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September 8, 2015

New Zealand’s Heaphy Track – One of the Great Walks!

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New Zealand has some of the world’s best walking tracks (or as they call them in Kiwi land, “tramps”!) and the Heaphy Track is one of them.
It is situated on the north western coast of NZ’s South Island within Kahurangi National Park. You can choose to walk the track over either four or five days. My group did it in 4 days but if I had my time over again I would choose the 5 day option. 78.4 km is a long way!

The Heaphy Track is not a circuit track so you have to consider your transport options in and out. You can walk it from South to North (Kohaihai end to Collingwood end) or North to South (Collingwood to Kohaihai). Sometimes 2 groups of friends will arrange to walk the track from opposite ends, meet in the middle and swap the keys to their cars so that they can both drive out. We drove to Karamea (the small township near Kokaihai) from the city of Christchurch and stayed the night. The next morning we took a helicopter flight to the north-eastern end of the track and then walked the track back down to our car. Of course you can arrange to catch the helicopter to either end.

We walked the track from North to South but on reflection I think South to North would have been preferable. There are two reasons for this. On your first day you are carrying more weight because you are carrying food for 4 days. From the southern Karamea end, the the first day involves walking along a largely flat track up the picturesque coastline. Three of the first day’s highlights are the grove of Nikau, Scott’s Beach and the inlet camp site at the end of the day. However, walking from the northern Collingwood end the first day is mostly uphill through beautiful native bush. I found this quite tough with a full backpack and wished I’d walked from the southern end which would’ve allowed me to ease myself into the hike, as it were.

So we walked 5 hours up through the forest to Perry Saddle Hut and stayed there the first night. The next day was a very long day! It took me about 8 hours to walk across the alpine tussock grasslands of the Gouland Downs to the Mackay Hut. It’s supposed to take 6.5 hours but one of my knees was playing up and causing me pain.
Day 3 involved descending through beautiful bush and then crossing and following the gorgeous Heaphy River out to meet the sea where we stayed our 3rd night at the Heaphy Hut. The final day we walked south along the coastal track through the forest of Rata and Karaka trees and Nikau Palms. There are quite a few swing bridge crossings of streams which can swell into torrents after heavy rain so be careful. There are opportunities to walk along the beach in some places. The sea is breathtakingly beautiful but you should NEVER be tempted to go for a swim – it far too dangerous.

The Heaphy Track is one of the great walks of the world. You get to see such diverse landscapes along the way – beech Forest, alpine tussock grassland, podocarp forest and coastal palm trees. I would love to do it again and next time I would be better prepared. I would do some training beforehand and make sure I had more comfortable boots. I developed blisters on the 3rd day and was a bit of a cripple on the last day which was a shame as it did impair my enjoyment of what otherwise was a spectacular last day. Bring some plasters!

Image by Christoph Strassler under Creative Commons license.

May 6, 2015

Travel Trepidation: Fear and Loathing of New Places

Is “Sarah Palin” on that wall?

The US State Department reports that less than 10 percent of Americans travel abroad each year.  Of that small percentage, most visit Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean.  Generally speaking, Americans just don’t travel internationally.  Let us examine the root of this phenomenon: Fear.

Fear of Headlines

We are told the world is a dangerous place.  Turn on CNN, and you are bombarded with terrifying headlines.  Juárez is a war zone!  You’ll be kidnapped, robbed, or worse.”, they tell us.  “They may force you to watch Mexican soap operas!” The media is so negative, it’s no wonder Wisconsin Dells is packed.

Granted, there are some nasty places in the world, and you shouldn’t dismiss the risks.  I am in no way advocating you hop the next flight to Baghdad.

