Ten Life-changing Trips

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The transformative nature of journeys can be subtle or profound, but these ten adventures may change the way you feel about travel altogether, with itineraries that provoke, challenge, and dare you to come back a different person.

Take part in a shaman ritual amid the towering ruins of Machu Picchu

DETAILS: Machu Picchu is one of the truly great spiritual sites in the world. The “Lost City of the Incas,” which sits atop a peak in the verdant Andes, is such a popular tourist destination that there is talk of limiting the throngs who overwhelm the ruins of this once-thriving city. The best way to connect to the sacred energy of the spot is via an authentic blessing performed by an Incan shaman. In the remains of a temple or in an overhang cave with a crystal wall, the holy man, through a ritual that mixes herbs, plants, and objects, prophesies and gives you strength for your journey.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: “The Inca shaman ceremony can bring up pretty strong emotions in different people. During our last ceremony a couple decided to have the shaman perform a commitment ceremony, and during their ceremony I really started tearing up. I looked around and discovered I was not alone. Throughout their history and culture, the Incan people had no issue with homosexuality. They saw homosexuality in nature, and so it never was looked upon as bad or wrong. When an Inca shaman blesses your union, you know that not only he but also his culture is specifically celebrating your relationship.” –Bryan Herb, Zoom Vacations

Kayak amid icebergs, glaciers, and whales

DETAILS: Tourism to this wild and unpopulated landmass has exploded of late, in spite of ongoing battles erupting between whalers and environmental activists in the untamed waters circling the seventh continent. Although tourist ships leave from New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, hop aboard instead at the southern Argentine outpost of Ushuaia. Here, you can join a bona fide Russian ice vessel (complete with Slavic crew) that carries 100 passengers to the relatively nearby Antarctic Peninsula. In addition to Zodiac dinghy tours exploring iceberg- and whale-choked bays and remote scientific stations, you can opt for guided kayak tours along the icy coastline. Donning a waterproof dry suit (yes, it will be cold!), you’ll paddle amid sharp-toothed leopard seals, thriving penguin colonies, and calving glaciers in this frozen wonderland at the end of the earth.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: “The incessant, golden Antarctic summer light penetrates your being, messes with your internal clock, and contributes massively to the sense that you’re visiting another planet. Of course, squawking penguins, endless glaciers, and freakishly clean air have something to do with this too. Surrounded by ice, sky, and sea, the concerns of life back on the inhabited continents feel insignificant, impossibly remote.”–Andrew Broan, Alyson Adventures

Walk atop the Great Wall of China

DETAILS: Appropriately called the “very long wall” in Mandarin, one of the world’s greatest structures is actually a series of buttresses built, rebuilt, and reinforced over the course of different dynasties from the 5th century B.C. to the 16th century. Nowadays, portions of the Wall are easily accessible on a day trip from Beijing—too accessible actually, as the I CLIMBED THE GREAT WALL T-shirt stands and the KFC at Badaling, the most visited section, will prove. Instead, opt for the “Wild Wall” at Jinshanling, a remote section with unusual circular towers and elaborate defensive walls. Jinshanling is also the site of Ming Tombs, where buried treasures have yet to be unearthed.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: “No tourist photos or television shows you have ever seen can prepare you for your first glimpse of the Wall winding endlessly off into the horizon. To fully appreciate the proportions of this achievement, put on a sturdy pair of walking shoes and head to the Wild Wall, where you will have the place practically to yourself. Except for the wind, it is silent here and easy to imagine the tens of thousands of people who lived along the length of the Wall with their primitive weapons, open fires, livestock, and camp followers, waiting vigilantly.” —Douglas Thompson, Purple Dragon

Explore the sandy streets and dunes of the Saharan outpost of Timbuktu

DETAILS: It was once one of the wealthiest and most powerful cities in the world, thanks to the trans-Saharan gold trade. Now the fabled city of Timbuktu is hidden deep within the sands of the French-speaking West African nation of Mali. Beyond being the ultimate place to get your passport stamped, it’s a fascinating step back in time, where spires of mud mosques tower in the clear azure sky, the fires of outdoor bread ovens illuminate women’s faces, silent men in long robes and head scarves float by, and most streets are paved with sand instead of asphalt.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: “We rode out on camelback into the Sahara until the mud buildings of Timbuktu were a distant speck on the horizon behind us, and stopped on a high dune to await the arrival of the salt caravan. We sat sipping mint tea on nomad carpets when suddenly a seemingly endless train of camels mounted by exotic men swathed in colorful garb appeared to float across the sand in our direction. Our group sat silent and motionless as the caravan approached and passed us by. We were all lost in a much more distant time and place.” –Jim Smith, Coda Tours

Ride a camel (or horse) around the Sphinx and the pyramids of Giza

DETAILS: What better sums up the ancient wonders of the world than the 4,000-year-old pyramids at Giza? A tourist attraction since antiquity, the site is now adjacent to sprawling Cairo. Modern travelers reside at five-star hotels overlooking the monuments and climb down into the belly of the Pyramid of Cheops to lie in the initiation sarcophagus of the King’s Chamber — a spiritual jolt not soon forgotten. The classic way to visit the plateau is approaching the pyramids on camelback or horseback, just like the pharaohs of yore.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: “My partner and I decided to end our pilgrimage through this ancient land by riding Arabian stallions on the Giza plateau. As we rode, the power and strength of the horses reminded me of the pyramids a short distance away. As we came to rest after a full gallop, I looked over my shoulder at the pyramids. A little choked up and searching for words, all I could say was, ‘Wow.’ ” –Howie Holben, Spirit Journeys

