The Travel Goals Master Checklist: Part I – North America & the Caribbean

The full Travel Goals Master Checklist in all its glory

Whether you’re a marker, checker, crosser or scratcher, there’s no satisfaction quite like the feeling you get when eliminating an item from your ‘to do’ list. That same sense of accomplishment transfers nicely to the field of travel, where having a well-defined list of destinations to see and the joy of checking them off after visiting them is all part of the fun.

With the recent release of my new poster: The Travel Goals Master Checklist, I thought it fitting to review how I came up with the 72 world-class destinations featured in the design, and why they deserve a spot on this list. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or have yet to venture beyond the borders of your own country, I invite you to compare your list with mine, and if you should feel so inclined, encourage you to cross off as many as you can.

North America & The Caribbean

So as not to overwhelm you with all 72 destinations at once, I’ve decided to discuss the destinations by region. For the record, the destinations on the list are not necessarily places I’ve visited myself, but rather locations that have strong natural, cultural or historical appeal. To date I’ve visited just 44 out of 72, so I’ve got some pending travel goals myself.

New York City, USA

New York, New York, USA

Even if I wasn’t born and raised in the suburbs of New York City, the Big Apple is for all intents and purposes the ‘Capital of the World’. Thanks to innumerable appearances in popular films and TV programs, it is also one of the most recognizable. The iconic Empire State Building was a natural choice when it came to creating an image that encapsulates one of the most impressive city skylines. Chances are a good number of you reading this can check off this must-see metropolis.

Niagara Falls, USA/Canada

Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned…

Straddling the US/Canadian border, Niagara Falls is rightly considered to be one of the world’s most famous cascades. It has massive size and unique accessibility from aboard a Maid of the Mist watercraft, and is usually only ranked behind Victoria and Iguazu Falls in terms of sheer impressiveness. Add to that its renown as a world-class tourist site and I felt I had no choice but to include it in my top 72 travel destinations.

Quebec City, Canada

Le bonne vie in Quebec City, Canada

Quebec City is the closest thing to visiting a European destination on the North American continent. With charming Old World architecture and a skyline dominated by the imposing Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City earns its place on the checklist for both its cultural and historic pedigree.

Banff National Park, Canada

Banff National Park, Canada

While I’ve yet to have the privilege of visiting the Canadian Rockies myself, the milky-blue hues of Lake Louise in Canada’s Banff National Park are universally considered to be a world-class draw. As one of the best examples of gorgeous alpine scenery on the continent, Banff earned its spot on my checklist with little internal debate.

Denali National Park, USA

Bear sighting, Denali National Park, USA

Though part of the United States, Alaska is its own region with its own appeal. Of all the potential scenes I could have used to represent this remote and unspoiled wilderness in the extreme northwest of the continent, a grizzly bear against the backdrop of Denali (the Great One) seemed a most fitting tribute to the dominance of nature that people the world over come to see.

Yosemite National Park, USA

Yosemite National Park, USA

The American West has more than its fair share of world-class level wonders, so picking those to include on the list was not an easy thing to do. Fortunately, Yosemite National Park is so superlative that not including it on the master checklist would be a travesty, so I really didn’t have a choice but to include it. When choosing the imagery I wanted to use, I knew that the iconic peaks of Half-dome and El Capitan would have to make an appearance.

Yellowstone National Park, USA

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone NP, USA

Even if it wasn’t the first ever national park, or an alpine region brimming with natural beauty, Yellowstone is home to some of the most intriguing geological wonders on the planet, and is therefore an shoo-in for a place on this list. When it comes to natural attractions, Yellowstone and its geothermal oddities are hard to beat.

Grand Canyon, USA

Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA

Despite what I just said in my description of Yellowstone National Park, there is at least one place that trumps it in terms of the raw impressiveness showcased in the natural world. The Grand Canyon is just one of those places you have to see for yourself to fully appreciate its grandeur. Even then, wrapping one’s brain around the burnt-tones of this dramatic open space is not easy to pull off.

Hawaii, USA

Tropical Wonder in the Hawaiian Islands, USA

Much like Alaska, Hawaii has its own unique geology and culture that separates it from mainland USA. Long synonymous with tropical paradise, the Hawaiian islands continue to beckon world travelers with their gorgeous tropical scenery and vibrant South Seas culture.

