This past year I started a new job and with the start of that new job came an extra PTO day that I’ve never been granted in the past: the day after Thanksgiving!!!! Of course as soon as I found out I got this day “for free” I decided to try to go international over the holiday. Though this later got my in trouble with my friends and family (only kinda), I am so happy I decided to take the trip.
Planning this trip started with figuring out an international destination that wasn’t going to break the bank or take 7+ hours to get to considering I only had 4-5 days. Insert Central America. A place I’d never researched or had on my radar. After approximately 5 seconds of scrolling through the Pinterest search “Central America Travel” I stumbled on a photo of Lake Atitlan, and that settled it; I was going to Guatemala. Well, if the flight was affordable, that is. Thankfully I stumbled on a flight for less than $300 and immediately booked it.
I spent a very short time in Guatemala, but 4 days was all it took for me to fall in love with the country, culture, and Central America in general. Leading up to the trip (5 days before my departure to be exact) I received a phone call from my mom that went something like this:
Mom: “Whitney I know that you enjoy travelling, but your Dad, and I have been talking to some well traveled friends, and we all agree that Guatemala is not a good place for you to be going alone.”
Me: “Well Mom the flight is booked, and I am going….what exactly do you/your friends know about Guatemala that worries you about the place?”
Mom: “Well IDK! It just seems like a dangerous place for you to be going.”
Me: “Okay Mom well we both know I’m going on this trip regardless of this conversation, but just keep in mind you, and Dad also thought Croatia was dangerous before you went.”
Mom: “FINE. You are probably right.”
Fast forward 15 minutes to when I get a call from Eric A:
Eric A: “So Mom called to let me know that her and Dad feel weird about you going to Guatemala.”
Whitney A: “Of course she did.”
Eric A: “Well I just told her to consider that if you die it’ll save her a lot of money on Christmas gifts.”
Needless to say my parents got over it, but I think the above conversation shows how much we fear the unknown. Don’t get me wrong, I understand, that you need to practice a certain level of caution when travelling alone anywhere, Central America included, however, I am a firm believer that if you use your street smarts and show respect to the people, culture, and place that you are going, you will almost always be welcome.
I departed Chicago on Wednesday, November 22nd in the afternoon, and arrived in Guatemala City around 9:00PM. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little nervous. I hadn’t traveled completely solo since I moved to Germany in 2014. I started questioning my confidence with solo travel when I landed at the Guatemala City airport with little to no Spanish skills. I was relying on a message from my hostel in Antigua saying that someone would be waiting outside the airport doors holding a sign with my name on it. After walking out to what seemed like an abandoned parking lot I didn’t see anyone holding a sign with my name on it. I got a little more nervous. What the hell was I going to do if this person didn’t show to drive me to Antigua?! The more I walked around the more nervous I got. Finally I tried calling the hostel, and they assured me someone was coming to get me. He did eventually show up. Insert a major sigh of relief.
The drive to Antigua was smooth and easy, lasting about 45 minutes. Upon arrival in Antigua I checked into my accommodation: Three Monkey’s Hostel. It was a quaint little place with a great rooftop deck and courtyard. The staff were incredibly friendly, helping me find a good late night place to get food and drink.
I was directed straight to Cafe No Se where I met an expat from Oregon that spends his summers in Alaska on a fishing charter and his winters in Antigua working various jobs. Between him, the bar owner-an expat from New York, and a local Guatemalan tour guide that I met, my nerves dissipated immediately. Follow my nerves disappearing with Cafe No Se’s famous Grilled Cheesus, and you could say I settled in quite nicely. I learned during my conversations that I totally dropped the ball in planning for this trip and should have planned time to hike Acetanango-an active volcano that people typically hike up later in the afternoon, camp, and then wake up at dawn to watch the sunrise around the surrounding volcanoes.
I woke up the next morning with about 3 hours to explore Antigua before my shuttle picked me up to head to Lake Atitlan. I found a small cafe/bakery to eat breakfast and enjoy Guatemalan coffee. After breakfast I walked the streets admiring the architecture and stopped to pet every friendly stray dog I could find. 12:00PM arrived, and it was time to return to Three Monkeys Hotel for my shuttle. After about 30 minutes my nerves started coming back, because, once again, my shuttle wasn’t there. When it finally did arrive I realized that this is the reality of scheduled shuttles/cars in Guatemala. The streets are rougher and hillier. Nothing is actually on time, or at least, not usually, and that is okay.
It took around 4.5 hours to get to Panajachel (one of the two towns accessible by land on the lake.) Once I arrived I walked down the street toward the lake to catch a water taxi to Santa Cruz, the village where La Iguana Perdida is. The taxi cost me 20Q, however, I am pretty sure bartering is fairly easy to do. After about 35 minutes on the water enjoying the views we pulled up to the docks, and I could see the line for Thanksgiving Dinner at La Iguana Perdida from the boat. I was immediately overwhelmed by the large expat population. The sense of community was intimidating at first, but as I settled in and had a drink, I really started to enjoy myself. After dinner, a couple of girls from the states invited me over to play cards. Chelsea, Madison, and Olivia all know each other from a study abroad experience in Costa Rica. After completion of the program Chelsea traveled a bit, and then took an internship in Guatemala. Olivia and Madison were visiting her for a long weekend. We played cards all night, talked all about our travels and experiences, and, after copious amounts of alcohol, joined the rest of the group at the hostel bar to participate in a classic Thanksgiving tradition. We went around the group, 15 people at least, and talked about what we were most thankful for (and took shots of course). Moments like these are the reason that travel is so infectious. To meet a group of people from all over the world and connect within hours of knowing each other is incredible. No judgement, just genuine interest in one another.
The next day Chelsea, Madison, and Olivia left the lake to head back to Antigua. This meant I was a loner again. I took Chelsea’s advice and walked up the only street in the village to CECAP. CECAP is a vocational educational program in Santa Cruz that was started to introduce new skills to the community to help make it more prosperous. The school sells a lot of hand crafted items from the students, and also offers a rooftop cafe, with BEAUTIFUL views of the lake. I spent a good portion of my day between the cafe and roaming the streets hanging out with the local dogs.
That evening I sat down for the family style dinner that La Iguana Perdida offers-a dinner that requires you sit with others staying at the hostel to engage in conversation and meet new people. I ended up at a predominantly Australian table with the exception of a lovely woman from the UK. Another night was spent getting to know new people, including Andrew, a pilot from Australia, and his girlfriend. After another night of drinking and conversation, I kidnapped Sox, the local cat that hangs at the hostel, and hung out for a bit before bed.
My final day was spent out on the water. I took the water taxi from village to village until I arrived in San Juan. San Juan was recommend to me by the girls at the hostel as the best place to find local Guatemalan coffee. I wandered around until it was time to catch my shuttle back in Panajachel. One common theme that I noticed all around the lake was that a lot of the locals have next to nothing, houses made out of cinder block with no real flooring, yet, they were some of the happiest and kindest people I’ve ever encountered. I never once felt unsafe.
A long shuttle back to Guatemala City via Antigua landed me at my hostel, Los Volcanes, at 10:30PM. I online ordered Pizza Hut with the help of my hostel host, stuffed my face, and passed out. Up at 3:30AM, my hostel host drove me over to the airport to catch my flight back to the states.
4 days is a very short time, and it took a lot of work to get to Lake Antigua, but it was worth it. Since stepping foot on US soil I can’t stop thinking about Central America. The people, the views, the food, the dogs, and let’s face it, the cost. This is a great option for backpackers that don’t want to break the bank.
Until next time, Guatemala.
Oh the strange places we venture. Us Two Bros decide to head to Carlsbad Caverns & Guadalupe Mountains for our 2017 Labor Day. We flew into El Paso International Airport. In true Texas form you have to fly to the closest airport & drive to the parks. To get to Big Bend you have to fly to Midland, Texas, & drive 2.5 hours South to the park. This time is was El Paso & about 45 minutes to Carlsbad where we started.
Whit got in a little late so we drove to about 15 minutes outside Carlsbad Caverns & stayed at the Rodeway Inn. It’s a hole in the wall, but for you extreme pool fanatics, it does have a water slide. The price isn’t fantastic, most likely, because it’s the closest place to the parks, but the room will get you through the night.
We started our first whole day in Carlsbad, a park similar to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, but also much different. The Caverns are a little more appealing & exciting when you’re inside them, they have an elevator that goes down into the center or you can enter at the mouth which adds an easy extra mile to the hike. We recommend doing the mouth entrance, Carlsbad isn’t that long of a hike. You can do the Cavern’s in under 3 hours & the surrounding area has some basic trails you can walk though the Caverns are what it’s all about.
Inside they also have a restaurant with some cold cut sandwiches & soft drinks; & get this, they have plumbing. Full blown men & women’s bathrooms. What plumber got the call, ” Hey can you put plumbing in our cave?” It’s kind of amazing.
Afterwards we ate nachos, burgers, & grilled cheeses at the White City Restaurant. They don’t have a website that I can find, which if you go there you”ll understand, but the food was cheap & delicious.
In Guadalupe, we booked two hikes, The McKittrick Canyon Trail at about 14.8 miles with a 2,000 ft elevation change, & the Guadalupe Point Hike at about 8.5 miles with a 3,000 foot elevation change. We set off for McKittrick… then realized we forgot our camping permit back at the visitor center. We set off for McKittrick again! When you arrive at the trail head, there is a mini ranger’s station with a couple bathrooms, a water fountain & an informational video. We start our hike in the late afternoon, which is always nice in the Southwest, it’s cooler outside & the pictures are so beautiful with the sun going down. We set up camp in the dark as usual. Now let me say this, the hike up, landscape, greenery & all is very beautiful, a tough hike, but great views. The camp site at the top is very much the opposite. You’re up on one of the highest mountains in the park & you feel like you made a huge trek just to sit in the woods. Really you could do that in Idaho & your knees would hurt a lot less.
