Peru

the first stop on a journey around the world

It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m sitting at a cafe overlooking the main historic square of Cusco, Peru. It feels remarkably quiet compared to the past few weeks, as all the clients I’d been guiding across the Andes, the Sacred Valley, the Amazon, have all gone back to the United States this morning. This leaves me here, with a strong espresso and a bar of cacao I picked up on my way out of the Amazon this morning, nestling into the warm sun and welcome quiet like an exhausted trekker nestles into their sleeping bag at the end of an especially exerting day. I’m comfortable and aching with a special kind of tired, there’s a slight breeze rolling down the golden hills beyond Cusco’s cathedral, so now’s as good a time as any to write.

I first went to Peru when I was barely out of high school. I somehow mustered the gumption to give a go at a mountaineering-based expedition that snaked along the glacier-cracked spine of the Andes for four months, and even though I was extremely unsure of myself and that decision, my time in South America ended up being a cornerstone for my passion towards mountaineering and the unusually glorifying sensation of spending months at a time carrying everything I needed in a beaten-up backpack on my sunburned – sometimes frostbitten – shoulders. I was so captivated by the blue balconies of Cusco, the cobblestone streets and Incan flute music of the Sacred Valley, the cascading glaciers tumbling down to the Andean highlands with their emerald green lakes, that for years after my first visit to Peru, I always revered it as one of the most enchanting places I’d ever been.

And so, last year when I was offered to lead a photography expedition in Peru — with the freedom to build my own itinerary based on what I think must be done in Peru in two weeks’ time — I took the chance, curious how it would unfold.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to expect in the weeks before returning to Peru. My first visit, while captivating, was tainted with extraneous circumstances that made that experience particularly challenging, and while I was excited, I wasn’t sure how especially different or unique this time around would be.

En yet, from the moment my plane touched down in Cusco almost three weeks ago now, an enormous sensation of deja vu washed over me. Even walking through the twisted alleys of the ancient city I was overwhelmed with familiarity; the ability to recognize landmarks and street corners and benches that were tied with memories; I was caught in the rain there; I tried my first cuy here; I spent hours there waiting for the sunset. Instantly, I was taken aback by the way in which Peru flooded my heart, it somehow feeling more comforting and familiar than it was when I had spent months there prior. Trying to figure out why this time was different, I realized it’s because this time, I was free to make Peru mine, to do everything I felt I’d immensely missed out on last time I’d been there.

So I did, and Peru opened up in front of us.

From the moment my clients arrived to the moment that I type this, Peru presented its beauty in a way I’d never seen it before. We followed the music and parades across the cobblestone squares of Cusco, photographing the festivals and markets with their rich colors of reds tapestries, vibrant fruits, smoky golden lights. We saw Machu Picchu, and were actually the first of thousands of people to see the ancient kingdom emerge as the clouds cleared at sunrise, and to be honest, it was indescribably more spectacular than what I had remembered (maybe it was the deep navy blues and the streams of light beaming on the tumbling ruins, or maybe it was just the people I was with). We rode trains alongside rivers swollen with rapids, we ate warm chocolate in the shadows of cathedrals, we rode horseback to high vistas overlooking deep, terraced valleys. We traveled across the nation to the Amazon, where we swung on hammocks beneath tangled canopies, fell asleep to the sounds of rain on thatched roofs and monkeys screeching from just outside our bungalow windows, ate fresh fruit picked from the trees in the backyard after learning about medicinal plants from an Amazonian shaman, or watching caymans and birds in the river as the sun — swollen and deeply red — sunk below the horizon.

En yet, the most powerful and most significant moment of my time in Peru — and perhaps of all the time I've ever spent in South America — unfolded in a small village at about 15,000 ft, nestled at the base of the Ausangate Mountain in the high Andes. We drove, then trekked, for hours to this remote corner of the mountains, placed thousands of feet above the tree line where the oxygen was so thin that it was impossible to walk a few meters at an incline without a severe burning sensation emerging underneath your ribs. We were welcomed into the home of a local family who fed us soups heavy with potatoes and quinoa, plates upon plates of rice and cups of steaming hot mate de coca in their dining room, thick with the smell of woodsmoke and blustery mountain air blowing in through the cracked windows. As evening settled, we watched the grandiosely massive peaks have their glaciers illuminate in mauve sunset light, then eventually braved the sub-zero temperatures to dive into hot springs of natural thermal waters, steaming and bubbling and enveloping us in glorious warmth as the rest of the world froze and the sky above us shifted into an impossibly clear display of the Milky Way. In the springs that night, alone with those people, under those stars in the Andes, is a moment I know in my heart of hearts that I will never lose or forget for as long as I live.

The rest of our time in Andes was spent climbing higher and higher into the peaks, traversing lakes of green and turquoise, sparkling in that gloriously high sun, reflecting glaciers and herds of curious alpaca. Rambling creeks and crumbling stone walls suggesting past villages, and of course, the best possible lunches (guacamole made then-and-there, eaten on fresh bread we picked up from a bakery down in the valley).

Usually when I’m about to leave a place, I’m ready to go. I can be nostalgic about it, of course, but typically, I’m ready to move on. But landing back into Cusco today from the Amazon, my knees bruised from miles trekked, my bag dusty, and my nose freckled from weeks under the high sun, there is genuinely nothing more I want in my heart than to keep going into the mountains, to be on those glaciers again.

But it’s time to move on. Just a few more days to soak in all that is Peru, all that Peru is, and the onto the next stop on this round-the-world journey; Morocco.

Entonces, hasta la próxima vez.

Cuídate.

San Francisco Highlights & Master Post

Two weeks from Monday, I leave for a four month round-the-world trip, and in the middle of panicking about finishing up 100 work projects while simultaneously preparing for my departure, you know what happens?

Well, let's just say an emergency surgery and lots of bed rest happens. Naturally.

However, on the plus side, all this down-time has given me lots of time for self reflection; such as, wow, I haven't posted on my blog in awhile. And so, in my half-delirium this morning, I decided to finally put together a post that a lot of you have asked for: San Francisco.

After living here for 2.5 years and the finish line sorta-kinda appearing in sight, I figure now's as good a time as any to talk about my personal favorite highlights and must do's/eat's/stay's/hikes in San Francisco. Consider it an homage to this gem in Northern California. Consider it a comprehensive list of places you're most likely to find me on any given afternoon.

& Enjoy.

Here's my San Francisco.

Fort Funston, San Francisco.

Fort Funston, San Francisco.