Los Cabos, Mexico

Los Cabos, Mexico

Despite all the attention that goes to its neighbors to the north, Mexico is home to a treasure trove of natural attractions. Though a late entry, and one I haven’t personally visited yet, Los Cabos, at the tip of Baja California, draw steady streams of tourist looking to experience the beautiful juxtaposition of clear waters lapping against an arid desert landscape.

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Besides having abundant natural wonders to draw visitors from around the world, Mexico is also the cradle of the mighty Aztec and Mayan civilizations that once held sway in this region. The latter are responsible for the marvelous ruins of Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site smack dab in the middle of a jungle on the Yucatan Peninsula. This ‘lost city’ has all the earmarks of a cultural jewel, and therefore was an early entry onto the master checklist.

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Vulcan Arenal, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a nature-lover’s paradise. The tricky part was figuring out which of the many attractions to feature as the specific ‘destination’ on my list. Recalling the tantalizingly-disturbing rumbles of the ever-active Arenal Volcano, and the verdant paradise that surrounds it, I knew I had found my muse.

Ocho Rios, Jamaica

Visit the Ocho, featuring Dunn’s River Falls

Sure, Ocho Rios has all the trappings of your run-of-the-mill Caribbean cruise port. But it also boasts something most other ports can’t: access to a world-class natural attraction like Dunn’s River Falls. This iconic series of cascades sees plenty of tourists, but that’s not without good reason as I learned on my own visit there. Sometimes you just have to put aside your inner travel snob and see what all the fuss is about. In the case of Ocho Rios, it was a pleasant surprise to see my assumptions overturned.

St. John, US Virgin Islands

Trunk Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

With so many dazzling and bejeweled Caribbean Islands to choose from, I finally landed on St. John in the US Virgin Islands for the simple reason that the majority of it is dedicated parkland, preserving its natural and historic charms from the pervasive encroachment of commercialism so rampant in the region. With beautiful beaches, dense greenery and colonial-era ruins, in my mind St. John encapsulates all the best qualities of a Caribbean island, landing it a well-earned spot on the master checklist.

How Many Have You Visited?

Order your own Travel Goals Master Checklist today!

So far I’ve covered 14 out of the 72 destinations on the master checklist. How many can you check off? Even if that number is zero, the beauty of the checklist is that it inspires a person to new adventures and specific travel goals. If you’ve enjoyed the artwork and want a Travel Goals Master Checklist to display in your home or office, please visit my Etsy store to order a copy for yourself or the traveler in your life.

In the meantime, I’ll start preparing Part II . . .

Have you been to any of these destinations? Or do you have a favorite in North America and the Caribbean that you feel should have made the list? Share it with your fellow travel lovers by leaving a comment!

Bite Size Destination Throwback: Costa Rica 2006

This week makes a full 15 years since my first visit to the natural playground that is Costa Rica. Though that trip came at a very difficult time in my life, the mind-blowing beauty of this Central American gem somehow kept most of my attention. The lush rain forest, impressive volcanoes and pervasive scent of flowers are as good a natural remedy for depression as the world can offer, and in my much improved state of mind, looking back is more pleasure than pain

Destination: Costa Rica

Year: 2006

Tabacon Hot Springs, Costa Rica

What Brought Me There

Needing a warm weather escape after a tragedy at home, Costa Rica drew my attention for its proximity, its reputation as a safe destination in an otherwise dicey region of the world, and let’s face it: the abundance of soft adventure opportunities on offer. Nothing like going off to play in paradise to get one’s juices flowing.

What I Loved

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Upon landing in Costa Rica, I felt as if I were in one big, giant, natural theme park – each with its own geological attractions. My highlights were all under the shadow of the massive Arenal volcano. I went rappelling for the first time in a nearby canyon, took my lumps on the roughest whitewater rafting trip I’ve encountered to date, and spent a glorious day soaking in the paradise-like waters of Tabacon Hot Springs.

This is not to say that the rest of the country was a bust. Carrera National Park was a trove of wildlife encounters, and despite my negative headspace at the time, the wild Nicoya Peninsula was just as pretty as advertised.

What I Would Do If I Went Back

Technically I have returned since that first trip, but that was just one day off a cruise ship spent at popular Manuel Antonio National Park. If I could go back I wouldn’t mind seeing the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the beaches of the Guanacaste, and if money were no option, the feather in any diver’s cap: Cocos Island.