We got up early to watch the sunrise from this great spot we found on the ridge. We snapped a few pics, took in all the scenery, & made our way back to the ranger’s station. The trek going down is even harder than going up. Hiking on broken limestone is tough & unpredictable, so you have to watch where you step. At the bottom we met a ranger named Eli. A very happy go lucky guy who talked to us for a while about all of his favorite spots in El Paso. He also happened to have gone to Ranger school with our savior Zach from our Voyageurs National Park mini trip.
Due to Whitney’s cartilage damaged knees we decided to opt out of the Guadalupe Peak hike. We handed our unused permit to Eli and headed straight for El Paso. We were starving & on the way back to the city, Whitney A found this cool little cafe, Cafe Cardunas, run by someone’s grandmother, who supported Donald Trump & hosted a small Sunday Mass in the back corner of the restaurant converted home. We demolished everything she brought us. As crazy as the political canvas of the restaurant seems, I recommend it. The food was amazing, she made my turkey club with real non- processed turkey! And of course Whit loved her grilled cheese.
In El Paso, we treated ourselves. We got a room at the Radisson Hotel, & sat poolside with a couple of blue moons, vodka sodas, & rested our weary legs. We also had a couple of Jalapeño burgers, which were perfect.
One regret we had was not bringing our Passports. El Paso sits right on the Juarez Mexico border, & having that extra day, we would’ve went to check it out if possible. Although a small city in Texas, El Paso & it’s nearby National Parks are worth a visit.
As everyone knows, Iceland has experienced a tourism boom since the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. The Icelandic government worried the country would take a major hit as a result. Instead they responded with a major publicity campaign & in the time since, has jumped from 465,000 tourists in 2009 to an estimated 1.8 million 7 2017 is set to finish around 2.4 million. Whitney A, Steven Samuel Fisher, Ali B, & I contributed to that number.
Over 11 days, we spent 6 days in Reykjavik & 4 days on the Laugavegur Trek.
Whitney A & I flew Canada Air through Toronto International Airport to get to Reykjavik. I’ll make this quick. Air Canada is easily one of the worst flights we’ve ever taken. Every flight was late leaving or arriving, you had to pay for your drinks & the 4 1/2 hour leg of the flight from Toronto to Iceland didn’t have TVs while the 1 1/2 hour flight did. Toronto International is a mess. Their security rules vary from check point to check point & although they have nice bars, the drinks are priced to bankrupt.
Whit & I got off the plane & met Steve at Keflavik International. The three of us hopped a bus to the Blue Lagoon. Although super touristy, the Lagoon is worth a look. Outdoor health pools are very common in Iceland & the Blue Lagoon is one of the largest. Some nice features are the baggage check for tourists & the swim up bar in the pool. Try Iceland’s homemade beer, Gull, it definitely doesn’t disappoint.
Our bus took us & it’s other passengers into Reykjavik & made multiple stops making sure each passenger got exactly where they needed to go. For us that place was Reykjavik Downtown Hostel located on Vesturgata St. in the heart of the action, & would be our home for the next 5 nights. Steve & Whit got a private room & I jumped from a four person room to a 10 person after the first night. That evening we checked out a couple of spots around town & the one that stuck out the most & a place we’d return to later in the trip was the Drunk Rabbit.
Bars in Reykjavik although fun, are very expensive. If you can get to a Vínbúðin, Iceland’s one & only liquor store chain & run by the government, I recommend it. A pint typically runs about 10 króna or about $10 usd, at Vínbúðin the same beer will run you around 3 króna. Also liquor laws allow for open containers in public so grab a couple tall boys & explore.
Don’t let the last paragraph deter you from checking out some of the local bars. Like I said before, the Drunk Rabbit had so much to offer. An Irish pub in the heart of downtown. We happened to meet two traveling Irish folk musicians who were playing for everyone right at their table. We also met Mariana the Slovakian bartender who moved there to be with her sister who was a nurse. She ended up taking care of us the next two times we went.
The next day Whit had an excursion planned with dive.is for us to snorkel Silfra also known as the spot where the North American tectonic plates meet Europe’s. You can also dive the location, but it requires a dry suit certification which we could’t get before we went.
Fear not, the snorkeling is more than enough to get a good glimpse into the split. Our guides Chris & Bart were funny, knowledgeable & made the trip very easy. They supply all the gear & help you dress. They take you to the water, tell you a couple ridiculous jokes & that’s pretty much it. Once you’re in the water it’s silence & isolation. Your face pierces the water’s surface you can immediately see down into the Earth’s crust. Chris said it’s possible to see over 300 ft down with the naked eye. The other great thing about the excursion is they pick you up & drop you off in the same spot so getting to & from is easy & convenient.
We spent the rest of the day walking up & down Laugavegur Street. Lebowski bar is a tribute to the Cohen Brother’s timeless cult classic. Bragging 24 different styles of White Russian & some of the coolest Lebowski style decorations. As usual the drinks were pricy but totally worth it if you’re a fan. The owner did a great job showing love for the movie & not letting it slip into the tourist favorite “theme’s for a quick buck.”
Day 3 began with a Puffin & Whale Watching tour through Whale Safaris. I’m sure the other tour companies are great but I’m going to preach the good word of W.S. They supply the gear as well as experienced tour guides & boat captains. You have the option to jump on a larger style ship that moves around slowly as you try to catch up & catch a glimpse of the Minky Whales that live near port or a much smaller boat that holds about 12 people & moves around pretty quick. Our captain demonstrated did donuts just outside the harbor. The puffins were a fun feature of the boat tour but beware Puffins may be smaller than they appear… on Google images.
Our fourth & certainly not least, Ali B arrived that day, adding just a little more pizzaz to our already thriving Iceland Crew. For her first day we went & checked out one of the tallest buildings in the country, Hallgrimskirkja, a church standing at 74.5 meters high. Designed by Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937 although construction didn’t start until 1945 as Iceland was in the middle of war. It was finally completed in 1986. Samúelsson passed away in 1950 long before it’s completion.
The next two days were spent in a rental car, exploring the Snæfellsnes Peninsula & Southern sides of Iceland. Each morning before we hit the road we stopped by Cafe Haiti for some fantastic breakfast with a great view and service. The first stop was Skaftafell National Park, although we didn’t have time to walk on the glacier or see the ice cave, we squeezed in a nice little hike & saw our first & certainly not last waterfall. Other points of interest include the Hvalfjörður Fjords, the Black Beach & Skógafoss waterfall in Skógar. All unique & beautiful places to visit. If you want your Instagram to look pro, pop off a couple pics at anyone of these places.
The second day of the excursion we visited an Algae Pool spa in Snæfellsbær called Lýsuhóll geothermal pool. A swimming pool & two hot tubs full of algae set amongst mountains that’s meant to revitalize the skin. We had lunch in a small oceanside town Helen & visited the Kirkjuffel volcano. You can’t drive up to or hike it anymore as it’s fenced off for reasons I’m unaware of.
Day 6 said goodbye to Steve & put Whitney A, Ali B, & I on a bus to Landmannalaugar to start the Laugavegur Trail. This was the longest camping/ hiking journey Whit & I had ever done. We went 54.7 kms to Þórsmörk Volcano Huts & added 23.5 kms back to Skógar & finished at the top of the waterfall.
Be prepared, the weather in Iceland is ever changing. For the most part we got lucky & had no major weather problems, except Laugavegur day one. We had wind, ice, snow, rain, & when we got to our first camp about 14.4 kms into the hike we were surprised with a couple of rangers telling us we had to move onto the next camp as there was a high powered wind storm ready to tear through the mountains. Another 14 kms & more aggravating weather we finally got to camp #2. This campsite was amazing, it came with a small bar/ restaurant & a friendly German traveler named Raphael who we’d continue to see along the way.
The first day of hiking made us nervous that we’d get caught in shitty weather again & as a result the three of us went the rest of the 29.9 kms to the Volcano huts. Whitney slipped in mud right on her ass & I quietly laughed in the distance, but it didn’t stop there as about 7 seconds later she slipped into a river. Boo to wet boots.
The weather was beautiful at the huts. We calmly set up camp & went into their restaurant/ bar & drank hot chocolate all night. We also decided one more day there wouldn’t be so bad so we stayed the following day too & hung out in the sauna & did a small 4.8 kilometer hike into neighboring mountains.
The last & final day of the hike saw us going 23.5 kms back to Skógar. A beautiful hike covered in rocks, snow, waterfalls, & an absolute pain after having completed the original 54.7 kms, but well worth it. Alli B, and I got to the end & were greeted by Raphael & future friend Roussel, the Brazilian teacher living in England & traveler. Whitney stumbled up about 45 minutes later in a knee brace that a strapping young Aussie man gave to her out on the trail. Camp set-up ensued, and Raphael swooped in to save the day as Whitney and Alli’s tent poles snapped. Burgers and beers followed by a bottle of whiskey to celebrate the trek had us all in our tents asleep by 8:00PM.
If you decide you want to do the trek, be sure to bring with a backpack cover, cash or card, water shoes, & plenty of layers, you will go through them. Anything can happen out there.
Finally it was time to say goodbye to Laugavegur, so we caught an early bus back to Reykjavik the following day. We stayed at Kex Hostel for our final night. It’s a very cool very hip hostel that gets high praise from us. It’s not too far from downtown & houses it’s own bar & restaurantm, & they allow their guests to leave baggage their as they travel around the country.
Whit & Alli Bizzle got sheep tattoos at a local parlor from a couple American tattoo artists. We also happened to wander into Iceland’s Pride Parade. The city was popping! Our final night we stopped in & saw Mariana at the Drunk Rabbit one last time & headed off to get our dance on at Pablo Disco Bar with our new friend and stupendous dancer Roussel. We danced our asses off, and headed back to get some sleep before an early morning flight.
