6 day itinerary for Romania and the Transylvanian region

Romania, and in particular Transylvania, conjures up images and feelings of some far off place . . . in the mountains . . . in the forests . . . with castles . . . kind of like Lord of the Rings, but with a spooky vibe . . . and indeed it is all of this.  And while there are not as much of a concentration of stellar attractions as you would get in Western Europe, that is kind of Romania’s charm and it makes for a great roadtrip for a week or so, with the itinerary below

Driving through Transylvania’s Fortified Saxon villages and exploring Bran Castle

Once you creep over the Transylvanian Alps, you’re into a wide lowland area of rolling hills that is dotted with picturesque Fortified Saxon Villages, well preserved Old Towns and, of course, the famous Dracula castle of Bran Castle.  Whilst some parts of more worth visiting than others, the whole area easily allows you to dream back to what it must have been like in a bygone age untouched by the modern world
The Citadel of Sighisoara, Bran Castle and the fortified church of Viscri are must sees.  The rest is more about the slow paced vibe of the Transylvanian lowlands.  Total of 2-3 days is probably enough, and I’ve listed some tips below

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 long weekend for Lisbon and the surrounding gems of Sintra and Cascais

Lisbon is a supremely elegant city stepped in history and with atmospheric neighbourhoods to head off and explore, but I actually found the two surrounding places of Sintra and Cascais to be the real gems of the visit

I would suggest staying in Sintra or Cascais rather than Lisbon. Staying in Lisbon you are always going to be surrounded by fellow tourists, day or night.  Whereas places like Sintra and Cascais offer a very different experience when the crowds have left for the day (or before they arrive if you’re an early bird). And the trains / Ubers make it so simple to pop between the 3 of them. I had some magical times in the likes of Sintra wandering around in the early morning having the place to myself, and enjoying the quieter evenings in Cascais.  Be bold and stay outside of Lisbon for the better experience

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

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

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

Nights out and soaking up Havana

Wandering the historic city streets of Havana, feeling at times like you’ve been transported back to the old colonial Spanish capital yet with an otherworldly feel of being in a country that went on a different tangent to the rest of the world, siping mojitos as you move from one music filled bar to the next and sampling food from restaurants that in any other city would be a highlight for their architecture alone.  When you throw in the sheer friendliness and positivity of the locals, Havana, if done the right way, is a truly unique experience and, in my opinion, the best Old Town to visit in Latin America

3 weeks in Colombia

Luscious green mountains hiding little coffee village gems, treks deep into the jungle to see lost cities, a world-class old colonial town that lets you lose yourself in dreams of pirates and discovery, and a country that has recently / hopefully put a recent history of blood-bloodcurdling violence behind it.  Colombia, cracking country to visit

Due to the spread out nature of many of Colombia’s highlights and the slow travel between each, you really need 2-3 weeks to do the place justice and I’ve listed out below which is a great itinerary for 3 weeks

The must see highlights (with links to their individual travel entries) are Hiking the Lost City Trek, Soaking up the Cartagena Old Town and Walking the Valley de Cocora and soaking up Salento.  Also cool are hanging out in Tayrona National Park and spending a Couple of days in Medellin riding the cable cars are also cool.  Further down the list of classic highlights are Bogota (see Cycle trip around Bogota), which makes sense to visit as you’ll likely fly into there (and its the same distance to the Valley de Cocora as it is from Medellin), and if you have a spare day check out the Guatape Lakes outside of Medellin

Soaking up the Cartagena Old Town

Wandering through the historic old town of Cartagena, it’s easy to let your mind wander and think back to the time of discovery, adventure and pirates as you soak up the cobbled streets and stunning architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage site.  This, plus some great restaurants, make Cartagena one of the must visit sites of Colombia

Unfortunately, the downside is that it gets super busy with the sheer volume of tourists (I got the impression Cartagena is the #1 choice destination for people’s first visit to Colombia), and some of the most intense number of hawkers I’ve seen anywhere in the world.  This also makes some of the plans for trips to the nearby beaches or those islands to the South West not quite the romantic paradise you’d have hoped for

Definitely worth the visit though as Cartagena has to be in the top 5 Old Towns in Latin America