Only two things are guaranteed in life: sexual disappointment and death. And if you’re really unlucky, they might both happen at the same time.
Thankfully, most of us get a few precious decades of existence to do cool stuff before we check in to the big backpacker hostel in the sky. We therefore humbly present the gapyear.com guide to things to do before you die.
So what should you try before you kick the bucket? We’ve basically tried to include a mix of the iconic gap year experiences as well as some edgier, less-obvious adventures.
1. Cycle Bolivia’s Death Road
Riding the ‘Death Road’ in Bolivia might literally be the last thing you do before you die. The 64km North Yungas Road that runs from La Paz to Coroico has been known as ‘The world’s most dangerous road’ since 1995, and hundreds of people have lost their lives in accidents over the years. This includes backpackers on an adrenaline rush – 18 tourists having died biking the route since 1998.
But as long as you take the corners sanely and remember that brakes are there to be used you should be fine, and dozens of cycle companies in La Paz offer the thrilling day trip that takes you from the snow and ice of the La Cumbre Pass at 4,600m to the sub-tropical Coroico at 1,200m.
This is proper adventure cycling: narrow road, tight bends and 600m drop-offs with no guard rail. It’s adventurous. It’s exhilarating. It’s epic. Going down has never been better.
2. Party in North Korea’s only Nightclub
The North Koreans get a raw deal; they’re poor, force-fed propaganda and live in one of the most isolated countries on Earth. It can’t be fun. But it’s not all bad news. They can always go to nightclubs. Well, one nightclub.
The Taedong Diplo in Pyongyang is North Korea’s only club. It’s not a great club, mainly because it’s only got one CD: Trance Hits of 1993. No joke. Occasionally they mix things up with the karaoke edition of the Titanic soundtrack. Seriously, we’re not making this up. Last year the Guardian sent DJ Ian Steadman, who introduced indie disco. It seemed to go down quite well.
If you’re properly trying to make an awesome and interesting list of things to do before you die, why not include living it up in Pyongyang? Ok, so there’s lots of reasons, but, still, it would be pretty cool.
4. Explore the Amazon Rainforest
These days you can navigate the Amazon using Google Maps, so why would you bother rocking up in person? Well, despite modern tech, deforestation and TV documentary saturation there’s still a timeless, mystical romance about the Amazon.
The South American rainforest is a lush, majestic world that evokes a childlike spirit of adventure. It’s got anacondas and piranhas. It’s got jaguars. It’s got indigenous tribes that still haven’t had any contact with the outside world, a bit like some parts of Wales. Get an old boat and an old guide, head down river and you’ll feel like Bruce Parry, minus the film crew.
In an age of disposable travel apps and zeitgeisty backpacking trends it’s cool to know that exploring the Amazon is still one of the top things to do before you die, and always will be. Unless they destroy it to grow soy beans.
5. Bungee Jump in South Africa
On every bucket list you need adrenaline activities. It’s the rules. Skydiving, white-water rafting, rock climbing; the options are almost endless. All these ideas are great, although at gapyear.com jumping off a completely solid bridge attached to bit a rope is one of our favourites.
The Bloukans Bridge bungee on the border of South Africa‘s Western and Eastern Capes is the world’s highest commercial bridge jump. 216m above the river, the jumps are organised by Face Adrenaline. They haven’t had an accident since 1997, so you’re in fairly safe hands.
You might be thinking you can’t do this. Maybe you’ve got vertigo. You’re an introvert. You don’t ‘like’ adrenaline. Well, in 2010 South African Mohr Keet, 96, did the jump. If he can do it, you can. No excuses.
6. Go Tubing in Laos
Is it a good idea to mix alcohol with rope swings, slides and travelling down a river on a rubber tube? Probably not, but ‘tubing’ has become a must-do backpacker experience on the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng, Laos, and therefore justifies its place in our gap year guide.
The basic concept is to hit several bamboo bars along a river, floating downstream to each in the tube. The bars serve up lao-lao whisky, ‘happy shakes’ and rocking tunes. You will need money, dry bags and a healthy dose of common sense coupled with the instinct for self-preservation.
Why? Well, obviously this is a bit dangerous. People get hurt. Tourists die every year. But it’s also really fun, so get involved, take care and don’t kill yourself. Tubing isn’t for everyone, but it makes our list of stuff to try before you die.
7. Enter the Mongol Rally
There should always be an epic charity adventure on any list of things to do before you die; you know, one of those trips where people sponsor you to hitchhike to Ecuador in your underwear.
There are loads of amazing charity escapades that will take you all over the world. Some are branded, some are totally independent. One of our favourites is the Mongol Rally. It’s a 10,000 mile drive from the UK and to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, all done chaotically in teams, and using a haphazard and thoroughly unsuitable vehicle. Ideally you should be comprehensively unprepared.
