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.
International flights in South America are pretty expensive. Flying around Brazil was adding up already, but getting into Colombia was looking like it would set me back over US$600. So, much like my quick venture into Argentina, I looked into alternative border crossing options through domestic flights and land crossings. This is how I got into Colombia:
I flew from Manaus, Brazil to Tabatinga, Brazil. When I landed in the tiny Tabatinga airport, I walked about 10 minutes into town to immigration control and got my exit stamp from Brazil. From there, I walked another 10 minutes to a taxi stand and told the driver I needed to go to immigration control at the Leticia airport in Colombia. So we drove across the border into Leticia, Colombia.
This international border is so understated that I almost missed it. It’s just a sign and a guard, and everyone moves through it easily. There isn’t even a stop sign.
I was dropped off at the Leticia airport to get my entrance stamp for Colombia, which took no time at all. If I thought the Tabatinga airport was tiny, Leticia’s is minuscule. The one building and its one terminal could fit into baggage claim at most US airports.
From there, a helpful Colombian hailed me a mototaxi, aka a guy on a motorbike who will let you ride with him for a small fee. So I jumped on the back of this random person’s motorbike, with my big backpack on, put on his spare helmet, and in just 5 short minutes I was at my hostel.
I made it to Colombia.
All of this happened over a week ago already – I know, I’m a little behind. At this point I have started thinking about how I’m going to leave Colombia next week, and I can tell you to expect another random border crossing story. This might become the theme of my time in South America – how many countries will I enter and exit on land instead of in the air?
There are a few reasons crossings like this make sense for a trip like mine. 1) Cost. It’s just so much cheaper to take domestic flights and buses than it is international flights. 2) Immigration control. It’s so quick and easy to get your passport stamped at land crossings. Many international flights require proof of exit from the country, and I have yet to book any round trip tickets (nor do I think I will this whole trip), so you often have to buy a flight or bus ticket out. Domestic flights don’t care about this since you’re already in the country. And with Colombia, there is an exit fee for international flights but this may be avoidable through a land crossing. I’ll let you know if that’s true when I make it to Ecuador. 3) Airport time. Domestic flights have the quickest security check and you don’t have to get to the airport as early. And in major cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo that have two airports, the domestic one is usually closer to the center of the city than the larger international airport. 4) A good excuse to see a new place. I had actually cut Ecuador, but I just added it back in because taking a bus to Quito and moving on from there makes more sense than flying from Colombia to Bolivia. This one is tough because it changes how I allocate my time: the added stops mean that I lose a few days from other locations, but I am traveling for 10 months not 10 days, so I have the time if I need it (and if I can do overnight buses then it doesn’t take up sightseeing time and saves me a night paying for accommodation). 5) Fun stories. Who the hell knows what will happen on these buses? As soon as I decided to cross on land into Ecuador I got really excited about this portion of my trip. It’s more like how I expected to travel than the luxury of flights.
Our 6 days/5 nights Amazon tour took us to a variety of locations: first night at the lodge, second night with a family, third and fourth nights camping in the jungle, last night at the lodge again.
The description of the tour originally had an emphasis on trekking and jungle survival. While I wouldn’t call what we did a trek – we did some good walks through the jungle but nothing near the extent we were imagining – we agreed that it was better this way. The jungle does get repetitive and the best way to see the Amazon seems to be on the water, so the mixture of activities we did resulted in two very satisfied customers who will rave about this week for a long time.
Day 1 we met our companions for part of the trip – Gwen from France and Carolina from Belgium had scheduled 4 days – and journeyed by boat over the Meeting of the Waters, then by van, and again by boat, before arriving at the lodge.
The lodge was so much better than I was picturing. It was low key, with docks to jump off into the water, hammocks outside our rooms and a big hut we ate our meals in. After lunch one of the guys who works at the lodge took us out to his family’s house, where we learned how to shoot a spear using a bow and the guys played a pretty intense game of soccer. We traveled back as the sun was setting, and ended our night on the early side with dinner and a game of hearts. We had to wake up early for sunrise.
Day 2 we went out with Nelson in the morning to see sunrise, when we saw the pink dolphins swim by, and then for a post-breakfast walk. He showed us important trees and let us play like kids, swinging on vines, climbing trees, and weaving crowns and fans out of palm fronds, as well as using them as props in some entertaining pictures.
After a swim and lunch we all participated in the Amazon tradition of reading and napping in hammocks. I was woken up by our guide, Mathias, who informed me that we would be leaving around 4. Carolina had arranged for a night with a family so we were all going to the family’s house.
It was interesting to see how a large family lives in the Amazon. Their home has one bedroom for the parents, one for all the kids (8 live there now, 6 more are in Manaus), a room that acts as a living room or a guest bedroom where we hung up our hammocks, and a kitchen/dining area. The property is large, and on it they grow mostly what they need to survive. They also have an oversized skillet in which they make their own farofa from manioc. There are ducks, cats and kittens, dogs and puppies, chickens, and so many insects all over the place.
