The best travel photos of the year

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By George Stone, TRAVEL Executive Editor

An excellent travel image tells a memorable story and reveals something about the world around us. While the pandemic limited our movements, it fueled our passions for future exploration. Whitney Matewe, one of our photo editors, asked a few far-flung photographers to share where they long to visit again.

“I curated this gallery as a way to allow us all to voyage vicariously and explore from the safety of our bubbles,” Whitney says.

“Working with the photographers felt a lot like sitting with a friend and looking through their photo albums. The themes of community and human connection repeatedly popped up in our conversations. At a time when we are so isolated from one another, it feels like a much-needed respite to hear Kiliii Yuyan reflect on rediscovering his community after being displaced from his homeland.”

Returning to places brings a deeper appreciation, says Hannah Reyes Morales, who took the image (above) of young eagle hunters preparing at the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ölgii, Mongolia. “Coming back again and again has meant that I can make deeper connections and [have] more understanding,” Hannah says.

There were many revealing images. “On the surface, Fiordland is a shadowy, Lord of the Rings–like landscape with rugged mountains and tranquil fjords. Underwater is like visiting alien worlds,” says photographer Brian Skerry of his New Zealand image (above). “Exploring here was like swimming through the pages of a storybook, with exquisite creatures and dreamlike seascapes on every dive."

One photographer aching to return is Natalie Keyssar. Her image of a young girl sitting by the fountain in Plaza Altamira during Venezeula’s Carnival makes Natalie miss her community in economically devastated Caracas. “A couple of weeks after I took this photo, I flew home to the U.S. to be close to my family during the pandemic, but when I imagine life after the pandemic, I know the first place I’ll go back to is Caracas,” she says.

Photographer Beth Wald hopes to return to the valley of Chu-tang in Dolpo, Nepal (pictured above). “The villages and monasteries in this remote region seemed timeless,” she says. “Buddhist shrines and massive piles of carved mani or prayer stones—often fluttering with prayer flags strung above—line the entrance to most villages, so that the entire landscape seemed to resonate with sacred meaning.”

We hope the New Year brings exciting discoveries your way, or a fresh appreciation on a return visit.

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Today in a minute

Bigger Everest: New measurements from Nepal and China put the “top of the world” two feet higher than previously reported. Everest now is 29,031.69 feet above sea level, according to survey results presented today. Why the change? It’s the result of continually shifting tectonic plates on rocks that once, if you can believe it, sat on the ocean’s floor, Nat Geo’s Maya Wei-Haas reports. (Pictured above, a view from Everest North Base Camp shows the Rongbuk glaciers and the approach toward the mountain‘s summit.)

Big cats and COVID-19: Four lions at the Barcelona Zoo have tested positive for COVID-19, officials report today. The infections of three female and one male lion, believed to have come from their keepers, follow several tigers and lions infected at the Bronx Zoo earlier this year.

R.I.P. Chuck Yeager: The hard-charging World War II flying ace and legendary test pilot broke the speed of sound and inspired NASA’s pioneering astronauts. He was “the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff,” wrote Tom Wolfe in his history of NASA’s early astronauts. After breaking the sound barrier over the Mojave Desert on Oct. 14, 1947, Yeager and fellow pilots celebrated with drinks and a steak dinner. Then, as Wolfe recounted, “they stumbled and staggered and yelped and bayed for glory before the arthritic silhouettes of the Joshua trees.” Yeager, 97, died Monday in a Los Angeles hospital, the New York Times reports.

Forget Mexico for now? That’s the CDC’s advice. There’s not even much wiggle room. “Travelers should avoid all travel to Mexico,” reads the advisory, which gives the country its most dangerous designation. The guidance comes as airlines such as American and United announced more flights to the nation, and the State Department eased restrictions, the Washington Post reports.

Your Instagram of the day

Dining al fresco: Dinner is served on a houseboat, floating in a lake surrounded by the forests of Värmland, Sweden. It’s interesting to hear about the excitement for the growing trend of zero-impact travel—cooking by a fire, sleeping without heating in the room, and using locally sourced foods. Staying at a zero-impact lodging, says photographer Martin Edstrom, may “help us think about which parts of our lives we could do without.”

Related: Will sustainable travel survive after COVID-19?

The big takeaway

Something new: Greece has designated its first underwater park, aiming to lure post-pandemic visitors by preserving an ancient shipwreck and providing a model for sustainable tourism. Eighty feet below the Aegean, visitors can encounter the 2,400-year-old wreck of the Peristera, named after a neighboring islet. “Diving to it is like traveling in a time machine,” writes Maria Atmazidou for Nat Geo.

Overheard at Nat Geo

A new blue: Chemistry professor Mas Subramanian wasn’t looking to discover the first inorganic blue pigment in 200 years. He was trying to create a material to make a new kind of computer memory. He decided to mix yttrium oxide, manganese oxide, and indium oxide—a white, a black, and a yellow powder. Something quite different emerged. “It was so blue—I was shocked,” the Oregon State chemist told us on the latest episode of Overheard, our podcast. The discovery gives us a glimpse of the new world of building new materials—and creating new colors.

In a few words

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Tomorrow, Victoria Jaggard covers the latest in science. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Rachael Bale on animals, Whitney Johnson on photography, and Debra Adams Simmons on history.

One last glimpse

The case to preserve: These are mid-century lodgings, not Plymouth Rock or Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Both the 1948 Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati and the 1960 Sun-n-Sand Motor Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, are remnants of the swinging, modernist energy of mid-century America. The modernist Terrace Plaza—which once featured electronic convertible sleeper sofas and a Joan Miró mural. The groovy Sun-n-Sand has a pizza slice-shaped neon sign and ties to the Civil Rights movement. Threatened with demolition, both made the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the 11 most endangered historic sites for 2020. Nat Geo’s Jennifer Barger makes the case to keep them. (Above, Cincinnati’s Terrace Plaza Hotel.)

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse selected the photographs. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . And thanks for reading!

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