With a glass of champagne in my hand, I took a deep breath and stared at the sight in front of me. I had finally reached one of the most anticipated destinations on my travel ‘wish-list’, the Pyramids of Giza.
After a few minutes of soaking in the view and trying to comprehend the sheer enormity of these structures rising straight out of the sand, I turned away, put my glass down and glanced towards Cairo in the near distance.
A few moments later, I turned back towards the pyramids, ready for this Ancient Wonder of the World to shower me with all of its mesmerizing power. I waited and waited and waited some more.
Oddly, instead of finding myself absolutely overcome with awe, I found myself standing there with my hands on my hips, feeling somewhat disappointed. While clearly the pyramids were incredible structures, the more I stared at them and the more I tried to bring myself to jump up and down in complete wonderment at what my eyes beheld, the less inspiring did the moment appear.
Even four hours later, after crawling through the narrow tunnel of the Great Pyramid to reach the burial chamber of King Khufu and after having observed the three pyramids and the Great Sphinx from every possible angle the surrounding area allowed, I still felt the same.
At no point during my visit did I feel the magic that I had heard spoken about so often by all those who had visited before me. My day at the pyramids turned out to be little more than one small enjoyable piece of an otherwise far more exciting adventure through Egypt.
THE GREAT PYRAMID OF COBA
Two weeks ago, a couple of friends and I drove to the Mayan ruins of Coba, located some two hours inland from Playa del Carmen here in Mexico. This site receives nowhere near the attention of the stunning ruins at Tulum or the impressive ruins at Chichen-itza, both also located in the same general region.
We had picked Coba simply because none of us had ever heard of it before seeing it listed in a poorly-written pamphlet we found lying on the ground near the beach one day.
Upon arrival at the site, we parked the car in the lot and entered the main gate. We walked along a dirt and stone path, completely surrounded by the dry jungle that covers just about all of the Yucatan peninsula. There were a few dozen other visitors but for the most part, we didn’t run into many people as we wandered through the large grounds of the archaeological park.
After walking for about forty-five minutes and having passed several small Mayan structures along the way, the path turned towards the left. And as soon as I turned that corner, I stopped dead in my tracks, staring with awe at the pyramid before me.
While nowhere even close to the size of those in Giza, this semi-crumbling yet spectacular pyramid shot straight out of the jungle and rose some 130 feet above the tree-line, a sight that left me standing there in silent admiration for several minutes. I couldn’t take my eyes off the long flight of worn-out steps that climbed up the front face of the pyramid, leading to what appeared to be a platform with a small temple on top.
A sudden burst of curiosity had me soon climbing those steps, which proved to be a steep and somewhat dangerous ascent. However, I was instantly rewarded with a view of the surrounding jungle that stretched to the horizon in every direction, with the mysterious pinnacles of smaller temples popping out of the landscape below. The scene was surreal.
I remained at the top for over an hour and could have easily stayed there for several more had a sudden rainstorm not drifted in. But with that rain and those strong winds also came a magically purple sky, a jungle that suddenly stirred awake as if breaking into some eerie ritual dance and a pyramid that now rose out of a hypnotizing mist.
As I slowly descended the pyramid amid this impressive display, I felt more energized and inspired than I ever expected I would from a visit to the Great Pyramid at little-known Coba.
‘MUST-SEE’ MEANS NOTHING
Just because some place – a city, volcano, lake, beach, museum, temple, waterfall, any place at all – is described as ‘must-see’, doesn’t mean that we must go and see it or that when we do, we are going to feel the exact same way about it as whoever gave it that label in the first place. And likewise, we shouldn’t automatically skip over certain places simply because nobody has yet declared their experience there to be life-changing.
We are each our own travelers, each with unique motivations and goals as we trek to places near and far. As a result, it is impossible for any two of us to have the exact same experiences wherever we may go in the world.
So when it comes to choosing our destinations, we should be open to places both well-known and unknown, right in the middle and far from the beaten path and every kind of place in between. Limiting our travels only to the list of major highlights we find in a guidebook can lead us astray as the high expectations we develop are always at risk of not being met.
And chances are, your greatest memories and rewards are going to come from experiences that no guidebook could ever foresee.
In fact, they will probably come from the places you least expect them and at moments that completely surprise you. A few years ago, before I visited Egypt, I would have laughed at the idea that I would have been more affected by the Pyramid of Coba than by the Great Pyramid of Giza.
But now that I have been, I’ve once again realized that travel is not about ‘must-see’ lists and those glossy guidebook photos, but about the individual connections we make, none of which have anything to do with how popular a particular sight happens to be among other travelers.
What do you think about ‘must-see’ sights? How do they fit into your travels?