Iceland left us with no money, great memories, new friends, some sweet new Instagram posts, a couple of sheep tattoos, and Whitney A. in physical therapy for 2 months. Until next time Iceland. Cheers.
Study Abroad is an experience that I believe every college student should have. Whether you spend a week in Honduras teaching English or a year in Italy studying law; it is one of the most rewarding and eye-opening experiences a person could ask for, and, let’s face it, very little studying seems to take place. That is the beauty of it. It isn’t about the papers you write or the tests you take, it is about the people you meet and the places you see. My study abroad trip took place over the summer of 2013. It was one of the best summers of my life, and arguably the reason that I have continued to travel as much as I can (which still isn’t as much as I would like). Below are some things that I wish I would have known before my trip and some recommendations on how to prepare for your trip abroad.
My sophomore year I distinctly remember a group of students coming to visit my “Intro to Selling and Sales Management” class to present on Study Abroad. I sat there listening to the different experiences each student had and then the final girl came up, a senior in the same major, and said the only thing she would have done differently is studying abroad sooner so that she could have done it more than once. After waiting until the end of my junior year, I’d say she was spot on. I returned from my summer thinking that all I wanted to do was go again. I even considered studying abroad during my last semester of college, but FOMO held me back from doing it. So if you are reading this, and you have the opportunity, please study abroad early. Even if you start with a shorter trip over Christmas. DO IT. You will thank me later.
Now, I understand not everyone will want to Study Abroad twice, but either way, there are a lot of things to consider when picking a program: location, duration, time of year, cost, etc. For the remainder of this post I am going to break down some tips, tricks, and advice on picking a study abroad location, and how to prepare once you have.
Let’s start with where you are going. Location can sometimes be predetermined by your major area of study and the programs offered. I recommend starting with this. Make a quick stop by your Study Abroad office or go online and do a quick search on what programs are offered. Side note: it is possible to create your own study abroad program if you are set on a specific destination. If you are interested in this you need to get in touch with your adviser to talk about the appropriate steps to pull this off. Once you have an idea of destinations that fall within your major area of study, it is time to take into consideration what your preference is. Often times duration will also be tied into this decision as well. Some destinations may only be offered over the summer or in the spring semester for example. Some key things to consider for your destination: language, city vs rural, what other destinations you can get to easily while you are there, and cost. If you are only going to study abroad once, I personally recommend picking a destination in Europe. I recommend Europe for a few reasons. One, there are several destinations that almost every major will offer programs in. Two, Europe is a very budget friendly place to travel for college students. You will have the opportunity to visit many different countries for much cheaper than someone trying to hop over to Asia from Australia for example. I was able to visit 13 countries throughout the summer, whether it was for a long weekend or after I wrapped up my studies.
Destination choice helps me circle back to my original point: Study Abroad early so you can Study Abroad more than once. In my perfect world, I would have spent a semester in South America, and then did my internship program in Europe over the summer before my senior year. This would have given me the opportunity to see two completely different parts of the world. I mention South America and Europe, but let’s not forget about Australia, New Zealand, or Asia. Each place offers a lot of opportunity but keep in mind what you are hoping to accomplish while you are there!
Now, let’s talk cost. There seems to be a fallacy in the world that Study Abroad is incredibly expensive, and therefore unrealistic for some students; especially students that already feel like they are drowning in debt. The good news is, study abroad can actually be a really cost effective way to travel. In fact, if you enroll in an exchange program you will pay your universities tuition cost plus the flight to get you there. If you are trying to Study Abroad as cheap as possible, this is the obvious choice. Make sure to filter your destination choices based on what programs offer “exchange.” Other costs to keep in mind are additional travel, sightseeing, and food/drinks. To save money on additional travel, STAY IN HOSTELS; they are the opposite of scary, offer an amazing way to meet new people, and often include free meals. You can go to a lot of places if you are willing to focus more on experience rather than luxury.
Once you have decided when/where/how to go you need to decide who you are going with. This is a small but very important detail. You will have the opportunity to travel with close friends, students from you major/university, or completely on your own. I believe there are benefits to every single option. I personally travelled with my best friend, and we had an absolute blast. It gave us the opportunity to grow even closer. I also took the time to travel on my own afterward so I feel like I got the best of both worlds. On the other hand, traveling completely on your own really forces you to put yourself out there, experience new things, and create incredible new friendships. If you are someone who gets homesick easily I would lean toward traveling with friends. If you are really independent throw yourself out there and go it alone.
No matter what you decide it will be an absolutely life changing experience. Just remember it’s not as difficult as it might seem; just go!
Hey everyone! Whitney A & I are back with another late bloomer. If we haven’t discussed it before, Whit & I have a tradition of skipping family Christmas & heading out to a different national park each year. This past Christmas we hit up Big Bend National Park in Texas. Amazing mountain filled landscapes, starry skies, & nights so quiet you can hear the sound of murder.
To start off the trip, Whit and I flew in on different days, because I wanted to lay over in Houston on the way to Midland (the closest airport to Big Bend) to check out a few places. Tiki amongst all of it’s popularity has become an interest of mine as of late, so I wanted to hit up Lei Low, a Polynesian themed cocktail joint. The bartenders were very helpful, as were my fellow juice drinkers, & the mugs were full of booze. A couple other places I stopped off at that are worth taking a look into are Fat Bao, an amazing steam bun restaurant & Kings Point, an old strip mall on the Southern side of Houston where you can go check out some really awesome murals.
The following day Whit & I met up in Midland, Texas amongst the 15 total people in the whole airport & grabbed a rental car; a Jeep obviously, because we’re so adventurous. We went Jeep Patriot, because it was cheaper, but next time we’re going to splurge and get a Jeep Wrangler. The drive to the park from Midland Airport is about 4 ½ hours so you definitely want to make sure you’re comfortable & that whichever car you choose can handle some off road driving. Some of the parks drive up trails are too rough for a simple sedan to handle.
250 miles & a whole lot of 90’s playlist sing alongs later we were in the park… & then we were right back out, because we needed grub. We headed straight to Terlingua, an old mining/ ghost town about an hour west Big Bend. Terlingua is reminiscent of a town
from a spaghetti Western. Aged stone buildings covered in dust & dirt, animal bone covered fences, a dream place for people looking to explore a hole in the wall town that’s seemingly becoming a Canadian Culture phenom.
Dinner was at a restaurant called the Starlight Theatre, a historical old theatre turned bar/restaurant. The hall used to be an escape for the miners of the 1930s. It’s name came around, because when it was originally built it had no roof, revealing a star lit sky as you danced the night away to whatever band was passing through town. I haven’t fact checked that, but the history was given to me by Dan, a town local that resided in Terlingua his entire life.
The food & service was great. Our bartenders were Sarah and Corey. Corey looks like Chris Hemsworth in Thor, had great recommendations, & he made a hell of a margarita. I recommend the boar sausage appetizer &, as usual, I’m sure Whitney would recommend the grilled bread with cheese.
We built camp in the dark, again, which wasn’t so bad. Once camp was done, we set up two chairs & turned off our headlamps. Pfff! Complete darkness, complete silence, only the stars above us to show we weren’t falling off into an abyss. I fell asleep pretty quick that night, Whit did not; we had just seen Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” a week before & Whit, self-centered as she is, thought she was going to be murdered that night so she rushed off to sleep in the car. I failed miserably trying to fall back asleep so naturally I found myself back in the car too. Sigh. Big Bend is so quiet every little sound seems like it’s coming from right outside the tent.
Up at the crack of dawn with a lovely bag of freeze dried teriyaki chicken we watched the sunrise coming up over the rocks. After we ate we did a few easier touristy hikes around Boquillas Hot Springs. There we met this really nice retired couple named Thomas and Sharon Neff. Thomas was a photography professor at LSU and has his own book published called Holding Out or Holding On: Surviving Katrina. A book about the suffering, pain, & rebuilding after Katrina hit New Orleans. Whit & I were lucky enough to have him take our picture.
Later on we crossed the border into Boquillas, Mexico, a military town just across the Rio Grande inside Big Bend. It was the perfect trip to get an easy first stamp on my recently renewed passport. It’s $5.00 to cross over the river in a row boat. Once you’re on the other side you have the option of walking into town, riding a mule, or riding a horse, we went mule of course. As a first timer on mule-back, I was a natural-no surprise there. It may have been my own raw natural talent, or it may have been how well the animals were trained, who’s to say. The city itself seems pretty simple to the naked eye. A lot like Cuba, the power is sparse and up until last year they didn’t have any without the help of a personal generator. Recently though, the government built a new hospital and began installing solar panels, a new age technology that seems out of place in it’s new home, but the people were happy to have it. After we looked around we stopped off at “ Bark Bar” for a couple of Tacates & then ventured back into the park.
We camped out that night near Balanced Rock trailhead. We get the question sometimes
about what we do once camp is set up. On this particular night we played mad libs by headlamp. The game was as follows: person A gives person B the words to fill in the mad lib. Person A fills their mouth with water. Person B reads the mad lib out loud. Person A does everything in their power not to spit out the water from laughing like a fool. Whitney A won, obviously.
The next morning we really wanted to get up & see Balanced Rock at Sunrise. Balanced Rock is one of the natural monuments Big Bend is famous for. It’s a nice beginner’s hike & a great chance to get some sweet pics. Afterwards, smelly (mostly Whitney) & desperate for a shower, we got one. We hit up the park convenience store & not only did they have showers, but they had washer & dryers if you need it. They also had a decent selection of anything you may have forgotten at home. We needed a small propane tank for our Jetboil which they totally had & at a good price.
