Just about one year ago on January 25, 2014 Katie and I crossed the Mexican border and started this adventure out. I’ve passed through customs in 27 countries so far and will end up traveling to 29 countries by the end (as we extended a year into 13 months). It’s been an amazing year. Unfathomable. I wrote the post below that was intended to be a “Christmas Letter” (the type where people tell you what they did in the past year) because while traveling almost everyone asks “Where have you been” and the reality is that I don’t think that anyone in our actual group of friends aside from myself and Katie know that answer! So – here it is in case you are interested.
Before I start – as an anniversary of this trip thought – I know how lucky we are and I know that just about no one can take the time to do what we did – but – maybe – think about this – look at your calendar, clear a weekend really soon, get a map or pull up tripadvisor.com and find some place close by to go that you have never visited. Make an adventure. Like Nike says – “Just Do It”.
And with that said here’s a bit of inspiration maybe …..
There is a tradition with some people of sending a Holiday letter telling all of the recipients what happened in the past year. I thought that since it’s been a while since I even wrote a blog and since the first question that everyone that we meet asks is “So tell us what you did” that I figure I could try to write it out. It’s a long journey but I know at least a couple of people would like to hear the whole thing so here’s a college try. BTW – considering it’s far into January I am a bit late – that’s who long it took to put this together.
Let me start with a single list of the countries that we visited. I drove through the Southwest US and met Katie in Texas and we drove into Mexico where we spent close to a month in February. We flew to Trinidad for a week and then Tobago for a week. Next Curacao for 4 days and after that Colombia for close to a month closing out March. Peru was next for close to a month and then Bolivia for about a week driving across the border into Chile. We spent a few weeks in Chile and headed to Argentina for May. We flew to South Africa on June 10 and spent close to a month there. July was spent in Madagascar for close to a month. Next was Turkey where Katie spent about 10 days before she headed back to the states for 4 weeks for he Gram’s 90th birthday, to see friends and to head to Burning Man. I spent part of that time in Turkey and the rest in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Hungary before we met up again in Greece in early September. We spent a few weeks in Greece and then headed to Spain for a month in October. I visited Girbraltar for a day and then we took a boat to Morocco where we stayed for 3 weeks. Next was Portugal for a week followed by a quick 4 days with friends in Rome and then off to Sri Lanka for Close to a month. Following that we headed to Indonesia and visited several islands for a few weeks and now we are in Thailand. Laos is next then Vietnman, Cambodia and finally back to Thailand for the long flight back home!
So if you are interested in more details feel free to read below!
JANUARY – U.S.
The Trip: Driving from San Diego through Yuma, Phoenix, a whole lot of desert, The bottom of New Mexico, Las Cruces National Monument, El Paso, Marfa Tx, Big Bend National Park, a whole lot of Texas, San Antonio and crossing the border at Laredo
January started with getting everything packed up and put away. I was already out of my house and living in a short term rental so it was a bit easier for me – my feet were already out the door when I stepped into the Rialta (our RV) at the end end of January.
The first leg of my trip was to drive the RV from California to Texas where I would meet Katie. Katie had a few more things to wrap up and I am more of a fan of big cross country drives than she is so while she worked on packing up her house and bags I drove for 5 days through Arizona, the bottom of New Mexico and then through Texas. I visited the biosphere, a museum that is in a nuclear missile silo and the Prada store in Marfa Texas (it’s an art project you can look up). I visited Las Cruces national monument and Big Bend National Park where you can walk to Mexico across the Rio Grande (although you are stuck on the riverbank in Mexico when you do it). I wrapped up my solo mission at San Antonio airport where Katie joined me and we headed to Laredo where we would cross the border.
FEBRUARY – MEXICO
The Trip: Drive from Laredo to San Luis Potosi to Mexico City, To Puebla, to Oaxaca, flights to Cancun/Tulum when the RV broke down.
We drove into Mexico and our first stops were in the state of San Luis Potosi where we saw Gorgeous waterfalls, crystal clear lakes and a magical place in the jungle part castle, part Salvadore Dali dream – a fantasy come to life of a compatriot and follower of Dali who built staircases to nowhere in a lush garden of butterflies and waterfalls in the obscure town of Xilitla. I jokingly told Katie at the time “Great, we saved the best for first – this will be hard to top”. We’ve had an amazing year but the statement was nearly true.
