District view

Lake District view

Probably the most famous in England, and deservingly so. Seeing the hills covered in snow last December was truly the most beautiful I’ve ever seen England look.

4. Snowdonia National Park, Wales

Taking a breather to enjoy the view in Snowdonia

Taking a breather to enjoy the view in Snowdonia

One of the wettest places in the UK (which is saying something), as I discovered on my visit. The mountains are of a very different character to the Lake District, with a less jagged and more open landscape. Plus with all the signs and placenames being in Welsh as well as English, it somehow feels more exotic than travelling within England.

5. La Vanoise National Park, France

View across La Vanoise from the slopes of La Plagne

View across La Vanoise from the slopes of La Plagne

This may sound stupid, but one thing I’d never really considered over the years that I refused to give skiing a try, was that part of the appeal was the beauty of the mountains. The first morning I took the gondola to the top of La Grande Rochette, the view out over the Vanoise, France’s oldest national park, was simply breathtaking. For the rest of the week I kept having to stop (actually it was more that I kept falling over), and take it all in.

6. Yorkshire Dales National Park, England

Trains are by far my favourite way to travel. Mountains are my favourite landscape. The Settle-Carlisle railway combines the two as it cuts its way across the Yorkshire Dales, and it’s quite spectacular (which just makes me all the keener to try Switzerland’s Glacier Express. Walking the Yorkshire 3 Peaks is one of the UK’s great walks (and one of my highlights of 2008); less well-known is that the park also has some of the country’s best caving.

7. Lamington National Park, Queensland, Australia

Getting friendly with the local birds in the Lamington National Park

Getting friendly with the local birds in the Lamington National Park

It may have great surf, but the Gold Coast of Australia isn’t really my kind of place. One of the things it really has going for it is the easy access to Lamington, part of theGondwana Rainforests world heritage site. It’s the largest sub-tropical rainforest in the world, and sits on a plateau that is the remains of a vast ancient volcano. It’s great for hiking, and I had fun getting close to the local birdlife while I was there.

8. Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales

The only National Park in the UK that exists because of its coastline, the Pembrokeshire Coast also has one of the country’s best long distance walks, all the way round the coastline. It’s also famous for its sea birds, particularly around the island of Skomer, which is a reserve. It’s also great for activities – coasteering during my brother’s stag weekend was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had.

9. Tulum National Park, Mexico

Tulum - temple by the beach

Tulum - temple by the beach

It’s the only ruined Mayan city on the coast. That coast is the Caribbean. Ruined ancient city, on the cliffs overlooking white sand and turquoise sea. What’s not to love? If I had one gripe it’d be the crowds (all those daytrippers from Cancun).

10. Northumberland National Park, England

I’m sure if you asked most Brits to name all the national parks in the country, Northumberland would probably be right down the bottom of the list. Sitting right to the east of the Lake District, and at the lower, northern end of the Pennines that also contain the more dramatic Yorkshire Dales & Peak District, that’s probably no surprise. The plus side is that it gets far less crowded than those, and it’s just as beautiful. It also provides easy access to the stunning beaches and castles of the Northumberland coast, which in my book is by far England’s most underrated spot.

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Video: Howler Monkeys in Tikal

I’ve posted before about how Tikal in Guatemala is my favourite place I’ve been to so far, a fact that I was reminded of by this great post about the fantastic wildlife of the Tikal National Park.

A rather shy Coatimundi in Tikal National Park

A rather shy Coatimundi in Tikal National Park

Their wildlife photos are waaaaay better than mine, although I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one who failed to capture a howler monkey. The little blighters are in fact bloody difficult to photograph, hiding as they do at the tops of trees, well out of sight.

Lucky they make such a racket then, meaning I was able to capture their extraordinary roar on video:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Howler Monkeys in Tikal on Vimeo“, posted with vodpod

There’s not much to much to see here (although there’s a bit of movement if you look closely) – just marvel at that sound. It’s more of a deathly roar to my ears than a howl, but I have to say it’s the strangest sound I’ve ever heard. Just one more reason why Tikal is such an incredible place.