Have you been to Costa Rica? Share your favorite moment in the comments below. And if you want a great Costa Rica souvenir, check out the Costa Rica Rugged Country Code Tee in the Custom Travel Art Shop.

Pura Vida in Costa Rica

Colorful Costa Rica

If nature opened an amusement park I know exactly where it would be. Just before the North American continent tapers down to the narrow isthmus that is Panama, lies the jewel of Central America: Costa Rica. Translated, pura vida means: Pure life, which aside from being the national motto, aptly describes the philosophy of this tropical country that is nearly the size of the entire state of West Virginia.

Paradise Found at Tabacon Hot Springs

Arriving at the outskirts of the capital San Jose, it became readily apparent that my theme park analogy wasn’t all that off the mark. On the plane and on line through customs, conversations with my fellow arrivals had them heading off to various corners of the country as if they were different sections of an amusement park: Steamy Tortuguero, the beaches of arid Guanacaste, and the lush mountains of Monteverde and Arenal. The latter was my first stop, and after an adventurous three hour drive spent leapfrogging slow-moving vehicles around impossibly curving roads, our party arrived at the tourist hub of La Fortuna. The town itself is hardly an attraction. Rather it is its location alongside the imposing Arenal volcano that places it on the tourism map. Dominating the landscape and visitors’ itineraries, this volcano is no sleeping giant. It is and has been continuously active for some time. In fact, a highlight of my visit was standing outside our rental car at night on the far side of the mountain and watching spurts of glowing red appear and dissolve in the darkness. It is, admittedly, a bit disconcerting when every so often a rumble reverberates through the jungle, but somehow visions of Pompeii are little deterrent to nature lovers the world over who come to see Costa Rica’s biological bonanza up close and personal.

Though my itinerary was filled with active interests such as rappelling down a jungle gorge and rafting the wild whitewater of the Rio Toro, it was our time spent relaxing at Tabacon Hot Springs that made the greatest impression. Situated west of town and at the base of the northern slope of the Arenal volcano, this highly-manicured collection of natural hot springs and secluded man-made pools convey a sense of Eden—especially for those who splurge on the pricey spa treatments available. Soaking in the sometimes scalding water, once again the theme park analogy popped into my head, with the names Relaxland and Paradiseland the frontrunners for its moniker. And just like a theme park, when the sun went down and the brilliant colors of hanging heliconia plants faded in the dusk, the discreet lighting around the cascading pools emitted an ambiance of an all-natural Disney World. Pura vida indeed.

With the adrenaline still fresh in our systems, our party set off to immerse ourselves in the abundant wildlife to be found, and our destination of choice was Carara National Park—a swath of rainforest hugging the picturesque Pacific Coast. To our delight the encounters started even before we arrived. Crossing the TarcolesRiver, we were greeted by the sight of clusters of crocodiles ranging from 4 to 12 feet long lazing along the banks of the muddy water. At the park entrance we opted to hire a naturalist guide, and in hindsight this was the best decision we made the entire trip. Had we not done so, I’m convinced that we would have missed 90% of the things we saw, from an adorable family of capuchin monkeys to dozens of birds to a vividly-colored poison arrow frog.

Zip-lining near Montezuma

After all that activity we found it necessary once again to rest, and for that we headed to the laid-back, somewhat Bohemian beach town of Montezuma, located at the tip of the unspoiled semi-arid Nicoya Peninsula. Pura Vida echoed in my head every morning as I awoke to the sound of raging surf and playful monkeys clambering through the trees outside my window. Popular with surfers, the Nicoya Peninsula is more than just a great place to catch some waves. A half hour hike brought us to magnificent MontezumaFalls and its refreshing pools. The next day I got to see them from an entirely different perspective while on one of the many canopy tours available, though ‘tour’ is hardly the right word since the entire experience involves zip-lining across stretches of the upper levels of the rainforest. There is truly very little to compare with the experience of soaring from treetop to treetop on a cable several stories off the ground while watching the menagerie of the jungle whir past your feet. Let’s see a theme park beat that.

As with all good things, my time in Costa Rica eventually came to an end. I had come to taste the pure life, and found that the taste was indeed as sweet as advertised. And as the plane lifted high above the green mountains and steaming volcanoes I mused that Costa Rica was one theme park that was certainly worth the price of admission.