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Best on the planet: a traveller’s guide

It sounds perverse, but after a few years on the lam, jet-set about the world, I find myself too often in a place of complacency, a point from which there is no need to see another church, market, ruin, mosque, statue of Buddha, jungle temple, “pedestrian thoroughfare”, colonial town, or whatever. I’ve been around now and, consequently, have my favorites of all these things. What’s more is that I’ve seen enough to feel that nothing will compare to my favorite. I reach a low point at which it seems I’m lazy, uninterested, and—my wife says—spoiled.

Then, something hits me. It’s not always the biggest event, not necessarily even something worth recommending to other travelers, but a moment of clarity when the stars constellate into a great arrow, not pointing in any specific direction, only signifying the need to continue. It happened last weekend in Aldea El Hato, a small village in Guatemala where I’ve spent a considerable amount of time, both working with the local school and at the village’s only hotel. The occasion, a procession, has inspired this article, a reconsidering of all my favorites, but has also confirmed the desire to discover more and what the “more” I’m looking for might be.

The Jonathon Engels Favorite View Award: Earth Lodge, Aldea El Hato, Gautemala

Volcano view, GuatemalaEarth Lodge is a guesthouse with a few cabins, an eight-bed dormitory, and a great restaurant/bar, where I sometimes function as the cook/bartender. The view is of three volcanoes—Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango—that drop into a deep valley in the distance, the town of Cuidad Vieja nestled at the trough. Volcan Fuego erupts daily, blasting hovering puffs of smoke into the air by light, sending streams of radiant magma down it sides at night. I’ve seen other vistas as impressive but never one that as effectively combines atmosphere (rustically comfortable), variety (the clouds constantly change the palate), and that humbling aspect.

Ancient ruins were the first attractions that made me feel ashamed of not appreciating them more. I found myself standing in the jungle in Mexico, beholding the splendor that is Palenque, admittedly one of the three most impressive Mayan sites in Central America (Chichen Itza and Tikal being the other two), and I caught myself comparing. It’s amazing, really incredible, I was acknowledging, but not nearly as impressive. Emma, the aforementioned wife, would agree, and guiltily we’d press on with our obligation to give the Maya their due attention.

It happened again in Giza, looking at the Sphinx and openly mocking the size of its reputation versus its actually size, equally noting the famous Pizza Hut that overlooks it. In Rome, the columns and rubble spread into every corner of the city, solidifying the grandeur of what must have been, but the simple fact of how prevalent Roman ruins are, from England to Israel, make them too commonplace. How many Roman coins, roads, statues, and forts can one admire honestly? After a while, it’s just cliché. Furthermore, nothing ever lives up to Angkor Wat.

The Jonathon Engels Favorite Ruins Award: Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor WatThere is nothing else in the world like them, the sprawl that they cover, the unceasingly intricate craftsmanship of every block in every temple, carvings that simply seem impossible. Then, Angkor Wat is overrun, the way one pictures ruins, with trees sending roots through the walls and with a healthy mix of restoration and letting the stones lie where they may. The place is still humble enough to have tent restaurants, to allow visitors to climb all over the giant carcasses of temples, and big enough that you can get lost, discover places with no one else there. I’ve never looked at another ruin without feeling guilty about having seen Angkor before it.

A mix of modern and ancient, the world over is teeming with religious sites. England is stuffed with abbeys. Russia’s skyline heaves with whimsical onion domes. Mosques tower throughout the Middle East, the call to prayer echoing in all directions. Monuments to Buddha, (admittedly, not a deity, but…hmm) appear in the high reaches, jungles, and city centers of Eastern Asia. Without the influence of a particular dogma, none are moving for me on the spiritual level.

I think, at times, not being religious stunts the wow-factor of these sights. Visiting the Vatican, especially the all-encompassing museum, the one that culminates in the Sistine Chapel, is no less than awe-inspiring, but unmoved by the spirit, I am a little bit lippy about how the Vatican got all those fine treasures. At Christmas in Bethlehem, I was most intrigued by the refugee camp I stayed in, not Christ’s alleged birthplace. That’s why I like Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Jonathon Engels Favorite Religious Site Award: The Old City, Jerusalem, Israel

The Church of the Holy SepulchreWhy waste time with sites less pious, less historically sacred, less diverse and divided. The Old City can’t be pinned to one monotheistic endeavor but rather it offers highlights of the Western world’s big three: The Wailing Wall, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Dome of the Rock (as well as Al Aqsa Mosque). Within just under a square kilometer lies the modern world’s most contentious religions, mixing and fighting and coexisting, selling tourist tat of each other’s most revered attractions. With tour services offered from each point of view, the inner confines are as honest, misleading, revealing, and stunning as it comes.

