Els Slots from The Netherlands is the founder and owner of Worldheritagesite.org, the number one website for World Heritage Travellers with a loyal community flourishing for over 20 years. She uses the Unesco World Heritage List as her main travel planning tool, as it brings you to the outposts of a country and forces one to dive into specialist subjects such as mercury mining and rock art. But she will always do more than visiting World Heritage Sites (WHS) alone to cover a country – national museums, mammal watching, and unique regional festivals such as Nowruz have her special interest too.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
I have chosen three countries that I have visited multiple times over the years. Honorary mentions go to the landscape wonders of Iceland, Namibia and Mongolia.
They say Japan is a good country for introverts. Awkward situations are prevented – I like that. But I also love the food, even down to the kaiseki breakfast in a traditional ryokan. The natural landscape is varied, and there are so many surprises to discover in its day-to-day culture. Travelling by public transport is a breeze and taking day trips by bicycle is a fun option too.
I like India as well, but after a week or three, I am fed up with it. Then there is its neighbour: Nepal. Trekking along its mountain trails is glorious, even when you’re not a fitness freak. People often ask me the hard question, “What is your favourite WHS”. When pressed for one answer, I always name the Kathmandu Valley. Besides its important Newari, Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist sites, I like its liveliness: there’s always something going on, a festival in preparation or a procession occupying its narrow streets.
I studied Chinese at University for two years. I eventually quit as I found the language too difficult, and I discovered that I am more into history/culture than languages. But I do speak enough Chinese to travel around comfortably for months on public transport. You’re just never done with it, especially as the country changes a lot every decade.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Welcome to Colombia!
To prevent a long bus trip at the start of my first journey to Colombia, I had booked a 1-hour flight from Bogotá to Popayan. It left late in the afternoon. Onboard, I was listening to music on my headphones, so I did not hear the announcements. What I did notice, though, when we were landing, was that it had started to rain heavily. And that this airport wasn’t in the city centre (as Popayan’s is). And that after touching down, we were whisked away to a parking spot far from the building. The other passengers were frantically making phone calls – we had arrived in Cali, 3 hours from Popayan by road. Unfortunately, due to heavy rains, the Popayan airport had closed.
Avianca offered us two options: To get out of the plane and find our way to Popayan this evening. Or take the same flight back to Bogotá and try again tomorrow. Most people opted to stay in Cali – and found each other in impromptu arrangements. All were a bit grumpy, but I only noticed the surreal setting of the discussions as a great Afro-Colombian live band played non-stop in the Cali arrivals hall. One guy chartered a bus and rustled up passengers to fill it. I had attached myself to the only other foreigner on board: A Spaniard with a Colombian spouse. Of course, she knew people in Cali and found a taxi that would drive us all the way. So in the dark, I was chatting away in Spanish in the backseat of a car with people I had not known before for the 3-hour ride in the dark on a road that foreign travel advisories still marked as a “dangerous zone”.
Colombia, for me, stands out for these acts of extreme kindness and helping each other out.
The gorilla double-header
Seeing an endangered mountain gorilla up and close must be one of the most memorable experiences a human being can have. However, they live in Central Africa only, and the privilege of visiting them comes at the cost of some 600-1500 USD. What struck me when preparing for such a trip is that many people do not take only one but two of such encounters in the end. And rightly so. I did my double-header within seven days in Virunga NP (DRC) and Bwindi NP (Uganda). Two different settings: Some quiet family time in Virunga ended with the sight of the unbelievable muscles of the silverback parading in front of our noses. In Bwindi, the family just got out of their tree beds and actively scattered around gathering breakfast.
Private flight to Georgetown
The flights to neighbouring Guyana leave from Paramaribo’s domestic airport. When I arrived for my one hour flight to Georgetown, the Gum Air staff chuckled a bit. “You’re the only passenger!”. They even opened up the duty-free shop for me. I had to wait until the border police guy arrived with his briefcase and stamped me out of the country. When the pilot got there as well, we got in the tiny Cessna Caravan. Once at cruising altitude, the pilot started reading his newspaper and let the autopilot do the work. I saw the dense jungle beneath me, was slightly worried but decided that I should enjoy the unique situation.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Fortunately, I have never been robbed of my belongings, and neither have I become seriously ill on my travels.
