People often ask me about my favourite country or favourite countries. This is not an easy question to answer. Countries in Africa are so different to countries in Asia. Countries in South America are so different to countries in Europe. I’ve had such different experiences in all of them. How can I possibly weigh up my experiences and come up with just a single favourite country?
What I have done instead, my compromise, is to come up with a favourite country per continent, and mention a few worthy contenders.
NOTE: This is my list of favourite countries so far. I might need to update this from time to time.
Why? The mind-bending Takstang Monastery. The masterpiece of architecture that is Punaka Dzong. The charming capital Thimpu. A tiny realm hidden away in the Himalayas doggedly clinging to their traditions. A visit to Bhutan is a step back in time, a trip to another era, to a lost world; the closest you’ll ever get to Xanadu, Shambhala, Shangri-La.
Iran: the engineering marvel of Shushtar, the royal tombs of Naqsh-e Rustam, the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid capital of Persepolis, the Zoroastrian sanctuary of Takht-e Soleyman, the inscriptions of Darius the Great at Bisotun, the ziggurat Chogha Zanbil; the dakhma and historic centre of Yazd, Babak’s Castle in the north, the cities of Isfahan, and Shiraz;
Japan: the castles including that of Kumamoto, the former imperial capital Kyoto, the island of Yaku-shima, the bridge of Iwakuni, the snow covered Akan NP in Hokkaido, Okunoin Cemetery and the monastic centre of Kōya-san, the snow monkeys of Jigokudani, the ‘hands-together’ houses of Shirakawa-gō,
Uzbekistan: the capital of the Timurid Empire Samarkand, the Registan, the silk road cities of Bukhara and Khiva, the unrivalled Kalyan Minaret, the tomb of Timur Gur-e Amir, the petroglyphs of Sarmish-say, the capital of Qaraqalpaqstan Nukus, the Zoroastrian tower of the dead Chilpik, the crumbling desert fortresses of Toprak Kala & Kyzyk Kala, Kurgashin Kala, and Ayaz Kala.
Continent: North America
Why? Teotihuacan. Oaxaca. The cenotes (X’keken and Samulá). The archaeological sites left behind by the Mayans, such as that found at Uxmal. Chichen Itza, and Ek’ Balam. The cuisine (the soft tacos in particular). The beaches. The colonial architecture found in Campeche and Valladolid. The warm, friendly people.
Canada: Québec City, the Gaspésie, Nova Scotia;
Continent: Central America
Why? The colonial charm of long-standing rivals: Granada and León. The twin volcanos that comprise the island of Ometepe. Seeing lava bubbling inside the crater of Masaya. The friendliest (and safest) country in Central America.
Belize: diving the Blue Hole, Caye Caulker, ATM Cave;
Guatemala: The ancient Mayan city of Tikal (a must for lovers of Star Wars), the singular waterfall above a waterfall that is Semuc Champey, the colonial capital Antigua, the current capital Guatemala City, the beautiful if over-touristed Lago de Atitlan;
Continent: South America
Why? The Andes. The Amazon. Cycling the World’s Most Dangerous Road from the Andes into the Amazon. The silver mines of Potosí. Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca. the highest capital in the world: La Paz. The largest salt flats in the world: Salar de Uyuni. The 4WD trip between Uyuni and the Atacama Desert in Chile.
Colombia: the colonial cities of Cartagena, Popayán, Barichara, and Villa de Leyva; the hike through the jungle to La Ciudad Perdida, the obscure statues of San Agustín, the incredible salt cathedral of Zipaquirá, the grimy capital Bogotá, and its legendary street art scene.
Peru: The Incan capital: Cusco, the Inca Trail and the lost citadel of Machu Picchu, the Santa Cruz trek, the Nazca Lines, the immense mud brick city of Chan Chan, Huaca del Sol, The Amazon capital: Iquitos, exploring the Amazon by day; exploring the Amazon by night; the ancient pyramid in the heart of Lima: Huaca Pucllana;
Why? The Ottoman settlements of Berat and Gjirokastër. Illyrian, Greek, and Roman archaeological sites. The capital Tirana. The least European country in Europe (is that why I like it most? Europe is a little too developed for my liking). Albania was closed to the world during the reign of Enver Hoxha, and tourism is still only in its infancy.
Georgia: the watchtowers of Ushguli and Mestia, the wine-growing district of Telavi, the Black Sea coast at Batumi, birthplace of Stalin: Gori, Kutaisi and its historic cathedrals, the cave cities of Uplistsikhe and Vardzia; the capital Tbilisi.
Slovakia: The High Tatras mountains looming over Poprad, exploring Spiš Castle where they filmed Dragonheart, the romantic Bojnice Castle, the historic city of Trenčín, the under-rated capital Bratislava;
Bulgaria: the 6,000 years of occupation at Plovdiv, the immense fortress of Veliko Tarnovo, the Thracian tomb atKazanlak, the mystifying Stone Age paintings of Magura Cave, the capital Sofia, the monastery of Rila.
Why? The rock-cut churches of Lalibela. The castles of Gondar. The Simien Mountains, Jinbar Waterfall, and the Gelada; the capital Addis Ababa. And so many other places whose existence I only learnt of when I entered Ethiopia, and to which I need to return to one day.
NOTE: Africa is the continent I’ve seen the least of to date, meaning my sample set is the weakest.
Winner: Easter Island
Saipan: snorkelling around WWII Sherman tanks at Kilili Beach, the suicide cliffs, the Grotto dive;
Tonga: Eua Island, whale watching, Mapu’