Climb to the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro

DETAILS: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, one of the highest volcanoes in the world and the tallest peak in Africa, is a must-do. Ascending the “Roof of Africa,” which rises majestically from the plains of the Serengeti, is relatively easy compared to others its height (over 19,300 feet), thanks to well-worn paths that don’t require ropes or climbing experience. Of the mountain’s three peaks (whose legendary ice caps are quickly melting), the most experienced trekkers target Uhuru. The more popular route for novices, Machame, provides an easy and gradual ascent, with comfy mountain huts offering quarters along the way. Guides, porters, and a cook are included. Add on a dawn balloon safari afterward that departs nearby and floats you 1,000 feet over the teeming wildlife of the great plains of East Africa.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: “It was bone-chilling cold, but not one of us even felt it. Rather, we felt euphoric, for we had accomplished our mission and were standing on the Roof of Africa. Back down in Moshi, each of us babbled on about how we could have spent an entire day just sitting there peacefully, reflecting back on our accomplishment getting to that point; not just the climb but the journey and accomplishments of our lives that brought us to this specific place and time. Our guides, knowingly, just smiled.” –Kenneth Hieber, Gay2Afrika

Trek to remote ancient monasteries in the Himalayas

DETAILS: The tiny, landlocked kingdom of Bhutan, having only allowed its first commercial tourists in 1974, fiercely guards its untrammeled culture and ecosystems. Yearly visitor quotas are strictly adhered to, and only organized groups are allowed. The mountainous terrain is festooned with dramatically perched Mahayana Buddhist temples. Chanting monks in deep maroon robes carry on ancient traditions and ritual dances in dreamlike monasteries. Sites to discover include Tamshing Lhakhang (Temple of the Good Message), established in 1501, and the National Library, stocked with Buddhist manuscripts. Another highlight is a horseback ride through pine forests to the Taktsang Monastery, clinging to a sheer 3,000-foot rock cliff that plunges into the valley below.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: “If Shangri-la exists on earth, it is certainly located in Bhutan. This Himalayan Buddhist kingdom is absolutely unique, with a populace that reveres its king and preserves its cultural heritage. Visitors are charged an unusually high tariff, ensuring that the country is not overwhelmed by tourists. There are no cigarettes for sale in the entire country, nor plastic bags littering the landscape. The environment is pristine, and the scenery breathtaking. Your stay in this country is sheer heaven.” –Dan Ware, Toto Tours

Hover above live volcanic lava flows

DETAILS: On the Big Island of Hawaii’s feral southeastern coast lies a rocky, primordial moonscape where you’d expect a dinosaur to amble by. Here the dramatic Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s Kilauea vent has been spewing molten lava since 1983, destroying some local neighborhoods in the process. This is the abode of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, and although tourists flock to the coast to see the ooze of red-hot lava pumping into the Pacific under huge clouds of steam, the only way to view the actual crater of Kilauea is by (safely) hovering above it in a helicopter, with expert pilots narrating the inferno’s every move.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: “My partner and I were thoroughly impressed. We ended up with some impressive shots of molten lava and magma tubes. This certainly was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.” –Trevor and Shaun, Hawaii Gay Travel

Drive 2,000 head of cattle across the great West

DETAILS: Located 30 miles from Yellowstone National Park, the Lazy E-L is a working ranch with 12,000 acres of wide-open pasture and 2,000 head of cattle. Visitors reside in a comfy historic log lodge built in 1919 (augmented with amenities like hot showers, modern beds, and wine), with unobstructed views of the Beartooth Mountains rising over 12,000 feet beyond. A lively crew of wranglers, cowboys, and cowgirls help you learn the ropes of driving cattle to new feeding pastures, and of course there are cookouts, swimming holes, and campfire tales, plus plenty of childhood-fantasy fulfillment.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: “Sometimes we saddle in the dark, ride out at dawn, gather the entire herd, and move them over the hills to the next basin all before 9 A.M. Horseback is the only way to do this — just like my great-grandfather did over 100 years ago. What has changed on the Lazy E-L is that the cowboy culture is far more tolerant and open-minded than it was 100 or even 20 years ago. This is truly the Brokeback Mountain experience, minus the tents, canned beans, and tragedy.” –Aaron Kampfe, OutWest Global Adventures

Delve into the mystical sites of the lost Polynesian civilization of Rapa Nui

DETAILS: The amazingly remote Chilean outpost of Easter Island (over 2,000 miles from the nearest population center) stands out among the South Pacific’s great mysteries. Called Rapa Nui by its inhabitants, the speck of land is famous for its giant moai, the enormous humanoid volcanic rock statues estimated to have been created between the 9th and 12th centuries. Beyond exploring mind-boggling archaeological sites, you can bask on empty beaches, watch dancers covered in body paint, and climb the crater of an extinct volcano. You may even spot a cross-dresser—a cultural staple throughout queer-friendly Polynesia.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: “We hiked up the ever-steeper slope of the dormant Rano Raraku volcano past partially carved moai statues that have spent centuries half in the air and half buried in the ground, exactly as they were when the society that carved them met its demise. We reached a gap in the side of the caldera and walked through the gap to gaze at a lush pond in the middle. This peaceful moment was soon interrupted, however, when we heard an approaching noise, and suddenly 20 wild mustangs came galloping through the gap where we had just walked, on their way to their watering hole. A vivid moment to remember on one of the most remote inhabited islands on earth.” –Phil Sheldon, Hanns Ebensten Travel