The kids were fascinated by our cameras and by Carolina’s very long dreadlocks. I’ve read travelers stories about kids playing with cameras and felt like a stereotype when I let the kids take control of my not-so-cheap camera just because of how excited they were. But this is a common traveler story for a reason – it’s a small thing to do that brings joy to these kids, and when you can’t speak to them it’s something that you can do together.
That night we took the boat out for the first time searching for caiman. Mathias’s headlamp is pretty much a searchlight, and all we could see was the eyes of the caiman glowing red above the water. He spotted a snake from far away and took us closer to see it wrapped around a tree. As soon as it saw us it moved further up the tree, and even though this meant Mathias couldn’t catch it anymore, it was still fascinating to watch it move.
Day 3 we ate breakfast with the family before going fishing. I caught a piranha! We shared our three small piranha (Carolina, Gwen and I all caught them, Bobby was unsuccessful, but he made up for it later) and some chicken we brought with the family for lunch, who shared their fish with us from their much more successful morning. Then we set out to camp in the jungle.
Finally. I was so excited to get out into the jungle, and judging by how the last two days of the trip went I was right to be so excited. Our first evening was largely occupied with setting up camp, finding firewood, building a fire, and cooking dinner. The structure of the camp was already there, so we just had to hang our hammocks and mosquito nets and a tarp to cover them all. We talked over dinner about a wide range of topics, from political discussions to Chuck Norris jokes. It’s always interesting to hear what people from different countries want to talk about and their opinions on the subjects. After dinner we ventured out on the water again but it was short-lived; we had to race back to camp to beat the looming rain clouds. We made it back just in time – the rain came as soon as we were under our tarp.
Day 4 I woke up last (thank god for ear plugs) and breakfast and coffee were already ready. We set off on a jungle walk with Mathias to learn more survival skills, and apparently to see a ton of scary insects. We saw a tarantula, which he took out of its hole so we could all pet it, and the most poisonous spider in the jungle. Later that night we would see the scorpion spider, which has two arms just full of teeth. This is also the walk when I was stung by a wasp, mere minutes after seeing an ant whose sting is so powerful that it feels like you’ve been shot and hurts for 24 hours. Naturally I was a little worried. But I was lucky, this pain would only last for about 2 hours.
After our walk it was time for Gwen and Carolina to leave, so we all went out in the boat to say bye and so Bobby and I could take a quick swim, aka our shower. Then it was time for lunch and the customary post-lunch hammock nap before trying our luck at fishing again. We had no luck. Dinner was chicken, and this is when it all turned around. After agreeing it was the best meal in a while (I like to take credit for the idea to put the pineapple on the fire too) we set out to try our hand at spear fishing.
We all speared fish! I caught a peacock bass, which ended up being one of my favorite things I ate the whole trip. The only downside was the overwhelming number of spiders we encountered. Have I mentioned spiders are my biggest fear? Every time I went to push off on a tree there was a spider there. And I’m not talking the little guys you find in the states. The smallest spiders were maybe 3 inches. There were spiders that walked on water, ones that had huge webs our boat barely missed passing by, and ones that loomed in holes in the trees. And thanks to the even more terrifying wasps that are attracted to headlamps, we frequently had to turn our lights off and glide past our new friends in pitch black. This was easily 10 of the worst minutes of my life. But hey, we made it out alive, and with a few new fish to eat. At least now when I see a spider I don’t even react anymore. I did learn a valuable lesson: if you don’t bother them, they won’t move. That’s better than the wasps. Those things just attack.
Day 5 was the winner. After breakfast we cleaned up camp and were packing up the boat when a fishing rod that was just hanging over the edge started moving – we had a bite! Mathias rushed us into the boat and we all dropped in our lines. Then Bobby had his moment: he caught the largest piranha you can in this region, the black piranha. He then proceeded to catch 3 more piranha of different varieties.
Feeling good about today, we made our way back to the lodge and spotted all kinds of wildlife, including some howler monkeys playing in the tallest trees. Swim, lunch, hammock nap, and it was time to go on a search for sloths. Mathias took us into the middle of the lake and we slowly searched the treetops. I have no idea how he is able to spot the things he sees, but he found a sloth curled up in a tree and paddled over. He tied up the boat, climbed up the tree, and we got to meet the sloth. What we didn’t know when he went to get her was that she had a baby sloth clinging to her! So we met and held mom and baby sloth, taking so many pictures and videos. We were ridiculously giddy about this encounter.
We said bye to our new friends and went bird watching and sunset gazing before heading back to the lodge to devour our catches from spearfishing the night before and piranha fishing that morning. At night we attempted spear fishing again but the area wasn’t working. What we did find though were a couple caiman – first Mathias caught one and then Bobby grabbed one. So even with the lack of fish, this night was a success.