Favorite Eats:

  • Ferry Building farmers’ market (saturdays, 8 am - 2 pm): get the best donuts of your life at Pepple’s Donut stand, sample hundreds of different baked goods and hummuses and fresh jams, not to mention tons of food stalls both inside the ferry building & all around outside. Go hungry and ignore your bank account.
  • The Slanted Door: top-notch Vietnamese food right on the water with spectacular bay views, with a very upscale vibe that feels like it belongs more in New York or London.
  • Sourdough from Boudin: listen, I know it’s touristy, but if you don’t have sourdough while in SF, you’re sincerely missing out
  • Gracias Madre and Puerto Alegre: two of the best Mexican spots in the city, bar none
  • The Plant Cafe: lots of locations throughout the city but the best is on the Embarcadero. Sit outside on a warm weekend morning for brunch.
  • Hakkasan: upscale cantonese spot in the financial district (I’ve been to their London location, it’s top notch).
  • Tony’s Pizza Napoletana: in Little Italy; won best margarita pizza in the world several years in a row at a competition held annually in Tuscany
  • Delfina: fabulous Italian food with great wine selection, out of the way of annoying tourist areas
  • Holy Gelato and Smitten: the best ice creams in the city (holy gelato happens to have 20 vegan flavors by the way, though Smitten has a few vegan options, but it has a crazy line most days- for good reason tho)
  • Millennium: okay this one’s in Oakland but is my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area, so if you’re keen to try some of the best vegan food in the country (literally, as ranked by the New York Times) then it’s worth the 15 mins on BART; also the neighborhood it’s in is lovely
  • Crepevine: cheap, hearty brunch with heavy-handed mimosas
  • Louis’ Restaurant: an SF institution that’s 100% more sentimental to me than it is good; it’s your typical diner fare but has sweeping 360 degree views of the ocean and Sutro Baths (so stop here for lunch or breakfast if you’re in the area). Really nice on chilly, gray days when you’re in the mood to look pensively over the ocean with a cup of coffee.
  • Underdog: if you’re strolling through Golden Gate Park and have a hankering for something cheap, fast, delicious, and portable, get a giant organic hot dog with all the best fixins (including several vegan dogs and vegan potato salad / mac & cheese)
  • Lime Tree: literal hole-in-the-wall in the Inner Sunset that serves the best Indonesian food I’ve ever had in my life. You’re paying nickels and the owners are remarkably friendly; truly feels like you’re in Southeast Asia. Get the curried noodles and then go to heaven
  • Aziza: high end michelin-star Moroccan food
  • Shizen: hands down the BEST sushi I’ve ever had in my life. absolutely phenomenal, and I don’t say that lightly. indulge here then stroll to Cream across the street for a mint chocolate chip ice cream sandwich between two fudgy warm cookies for dessert.

Favorite Coffee Shops:

  • Cafe St Jorge: definitely not the most accessible place if you’re not in the neighborhood, but absolutely worth the time to get there. dozens of the best cookies/muffins/cakes/breads you’ll have in the city, and the coffee is wonderful, the atmosphere is beautiful and lovely, and the entire place is unpretentious which is super refreshing in SF. A good homework/writing/reading spot to buckle down in for a few hours.
  • Four Barrel: a classic, but a must; there’s a reason why we’re famous for our coffee. however, I say skip the pour-over and get their almond milk latte instead. out of this world
  • Blue Bottle: because you’re in SF, and people will literally get mad at you if you don’t try Blue Bottle coffee.
  • Samovar: okay, this is a tea lounge, but is so wonderful & chill & and the tea selections are out of this world. awesome for a rainy afternoon; they have snacks and small plates, too.
  • Java Beach Cafeif you’re a student or a work-from-anywhere type, bring your books here and tuck in with a hummus bagel and organic dark french roast, then stroll to the ocean 10 yards from the outdoor patio
  • Black Point Cafe: charming spot next to Ghirardelli square, so a good spot to pause and recharge when you’re on your tourist route near fishermans’ wharf. their lavender latte is especially delicious.

Favorite Bars:

  • Press Club: extremely attractive & classy wine bar downtown, absolutely perfect for when you’re in the mood to get a bit dressed up and be transported to midtown Manhattan or central London. Lengthy and interesting wine selections with a knowledgable staff, and prices aren’t outrageous considering the dress and location. 
  • The Barrel Room: also downtown, much smaller wine bar with just as many great wines; great for if Press Club has an insane wait. Good for when you just want to hunker down with a book or have a conversation where, you know, you can hear the other person.
  • Wayfare Tavern: fabulous cocktails, exposed log beams, and a roaring fireplace; feels like you’re in a cozy, classy, antique lounge in Edinburgh.
  • Beach Chalet: a hidden gem for sure, only really known to surfers and locals who live in the neighborhood. It’s a restaurant right across the ocean and on the corner of Golden Gate Park; have a house-made brew in the back garden/patio then dinner upstairs overlooking the Pacific, then walk across the street to the beach to catch the sunset. Don’t forget to check out the tulip gardens and old windmill!
  • Local Edition: ignore its weird eclectic design and focus on the drinks; some of the best cocktails in SF
  • Biergarten: for warm lazy weekday evenings (you’ll never find a seat on a weekend evening, be forewarned); totally outdoors and German-styled, where you sit elbow-to-elbow with your neighbors at picnic tables under hanging lights.
  • 21st Amendment: local brewery, a bit of a sports bar vibe but their beer is some of the best in the city (get their “hell or high watermelon” and thank me later)
  • Top of the Mark: get there early to grab a seat by the window to watch the sunset from one of the highest points in SF. Drinks are overpriced but, for that view, you pay for what you get…
  • Techo de Lolinda: one of the few rooftop bars in SF, with fireplaces and heat lamps and strung up lights. Expect long waits on weekends but worth it on a warm evening.
  • Hopwater Distribution: a classic charming spot for the beer lover, with plenty of room and over 30 beers on top (with 200+ bottles to choose from if you want to be that guy)

Favorite Ways to Spend an SF Day:

  • Embarcadero walk: eat your heart out at the Ferry Building (try to see the farmers market if you’re there on a saturday), then walk along sunny Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, stopping to visit the sea lions and getting sourdough at Boudin; lay in the grass in Ghirardelli Square, then continue walking towards the Presidio to catch the sunset and epic views of the Golden Gate from the high-end shops of the Marina and Crissy Field (this entire walk is just gorgeous)
  • Museums: the deYoung is a mustLegion of Honor will take your breath away, and now the SFMoMa!
  • Golden Gate Park: stroll through the botanical gardens, the conservancy of the flowers, the Academy of the Sciences, the Japanese tea garden, walk through wildflower-lined paths surrounded by redwoods and eucalyptus groves that lead to quiet meadows and ponds, and rent a boat to paddle around Stow Lake on a warm afternoon. Oh, and don’t miss the 3-day-long free concert Hardly Strictly Bluegrass if you’re here in October.
  • Presidio, Palace of Fine Arts, and Baker Beach: The Presidio is great day hike to explore all the winding paths and parks that lead to hidden vistas of the sweeping skyline; end with a late afternoon gaze up at the high Roman domes and statues at the Palace of Fine Arts, and catch the sunset against the Golden Gate at Baker Beach.
  • North Beach and China Town: for the finest Italian food, espressos, and City Lights Bookstore, then remarkably cheap and divine dumplings under the hanging street lamps of eclectic China Town.
  • Lands End: a park literally at the edge of the world. quiet and stunning and hovering in the trees above Sutro Baths. You can also fairly easily reach the Legion of Honor from here too, so consider doing this all in one loop.
  • Explore the oddities and curio shops in the Mission and Hayes valley (a little too hipster for me – actually uncomfortably hipster – but a must-do if you’re in town). The thrift stores, street art, vegan eateries, and artisan chocolate shops feels a little like a mini-Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This area also comes alive at night with its rooftop bars (such as Techo de Lolinda) and iconic Dolores Park which sometimes shows outdoor movies.
  • Have a bonfire on Ocean Beach, and do your best to spot dolphins and whales from where you lay in the sand.

