Portugal highlights on a 2 week roadtrip

Portugal is a great country for visiting for 10/14 days as it has a heap of varied things to experience and not vast distances to cover.  By basing yourself in the 3 major areas of Porto / The Douro Valley, Lisbon, and the Algarve, you can use each as a hub for adventures nearby and also be able to stop off on a few places directly in between that are great for a couple of hours or so

 

Big highlights for me were actually some of the smaller places that I’d never heard of before I arrived in Portugal.  In particular the gorgeous Duoro Valley wine region, the hilltop town of Sintra and the beautifully charming streets of Cascais.  Plus, the more famous highlights of port tasting in Porto and various neighbourhoods of Lisbon

 

Each piece that makes up this itinerary has its own travel post, but I’ve also condensed the key points and listed some more general tips below

A day in Newcastle

Newcastle has a great reputation for its friendly locals (and, let’s face it, the accent everyone loves to imitate) and its world-class partying / lash that comes from both the locals and its giant student population (locals, aka “Geordies” will often like to quote how many top 10 lists Newcastle appears in for a night out).  But it also has a surprisingly elegant city centre with a riverfront that rivals anything else in the UK outside of London, and 4 places to visit nearby that are equally surprising in just how gorgeous they are

If you’ve got only a day (in summer!), I’d recommend the below itinerary for the best of Newcastle and the surrounding area

A supercharged week seeing the highlights of Israel and Jordan

I say this trip is supercharged because it doesn’t leave much time for chilling out.  But, if you’re like most of us and only have a limited amount of vacation, then this is a fantastic weekend to weekend trip that takes in the world famous sites of Jerusalem, Petra and Wadi rum; while providing time for some fun experiences like floating in the Dead Sea, scuba diving in the Red Sea, driving through sparse deserts and a party in Tel Aviv

You’ll need energy for these 7 days, but you’ll be rewarded as, in my opinion, its one of the world’s best week long trips in the world

I was hesitating in going in winter as I’d seen low temperatures.  Don’t.  The winter helped with reduced crowds, not needing to book far ahead and not getting exhausted by the heat.  Perfect trip for a week-long winter break

Exploring Petra in winter

We’ve all seen the famous Treasury building that sits within Petra – yes, the one from Indiana Jones – but the Treasury is only one small piece of a vast network of ancient buildings that sit within a labyrinth of dramatic red stone canyons, and all surrounded by equally dramatic mountains and deserts.  To combine a visit to one of the Wonders of the World with an exploration of the broader area makes this a truly unforgettable experience

I’ve written below some tips for how to get the most out of a visit to Petra, but my #1 tip is to get  local guide to walk with you from Little Petra through the back entrance of the mountains, via the Monastery, and to the main Treasury / Siq (the famous bit).  You won’t be disappointed as the views are world-class and the crowds less keen to stray so far from the Treasury.  We visited in winter, which naturally thinned the crowds, but the site is so vast that even in the busy periods you will be able to get away

Jerusalem for a day on the Sabbath

One of the most famous cities in the world and the spiritual centre for three of the world’s major religions, Jerusalem is steeped in history and has sites that attract hordes of tourists and worshippers alike

We went on the sabbath, which in Israel means many things are closed, and in winter, which means it’ll be around 10-12 Celsius / 50-54 Fahrenheit in the day, so it was probably a bit quieter than normal and I think that was a positive on the overall experience

I’ve read in books like the Lonely Planet that you need four days to experience Jerusalem.  I think that may be true if you are deeply religious or have a passion for the history of the area, but for those who just broadly want to check it out, and have the right level of energy, you can have a great experience with only one day

So, if only have one day, I have 2 suggestions.  Firstly, focus on the key sites of the old city, in particular the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple on the Mount.  Secondly, don’t try to do more than that and, instead, get lost wandering through Jerusalem’s narrow streets and off the tourist trail.  You’ll notice subtle differences moving between quarters and stumble upon some of the lesser known sites.  Far more enjoyable that following a guided tour, and less tiring

7/8 week itinerary for the highlights of South East Asia

South East Asia has to be the premier world traveling region.  A big call?  For sure, but consider what genuinely world class offerings it can provide:

 

  • World class beaches and coastal areas – think of THAT beach in Ko Phi Phi and HaLong Bay, one of the Natural Wonders of the World
  • World class food – think Thai, Vietnamese, Malay and the genuine fusion into the mix with the large established Indian and Chinese communities
  • World class ancient sites and history – think of the temples of the “8th Wonder of the World” of Angkor Wat, and the breathtaking site of the pagodas stretching across the plain in Bagan
  • World class cities and party locations – think of Singapore as the city of the future and the Full Moon Parties on Ko Pha-Ngan

 

And all this in a place that is super safe, outrageously friendly, easy and cheap to travel in.  A must for any keen traveler and the below itinerary will give you the highlights – enjoy!

