Recently, as part of the Tripbase Blog Tag game, we were tagged by Lisa of LLWorldTour to share our top three travel secrets with the blog-reading universe. I’ve been sitting on this post for over a week now, because honestly I just don’t know what to share. Do I share a place, a restaurant, a hotel, a person, a moment, an idea, a tip? And is it possible there is anything secret I have left, anything I haven’t yet shared? Yes, I have a tendency to over think things. So, before I change my mind again about what to post, here it is, our top (for the moment at least) three travel secrets.
1. Take Trains…And Not Just in Europe
I love trains. I love the hustle and bustle of rail stations. I love the constantly changing arrivals and departures board that makes it seem you could go anywhere. I love the way that trains force you to slow down, sit back, and enjoy the scenery. So whenever we found a train, we opted to take it, even if that sometimes met hanging around a town a day or two longer than we had planned in order to align our schedule with the train schedule. And in exchange for going the old fashioned way, for taking the time to take a train, we were rewarded with authentic travel experiences that stuck with us far more than any flight ever has. On a train from Mbeya, Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam, we were treated to an impromptu safari as the tracks traversed Selous Game Reserve, allowing us to spot zebras, giraffes, wildebeest and more from our bunks. And as we made our way from Hanoi to Hoi An, we made fast friends with the family sharing our cabin, learning from them all the places we had to go, gaining insight into local life, and tasting all kinds of food we’d never seen before but that they’d brought with them and insisted on sharing. This happened over and over, on every train trip we took. And that’s why I like trains. It’s slow travel. Travel that gives you a more intimate look at a place and its people. Travel that is as much about the journey as the destination.
2. You Can Go On Safari on a Budget
Safaris have a reputation for being expensive, primarily because the industry has somehow tricked us into thinking that the only way to go on safari is on a fully catered operation. But that’s not true. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and you can do it on your own. In fact, almost all the parks in southern Africa–from South Africa’s Kruger to Namibia’s Etosha–allow for self-catered safaris. Rent your own car, pack your own tent, and bring your own food (or eat in the very nice park restaurants) and a safari can in fact be quite inexpensive. And don’t even begin to worry whether you’ll be able to spot any animals without a guide. From our tiny little Kia (not even a 4WD), we spotted lions, cheetahs, rhinos, elephants (they’re pretty hard to miss!), giraffes, hyenas, and all sorts of other amazing creatures. Heck, more than once, we even had the guided safaris pulling up to where our lone car was trying to figure out just what we had found. I resisted requesting a finder’s fee 🙂 And if you’ve always wanted to do an Okavango Delta safari, the most notoriously expensive of all African safaris, don’t fret, that too can be arranged. Just get yourself to the village of Seronga, in the far northwest corner of Botswana (accessible by rental car from Namibia), and hook up with the Okavango Polers Trust, a co-op of local mokoro polers who will guide you on an overnight or multi-day delta safari at backpacker prices.
3.Skip the Bus and the Boat and Hike into Torres del Paine
Most information about hiking Torres del Paine will tell you that there are two options for getting to a starting point at Torres del Paine: you can take the bus to the lodge at the end of the W closest to the Torres, or you can take the boat to Paine Grande. There is, in fact, a third option, and this is the one you should take: get dropped off at the Administration Building and hike the 17 km to Paine Grande. Though this may sound a bit crazy, considering you’re going to already be hiking 80 km to complete the W (and much more if you plan to do the full loop), it is the absolute best introduction to the park. The hike is relatively flat, and the views are stunning. Spread out in front of you is the entirety of the park, allowing you to take in the awesome grandeur of the place that you will soon mainly be seeing in macro. Though there are splendid views throughout the park and the hike, only on the 17 km hike in will you get the panorama, and that alone makes the walk worth it. Plus, being relatively flat, it’s a good warm up for the hiking to come.
And to keep the game going, I’m supposed to tag five fellow travel bloggers. So you’re it: Sean & Dawn at Wandering Why, Craig at The Wide Wide World, Cindi at Blowfish Vodka (formerly Bubbles & Bugs), Kimberly & Elizabeth at Go Green Travel Green, and Steve at Asian Ramblings (who’s finally back!).
Though narrowing a year’s adventure down to pick out our top ten experiences is a nearly impossible task, we tried to do it anyhow. After all, it seems to be what everyone most wants to know. So here it is, the ten experiences we most loved, ordered not by rank but in the order in which we did them.
1. Hiking Torres del Paine
Of all the landscapes we saw on our trip, I think the mountains of Torres del Paine were the most majestic. The sheer beauty of this place was breathtaking for each and every moment of the four days we spent hiking the W.
2. Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu itself is mindboggling and not just because of the altitude. The amazing architecture and well-preserved state of this city in the sky wowed us. But what made seeing it really special was the intense three days of hiking through the Andes that we had to do to reach it. We also got to enjoy the company of my brother Gregory on this part of the adventure.
3. Cruising the Galapagos
This was eight days of pure bliss. From swimming with sea lions, sharks, and penguins, to laughing at the antics of blue-footed boobies, to marveling at the beauty of the natural landscape, to watching the stars rise from the deck chairs of our catamaran, our experience in the Galapagos was top-notch. It was far and away the most budget blowing of our adventures, but it was worth every single penny.
4. Living it Up in Buenos Aires
An apartment in a nice neighborhood, big steak dinners, ice cream every day (at least once), and a visit from my parents…our stay in Buenos Aires was like a vacation within a vacation. The city is vibrant and easy to get around with great architecture and atmosphere and tons to do.
5. Going on Safari in southern Africa
We saw our first lion in Kruger, got up close and personal with rhinos in Hluhluwe Imfolozi, encountered more elephants than we could count in Addo, found a few new species at Mountain Zebra, and became king of cheetah spotting in Etosha. We did a lot of safari-ing and never once got tired of it. In fact, I’m ready to go again.
6. Seeing the Surreal Landscapes of Namibia
Namibia might not have many inhabitants but they sure do have impressive landscapes. At Fish River Canyon, in the Quiver Tree Forest, atop the red dunes of Sossusvlei, in the forests of Naukluft, or along the Caprivi Strip, we were pretty much constantly snapping photos.
7. Meeting the Lovely People of Likoma Island
Until we ended up there, Likoma Island was never even on our radar. Malawi was supposed to be more of a pitstop on our way up east Africa, but it turned into one of our favorite spots. There’s not a lot to do on Likoma Island besides lounge on the beach and enjoy the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, but the people are among the most friendly, welcoming, and fun loving that we met on our journey. I think we wore a constant smile the entire week we were there.
8. Trekking with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a misnomer as trekking through the dense forest is not easy, but every step is worth it for the opportunity to spend one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas. These magnificent creatures left us all awestruck. They are impressive in size, in expressiveness, in the way they reflect so much of us and we of them. Another pricey experience, but again worth every penny. Plus we had the good fortune to get to share the experience with Jeff’s parents and sister.
9. Learning to Scuba Dive
Experienced scuba divers claim that once you start, you can’t stop, and they know what they’re talking about. We’re already addicted and can’t stop thinking about when and where we can next dive. Take any of the underwater shows you’ve ever seen and multiply the magic quotient by 100. It’s that good.
10. Exploring Rajasthan
India was tough, but we did greatly enjoy our foray into Rajasthan. The forts, palaces, and heritage hotels preserved fantastic architecture and the feeling of glory days now gone. Though hassle was still present, it was low in comparison to other parts of the country, and we met some very friendly and interesting locals. This seemed to be the India of lore.
Having revealed all that Machu Picchu had in store for us and with us taking a small break to recover from the adventurous life (a few days in Lima followed by a few days now in the beachfront town of Huanchaca), let us now fill in our time just before Christmas, in San Pedro de Atacama. Let’s be clear about this — San Pedro is a tourist town. Big time. Pricey, hassly and full of gringos. But the scenery, oh the scenery, it definitely makes it worth it. It’s a high altitude desert boasting among other attractions geysers and incredible wind carved salt dunes. And it’s not really that bad of a place. But with all that in mind, we’re going to spare you lots of words about the area and just show you a bunch of pretty pictures. Because it sure is beautiful.
We’ve added a new page to our Country Summaries; check it out for a review of our time in Chile. Because we have hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands) of photos of Chile to sort through, we haven’t yet uploaded them but will (hopefully) soon. We’ll let you know when they’re up. We also don’t have the budget page up yet, but we’re planning to do some serious arithmetic on our upcoming bus ride to Lima and will post that info as soon as possible.
As for what we’re up to now. We’re leaving the Chilean border and beach town of Arica tomorrow morning to cross into Peru and then hop an 18 hour bus up to the capital city of Lima, where we will meet my brother Gregory on the 28th. Then it’s adventures in Nazca, Cusco, and who knows where else. Stay tuned.
It came without brisket, it came without tags
It came without 19 types of cookies, without a tree, wrapped boxes and bags
But somehow it came, it came just the same.