Favorite Day Trips & Weekend Trips (from shortest to longest)

  • Marin County and Redwood Forest: if you have the ability to rent a car (or are willing to brave the tourist buses that pick up/drop off in downtown SF so you don’t have to worry about parking), go to the Muir Woods to see one of the most gloriously beautiful redwood forests on the planet (just go super early!). Then pause at Muir Beach to dip your toes in the water, and if you want, keep on driving along Highway 1 to Stinson Beach and/or Bolinas for dinner and epic SF views (charming little surf beach towns that feel like they’re a million miles away). If you want to make this a weekend trip, spend a couple nights camping and backpacking at nearby Point Reyes.
  • Tiburon & Angel Island: take the ferry from either Tiburon or San Francisco to Angel Island to hike to the summit of the island (around 2-3 hours) for absolutely stunning views of the ENTIRE bay area; you’ll hike through fields of wildflowers, eucalyptus groves, and be treated with remarkably few other people as lots of folks don’t realize this is even a thing.
  • Pacifica, Pescadero, Half Moon Bay: Easily a day trip (or even half-day trip) if you have a rental car, these three towns are adorable beyond words. Pacifica is a mere 10 minute drive down the coast, then Half Moon Bay is about 10-15 minutes from there, then Pescadero is just another thirty minutes south. You’ll pass quaint lighthouses surrounded by fields of wildflowers and berries, rolling mountains tangled in vineyards and forests and farm pastures, steep, jagged cliffs cascading into the ocean. Go antique shopping in the sleepy towns, and if you’re around in the summer, go berry picking at Swanton Berry Farm near Pescadero, and have a picnic lunch on a hike or at the Half Moon Bay Brewery, with sweeping views of the ocean and hills. Just be back in Pacifica in time for dinner at Moonraker, where the floor-to-ceiling windows fall sheerly into the ocean, the farm-to-table food captivates you, and the sunsets will take your breath away. Live your California-road-trip-down-the-coast dreams.
  • PetalumaPetaluma is a great day trip just for the sake of awesome antiquing in downtown Petaluma and getting the beer sampler at Lagunitas Brewery. A nice way to see the Napa-area without going to the overwhelming tourist hole that is Napa itself.
  • Mendocino: a weekend trip for sure, but a lovely getaway drive up the PCH to a stunning oceanside town where I stayed at the best bed & breakfast of my life (Stanford Inn by the Sea). Kayak and bike your heart out.
  • Lake Tahoe: okay, this one you have to get to with your own car or rental, but, it’s merely 2.5 hours away, and do not miss it if you can.
  • Big Sur: a weekend getaway, roughly 3 hours, just bring your own tent if you don’t want to pay for expensive AirBnB’s and hostels.
  • Yosemite: easily reachable by car (3 hours) or by tourist bus that’ll pick you up downtown. No excuse. You’ve gotta go. (If you’re camping though, make reservations ahead of time).
Mori Point, Pacifica

Mori Point, Pacifica

Best Time to Go:

San Francisco’s summer truly peaks in late September / early October; it’s when the temps are at their balmiest (which is still just a mere 70-80*F) and when the fog is most tame. But you really can’t go wrong; the wildflowers are at their peak bloom in March and April, and the mountains & hills at their greenest in February and March (which also tends to mean the most rain). The weather shifts dramatically though so there’s no real telling how the temps will be; just pick a month and know it was luck of the draw.

Best Place to Stay:

I may be a bit spoiled by New York City standards, but San Francisco has notoriously the worst public transport system of any city developed to this high of caliber (I mean, come on, it shouldn’t take 50 minutes to travel 4 miles via bus). So I recommend staying somewhere relatively central/downtown, such as:

or, stay with me. Or, AirBNB-it. This is the AirBNB capital, after all.

Enjoy SF! Eat a lot, complain about housing prices, spend every evening catching a sunset, and you'll fit right in.

Iceland, the Land of Fire & Ice

My family has an ongoing joke that it isn't a Tate-summer if I haven't found myself somewhere in the world where I can throw a snowball in the middle of August.

I've always been more inclined for colder regions - humidity makes me lethargic and grumpy but cold gives me adrenaline - so one year, I was surprised when it dawned on me that I hadn't yet been to a place that's famous for its glaciers, its snow fields, its timeless sensation of long, dark winters and bright summers illuminated by a hovering midnight sun.

I decided to go to Iceland.

I never had any doubt that I wouldn't fall in love with Iceland. The year that I traveled there - 2012 - was right before the internet's craze and obsession over this small island nation really came to fruition. Now it seems that just about every photographer, filmmaker, Instagram-famous travel-blogger and their mom have all been to Iceland, so if you've spent any time perusing any travel social media, the hype for this remote country is undeniable. I'm usually wary of traveling to countries, cities, or regions that are super-duper amped up for being tourist destinations (such as Santorini or Paris, both of which I've had my qualms) because I've found that they're usually saturated with foreigners and tourists, tourbuses and cruise ships. While there's nothing inherently wrong about going to tourist-popular destinations (because hey, they're usually popular for a reason, and I know I am a foreigner too), it gets exhausting when each vista, trail, cafe, and hostel is overcrowded with people elbow-bumping each other to get to the view that seemed so perfectly remote and untouched in all of those Instagram posts.

Iceland, however, is different. The glorious exception to the rule.

With only 300,000 residents in its 40,000 square miles, Iceland is the least inhabited country in Europe, with 80% of the country uninhabitable due to its fjords, glaciers, mountain ranges, lava fields, geysers, and volcanoes (x). En yet, I was still shocked at how alone I felt, and how easy it was to become completely lost with only a few turns off the main road. Most famously, there is the Ring Road, which is the highway that circles the entirety of the island's coast, but most visitors stick to the little Golden Circle; a popular 300km tourist route in the south that makes for a convenient loop from Reykjavik in order to see some of Iceland's southern highlights. Tour buses leave daily from Reykjavik for this route, however if you have more than a few days in Iceland, I recommend renting a car in order to take your time when visiting the sights of the Golden Circle (you'll also have the luxury of being able to see locations during off-hours when they're not flogged with crowds).

But whether you have a week, two weeks, or a month or more in Iceland, I put together some of my favorite highlights.

If you're going to do Iceland, you have to do it right.

Highlights & Must Do's

  1. Spend a full day (or two, depending on your time) exploring Reykjavik, Iceland's charming and compact capital city. Almost everything is in walking distance here, so spend an afternoon strolling the winding streets that snake down to the harbor where you can catch a whale-watching ferry or have lunch at any of the tiny cafes where chic islanders sip their espressos next to burly men who just docked on their fishing vessels. Have a hot chocolate at the colorful Cafe Babalú and watch the dusky evening settle from one of Reykjavik's highest points at the Hallgrímskirkja church. And of course, you have to spend half a day at the Blue Lagoon hot springs; natural thermal hot springs warmed by Iceland's enormous underground volcanic activity (45 minutes outside of Reykjavik).

2.   Rent a car from Reykjavik and spend a day at Snæfellsjökull National Park on the Snæfellnes peninsula. Make your way from the city (approx. 3 hours) to Hellnar, an ancient fishing village perched on rocky cliffs and the southern entrance to the park. As you drive through, you'll pass trails and vistas and careening glaciers, and can end with a steaming bowl of traditional stew in one of the moss-covered cafes in picturesque Hellissandur (the village at the park's northern entrance). Side note, if you want to spend more time up here or just don't want to drive the 3 hours back to Reykjavik all in one day, there are small places for accommodation in Hellissandur.

3.   Iceland is famous for its waterfalls, and for good reason; with over 10,000 falls in the small country, some of the most powerful and spectacular spots are just a day's drive away from Reykjavik. Be sure to see Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Skógafoss, and if you're inclined to turn these three waterfall visits into a couple days of exploration near Reykjavik, consider stopping to see the famous Geysers explode in a valley pinpricked with neon thermal pools, and visit Thingvellir National Park for a quick hike or a picnic; or for the more adventurous, you can go diving or snorkeling in a trench where the North American and European continents divide.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

4.   Spend at least three days in Vatnajökull National Park in Eastern Iceland, which holds sprawling meadows and mountains making for epic climbing, as well as the Vatnajökull Glacier, the second largest glacier in Europe. Stay in the campsite in the meadow valley at the foot of the national park and lay in your tent listening to the glacier as it comes to life, creaking and groaning as the volcano it's nestled on top of makes the ice crack and shift, sending eery echoes down into the valley. The hikes around Vatnajökull range from lovely meadow walks among the wildflowers to intense backpacking trips, as well as offering a host of ice climbing tours, from easy glacier walks to an attempt to summit the highest peak in Iceland.

