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

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

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!

An overnight boat trip through HaLong Bay – The Bay of the Descending Dragon

Over 2,000 islands of sheer vertical karst limestone peaks bursting from the waters of a huge tropical bay, you can see why HaLong Bay literally means “the bay of the descending dragon”, why it is categorised as a Wonder of the Natural World and why it is consistently seen as one of the highlights of Vietnam

 

Its only downside is it is super busy in places and with the classic Asian approach to mass commercialised tourism somewhat stripping the place of the magic feel you’re most likely hoping for.  So, some high level tips to help you have a better experience:

  • Aim for a one night stay on one of the boats.  You can easily make HaLong Bay a day trip (and I have done this before and had a great time as we rented a boat to ourselves as a large group, which I appreciate isn’t an option for everyone), but there is something super nice about sitting for the sunrise / sunset and seeing the wonderful change in colour around the various karst towers
  • Your choice of tour operator is going to be crucial.  It pays to do a bit of research on the best recommended one and, remember, you get what you pay for – be very wary of the rock bottom operators offering USD80 from one of the stalls in Hanoi.  Ball park you’re looking at USD125 and upwards.  Aim ideally for one of the old-school luxury Chinese-style junks
  • The highlight is drifting past the sheer cliff faces through the tropical waters . . . so do make sure to find a god spot and just watch this Natural Wonder of the World go by
  • Kayaking around the bay is kind of par for the course and good fun.  Make sure this is included in your trip
  • Try to spend as little time in HaLong City as possible.  Its not what you’re in the region for
  • The caves are worth checking out and will be in all boat itineraries
  • Looking back, if I had a little more time and had booked long enough ahead, I would have aimed to go for Lan Ha Bay, near Cat Ba Island further to the south.  Seems to be off the standard tourist boat route and with similar scenery
  • To see how HaLong Bay can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam see this entry for more ideas – 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

Going back in time for a week in Cuba

Cuba really does feel like going back in time . . . or like you’re in a parallel universe as the country went off on a tangent to the rest of the world.  Havana for sure has glimpses of this – the vibe is of a historic Old Town that generates thoughts of what it must have been like back in the days of Spanish colonial pomp, Caribbean pirates and vast trade running through to create such fine architectural buildings and general buzz – but it is when you start to leave the capital that you feel this more slightly . . . odd . . . feeling about the place.  As you drive through the vast swathes of untouched tropical Cuban countryside you’ll see the pace of life drop significantly and small towns that feel more like small town America of the 1950s – a single main street with shops, each complete with a long porch for people to watch the world go by and an even longer queue outside of people there to buy whatever they are trying to buy.  As you go a bit further out you will see evidence of the centralised planning with large complexes of apartment blocks or hotel grounds with practically no one there.  And, in amongst all of it, the Cuban people who are as friendly as they are proud of their country

All this really is slightly odd – but it is also the key ingredient that makes Cuba such a unique experience

The itinerary I’ve listed here is more for the west of Cuba and the one we enjoyed.  Your other option of course is to head south from Havana to the colonial landscape of Trinidad and then dive in Bahia de Cochinos, both of which we’ve heard great things about.  The below itinerary though gets you more off the beaten tourist track and this was in particular something that we enjoyed so much about Cuba – a glimpse into that strange tangent the country has taken

Camping in Corcovado National Park

Even in a country that prides itself for its abundance of wildlife, Corcovado National Park stands out in Costa Rica as the premier wilderness experience.  The park’s sheer size, remoteness and restricted number of visitors means that your group will often feel like you have the park to yourself to go adventuring.  And with the the diversity, concentration of wildlife and stunning views, you’re unlikely to be disappointed

A word of warning though – this is walking and camping in a remote rainforest.  Getting there alone takes the best part of a day from the more connected parts of the country and, although the campsites are clean and the guides incredibly helpful, the facilities are basic.  So, get yourself ready for . . . well . . . camping in the jungle ie hot, wet, muddy . . . but a fantastic experience and, in my opinion, the highlight of Costa Rica

Island hopping through the main Galapagos Islands

Spend a week lying on world class beaches, island hopping and seeing wildlife that often feels straight from a David Attenborough documentary. The Galapagos Islands are a world famous nature reserve around a thousand miles from the mainland, but don’t let that put you off – this wonderful experience is far more accessible than you would think

 

If you combine this trip around the main Galapagos Islands with Scuba diving at Wolf and Darwin Islands in the Galapagos, this truly becomes the trip of a lifetime