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

 

Eating, lounging and soaking up the souks in Marrakech

Cracking spot for a short break, especially to escape the European winter.  I’m writing this a few years later so only a very short entry, but my key tips after spending 3 days there:

 

  • Marrakech has 2 sides – the first side is the mayhem of it all, with the markets and busy streets.  The second is the hidden and private residences that often sit behind the non-descript walls in what appear to be super dull streets.  You can be walking down one of these streets and then suddenly knock on the right door and find yourself in a little contained oasis paradise.  Very much part of the allure
  • So, it pays to do a bit of research to see which of these little hidden paradises you’d like to check out
  • Get yourself lost in some of the narrow chaotic medina lanes – you’re going to get lost anyway, so just embrace it!
  • See if you can arrange yourself a day trip into the nearby mountains, which feel a world away from the business of Marrakech.  This was probably our highlight

Rapid 2 week roadtrip around the US West Coast States

My favourite road trip – the contrasts of natural landscape along the way with snowy mountains, red / yellow deserts, and temperate rainforests; the tasters of the different culture snapshots of the US with conservative cowboys through to uber-liberal SoCal and Pacific North West; the sheer world-fame of some spots like Las Vegas, LA, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon; but more than anything – its a trip that is simply perfect for driving.  The distances involved, the way the US in particular is set up for the drivers and the scenery to take in in between the obvious highlights is just world-beating

It’s also a super high octane trip – 4200 miles / 6760km of driving – the sort of thing you rattle off in your 20s, when you have the energy, 2 weeks of vacation and are keen to see and do everything.  There’s something just so incredibly fun and fantastic about seeing one world-famous site one after the other in rapid succession – one day being in the likes of Yellowstone National Park, the next in Arches National Park, the next the Grand Canyon, the next Las Vegas, the next LA etc etc.  An exciting whirlwind that creates a feeling most will never forget . . . and in a way equally spoils / sets the bar incredibly high for any other trip

A bit rushed? – on the trip itself, we didn’t feel overly rushed.  Again, we had 2 weeks vacation and wanted to see as much of this part of the world as possible.  For example, I actually found a day / half day in each of the national parks perfect to do a basic walk, see the main attractions and get the feel for them.  But of course, it would have been nice to spend longer in each – perhaps take a 3 day hiking trip across one of them.  Or perhaps see some of the other pieces we of course missed along the way.  Ultimately, I always suggest avoiding the mass tourism standard experience on offer, and I shudder just thinking of trying to do this again, but in a part of the world that has world class sites one after the other, the gorging on them was great fun

Looking across the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon obviously comes with high expectations – natural wonder of the world, the scene for so many movies and photos, UNESCO world heritage listed etc – and it doesn’t disappoint.  As you walk up to it for your first view from above, you can’t help but have that “wow” moment at the sheer immensity of it.  It may not be the deepest or longest canyon in the world, but its the most impressive

The perfect western cowboy set at Monument Valley

Driving through this part of the Navajo Nation really is like something from a movie set.  The strong reds of the desert and mountains, and the looming giants of the buttes make you feel like at any moment you’re going to bump into John Wayne doing the rounds with the US cavalry, or try to avoid an awkward conversation with Tom Cruise following his rock climbing

The highlight is Monument Valley, which doesn’t have a familiar name but is a view everyone will recognise.  You can see the 3 giant buttes (isolated hills with impossibly steep sides and flat tops) as you drive anywhere near them, with some of the simplest and best views from the View Hotel.  One thing I wish we’d done was to head into the Monument Valley Tribal Park to be driven by some of the locals to see some of the buttes up close (something you can’t do on your own)

A day walking through Arches National Park

Closest thing you’re going to get to the Roadrunner Cartoon backdrop – Arches National Park has the highest density of rock arches anywhere in the world, with 2000 in total, and has some mesmerising scenery nearby as you look out through impossible rock arches across the desert and to the white snowcapped mountains in the distance.  I was surprised this place doesn’t get more attention globally as a premier site in the US

Half a day to a full day is enough time because the full drive through the park and back is only 36miles / 58km, and the various key sites are only a short walk from the road.  Be sure to drive all the way up to Devils Garden to see what we thought was the highlight – Landscape Arch at 290ft / 88m long.  It would have been nice to have maybe a little longer to do a longer hike and get away from the crowds, but half a day to a full day felt about right