Post showers we threw back a couple of tall boys & some snacks before preparing to head into the Chisos Mountains for an overnight. Eric A may have gotten carried away drinking the tall boys and forgot that we had 7 miles directly up the side of a mountain to tackle by nightfall. While Whitney A moved gracefully through the first half of the South Rim Trail, Eric A spent a lot of time falling behind. Once Eric A finally made it to the campsite, we set up our tents, whipped up some bag food, turned on some Van Morrison, & had some beers to help lighten our bags for the 2nd half of the hike the next day. Merry Christmas. This night was particularly tough, our elevation was high enough that our tents took a little bit of a beating from the wind. This time, although a little intimidating, we had to sleep through it.
The next day, on the second leg of the hike we took a detour up to Emory Peak. My recommendation is to leave your pack(s) in the bear boxes below the trailhead if you take this hike. You will regret trying to carry a large pack up to the peak. Emory Peak is the highest point in Big Bend National Park and gives you a chance to see exactly where you’ve been. The views were definitely worth the effort but prepare to do some bouldering to get to the top.
We ran into some Blue Jays on the way down & a smelly wilderness man carrying about 8 crushed water jugs, which I’m guessing was used to scare off predators. Finally back at the car we said goodbye to Big Bend & headed back into Terlingua one more time for food. This time stopping off at the “High Sierra Bar & Grill.” It was a much different experience than the Starlight Theater. The service was mediocre, food about the same, and the water spent more time on our table than in our glasses.
Back in Midland with about 8 hours before we needed to be at the airpot, we stopped off to see Hacksaw Ridge, camped out in the rental car for a few hours, & then hit the airport. Big Bend hit the top of our list for trips we have taken so far. It’s an amazing hidden gem in the middle of nowhere Texas that everyone needs to see. One more park down, 55 parks left to go. Until next time..
Hello travel enthusiasts & fans of me! Early Last spring 2016, a few friends, Whitney A & I took our first trip to Portland. The city & the surrounding environment was amazing. To be in a city setting circled by snow covered mountains in the distance is really a treat.
The trip started with a stop in Umpqua National Forest & a chance to see Toketee Falls. The couple mile hike is fairly easy & filled with great photo opportunities. May I recommend when you get to the falls, going against your better judgement & crawling under the overlook fence, climbing down to water level. It’s worth having the falls tower over you. Afterwards, we hiked over to the Umpqua Hot Springs near our camp site. The drugs, naked flower children (hippies), & kumbaya were plentiful.
The next day we took a small trip up to Crater Lake for a little winter in spring experience. Disclaimer: for those who haven’t been to the Pacific Northwest, be prepared for all weather. I had never been before & did some calling around to ranger stations to get the scoop & was surprised to hear that I needed to pack winter gear in May. In one hour we drove from 3,900 ft up to about 5,965 ft. When you get there, you drive up to the lodge which sits right in front of the lake. Not a bad view from a comfortable chair with a hot chocolate to warm you up. Any hiking you may want to do at this time of year is through high snow drifts, larger than I’d ever seen before & camping would be hard but not impossible, the park rents snow shoes by the day.
*Fun Fact: Crater Lake is set amidst a collapsed volcano also known as a caldera
Later that day on our way to Smith Rock State Park, we stopped off in Bend, a cool little hipster town in central Oregon. The main street is full of shopping, restaurants & breweries galore. We decided to stop at Deschutes Brewery & grab a bite & a beer. Right about that time I started getting a fever & tried to sleep it off in the car.
My buddies finished up dinner & we were off to Smith Rock. When we arrived we had to set up camp in the dark, which I don’t recommend. Somehow this seems to happen to Whit & I a lot as we typically fly in in the morning day one & get wherever we’re going at night. The ground here is uneven & peppered with rocks which also makes it difficult to find a good comfy spot to sleep, hopefully you carry a sleeping pad. I went to sleep trying to fight off the fever & woke up to the sun coming up over the rocks, fever-less.
Dan, Matt, Mike & I hit the trails early, which I like because it’s nice to see nature with as little people as possible & it keeps the chances of unwanted photobombing down. Matt & Mike were moving quicker than Dan & I so we split the group in half, leaving Dan & I to do some climbing, a small photo shoot & a chance to get lost for about an hour on some private property outside the park. We were looking for the Misery Ridge Trail, a difficult but great hike to see everything the park has to offer. At the time I was a fairly new bald man & didn’t bring a hat, a mistake I came to regret much later when my Target brand organic sunscreen ended up breaking on the first use & inevitably leaving me to get sunburned. Hello peeling head.
* An overlook on Misery Ridge
Mike & Matt split for the coast later in the day so Dan & I made back to Bend for one more night. We started over at Brother Jon’s Public House where he had ourselves their “Jack Sparrow,” a pulled pork sandwich with pineapple. It was just what my Sunburned fever filled head needed. Afterwards we spent the night in a one room Air BnB with great service, good rest & good water pressure.
Our next venture was Willamette Forest, to see the Tamolitch Blue Pool. In case you weren’t sure how it’s pronounced, the locals say / Will-am-ette/. This is a little bit of a longer hike, very pretty but the trees seem to go on like Nebraska… forever. The end game is worth it. The pool was a clear dark blue in a little stone grotto all it’s own. We decided to reward ourselves with a little swim so we undressed down to our underoos & stepped into the water. “NOPE!” The water was so cold it hurt. So we hung around taking pictures for while until a girl & her dog climbed down to the pool to unintentionally shame us. They were impervious to cold obviously because they jumped right in & swam around. Hippies…
It was time to head back to Portland, Whitney A & Britney (Matt’s wife) were joining us for the second leg of the trip & had to be picked up. Close to the city, Dan & I stopped for Mexican food at this little madre & padre place. Was it good? Only Dan knows. I spent dinner puking in the bathroom multiple times & much later in a Target parking lot. My fever was back. I spent the rest of the night thinking “this could be the end. Who knew my life train ended in Portland?”
Cut to the next day… I feel great! My white knight immune system came to my rescue & our whole group was back together & we headed to eNRG Kayaking in Mill City to do some white water rafting down the Santiam River. Whitney & I were both first timers & I think we’d both agree these guys were great. Sam, as far as I know, the owner, arranged our meet months earlier & left us in the charge of one of his best guys who showed us a great time.
Afterwards, hungry & excited from our trip we stopped at Giovanni’s Mountain Pizza, which brags to have the best pizza in the country, no doubt we were skeptical, but for the low price & having just taking on a river in a plastic one man boat for the first time, they were pretty much right. It was great!
The last camping we did on our trip was at Opal Creek. A difficult find but a worth the frustration kind of place. It’s set among a type of kids exploration & environmental learning place. Almost like the Dunes in Indiana but way better. We camped overnight next to the river in a spot that felt like something out of “Fern Gulley.” In the morning we checked out the creek & its pool. So amazing. A place I can spend an entire day at & not get bored.
*The Opal Pool
We made one last stop to check out Multnomah Falls, which sits on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge River. I wish I could say I loved it, but it was more like a Disney Land attraction. No hike involved, full of kids & their parents out for the weekend. There’s plenty of other things I’d rather spend my time doing then wait in a line full of people taking selfies. Like sort by color, an economy size bag of M&M’s into separate bowls with chop sticks.
Back in Portland, we stayed in the Alberta Arts District, a cool little artist neighborhood, chock full of food trucks, restaurants, & bars. Some of my favorite finds were Cruzroom Tacos, Pine State Biscuits, & Por Que No Taqueria, all of which I’d strongly suggest to anyone. The three places that were my personal favorites were Hale Pele Tiki, & their fiery juice cocktails, the uncontested Pok Pok Thai, there is no better Thai anywhere, & finally McMenamin’s Kennedy School.
McMenamin’s, is a restauraunt/ entertainment group that re-purposes old structures & turns them into something else. In the Kennedy School, they took an old boarding school in a tiny Portland neighborhood & turned it into a hotel with four bars (which sell their own brand name cider, it’s delicious), a pool in the grotto, & a movie theater . Their hotel rooms are built in the old classrooms that to some degree retain the history & personality of their former selves. Please check this place out, it’s love at first, second, & so on sight.
All & all a great first step to getting a feel for Oregon. We touched so little in eight days but it was the perfect sampler platter to get us craving to go back. It’s a fun & weird place & I’d urge you to plan well so you don’t miss anything while you’re there.
Cheers & travel on Wayne! Eric A
Color Key: Green: Denotes state or national park/ forest Dark Blue: Denotes body of water Light Blue: Denotes a business website Grey: Denotes a city Red: Disclaimer or fun fact Burnt Orange: Denotes neighborhood
Three summers ago my boyfriend invited me to come out and sail on his teams boat: Edge. I had absolutely no exposure to the sailing world in the past, and between trying to squeeze in hang-outs with all of my college friends before the real world hit and working as a production assistant for my brother, I didn’t actually make it out to the boat until the 2015 season. I was hooked immediately, even without a clue of what to do. After participating-I use this term lightly-in the Helly Hansen Chicago Noods Regatta 2015, I knew I wanted to try and get more time on the boat if I had the chance. Fast forward to the 2016 season when the crew was taking a headcount for the 108th Race to Mackinac, I was desperate to try and make the race work with my schedule. Unfortunately, I was unable to secure the time off necessary for the race, so instead I volunteered for “shore crew” – whatever that meant. Race day arrives, and I managed to talk my friend Alyssa into tagging along. After collecting the random sailing gear, crew bags, gas cans, food, and alcohol, we were off for Mackinac. Ensue our four day trip to Mackinac Island to await the arrival of thirty two hundred plus sailors.