Note: nearby to the national park is the iconic glacial lagoon, Jökulsárlón, where icebergs that have broken off from the glacier float in a frigid lagoon, nestled in an amphitheater of peaks, glaciers, and volcanic black sand beaches.

Picnic on a hike in Vatnajökull National Park

Picnic on a hike in Vatnajökull National Park

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

On the way to our ice climbing spot on the Vatnajökull glacier

On the way to our ice climbing spot on the Vatnajökull glacier

5.   Often missed on most tourists' itineraries is Landmannalaugar. This mountain region hidden deep in the center of Iceland is perhaps one of the most brilliantly unique natural landscapes that I've seen in all of Europe. Multi-colored mountains painted in rich ribbons of pink, purple, burgundy, turquoise sands, sloping against a backdrop of neon green volcanic hills. There's a campsite in the Landmannalaugar valley that's the perfect jumping-off point for day-hikes or extended treks through the backcountry.

To hit all of those sights I just listed, you could do it in minimum 10 days or extend it all the way into an epic month or more. Take your time and pause in the villages perched on the cliffs, talk to locals about their history and their story, visit a viking museum or two, sink your feet into the hidden black sand beaches, have a frisbee game at midnight (thanks, midnight sun!), follow trails of wild horses and streams of bubbling thermal waters, be captivated by the farmhouses covered in vines, the herds of sheep grazing beneath magnificent waterfalls, the steam from a volcano rising from just over the next horizon.

I promise you.

It's worth the hype.

Top Highlights of South Africa

1. Go on safari in Kruger National Park. There are a number of safaris geared for budget travelers where travelers on any budget can find some tour geared towards their needs. While Kruger may be more built-up with dazzling campsites and resorts than other safari parks on the continent it's for good reason; the amount of wildlife in the area raises your chances of seeing the Big 5 (lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, and rhino), as well as other animals that are even harder to spot (such as cheetah, hyenas, or African wild dogs). I always recommend at least two full days on safari, but even on a time-constrained trip, a simple day in Kruger gives you a good chance to see some extraordinary animals.

2. Go backpacking, hiking, and rock climbing in the Drakensberg Mountains in the North and the Fynbos on the Western Cape. The Drakensberg ("Dragon Mountains" in Afrikaans) are famous for their glorious peaks, thick pine forests, trails that snake along riversides, and of course, world-class rock climbing. Down in the Fynbos, you'll be mesmerized by the flora that's unique to only that region of the world, with nearly 6,500 plant species here being endemic (not found anywhere else except for this small corner of South Africa). Known for its exceptional beauty and rolling hills painted with wildflowers, it's a backpacker's heaven.

3. Go surfing along the coast. Jeffreys Bay is the most popular spot for surfing, as it hosts some of the world's most renowned surfing competitions, but it’s pretty packed with tourists and noise; often times in JBay I felt like I was walking through downtown Jersey Shore. However, just up the coast to the East from JBay is the hidden gem Tshani, where there is a small backpackers hostel/campsite called Mdumbi. Mdumbi is serene, isolated, really breathtakingly beautiful, and probably my favorite spot in all of South Africa. It's a homey spot to pitch a tent, have a braai, and go surfing without bumping elbows with partiers, tourists, and a thousand other surfers competing for the same wave. Also, Mdumbi often has massive campfires on the beach, which hey, that's pretty fun. (PS- I accidentally lost my glasses in a fire there once, so if you happen to find a blue pair of glasses in the sands, you may just be my hero).

4. Visit Cape Town. Marvel at how colorful it is, how friendly and proud the locals are, how big the music and food scene is (especially along Long Street, which has so many artisanal coffee roasters and thrift shops you’ll think you’re in San Francisco). Enjoy the sidewalk cafes on the harbor, the sweeping view from the summit of Table Mountain, and the lively nightlife.

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5. Road trip along the Garden Route and Western Cape. You’ll feel like you’re driving along California’s Big Sur as you snake along roads that hug the dropping cliffs that form the Cape, leading to hidden beaches, rolling vineyard, and charming wine towns adorned with stone churches, pastel-painted houses, and cobblestone lanes. (And if you’re more of an adrenaline junky, here's your chance to go cage diving with great white sharks in Mossel Bay.)

6. Kayak (or raft) down the Orange River as it snakes along the Namibian Border. Of course it’s a haul to get up there, but you’ll feel like you’re in another world as you drop into orange canyons, topaz rapids, and camp underneath the stars in an amphitheater of red desert walls. It’s spectacular. It’s uncomfortable. It’s weird. It’s like Mars. It’s isolated. It’s something else.

To Climb the Highest Mountain in Africa

Mount Kilimanjaro.

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The highest mountain on the African continent, and one of the world's Seven Summits.

With its peak residing at a soaring altitude of 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro has beckoned thousands of trekkers to attempt to reach its summit, surrounded by a amphitheaters of glacier, monstrous rock, and oceans of clouds thousands of feet below where the summit looms. 

Routes

The climb up Kilimanjaro can take anywhere between five to nine days, depending on the route you choose to take. Deciding on the right route can either make or break your climb, depending on how much time you allow yourself to acclimatize to the altitude (the #1 reason why people turn around on the mountain isn't because it's a difficult hike, but because they ascended too quickly and became sick from the altitude).

Each route varies, depending on rate of ascent, scenery, crowds, and, of course, price. The run down for each route follows:

Marangu
Duration: 5 days
Crowds: Extremely high (most popular route)
Scenery: Considered least scenic route
Accommodation: Sleeping huts
Recommended for: No one, honestly. The quick ascent, crowds, and packed sleeping huts make this an unsuccessful and unenjoyable route, despite it being the cheapest choice.

Machame
Duration: 6-7 days
Crowds: High
Scenery: Extremely scenic with varying landscape
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: Budget travelers who are confident in their ability to have long days at rapidly increasing high altitude

Lemosho
Duration: 8-9 days
Crowds: Low until route joins with Machame
Scenery: Considered overall most beautiful
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to spend ample time enjoying the views, generally low crowds, and is hellbent on reaching the summit (highest success rate)

Shira
Duration: 7-8 days
Crowds: Low
Scenery: Varied and beautiful
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: People who want to do Lemosho but don't have the time. It's essentially the same route as Lemosho except you begin the trek at 11,000 ft, which causes the rate of success (and risk of altitude sickness) to increase significantly.

Rongai
Duration: 6-7
Crowds: Low
Scenery: Vastly different from other routes (it's the only path that begins in the north)
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: People climbing in the rainy season, or people who want a similar climb to Marangu (long uphill slog) but want to avoid the crowds and prefer remoteness.

Finding the Right Company
(and paying the right price)

Like most mountains of this magnitude, to climb Kilimanjaro you'll need to go with a licensed guide, porter, and pay a park entrance fee. However, because Kilimanjaro is not a technical mountain and a staggering 50,000 people attempt the mountain each year, there is a large amount of bootleg "companies" aimed towards budget travelers that offer attractively cheap prices. But the thing with Kilimanjaro -- as with any guide or company anywhere in the world -- is this simple truth:

You get what you pay for.

