In the age of social media, it almost seems as if no place on the planet has escaped the lens of a smartphone camera. But beyond the trending hotspots, there are places still overlooked by travelers. Countries that are overshadowed by bigger, more illustrious neighbors. Some far-flung spots that are deemed too remote and others that are inexplicably ignored. Fortunately, the planet is still studded with hidden gems. Here are six of the best under-the-radar countries to visit right now.
The oldest island on earth, Madagascar is an incredible place that remains largely free of tourists. In southern Madagascar, Isalo National Park features a rugged landscape of panoramic mesas, stream-threaded slot canyons, and secluded swimming holes. In the west, World Heritage site Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park is a geological wonder, famed for harboring a sea of towering limestone spires. Away from the coast, the highlands around Antananarivo are etched with rice paddies and dotted with picturesque towns like Ambatolampy, the country’s metalworking capital.
The island is home to a unique collection of species found no place else on earth, as its wildlife has been evolving in isolation for centuries, The island’s iconic flora and fauna include more than a hundred different types of lemurs, along with six native baobabs, and approximately half the planet’s chameleon species. The fourth largest island on earth, Madagascar is graced with plenty of postcard-perfect beaches, including iconic gems like Ile Sainte Marie and Nosy Be.
Ecuador is renowned for laying claim to the Galapagos Islands, the Pacific archipelago famously visited by Charles Darwin and legendary for blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises, and schooling hammerheads. But with charming colonial towns, snow-glazed volcanoes, and a corner of the Amazon basin teeming with wildlife, Ecuador’s mainland also has plenty of appeal. The mountain town of Baños de Agua Santa (most commonly referred to simply as Baños) is known as the Gateway to the Amazon. You’ll find more than 60 waterfalls here, and it’s the country’s adventure sports hub, with whitewater rafting, trekking, paragliding, ziplines, canyoneering, and rock climbing. Make sure to visit the Swing at the End of the World at Casa de Arbol. Located at the top (and edge) of a mountain, the swing (actually several of them) will take riders over the edge and back for an adrenaline rush. Ready for something a little more relaxing? Visit the hot springs throughout the region, which have a reputation for healing power. They are what give the city its name, which translates to “baths of holy water.”
For those who prefer the beach, the coastal town of Montañita has excellent surfing and a hippie vibe. In the Oriente, the seasonally flooded forests of the Ecuadorian Amazon, you’ll find harbor pink river dolphins, howler monkeys, and anacondas. Just south of Quito, in Cotopaxi National Park, the 19,347-foot Volcán Cotopaxi soars over highland paramo grazed by herds of wild horses. It’s also tempting to head directly to Papallacta, where you could spend an entire trip convalescing in the hot springs just outside the highland village.
Seeing only a fraction of the visitors bound for neighboring Thailand every year, Laos is still overlooked by regional tourists. But the Southeast Asian country has a lot to offer. Perched at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers in northern Laos, Luang Prabang is an architectural wonder with a rich past. A World Heritage site since 1995, the town is a blend of traditional architecture and French-inspired colonial buildings, with an impressive 33 different temples. In central Laos, the river town of Vang Vieng is a portal to all things outdoors, from hiking Phangern Mountain to swimming in the blue lagoon beside Tham Jang cave. In contrast, southern Laos is an idyllic place to relax. Near the border with Cambodia, the Mekong River broadens to feature a seemingly endless smattering of atolls and sandbars. The region is dubbed Four Thousand Islands (or Si Phan Don), and it’s an ideal place to explore in a kayak or spend a few days sipping Beer Lao by the water.
From the historic alleyways of Harar to chiseled peaks of the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia is an alluring destination, and it’s a place still largely ignored by travelers to East Africa. The country is famously suffused with fascinating lore—including a legend asserting that the Ark of the Covenant sits in a chapel in the northern Ethiopian town of Aksum. Centuries worth of history are showcased throughout the country at World Heritage sites like the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and the medieval castles of Gondar.
While Ethiopia may not be part of East Africa’s safari circuit, the country is also rich in biodiversity, giving visitors the chance to spot some of Africa’s scarcest creatures. Ethiopian wolves, the rarest canids on the planet, wander the highlands of the Simien Mountains National Park and the Bale Mountains National Park. Just a couple hours from Addis Ababa, the lakes studding Ethiopia’s swath of the Great Rift Valley are exceptionally rich in birdlife, harboring everything from African fish eagles to flamingoes. Here you’ll find hikes that take you among the rock pinnacles that were created by lava flows and formed by years of erosion from the wind and ice. See waterfalls and alpine lakes as you explore the park, with trekking routes of various distances.
Of course, as the birthplace of coffee (or buna), and the home of iconic staples like spongy injera bread, stew-like shiro wat, and bite-sized tibs, Ethiopia’s berbere-infused cuisine is another highlight. For true coffee connoisseurs, you can take a tour of some of the country’s most scenic plantations where the beans are grown.
Featuring a blend of cultural heritage and natural marvels, Guatemala offers travelers an enticing smorgasbord of experiences. Once the heart of the Maya empire, the country is rich in archaeological wonders like the rainforest-shrouded temples of Tikal, part of a location first occupied by humans as early as 900 BC. Today it’s protected as part of the wildlife-rich Maya Biosphere Reserve.
The country’s more recent history is preserved in the cobblestoned colonial town of Antigua, overshadowed by three climbable volcanoes—Volcán de Agua, Volcán de Fuego, and Volcán Acatenango. In western Guatemala, volcano-cradled Lake Atitlán has been enticing travelers for centuries, including the likes of English writer Aldous Huxley. The compact Central American country also boasts one of the most stunning swimming spots on the planet—Semuc Champey, a natural limestone bridge dotted with idyllic plunge pools, fed by the water of the Cahabón River.
Renowned for ancient ruins, epic walking paths, and some of the most stunning stretches of coastline in Great Britain, pint-sized Wales is teeming with beguiling wonders. A place still steeped in mythology, the country’s rich history is vividly displayed at sites like Carreg Cennen, the 13th-century fortress presiding over the River Cennen at the edge of Brecon Beacons National Park. In southern Wales, Tintern Abbey, a hub of monastic life dating back to 1131 famously inspired Romantic poet William Wordsworth.
Then, there are the country’s natural treasures. In the southwestern corner of the country, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park protects a seascape defined by wild headlands, vertiginous limestone cliffs, and secluded beaches, all showcased along the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path. In northern Wales, the 3,560-foot Snowdon looms over Snowdonia National Park, offering a myriad of adventures for outdoor lovers.
The country also can claim some of Europe’s quirkiest festivals. Wales annually plays host to everything from the bibliophilic Hay Festival in Hay-on-Wye to the World Bog Snorkeling Championships in Llanwrtyd Wells.
Written by Malee Baker Oot for Matcha in partnership with Gregory Mountain Products and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image provided by Marco Assini