Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten lots of destination-related questions. I love fielding these questions – I could talk about the places I went for days on end. Not that I don’t also love helping with backpack choices and solo travel tips, but the locations themselves are what drive us all.
So I figured why not post what I’ve responded to the question, “Where should I go?” It might be useful to other people and a good place to point friends to in the future. Plus I just can’t imagine answering the other most-asked question, “What was your favorite place?” How could it ever be possible to pick one place? I’ve been able to narrow it down to some highlights but even then I feel like I’m leaving out so much. This is probably the closest I can come to any kind of “top places” list.
So here they are, my “where you should go” recommendations:
I will always tell people to go to South America. I spent three and a half months there and personally preferred it to the other regions. As I traveled I found myself constantly wondering how expensive flights were from Asia to South America, and this wonder has not ceased now that I’ve returned. Actually South America is part of the reason I came back to the US – it was unreasonable to go straight from Japan so I planned to go by way of the US. Some of the places that I recommend looking into are:
- Colombia. I will never stop loving Colombia and it’s one of the first places I want to go back to. The Caribbean Coast is gorgeous and hot, the cities are fun, and the mountains great to explore. It has lots to offer and some of the friendliest people.
- The Amazon. The Amazon in Brazil, just outside of Manaus, were 6 of the best days of my trip. It’s not an easy itinerary, at least the one we did since we slept in hammocks in the jungle and caught our own dinners (piranha, peacock bass, etc.), but it’s a very cool experience. Plus if you go here then you can go through Rio, which is a fantastic city.
- Buenos Aires. One of my favorite cities in the world. If you want a more urban trip definitely go here – drum shows, theater performances, weekend markets, insane nightlife, delicious food. There’s also some low-key escapes depending on how long you’re there, like the Tigre and Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.
- The Salt Flats in Bolivia and the Atacama Desert in Chile. If you want otherworldly nature go here. The Salt Flats is a three-day tour through landscapes that don’t look like they should be real, and the desert is a Mars-like playground for sandboarding, hiking, biking, and stargazing.
- Machu Picchu. This is a bit of a bonus since I did not go there on this RTW trip – I was there in 2012 with friends – but it is still one of my top South America experiences so it just didn’t feel right to leave it off this list. We did the 4 day/3 night Inca Trail through SAS travel – our guides knew everything and told stories along the way, we had really good food, and the hike was the perfect mixture of challenging and fun. Plus Cusco is a great place to spend a few days acclimatizing.
Having said all that, you can’t go wrong in Asia either, of course. A lot of people are intrigued by the extreme difference of the culture in Asia and I was right there with them. Some of my favorite experiences happened in Asia. Here are my recommendations:
- The Temples of Angkor/Siem Reap, Cambodia. Another one of the best weeks of my trip. The architecture is stunning, and spending your day on a tuktuk riding past ruins is pretty amazing. Siem Reap has a fun streak to it on Pub Street but it’s really all about Angkor here. I would love to go back to Cambodia and get to Koh Rong on the coast, every backpacker’s favorite beach. Also depending on the length of your trip you could add Laos, which has great outdoor activities to offer but wouldn’t be the first place in Asia I would recommend. I do want to go back though; I was pleasantly surprised by that country.
- Myanmar. Like everyone says, go now, before tourism totally changes it. This country just opened up a few years ago and you can already see the changes, and how it’s not ready to handle them yet. But the people are the kindest I met anywhere and the scenery is beautiful. It will be vastly different from home though so that has to be something you’re okay with.
- I hesitate to recommend Northern Thailand because I had a really different experience there at a festival, but the time I spent in Chiang Mai was great and with everything I’ve heard about Pai it’s one of the places I most want to get to next time I’m there. Most people I met traveling in Southeast Asia put this at the top of their list. If you happen to be planning a Southeast Asia trip in February go to Shambhala.
- Another qualified recommendation is Vietnam. Some people love it, some hate it. I had a different time there due to a family visit but if you’re curious about it then it’s worth checking out. Hanoi was good and Halong Bay/Lan Ha Bay were spectacular. Plus it had the best cheapest food and coffee of my entire trip.
- Japan, especially Tokyo. Fascinating culture, energetic cities, gorgeous landscapes, friendly people, efficient travel, and the best food, there’s no way to go wrong in Japan. Tokyo was actually my favorite, despite the popular opinion that Kyoto is best, for its quirkiness, modernity, and variety of activities. If you have time try to make it to the island of Kyushu – it’s much more low-key but still wonderfully Japanese.