Which brings us to markets: With every trip, there is the need for souvenirs, the sweet keepsake that will render out the essence of a place, hopefully in something small enough to fit in your carryon. I am a sucker for markets, or more so, I literally buy into the kitschy stuff. In Thailand, it was fisherman’s pants. In the Middle East, assorted spices, hookah pipes, and backgammon boards. In Mexico, I bought more blankets than places I had to put blankets. In Florida, as a budding traveler, not yet eighteen, I stocked my closet with offensive, novelty shirts.

Regardless of whether or not you have better judgment than me, markets remain one of those cultural experiences—the hawkers, the merchandise, the displays, the food stalls—that can’t be skipped. However, at some point, one tires of the negotiating, the obligatory talking-down of the ridiculously elevated opening price. At some point, I think in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, which is absolutely endless and amazing, I began looking for more in a market. A dusty aisle of stalls would no longer suffice. In Moscow, the bar raised into a whole new stratosphere.

The Jonathon Engels Favorite Market Award: Izmailovo Market, Moscow, Russia

Izmailovo Market, MoscowIzmailovo has both tat booths and a noteworthy antique market, the two meandering through a fantastic network of buildings, steps, and levels. The world turns into a fairy land as the expansive model of the Kremlin bedazzles with spires and rich blocks of color, like a fantasy castle. Inside, the stalls start with rows of nesting dolls, lacquered boxes, and tiny woodwork depictions of St. Basil’s. However, the deeper one goes, the more remarkable the merchandise: pelts of wolves and bears, cluttered tables of Soviet badges, posters, gas masks, clothing, lamps, weapons, and propaganda of any variety imaginable. It probably offers the most extensive selection, beyond any museum I visited, of ex-Soviet stuff in all of Moscow. It’s incredible.

Rounding out the list, I have to address the ubiquitous ambler’s boulevard. For the sake of expediency, I’m going to include the squares and winding cobblestone alleyways of the world. Some focus on the party: Bourbon Street, the debaucherous landmark from my home state, bustles with boobs and booze like no other. The squares—Trafalgar, Time, Red, Tiananmen, and Parques Centrales throughout Latin American—invite the lazy loiterer to rest upon benches or admirers of grandeur to stare at the neon signage and statues, dead communist leaders.

I love a good walk. I don’t tire of finding pedestrian spots, people watching, or sightseeing for free (no entrance fee for public spaces). Unfortunately, this is not to say that each walking tour is as remarkable and pleasing as the next. I get snobby. I fuss about the slow death that global fast food is causing via Starbucks, McDonald’s, and the fleet of others that pitch their tents everywhere, destroying places that once oozed culture. Istiklal Caddesi, despite also having been chain-infested, is second to none for remaining wonderfully unique and truly of Istanbul.

The Jonathon Engels Favorite Pedestrian Thoroughfare Award: Istiklal St., Istanbul, Turkey

Full of shops, passageways to duck into and discover more, an old-fashioned trolley tinkling up and down it, hidden bars with rooftop terraces, cafes with outdoor seating, and the smell of nargile (hookah) smoke wafting over the outskirts—I love Istiklal. The crowd, from about noon to three a.m., doesn’t seem to wane, but it pulses, functioning as what still remains the true heartbeat of this massive city. What’s more is that Istiklal stretches between Galata Tower, overlooking the Golden Horn, and Taksim Square, the city “center”, so rather than dissipating into normal streets and blocks, it culminates, at either end, into something wonderful. I lived across the street from Istiklal for ten months, and to the last week, I was still unearthing stuff.

So, then, that brings us back to the idea: This procession in the village of El Hato, population 800, in the mountains above Antigua, Guatemala. I have no doubt that there are big sights left to wow me. I haven’t been south of the equator, which makes me a sapling amongst experienced travelers. I expect my list, before all is said and seen, will mutate, get annotated, and give way to memory. Truthfully, I hope this will happen, and I hope that, in between the grand monuments to history and spectacle, my life is filled with moments, little and globally insignificant, which resonate with something that can never make a Jonathon Engels Award list but simply are. That’s reason enough to keep me moving.

More by this author, currently volunteering in Guatemala, on his website.

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