The drive to Mackinac was an easy one sans having to pull out the owner manual of the car more times than anyone should in a lifetime. Due to a few unexpected stops (one to buy dresses for me since I forgot mine hanging on the back of my front door at home) we managed to make one of the later ferry’s and arrive on the island right at sunset. We used the Star Line Hydro-Jet Ferry and were very happy with the service. A couple things to be aware of:
When you pull up to the ferry dock there are people that will take the bags you plan to bring to the island from you when you pull up to the ferry, ask you what hotel you are staying at, and give you baggage tickets to claim them on the other side. Do not make the mistake of tipping these individuals more than a few dollars. We were told before we got to the ferry to bring cash for tipping. Well it turns out it is for the dock hands once you arrive at the island who actually carry the bags to the hotel for you. We used almost all of our cash to tip the Star Line employees so we had nothing to give the dock boys when we arrived. The ferry offers free parking right around the corner. Once you hand off your bags you can park around the corner from the ferry lot for five days, free of charge.
When picking a hotel PLAN AHEAD. I did not know I was going until the very last minute, and after calling almost every hotel/bed and breakfast on the island, a receptionist recommended I call the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau to see if there were any vacant rooms left on the island (we used this trick to save some sailors butts that forgot to reserve rooms). The tourism bureau calls each hotel/bed and breakfast on the island every morning to see if there have been any cancellations. This will save you a lot of phone calls. Thankfully when I called, someone had just cancelled there reservation at the Murray Hotel, so Alyssa, and I were able to secure a room before the crew arrived. When it comes to picking a place to stay on the island, I would pick one of the hotels on main street. We were fortunate enough to relocate to the Chippewa Hotel once the crew arrived. The rooms on the back side of the hotel have views of the harbor and race finish line. It is also home of the famous Pink Pony bar and restaurant.
Once you have picked a place to stay, start planning what you would like to do during your visit. Here are my recommendations:
- Rent a bike and ride around the island like a local. Most locals travel by horse drawn carriage or bike. It is a great opportunity to get out and see the beautiful, historical homes and hotels. There are bike rental stands on every corner. From what we could tell they all offer very similar rates.
- Go shopping and eat fudge. Mackinac Island is famous for their fudge, need I say more? There are a ton of fun gift shops around the island to pop in and get quirky trinkets or souvenirs to take home.
- Go kayaking at sunrise. There is only one kayak rental company on the island so you don’t have a choice on this one. Great Turtle Kayak Tours offers multiple kayaking trips. When we called to schedule a tour they highly recommended we do the sunrise tour. I can understand why after experiencing it. I am not a morning person, but I managed to bite the bullet (as hungover as I was) and make it to the dock at 4:45AM. The tour lasts about two hours and your guide will tell you a lot of history/information about the island. Lucky for us we got to watch Edge finish the race in 3rd place as we were heading out of the harbor.
There are plenty of things to do on the island to keep you busy for a long weekend. Thankfully we did all of the touristy activities before Edge arrived, because once they did, the typical drinking and celebrations ensued for the remainder of our time on the island. If you have the chance, I would highly recommend visiting Mackinac during one of the regatta weekends. Whether you are a sailing fan or not, the atmosphere on the island is like none other once thousands of delirious sailors arrive ready to celebrate such an incredible feat.
This past February I broke my South America seal and traveled down to Rio and Buzios for 8 days with my boyfriend and two of our friends. The tiny taste we got of Brazil was fantastic. Below are my do’s and don’ts for traveling to and around the city of Rio De Janeiro.
Travel outside the city
Rio is a great city full of life, culture, and a plethora of activities, but just like any city, once you have seen the major sites and walked the streets all you have left to do is eat and drink. FUN? yes, but if you are going to make the trip all the way to Brazil why limit it to just Rio? Per a recommendation of a friend, our group traveled to Buzios – a small resort town about 3 hours away from Rio where we stayed in a Boutique hotel called “Casas Brancas.” If you are going to splurge on something during your travels this is the place to do it. The hotel is like a scene out of a film. It offered amazing food, drinks, views, and a ton of privacy. It is a short walk fromtown where you can eat yummy local food and do some great shopping. There is opportunity to hike to the various beaches or rent private fishing boats to snorkel with sea turtles and paddle board. Whether you decide to check out Buzios or go somewhere else, make sure to venture outside of Rio for a different, more authentic, Brazilian vibe.
Hike to Pedra De Gavea
See the picture at the top of this post? Need I say more? Pedra De Gavea is an absolute MUST DO when traveling to Rio. Make sure to wear good hiking shoes and hire a guide, because there is a section of climbing during this 9 hour round-trip hike. We went through Viator to hire our guide, and we couldn’t have been happier.
Eat at Giuseppe Grill
If you are looking for an upscale Brazilian dining experience, this place is a great option. Located in Leblon, this restaurant offers great seafood, steak, and wine. If you arrive early enjoy a cocktail and appetizer at the bar.
Hire a private car to see the sights
Between Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf, and the beaches I would highly recommend hiring a driver to see the major sights in Rio.We picked one day to hit all the major tourist attractions, and I was really thankful to have a driver to get us to each place. Rather than figuring out transportation between each location, your driver takes care of everything for you, and they are typically tour guides as well. Our driver shared a lot of history and information about Brazil during our drives, and he joined us when we went to the top of Sugarloaf.
Venture to the beach
Rio is world famous for it’s beaches so this one is pretty obvious. What makes the beaches so special in Rio isn’t the sand or the water but the energy and vibe of the people on the beaches. Don’t miss a chance to watch locals play beach soccer or to get your own game of beach volleyball started. We were lucky enough to see the beach volleyball World Tour games while we were there for free.
Stay in Leblon
If there is one thing you will realize as soon as you arrive in Rio, it is that traffic is GOD AWFUL. I am talking Chicago or New York times 10 billion. Do yourself a favor, and stay somewhere central to the beaches, nightlife, and major attractions. If I could do one thing differently it would be to have stayed in Ipanema. If you have the opportunity, walk everywhere you go. It will make your trip a much more enjoyable one.
Pick a hotel over an Air B & B or Hostel
We had the opportunity to stay at the Sheraton Hotel in Leblon, and while it was a beautiful hotel, it was not cost effective, at all. The idea of cheap eating and drinking did not exist at this hotel. Our drinks cost as much as they would at a resort in Hawaii, and the location was really far from everything. There are a ton of beautiful apartments on Air B & B and hostels throughout the city that offer a much more cost effective option.
Skip walking around the city
Due to time and poor planning we never had the opportunity to simply walk around Rio. I think we missed out on an opportunity to find some of the hidden gems in Rio because of this. Make sure to dedicate a little time to exploring without an agenda/plan.
Dedicate a lot of time to Christ the Redeemer
Though arguably the most iconic piece of Rio, I would not plan more than an hour to see Christ the Redeemer. Prepare yourself for a massive amount of tourists, bad photo angles, and sweat. The monument is mounted on a black platform, and you will be surrounded by hundreds of sweaty tourists with selfie sticks. Get the picture and get out.
We did it again; Eric A, and I pulled off yet another epic road trip. This time we hit Zion National Park. We originally planned on going to the Grand Canyon, but if you look up temperatures in December all you really find are articles about how you will probably die. So we went another route.
We started our 175 mile drive around 6:00am on Christmas morning from Henderson, NV-aka Las Vegas’s finest retirement community. The drive takes just under 3 hours, and the scenery is incredible. Don’t forget to bring along some sweet jams-Eric A recommends “Single Ladies” by Beyonce.
Preparation for the trip involved packing 2 cases of Bud Light, no water, and 2 ritz cracker snack packs; light and practical. As per usual we did not have a plan for when we arrived in Zion. We knew we wanted to hike, eat fatty foods, and drink beer. So when we arrived at the park, we paid the $20.00 entrance fee, parked the car, packed some beers, and began our day.
The weather conditions varied throughout our two days, but to start it was dull skies, icy conditions, and snowfall. Thankfully about 45 minutes into our first hike, on Sand Bench Trail, the skies cleared. This allowed for Eric A to get in touch with his inner photographer and make Whitney A look like a total baller with Zion as the backdrop.
During all of this I managed to palm a cactus and had to trash the only gloves I packed (probably my karma for stealing the gloves from Alex). Either way, my hands were very cold so once we got back to the lodge I made Eric A buy me new ones. In total, Sand Bench Trail takes about 1.5 hours to complete, and it is almost entirely flat. During the summer the trail is designated for horseback riding, but it offers some really great, ground level, views of the park, and is easy, for those that don’t want to hike too much. For the rest of the afternoon we ventured down most of the main, “popular” trails such as “the grotto,” and enjoyed some bud lights at the end of it. Note: If you plan on visiting Zion in the winter prepare yourself for the icy conditions. Imagine when you are walking down a sidewalk, slip on a patch of ice, and then awkwardly look around praying no one noticed, because slipping is almost more embarrassing than if you would’ve just completely eaten shit. Well that happened about 150 times during our hikes.There are solutions for this slippage, but naturally we elected not to pursue those.
Following our first full day of hiking, we inquired about rooms at the lodge in the park, quickly realized we were too poor, and headed over to the fabulous La Quinta in right outside the park entrance to get a room. To be fair this La Quinta in was hands down one of the nicest I’ve ever seen. Once we checked in, we hit up 1 of 2 restaurants open on Christmas, both of which were Mexican. Oscar’s Cafe offered appetizers
that could feed a family of 15 (they don’t tell you this until you’ve ordered everything on the menu) and beers the size of a keg. The food and beer were great, but the
prices were definitely representative of a national park. Unfortunately neither restaurant has a bar, and no other place in town was open. So we ended the night drinking bud light in our room. This was probably the only disappointing aspect of the entire trip. It would have been nice to have somewhere to throw back a few beers after a long day of hiking, but that’s what happens when you visit a national park on Christmas.
Our second day of hiking started early. We headed to the visitor center to check the conditions of Angel’s Landing and get advice on whether or not to hike it.
We were told not to do it, so we headed straight over and got started. The hike up was pretty amazing, but, again, the icy conditions on the trail provided challenges.
