My top five “I can’t believe that just happened” travel experiences

People often ask me “where’s your favorite place you’ve ever been?”  For me, this question is impossible to answer. I have different categories of favorites for different reasons.  

  • Favorite country I’ve ever visited where I feel most at home?  Spain.
  • Favorite country for a true adventure? Zimbabwe. Or Panama.  
  • Favorite place of historical significance?  The Alhambra.  Or Machu Picchu.  Or the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima.  
  • Favorite city, that is not my own city?  Paris. Or Granada.  Or Buenos Aires.
  • Food?  Vietnam. Or Italy.  Or Indonesia.   
  • Beaches? Australia. Or Raya Koh (Thailand).  Or Zanzibar (Tanzania).

There are many favorites lists, and they are all varied. I’ve been thinking of about those “pinch me, I can not believe this is my life right now” flashes while abroad, and after several weeks of narrowing down the options, I came up with the following list of favorite experiences.  

These are not favorite cities or countries or places.  In some cases, the country where I had the experiences probably does not make my top five “favorite countries” list. Instead, these are specific experiences that to this day bring on giddy butterflies in my stomach, to think I’ve been there, done that, or/and seen that.  

Here are my top five “I CAN NOT FUCKING BELIEVE THAT I AM HERE DOING THIS/SEEING THIS” travel favorites (and one rare domestic bonus):

The Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)

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Blue footed Booby, Galapagos Islands

I love wildlife, and I love seeing rare wildlife in the wild. So clearly, the Galapagos has been a bucket list destination for me.  But price was always an issue. The boat tours, the best way to see the islands, are prohibitively expensive. Instead of sitting around waiting to win the lottery while our planet is trashed, though, I decided to go on my own, making the town of Puerto Ayora on the Isla Santa Cruz my home base and island hopping as much as I could.  As much as I wanted to see ALL the animals (and that I did!), I came to the Galapagos specifically for two: the blue-footed booby and the marine iguana.  Isla Seymore Norte supposedly had both and was close to Santa Cruz so I booked a day trip there. And that turned out to be my most fantastic day on the islands.  The scenery itself was beautiful with flora like nothing else I had ever seen. And the sky and ocean couldn’t have looked more perfect that day; both were a brilliant blue.  Within five minutes of docking, I saw both blue-footed boobies and marine iguanas. They were everywhere!  And they were not shy.  Right in front of us, blue-footed booby males did their mating dance for their wannabe baby mamas.  Closer to the cliffs jetting into the sea, marine iguanas scrambled into the water and swam around, like they were putting on a show for us humans.  Unlike much wildlife, the animals of the Galapagos are not threatened by people, so they are not scared to come very close.  These islands are heaven for any fellow wildlife lover, and being that close to the two animals I specifically came to see was most definitely a favorite travel moment.

Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania): 

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Looking down the rim into Ngorongoro Crater

The day started by watching the sunrise over the crater from outside my tent while enjoying my morning coffee.  That in itself was a “pinch me” moment. From my vantage point, on the rim of the crater, the entire earth came to life as the sun went from dim to so bright it was a haze of brilliant oranges and yellows.  I shed tears as I thought, “How lucky am I that I am seeing this?” If I could only drink my morning coffee watching the sunrise over a huge African crater every day.  And that was only the start of a day filled with “holyshit!” moments.  After breakfast, along with my G Adventures group* I headed down into the crater for a safari in a 4×4 vehicle.  I’ve been on other African safaris, but the crater is simply the best of them.  Since the wildlife is confined to the crater, it is fairly easy to see everything. Lions are my spirit animal and by far my favorite of the African wildlife. Unlike at other nature reserves and national parks in sub-Saharan Africa, lions are easy to spot in the crater.  And there are a lot of them.  A strong, beautiful female lion followed our safari vehicle for quite some time.  We also saw an entire pride of lions eating their breakfast of fresh zebra kill. A big non-lion bonus was seeing a highly endangered black rhino a few minutes before we drove out of the crater rim. To this day I can’t hear Elton John’s “The Circle of Life” without tearing up, thinking back to my day of exploring Ngorongoro Crater.

(*I prefer solo travel.  But there are places, like Tanzania, where having a guide and a group is much better.  Companies like G offer group adventures for like-minded travelers.)