Day 6 started with sunrise, our last one on the Amazon, and then more wildlife watching – toucans and iguanas this time. We packed up our stuff, got a final beer for the road, and were on our way back to civilization by 9:30 am. I had to catch a flight at 3.
Rereading this post before publishing, I know I’m leaving things out. This is the shortest I could possibly describe this week. We did and saw so much on all our jungle walks and boat adventures that it’s just not possible to relay everything in a blog post; this is already too long.
So in summary, I’ll just say that the combination of activities, led by our incredibly knowledgeable guide Mathias, gave us an excellent overview of life in the Amazon. If you have ever thought about going there, go, and stay for a while; the most exciting part of our trip was the last two days in the jungle. It was hard to say goodbye to the fascinating world of the Amazon. I know this week will stick out in my memory for a long time.
Every time we went out on the boat to look at the sky, one word came to mind: pure.
I’d heard at some point that the vibrant sunsets we see in the US – the reds, pinks, oranges, and purples – are actually a result of pollution. After witnessing sunset on the Amazon I believe it.
An Amazon sunset starts with the most beautiful shade of blue before morphing into pastel versions of the rainbow. It is clear, unaffected by electric lights or emitted gases. It is simultaneously peaceful and active: peaceful in the transition from hot to cool and bright sun to twilight, but active with insects and birds constantly on the move.
At night, the clarity of the sky results in a cornucopia of stars. We would go out on the boat looking for caiman and despite the excitement of following Mathias’s headlamp searching for them, I would frequently find myself just staring up at the stars and the Milky Way. I haven’t seen a sky like this since a random night drive through the middle of New Hampshire; it revived a childhood fascination with constellations.
And at sunrise, the whole process starts over again. We went out on the boat twice for sunrise: our first and last mornings. The full rainbow is on display and reflected in the calm water as the sun creeps up over the jungle.
Then within what feels like minutes it’s back to full sun, blue sky and heat.
No matter what time of day, the sky in the Amazon is memorizing. Adding to this sight is the mirror-like reflection on the water. At times it looked like there were two skies, one on each side of the shore.
Just one more reason the Amazon is majestic.
I was constantly amazed by our guides’ skills and knowledge. I’ve been living in a world where everything we could ever want or need can be ordered through a computer and delivered to our doorstep in just 2 days, so it was fascinating to remove myself entirely from modern conveniences and learn how to live off the jungle.
Need some water? Cut this vine and hold it up above your mouth. The water dripping out of it tastes slightly like carrots but it is still refreshing. In the mood for a cigarette? This vine can be smoked too.
Hungry? Try some larva from this large nut-looking thing from this tree. Not great to survive off of for days at a time, but it’ll keep you moving for a bit longer.
Feeling warm and need a fan? Use a section of a palm frond to weave one. The palm frond can also be a placemat for you dinner, a bed that protects you from snakes and spiders, or the roof of your shelter.
How about a spoon or a plate? There are trees and leaves for that too.
Need to signal your location or spend a night protected from predators? Large trees make perfect bedrooms and their sturdy but thin walls make a sound you can hear for kilometers.
Bow? No problem when you have the bark from a certain tree. Just use a machete to shred it down to the fibers and wind yourself a string. This also works to make a foot harness for climbing acai trees. Or a bracelet, like the one currently tied around my wrist that our guide Mathias made for me.
I haven’t even mentioned the menthol tree to help pain, ant nest for mosquito repellent, or the malaria medication tree.
The survival skills I was taught in the jungle are such a particular and fascinating knowledge. Part of it our guides know just from experience and part is because they had to go to guide school. All if it impressive.
With all of this though, there are still 2 essential tools that you need when venturing into the jungle: a machete and a lighter. As Mathias said, the machete is most important, but never go into the jungle without a way to make fire – that would just be stupid.
I don’t think there is any way I can accurately describe the wonder of the Amazon jungle. My 6 days there showed me an ecosystem the likes of which I’ve never seen. Every day we were impressed with new discoveries, culminating in the most epic 24 hours of this journey so far.
I will probably try to write a few posts describing different aspects of this trip, but who knows how many I’ll actually publish. No writing will do it justice.
So for now, here is a rambling synopsis of some of my amazing Amazon adventures.