Once we reached higher altitudes it was a bit easier, but still very slick. Once we reached the landing, before the real landing, we took in the incredible views, and contemplated the last, treacherous climb of the trail. This is the part that park signs warn you about, encouraging you not to do it, because they’ve had multiple people fall to their deaths.
Eric A went first, and made it about 1/3 of the way up. I made it about 1/8 of a centimeter up slipped on a patch of ice and went straight back. I am all about taking risk, but based off the entire side of the mountain being an ice rink and the chain as sturdy as dental floss, I thought better. Eric got to a point where the chain had literally been ripped out of the side of the mountain and decided to turn around. I would definitely consider going back in summer, but the winter conditions were pretty bad, unless you rent chains for your boots.
We ended our day, by heading over toward “The Narrows.” The man made path that leads to the start of the narrows was a disaster. There were about 200,000 people falling on the ice trying to walk in crocs. It is about a mile walk to the actual start of the narrows. Had Eric and I planned ahead, we would have budgeted to rent the gear and do this hike. It is one of Zion’s most famous hikes. It entails wading in water from ankle to neck deep. Their were a decent number of people doing, even in the 25 degree temperatures. Disappointed that we didn’t get to do this hike, we headed back to the car to make the drive back to Henderson.
Zion was incredible. The views were insane and the hiking was a blast. Their were definite pros to visiting in winter; number 1 being the lack of crowds. Based off the difference from Christmas, to the day after, the summer is probably overcrowded. Christmas day, we hardly passed people on the trails, and the day after we passed an overwhelming amount of people. The biggest con is the lack of things open in town, and the icy trails. Slipping and sliding was definitely a pain, but overall the snowy mountains were beautiful, and the hiking temperatures were perfect.
True to form, I booked a last minute trip to New York City with my best friend Hanna, otherwise known as “nugget,” for Labor Day weekend. I always find these trips to be the most fun as I don’t have enough time to exercise my excessive over-planning attributes. For this trip we flew in on Saturday morning and departed New York Monday in the late afternoon. For the short amount of time we spent in this incredible city, I truly feel we got a good taste of what New York has to offer. In this blog post I’ll cover where we stayed, what did, and our favorite highlights.
Prior to arriving a friend of mine who used to live in New York recommended we make a reservation at Harry’s Cafe & Steak for brunch. We arrived in the city around 9:00 am Saturday; with a reservation set we headed straight from the airport to drop our bags off and then over to the financial district. Harry’s was the absolute perfect place to begin our trip in New York. The cafe offers huge portions of deliciousness (I had the french toast) and unlimited champaign with the purchase of any entree. Let me repeat that, unlimited champaign with the purchase of any entree. Needless to say after 3 hours and the help of our extremely generous waiter, we were ready to party by 2 ‘o clock in the afternoon. If the sound of unlimited champaign didn’t draw you in, the total cost for each of us was $30.00, tip included. For a brunch in New York, you cannot beat that price, especially when considering the service and atmosphere. I would highly recommend adding this brunch stop to your list (Note: They are only open for brunch on Saturdays so plan accordingly).
Stumbling out of Harry’s we wandered around the financial district and then eventually made it back to our Hostel for check-in. We stayed at the Budget Inn New York in a 4 bed, mixed dorm. In terms of price, this is one of the more expensive hostels I have stayed in, but when you factor in location and how expensive New York is, it was very reasonable. The staff were friendly and the rooms were clean, but we did find a nasty cockroach outside our door. I’m almost positive it was plotting my death before I reported it to the front desk (they took care of it right away). Outside of that, the only other area the hostel lacked in was the community aspect you find in hostels elsewhere. Due to location and size they squeezed a lot of rooms into a small space. If you are looking for a clean place to sleep, friendly staff, and a great location within walking distance to most major areas of the city, this is a great place to stay. For our first night out in the Big Apple we went to see Matilda. This was the one pre-planned activity we had committed to. If you are love musicals add this one to your list. The set is incredibly creative and interactive and the cast is stellar; the little girl who played Matilda blew my mind. To cap off the night we grabbed late night snacks and crashed.
Our second full day in the city we headed over the Grand Central Station to explore and stumbled upon Campbell’s Apartment, a historical cocktail lounge hidden down a random hallway and up an elevator at the station. My friend had mentioned this place as the number one spot we had to visit, but hadn’t told us where it was. Well we found it. This was, by far, the highlight of my trip. If you ask Nugget she was ready to shoot me, because I talked about it over and over the rest of the weekend. The lounge used to be a wealthy business man named John Campbell’s office and during prohibition his wife and him would entertain friends their after hours. In the late 1900s they turned the office into a cocktail lounge that you can visit today. The bartender was incredibly knowledgeable about the history and the cocktails were on point. If you want to stop by make sure you are dressed appropriately (thankfully we were) as they will turn you away if you are wearing jeans, flip flops, etc. The rest of the day was spent down by the Brooklyn Bridge where we sat and enjoyed beer we had picked up at a local convenience store and then headed over for late night pizza on the river.
Our final day in the city we made our way over to the 9/11 Memorial. I could dedicate an entire post to my experience at the memorial, but I feel everyone should experience it for themselves. It is incredibly overwhelming and emotional so I would consider walking the memorial alone to take it all in. Give yourself about 3 hours to see the entire exhibit. Lastly, we took a river cruise to see her majesty, State of Liberty, the most anti-climactic experience I have ever had. The boat tour was a fun way to wrap up our trip and see New York from the water, but the state was incredibly underwhelming. I would skip a trip to Ellis Island unless going there for the museum or to find family documents.
Overall, New York treated us very well and is definitely a city I would like to visit again, but I strongly believe you can get a good taste of the city during a long weekend. If you are looking for a fun weekend get-away, I would add New York City to your list!
So I am finally taking the time to sit down and write my blog post for, what was, an epic and eventful trip to New Orleans, Louisiana. What spurred such a trip was my bro up and deciding to take a job in Baton Rouge about a week before we were moving apartments. Naturally this made for the perfect excuse to plan a last minute Memorial Day weekend trip to see him. Within a matter of what felt like 5 minutes, a group of 7 of us booked our trip. In this post I will disclose my favorite experiences from the trip and why NOLA now reigns as my favorite city in the US.
I will start with accommodation. I am a hostel person through and through, so my best friend Alex and myself(the poorest of the group) booked the IHSP French Quarter House; a beautiful, old french quarter house right across from Louis Armstrong park. The hostel is in walking distance to all the major tourist points in New Orleans and offers a quaint kitchen and back patio to get to know fellow hostel mates. They also offer breakfast and a bloody mary bar on weekends. As two female travelers we felt very safe/comfortable and also enjoyed the historic nature of the building. For those hostel haters out there, the rest of the group stayed at the Marriot-New Orleans French Quarter; a standard hotel for a reasonable price directly around the corner from Bourbon Street.
Now, on to the touristy things. Our first night we made our way over to Bourbon Street. I can only describe it as something I am happy the have experienced once and never to have to experience again-Imagine a cheap version of Vegas with less attractive hookers and a barbaric mix of wealthy people too drunk to stand up falling on top of homeless people. I recommend taking a walk down this street once for the experience and moving on to better areas of the city. As for better areas of the city, we spent a lot of time on Frenchman Street at night. It had a more authentic New Orleans feel and a lot of great music. During the day we kayaked on the bayou (frying two I-phones along the way) and ventured outside the city for an airboat tour with Airboat Tours by Arthuer Matherne. Our tour guide, Jeremy, was hysterical and very knowledgable about the surrounding swamps. Other highlights included the Carrousel Bar, a carriage ride around the city at night, and the Hurricane Katrina Museum.
For food I would say venture over to Cafe’ Du Monde to satisfy your sweet tooth and enjoy the classic beignet dessert-Get in line early so you don’t spend your whole day waiting for a table. Our best meal was at Cochon on Tchoupitoulas St. I HIGHLY recommend stopping here for great service and an even better meal. The food was to die for (get the oysters) and our waitress was incredible. One of the couples we were with was celebrating their 1 year wedding anniversary and they brought out champaign, an extra round of oysters, and a sample of all of their desserts- on the house. Make sure to try a Po’ Boy and Crawfish before leaving the city as well.
Overall, we spent 4 nights in New Orleans and I fell in love with every aspect of the city. If you are looking for a european feel in the US, this is where you will find it for a much more reasonably priced flight.
Well…the holidays have past, the christmas spirit is gone, and the cold weather has kicked it into high gear here in Chicago, but I thought I’d focus on some more positive things; like the fact that I spent Christmas in Vegas. This was by no means my first trip to Vegas, but it was definitely one of the more memorable ones. How does one find themselves in Vegas for Christmas you might ask? Well you book a flight and then proceed to board that flight and go. Just kidding, but really. Truth is the rents up and decided it was time to retire after I graduated this past may and headed West, ending up in the lovely Henderson, Nevada right next door to Las Vegas.
Christmas Eve was standard. Typical of my family, we opened gifts and binge watched HGTV; proceed my father falling asleep. Christmas day, however, was much less typical. My brother and I headed out to Gold Strike Canyon for a climbing hike to natural hot springs. The trail head is the only point off it’s exit, but your GPS may fail to warn you of which exit to actually take (exit2). Once you arrive it’s free parking, first come first serve. The hike is 6.5 miles roundtrip with some intermediate bouldering. Ropes are already in place and there is a water bottle exchange for hikers that are unprepared for the strenuous hike. From what my brother and I read online this is not a hike you want to take in the summer as they have fatalities every year due to heat exhaustion. You can check for trail closures here. The weather conditions we hiked in were ideal temperatures (55-65 degrees). The canyon is massive and looks like something out of a post apocalyptic world. The hot springs are the perfect treat after a long hike. Prepare to slip and slide on your climb back up through the canyon as your feet will most likely get wet from the streams. This makes the hike back more challenging. The hike itself is great for those people looking for a slightly more advanced bouldering hike with incredible views. I highly recommend it as a half day trip for those of you adventure seekers that find yourself in Vegas.