Lastly, New Zealand. Of the Australasia portion of my trip I preferred New Zealand. The scenery is unbeatable, the adventures are endless, and the atmosphere is so chill it’s hard to ever want to leave. I still play with the idea of moving to Wanaka for a while. Go to Wanaka! I love that place. And the Abel Tasman Coast Track. And Milford Sound.
If anyone has any more questions about locations (or anything) just ask! I love talking travel, obviously, and am more than happy to help if I can.
At Colgate we have something called the Colgate Hello. It means that when you walk around campus everyone says hi to each other. This may not actually happen all the time at Colgate, but it definitely does happen on any outdoor trail in New Zealand.
Therefore I’m calling this the New Zealand Hello.
Every hiking trail we walked on, every single person you passed said hello. Sometimes they would ask how your day was going or make a comment on the weather. It was like everyone on the trail was instantly your friend because you both decided to walk outside.
At the end of the Abel Tasman track we had to walk back into town to get the car. We weren’t on the trail any longer but were walking on a path on the side of the road just past the park entrance. People still said hello as we passed. Frank turned to me and asked, “When do we stop saying hi?” “No idea.” It was a gray area: no longer hiking trail but not yet city street. Is this still NZ Hello territory?
The default answer is yes, because really everywhere in NZ is NZ Hello territory. Those friendly Kiwis.
I have a crush on a supermarket. NZ was shockingly expensive when I arrived so a lot of the food I ate there came from supermarkets. There were a few to choose from but my favorite was New World.
New World gets the backpackers needs. Not only do they provide free wifi (I spent an hour in the entrance of the Kaikoura New World so I didn’t have to buy wifi) but they have the best prepared food section I’ve seen. The sandwiches became a staple of any long trip, whether a ferry or bus ride, the salads were good, and the pizza was cheap ($3, although disappointing, sorry NW you messed this one up a bit).
The best way to shop at New World as a solo backpacker was going straight to the prepared food section and finding the “Reduced to Sell” items. Usually some kind of salad – couscous, veggies and rice, garden salad – these items were made out of fresh produce so they had to sell quickly or they would go bad. Anything that didn’t sell fast enough was marked down, usually at least half price, so it would not go to waste. Since I was not stocking a kitchen but looking for an immediate meal these were perfect for me. I had a delicious couscous and broccoli with bacon lunch for just $2.50, a Thai curry soup dinner for $3, or a side salad for my pizza for just $1.
I wish New World existed everywhere. It was a real budget helper, and the food at least felt much healthier than most other budget food options.
I ended my month in New Zealand back where it began – Auckland – but now that the culture shock was gone and I was lucky enough to have a local tour guide this revisit was nothing like my first time there.
Auckland has a lot more to offer than I realized, probably because most of what it has you need a car to get to. I couldn’t have had such a great second visit there if it wasn’t for Kevin, a friend from my NYC days who just happened to be back home in Auckland while I was in town. Fate!
Kevin showed me a great mixture of Auckland activities, from hiking days to indulgent desserts, so that the next time I hung out with a bunch of Kiwis from Auckland (which incidentally was my next few days in Sydney) they were surprised when I said I liked my time there.
In short, over the course of 5 days we: hiked up One Tree Hill to see the sprawl of the city from above; wandered the trails around Piha beach, from a jungle walk to a three-tiered waterfall to the vertical hike up Lion Rock, a huge rock in the center of the sparkling black sand beach; had huge green NZ mussels (forever ruining for me the normal tiny mussels in the US); climbed the volcano Rangitoto Island; finally had some great NZ fish and chips while checking out Mission Beach; went to probably the best dessert restaurant I’ve ever been to, Chocolate Boutique in Parnell; went wine tasting on Waiheke Island; checked out a fantastic light art show at the Auckland Art Gallery followed by more delicious desserts, this time Chocolate Lahroaig ice cream at Giapo; had a true NZ steak and cheese pie (#2 in the city) in Ponsonby; and saw one final volcanic crater with a view of Auckland from Mount Eden. Add in some great hot tub and sauna sessions at the apartment complex and the amazingness of staying in a home with Kevin and his dad, a room to myself, tea with avocado and honey on toast breakfasts, and some fantastic home cooked dinners, and it’s clear why this return to Auckland left a much better impression than my first round there about 4 weeks earlier.