When you are spending over a week climbing one of the tallest peaks in the world, you will want to fork over extra money to ensure that you have a safe climb. When you find a company that has an attractive, low price, get in touch with them and ask them some very important questions, such as:

  • How many times has the guide(s) summitted the mountain?
  • Does he have a license (and can you see it)?
  • What kind of food should you expect? How will your meals be prepared? How do they keep the food fresh? Are they willing to accommodate to any dietary restrictions?
  • Will drinking water be provided, or will you be required to carry your own water purification system (such as iodine or a SteriPEN)?
  • What camping gear will they provide? What's the quality of the tent? What about the sleeping mattresses (if you're not carrying your own)? A good company will have strong, functional equipment. 
  • How is their safety record? Do they know how to care for a client who may become sick with altitude? Do they know what to look for? (Altitude sickness is more common than you may think; read about it more here).

If they seem to skirt certain questions, are unsure of specifics, or are more interested in signing you up instead of answering all your inquiries in detail, odds are they're more interested in grabbing clients rather than ensuring a safe and successful climb.

Picking a Budget Company

You can either hunt for budget companies online (but again, be extremely vigilant about frauds and ask the questions I listed above), or you can wait until you arrive in Tanzania to do the hunting, depending on how comfortable and lenient with time you are.

Fly into Tanzania's Arusha Kilimanjaro airport (JRO) and spend a few days visiting tour operators in Arusha to talk to guides in person and compare prices. You can also take the cheap two-hour bus from Arusha to Moshi (the town at the base of Kilimanjaro) to speak to operators there. Either way, it will only take you a few days to pick a company out, as Tanzania's tourism industry thrives on climbers, so advertisements and operators will practically be flinging themselves at you.

In the end, expect to pay between $1,000 and $2,000 for a safe budget climb. 

While it's possible to go under $1,000 if you do the Marangu or Machame route, tips will most likely bring your Kilimanjaro experience to over a grand. 

And although, like I said, it is important to pay for what you want to get, there are some ways to keep the cost down, such as carrying your own sleeping bag and sleeping pad as opposed to renting them, bringing your own durable (and broken in!) hiking boots, and opting for a company that safely cuts costs by not carrying extra luxuries: such as a dining tent, private toilet, or chairs.

A budget climb up Machame route meant no communal dining tent; instead, the four of us on the climb piled into one sleeping tent to eat our dinners and breakfasts

A budget climb up Machame route meant no communal dining tent; instead, the four of us on the climb piled into one sleeping tent to eat our dinners and breakfasts

What Can I do to Help Raise My Odds of Reaching the Summit?

Unlike the other Seven Summits, Kilimanjaro is not a technical mountain; meaning that there aren't any ropes, any rock or ice climbing, or any need for past mountaineering experience. Simply, Kilimanjaro is a multi-day trek. 

So why the low success rate of only 45% ? Even as low as 27% on the 5-day routes, such as Marangu, which happens to be the most popular?

There is no need for a climber to have any skills to climb Kilimanjaro, so tourists of any age, health, and fitness flood through the Kilimanjaro gates every year with hardly any training or concept of the danger they're putting themselves into. While Kili isn't technically challenging, it still holds an estimated 3-7 deaths per year due to altitude sickness and unfit tourists underestimating the strength that it takes to climb thousands of feet for hours on end.

The best way to ensure a safe, successful, and enjoyable summit is to train. In the months leading up to your climb, focus on working out 3-4 days a week. When I was training for my climb, my favorite strengthening workouts consisted of several hours on the stair master during the busy work week, and then taking a day on the weekend to go for a hike where I'd carry a backpack with weights in it (anywhere between 10 to 20 pounds). The key to enjoying an uphill slog trek, such as Kilimanjaro, is to be fit enough to not feel shaky and out of breath within a few hours, or even minutes. A successful climb coincides greatly with how much you enjoy it, because if you feel physically unwell, then you're going to become physically unwell, leaving you more susceptible to the effects of high altitude backpacking. Preparing for Kilimanjaro doesn't have to be back-breaking, but you want to depart knowing that your physical capabilities won't limit your chances to summit; after all, you paid a lot of money to get to East Africa and to attempt this magnificent peak. Every day training is putting more odds for a summit in your favor.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a right of passage for any backpacker, trekker, or person with a love of getting up close and personal with one of the most iconic peaks in the world. While the crowds can be deterring, the mountain makes up for it in its sheer magnitude and beauty, whether you make it to the summit or not.

Walk on.

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To read more about the super-specifics of climbing Kilimanjaro, and to learn more about each of the routes, visit the website Ultimate Kilimanjaro.

Eastern Europe, notes from the road

For seven weeks this summer, I rented a car and did a 4,200 miles road trip from Sofia, Bulgaria through 15 countries.
Throughout the trip, I tried to write about certain places and experiences in little excerpts. Here are some of them.

Bulgaria to Montenegro//
I arrived in Montenegro after 12 hours of driving through the slot canyons and switchbacks of remote Serbia; we paused only for espressos and to eat sandwiches by a mosquito-ladden riverside. In Montenegro I found myself most evenings sitting barefoot on the windowsill of my room, where just below my dangling legs the emerald waves of the Bay of Kotor lapped up on the whitewashed walls. I sat for hours on end eating from a bag of warm cherries that I had purchased earlier that day in the castle’s farmers’ market. The hills of the Balkans smell of mint and lavender, occasionally heavy woodsmoke, and the scent perfumed the air as we spent one evening watching the sunset from the top of a surrounding craggy peak. We spent nights walking along the pier, gazing up at the glowing, golden fortress illuminated on the steep black mountains.

Montenegro to Dubrovnik//
After a stunning drive along the careening bay of Kotor, along with a hitchhiking australian in the backseat, we arrived in Dubrovnik. It felt more like a movie set than a historical landmark, with its towering golden walls, steep cobblestone alleys strung with white cotton sheets flapping lazily in the warm Adriatic breeze, echoing church bells, steep drops from viewpoints into the clear waters of the sea. To save money, we’d been dining on pb&j sandwiches — feeling much like children all over again — and have had an ongoing competition to find the best lunch spot (Dubrovnik’s was pretty good, in the shade of olive trees on a castle wall built in the 13th century). We set up camp down the peninsula from the old city, where our natural alarm clock each morning was the unbearable heat of the rising sun through the tent’s nylon, but we found refuge in the evenings on the rocky shore down a shaded path from camp. On our final morning, we stopped to pick up pastries from a local shop; mine was coated with powdered sugar and oozing with thick, warm jam made from the cherries picked in the dalmatian hills. Overwhelming sweetness, lips stained cherry red.

Dubrovnik to Bosnia//
The road rose from the coast and steadily snaked through fields of dry shrubs, sand, and dust, past abandoned buildings, empty factories, crumbling stone walls, thin donkeys pawing the hot ground. The air stifling enough to suffocate inside of our small, cramped car. The city of Mostar felt war-torn, with its homes riddled with bullets, gaping holes in the sides of buildings, tank shells being sold at the crafts market to make ‘something good’ of a recent war. Our hostel here was empty, hospital-like with neon lights, and about a twenty minute walk to the stari most — the famous old bridge — which was destroyed in the war, rebuilt, and now stands in the midst of mosques and citrus trees. I remember hearing the call to prayer as we approached the bridge for the first time under a mauve sky. We had dinner one night next to a group of Austrian men who told Eric that he should go to this small town in croatia where the women outnumber men 9 to 1. They gestured to me and told me to cover my ears.