Once the Christmas festivities concluded we checked out of “Hotel Anthony” and into Bally’s. This was our second time staying at Bally’s and I recommend it for many reasons: it is reasonably priced, the rooms are spacious, and the location is smack dab in the middle of some of the most classic casinos on the strip. We stayed for three nights and definitely partook in our fair share of gambling and the complementary drinks that came along with it, but below are some tips and suggestions on what to do in Vegas:
- See a show- Vegas has some of the greatest shows on earth and if you’ve never seen Cirque Du Soleil it’s a MUST.
- Beatles Love– Featured at the Mirage, this show will not disappoint. Having now seen it twice I would recommend this for people who are hesitant to try Cirque Du Soleil for the first time as it focuses on one of the most iconic bands of all time and, come on, who doesn’t like the Beatles??
- Mystere-This show has been long running at Treasure Island. Having seen this show twice, it is another I highly recommend. This show follows the more common Cirque Du Soleil theme and features brilliant costumes and high energy acrobatics.
- Michael Jackson ONE-This is one of the newer Cirque Du Soleil shows but is definitely not lacking in entertainment. I had the privilege of seeing this performance while it was still touring the US. This is another great option for those who are hesitant to see Cirque Du Soleil. The costumes and choreography are spot on with some of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits.
- Visit Fremont Street-Take a couple of hours to explore this historic part of Las Vegas. It features some of the oldest casinos and some of the most ridiculous street acts you could ask for. It is one of those experiences everyone has to have for themselves. Venture over to Atomic Lounge for those people who love a good dive bar.
- “Window shop” at the Aria-Or regular shop, if you are one of those lucky enough to be able to afford Fendi and Prada. Either way this is a fun day time activity if you are looking to get out of the smoky casinos for a little while. Not to mention the Aria and Cosmopolitan are definitely casinos worth walking through simply for the extravagant decor.
- Get a reward card-They are free and if you ever plan on going back to Vegas this is a great way to earn free rooms from all the money you spend. If you don’t plan on going back the card still has it’s perks and, often, the casino will give you “free money” to gamble.
- Go to the Sports Book-This is a great way to spend an afternoon, bet on your favorite teams, and have a couple of beers (and maybe take a nap if you are worn out from the night before). I recommend reserving a table if you want to make a day of it, especially during March Madness or football season. Ceasars Palace and Mandalay Bay both have very popular sports books.
- Pay for the Happy Half Hour if you ride the High Roller-The difference in a single ride ticket and the Happy Half Hour ticket is ten dollars at nighttime and it is worth much more than that. When we decided to do this we figured we would be lucky to get two drinks. Turns out we each had four rum and cokes and three shots. The bartenders are generous and a lot of fun and the views of the strip are excellent. DONT FORGET TO TIP.
- Play video poker at a casino bar-This is a classic way to get free drinks without blowing twenty bucks in less than a minute. Put a twenty dollar bill in and take your time. Just make sure to play a couple dollars so as not to piss of the bartenders and always leave a tip. Which brings me to this:
- Carry single dollar bills-No, not for the strip clubs (well maybe that too) but to tip. If you treat your cocktail waitress well she will treat you well.
- Last, but not least, HAVE FUN-Get drunk, have beginners luck then lose your ass, venture over to a strip club or get married, ride rollers coasters or go shopping. No matter what you decide, Vegas is always a good time.
Since I have been back in the states for a few weeks I’ve had the chance to reflect on my long-awaited visit to the Anne Frank House. I had actually planned to visit the previous summer while in Amsterdam, but I found the 4 hour line slightly too time consuming for a two day trip in Amsterdam. Not visiting the house turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments from my summer in Europe (there weren’t many). Growing up I had always been infatuated with studying World War II and the Holocaust specifically. So, of course the Diary of Anne Frank was one of the first holocaust memoirs I ever read. Since then I’ve read countless memoirs, but one never forgets such an influential story.
I got in line around 5:00pm and was pleasantly surprised to find that the wait time was only an hour. While I was standing in line I started looking around and listening to all the different languages being spoken and it hit me just how much of an impact the Diary of Anne Frank has made on this world. It was incredibly humbling standing there during the year 2014, using the free WIFI available while you wait, trying to imagine the fear and anxiety Anne, her family, and their friends must have experienced while hoping and praying they wouldn’t be discovered. When my turn finally came I paid the 9 euro entrance fee, grabbed my english informational pamphlet, and headed in to begin an unforgettable tour. (I want to take a second to suggest visiting a place like the Anne Frank House alone or separating from your group during the visit. I have found in the past during visits to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany, and now the Anne Frank House that your time can be very overwhelming and heavy and being alone really gives you the chance to take it all in.)
Pictures are not allowed once inside out of respect for everyone visiting, but they aren’t necessary anyway. Visiting a place like the Anne Frank House imprints on your mind forever. Walking past the original bookcase used to conceal the Secret Annexe and seeing original pictures Anne had hung up in her room to “liven up” the place was incredibly surreal. I’m staring at these things trying to imagine Anne herself standing where I was standing hanging the pictures up. How would I have handled a situation like this? What would my thoughts have been? Anne had surprisingly mature thoughts and opinions on what her family was experiencing for her age and they were displayed throughout the tour to give you an impression of who this magnificent girl was. “In spite of everything I still believe that people are good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.” To read something like that and realize that Anne was only 16 years old when she died at Auschwitz is crazy. She was an incredible human being and her dreams of becoming a writer one day have been realized through the 30 million copies of her diary circulating the globe today. I can’t say enough about my experience at the Anne Frank House, but it’s definitely something every individual should experience for themselves.
If you ever have the chance to visit Amsterdam put the Anne Frank House at the top of your list. To avoid waiting in a 4 hour line there or at any other main tourist attractions in Amsterdam wake up early and visit that place first. If you wait until the afternoon you will be lucky to find only an hour wait at the Anne Frank House. You can also schedule a tour time in advance, but tickets are limited so I would plan ahead!
This past Tuesday Tina, Benni, Loki, and I made the hour drive to this incredible little town on the Moselle known as Cochem. It’s one of those places that lives up to all the pictures on Pinterest and more (queue you searching Cochem on Pinterest). The quaint cobblestone streets and old German houses line the Moselle with the castle like a postcard backdrop. Once we took in the first views of the town we grabbed some tasty cappuccinos and made the ten minute walk up to the castle. Since we missed the inside of Burg Eltz we paid the 5 euro entrance fee for the guided tour of Burg Cochem (bonus: dogs are allowed in the castle). The tour lasted roughly thirty minutes and was in German so you could say I didn’t understand much except “Wilkommen.” Therefore I can’t speak much to the history of the castle, but I can speak to it’s beauty, inside and out. I have visited a couple of castles throughout Europe and have found them a little disappointing, but I appreciated the original wallpaper, decor, and furniture in this castle. The views surrounding the walls were lovely as well. Once the tour was complete we stopped in the cafe to warm up and have some delicious apfelstrudel and then headed back to town to shop. There is an endless number of wine cellars and shops to purchase wine made right there in the Moselle Valley and most of them sell food as well. Tina and I picked up a couple of bottles for about 6 euro each. We finished up the day in this great little chocolate shop where I reluctantly handed over my last 20 euro for chocolate truffles that better change my parent’s lives.
As I am saying Tchüss to Deutschland a lot sooner than expected, Tina and Benni were kind enough to show me a couple more sights before my departure. Last Thursday we ventured south to visit the lovely Burg Eltz and Pyrmonter Mühle. Burg Eltz is one of those fairy tale castles you dream of as a little kid or, in my case, as an adult searching for the real live Hogwarts. The walk down to the castle was lovely; the surrounding valley filled with bursts of red, orange, and yellow as the leaves change for fall. There are nice hiking trails around the castle and a restaurant inside to take in the beautiful views of the Moselle Valley. We, unfortunately, did not go inside the castle, because we wanted the chance to see Pyrmonter Mühle as well, but I have been told it is worth the 9 euro fee (tours are offered in English). Instead we explored the outskirts of the castle, let Loki play in the river (taking Tina with her at one point), and admired the enchanting exterior. About a twenty minute drive back in the direction of Ramersbach we stopped to see the lovely Pyrmonter Mühle and make the 2.9km hike up to Burg Pyrmont. The sights were beautiful and the hike was relaxing. It’s the perfect length for families or people who don’t necessarily enjoy hiking (ahem, Benni). To finish up our day of sightseeing we stopped at the Vulkan Brauhaus to have dinner and pick up some local beers. It was a nice way to spend a day with friends, and I managed to pick up some last minute souvenirs!
It’s been about two months since Eric and I embarked on our road trip through Kentucky and Tennessee. Below is the route we followed, some highlights of the 6 day trip, and a video summing up the ridiculousness that was “Just Two Bros On A Road Trip.
Ziplining, Mammoth Cave Adventures, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky- Couldn’t have asked for a better first time ziplining. Our zip guides were absolutely hilarious and extremely accommodating, managing to fit us in between really bad storms. I highly recommend giving this place a visit!
The Escape Game, Nashville, Tennessee- We booked the Escape Game last minute on our way to Nashville and we are so happy that we did. This is a totally out-of-the-box experience that challenges your mind under pressure. If you enjoy puzzles, riddles, etc. I recommend giving the game a try..we made it our with only one minute left!
Third Man Records, Nashville, Tennessee- Jack White’s personal record store equipped with a novelty game room and other fun souvenirs.
Santa’s Pub, Nashville, Tennessee- This place won best dive bar 2013 and that is exactly what it is- a double wide trailer decked out in Christmas decorations with karaoke every night of the week. Cash only, beer only, and a great time.
