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Enjoying the World’s Most Popular Destinations – Crowds and All

There is a reason why certain destinations attract annoying crowds, generate endless lines, breed weary guides and offer a disproportionate number of mediocre hotel accommodations. They are the natural, architectural, historic and cultural Wonders of the World, and there is something so spectacular or fascinating about them that we’re willing to elbow our way through the masses just to catch a glimpse. But how can we create a more enjoyable and authentic experience when traveling to the world’s iconic sites?

On a recent trip to Argentina, I had the opportunity to visit the majestic waterfalls of Iguazu (also spelled Iguassu and Iguaçu), which sprawl almost 2 miles along the border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Set in the lush rainforest of Misiones province, they were the backdrop of Jeremy Irons’ epic scene in the movie The Mission. Named one of the Seven Wonders of Nature in 2011, the falls attract more than 1.5 million tourists a year.

Thorough planning is critical for any vacation, but even more so when you’re competing with thousands of other tourists. Here are some ways I’ve learned to avoid the traps and enjoy myself despite the throngs of fanny-packs:

  • Ask the experts. Traterra’s Travel Planners have actually stayed at the hotels, taken the tours, waited in line, and eaten in the restaurants. They can give you the advice you need to help you filter through the overload of information, avoid the duds, save time and get the most out of your hard-earned time off.
  • Travel during low season. I cannot stress this enough. Depending on the destination, you’ll likely still encounter crowds any time of year, but even a few thousand less people can make a big difference. I once visited Venice in October, and it will remain one of my favorite destinations in the world. Friends of mine who have gone at peak times had a very different experience.
  • Talk to the locals. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from someone who actually lives there. On my trip to Iguazu, I stayed behind when my family crossed the border to Brazil to view the waterfalls from a different perspective – a must-see according to most Iguazu tourism websites. US citizens must pay $140 for a visa to enter Brazil, and I didn’t want to spend the money for just a day trip. (My husband is Argentine, so he and our children are not required to have visas.) I was chatting with a waiter at the hotel who had lived in the area his whole life, and he reassured me that I wasn’t missing anything by not going. Sure enough, they returned disappointed, having wasted two hours at Immigration for a view from the Brazilian side that was not worth the hassle.
  • Be realistic in your expectations. No matter how much you plan ahead, keep in mind you’ll have to share the view with other tourists. You may even make some bad choices along the way, given the endless possibilities. But vacations should include some spontaneity, and you’ll enjoy the experience so much more if you’re not expecting perfection when traveling to the world’s hot spots.

Even as you try to avoid the herd mentality in these high-traffic destinations, you can inevitably get caught in some of the clichéd activities. And just when you think you’re too sophisticated to participate in the corny song and dance, you may have a change of heart.

One example for me came at the end of our 102-degree, 5-hour descent through Iguazu National Park. Hot and exhausted, we opted for the raft adventure like thousands of tourists before us. We had spent the day making fun of the cheesy videographers who were following tourists around (the ones who try to sell you the footage at the end of the day). We wondered under our breath who would be naïve enough to pay $40 for a DVD. But as we sat catching our breath after getting soaked from the backlash of the powerful falls, the videographer assigned to our raft remained standing at the front, as he had the entire ride (while I was cowering under my seat). He had heard that it was my son’s seventh birthday that day and asked, through his plastic-covered lens, how the cumpleañero (birthday boy) had enjoyed the ride. Suddenly the entire raft broke out in “Happy Birthday” as we bounced down the rapids – and the cameraman caught it all on film.

We ended up buying three copies of the DVD.

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