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

4WDing around Wadi Rum and spending a night in a desert camp

No wonder they filmed The Martian, Star Wars, Dune and Prometheus here – Wadi Rum has an otherworldly feel to it and driving around in 4x4s with the wind in your face watching the sandstone cliffs and red desert pass you by really gives a sci-fi feeling of adventure.  Expect to find yourselves regularly stopping to gawp at the latest stunning vista throughout the day

I’m sure there is a bunch of things that can take multiple days up, but we had half a day plus staying over night in one of the Martian tent, and that felt like the right amount of time.  Especially as we had time for both the sunset and the stunning first light.  A must if in this part of the world

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

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

Exploring the Lunar Valley and San Pedro de Atacama

There are a bunch of fun things to do when saying for one or two nights in San Pedro de Atacama.  In particular, you’ll want to visit the otherworldly Lunar Valley to see those gorgeous changes from reds and yellows to purples and pinks as the sun sets.  I’d also highly recommend taking advantage one evening of the best star gazing in the world by visiting one of the observatories

(You also must must must Take a 4WD tour from San Pedro de Atacama to the Bolivian Salt Flats so check out this entry for more details)

But it was San Pedro de Atacama itself that was the highlight for me.  It will just feel so different from anywhere you’ve been before that you’ll be kept happily entertained just wandering through the rock hard clay streets with their single floor adobe buildings and seeing the otherworldly red surroundings of volcanoes in the distance, all while appreciating the subtle adaptations the place has to make to survive in what is the driest place in the world (outside of the Poles).  If you have the time, its a great place to chill out, sample some of the surprisingly good restaurants and also to learn a bit about the pre-Spanish culture

 

Driving from Bariloche to Mendoza

So if you’re heading through this part of the world where the distances are vast and the flight timings just aren’t working for you, I’d recommend driving from the lake region of Bariloche up to the wine region of Mendoza.  Chances are for these regions you may have rented a car anyway, so its a question of if you’re prepared to pay the car relocation fee

The drive is a long one at roughly 14 hours.  It includes the famous Seven Lakes route (see Driving the 7 Lakes from Villa la Angostura to San Martin for more details), but quite quickly after that you transition from luscious grassy mountains and lakes to more barren volcanoes / mountains, deserts, scrubland, with very few people and a part of the world that has little written about it – some key ingredients for an unexpected driving adventure

Google maps kept changing its mind whether to take the R40 or the more inland 237/151/143 route.  We went for the R40 and were glad we did as the combo of the Andes range to our left and desert / plains to our right was a pleasantly beautiful surprise.  Make sure you do keep an eye on the navigation though as it is very easy to get lost, which happened to us a few times.  That feeling of having to choose between continuing to head down the dust path you hope will soon change to highway or to cut your loses and drive back the way you came for an hour isn’t that much fun . . . even less so the second and third times!

Hiking through the Charyn Canyon and staying overnight in yurts

I’m surprised the Charyn Canyon doesn’t get more attention – it is a 300m / 1000ft deep, 155km / 100mile long gash straight through the almost perfectly flat plain floor, with snow capped mountains in the distance and spectacular rock formations all the way along the 3km / 2mile easily accessible walk along the canyon floor.  Its not even listed as a highlight of Kazakhstan, let alone Central Asia, which I think it certainly should be

 

A few high level tips:

  • I don’t think its really worth visiting as a day trip from Almaty – it takes around 4 hours to get there, 4 hours back and you’re really rushing it for time to walk along the canyon floor.  Instead, stay the night in one of the yurts at the end of the immediate canyon floor and enjoy the changes in colours all around the canyon for the sunsets and sunrises
  • Stay longer?  I even think it would be worth staying a bit longer to be able to head off on one of the jeep tours of the surrounding area.  Seemed beautiful country and a fantastic way to explore it
  • As with most spots in Kazakhstan, be aware of the weather – freezing in winter and boiling in summer
  • Where to stay? – the only place to stay in the canyon itself is the Eco-Park Charyn Canyon Tourist Complex, which has rooms and yurts, plus a restaurant.  So book ahead
  • If tired in the heat or coldthere are a series of small trucks that pass along the road in the canyon and, if you ask nicely, they seem more than happy to give you a life
  • Heading from here to Kyrgyzstan – as an extra tip, if you want to head to the beautiful hiking area around Karakol just over the border in Kyrgyzstan, you don’t have to go the super long way round via Almaty and Bishkek.  Instead, you can travel directly over the border when it is open in May – October and head through the actually quite beautiful Karkara Valley.  I did it myself and it was surprised how straightforward it was with a little basic planning and using a couple of taxis – do not try and do it with public transport.  Rather than listing out all the info I vaguely remember about it, I found the website Away with the Steiners Kegan border crossing pretty accurate

A day stop over in Doha

Many people naturally fly through Doha as its the perfect connection point between Europe and the Asia Pacific, but its a shame that so few people actually leave the airport because Doha is a very decent one day stop over option.  It’s small enough and quiet enough for you to get around quite easily, in particular to and from the airport, and has 4 activities that are super close together and so very doable in a day

A day trip to Abu Dhabi from Dubai

Its only around a 1.5hour drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, so I’d suggest it is a must visit if staying longer than 2 days in Dubai.  The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, with its squinting bright white marble, beautiful interior and sheer scale is the obvious must visit spot, but also give yourself time for a drink in the luxurious pink Emirates Palace with its gorgeous terrace overlooking the sea

Seeing the spectacular sights of Dubai

Dubai gets a slightly bad reputation for being a bit fake, manufactured, crude etc.  The thing is, it is all of these things, yet it is exactly because it has gone so far toward the non-authentic end of the spectrum that makes it such a fascinating place to visit.  I’ve enjoyed Dubai each of the 3 times I’ve visited – loved the fountain performance of the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa, sitting on the beach by the world’s only 8 star hotel the Burj Al Arab drinking cocktails, seeing the giant aquarium in the world’s largest mall in the Mall of the World, taking a boat over to the Dubai Old Town and would have LOVED to experience the skiing!  But I’ve visited mainly for work or in a time before we had the simplicity of taking photos on the phone.  For these reasons, I don’t think I can really do the place anywhere near the justice it deserves by writing a full review, so haven’t shared photos and tips.  Instead, I’ve given it a score based on how I found it – can’t miss out on such an obvious global city stop in the ratings