La Fortuna (Costa Rica):

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Fresh Coconut Juice near the top of the uphill climb on a bike to La Fortuna Waterfall

Of course, Arenal volcano is absolutely beautiful, and the area around the volcano offers some of Costa Rica’s best hiking. But the reason the town of La Fortuna made this list is because it is where I learned I am a strong, badass cyclist.  The American woman who ran the guesthouse I stayed in (which is a whole other story, and would make my top five travel nightmares list) recommended renting a bike and riding up to the waterfall.  She mentioned that it was an easy ride.  My amateur cyclist enthusiasm was just beginning to blossom at the time, and being from San Francisco, hills are no stranger to me, so I figured I’d give it a try.  The ride was anything but easy, especially on a heavy rental bike with limited gears.  It was straight uphill on a rocky road.  Several times I stopped to curse the woman from my guesthouse.  Clearly, she had never ridden a bike in her life and had no idea what constitutes an “easy” ride.  But somehow, covered in sweat, I made it to the top and hiked down to the waterfall to take a luxurious dip in its clear, cool water.  While not the most amazing waterfall I’ve ever seen, it holds a very special place in my heart because I enjoyed it after conquering the “anything but easy” hill by bike, cementing my belief that I can do anything as long as I never give up.  Quite the a-ha travel moment!

La Fiesta de Los Patios (Spain):

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A montage of some of my favorite patios from the 2015 festival

Every May, the Andalucian city of Córdoba hosts a festival when the locals open their private Andalucian-style patios and compete for prizes.  Unlike San Fermin in Pamplona, La Fiesta de Los Patios is (thankfully) not world famous.  But people from all over Spain travel to Córdoba every May to walk from home to home, looking at each patio.  Some patio-owners go all out, complete with live music and free tapas.  Most are much more subtle, giving anyone who ventures to Córdoba, a peek inside authentic life in Al-Andaluz.  After hearing about this festival, and then madly Googling photos, I knew I had to go.  The festival is totally free, and information stations give out detailed maps.  To ensure no one misses a patio, every year the festival organizers map out between 5-7 routes, winding through the streets of the old part of Córdoba.  In two glorious days, I managed to visit every single patio.  The standouts for me featured my favorite little tidbit of Andalucian style, cobalt blue flower pots filled with bright, happy flowers.  Spain is practically my second home at this point, and I’ve experienced so many wonderful things there.  But la Fiesta de Los Patios in Córdoba might just be my favorite weekend travel in Spain while I was based there.  (In fact, I am going back again this year, in a few weeks, and introducing the festival to one of my best friends from Madrid)

 

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With the Cuban National Cycling team

Soroa, Cuba:

On a Cuban road trip with my father, on our way back to La Habana after traveling around the western part of the island, we stopped in the picturesque town of Soroa. Soroa is in the Cuban rainforest within easy hiking distance to a number of waterfalls.  But we did not have time for that, unfortunately, as Soroa was just a quick stop on the way back to the capitol.  Instead, we headed up the hill to the Castillo de Las Nubes for some Cuban coffee with a scenic mirador.  As we were finishing our coffee and getting ready to go back down the hill, a group of cyclists on fancy road bikes, all decked out in their spandex, arrived on the top of the hill.  As a (very amateur) road cyclist myself, I am always excited to meet others on road bikes.  We started talking in my mediocre, yet above-average-for-a-gringa Spanish, and I discovered that these men were members of the Cuban national cycling team.  It was so serendipitous that I asked to take a photo with them, and they kindly obliged.  While Cuba, in general, blew me away, meeting the national cycling team was the perfect ending to a Cuban adventure, and was such a unique experience, rounding out my top five travel moments!

But wait!  I have a rare domestic bonus to top off this list…

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (USA): Hawai’i

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Rainbows, lava, and the Pacific Ocean

Everyone and their mother from California has traveled in Hawai’i. Since domestic travel does not excite me the way international travel does, it took me about 15 years of living in California to book my first trip to Hawai’i. The trip was divided into two parts, which ended with me taking my mother around Maui (which I am so glad I did as my mother passed away from pancreatic cancer two years later). Maui was OK, but I am so glad I spent the first half of my trip on the Big Island.  Approaching Hawai’i Karen-style, I stayed on a working goat farm in the hills above Honaunau.  Public transportation on the Big Island is lacking, however, and to really explore, a car is required. Therefore, out of character for me, I rented a car knowing that it was the only way to see the island on my terms.  After a long day of hiking the trails in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, I decided to drive the Chain of Craters Road to catch the sunset.  In this case, the journey there was just as awesome as the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.  The three-hour drive brought me many tears of joy.  The rainbows, the landscapes, the craters, and the long descent down to the ocean where there was lava actively flowing, all created colors and patterns that I’ve never seen anywhere else on this planet.  And this is a “no passport required” drive accessible to all travelers!

I can help you get to and plan a trip to any of these fantastic destinations!


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