However, I am advocating you take the “gloom and doom” with a grain of salt.  The world is not as scary as Wolf Blitzer’s furry face would lead you to believe.   In fact, you are probably already taking greater risks in your everyday life.  Consider these violent crime rates ¹:

  • United States:  80.1 per 1,000 people
  • Thailand:  8.8 per 1,000 people
  • Colombia:  4.9 per 1,000 people
  • India:  1.6 per 1,000 people
  • Yemen:  1.2 per 1,000 people

According to the data, you are 50 times more likely to be mugged in Chicago than Yemen.  Yet, I don’t think twice about riding the Green Line or strolling down Michigan Avenue at two o’clock in the morning.  You have to discount these statistics, I admit, as the data are probably skewed from unreported crimes, differing crime-counting methodology, and spotty record keeping.  Even still, you’ll find the vast majority of people make it back relatively unscathed.  With the exception of pick pocketing, most travelers avoid major crimes (Again, such as forced exposure to Maria la del Barrio).

Understand that the headlines are sensationalized, and you cannot let them put you off.  Limit your exposure to high-risk situations and make sensible choices.

Fear of the Unfamiliar

Many hesitate to travel because they are afraid of missing their friends, family, and routine.  We cling to familiarity and resist change at every turn.  Most people solve their fears by frequenting the same destinations year after year– Las Vegas every January or Orlando each summer.  There is comfort in the familiar, and routine can be a good thing.  But what’s the fun in that?  Traveling is about discovery and new experiences.  Nervousness should be a prerequisite– expected and embraced.

Nervousness is what makes travel so rewarding.  It gives you that pre-trip high.  Once you get to your destination, your fears melt away.  You left the jitters on the airplane along with your headphones.  You embrace the familiarity of the unfamiliar and stop worrying about your destination.  You are experiencing the destination first hand, and you see your fears of the unfamiliar were unwarranted.

Of course, then there’s the food thing.  Fried cockroaches?  Toasted arachnids?  The mind runs wild with stomach wrenching combinations.  There is no doubt some dishes will be absolutely terrible and will have you running for the bathroom.  However, others will be wonderful, and you’ll crave them the rest of your life.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve salivated at the thought of those lime-drenched, al pastor tacos on that dimly lit street in Mexico City.  ¡Muy delicioso!

Independent travel forces you fend to for yourself, which can be intimidating.  There is no tour guide or concierge to help you along.  But it’s not just you and your tattered Lonely Planet versus the world either— the invisible network of Couchsurfers and hostel-dwellers will help you along the way.

Your trip is a personal thing, and you can shape it to be whatever you want. 

Fear of Perceptions

I don’t know about you, but I don’t get 300 days of vacation at my job.  Most people have to quit or negotiate a leave of absence for a trip like ours.  This is a very scary thing.

Don’t be afraid to get off the career merry-go-round.  You can get right back on when you return.  Admittedly, Kim and I are your typical yuppies, and we aren’t leaving our careers behind to sell hemp necklaces and focus our inner Chi.

Well, at least not indefinitely.

Don’t be afraid of being viewed as irresponsible or uncommitted.  If you do it right, your employer may actually support your decision and welcome you back when you return.  How can anyone fault you for pursuing your dream?  Sometimes we are so worried about how we are perceived that we don’t go to cooking school or join the Peace Corp or take that year off to travel the world.

In summary, don’t let “the fears” paralyze you.  You only live once.  There are thousands of people that travel for months (even years) without being kidnapped by terrorists, subjected to poached monkey brain, or being forever branded as an unhirable hippy.  Just check out our Blogroll.  I think you’ll find a consistent message:

Once you set aside your fears and take that big trip, you’ll never regret it.

So, what are you waiting for?

1. Source:  Seventh United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, covering the period 1998 – 2000 (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Centre for International Crime Prevention)
August 17, 2011

Gettin’ Fishy With It

Gettin’ Fishy With It

Just because we aren’t traveling the world right now doesn’t mean we can’t view our own city through the eyes of a traveler.  Chicago has so many amazing places to see and foods to eat that there is plenty to blog about. My “Kim’s Tips” for Chicago started to look more like an e-book than a concise city guide, so for the next few months I’ll be featuring great spots in our home town. Hopefully, I will inspire locals to get out and enjoy their hometown and travelers to stop by Chicago and see what it has to offer!