In the past 6 days, I: felt the temperature difference of the Rio Negro and Rio Amazonas at the Meeting of the Waters; dove into and cooled off in Lago Juma, an offshoot south of the Amazonas; slept on hammocks in a variety of locations, including two nights camping in the jungle; ate the best pineapple I’ve ever had; formed an addiction to Gota Mohlo de Pimenta (their hot sauce); saw pink dolphins swim by during sunrise; learned how to shoot a bow and spear; tasted and smelled trees that contribute to everything from chewing gum to perfume to medicine; climbed an acai tree; swung on a vine like Tarzan; played Amazon-rules dominoes with a mother of 14 while her kids and all types of animals from kittens to ducks ran around us; heard a Brazilian, Frenchman, and Belgian tell Chuck Norris jokes over a campfire; chopped firewood with a machete; pet a tarantula; saw one of the deadliest spiders in the jungle; survived an Amazon wasp sting; caught a piranha and speared a peacock bass, and ate both (the bass was better); spotted caiman (smaller crocodile) eyes and an Amazon river snake in just the light of a headlamp; lived through my worst nightmare floating in pitch black through a spider-infested flooded forest; saw more birds than I could imagine, from prehistoric birds to toucans; saw and heard howler monkeys, night monkeys, and monk saki monkeys; held a crab, a shellfish, a sloth and her baby, and two small caimans; and gazed at the purest sky I’ve ever seen for sunrises, sunsets, and stargazing, complete with Mars, Saturn, the Milky Way, and numerous shooting stars.
I have no doubt that this will end up being one of the most memorable weeks of this experience. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Brazil.
I went on two very different day trips during my stay in Rio that showed just how varied a region of Brazil can be.
The first was an all day boat trip to and around Ilha Grande. After what seemed like an eternity napping on a small bus (in reality about 3 hours), we arrived at a port and boarded our boat, the Ipanema, that would take us out for the day. The boat was equipped with a bar, an excessively loud speaker system, and clientele ranging from families to rowdy dancing Argentinians. It seems that everyone is drawn to this day on the water, and I can see why. The water is perfectly blueish green and the collection of islands looks like a dream world. It’s impossible to capture just how pretty it is in pictures.
We stopped four times throughout the day. First we had half an hour to explore a tiny island with white sand and inviting water. Second the boat simply stopped and let all of us jump off and swim with the fish. They supplied pool noodles and this seemed to make everyone think we couldn’t travel far; people looked like sitting ducks bobbing on noodles next to the boat. The water was pleasant though and watching everyone’s different jumping/diving styles was entertaining.
Third was the stop at Ilha Grande for a walk across the island. The jungle flora was cool to see, but the seemingly deserted buildings felt a lot like walking through the Lost island. Venturing from one side of the island to the other was less of a hike than we were hoping for, but it was nice to get out and move around. And then the unexpected highlight of the day happened: there seemed to be some sort of amateur photoshoot going on while we were waiting to be picked up, and everyone from our boat was mesmerized. They do say that Brazilian women have the best butts for a reason… A brave and cheeky Argentinian decided to join in on the fun, mimicking her modeling bare-assed and even swimming up to surprise the girl as she posed on a rock. He excuted this stunt perfectly and became the hero of the trip.
After all the men eventually tore themselves away from this scene and rejoined the boat, we finally had a chance to eat lunch at our last stop. Then it was back on the boat for a sunset trip back to the dock. It was a beautiful scene that was completely contradicted by the rowdy Argentinians starting a dance party to songs like Gangnam Style. I was a brief participant when I was coaxed into attempting samba-like dancing on a platform on the boat. The movements of samba dancing are hard in general for non-South Americans and even harder on a boat, but I figured eh why not? It was fun.
The whole day felt like a scene out of a movie about how to vacation with friends in South America: bucket of beers on a boat in perfect sunshine surrounded by pristine scenery. It was the type of day that made us turn to each other and say, “this is my life right now, fucking awesome.”
Petrópolis was pretty much the opposite of Ilha Grande. This old German settlement is up in the mountains above Rio. The scenic drive to get there winds through lush green hillshide; and our drive was accompanied by stops for antique hunting and delicous sausage sandwiches. When we eventually arrived at Petrópolis I felt like we were driving through a small European village that had been plunked down in South America. And then I learned that I was on this adventure with the perfect tour guide.
Alfredo spent a few years of his childhood living in Petrópolis, and his family was so involved with the city and the Imperial Museum that I learned more from him than I could have hoped to learn from any guidebook. As we walked around the grounds of the museum, past ornate houses, to the cathedral, to the Crystal Palace, and ending at a very traditional Brazilian steakhouse, Alfredo told us stories about Brazilian history. I learned about the war with Paraguay, the last Emperor of Brazil, and efforts that were made to preserve important art and architecture in Petrópolis. Alfredo if you ever read this – thank you!
An unexpected part of this tour was the beer festival that was happening in and around the Crystal Palace. Of course we were there for the time the played Edelweiss; any time I’m around live German music I hear this song. It’s like they know.
Petrópolis would have been difficult to get to without having a car, so I was lucky to have hosts who offered to take me there. It was a lovely town with an interesting mixture of Europe and Brazil, and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit there.