Bosnia back to Croatia//
A quiet, short ferry ride took us to the gem that is Mljet Island, where we camped at a completely empty site under the tangled shade of olive trees (although I was consistently pestered by the campsite’s abundance of horse flies). Down a dusty road we found an isolated cove in an inlet hugged by an ampitheater of pine trees. Here we swam in the warm Adriatic waters in the golden afternoon light; the sand white and sun-bleached; andrew bird and iron & wine playing from the speakers. We filled ourselves to the brim with grilled vegetables painted with olive oil, sea salt, roasted garlic and thick bread, with a spectacularly blue backdrop cradling the island’s shore and small villages. One evening we ran to a clearing to catch a sunset unlike anything I’d ever seen; the air thick with ocean and the perfume of wildflowers and fig trees.

Mljet to Plitvice//
We’d been making frequent pitstops at roadside fruit stands, buying bags upon bags of peaches, cherries, apples and sweet peppers warmed from the sun. By the time we arrived in Plitvice from Mljet we’d eaten all six of the peaches we’d picked up that morning, savoring their ripe juices as they flowed down our cheeks and splattered onto our laps and feet. For the first time in weeks we felt relief from the heat as we curved higher into the northern Croatian hills, setting up camp in the shade of pine trees in thick, plump grass. Plitvice consisted of miles upon miles of winding trails and boardwalks, snaking through countless cascading waterfalls, topaz-colored pools speckled with lily-pads that held neon-blue dragonflies. 

Plitvice to Slovenia//
Ljubljana felt as if it was picked straight out of a fairytale, where all the wonderful parts of Europe (the castles, the pastel-colored houses, the sidewalk cafes, the bridges and town squares studded with medieval statues) were condensed into one small remarkably pleasant city. We made our way from there to Lake Bled, which had a surprisingly dense tourism industry. The shores of the lake were blanketed with hotels and casinos, and the narrow streets clogged with tour buses. Overwhelmed, we spent most of our time here high in the neighboring national park, where we had a lunch of canned beans in a meadow where cows came to investigate their visitors, and ended up sitting with peeled oranges on the shore of a much quieter, yet much grander lake. The roads were often crowded with herds of cows making their way slowly home. One night we went for a walk, and I paused to pick lilac-colored flowers, and we sat in a field of tangled grass to watch the clouds settle on the granite peaks of the alps.

Slovenia to Austria//
After Bled we drove into Austria, where we stayed in a strange bunker-style hostel on the outskirts of Vienna as heavy gray storm clouds rolled in. On the night we arrived, we met up with a girl, Kristina (whom we last saw in Vienna a year and a half ago during a bitter winter), at a wine bar in a quiet neighborhood in a Vienna suburb. We drank cool white wine, ate thick pumpernickel bread, inhaled the cigarette smoke from local Viennese men watching a football match in the back corner of the bar, and chatted as the cool drizzle outside eventually came to a brief stop. We ended up wandering the pastel-colored streets of another nearby town, where Kristina found us chocolate gelato which we ate fondly as we gazed towards the Vienna skyline from the highest point of a grassy park in a clearing of weeping willow trees.

Vienna to Prague//
The drive from Austria to the Czech Republic was strange, as immediately over the Czech border we were bombarded with massive billboards advertising show girls, erotic shops, dinosaur-themed amusement parks, and tacky medieval-themed restaurants where you could watch fake jousting while eating dried fried chicken. Our hostel in Prague was in an unassuming part of town, but I swear to you that I will never forget the moment that I stepped into the Old Town Square for the first time. It was bathed in rich golden light from the setting sun, and I couldn’t help but turn in circles, overwhelmed by the majesty that is Prague. Words like marvelous and magical and majestic come to mind when I think of Prague. Even St. Nicholas’ Church brought me to tears; only the second time in my life a manmade structure has done so. We spent most of our days in Prague walking aimlessly, eating pastries coated in burnt sugar and almonds, sipping beers in the shadows of the castle, listening to a violinist on the Charles Bridge as the sun sunk into the spired horizon.

Prague to Poland//
We stayed in a small apartment above a restaurant in the peaceful Jewish Quarter of Krakow. Krakow was surprisingly pleasant, with its lively bar scene, colorful restaurants boasting mostly Israeli and Jewish cuisines, musical squares and shaded parks. We spent one day driving to Auschwitz, where we realized upon arrival that it’s necessary to book a tour in advance (which we did not), so we ended up on a 2-hour Italian tour. I crashed the car into a wall here, too. I was happy to leave.

Poland to Slovakia//
From the plains of Poland we winded into the high mountains of Slovakia, greeted by alpine lodges, remote roads, beckoning peaks shimmering with layers of snow. Our guesthouse here overlooked a meadow pinpricked with grazing horses in a clearing of thick pine forest. We spent our days driving to castles and wandered their ruins with to-go espresso cups, and took walks through the silent forests, never passing another soul. Each night it stormed, rain coming down in heavy sheets, and we sat in our room drinking lemony tea I’d bought in Prague and played Slovakian scrabble (which was a challenge, but we figured it out).

Slovakia to Hungary//
Back out of the mountains to the wheat fields of Hungary, rising into the gray buildings that comprise of Budapest. After spending a morning doing the obligatory walk to the main churches, we came to a pathetic yet amusingly honest conclusion that can only come after five weeks in Europe: we were burnt out on churches. We took a break from gothic architecture to spend the afternoon soaking in the famous thermal baths that run from the hot waters underneath Budapest. Under a gray, misting sky, we sat in the steaming pools up to our chins, laughing, people watching, feeling the mineral-rich waters soothe our skin. The next day was Eric’s birthday, where I surprised him with a 9-course wine tasting in a 13th century cellar under a castle in the Old City. We spent almost three hours there, and afterwards enjoyed cake on the steps of a statue in the castle’s main square. In the fading light we walked back to our hostel, pausing for water at a Cat Cafe; because, hell, you have to do it once.

Hungary to Romania//
The scariest part of the whole trip had been driving in Romania; the drivers were aggressive, selfish, pushing us almost off the road too many times to count. Happily we arrived in Transylvania, where we spent several days hopping from town to town, admiring medieval villages with their brightly colored lopsided houses, black gothic churches, and of course Bran Castle, which Dracula supposedly haunts (although I found it to be quite charming and not at all menacing). On an evening in Brasov after drinks and chips, we found a free movie playing in the town’s main square; the following morning we set off to climb high into mountains to stay at a small farm guesthouse, where we read our novels, listened to the cow bells out in the pasture, woke to the sound of rain on the tin-roof and the smell of coffee brewing on the stove, ate heaps of pasta overlooking the craggy granite cliffs. On the sunny evenings after dinner, we’d climb a nearby hill to see the sun set over the vibrant green hills, thatched roofs of the farmhouses, and the towering blue mountains streaked with snow and wispy, orange clouds. Every path, meadow, fence, road, hill here was blanketed in thick, unbelievably bright wildflowers, in colors so rich you’d think someone spilled paint on them. We waded through their tangled beauty, their smells staying ever present on our clothes — the scent of melted sugar cubes, maple honey, vanilla and crisp green apples.

After Romania, we arrived back in Sofia, where in a matter of 12 hours we returned the car, got a nominal amount of sleep, then immediately got on a bus the next morning to knock out the last three countries before the trip came to a close: Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Because our car insurance didn't cover these three places, we decided to bus it: upwards of eight hours every two days moving from country to country, attempting to check off some of the smallest countries in the world.