Isaacson & Stein Fish Company

It’s been a long road, but I have seen the light on seafood. Clark gently introduced me to sea creatures through fried calamari and Captain D’s. Now, I gladly throw back oysters and chow down on a mouthwatering hunk of hamachi sashimi. We moved to the Fulton Market district at the end of April and started wandering around our ‘hood to find the best neighborhood places. We came across a plethora of Italian bakeries, subs shops, and pizzerias (subjects of a future post, don’t worry!). But, the biggest catch was Isaacson & Stein Fish Company.

Isaacson & Stein's Fish Company

Three generations have been running this market for over 80 years and it is the oldest fish wholesaler in the city. The current owner, Sherwin Willner, began working at the market at the age of seventeen in 1967. They sell to restaurants as well as every day folk.  It’s safe to say that the Crab Cake Crusted Trout at Wildfire last night came straight from the icy tubs of Isaacson’s.

Isaacson & Stein's Fish Company

Isaacson & Stein's Fish Company

Prepare yourself before walking through the doors. If you have a weak stomach or strong aversion to that overwhelming fishy smell, this is not the place for you! It is, however, Clark’s idea of heaven. It’s full of smelly, slimy, and seemingly smiling seafood. The scene is disturbing enough to bring a nine year old girl to hysterics. It didn’t help that her brother shoved a fish in her face and made it talk. Clark does the same thing to me nearly every visit, so I felt her pain.

In the summer, the gush of freezing cold air is a savoir after the three block walk from our apartment. You’ll hear sounds of fish being scaled, chopped, and tossed into buckets while the very jovial employees chat, laugh, and enjoy their work. If you wear sandals, be prepared for your feet to get icy, slimy, and stinky the minute you walk in the door. Once you taste the amazing freshness of the seafood, you’ll know it was worth it.

Isaacson’s receives daily shipments from Greece, Brazil, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and loads of other countries on the Atlantic.  About 10 tons of seafood per week goes through their doors! They also have a nice supply of locally harvested fish from the Great Lakes. Some of the best sushi joints in the city even get their fish from Isaacson & Stein’s. The merry fish guys that work at Isaacson’s will happily clean and gut your fish on the spot.

The market is very crowded on the weekends, but that’s when you realize how good this place really is. You’ll rub shoulders with chef’s from Chicago’s top restaurants and little old Greek ladies planning a family meal. If you’re craving seafood, definitely head to Isaacson & Stein’s and buy enough fish to eat yourself into a mercury-induced coma.

April 21, 2011

Five Foods We Miss

Five Foods We Miss

We’ve been back in the States for four months now. We’re still pretty unsettled, living with a friend, sleeping on an air mattress, and searching for jobs. Our travels seem almost like a dream at this point. As soon as we got back into the swing of things in the city, it seemed like we never left. It’s hard to believe we did and saw so much.

The single thing we’ve missed most about traveling is the food. We’ve made it a point to seek out some of our favorite dishes from the road here in Chicago. But, it just isn’t the same. Here are some foods that we’ve been pining for lately.

Thai Street Noodles

My favorite thing about Thailand was the street food. Little old ladies at each corner dish out the best soups I’ve ever had from a huge bubbling pot. The soups usually had chicken bits (I don’t want to know which parts…), noodles, and lots of vegetables. The broth was so flavorful and satisfying that we’d have it for almost every meal. Plus, you can’t beat the price. You can get a huge bowl of soup for under $2.

Tomàquet amb pa...

Spanish Tapas and Pan Con Tomate

I love, love, love Spanish food. My favorite tapas were the boquerones (fried white anchovies), fried calamari, and olives. I’m also a huge fan of the Catalan appetizer of pan con tomate. Crunchy toasted sourdough bread is topped with a little olive oil and then a fresh juicy tomato is squeezed over the top. The quality of produce in Spain blew me away. I’ve never had tomatoes that tasted so good!

Thali time - Jodhpur, India

Indian Thali

Indian is always high on our list of favorite foods. One of our favorite items to order in India was Thali. It’s almost like a lunch combo special. You get a big plate with lots of little curries and sauces with bread and rice. It was always very filling, full of flavor, and super cheap.