My final days in Auckland were the perfect end to a month in NZ. Much like leaving South America by staying put in BA for an extended time, staying with a friend in his home was the perfect recharge before my next phase. I really can’t thank Kevin and his dad enough; I was so lucky to have experienced such amazing hospitality.
When I got to the airport (at way too early an hour, the gates weren’t even open yet) I felt ready to move on to Australia and happy with the time I had in the great country of New Zealand. I have come to accept that there will always be more to see in the countries I’m visiting on this trip, but I left NZ satisfied with my experience.
October 22, 2014. “As I walked to my 7:50 am bus through the Wellington bus and train stations I passed hordes of commuters on their way to work. A familiar feeling rose up inside me of the morning grind – oddly more related to NYC, probably because of the subway tunnel and train station, but work commuting nonetheless. This used to be me every weekday. This was my life. I was one of you.
Used to. Was. This is when the camaraderie faded away and I became a foreigner. Walking past all the people in their suits with their briefcases, I was in hiking shoes carrying a backpack on my way to a bus to Rotorua. I was like them but I’m not anymore. I left that life and became the traveler, no more a member of the daily grind.
I smiled. Maybe one day I would rejoin the ranks but for now I’m off adventuring, with no obligations, no schedules, no suits. I broke free and took control of my life. This is my time. And what do I want to do with my time today? Go chill in some hot springs. Sounds a lot better than sitting in an office right?”
Leaving the South Island I was facing a two day journey to get back up to Auckland. Since I had the hop on hop off bus pass I decided to break up the trip a little with a day in Rotorua.
I left Kaikoura in the morning and made it to the Interislander ferry by 1:00 pm. It was nice to do the Cook Strait crossing in the daylight this time; the trip out of Picton is a lovely ride through green hills on either side of the channel. I arrived in Wellington shortly before 5 but didn’t venture back out into the city. I just took it easy at the hostel since I had to get on a bus again before 8:00 am the next morning. It was already afternoon by the time I got to Rotorua, so my exploring would mostly have to wait for the next day.
Rotorua is known for its hot springs and its stench. This town stinks. Literally. It’s because it’s a geothermally active area so the odor of sulfur is a constant presence. Having experienced this immediately, I wanted to experience its other prominent feature, so I looked into what my options were for the day.
NZ$69 to do a day trip to the best place to see the unique colors, geological formations, and geysers. Hot springs were all spas, not exactly an affordable option or even what I was imagining. I decided neither of these things was worth the budget expense; I was spoiled in the Salt Flats with our geysers and hot springs at dawn experience.
So what could I do in Rotorua on a budget? Have a pretty good day actually.
I spent the majority of the day walking around Rotorua and still was able to see the insanity of its natural make-up. I started with the path around the lake, which traversed land that appeared dead but actually had small geysers, bubbling holes, coffee-colored pools, and tons of birds. And of course the awful smell. I’m lucky my face went back to normal after an hour of walking around with my nose scrunched up.
I continued the walk south to the Redwood Forest. Try getting two more opposite landscapes within the same walk. Now I was surrounded by a lush forest with soaring Redwood trees and green fern trees. The oddity of Rotorua was not to be forgotten though as I traversed a bright blue river in the middle of the forest. Have I used Alice in Wonderland yet? Because if the Amazon was Dr. Suess and the Salt Flats were Salvador Dali then Rotorua is Alice in Wonderland.
It was a solid day of walking, with lots of time to think, listen to music, and to reflect on my month in New Zealand. That night I got on a bus to Auckland, my final stop before the next country. Rotorua was a fitting stop on my way out to see more quirky nature – I started in the North Island with glowworm caves and ended with geothermal wonderland. NZ really does have some of the craziest nature within such a small country.
My last morning on the South Island I woke up for sunrise. Kaikoura is on the east coast of NZ, and was supposed to have one of the best sunrises on the island. I figured it had been a while since I saw a sunrise and it fit in with the calm vibe I already had going in Kaikoura, so I set an alarm for 5:45 and went to sleep to the sound of the rain, hoping it would clear up by morning.
When I woke up I peeked out of the window and saw clouds but with a patch of sky. That was enough for me. I layered up, made some tea, and went out the back gate to the beach.
Dawn is so peaceful. It was just me and the seagulls waiting for the sun. I sat on the black rocky beach and listened to the waves crash in front of me. It was still cloudy, but light enough clouds that I could see the light changing. I got outside early enough to glimpse the thin white sliver of the moon before it disappeared for the day.