From there we took off on the longest, toughest drive toward Mexico city – punked by Google maps – supposed to be 6 hours, wound up being around 18. Lesson learned – and at times not – Google maps is an amazing tool but it’s not always correct internationally.
Our time in Mexico city was nothing but secure and we met expats with the same notion. Strange but true – Mexico city is the hands down most gay friendly city we have ever been. It was a total surprise to see gay couples everywhere just acting completly like straight couples – just living a good life. Also beautiful museums, great food, a wonderful rooftop apartment, Katie’s bday at a great rooftop restaurant, colorful boats on the canals of Oxchomiclo and a visit to the Monarch Butterly reserve where all of the Monarch butterflies in North America find a place to rest. Mexico city was the first place that I got stomach sickness. Luckily it so far has happened for me 3 times but each only lasting 24 hours. Ironically they have been the result of some of the cleanest most Western meals of our trip. We were there for 5 days then off to Puebla ……
And the RV transmission acted up … and Puebla is a huge city of 4 million with a VW plant and a mile of repair shops …. and we were recommended the ‘best transmission place in town’ …. and Mexican mechanics are supposed to be extremely resourceful ….
Puebla is a really cool city for a couple of days. Amazing Cathedrals and great food. The RV was “Just one more day” so we gave them a couple of extra, rented a car and headed to Oaxaca. Oaxaca was nice, we rode horses with an American guy who had moved back to his parents ranch after … ahem … some problems in the states. He was really interested in finding out what the deal was with marijuana laws and how maybe there was less jail time now. He had some great tatoos.
From there Katie flew to meet her friend in Tulum who had arranged to fly down and meet us – since we were off schedule at this point it was best to let Katie fly ahead – the RV would be fixed by the time I got back to Puebla …. or not.
Waiting for the RV I saw an amazing ancient city, a couple of gorgeous waterfalls, a couple of temples an a lot of cathedrals. The RV was left in Puebla in a gated community where the daughter of the storage company in Cancun lives. The RV is still there waiting for our return. I flew to Cancun for one day on the beach and diving before we were off to Trinidad.
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO (End of February)
We met with some of our friends for Carnival in Trinidad – noted to be the largest Carnival celebration in the Caribbean. They take carnival seriously in this small island nation. Thanks to Sandra and Rama who have participated before (Sandra is from Trinidad) We were actually part of the Carnival parade in a “Band”. What this means is that we danced, walked and shuffled for several miles through the streets of Port Of Spain with a couple of thousand other revelers all in similar costumes at the sides of a series of tractor-trailers each of which was outfitted either with a sound system that could crush a stadium or an unlimited and seemingly endlessly stocked bar with any possible drink that you wanted. The length of our “band” stretched probably about 1/2 mile. It’s pretty impossible to explain without seeing in person. Maybe a helicopter could do it justice.
Katie and I spent the following week in Tobago relaxing on probably the most beautiful and uncrowded beaches we have seen this year with gorgeous water and great snorkeling. If you want a beach vacation we highly recommend looking into the far tip of Tobago. It’s probably the most accesbile place we went that you could actually visit for a week without it feeling like too much travel.
In order to get to South America from Trinidad all of the major airlines1 flew in ridiculous backwards and expensive fashion. We luckily found that you could fly through curacao to get to Colombia so we decided to stop for a few days. There is gorgeous diving and snorkeling there.
We visited Medelin, Cartagena, Santa Marta and Bogota. Here’s a quick roundup.
The parts of Columbia that we visited felt very safe. A lot of people were very concerned for us but really much of Colombia is very different than the history of the dangerous country. For sure there are still dangerous parts but the places where Americans visit are now very safe. Medelin is a big city which used to be the home of the Cali drug cartel and was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The cartel is gone and it’s a great place to see progressive politics trying to help poor people live a better life. It’s also surrounded by beautiful coffee plantations and mountains.
Cartagena is called by many the hottest city in the world. It looks like something from a pirate movie. The old city is surrounded by giant stone walls and canons. There are horse drawn carriages and cobblestone streets. The street art is some of the best in the world – it’s actual art. I won’t call it graffiti. The murals are gorgeous. Days were lazy and hot. I found one of my favorite street foods of the trip – a hot dog from a cart that can not be explained but only in the fact that I woke up at 2:00 in the morning one night and had to go get another one – and – of course the cart was still open. People stay up late in Cartagena as the days are just too hot.