Middle Eastern Hummus & Falafel

There are a lot of great Mediterranean restaurants in Chicago, but we have not been able to find any that serve up hummus and falafel as good as we had in Egypt and Jordan. Our meal of choice in Jordan usually consisted of a cucumbers, carrots, tomato, and pita along with a big bowl of hummus and a side of freshly fried falafel. This usually cost us just under $2 including a couple of Cokes! I still haven’t quite broken myself of this food habit and head over to our local Middle Eastern joint and get the vegetarian platter at least once a week fro my falafel fix.

Lunch time - Izmir, Turkey

Turkish Kebabs & Tea

Another of our all time favorite street foods is the Turkish Kebab. Chunks of meat are rubbed with lots of yummy spices and grilled before your eyes with peppers and onions. I love the way the Turkish kebab is served wrapped in tortilla-like pita and then a tube of paper that is peeled away as you eat. After you stuff yourself with a kebab you must have the obligatory glass of Turkish tea. Don’t forget the sugar cube!

What foods do you miss?

April 12, 2011

It’s a Small World

It’s a Small World

Tilt-shift is pretty cool.

It’s my new favorite post-processing trick, in fact. The photo is manipulated so that a life-sized location looks like a miniature-scale model. I had seen these fake miniatures before, but I never knew why it looked miniature. I have a bit of free time on my hands, so I learned the technique. These photos are actual locations from our world travels….now in mini form through the magic of computers.

For the miniature effect to be credible, shoot subjects from a high angle. It looks best if the photo is taken from above and far away, like a landscape with lots of rooftops or street activity. It creates the illusion of looking down at a model.

Miniature Toledo, Spain

I found several good tutorials for creating Miniatures using Photoshop. First, choose the area of the photo for your focal point. I like choosing an area where there are lots of people, cars, or activity happening.

Miniature Porto, Portugal

Make sure scale is maintained. See the little people and cars in Porto and the boy with his mule in Petra?

Miniature Petra, Jordan

Miniature Jodhpur, India

Some miniature holy cows would have been cool in this shot.

Miniature Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Don’t over do it. It is easy to lose detail with strong bokeh. You want a shallow depth of field, but not too shallow. Aim for somewhere between kiddie pool and tabloid magazines.

Miniature Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

If you want to try the effect for yourself, a little googling will give you several great tutorials, but here is the one I like:

Have you experimented with tilt-shift? Post a link to your mini-photos below.

March 20, 2011

Sightseeing’s Serious Side

Sightseeing’s Serious Side

If you’ve seen our “Highlights from Germany and Austria” video, you know we had a fun time in Bavaria. Beer halls, mountains, castles, alpine luges, pretzels, rolling fields, fast highways, schnitzel, and lederhosen make Germany a very fun place to visit. On top of that, right next door is Poland where you get cheaper beer, perogi, and quaint little villages.

However, there is also the obvious darker history of the area that can’t, and shouldn’t, be ignored.

Some of the most moving tourist sights in Germany and Poland are the concentration camps that have been restored and preserved and memorials honoring those killed in the Holocaust. The museums that document and bring to life this horrific event can’t be missed. These places do their best to tell the tales of millions of people whose lives were destroyed.

While not the most uplifting places to visit, we made it a priority to go to several during our time in Europe. It is impossible to avoid seeing the effect that WWII had on that part of the world.

Dachau – Germany

Main Entrance - Dachau Concentration Camp 1945

Built on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory 16 km north of Munich, Dachau was the first regular concentration camp opened by the Nazi party.  It was the prototype for all other camps built afterward. The camp was in use from 1933 to 1945 as an internment center of the Third Reich.

The purpose of the first camps was simply to concentrate a group of people who are in some way undesirable (i.e. Jews, gypsies, prisoners of war) in one place, where they can be watched by those who incarcerated them. The forced labor, beatings, murders, and mass extermination soon followed.

It is hard to know the exact number of people who spent time in the camp.  The general estimate is 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries. About two-thirds were political prisoners and nearly one-third were Jews. Many died in the camps due to malnutrition and disease as well as suicide.

