We've all heard of see-before-you-die natural wonders such as the northern lights and Niagara Falls and ancient man-made marvels like the Egyptian pyramids and Machu Picchu. They rightly rank high on most people's travel wish-lists – but that also means sharing the experience of seeing them with hundreds if not thousands of people.
Fortunately the days of quiet contemplation of the world's mysteries and spectacles are not quite over – there are a surprising number of wonder-filled places that remain off the radar for now. Read on for some alternative inspiration for your bucket list.
Roads less travelled
Smaller but much more numerous than the Egyptian pyramids, Sudan's Meroe pyramids were built by Nubian pharaohs on the east bank on the Nile more than 4,000 years ago. Though the river has shifted course over the centuries along with the desert sands, 220 pyramids remain part submerged in the golden dunes. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site but unlike others you'll likely find it deserted, plus you can roam freely and even go inside some of the structures.
Throngs of visitors crowd the viewing platforms at world-famous Niagara Falls, but the awesome horse-shoe-shaped waterfall of Iguacu, hidden in the rainforest on the border of Brazil and Argentina, is less visited and equally impressive. In fact, former US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have exclaimed:
When she first clapped eyes on Iguacu Falls, which encompasses more than 200 cascades thundering over a precipice one-and-a-half miles long. Reachable via 90-minute flights from Sao Paulo in Brazil or Argentine capital Buenos Aires, it's worthy of any bucket list.
Great Blue Hole
Lighthouse Reef, Belize
Although Australia's astonishing Great Barrier Reef is rightly considered one of the world's top natural wonders, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, described by Charles Darwin as:
"...the most remarkable reef in the West Indies."
Is almost as long and just as beautiful. Skimming the coast of Belize, a 145-metre deep chasm in the coral structure known as the Great Blue Hole is possibly the most spectacular dive site in the world and an absolute must-do for scuba fans. Loved by legendary underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, the hole is a vertical underwater garden of delights with walls dripping in corals, stalactites, and sponges supporting a fantastical array of marine life.
South Arm Peninsula, Tasmania
If you are a northerner, you may not know about the southern aurora. They get very little press, but the lime green and rosy lights of the southern hemisphere can be just as magical as the northern lights. Known as the Aurora Australis, your chances of seeing the curtain of electro-charged light gets better the closer you get to the south pole and can be glimpsed in the skies around Antarctica and southern Tasmania, and occasionally as far north as island capital Hobart.
Santa Teresa District, Peru
The mountaintop ruins of Machu Picchu, high in the Peruvian Andes, are regularly listed among the world's greatest man-made marvels, and unfortunately that attention means travellers have to share their experience of this mystical Incan site with thousands of other wonder-seekers. The Incan citadel of Choquequirao is a little-known alternative less than 30 miles away from Machu Picchu that's blissfully crowd-free. To get there you can join a two-day guided trek from the town of Cachora.
Central Java, Indonesia
There's nothing like jostling for space to break a meditative state, and unfortunately that's exactly what's happened at ancient south-east Asian masterpiece Angkor Wat, which pulls in hordes of snap-happy tourists from sunrise to sunset. Yet for the kind of enlightening experience that many travellers crave, sitting cross legged beside the ancient encased Buddhas of Borobudur and watching the sun come up over steaming jungles and volcanoes is a far more enticing proposition. Situated on the Indonesian island of Java, it's fairly easy to get to too – a short road journey from the culturally-rich city of Yogyakarta.
Bai Tu Long Bay
Bai Tu Long National Park, Vietnam
Famed for its stunning limestone karst topography and jade waters, Vietnam's Halong Bay has become a victim of its travel icon status, with hundreds of junk boats full of tourists heading out onto the bay each day. Yet just to the east, Bai Tu Long Bay is blessed with the same fairytale scenery and thanks to its protected status it should hopefully remain that way. Largely unexplored, there are a few boat tours that head out onto the bay during the day, though they are forbidden from anchoring overnight.
Even at some of the more well-known wonders like ancient Delphi in Greece and the rock-cut fortress of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka you can have an uncluttered experience with a little careful planning – especially if you avoid visiting at peak times and in large tour groups. But escaping the crowds completely to find fantastical and awe-inspiring phenomena can be even more rewarding, and the list is by no means limited to those mentioned above. Keep an open mind, venture down the road less travelled and you'll likely stumble on unique experiences and places few people are aware exist.