The Pharmacy Burger, Nashville, Tennessee- We were recommended this place by a girl working at Third Man Records as “the best burger place in town.” The burgers were to die for and you can order old fashioned sodas..all at a very reasonable price.
Makers Mark Distillery, Loretto, Kentucky- Even if you aren’t a bourbon drinker I would take the time to stop by this distillery. Our guide was extremely knowledgable and shared a lot of interesting facts, stories regarding Kentucky Bourbon. The grounds are absolutely gorgeous and there is a tasting at the end of the tour that was really fun. You can also hand dip your own bottle of Makers Mark which is pretty nifty.
I started my travel adventures, as many people do, during a study abroad program in college. My program took place in London where I had the opportunity to intern in Oxford Circus (sounds cooler than it was), and take a class with forty other students from my university. This program was absolutely awesome, but it lacked in the “getting out there” department. When you travel with students from your university, teacher included, it’s very easy to depend on the familiarity and miss out on valuable experiences. I knew that I wanted to try the whole solo travel thing for myself so I stayed an additional month after my program to see if I could actually do it. After my program finished up and spending a week with my best friend in Barcelona, I packed my bag and boarded a flight to Cinque Terre, Italy for my first solo travel adventure.
When my flight arrived at the Pisa airport I knew I needed to take two separate trains to reach my final destination: Riomaggiore. Anxiety ridden, I ran back and forth through the airport, like a chicken with my head cut off, looking for an ATM and a place to purchase the train tickets. One missed train later I managed to communicate, mostly through hand motion and expression, with a nice Italian women who helped me get my tickets and board the right train. The two and a half hour trip to Riomaggiore was a peaceful one as I kicked back, listened to music, and enjoyed the views passing by. The hardest part was over, but I still needed to locate my hostel. All thanks to some very detailed directions from the website of the Mar-Mar hostel that I had printed out and packed with I made it right before dinner. At this moment I felt extremely proud and accomplished that I had made it this far, while simultaneously feeling lonely and awkward. This sense of awkwardness disappeared once I worked up the courage to ask a canadian girl, also traveling solo, if she wanted to join me for dinner and drinks down by the water (romantic, I know). The next thing I know we are sitting at a cute italian restaurant devouring an extra large pizza margherita, drinking beer, and talking about things that I don’t talk about with some of my closest friends. It was like we had known each other for years yet we had met an hour before. After dinner it was back up to the hostel where an artist from Berlin invited us to enjoy some beers on the terrace before bed. What an incredible feeling it was, being in a foreign place alone, making friends with ease, and drinking a beer overlooking the Ligurian Sea. It was this moment that made me fall in love with solo travel.
Unfortunately, my canadian friend left me in the morning to head onto her next destination, Milan. Since I had already planned to hike some of the villages I headed out to get my Cinque Terre Card and figure out the trains between each village. As I was about to board my train to Monterosso I overheard a couple having trouble figuring out how to get a pass to hike. I stopped to help, feeling especially awesome giving other people directions only two days into my solo adventures. It turned out this couple was on their honeymoon after having just graduated from Butler University, about forty five minutes from Purdue, AND the girl was in the same sorority as me (talk about a small world). There’s something really special about meeting people from home in a foreign land. We spent the next couple of hours together before I headed off to finally conquer one of the many hiking paths between the villages. Due to various path closures I was only able to hike the path from Vernazza to Corniglia, but it was amazing nonetheless.
The next couple of days I found similar friendships everywhere I went, from a kayak rental shop to a gelato stand, I never felt awkward or alone the rest of my trip. I was even able to contact my aunt back in Cambridge off someone else’s phone to let her know that I had not died or gotten lost somewhere in the middle of the Italian countryside. Two days later I said goodbye to Cinque Terre, sad to leave this amazing place that proved to me that I could, indeed, do this whole solo travel thing.
Here are my top 5 tips for newbie solo travelers:
1. Do your research. Solo travel, especially for first timers, can be extremely stressful. Having information such as what trains you’ll need to take, the directions to your hostel, and what passes you’ll need to purchase can help alleviate some of that stress and oftentimes save you money.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It can be very intimidating approaching someone for help, even more so when you can’t speak their language. Don’t let that fear cause you to miss a train or buy the wrong train ticket. People are usually more helpful than you would expect.
3. Reach out and make friends. Every solo traveler has had their “awkward and alone” moment, but the beauty of staying in a hostel is that there is always someone to connect with and share travel stories. Bonus: You’ll usually get priceless travel information that could help you plan your next trip or pick your next destination.
4. Lose the cell phone. It’s a scary thought, I know, but I have never felt more present in the moment, than I did on this trip. It forces you to let go of everything back home and figure things out on your own. For those of you concerned about letting loved ones know you are safe, you could do what I did and borrow someones phone or you could seek out an internet cafe to send a quick email and maybe enjoy a coffee while you’re at it.
5. DO IT. I can’t tell you the amount of people I’ve talked to that say “oh that’s so cool that you travel alone, but I could never do it.” Not only can you do it, but you need to do it. There is nothing more satisfying than the sense of accomplishment one feels when successfully navigating a foreign land on their own. It helped me discover so much about myself and learn valuable life lessons that I never would have while traveling with other people. Don’t underestimate yourself, just go.
This past Sunday I had the privilege of joining Oma, Opa, and some friends on one of their weekly hiking trips. Oma had stopped by earlier in the week to invite me and prefaced it with something along the lines of “this is a pretty tough hike, we don’t go far in distance, but it’s very steep and dangerous.” I sort of nodded her off and said of course, I would love to join, completely underestimating the physical ability of my elders. Sunday rolls around and I show up in my finest Urban Outfitters flannel and fancy new hiking boots ready for what I assumed would be a fairly basic hike. An hour car ride later I’m staring up at a flag that Opa has pointed out as the end point of our hike thinking, “it’s a good thing I wore my warmest flannel for a strenuous hike in seventy degree weather” followed by “these people are awfully ambitious.” All thoughts aside, the group set out on what would turn out to be the best hike I’ve ever been on.
The narrow trail weaved through the vineyards, going up, then down, then back up again lacking any guard rail for safety. If anyone needed to pass, from either direction, the entire group would have to lie flat against the side of the hill for people to shimmy carefully by, before we could continue on our way. We used cables to steady ourselves while stepping down on pegs nailed into the side of the hill and climbed ladders to overcome inclines too steep to hike. Plants and rocks became my greatest asset, saving me from, what I can only imagine, would have been a very unpleasant descent off the side of the trail. I began seriously reconsidering the Doppel Royal Cheese Meal (large) that I had consumed the day before as I was being out-hiked by people three times my age.
We eventually reached our destination, wine and cake enticing me to the finish, and boy were those views worth every inch of dirty, sweaty, yet still stylish, flannel. Paraglider’s rained down from above, landing in the vineyards below, as if straight from a postcard. Four different parts of the Moselle River laid out in front of us winding down through the valley and disappearing inthe distance. We all gathered around a table to sip on Federweisser (not technically wine, but i’ll save that for another post),munch on plum cake, and enjoy the view before finishing the day off with a shot of Opa’s homemade raspberry schnapps (he’s the best).
Well, after a month in my lovely new home, Ramersbach, I felt it was time to share with everyone what this place is all about. I arrived at the Frankfurt airport at two o’clock in the afternoon and was greeted by my host mother, Nina. The drive from Frankfurt to Ramersbach was mostly anti-climactic, filled with questions about Germany and some not- so-exciting scenery. A highway is a highway no matter what country you’re in even if it is called the “autobahn.” Once we approached Ramersbach, the opposite was true. There were winding roads, forest upon forest upon forest, rolling hills, ALPACAS (yes alpacas), and quaint German homes. I fell in love almost immediately. I say “almost” because I would soon be formally introduced to the alpacas and that’s when my love became official. For those of you wondering right now, no, alpacas do not originate from Ramersbach, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany. However, if you ask me, German (imported) alpacas have better style and personality. I’ve never met a Peruvian alpaca, but call it a gut feeling.
The village is tiny but that’s what gives Ramersbach its charm. Walking down the streets, there are goats between houses, chickens in people’s backyards, and so many cats you could call Ramersbach “a crazy cat ladies dream.” People are extremely friendly, welcoming, and chatty so I spend a lot of time smiling, nodding, and saying “Danke.” Everyone knows everyone and Friday nights are spent, almost exclusively, drinking at the Halfenhof where you go for one and leave having drank seven, courtesy of the old men in the village.
Once a year, each town in the Rhine has its own Wine Fest which is something I highly recommend to those of you traveling anywhere near the Rhine Valley while in Europe in September/October. These festivals are much like festivals in America, except that during the wine parades the people in the parade (four-year-old children included) fill your glass with wine rather than throwing out candy. This makes parades significantly more fun.
On any other Saturday, I venture down to Bad Neuenahr or Ahrweiler and walk the old cobblestone streets. Maybe stop to have a Milsch Kaffee, try on a dirndl, or do other things such as, go to Aldi, the tanning salon, or my personal favorite, McDonalds, because while most of Ahrweiler looks straight out of a storybook, it’s the year 2014 and this place has that stuff too.
I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days where I find myself a little bored, sitting on Pinterest, just like I would at home. Then I remind myself that this is home; at least for now, so sometimes (a lot of times) Pinterest-ing is completely acceptable. I also try to remind myself that Pinterest is what causes binge eating and that’s why my “Germany diet” isn’t actually going to work. Ramersbach is a pretty special place and while I have an entire year here, I know it will feel more like one month by the time my experience is through. Therefore, I intend to live every moment to the fullest, but for right now I’ll pour myself a glass of “prickly water” and cheers to one day opening my very own alpaca farm somewhere completely unrelated to South America.