The historic site is free to the public and pretty crowded (especially with large school groups). It is also very spruced up.   It was used after the war until 1960 as an interment camp and the site of the Dachau trials, so much of the original construction is not in tact. The audio tour is very reasonably priced (only a few Euro) or you can hire a guide. The site consists of a central building (now housing a museum), reconstructed barracks, the camp crematorium, and a gas chamber that, thankfully, was never used. (Although, it is still quite chilling to stand in the “shower” room and see the holes in the ceiling where Zyklon B was planned to be dropped in.) There are several memorials and works of art on the grounds as well.

It is a sobering place, however, some of the “feel” is lost because of the remodeling. All of the statues, memorials, and new construction detract from the “realness”. It is hard to put yourself in the place of people who actually walked there during the war. But, it is worth a visit if you are in Munich.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – Berlin

This controversial memorial in Berlin was created by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold.  The expansive grounds are filled with 2,711 concrete slabs of varying heights. The slabs gradually get taller and taller as you enter the memorial.  According to the creators, the site is “designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” I enjoyed the memorial quite a bit, especially the underground museum (also free of charge). Some of the exhibits there are quite moving.

However, I think the symbolism is lost on many of the people passing through. Kids are running and playing hide and seek while squealing, guards are constantly reprimanding people from climbing on the columns (including us), and the whole place has more of a playground feel when large groups of students come barreling through.  As a piece of art, though, it is beautiful and quite an appropriate memorial.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - Berlin, Germany

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - Berlin, Germany

Jewish Museum – Berlin

Judisches Museum BerlinThe original Jewish History Museum in Berlin was founded in 1933 and shut down by the Nazi party in 1938. It was revived in 1978 and the new modern section was completed in 1999.  The new section is the creation of architect Daniel Libeskind and was one of the first buildings designed after the reunification. The museum is massive and filled with not only Holocaust information and memorials, but a history of the Jewish people, culture, and lives.

The new building can only be accessed through an underground tunnel.  The entrance and architecture are all very symbolic.  The zig-zag of the tunnel symbolizes a broken Star of David. The Holocaust Tower is an empty silo 79 feet tall. The room isn’t heated or cooled and contains only one tiny window at the top of the tower. A guide essentially locks small groups of people in the room for a short amount of time. You stand in silence, taking in the empty, cold space.

The rest of the museum is much more conventional and chronologically follows the story of the Jewish people. We didn’t realize how massive the museum was, so we didn’t get to spend as much time there as we would have liked. You can easily take 3 hours. There is a lot of great information as well as some fun interactive exhibits.

Auschwitz – Poland

The pinnacle for “sight-seeing” during  our time in Poland was Auschwitz. Unlike Dachau, this place has been preserved  to almost exactly the way it was during the war.  The site consists of two camps: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  The first camp consists of 16 buildings and was used for administrative purposes and a prison camp.  The first prisoners were brought there in 1940.  It housed not only Jews, but also Jewish supporters, prisoners of war, and any other group of people the Nazis found to be a menace to society. As you walk through the camp there are signs describing daily life and operations of the camp as well as some sites were specific atrocities took place.
Auschwitz-Birkenau - Oświęcim, Poland

Birkenau is reached by a free shuttle bus that leaves every half hour.  This was the extermination camp.  Much of this camp has been destroyed, but the main railroad entrance, several barracks, guard towers, and furnaces are still there.  This was probably the most moving place we visited on the trip.

Small groups of tourists listened to their guides describe the process of herding huge groups directly from the trains and into the furnaces.  We came across many people standing alone to the side and crying. Some were holding photos of family members. It was here where the reality of the Holocaust really hits home.

There are a ton of great artists and writers that attempt to realistically depict the hardship and genocide, but standing on the actual spot made it infinitelymore real than any film, book, or photo can.

Auschwitz-Birkenau - Oświęcim, Poland

Auschwitz-Birkenau - Oświęcim, Poland

Auschwitz-Birkenau - Oświęcim, Poland

We made it a priority to do this kind of sight-seeing on our  journey.  A backpacking trip shouldn’t be all boozing at hostel bars (just a little…).  As backpackers, we try to gain some knowledge and history (no matter how dark) of the world we are traveling through.