These countries were starkly similar yet different in their own quirky ways; Macedonia had an obvious obsession with bridges and statues; Albania was dotted with tens of thousands of anti-nuclear concrete domes leftover from when it was still hiding in the shadows of its communist period; Kosovo had an amusing obsession with all things American and Bill Clinton (and yes, there is a statue of Bill Clinton on Bill Klinton Avenue next to the Hillary Shop).

Without a doubt, I left thinking that perhaps far Eastern Europe is the strangest, most unassuming, and most misunderstood corner of the world.

Father and daughter ride their bike across a bridge in Skopje, Macedonia

Father and daughter ride their bike across a bridge in Skopje, Macedonia

To See the Northern Lights

It was my final night in the Arctic.

We hiked for two miles through heavy snow under the bent limbs of silver trees. At around midnight, we reached a high clearing, where we only paused to catch our breath and readjust our snowshoes, all the while making quiet, solemn jokes to lighten the mood. Because of the cloud coverage the night before and the seemingly heavy clouds we were having that night as well, it seemed that our chances of seeing the Northern Lights were quickly fading. I'd emptied my pockets to spontaneously fly 4,000 miles to spend just shy of a week in Sweden's Abisko National Park, high above the Arctic Circle where the sun never rose, with the ambitious hopes of seeing the Earth's spectacular natural light show. The aurora borealis has held a rather significant hold on my heart since I was about 11 years old and I became mesmerized with surreal photographs of the Northern Lights in a National Geographic magazine. 

Fast forward to January, 2015, and there I was. Under heavy gray clouds, we paused. Looked at each other, wondering whether to go on or turn around.

But then, out of the corner of my eye,
I saw that the clouds had cleared.

I always told my family that if there was one thing on this planet I had to do before I die, it's see the Northern Lights.

And I did.

The aurora that night was so unusually spectacular that we ended up making a campfire and sat in the snow for four hours as we watched the rays of color streak across the sky. Aurora Borealis doesn’t just sit there and fade. They are exactly as you've dreamed. They dance. They literally dance. They shimmered, they rippled, they waved, they exploded. Exploded. We saw emerald greens, reds, and turquoise woven into white. At one point, and only for a few seconds, right above me was the heart of it all; the epicenter where the aurora explodes on to the earth's atmosphere, where light was radiates streaks in every direction from a center ball of light -- the eye of the aurora, locals told me, which is rare to see. Colors illuminated the sprawling lake at the base of the mountain we sat on, and they touched the jagged snowy horizon from the north to the south, west to the east. Over the fire, we boiled hot lingonberry tea, and as we sipped it out of paper cups and laid with our frozen noses pointed up towards the stars, a local man sat by me and told me, “I have been living in Lapland for almost a decade. And these lights tonight are the best I have seen in years.”

For four hours, we stayed quiet. We sat still. Listened to the fire; listened to a pack of wolves or dogs, somewhere, howling. And we watched the lights.

I can’t possibly put into words what this experience was like, and all this time later, I'm still fathoming how to describe it.

Hours later, I stumbled in an ethereal stupor back to my guesthouse, smelling of campfire smoke, my hair tangled in icy knots, sweet berry tea on my lips, and my cheeks damp and salty from frozen tears.

That night I dreamt of green; of red; of howling wolves; a ribbon painted with color, appearing before my eyes.

I still do.

 

If you want to see the Northern Lights yourself this winter, even if you're on a tight budget or schedule,
here's how I did it.
  • Tickets to Oslo from the U.S. are generally cheap in January, so use that opportunity. Once in Olso, spend a full day or two in the city getting acquainted, adjusted to the time zone, and enjoying the quiet, clean, colorful streets of the Norway capital.
  • From Oslo, take a quick flight to Narvik, a small city far above the Arctic Circle.
  • Daily trains depart from Narvik's main station to Abisko National Park, on the other side of the border, deep in Sweden's frozen tundra. The train trip is about 3 hours, but the journey is unforgettable. (Also, don't be surprised if you're the only one on the entire 8-car train).
  • In Abisko, stay at any of the hotels, but I recommend the Abisko Guesthouse. Next to a decent grocery store, small pub, a lovely 30 minute walk on a moonlit path to the main tourist center (although you can arrange car transfers if you don't want to walk), and 5-10 minutes walk to the massive Abisko lake (excellent for aurora watching). The Guesthouse is reasonably priced for its clean (and warm!) facilities, full kitchen with adjoined large common room, reception area where you can book any activity imaginable, and mostly, a fantastic staff. I really have yet to stay at a guesthouse or hostel where I've adored the staff as much as I did here.
  • Spend at least 3 nights in Abisko. This will give you three chances to see the Lights, and will give you time to get your feet on the ground. I'll be honest: Abisko is extremely disorienting. By noon, the sky is already sinking back into darkness from its steady bluish-mauve tone that it takes on between 10 AM and 2 PM, so it feels like you've wasted the day even if you've only had a cup of coffee and taken a short walk. (If you come in late January or February, you may get some sunlight reflecting on the trees as the sun almost crests the mountain horizon, but you won't actually see the sun for some time).
  • Because of this, I recommend booking plenty of activities before you arrive to be sure that your schedule is full, and to be sure they don't fill up. (Activities such as: dog sledding, snow shoeing, visiting the Sky Station, ice climbing, meeting a herd of reindeer, or even taking a day trip to Narvik or nearby Kiruna to visit the famous Ice Hotel and meet the inhabitants of Sweden's northernmost Arctic city.
  • Bring spare fully-charged camera batteries with you, as the -28*F drains batteries within an hour; and, bring your warmest gloves, hand warmers, face masks, boots, socks, and hats imaginable. The Guesthouse will supply you with heavy-duty Arctic suits to withstand the extreme temperatures, but your extremities will be at risk, and there is a very real possibility of frostbite; consider your face, hands, and feet when packing. You want to be warm and dry.
  • If you want to get photos of the Lights, don't forget your camera tripod. And practice learning how to take long exposure star photos so you can be sure to capture the landscape. (Hint: ISO 1200, f/stop 3.5, shutter speed 30 seconds, lens on manual and focused on furthest point, and if you don't have a cable release, turn your camera on a timer so when you press the shutter button you don't cause camera shake)
  • After Abisko, back track down to Oslo, and fly home. If you want to extend your wintry stay in Scandinavia, you can spend a night or two in Narvik, or explore Norway's Lofoten Islands (although they are notoriously cloudy in the winter, so be sure you get your fill of the Lights in Abikso in case you see none in Lofoten), or stop over in Stockholm; there is nothing like that city in a light snowfall with a cup of hot chocolate in your hands.
Flying into the Arctic. Narvik, Norway.

Flying into the Arctic. Narvik, Norway.

A lone house in the tundra. View from the train to Lapland. This is the sky at noon.

A lone house in the tundra. View from the train to Lapland. This is the sky at noon.

Reindeer spotted in the forest between Abisko and Narvik

Reindeer spotted in the forest between Abisko and Narvik

A dog team pulls his musher

A dog team pulls his musher

After being outside in -30*F for three minutes, everything starts to freeze

After being outside in -30*F for three minutes, everything starts to freeze

Frozen forests of Lapland

Frozen forests of Lapland



My Top 10 Must-Do's in Nepal

I've been asked to begin doing my Top Highlights for some of my favorite spots in the world; so I'm beginning with Nepal, where I spent three months and consider one of my favorite places in the world. While it's pretty impossible to narrow down the top splendors to just 10, here's a solid list for your upcoming adventure.