Sunrise over Tikal. The tranquillity is shattered soon after as soon as the monkeys wake up.

Sunrise over Tikal. The tranquillity is shattered soon after as soon as the monkeys wake up.

Top 10 Favourite UNESCO World Heritage Sites

1. Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Temple I, Tikal

Temple I, Tikal

Probably the single best travel experience I’ve had. Vast temples, surrounded by thick jungle full of roaring howler monkeys (and shy panthers), hours and hours away from the nearest civilisation. Worth every bit of the struggle it was to get there.

2. Greater Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia

The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains

The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains

The day we arrived was not very promising: we walked down the hill from the station to the viewing point over the whole valley…and the fog was so thick we couldn’t see a single thing. Luckily the next day it cleared up, and the walk down to the valley floor was sensational. I want to go back and do a multi-day trek now, it’s the most incredible landscape.

3. Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín, Granada, Spain

The Alhmabra is the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen, and I think I’d struggle to find any finer. On my visit, the atmosphere was incredibly sombre – it was the day after 9/11, and it felt like everyone was wandering around in near silence unable to comprehend how people could have used the religion that inspired such beauty to justify something so utterly evil.

4. Town of Luang Prabang, Laos

Sunset over the Mekong from Phu Si hill

Sunset over the Mekong from Phu Si hill

Crumbling French colonial buildings, beautiful Buddhist temples, and a perfect location on a peninsular sandwiched between the Mekong and one of its tributaries. Tourism has taken over – and I hope we don’t end up ruining it. It seems that the UNESCO listing it helping though – two hotel building projects have just fallen through after UNESCO warned the government that the listing was in danger if they proceeded.

5. Wat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasak Cultural Landscape, Laos

Wat Phou, Champasak

Wat Phou, Champasak

From the same period as the mighty Angkor Wat, this is like a mini version, perched on a hill looking out towards the Mekong. Probably not as impressive as its more famous contemporary, but it does mean it’s a hell of a lot quieter.

6. Historic Fortified City of Carcassone, France

I’m a sucker for a medieval walled city, especially when it’s perched on top of a hill flaunting its beauty to villages for miles around. And for £35 return on Ryanair, it was an obscenely cheap visit too.

7. Historic Centre of Mexico City & Xochimilco, Mexico

Trajineras in Xochimilco

Trajineras in Xochimilco

This is here for Xochimilco in particular – it’s such a contrast to the rest of the city, and is a great day out from the city. Xochimilco was built by a pre-hispanic tribe, who drained the lake for agriculture. The canals formed as part of this process are still there today, and you can travel round them on a trajinera (colourful punt).

8. Works of Antoni Gaudi

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Quite magical and definitely unique – each of Gaudi’s Barcelona buildings stands out by a mile. I’m not overly keen on the work they’re doing on the Sagrada Famila though – I think they should have left it as it was when he died.

9. Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey & St Martin’s Church, Canterbury, UK

The only one of these I’ve lived in – for 5 years I woke up every morning with a view over St Augustine’s abbey, and with the Cathedral outside my front door. I pretty much took it for granted back then; having visited lots more cathedrals since then I realise quite how lucky I was.

10. Cultural Landscape of Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace, Sintra

Pena Palace, Sintra

The train from Lisbon to Sintra is an absolute bargain – as far as I remember it’s less than €2, and the contrast is huge. The Palace is beautiful, with views out towards the Ocean and the beach resort of Estoril, while the Moorish castle is great fun, because you can clamber over and all around the walls.

And the most disappointing? None. I’ve loved every one I’ve been too. That’s not to say it’s a perfect system – there are plenty of equally cool places that haven’t been listed – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile. And if listing helps to protect them, then surely that’s a good thing.

UPDATE: You can now see the full list of the 87 sites that I have now visited (many of which are new since writing this list) over at this page