These places are some of the most memorable on our trip and we’re very glad we chose to see these sights.

Have you had a similar experience? Leave a comment below and tell us!

March 9, 2011

How to love Guatemala

How to love Guatemala

Well, I’ve been back in the U.S. for about a month now. I finished up with Spanish class in Xela and flew to Ft. Lauderdale, FL on Valentine’s Day! Clark and I met there and spent a couple weeks soaking up the sun in South Beach. (More on that strange place coming soon!)

Thinking of visiting Guatemala? I’ve come up with a few tips to make the most of your Guatemalan experience.

Also, be sure to watch my Guatemalan Highlights video at the end of the post!

Senora Ana y Kim - Xela, Guatemala

Graduation Day at Minerva Spanish School!

Learn a little Spanish! You’d be surprised how far a simple “Hola, como estas?” will go with local people.Spanish is also quite necessary to be able to communicate with most Guatemalans. There is very little English spoken in most areas. Sure, you’ll always find a tourist to speak English to, but to communicate with the locals, Spanish is a must.

Learn the meaning of “Va”. When in Quetzaltenango (Xela), my host mom kept adding, “Va, Kimberly” at the end of her sentences. Sometimes when I was leaving, sometimes not. I thought she was saying “bye” until I discussed the topic with a fellow classmate. We asked her instructor and he told us that it was sort of a shortened form of “Verdad?” which means “true?” or “right?” So, she was basically saying “Yeah”. Apparently it is a very commonly used word in Guatemala. I heard it a lot in Xela.

Get used to guns! Armed men are everywhere in Guatemala. Even in the heavily touristed areas you’ll find private guards at coffee shops, convenience stores, banks, ATM machines. It’s quite disconcerting and didn’t make me feel safe at all. It actually made it seem more dangerous.

Eat the street food. While I wasn’t blown away by the food in Guatemala, there were some tasty street foods that I just couldn’t pass up. Most of them were fried, like Pupusas and Doblados. However, I really liked getting a crispy tostada once in a while too. It’s a crispy tortilla topped with guacamole and a Guatemalan version of cole slaw. Yummy.

Pupusas! - Xela, Guatemala

Ride a chicken bus. I know it can seem scary, but just use common sense, take short trips, and be aware of your surroundings. Very few tourists are targeted for violent crime on the buses. Most incidences that occur are between citizens. You won’t regret having this interesting cultural experience.

Chicken Bus - Xela, Guatemala

Drink Coffee. Eat Chocolate. I’m not a huge fan of coffee, but my time in Guatemala has pushed me higher on the coffee drinker spectrum.  The coffee and chocolate here is some of the best in the world. Definitely buy some freshly picked and house roasted coffee at the shops on Lake Atitlan. Tasting some chocolate is also a MUST. My school took us on a chocolate tasting outing that was just amazing. Try the thick, creamy hot chocolate. You won’t regret it.

Chocolate y Frutas - Xela, Guatemala

Go to the lakes! Words can’t really describe the beauty of Lake Atitlan. Photos only capture some of what you see. It is much more than that. It is tropical, relaxed, and peaceful. You’ll also get to dive right into the Hippie culture, or just watch from afar!

Take Salsa lessons. Salsa dancing is fun, fairly easy, and great exercise. Everyone in Guatemala knows the basic salsa steps. Even if you have two left feet, suck it up and take a few lessons. You’ll be glad you did. Going to a salsa club and watching the more advanced couples twirl around is great!

Eat the fried chicken. I know it seems like I’m going on and on about this topic, but it really is quite good here. The best fried chicken I had was in Xela at the weekend market. It was fresh, juicy, and packed with flavor. Don’t forget to add some hot sauce!

Here is a little highlights video I put together. Enjoy!

March 4, 2011

Guatemalan Firsts: Solo Travel (3 of 3)

Guatemalan Firsts: Solo Travel (3 of 3)

I traveled solo in Guatemala for about four weeks and had lots of “firsts”. In this series of posts, I’ve taken a look at these experiences. I rode my first Chicken bus, attended my first language school, tasted my first piece of fried chicken from Pollo Campero, and traveled solo for the first time.