6 months trip of a lifetime around Latin America

My girlfriend and I went on a 6month trip around Latin America (excluding Brazil).  Started in the far South in the Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and, broadly, made our way up the west coast to the Yucatan Peninsular of Mexico.  Best large scale trip I’ve done, and wanted to share the overall itinerary and tips here to hopefully help those who are considering something similar

A few high level points:

  • Other than the flights there and the first hotel, there were only three things we booked in advance: the Inca Trail (which we knew we needed to for permits); plus for Patagonia a trip through Torres del Paine National Park and a ferry through the fjords (as we were going at peak season and only a couple of weeks after we landed).  Everything else, we booked when in Latin America and, in our opinion, that is the best way to do it – gives you the freedom to relax in the places you find that you love and be super flexible to do what you want to do
  • Total costs – my girlfriend and I went in our 30s, with no kids and on sabbaticals from work.  We’re not poor, but certainly not mega wealthy.  We didn’t stay in super expensive hotels (other than for the occasional splurge), flew economy and used a bit of common sense for timings of certain expensive items, but never held back on doing the things we wanted to do.  Some examples of big ticket items: US$5k for a week diving in the remote Wolf & Darwin Islands in the Galapagos; US$1.2k for 4 days in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia; US$800 for a helicopter trip to see the El Mirador Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan jungle; US$700 for the Inca Trail.  Total cost of the whole trip was US$34k each.  This included all flights, transport, hotels, activities, food, drink, guides, screwing things up, credit card fees – the lot.  Expensive, but so are most Experiences of a Lifetime
  • It’s not about trying to “do everything” – in a place as large as Latin America, you couldn’t even if you tried – so don’t think of things as a big tick box exercise.  Brazil, for example, we knew we couldn’t do justice whilst also trying to enjoy all the other amazing places we’d heard of, so left it for next time
  • In the similar vain, make sure you give yourself big chunks of time to chill out.  Not only to recharge the batteries, but also because most places are enjoyed when you spend time to soak up the feel for the place.  There were some places . . . like Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Isla Mujeres in Mexico, Bocas del Toro in Panama . . . where I could have spent weeks there just because the general vibe of the place was so wonderful
  • Safety – we weren’t robbed, but many people do either having a bag stolen or, unpleasantly, get robbed face to face.  Other than a couple of cities, we generally felt super safe the places we went and tried to just apply common sense to reduce our risks
  • Learn a bit of Spanish before you go – the app DuoLingo was great for getting us to a basic level that made a lot of difference.  But also don’t be afraid to pull out google for simultaneous conversation translations to really be able to have a conversation with someone – some long trips became some of our highlights just from being able to properly talk with the driver / locals.  I particularly remember a long taxi ride in Colombia where we went back and forward for 2 hours with the driver on everything from his home town to politics to football to his favourite movies to his family problems- never could have done that without Spanish or google.  In a similar vein, and using the right level of common sense, don’t turn down an invite for drinks / dinner / house visit with locals.  There are some truly unforgettable natural and cultural spots to see, but similarly an evening with a local family will be something likely to be just as unforgettable
  • Whenever checking out a place or must-do-site, its easy to get templed / churched / ancient site / beached out.  Always do a very basic bit of research to see if there is a more out of the ordinary way to experience it – by bike / drinking tour / kayaking / helicopter / whatever.  Thats what we tried to do, and I hope it reflected in some of the cool stuff listed below

Best way to see Chichen Itza from Cancun

One of the 7 Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza is a must visit site.  The iconic El Castillo pyramid; the great ball court that conjures up scenes from movies of brave competitors playing for life and death; the mysterious Cenote Sagrado believed to be the entrance to the underworld; and all  throughout the site a reminder of the complexity, sophistication and genius of the Maya.  The only downside is just how busy this world famous site can get which, when combined with the heat and humidity, could easily spoil the experience

Two key tips:

  • 1. Spend the night in one of the hotels nearby (we stayed at Mayaland, which was nicer than it sounds).  This allows you to enter the park early at 8am when it is far quieter and cooler, compared to an energy sapping trip from somewhere like Cancun for a wander round in the heat of the day.  It also allows you to enjoy the night show . . .
  • 2. Stay for the night show – I’m usually a little sceptical about night shows as they can be a bit tacky and really just another way to make money, but the Chichen Itza Night Show, I thought, was fantastic.  It tells you a bit of the history, runs a spectacular series of images across the El Castillo pyramid, and it’s also just super cool to be walking around the ruins in the early evening when the vast majority of tourists have left.  Must do

Exploring the Mayan ruins of Tulum

The coastal Mayan ruins in Tulum are worth checking if you have a spare morning / afternoon – an early morning wander through the complex with their often dramatic positioning on the cliffs is really pleasant.  But, if you’re in this part of they world, they really are small fry compared to the far more impressive Chichen Itza (see an entry Best way to see Chichen Itza for more details on visiting); Tikal in Guatemala (the #1 Mayan site of them all, see Mayan Ruins of Tikal for tips on how best to enjoy); or, if more adventurous, exploring by helicopter the (relatively) newly-discovered El Mirador from an earlier period of Mayan history and buried deep into the jungle north of Tikal (more details Helicopter trip to El Mirador)

Again, the Tulum ruins are pleasant, but there are world-class Mayan ruins  to be seen not too far away

Helicopter trip to El Mirador in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle

Ok so this is was cool. For many travelling through Central America, seeing glimpses of the ancient Mayan civilisation is one of the highlights of their trip.  These glimpses tend to focus on the Classical Mayan Period, such as those at the world famous Tikal.  But . . . seeing El Mirador will allow you to see not only the largest cluster of buildings from any Mayan site, but also to see the PRE-Classical period and have the place largely to yourself

There is a 5 day trek to get there, but if short on time, want to see from the air and, like us, had never been in a helicopter, take the helicopter flight for a unique experience