The ‘rally’ (no one cares who wins) is arranged under the umbrella of The Adventurists – a group that believes most travelling and backpacking in the modern world is too safe and boring, and so organise the event to be, well, as unorganised as possible.
8. Go on Safari in Kenya
Africa. It’s plagued by poverty, famine, war and AIDS. Which is rubbish. But it’s also a vibrant place full of life, hope and culture. It evokes the rich imagery of pioneering explorers like David Livingstone, and vivid scenes from novels like Heart of Darkness. Oh, and there’s wildlife. Lots of wildlife.
You could go on safari in a lot of places in Africa. Like Botswana. Mozambique, maybe. That Kruger Park in South Africa isn’t too shabby. But Kenya is one of the most iconic safari experiences on the continent. Probably the world. You’ll be blown away by the vast arid plains, rivers and woodlands filled with Africa’s Big Five (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard).
A list of things to do before you die should definitely include seeing some majestic creatures in their own natural habitats. This is what it’s all about; just you, your fellow safariers, the magic of nature, and, yes, a guide with a massive shotgun.
9. See the Northern Lights
People used to think the northern lights were heavenly spirits or magic. But then science came along and ruined it for everyone by explaining that the mind-blowing atmospheric luminescence is actually caused by solar winds and the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the thermosphere.
But did they ruin it? Many would argue that the northern lights – or aurora borealis – retains its magic, and that understanding what’s actually going on makes it even better. We agree, and recommend that your checklist of things to do before you die includes a trip to see this beautiful natural phenomenon.
The best places to see the aurora borealis in the far north of Scandinavia, although over the last year the lights have been popping up across North America and northern Britain.
10. Go to a Full Moon Party in Thailand
The Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan, Thailand, is the epitome of hedonism, and easily makes the cut on our list of things to do before you die. It’s celebrated every month (with the full moon, obviously) on Haad Rin beach and it’s a party like no other.
There’s buckets of booze, drugs, fire dancing and ladyboys. There’s even Mushroom Mountain. You can guess what that’s all about. The whole event is essentially a lot like Disneyland, except specifically for adults and filled with beaches, buckets and babes.
Now, for a lot of people this vision of sweaty, drunk western twentysomethings will look a lot like The End of The World. That’s cool. But the Full Moon Party has become a backpacking rite of passage in South East Asia so, hey, suck it and see.
11. Trek the Inca Trail
There are few man-made wonders as iconic as Machu Picchu, and there are few better ways to see it than the four or five days spent trekking the Inca Trail.
At Cuzco in Peru you can book the trail and set off with guides, porters and other trekkers. Due to justified limits imposed on the number of tours, you’ll need to book well in advance. The trail takes you through amazing ruins of Incan settlements and roads, but some of it is at high altitude, so watch out for that. It can make you sick. So very sick.
The climax of the adventure is Machu Picchu itself. It’s the daddy cool of the trail, and could probably make the list of things to do before you die on its own; it’s immense, mysterious and, well, almost unbelievable. Just try and go with a mind that’s open, clear and not pre-blown by blogs and brochures, else you might feel underwhelmed by a bunch of well-maintained rocks.
12. Run with the Bulls in Pamplona
Bull-fighting is part of Spain‘s rich, proud cultural heritage. Or it might be cruel torture to entertain the bloodthirsty masses. Basically, it’s controversial.
The annual running of the bulls at the San Fermin festival in Pamplona is slightly less controversial. Slightly. At least 15 people have died since 1910, and hundreds of people get injured during each seven-day festival. Some might even argue it’s on their list of things to get banned before they die.
But we reckon that might be a tad cynical, and lots of people agree; every year thousands of locals and tourists take to the streets to test their courage against the rampant half-ton bulls. Join them.
13. Take an Antarctic Cruise
Antarctica is one of the most unticked items on worldwide lists of things to do before you die. It sits there, year after year, watching the bulls and bungee jumps get crossed off while it lies lonely and neglected. It’s so sad.
So don’t ignore one of the best gap year bucket list items. Yes, it’s expensive. And cold. And probably not the most comfortable cruise in the world. But there are penguins, blue whales, orcas and seals. And colossal squids. Maybe. Well, it says so on Wikipedia.
Antarctica is one of the most epic, awe-inspiring landscapes you can experience on Earth. It’s genuinely magnificent. The place has resisted human colonisation, and that makes it all the more magical. Go. Now.
14. See Gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda
Critically endangered, the mountain gorillas in the dense forests of central Africa sadly represents a real ‘last chance to see’ item on the things to do before you die list; they have suffered from poaching, war, disease as well as habitat loss in recent decades.
Located in Uganda and Rwanda, seeing these incredible creatures will set you back some serious cash – permits to visit the National Parks with guides cost hundreds of pounds. But it’s probably worth it. We use this word a lot – and possibly overuse it – but seeing mountain gorillas up close in the flesh is truly, properly awesome.
There are other endangered species you could scramble to see before it’s too late, but for us these big fellas top the pile.