Bogata is high in the mountains. We adjusted to altitude there and saw more great street art. The civic buildings in the center have a stately feel. One night we asked a cab driver to take us to the zone where the great restaurants are supposed to be and we wound up in a place which felt like an American shopping mall with places that looked like TGIF. We came to realize that in other parts of the world it is frequent that the “best” is what is lined up with Americana culture …. which wasn’t exactly what we were looking for.
We visitied Cusco and the “Sacred Valley” where the Incas made their home and built their cities including but certainly not only Macu Picu. Mark Took a trip into the some of the most remote jungle in the world on a riverboat.
Details: We hike several of the ancient Inca archeological sites. Pisac, Olloytantambo and of course Machu Picu. We rode downhill mountain bikes through parts of the country where almost all of the women as well as a large portion of the men dress in traditional clothing and tend to terraced fields at incredible altitudes. Although many areas cater to tourists it is still very easy to see traditional rural life still taking place.
Next up I headed on an intense trip into the Manu Reserve jungle. This is a place where the Peruvian government has declared to be absolutely untouchable for any type of development. It’s millions of acres with no road access. Any visitors can only arrive in boats and the number of visitors per day is limited to a couple of hundred. In this part of the world scientists have found tribes of humans who have had zero modern contact and they believe that there are still more tribes living this way. I didn’t see any of them but I did travel up river on a boat for several days sighting animals and birds of all shapes and sizes in a place where they rule and man is still slightly low on the totem pole – at least for now. As my travels progressed I realized more and more how special and unusual it has become to find some place so remote and untouched. I’m extremely happy that I got to take this trip.
Katie spent some time in the city of Cusco because the jungle trip sounded and was a little intense. She made good use of her time watching the largest cultural day in this part of Peru with some friends from high school who … happened to be in Cusco at the same time — small world right?
We visited Bolivia really for one purpose – to visit the Salar De Uyuni salt flats which are famous for the salt desert where you can take pictures which distort depth perception. We also arranged to stay in a hotel made of salt which was a fantastic experience on it’s own.
Uyuni and the salt flats were the first place on the trip where the geography really felt like another planet. True to description it’s a giant desert made of salt. There are tours which take you through the desert and into several other geographical areas – most of which look like you are on some form of other planet – mars, pluto, whereever. Just not Earth. During the trip we reached the highest elevation we would reach on the whole trip. At about 15,000 feet even though we had been climatized in Peru it was still slightly challenging when we stopped at one site to climb a small hill. Even though the scenery was amazing it was made even better by our tour group. We were with 9 other people – one guy and 8 young women – and we really clicked. The sites were great, the company was wonderful.
The Trip: We drove from Bolivia to San Pedro De Atacama in the North, we flew to the Capital city of Santiago, we took a bus to Pucon which is the top of Patagonia then back to Santiago and finally bussed over the Andres to Mendoza, Argentina
The trip in Bolivia dropped us off in Chile in the City of San Pedro De Atacama – home of the driest place on Earth. We also visited Santiago in the center and down to Pucon at the top of Patagonia before taking a bus into Argentina.
ARGENTINA – May-June
The Trip: We spent a few days in wine country in Mendoza then flew to Buenos Aires where we had an apartment for the whole month. We took a week long trip to El Calafate and El Chalten in Patagonia, we took a day trip to a river delta region called Tigre where life is accessed by boat and we also took a day trip to the country of Paraguay.
SOUTH AFRICA – June – July
The Trip: We flew from BA to Capetown and stayed in an apartment for a week and explored the city and the surroundings. Next we rented a camper van built from a Mercedes Sprinter and headed up the coast of “The Garden Route” for a week long drive and camp all the way from Cape Town to the famed surf spot of Jeffrey’s bay and back. After that we flew to Johanesburg where we rented a similar van for a 10 day safari in Kruger National Park – an area the size of New Jersey where the big game live and you drive your own vehicle through. Thousands of elephants, zebra, cape buffalo, rhinos, lions, etc.
