The ancient site of Machu Picchu has long drawn crowds to the Andes. But curious travellers are at the point of permanently damaging this Incan site – in 2017, Unesco was close to adding it to its List of World Heritage in Danger. Restrictions have since been put in place, but Machu Picchu still faces a huge strain. Nearby, however, is the lesser-visited real lost city of Choquequirao, which can only be reached by a two-day hike along the Inca trail. It promises stunning views, ancient ruins and an altogether more peaceful experience.
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Great Pyramid of Giza, part of Egypt’s Giza Necropolis, has long been listed as a must-see. A less-busy ancient Saharan spot is the city of Chinguetti, on the other side of Africa. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site that thrived in Medieval times with the trans-Saharan salt trade, and welcomed pilgrims en route to Mecca. Today a visit yields brilliant examples of Saharan architecture and access to thousands of preserved ancient texts in the desert libraries. And much like at the pyramids, you can hire a camel (and guide) to show you to the main event and the surrounding desert.
Japan has been the hot ticket for some years now, and thanks to social media, cherry-blossom season has brought an influx of tourists doing it for the ’gram; search for the hashtag #cherryblossom on Instagram and you’ll find 8m posts and counting. To escape the hordes and still experience the beauty of these candy-hued seasonal blooms, head to South Korea. Many even believe the trees originated on the beautiful Jeju Island, which has plenty of stunning landscapes to explore once you’ve got your shot.
Dubrovnik’s Old City is one of the most high-profile cases of a destination at breaking point from too much attention. Following the hit series Game of Thrones, the 800-year-old Unesco World Heritage site saw such an influx of tourists that measures had to be taken to save its protected status. Dubrovnik’s mayor limited the number of cruise ships allowed to dock and banned four out of five souvenir stalls. Meanwhile, four hours north on the Dalmatian Coast, the city of Zadar has the Roman and Venetian history of Dubrovnik, but with a fraction of the mayhem – and none of the sorcery-themed knick-knacks.
Like hanging out underground? Vietnam is the place to go. There are more than 500 caves in the country, with many concentrated in the Unesco-protected Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, nicknamed the Kingdom of Caves. Around 4m tourists visit annually, but one cave is a bit more private. While it’s reported to be the largest cave in the world, at 200m (656ft) high and 150m (492ft) wide, visitor numbers for the four-day expeditions to Son Doong are limited to 1,000 per year. Like Glastonbury tickets, it’s first come, first served.
About 800,000 people visit Wiltshire’s Neolithic site of Stonehenge each year to marvel at how the 5,000-year-old landmark came to be. But for Neolithic monuments without the coachloads of tourists, you’d be wise to head elsewhere. On an archipelago in the north of Scotland, the Unesco World Heritage site of Orkney paints a picture of what life might have looked like from 4,000BCE to 1,800BCE – and allows for a moment of quiet contemplation uninterrupted by selfie sticks. Affectionately named the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, here you can explore a once-thriving domestic settlement of farmers and fishermen, a chambered tomb and two stone circles with surrounding henges.
Mexico’s historical village of Real de Catorce is feeling the impact of overtourism, so much so that there have been talks of making an electric tram the only way to reach it. To take the pressure off the local community, drive six hours south to the mountain village of Xilitla to discover surreal sculptures in a lush rainforest. Created in the mid-20th century by British writer Edward James – who Salvador Dalí once called “crazier than all the Surrealists put together” – the garden is a unique blend of reality and the subconscious in a, well, surreal way.
This story appears in Issue 6 of Culture Trip magazine: The Sustainability Issue.