Okay, I lie. It didn’t come just the same. I didn’t get my annual family viewing of the animated version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I didn’t get a bedhead family photo on the stairs Christmas morning. I didn’t get the loud exclamations from my brothers over every gift they get as though they are 5 years old and not 20, 23, and 26. I didn’t get my Christmas Eve dinner of brisket, mashed potatoes, green beans, and chocolate pie. I didn’t get to hear the same Dowell family stories that I’ve heard pretty much every year of my life on Christmas Eve. I didn’t get the au gratin potatoes, jelly jokes, and all-family photos at the Zimmerman Christmas day gathering. I didn’t get to indulge in every type of homemade cookie known to man or participate in impromptu family sing-alongs to Christmas songs.
So yes, Christmas came, but it didn’t come at all the same. But we did our best with what we had. We tucked away the little green foam Christmas trees that came with one of our bus boxed lunches. We bought a tiny nativity scene that depicts the Holy Family as indigenous Andean people. And we browsed the markets until we found red woolen socks that would serve as stockings. Then we got a nice room in a nice hotel (comfortable bed! TV! wifi! jacuzzi tub!) and decorated our desk. And guess what? Santa found us even though we’re tucked away in a nowhere town in northern Chile.
What did he bring us you ask? Well, we got a bag of delicious Rainier cherries, a mini lemon pie, a brownie, cookies and a candy bar, cupcakes that look like Hostess cupcakes but are called Penguinos (penguins), a pair of earrings (for me, not Jeff), and penguin and llama finger puppets. Jealous, yes?
I understand. Because hey, I’m jealous too. Though we made the best of the holiday, I think we both agree that Christmas without family just isn’t the same. Whoever it was that said there’s no place like home for the holidays, well (s)he knew what (s)he was talking about. Next year, I can tell you that no matter where life leads us post-RTW trip, we’ll be home for Christmas…and not just in our dreams.
Merry Christmas, everyone, wherever you are.
In our daily lives, we all have certain circles we run in. We shop at the same grocery store, attend the same church, have a drink at the same bar, get dinner at the same restaurant, grab coffee at the same cafe. And in the process, we see familiar faces. We come to have a favorite bartender or waitress; we share small talk with the girl who pours our coffee; we ask the grocery store clerk about her day. Rarely do these people turn into much more than acquaintances, but when they are no longer there, we miss their presence. They have a role in our lives.
When you travel, moving from one place to another in a matter of days, rarely if ever returning to the same place, you lose your circle. You don’t have your favorites, the old stand-bys. But actually it’s not completely true that you lose your circle, because lately we’ve learned that thought they might not be showing up in the same place, we will often see the same faces.
In Nicaragua, we didn’t do repeats. We’d meet someone in some town, and then never see them again. Not by design, but because that’s just the way it worked. In Chile and now Argentina however that’s the case. We’re on a certain route that a certain type of traveler (the outdoorsy-type I’d say) likes, and we therefore find ourselves repeatedly running into the same people. For instance, we first met Wesley (an electrician from Britain) while cooking dinner in a cramped hostel kitchen in Puerto Varas. A few days later, we walk into our hostel in Chiloe to see him sitting in the common area. About a week later, we’re ascending Valle Frances in Torres del Paine, and who do we see sitting on a log beside a creek but Wesley. We’d pass him multiple times during the rest of the hike. And then, finally, just two days ago while we were eating our lunch at a park in El Calafate, Wesley walks by on his way to an ATM. Each time, we stop and chat, exchange stories about where we’d been in the time between spottings, and then head off with a see you later, since goodbye seems a bit premature.
The same thing has happened with others. Oh, look, there’s the lady from Torres del Paine who did the uphills so slowly it seemed she wasn’t moving. Oh, hey, it’s Nienke and Tijmen, the couple from the Netherlands who we met in Chiloe, I guess they’re done surfing. And on and on. Though I guess some people could find this irritating (and it probably would be if we didn’t like the people we keep running into), I find it a bit nice. Humans are creatures of routine and habit, and when your world changes every day, it can be awfully nice to see a familiar face…even if it’s just for a few minutes, before you again move on, maybe in ultimately the same direction and maybe not.
Wow. We’ll go into more detail about Torres del Paine, but that’s the important point: Wow. You know how a picture says a thousand words? This post is going to be a little brief on the words and long on the pictures (edit: wow, was I ever wrong about this … it’s long on both, beware). Because that’s the only possible way to do Torres del Paine justice. If you’re going soon and want to savor the experience yourself, you may want to turn away (coming soon … the things you need to know about TdP that you can’t find out till you get there).
The classic trek through TdP is called ‘The W’. It’s called this because with ~80 kilometers of footsteps, you trace a W into the dirt trail. There are three ways to access this W, via road, via catamaran, and via 17 km trek. We, naturally, chose the arduous way in. We did so because, well, we’re crazy and thought 80 km wasn’t enough, and it gave us the grand perspective of the park as you enter. We were stopping every 10 minutes to take pictures as the cloud cover was constantly revealing and hiding peaks.
