For many folks, the drive down California’s Highway One epitomizes the road trip. The views are glorious. But it’s hardly the only stretch of road that’ll make you stop and stare. That’s why we asked our International Living editors to tell us about their favorite road trips. Here’s the list below, in no particular order of preference.
1. Belize: From Chetumal, Mexico to Placencia, Belize
2. Ecuador: From Quito to Cotacachi
3. Iceland: Circuit of the Island
4. Ireland: The Gap of Dunloe, Kerry
5. Italy: From Sorrento to Salerno
6. New Zealand: Driving the South Island
7. Panama: Boquete to Bocas del Toro
Starting in Chetumal, Mexico, Suzan Haskins loves the drive through Belize to Placencia. “You pass along the wide Bay of Corozal through some beautiful upland farm country around San Ignacio, through the lush Maya Mountains to the coast, and right down to where we had the Caribbean on one side and huge lagoons on the other along the Placencia Peninsula,” says Suzan. “And of course, we still love the drive from Quito to Cotacachi, there’s nothing like the Andes!”
Steenie Harvey recommends a leisurely week to drive into the mythology of Iceland through a scenic wonderland of geysers, waterfalls, thermal pools and glaciers. Circling the island, the Route One ring-road is an 830-mile circuit of the island. Highlights include the black sands and troll rocks of Vik, and the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. There’s also the puffin colony at Dyrholaey, Skaftafell national park and the chance to go whale watching at Akureyri. Go in summer when it never really gets dark.
Ireland’s Ring of Kerry is a well known and spectacular drive, but if you’re in that part of the country check out The Gap of Dunloe. Most locals and officials will tell you it’s forbidden to drive this road. Ignore them—they only want you to hire a horse-and-cart for the journey. Lush, dramatic Irish countryside, always an impressive view over the next hill. Narrow, steep roads. Feels like an adventure, although you’re never in any real danger. Takes a couple of hours.
Terrifying and beautiful in equal measure the Amalfi Coast road in Italy from Sorrento heading towards Salerno literally has sheer drops of 500 feet to the sparkling Mediterranean. But the views are stunning, particularly approaching Positano, where you can see the town’s colorful houses clinging to the coastline.
With no traffic for miles, New Zealand’s South Island is a great road trip. You go past crayfish (lobster) huts on the side of the road near Kaikoura (where they’ll go out and get you fresh crays and cook them up for you) and through Christchurch to spectacular Queenstown for bungy jumping, skiing or canyoning…to Dunedin for Scottish heritage Downunder…across to the East coast (via the glaciers) and up to Punakiki (pancake rocks) to end up in Nelson and the Marlborough and their famous vineyards for a glass of Savvy.
Panama is so small (about the size of South Carolina), and there are such dramatic changes in scenery, even on some really short drives… like the drive from Panama City over the Panama Canal (Bridge of the Americas) to the mountainous Sora. You go from skyscrapers to white sands and palms to pine trees and wisps of cloud, all in a couple hours. But the best drive is probably from Boquete to Bocas. You cross from the “Pacific side” to the Caribbean, over the Continental Divide. There’s no cheesy sign or souvenir shop telling you that you’re straddling the “great divide” that separates the watersheds that drain into the Pacific Ocean from those that meander toward the Caribbean…instead the scenery tells the story.
From the mountainous terrain of Boquete down to the hot springs of Caldera you see hilltop cabins and even Swiss-style chalets… Large expanses of land are peppered with the boulders that catapulted from Volcán Barú when it last erupted some 500 years ago. Rural homes nestle into mountains and men shoe their horses by the side of the road.
Cross the divide and you’ll find yourself in Changuinola, the area of the Talamanca Mountains that has one of the country’s highest rainfall averages. Funnily enough the 160,000 hectare preserve here is called El Bosque Protector de Palo Seco, which basically means “dry tree.” The cloud forest here is as dense as in the infamous Darien, so much so that you might see harpy eagles and jaguars (Panama’s two greatest predators) and the rare ashy-throated bush tanager. If you have time, you can hike any of the three short trails that fan-out from the roadside ranger station (be prepared to pay a hefty fee…$3).
Carry on and soon you’ll approach La Fortuna dam and lake and forest preserve, an excellent place to stop, with viewing platforms and vendors selling snacks and drinks. La Fortuna is Panama’s second “engineering wonder” (after the Panama Canal). This huge dam and hydroelectric facility supplies almost a third of Panama’s power needs. It’s at what’s considered the extreme south of the Talamanca Cordillera, which along with La Amistad park is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here you can see the famed gold beetle (see photos here, one shows the golden bug next to a gold ring).
Shortly down the road, you might catch your first hazy glimpses of the Caribbean. Here’s where the forest growth, peek-a-boo views, and occasional waterfall make for myriad “Did you see that!” moments. About halfway down the mountain, cloud forest becomes rain forest, and the colors of flowering undergrowth and birds and butterflies punctuate the velvety deep green.
The turn-off for Almirante is at a large roadside plaza and gas station (fuel up, buy some pollo frito to go or bananas for a nickel a piece!) where a small sign indicates Chiriquí Grande is straight ahead. Don’t follow that sign! You want to turn left to Almirante, the best place to leave your car for about $3 a day and to catch a 30 minute water taxi to Colon Island.
I think it was close to Almirante that we passed a pineapple farm where you could get several juicy yellow ones for a dollar…and at one point there’s a village school with outdoor desks (they have little straw “umbrellas” over them!)
You’ll know you’re in Almirante when pre-teen boys on bicycles start chasing you down, asking if you’re looking for a water taxi. Ignore them and get lost, or accept their help and get led right to the water taxi/ferry “station,” a rickety walk-through with a couple of benches for waiting. Stepping into Bocas is like encountering a “little Jamaica” in Panama. No Swiss-style chalets here! The typical Bocas beach house is four to six feet in the air, on stilts. The ocean is as light blue here as it is in Ocho Rios, and there are so many white-sand beaches on so many islands that no one has been able to count them.
Tips: Start from Boquete early in the morning and avoid November and December which are very rainy in Bocas. The two-lane highways get very narrow in places and hair-pin curves and fog can slow progress, so travel by day, not night. If you don’t feel comfy driving it you could probably get a taxi for up to four of you for as little as $80. More fun than taking a bus because you can request stops wherever you like for photos, etc.
Spring-like weather in the mountains, Caribbean waters, world heritage cloud forests, hiking trails, waterfalls, lookout points, hot springs and a massive dam…this drive has it all.
Editor’s Note: See more world rankings here.