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1. Trek in the Everest and Annapurna regions. If you go to Nepal and don’t go backpacking from teahouse to teahouse, you will miss out on something so special and extraordinary and unique to Nepal and Nepal alone. You get up close and personal with the most famous mountains in the world. You spend your days in the wilderness, around waterfalls and wildlife and glaciers and hidden hot springs, and you spend your nights with steaming cups of hot chocolate and chai and you exchange stories with travelers from around the globe. Stay at teahouses where your bed will cost anywhere from $.50 cents to $5 a night, and eat at small houses where locals will boast menus featuring anything from fried noodles to apple pie. It’s a quirky and beautiful backcountry experience unlike anywhere else in the world that I've ever been. Some of the top treks in these regions are the Everest Base Camp Trek, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Annapurna Circuit, and Poon Hill Trek. (Any of those last three can be combined for a mega-trek, too).

2. Get your fill of the local cuisine: stuff yourself with momos (dumplings filled with anything from meat to cheese to veggies to chocolate), dal bhat (a meal consisting of steamed rice, lentil soup, vegetables, pickles, and a small yogurt or curry sauce), tongba (warm millet beer), apple pie in a teahouse (well, an attempt at apple pie), spicy chai (my favorite chai in all of Nepal is at David's Restaurant in Lakeside, Pokhara; find it on the street that the North Face Inn is on), fruit sold from the street-side vendors, mango and banana lassi, heaps fried noodles and black tea at chaat houses, and a massive post-trekking celebratory breakfast of croissants and donuts at any bakery in Kathmandu. 

3. Go paragliding over Pokhara. Enough said.

4. Spend at least one night/two days on a whitewater rafting/kayaking trip, though I recommend at least 3 nights to really feel remote and enjoy the wildlife and remote campsites. The rivers are surprisingly warm year round, and nothing beats how good freshly popped popcorn tastes when cooked over a campfire on a sandy shore of a Himalayan river, then falling asleep in your tent listening to the rapids and the wind. I mean, really.

5. Visit Boudhanath, the world’s largest Buddhist stupa. Located in Kathmandu and relatively untouched by the earthquake earlier this year, monks continue to make their walk around the spectacular holy site as they spin the prayer wheels underneath a canopy of prayer flags. The site in and of itself is overwhelming moving, with a mix of incense smoke and flocks of pigeons and the chanting and humming of drums and the monks.

6. See the sunrise from Sarangkot, the highest point in Pokhara. Leave your hostel at 3 AM to head to the base of the hill. There’s a viewing platform at the top, but because it is often pack with tourists (especially during the high season), I recommend making a detour on any small trail from the main path to go sit by yourself on a flower terrace away from the crowds. When I did this, it was dead quiet; just me, a thermos of black tea I carried from my hostel, a couple other people who had the same idea, and the sun’s light reflecting off the glacier massifs of Macchapucchre and the staggering peaks of Annapurna range. (Plus, Sarangkot is dotted with charming villages with a spectacular mountain backdrop that you can only see if you make the climb up).

7. Rent a motorcycle or motor-scooter in Pokhara. Use it to explore, just carry a map with you. Drive around the fields of wildflowers, hidden lakes, bat caves, and Tibetan refugee camps. It’s something like $7 per day. Just be warned that Nepal is notorious for its awful road conditions and reckless drivers; while I didn't have a problem and neither did any of my friends who did the same, just be extremely careful and diligent and avoid steep roads with switchbacks.

8. Spend a solid day or two in Bhaktapur, Kathmandu’s ancient city. Bhaktapur was one of the most damaged areas of Kathmandu, yet as of June 15 this year, the town is open for visitors and is begging for tourism. Apparently, today it resembles how it was before tourism began booming in the area, and its inhabitants have flocked back to revitalize the area. Let yourself get lost in the medieval town (it’s pretty easy to, actually, thanks to its winding streets and curved alleyways). The squares are breathtaking, and every ancient brick street is alive with buffalo and markets and shaded by towering monasteries and temples, slowly being rebuilt to their splendor. And nearby there’s Nagarkot, a small village which is famous for its sunrise views of Everest, which is now open again for visitors and could use any tourism it can get.

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9. Explore Chitwan in the south in all its humid jungle glory. Buses arrive and depart daily in Chitwan from Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Lumbini. The most popular attraction in Chitwan is the two hour elephant ride, and while I do not condone that (as it’s extremely controversial regarding their abuse, and you can play with the elephants in the river for free without exploiting/harming them), the jungle Jeep safari is a must do (I saw a leopard, rhinos, and many people see tigers!). Plus, it doesn’t hurt to end the day with an ice cold beer at sunset on the banks of the Chitwan river.

10. Look out for festivals, and align your trip with them. Holi (the festival of color) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so if you can aim to be in Nepal during that time, it's an opportunity you should jump on. I will never forget how special of an experience it was to participate in such a beautiful holiday with so much history, joy, and, of course, color.

Costa Rica

For the past two weeks I've been in Costa Rica, which was a last-minute sorta thing where one minute I was unpacking from a road trip in Eastern Europe, and the next minute I was on a plane to Central America. 

As Costa Rica is one of the most traveled to countries per capita, evidence of the tourism industry was extraordinary; national parks abound (nearly 25% of the country is protected), roadside restaurants flocked with tourbuses in every corner of the country, hotels packed, hostels in every town imaginable, and therefore, a respectably thriving economy. Of any country in Latin America I've been to before, I found that Costa Rica was the easiest to get around simply because of the amount of connections and resources available for travelers, such as tour companies for any budget or lifestyle, buses going steadily between every major tourist town, and a copious amount of other travelers. Honestly, often times it felt like you had to go far out of your way to interact with locals and find a town that wasn't flooded with tour groups and bars geared solely for the Western backpacker.

That being said, what I found uniquely special about Costa Rica was the friendliness of the locals themselves. I know it's a cliche to say how "nice" and "welcoming" locals are when talking about a country, I really, really want to point it out here. It's been a long time since I've traveled to a country where I was this pleasantly surprised to see how proud, hospitable, welcoming, and friendly Costa Ricans seemed to be. The country is doing enormously well for itself (tourism has risen 18% in the past four years, it's on the road to being the first carbon-neutral country in the world, it has 4% of the world's biodiversity, and the population has a 98% literacy rate), and Costa Ricans are obviously proud; as they should be. The joy they had and pride for their country made for an especially positive experience. 

As for my personal trip, the visit was a whirlwind, but it was wonderful; skirting through jungle rivers to catch the sunrise, standing before waterfalls and smoke-capped volcanos, endless plates of pineapple and papaya and gallo pinto (the local dish, consisting of rice and beans mixed with various herbs, spices, and fried plantains), hours upon hours of cramped vans snaking through mountain roads, waking up at 4 AM too many times to count (sometimes on purpose, sometimes because of the howler monkeys screeching from the canopy just outside the cabin door), the kind of heat that’s so heavy you can feel every hair on your body, oceanside walks under stormy skies, waiting two hours just for a minute of witnessing a sea turtle make her nest and wade back into the ocean under a heavy full moon, afternoons and mornings of rainstorms on tin roofs, the taste of warm cacao sipped out of a coconut while sitting around a fire in a small village’s home, learning about the medicinal trees of the rainforest from a shaman himself, evenings of belly-aching laughter and tables scattered with imperials and caipirinhas, watching a wild sloth climb through the roof of a restaurant (twice), plenty of “local stuff,” coffee upon coffee upon coffee, leafing through the pages of books sticky with salty ocean air as we made our way across lakes and canals to the next horizon.

I only wish I had more time there, but I guess that's an excuse to someday come back.

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