7 stunning places that completely exceeded my expectations (part 1)

by Fabian Jürgens

Since my first big backpacking trip back in 2016, I had the privilege to travel across the world repeatedly, leading me to numerous countries on four continents and dozens of different destinations in the process.

While some places failed to live up to the hype, others completely captivated and left me speechless.

From the otherworldly Salar de Uyuni to the spectacular gorges of the Slovak Paradise, here are seven stunning travel destinations that completely exceeded my expectations in the last five years of backpacking.


My expectations for Choquequirao were immense. In fact, I had added an extra two weeks to my Colombia trip solely to visit this remote Incan ruin in Peru, after missing out on it a year prior.

Beneath a blazing sun, I opposed scorching heat, demoralizing thirst, abysmal footwear, and relentless elevation, before arriving at the gates of this magnificent city.   

To this day, it might be the most arduous yet rewarding destination I have ever visited.

Called the “Sister of Machu Picchu”, the site might not be as impressive as its sibling, however, what it lacks in structural remains it more than compensates with its remoteness and quite simply epic mountain vistas. Oh yeah, and llama terraces!

There are plans to build a cable car, however, for the moment travellers still have to earn the right to lay their eyes on Choquequirao: the “Cradle of Gold”.

ancient Incan terraces and buildings uncovered at the slopes of a lush mountain
terraces leading down a steep mountain slope, decorated with depictions of llamas made of white stone

ISLE OF SKYE (Scotland)

In a country blessed with some of nature’s most dramatic creations, the Isle of Skye sticks out.

I was fortunate enough to spend a week hiking across this rugged island, and even though my stay was cut short due to a late appearance of Father Frost, I was absolutely mesmerised by the beauty presented to me.

Shaped by the primordial forces of the Atlantic Ocean, the island’s pulchritude is raw and untamed, a testament to the wild elements that surround it.

In the solitude of Skye’s sombre moors, encompassed by snow-capped peaks and gloomy skies, I felt a sense of peace only a few places have evoked in me.

There is a reason many consider Skye to be among the most stunning islands in the world.

snow-covered peaks shrouded by thick clouds towering over sombre Scottish highlands

KOLSAY LAKES (Kazakhstan)

Tugged away at the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains, three utterly pristine mountain lakes wait for the intrepid traveller to be discovered. And yet, they were merely a haphazardly put together emergency plan after deciding to visit Kazakhstan last minute.

Completely off the grid, it took us four rides (three hitchhikes and a bus) to reach the shores of the first of overall three alpine lakes. Venturing upstream, we penetrated deep into this mountainous dreamland constituted by verdant meadows, conifer-covered slopes, and virgin forests before reaching one of the best campsites I have ever had.

While the lower lake is quite popular with the locals, only a few people find themselves gazing at the crystal-clear waters of the second one, perfectly framed by dim woods and green pastures (unfortunately, the third one is off limits due to its proximity with the border of Kyrgyzstan).

It might be a bit of a hassle to get there but damn is it worth it!   

the sun sets over verdant meadows and conifer forest surrounding a still alpine lake


A white plain stretching into infinity before losing itself in the azure blue sky. Nothing but salt, as far as the eye can see. Few places on earth appear as alien as the salt flats in Bolivia’s barren south.

During rainy season, this otherworldly place becomes even more spectacular. When the rain clouds have passed, the Salar transforms into a gigantic mirror, perfectly reflecting the heavens above and creating an utterly surreal landscape. Visit after dark and you will lose yourself among the stars.

Due to its natural exceptionalism and quite extensive online presence, my expectations were through the roof. It is one of those destinations where the thought of disappointment seems unbearable.

However, as soon as I laid my eyes on the world’s largest salt flat all doubts were swept away.

Salar de Uyuni is grand. It is sublime. And it is truly unique.

To this day, it remains one of my absolute favourite places I have ever witnessed.

vast salt flat under a cloudy sky


I made no plans of spending much time in Epirus, however, after three weeks I had complete fallen in love with the Zagori region (Zagorochoria in Greek).

While most tourists flock to Greece’s sandy beaches and indulge in the relaxed Mediterranean island life, in the north a mountainous wonderland awaits the curious.

Home to the world’s deepest canyon (proportional to its width), a dragon’s lair, Greece’s second highest peak, and the most romantic mountain villages you may ever see, Zagori might be one of Europe’s most underrated hiking destinations.    

When I arrived, I was oblivious to the beauty of Zagori, yet it quickly turned out to be one of the greatest discoveries of all my travels!

valley floor covered in autumnal trees flanked by high-rising cliffs on both sides


When I arrived in Luxor, the Valley of the Kings wasn’t a priority for me. Instead, I was more excited for the architectural legacy above ground rather than the subterranean resting places of self-proclaimed demi-gods.

However, while I thoroughly enjoyed the magnificent remnants erected at the verdant banks of the Nile, I was completely blown away by the historical wealth presented to me in the barren valleys of the hinterland.

Sealed off and hidden away for millennia, the tombs, constructed for pharaohs, queens, and noblemen of the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1070 BCE), are remarkably well preserved and allow travellers a staggering glimpse into the past. Of all the places I visited in Egypt, nowhere were the colourful decorations, covering the walls and ceilings, so perfectly preserved than in these royal graves.

If there is one place to truly grasp the glory of Ancient Egypt, it must be the Valley of the Kings!

The picture below was taken in Medinet Habu (you need an extra permit to photograph inside the tombs). For the Valley of the Kings imagine these decorations but 10x better.

beautiful coloured hiergoglyphes and depictions of vultures adorne the ceiling of an ancient temple


In Slovakia, the wild outdoors is almost exclusively associated with the imposing peaks of the High Tatras. However, just south of the country’s flagship for adventurous souls potentially lies its best kept secret: the Slovak Paradise National Park.

Hidden away underneath a dense forest canopy, rushing streams meander through enchanted glens and plunge down precipitous scarps, cutting deep into the bedrock, thereby creating a stunning landscape of canyons and valleys, just waiting to be explored.

Countless trails permeate the sombre woods and invite intrepid travellers to experience this wonderful area in the heart of Europe.

True to its name, it is an absolute hiker’s paradise.

small footpath leads along a rushing stream through a dense forest

Check out Part 2 for even more incredible destinations around the world!

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