Forgetting to bring my driver’s license to France
Picking up WHS in Europe had become a routine for me. I arrived at Clermont-Ferrand airport for four days to “tick off” my final 4 WHS on the French mainland. The route would involve quite a bit of driving, but all doable. When I was standing in the queue of the car rental company, it suddenly dawned on me: I had taken out my driver’s licence from my wallet this morning and left it with all other “superfluous” cards on the table. Silently I hoped that the rental company would forget to ask for it but to no avail. Visiting these same WHS by public transport turned out to be a pain (getting away from the airport on a northbound train to Bourges already took hours), and I succeeded in reaching only 2 of the 4 planned WHS.
A harrowing night on an iced road in the Peruvian mountains
I was on a reasonably luxurious Cruz del Sur night bus from Arequipa to Cuzco and had fallen asleep as soon as it got dark outside. Later in the evening, I woke up with the feeling, “we’re not moving anymore”. It turned out that we were on a snow-covered mountain road, behind a long line of trucks and other buses. Drivers were walking around, discussing the situation while slipping on the icy road. Most vehicle owners had given up and would wait for the sunrays of the morning.
After 2 hours, however, the bus in front of us started overtaking the parked vehicles. Our bus followed, watching the much older one in front of our slip, slide and sometimes getting stuck (where the drivers had to dig it out). Finally, we made it, but 3 hours later we came in the same situation. A truck carrying bottles of beer had crashed. All passengers had to get out of our bus, while the driver just managed to manoeuvre around the accident site. Eventually, we reached Cuzco after 17.5 hours instead of the scheduled 9. But well, we were still alive as this is how deadly road accidents happen.
Entering Bangladesh on the eve of Eid
On the flight from Bangkok to Dhaka, 95% of my fellow passengers were Bangladeshi and male. Upon arrival, three large planes from Saudi Arabia and one from the Gulf were ahead of us. I found a large crowd in the arrivals hall, half organized in rows. I stood in the foreign passports line, but all were full of Bangladeshis wanting nothing more than to go home for the holidays after a year of hard work for the Arabs. There were at least 1500 people in the hall, and there didn’t seem to be any movement. A policeman picked me from the queue and directed me to the row for diplomats and foreign investors. It was shorter than the others but moved even less.
Now and then, a loud cheer went up from the crowd of waiting Bangladeshis next to me. People tried to encourage the border guards to speed up or to scold those in front of them. The more people shouted at the officers, the more they were dragging their heels and the slower we progressed.
After more than two hours, the police chief had enough and started forming new rows heavy-handedly. All Bangladeshis were removed from the foreigner lines and lined up one by one as schoolboys. Anyone who took another step outside was scolded or hit. This had the desired effect: after 2.5 hours, I could finally go through customs.
Fortunately, I had a guide waiting on the other side. He towed me through the crowd waiting for their families. We were helped along the way by an officer dispersing the waiting people with a baton to create a passage for us. It was a memorable first acquaintance with the most densely populated country globally and not the last that I would see of its brutality.
What are three of your best travel tips?
End a long journey with a highlight
I spent the final days of my six-month RTW trip in a hotel room in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. I am a natural planner and tend to build in some slack days to use up along the way – but I did not use them this time, so I ended the trip on a low in this dull place. Since then, I always plan to finish my longer trips with ample time in the area I look forward to the most. So “always do Angkor* last on any trip involving Angkor” (*replace “Angkor” with “Machu Picchu” or whatever you fancy most).
Enjoy luxury when you can, but do not succumb to the total package
I have regularly flown Business Class to faraway destinations and then taken the public or airport workers bus for a pittance into the city. I slept in 10 dollar rooms, trekked the Rwenzori mountains on foot and then had a private car waiting to whisk me to a hotel with clean sheets and great showers. For the best experiences, you will have to suffer a bit; you can always relax afterwards.
Enjoy the ride
Don’t mind the 8-10 hour bus trips. Consider them as ways to see the landscape gradually change, to observe the towns that you pass through, see what the vendors have to sell over here and how passengers are handled (I prefer the “just wave it down and there is always more room at the bus” kind of way).