Then everything was lit up pink. Patches of clouds were highlighted with a pink glow that reflected in the ocean, and for a perfect brief moment a pink light illuminated the snowcovered mountain tops. I alternated between staring and snapping tons of pictures. As I was taking a video of the waves and the changing light, the sun broke the horizon.
There was just a little opening in the clouds at the horizon line, and it was right where the sun came up. Most sunrises are beautiful but they’re all along the same lines: the sky gets lighter, the sun peaks up over the horizon, and in a matter of minutes it’s up in a clear blue sky. This one was different because of the clouds. The sun had a small window to appear, just enough to see it rise and immediately hide again behind cloud cover. It’s hard to describe but this somehow made it even more special. The rays of light coming from behind the clouds could only be described as heavenly.
Before I left the beach I said goodbye to the South Island. I had an amazing couple of weeks there and can only hope that one day I’ll make it back across the world to this incredible place. I couldn’t imagine any better way to leave though than watching the sun rise over the ocean with rocky mountains to my left and grassy ones to my right; the ever-present contrast of NZ landscapes.
I arrived at Kaikoura early on a Sunday morning after quite the Saturday night out in Chch. I was tired, hungover, and really craving some brunch. So when the dreary weather matched my mood I was happy for a reason to stay indoors.
I got off the bus and saw that Kaikoura was a tiny oceanside town with one main street lined with cafes and shops. It looked quiet, relaxed, like a perfect place to take it easy for a few days. I was happy.
That first day I did just that: relax. I treated myself to some bacon and eggs and spent the rest of the day hibernating in my low-key could-be-your-living-room hostel Sunrise Lodge, sipping on tea and planning my next moves.
Like most of NZ, Kaikoura is known for its outdoor activities, mainly seal and whale watching. So I took a chance on the weather, hoping it would clear up by the next day, and booked the morning half day tour with Kaikoura Kayaks through bookme.co.nz (a great website for discounted activities in NZ). It was a good gamble; the next day was perfect, with clear blue skies, warm sun, and barely any wind. Even our guide said we were lucky (something we would hear from him more than once). There were three of us on the tour plus our guide, so we were took out two 2-person kayaks. It was nice to have such a small group; it felt less like a tour and more like a day out with some new buddies. We took to the water and Martin and I worked together like we’d been kayak partners our whole lives. We really should enter a kayaking competition; our turns were flawless and our speed unbeatable (at least compared to the other kayak). It helped that the water was so calm that it was more like a lake than an ocean.
On our way out we encountered a pod of playful dolphins. As we approached they didn’t shy away, quite the opposite. They swam around and under our kayaks, jumping up next to us as if to lead us along, even giving our kayak a little love tap with a tail as if to say “hurry up!” We paddled around with them for a while, huge smiles on our faces, enjoying the company of our new friends. Our guide told us we were lucky (again), most tours don’t get to see many dolphins like we did. It was pretty incredible.
As we said goodbye to flipper and crew we heard a jolt of excitement from our guide’s radio: there was a whale nearby! We paddled quickly out in the direction of the whale watching boats hoping to catch a glimpse of it. That would truly be lucky, it’s pretty rare to see a whale on the kayaking tour. Unfortunately we weren’t that lucky. No whale for us. So it was off to the seals, the reason for the kayaking to begin with.
The seals weren’t quite as playful as the dolphins, keeping their distance from us, but we did get to see six of them active around us in the water (the third “you’re lucky” moment from our guide). I took my GoPro off my head – the sexy look I’d been sporting all morning – and put it in the water to get some video of them swimming around. I was fairly successful considering I couldn’t see what I was shooting.
We kayaked back to shore on the lookout for the whale, hoping to get the trifecta of sealife, but had to be satisfied with just the two. Which of course we were. It was an awesome morning.
I kept the active day going in the afternoon, taking advantage of the still gorgeous weather to bike ride out to the seal colony, stopping along the way at a long-standing seafood BBQ joint for some Paua (abalone). I hiked up to a coastal lookout and could see the mountains, the ocean, seals sprawled out below me, with cows on green pastures behind me. I laid in the grass for a while taking it all in. It was beautiful weather with beautiful views and I had nothing to do but enjoy it.
My two days in Kaikoura were perfect unwinding days before I started the two day journey back up to Rotorua in the North Island.