MADAGASCAR – July – August
The Trip: Short flight from SA to Madagascar and 100 years back in time – or maybe just a million miles in space time. Madagascar doesn’t allow you to drive, doesn’t have normal public transportation and hardly any roads. We were advised to get a driver/guide for the whole time we were there which we did. We traveled from the capital to national parks then we took a three day trip in a wooden canoe dugout from a large tree. After that we took a 4×4 on “roads” unlike anything we’ve ever experienced, ferried across rivers and explored otherwise innaccesible parts of the country. Following that we were back overland to parks, plains, forests and villages. We ended up on a beach where only roughly 1000 tourists visit per year that is carpeted with the type of shells that you find in a shell shop. We were scheduled on an internal flight back to the capital and our guide had warned us to buy the ticket for a date two days before our flight out because the only internal airlines (Air Madagascar) is notoriously delayed. The flight got cancelled 3 times but we managed to get to the capital with literally only a couple of hours to spare.
TURKEY – August
The Trip: We flew through Kenya to Istanbul and immediately headed to the coastal city of Fethiye and boarded a type of boat called a “gullet” which is a traditional Mediteranean vessel which can comfortably hold a group of around 20 people including the crew. We once again lucked out with the group we were placed with and spent a fantastic week living aboard the ship on nearly fake looking blue water visiting Turkish villages, ancient ruins and gorgeous beaches. Much time was spent swimming and enjoying the fantastic food that the crew prepared for us 3 meals a day. It was a real high point of the journey. Leaving the boat we visited the ancient roman city (the Roman empire reached Turkey) at Ephesus. Following that Katie returned to the states to visit friends, wish her grams a happy 90th bday and then head out to Burning Man.
I spent time bussing around Turkey visiting a set of otherworldly landscapes that exist in that country – first at the strange white watercourse at Pamukale then next ballooning and scootering around the strange spires and caves of Cappadocia. I wrapped up my trip in Turkey with a few days in Istanbul which is my personal favorite city in the world (even though one of the worst happenings of my entire trip took place there. All in all while we never really planned to visit Turkey it was one of both of our favorite countries on the whole trip.
SLOVENIA/ITALY/CROATIA/BOSNIA/HUNGARY – August-September
The trip: I was looking for anywhere close to Turkey that wasn’t experiencing a heat wave and found Slovenia. I rented a car for the entire 3 weeks that Katie would be in the states and toured the regions of this lovely little country. The cleanest country I have ever seen with gorgeous mountains, lakes with floating castles in the center, pristine rivers, forests, a wine region, a small stretch of Mediteranean coastline with a ‘Venetian’ city (built in the model of Venice), absolutely amazing caves (the biggest caves I have ever been in) and a whole lot of castles and general storybook looking landscapes. Slovenia borders Northern Italy so I was able to spend an afternoon/evening in Trieste which screams of a classical Italian city and be back in Slovenia for an early bedtime – one of the beautiful things about Slovenia is that it seems that nothing is more than at most a 3 hour drive away within the country. Slovenia was another huge surprise – I have told people that if you take every component of a visit and average them together that Slovenia was maybe my favorite country on the trip.
Anyhow, as noted I am more the road-tripper than Katie so I took the opportunity to drive hundreds of miles within the allowed rental car range. I crossed Croatia on amazing superhighways heading into Bosnia where I found a country of beautiful natural landscapes that is still in the process of recovering from a pretty brutal war. I visited the town of Mostar which was made infamous by how the brutal war wrecked havoc there, stayed a few days and then headed to Sarajevo where I found friendly people very interested in talking about their past and the future as well After a couple of days I headed through more gorgeous countryside. It had been raining a bit and I looked at the weather map and found a dry spot in Budapest and headed there. Budapest is another fantastic city incredibly rich in history, architecture and full of a European vibrance with a lower price tag on everything. I only had two days there but they were chock full of sight seeing, a boat trip, museums and good food. Finally back to Slovenia for two last days in the city that was most like Hans Christian Anderson and then off to Greece to meet Katie again.
GREECE – September-October
Our trip to Greece spanned a variety of landscapes. Starting in Athens we were unimpressed and were happy to leave quickly Sadly I had expected a lot more of a grandiose city . After a couple of days we ferried off to the famous island of Santorini. We didn’t stay in the part of the island which is famous from pictures and movies but took a lower cost option on another beach. We rented a quad and drove all over the island, explored the blue and white buidlings, watched the sunset over the mediteranean from the caldera rim as well as hiking along said rim for about 7 miles one day – a challenging hike indeed.
