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

Wine tasting around Pinhao in the Duoro Valley

What a surprisingly wonderful experience the Duoro Valley offers! I must admit that, like many others, I hadn’t heard of it before making the trip to Portugal and had mainly thought of the Algarve and Lisbon area when thinking of Portugal. . How wrong I was – the Duoro’s combination of vineyards, steep dramatic slopes and river views is one I can’t think of anywhere else in the world, let alone Portugal.  When you add into the mix that there is the more unusual Port wine to sample along with the normal table wine, then you have a real gem of an experience and, in my opinion, the highlight of Portugal

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!

Cycling and views around Tam Coc

Just outside of Ninh Binh there are series of lookout points and caves that take advantage of the surrounding karst landscape as the cliffs loom impossibly steeply out from the flat lush valley floor.  The Huang Mua area has a tourist spot where you can climb up one of the hills and get great views around the UNESCO World Heritage listed landscape, and just to the West there are some small roads that allow you to cycle through the area

 

Its definitely worth checking out if you are passing nearby as it at times gives that classic picture-perfect karst towers view, but overall its a little touristy and, if you have the choice, I’d recommend Mai Chau to the north east which is a bit more atmospheric and less touristy.  For details of this experience see Cycling through the patchwork rice fields of Mai Chau

 

And for ideas on how a trip to Tam Coc can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam, see this entry A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

Cycling through the patchwork rice fields of Mai Chau

A bit like a valley out of a movie set – a patchwork of lush green rice fields set in a valley surrounded by misty-ringed mountains.  Jump on a bike and  head off along the various paths as you pass by locals at work in the fields or in their traditional stilt houses.  Whilst there are spots that are a little touristy, its a far cry from the other spots on the tourist trail of Vietnam and will get you close to that feeling of “real Vietnam”

 

For ideas on how a trip to Mai Chau can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam, see this entry A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

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

2 / 3 weeks for the highlights of Peru

Peru really does have some world class attractions – world beating restaurants in Lima, a wonder of the world with Machu Picchu, the world’s deepest canyon and some of the best preserved ruins in the world courtesy of the master builder Incas.  The below 2/3 week itinerary lets you enjoy these key sites, plus great activities like hiking, paragliding, zip-lining; and gives you those critical ingredients in a great trip – a sense of fun and adventure as you head a bit off the beaten track

As with all such trips, having more time is ideal.  I’m sure you could easily take months on this itinerary, and indeed far longer for the rest of Peru.  But 2.5 weeks felt about perfect for this trip with the right combo of full-on days mixed in with chill-out days in each of the stops to soak up the place and generally recharge the batteries after the travelling and hiking.  Similarly, you could also, if super pressed for time, knock off the 5 chill-out days and blitz through this trip in 2 weeks – and indeed many have done – but just be aware that there are two quite strenuous hikes and the need to acclimatise to the altitude when you land in Cusco

One of the best 2/3 week adventures I’ve been on.  Highly recommend

Hiking and zip-lining in the Colca Canyon

Visiting the Colca Canyon is a great 3/4 day trip from Arequipa – you’ll see some stunning scenery as the canyon is the second deepest in the world (twice the depth of the Grand Canyon) with majestic condors flying overhead, see plenty of traces of the old Inca construction along the valley; and end it with some adrenaline pumping zip-lining

If you’re going to hike one trek in Peru, it will very likely be the Inca trail, which is indeed stunning (see Hiking the 4 days Inca Trail for more details).  But the Colca Canyon trip is one that will cost a fraction of that, be far less busy and allow you to go at your own pace.  I really rated it

Machu Picchu

Mysterious.  Awe-inspiring.  Majestic.  There are almost endless superlatives for Machu Picchu, and rightly so.  The combination of its sheer beauty nestled up in the breathtaking mountains that surround it, its cultural significance in the Inca civilisation and its sheer fame as a Wonder of the World, make Machu Picchu stunning for any first time visitor and, quite frankly, a must visit site for this part of the world.   But, I think it needs to be experienced in the right way to get the most out of it, and in particular to avoid it feeling a bit like many other famous world sites – overcrowded, a tick-box exercise and a bit energy-sapping

I’ve listed below the three main tips to help you get the most out of the experience, along with some more general tips on the area

Hiking the 4 day / 3 night Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is a 43km hike that snakes its way majestically through a combination of stunning Andes mountains, Peruvian countryside, near perfectly maintained Inca ruins, thick cloud forest mists and ending at the Sun Gate, the mountain entrance to the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.  It is one of those rare travel experiences that really lives up to the hype

As you can see in the tips below, there are a few things to consider before heading off on the trail, in particular your level of fitness, the cost and going at the right time of year.  It can also get a little busy at times, but this is all relative – 200 hikers per day spread over the 43km rarely feels crowded compared to Machu Picchu and the various Inca sites in the Sacred Valley.  If you have the time, the money and the stamina, you’ve got to do it.  The combination of the mystery of the Inca ruins, the truly breathtaking mountain scenery and its world fame makes this one of the must do travel experiences in South America and, in my opinion, the world