First time traveling solo

At first I was extremely nervous about traveling alone. When I boarded the plane in Chicago I definitely had some butterflies in my stomach. Would I hate it? would I be okay by myself?

After my first few days in Quetzalroo hostel, my positive experiences boosted my confidence significantly.

I’m an only child and I enjoy my “alone time”. Maybe that’s why I took to solo travel so naturally.  It was easy to find a quiet corner in the hostel and whip out my Kindle or Laptop for a while. The places I chose to hang out in (Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and Xela) were all great places to wander around alone. The churches, ruins, streets, and architecture of Antigua and Xela and the breezy, warm, island-like atmosphere of the lake were all beautiful.

La Merced - Antigua, Guatemala

My favorite church - La Merced in Antigua, Guatemala

San Marcos, Guatemala

Waiting for the boat to cross Lake Atitlan

Yes, it was my first time traveling solo, but after just a few days I knew so many people that I never felt alone. I ran into someone I knew continually as I made my way from town to town. You meet people in hostels, restaurants, coffee shops, buses, and tours and end up seeing them again along the way.

Why did I love traveling solo?

Freedom: I loved waking up when I wanted and casually preparing for the day without worrying about someone else’s schedule. If I wanted to read on the rooftop terrace or beach all morning, I could. If I wanted to spend an entire day taking photos of doors, I could. If I wanted to eat at Pollo Campero twice in one day, I could…maybe that’s not such a good thing.

Copacabana Beach + Kindle - Dubrovnik, Croatia

Reading alone on the beach in Dubrovnik.

Feeling Adventurous: I got a lot more pleasure from my bus trips and hostel searches while I was going it alone. I felt more independent and adventurous throwing my bag up on the roof of a shuttle and waiting all alone at gas stations for the next bus. I became much more self-reliant during my month in Guatemala.

Meeting People: While couples who travel can and do meet people, it is much easier when you are by yourself. You are much more approachable as a single person and if you get a little lonely there is no other choice but to talk to a stranger. Solo travel forces you to be outgoing or you’ll just sit there alone and experience nothing. Travelers also feel an instant connection with each other, probably because of shared interests, similar age, and the college like atmosphere of hostels. Making friends is very easy.

Lindley - Xela, Guatemala

My classmate, Lindley and me and La Parranda.

Shared Experiences: One huge apprehension I had about traveling solo was that I wouldn’t be sharing my experiences with anyone. I imagined wandering around a city by myself and snapping photos with no real memories. This is far from my actual experience. I almost always shared my time with someone that I met along the way. I’ve also kept in touch with a lot of people. There were definitely times that I wandered around alone, but it was by choice and I enjoyed it. I still have those memories even though no one was with me. I can look back at those photos and remember the day, the scene, the weather, the feeling. It doesn’t take being with another person to enjoy a place.

I also have great memories with people like dancing at La Parranda and the Tropicana, hiking up Mt. Pacaya, tasting the best chocolate fondue ever, wandering around a beautiful cemetery, swimming in Lake Atitlan, and witnessing someone take their very first bite of a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

Sami's first cheeseburger - Antigua, Guatemala

Sami and her first Cheeseburger Happy Meal!

She liked the cheeseburger, by the way.

Of course this doesn’t mean I’m ditching Clark.

There were absolutely times when I missed him a lot and wished he was climbing the volcano, poking fun at the hippies, or jumping on a Chicken bus with me. But, separate experiences are good. And, I’m sure had a great time without me in Chicago. He spent most of it braving the “Snowpocalypse” huddled in Beth’s apartment with no electricity and heat and a five-foot high snow drift outside the front door. (I think I left at the perfect time!)

For those of you who are timid about solo travel, I have some advice: DO IT. Even if you have a husband, wife, significant other, new puppy, three cats, pet rock, whatever. Take a short trip by yourself. It’s liberating and empowering. You won’t regret it.

What do you love about traveling alone? Leave your comments below!

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