Next up in Greece a smaller, more intimate island of Ios – more to our liking. We were also there for the last weekend of business for the year – ‘closing week’ for the locals and the workers … but most of the tourists were already gone. Another rented scooter took us to much more deserted, more more remote parts of the island which was for us a quiet experience with some nice restaurants for a few days.
After that we headed to Crete on another ferry, spent a day in the busy city of Heraklion, rented a car and headed to a fantastic Venetian city called Xania or Chania depending on which sign you look at. Regardless we stayed in a guest house that was six hundred years old and strolled through cobblestone streets too narrow to drive a normal car through. From there we visited one of the deepest gorges in Europe as well as taking a one day boat trip to some deserted islands nearby including one with a pink sand beach. Sadly, like most of the rest of Greece there was trash everywhere. I won’t talk too much about this but humans have a really bad trash problem. America on the whole is one of the cleanest countries we have been in. The Greeks are particularly bad about “throwing it out the window” Sad.
After Crete we flew to Thesalonik in the North of Greece to visit the famous clifftop monasteries of Meteora. The building seem to grow straight out of the rocks and it’s even more impressive to find that they were originally accessed without modern staircases. We drove from Meteora more or less straight to the airport and then it was off to Spain
SPAIN – October
The trip: We loved Spain on the whole. I think Katie had been expecting to love Spain where I hadn’t really known what to expect. On the whole I would say it was for both of us in the top couple of countries on the trip. We started in Barcelona where we stayed for a week – at first by ourselves and then we met a few of Katie’s friends who were travelling at the same time. Barcelona was about the architect Gaudi, Museums, crowds and food. We both found Barcelona bigger than we expected – not bad – just more bustle. From there we took a train to Valencia with the friends and stayed there for a few days. We both loved Valencia. It had a smaller feel than Barcelona and we felt that it was a bit less of a tourist destination. There was still amazing architecture and culture, just a more intimate feel.
From there we rented a car for the remainder of the trip and hit a series of cities that expressed the variation in Southern Spain ranging from beach to mountain to ‘white city’ and back to beach. We visited Granada, Malaga, Nerja, Rhonda, Sevilla, Corboda, Arcos de la Frontera and Tarifa. Every one of these places would really deserve it’s own blog post and they were all colorful each in their own way but for not let’s just say we learned a lot by driving through Spain.
MOROCCO – October
The Trip: We spent 3 weeks in Morocco and I think that for both of us it was both incredibly intriguing as well as frustrating. Morocco is filled with beautiful locations and beautiful items. The interiors of spaces are almost always pleasing to the eye. The narrow passageways of the old cities are intriguing and mysterious and frequently beautiful and the craftsmanship is out of the world. The food is delicious as well. In terms of nature the extremes of mountain, desert and oceans forms a place that is unique to behold.
The problem with Morocco is the people in both attitude and the total lack of concern of the environment around. Although we certainly met some extremely kind and nice Moroccans, on the whole it seemed almost more than anywhere the people had a negative attitude. The men were rude and aggressive and actually started two separate physical altercations with me. The male children seemed to play in a fashion that wasn’t simply ‘rough and tumble’ but more just ‘not nice’ and in general the idea of taking money from tourists simply because they believe the tourists have money was stronger than any place that we visited. In addition the entire population seems to have no regard for the environment. I met a group of intelligent and interesting university students whose company I enjoyed very much and yet I was amazed at how they simply literally tossed all of their trash on the side of a hike in the national park and seemed to think nothing of it.
As such Morocco left us maybe a little saddened. I wish we had felt better about all of the amazing things that we saw there.
