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

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

A week for the best of mainland Ecuador

This below 9 day itinerary is a good combination of some of the best things about mainland Ecuador – the old town of Quito; stepping back in time to a Lord of the Rings-style adventure around the Quliatoa Loop; a major challenge in summiting Cotopaxi; and getting to meet a range of local people along the way

 

Obviously, for many people Ecuador is all about the Galapagos Islands (see Island hoping through the main Galapagos Islands and Scuba diving at Wolf and Darwin Islands in the Galapagos for tips on these wonderful experiences).  But it also has some world-class experiences to be found on the mainland

Climbing to the summit of Cotopaxi Volcano

If you’re in Ecuador and keen for a challenge that doesn’t need a huge amount of preparation, climbing Cotopaxi is a great option.   1,000m / 3,280ft of elevation to climb up the volcano and glacier; 10 hours mainly in the dark with head torches, crampons, ropes and ice axes; -15˚C / 5˚F; and dealing with the altitude challenges of a volcano that reaches 5897m / 19,347ft.  Yep, that’ll do it

Some train for months for this, but if you’re fit, already partially acclimatised and determined, you can do this.  You’ll be rewarded (hopefully!) with world-class view across the valleys as far as Quito, an otherworldly experience through the glaciers and crater and, of course, a deserved feeling of accomplishment

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

 

Taking a 4WD tour from San Pedro de Atacama to the Bolivian Salt Flats

The Salt flats (Salar de Uyuni) are world famous, unique, big enough that you can avoid other tourists and so cool that you can just stand around in awe (see The Bolivian Salt Flats in Rainy Season entry for details on the Salt Flats themselves). But I’d also highly recommend taking the 4WD trip between Uyuni and San Pedro in the Atacama desert . . . in fact its kind of a must if visiting the Salt Flats because of the sheer stunning vistas in this part of the world.  The trip can be a long drive and don’t expect luxury, but seeing the AltiPlano is otherworldly and a world class adventure

2 weeks in Tonga, Fiji and Samoa

Moving from one spot of paradise to the next; super friendly people; picture perfect spots that scream “I want to go!”; and having some truly unforgettable adrenaline-throbbing moments by swimming with Humpback Whales and diving with the Tiger Sharks.  For sure Fiji, Tonga and Samoa are in the middle of nowhere, but this is a world class 2 weeks

Below I’ve given the itinerary we took and the links to the individual entries on each of the travel experiences