6 day itinerary for Romania and the Transylvanian region

Romania, and in particular Transylvania, conjures up images and feelings of some far off place . . . in the mountains . . . in the forests . . . with castles . . . kind of like Lord of the Rings, but with a spooky vibe . . . and indeed it is all of this.  And while there are not as much of a concentration of stellar attractions as you would get in Western Europe, that is kind of Romania’s charm and it makes for a great roadtrip for a week or so, with the itinerary below

Driving through Transylvania’s Fortified Saxon villages and exploring Bran Castle

Once you creep over the Transylvanian Alps, you’re into a wide lowland area of rolling hills that is dotted with picturesque Fortified Saxon Villages, well preserved Old Towns and, of course, the famous Dracula castle of Bran Castle.  Whilst some parts of more worth visiting than others, the whole area easily allows you to dream back to what it must have been like in a bygone age untouched by the modern world
The Citadel of Sighisoara, Bran Castle and the fortified church of Viscri are must sees.  The rest is more about the slow paced vibe of the Transylvanian lowlands.  Total of 2-3 days is probably enough, and I’ve listed some 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

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

Scuba diving at Maria la Gorda

Remote.  Quiet.  Slightly odd.  Staying at the Hotel Maria la Gorda and the surrounding area feels a bit like if the hotel from The Shinning was on its own tropical island.  The hotel is geared for large numbers of guests, with individual 1950s commune-style houses dotted all around the grounds, and is by a lovely beach . . . yet . . . as with many large projects in Cuba, it sort of misses the mark – in this case because there is no real reason to come this far to the end of Cuba other than for diving.  Now the diving is great (great visibility in particular), but I can’t imagine there ever being enough divers to fill the facilities.  Kinda spooky, but also very cool and certainly adds to the feeling of being in a bit of a parallel universe as part of an itinerary for Going back in time for a week in Cuba

A week for the highlights of Patagonia

So you have a week and you want to see the highlights?  Likely flying in from somewhere 12+ hours away and have from one weekend to the next for vacation?  My suggestion would be to focus on Torres del Paine National Park and the Perito Moreno Glacier from El Calafate

You could make your way down to Punta Arenas, but I just think that the scenery around El Calafate area beats it in every respect.  You don’t really have time for the Navimag ferry through the Fjords.  Parque Nacional los Alerces is too far away.  And don’t waste your time going to see the King Penguins at Porvenir

The only place that you should consider squeezing in is the hiking around El Chalten, but we didn’t get a chance to check it out and it would be tight

By giving yourself 4 nights in Torres del Paine / Puerto Natales, a day to see the Perito Moreno Glacier and a day and a half or so of driving (including crossing the Argentina – Chile border), you’ll leave tired but not exhausted, and with a feeling of awe for Patagonia

3 very civilised days in Torres del Paine National Park

To experience Torres del Paine, you have the classic choice of the famous “W” trek over 5 days, the even more ambitious “O” trek of 10 days, or for a bit more civilised (. . . easier!) tour.  We were a bit pressed for time, and maybe just a little lazy, so chose the tour and glad we did because we had just the most fantastic time

Your 3 days should include a hike up to the famous Base of the Towers, a night staying in the wonderful Hotel Lago Grey, a day checking out the Grey Glacier from the small ferry, staying at the Hosteria Pehoe (a hotel which, although quite low quality, must be in the running for world’s most stunning hotel setting), and a day for general wandering through the park with a guide.  The price also includes a night either side staying at the domes in Puerto Natales which are fun

The hiking was balanced out by relaxing in the hotels with their outstanding views.  Far more civilised than staying in tents!