PORTUGAL – October
The Trip: We spent one week in Lisbon with a couple of daytrips to nearby locales. For me Portugal was the one place where I really truly wished we had spent more time. It rained almost the whole time we were there but I tried to not allow that to stop me from exploring. I loved what I found there. Something about the streets reminded me of Spain. The people were incredibly nice and low key. We were able to use public transport quite well. I loved the food – in fact I could be my favorite dessert on the planet there – a custard that sits inside of a crisp baked tart – and for me, a person who doesn’t eat much desert – to find a snack that I couldn’t stop eating is a big deal. Another nice point – Everyone spoke English in the cities we visited – while we’ve learned to get around without English in places it’s nice to have it. For me I loved how many castles that they had. I love old castles – there are countless castles there. Portugal had plenty of modern conveniences – I rented a car for a day and the roads drove extremely well and I wasn’t worried – on the flip side I felt like I was still in many ways in a charming, old world setting. Bottom line – it is a place I would love to spend more time to find out if I loved it as much as it seemed.
ROME – November
The trip: We spent 5 days in Rome visiting with friends that we had met on our boat trip in Turkey. This was the only trip where we were treated by locals with local knowledge to show us the town. Valentina and Eros could not have been more considerate hosts if they had tried. We were shown amazing food, all day sight seeing, home made food with friends, local areas where we have never been privy to see and just constant attention making sure we got in great museums, great food and great knowledge. It was a perfect way to spend 5 days in Rome 🙂
SRI LANKA – November-December
The Trip: Katie spent the first 10 days in the South of Sri Lanka at a center for the practice of Ayurvedic Medecine for which Sri Lanka is famous where they balance your body with food and treatments. During this time I visited the north of Sri Lanka where the jungles and ancient cities remind you of portions of an Indiana Jones movie. This of course makes sense because … they filmed the jungle segments of the Indian Jones movies there. I saw overgrown cities thousands of years old with monkeys and bats at every turn. It was greener and wetter than any place that I have been. I took rickety old train cars and saw colonial era buildings. I climbed giant rocks to carved Buddha caves. If it sounds surreal it lived more surreal.
When I met up with Katie in the high mountain tea growing region of the country we climbed to the top of a mountain that has 3000 steps going up to watch the sunrise at a budhist temple. We then climbed 3000 steps down and we could hardly walk for a couple of days. The view was worth it but we’ve never either done anything like that. We followed it up with a safari trip in an attempt to see leopards which are native to Sri Lanka. Didn’t find them but met some new friends. Headed to the beach which Sri Lanka is famous for and spent over a week in two different spots – one more isolated than the next.
I spent time surfing and we found a restaurant we loved. We relaxed a whole lot and then we were off to Indonesia.
INDONESIA – December – January
The Trip: We flew into Bali and headed into the lower mountain area of Ubud near the rice paddies. Katie spent a week working on yoga on a daily basis with a great committment. I spent that week driving around on a motor scooter into the still less populated areas of Northern Bali. No one was measuring but I put about 600 miles on that scooter and had a blast doing it. It rained a lot but that didn’t dampen my spirit. Even blowing a flat tire on Bali’s biggest holiday didn’t stop me from moving.
For Christmas we spent a week on the island of flores. We chartered a boat for just the two of us at a ridiculously cheap rate. Our own captain and crew took us snorkeling, visiting with the giant lizards on Komodo island and watching a million bats take off at sunset. It was a pretty special 3 days – completely catered 3 meals a day and cost probably less than a hotel for a night in NYC.
After that for the actual Christmas we wound up being hosted by a family of 8 children and their parents and grand parents in a relatively remote village on flores where they were the local musicians with a booming sounds system and the whole family singing and passing the home made booze around.
Finally for New Years back through Bali to the tiny island off of Lombol called Gili Trawajan- no cars but plenty of good food, good drinks, great fireworks, bikes, new friends, diving, local markets and just relaxing (despite there being tons of trash on the island :()
Back to Bali for a couple of days – surfing in my old haunts from 20 years prior.
THAILAND – January –
We’re here! A few days in Bangkok mainly eating at every food stall that I could find. Both Katie and I needed to see medical people – I lost a crown and had my teeth fixed up, Katie had some sun induced spots looked at. Bangkok is a milllion things – hard to describe. Now we’re off to destinations in the North of the coutnry before we head south.
SO! Hell of a year – did you make it down this far? As I said – the most frequent question is – “What have you done?” Well there it is – brief as can be. We still have a little bit left. It’s been an amazing year. When All is said and done I would change almost nothing – I would stay in Morocco a little shorter (but I would still go) and I would definitely stay in Portugal longer. Aside from that it’s a great adventure.