We arrived that evening at our first refugio, which, thanks to Theresa, we had booked far enough in advance to ensure a bed. It’s something quite lovely to hike all day, get sweaty, dirty, grimy and smelly, then step into a nice lodge in the evening, have a hot shower, a hot meal, and a Thanksgiving Cerveza Austral Calafate Ale.
The next morning we started up the left arm of the W, toward glacier Grey, into a cold, fierce wind and occasional outbursts of stinging rain. The rain quickly faded but the wind kept at us all day. We persisted, eventually breaking through to a beautiful long distance overlook, and then, two hours later, the arrival at the glacier.
After marveling at the glacier as long as our cold bodies could stand, we huddled into refugio Grey for a tea and hot chocolate by the fire. It was right about then that I became completely sold on refugios. So what if they cost 2-3 times what they do in the city — they do it smack dab in the middle of nowhere, and always just when you need them most. Re-energized, we decided to head to the next campground for a closer look at the glacier. We got our closer look, but through a most unofficial means: we lost the trail pretty quickly and ended up scrambling over boulders and loose rock, eventually reaching a lookout almost directly above the face of the glacier itself. I’m not sure how we did it (or exactly how we got back), but we lost the trail we were assured was impossible to lose. After our adventure, we returned down the same path back to our same refugio for a second night.
Our third day found us ascending into the middle of the W, Valle Frances. In retrospect, this was the highlight of our trip, and also our hardest day. We started with an easy two hour stroll over to Campamento Italiano, where we ditched our packs (since we’d be returning the same way later) and headed up the valley. As we slowly ascended, we got better and better views of a giant glacier field to our left and the Cuernos, three peaks, to our right.
When we first heard a thunderous noise, in D.C. hiking mode, we began to worry about an impending storm, only to look across the valley and see an avalanche streaking down the glacier field. The sight was incredible and the noise defeaning. It kept happening the entire hike, as the afternoon sun wreaked havoc, and we never tired of it.
We reached the valley’s “mirador” – lookout, and found ourselves surrounded by majestic peaks and gorgeous views, then turned around and descended, all the way listening to the music of the glaciers. We retrieved our packs at Campamento Italiano and began our trek to Refugio Los Cuernos, a further two hours walk. About then, a light but steady rain began to fall, soaking the trail and making the already difficult terrain slippery. The conditions, our heavy packs, and the steady procession of peaks and valleys made this section the toughest terrain for us. we fell into the refugio and again, were thankful for a shower and a warm bed to look out at the rain from.
But we really had very good luck with the weather, as we awoke to sunny skies and perfect weather. What some say is the hardest section of hiking we found rather agreeable (though I think the weather had much to do with that – its known for being very windy), as we hiked slowly, then rapidly, gaining altitude through open fields beneath more avalanching glaciers to Refugio Chileno. Arriving early in the afternoon after only five hours of hiking, we decided that given the beautiful weather and the swiftness with which it can change, we’d better hustle up to the park’s namesake – Las Torres – that afternoon. We strolled for an hour through a beautiful forest, then began a mad scramble directly up a boulder field, eventually reaching the “end of the trail” beneath Torre Norte, Torre Central and Torre Sur, the iconic towers of Patagonia.
While we had originally planned to do the typical thing and hike up the next morning for sunrise, to watch the towers “turn red,” we could see some of them from refugio Chileno and I did wake up for sunrise, snapped a few photos and fell back into bed.
We did the hour hike out the next morning, finishing our ~100 kilometers (~60 miles) in four days + 1 hour, and celebrated with an ice cream in the spring sunshine.
So if you’ve made it this far, the only summary I can offer is what I began with: Wow. I hope all the rest of these words have managed to convey some sense of that to you.
For the prevalance of wi-fi and the existence of Skype
For overnight laundry service
For banks that refund ATM fees
For hostels that provide free breakfast
For frequent flyer miles
For bus rides that are shorter than advertised
For take-your-breath-away natural beauty
For much improved exchange rates
For the friendliness of strangers
For stomachs of steel (knock on wood)
For a new U.S. president that makes us so very proud to be American
For the opportunity to travel the world for a year
For family and friends who support even our wildest dreams
We hope that each of you has as many things to be thankful for as we do. We’re off today for five days of hiking in Torres del Paine, so don’t expect to hear from us again until next Tuesday at the earliest, but know that we’ll be thinking of you and being thankful for your presence in our lives. Happy Thanksgiving!