7 stunning places that completely exceeded my expectations (part 2)

by Fabian Jürgens
Published: Last Updated on

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 Colombia’s magical Pacific coast to the turquoise waters of Ala Kol Lake, here are seven remarkable travel destinations that completely blew me away in the last five years of backpacking.


Before coming to Colombia, I was recommended to venture out to the remote Pacific coast. However, despite the enticing accounts, I nearly decided against a trip to the country’s western shores.

Fortunately, I had a change of heart, and flew right into paradise.

Only reachable by plane or boat, Colombia’s Pacific coast is an untouched gem in an already stunning country. Lush jungle flows towards the turquoise sea, gently caressing the golden beaches in an everlasting tidal rhythm, while humpback whales, caught in a joyful performance and graced by an elegance quite unexpected for such colossal creatures, break through the torrents of the untamed ocean.

To the sound of galloping waves, when nightfall comes and the world is painted red by a burning sun, there is no place where I’d rather be.    

waves roll ashore and wash around rocks on a beach as a red sun is setting on the horizon


Intended to be a quick stopover on my way to Albania, after three weeks, Ioannina had established itself as one of my favourite cities of all time.

Nestled in between the towering Pindos mountains, this lively student town in Greece’s Epirus region completely won me over with its extraordinary charm.

I feasted my eyes on its argent heritage, the spectacular remnants of its Orthodox past, and the mesmerising mountain panorama. I indulged in Ioannina’s storied history, its vibrant nightlife, and excellent cuisine, before sauntering through its leaf-covered alleys and along the mist-shrouded shores of Pamvotida Lake.

It took me a while, but at the end I deeply fell in love with a city I didn’t even know existed a few days before I got there. I came to fill my last days in Greece but left with a heavy heart.   

an old Ottoman era mosque and the Byzantine Museum of Ioannina sit proudly on top of Its Kale Citadel

ALA KOL LAKE (Kyrgyzstan)

Sometimes a sole image suffices to stir wanderlust and to evoke the desire for adventure.

When I first saw pictures of Ala Kol Lake, there was no doubt in my mind that I would heed its call and travel to Kyrgyzstan, land of the nomads. A voyage was born from a single shot, and Ala Kol claimed to be its centre piece.

It is easy to lose yourself in high expectations and to experience the bitter taste of disappointment, however, Ala Kol dwarfed all my floating qualms.

In the sublime embrace of the mountains, I sat exalted above a sweeping world and my gaze roamed across a turquoise pearl framed by the timeless walls of the Tian Shan. It is one of those moments I will remember till the end.

There is beauty in this world beyond our imagination.  

Pictures never do it justice.

a man sitting on a rocky peak overlooking the turquoise waters of an alpine lake framed by majestic, snow-capped peaks

ALENTEJO (Portugal)

Although I fell in love with the rest of Portugal as well, it was the Alentejo region, the land beyond the Tejo, in the country’s dry south that truly cemented my affection for Europe’s most western frontier.

From dramatic cliffsides shrouded in sea spray to endless miles of pristine beaches and sleepy coastal towns who’s crumbling facades echo a distant past when Portuguese explorers ruled the waves, Alentejo’s Atlantic front is a mesmerising mix of historical legacy and youthful flair, where aging hippies, tanned locals, and daring surfers alike congregate to celebrate the joy of life.   

Look to the forgotten hinterland, however, and you will find an entirely different side of Portugal. In the cooling shade of age-old cork oaks, time moves slower. Rolling hills grazed by cattle, whitewashed, medieval settlements, and idyllic country roads stand in stark contrast to the busy shores out west.

An ancient land steeped in history and tradition. Portugal as authentic as it gets.

waves crush against rugged cliffs, forming a dramatic coastline
the setting sun falls on a whitewashed village on a fortified hill in Portugal's hinterland


When I came to Wales, I expected to find ancient castles, rolling hills dotted with sheep, unpronounceable village names, cosy country pubs, and even more castles.

What I didn’t expect was to stumble upon a rain forest.

Hidden away in the foothills of Snowdonia, lies one of Britain’s most unique biospheres: the Celtic Rainforest. A damp footpath, lined with rotten tree trunks and peculiar mushrooms, leads the visitor deep into this enchanted realm of arching ferns and verdant moss.

The forests tranquillity combined with the exceptional biodiversity creates an extraordinary Welsh destination far off the beaten path.  

water drops hang of the thin leaves of small plants on the forest floor
an orange mushroom grows on a moss-covered tree trunk surrounded by fern

CUSCO (Peru)

Cusco caught me by surprise. It wasn’t the fact that I did like it but rather how much I enjoyed my time in the former Incan capital.

While the city is often perceived to merely be a gateway for Machu Picchu and the countless other archaeological sites in the surrounding valleys, it turned out to be one of the unforeseen highlights of Peru.

Like a moth to a flame, I am drawn to places with a story to tell, and Cusco’s is most dramatic. A tragic tale of conquest and empire, of sorrow and occupation, often hidden behind a pretty facade, sometimes flagrantly presented to the world. However, it is exactly this colonial legacy that creates the city’s special charm we see today.

The Spanish flair, paired with a turbulent history and mixed with the colourful culture of the Andes, has created a magnificent travel destination and one of my favourite cities in the world.  

people walk across a cobble stone plaza surrounded by a Catholic church and Spanish colonial buildings


Quite frankly, I had no expectations for the Victorious War Museum, simply because I didn’t know it existed. In fact, it wasn’t even part of our itinerary before someone mentioned it and it got added to the tour last minute.

Let me tell you something. Of all the places I visited in North Korea, this temple of propagandistic opulence was in a league of its own.

From the monumental entrance to the captured U.S. military equipment, the stunning diorama of the Battle of Taejon, and the lavishly decorated marble rooms and hallways, commemorating the achievements and sacrifices made by the Korean People’s Army (KPA), never in my life have I been to a more impressive museum than this one.

You might question the presented narrative of the Korean War, but the execution is impeccable.

Without a doubt, the Victorious War Museum should be on every itinerary to Pyongyang.

massive statue of a North Korean soldier waving a flag in front of the Victorious War Museum in Pyongyang

Check out Part 1 for even more incredible destinations around the world!

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