A Travellerspoint blog

The best travel experiences of my life: 20-11

This is the continuation of the eight part series that begins here.

20. Dotonbori, Osaka
Imagine Times Square, if you've been there, with all the dazzling crowds and displays and electronic billboards and multiply its size by ten. Then add a sparkling canal running right through the middle of it with boardwalks on either side lined with busy outdoor restaurants. Throw in tens of thousands of people hanging out or moving through at any time of the day or night and you might have a rough idea of what it feels like to be in Dotonbori, Osaka. I was completely flabbergasted that somehow I'd been traveling the world my entire life, reading all kinds of travel literature, talking to people from all over the globe and still had absolutely no clue that this incredible place even existed. I've been to most of the world's major metropolises and I can't recall experiencing anything as overwhelming to the senses. Our week-long stay in Osaka was filled with excitement and breathtaking sights but Dotonbori is certainly the most vivid and energetic spot in that amazing city.

19. La Boqueria in Barcelona
Of all the municipal daily markets we've visited in the big three of France, Spain, and Italy, there's no question in my mind that the king of them all is La Boqueria in Barcelona. I grew to love La Boqueria in 2001 when I spent a month in Barcelona doing a Spanish immersion course, so I eagerly anticipated bringing Mei Ling to experience it with me when I returned fifteen years later. The market had undergone a facelift but was still the vast shrine to gastronomy that I remembered. Everywhere we looked were huge stacks of produce, rows of jamon, and walls of colorful juices. Best of all, virtually anything the market had to offer could be sampled at one of several excellent tapas restaurants inside. On our last visit to Spain we came very close to detouring hundreds of kilometers from our itinerary just to pay another visit to La Boqueria.

18. Diocletian's Palace
It's hard to describe the amazement I felt upon first seeing Diocletian's Palace in Split, Croatia. Of course it's no longer a palace the way we think of Buckingham Palace or Versailles but in many ways it's even more impressive. It's a bustling, vibrant miniature city with all the modern conveniences existing entirely within the imposing walls of an enormous Roman ruin. Everywhere one turns is another well-preserved remnant of a civilization that died two millennia ago. At the same time the ruins have been overbuilt over the centuries with living quarters, churches, and other structures emblematic of countless centuries of history. The overall effect is breathtaking. Once I had walked inside the Palace for a few minutes the only question I could ask myself was "Why have I never heard of this?" I felt so fortunate to have stumbled onto this amazing place in the world out of pure luck. Discoveries like this are what motivated me to begin writing this blog, so that other travelers would be able to learn about these hidden gems that exist right under our noses but for whatever reason aren't well known.

17. Mercado Bazurto in Cartagena, Colombia
Mercado Bazurto is one of the best Latin American markets we've visited but that alone doesn't make it one of my best travel experiences ever. We almost didn't make it there at all during our visit to Cartagena in 2012. Like virtually every other tourist we stayed within the walled old town but unlike most of the others we decided to venture out into the congested metropolis outside where 99% of the locals live. I had misjudged the distance to the market so when we didn't pass any taxis on the way out of the old town we decided to walk all the way there. It was quite hot and Mei Ling was five months pregnant so I'm still not sure exactly what I was thinking. We walked for block after block without reaching the market. Every time I asked for directions I was told that the market was very dangerous and we shouldn't go. When I insisted we were invariably told it was just one block further and we should watch our possessions very closely. This cycle repeated over another ten blocks until we finally arrived at a sprawling community market that was worth every step of the long walk.

The amazing selection of Colombian produce was on full display including the incredible diversity of passion fruit. Colombia has many delicious fruits that are virtually unknown in other parts of the world such as grenadilla, lulo, and uchuva. Even more remarkable were the butcher stalls that showcased piles of cow eyeballs and split chickens that had pink ovaries bursting with newly-developed eggs. Mei Ling was determined to try the cow eyeballs but none of the small restaurants in the markets served them. She harangued one butcher so mercilessly about where she could eat cow eyeballs that eventually he made a call on his phone and a few minutes later a woman showed up. We bought some cow eyeballs and a split chicken and she took us to the edge of the market where there was a row of shacks made of plywood and corrugated metal roofing. A multigenerational family lived in the shack along with a dog with a wry neck that always looked at us sideways. We soon realized the butcher had called his wife to take us to their house and cook for us. While the women busied themselves preparing the meat and chopping vegetables we socialized with the family. The pregnant daughter looked like she was about to pop but she was only five months along, the same as Mei Ling. She was also fifteen. Ulp! Welcome to reality in the third world. Cow eyeball and undeveloped chicken egg soup was quite delicious and naturally I had to crunch my way through a whole eyeball. No one ever asked us for money above what we had paid the butcher and they just looked confused when I asked. I pressed a substantial bank note into the butcher's wife's hand before we left but I'm quite sure it was not expected.

I felt an amazing array of emotions after this experience. I was very grateful to the family and to my good luck for having been able to see this side of Colombia that other travelers would never experience and most would never want. I had a new understanding of the difficult conditions that most people in this world live in from birth until death yet somehow manage to be happy, welcoming, and generous. Most of all I felt fortunate to have found Mei Ling who had somehow come into my world after spending her childhood in a similar deprived environment to the market family. I knew that my life with her would continue to be a never-ending series of adventures at home and around the world and that the arrival of children was only going to enhance that experience. As it turned out my feeling that day was exactly correct, our travels as a couple were just the first act of a lifelong commitment to travel and adventure.

16. Sanmiguelada festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
I loved my Spanish immersion course in San Miguel de Allende but not much was going on during the month of January. Everyone told me the best time to be in the city was the third weekend of September, when everyone in town and thousands of visitors celebrated the Sanmiguelada. The festival combined the observances of Mexican Independence Day and the holiday of the city's patron saint, and included a beauty pageant and a bull run. I decided to return just for the festival in September and it was fortunate I did not delay, because the festival was canceled after overcrowding and a gunfight in 2006 and to the best of my knowledge has not resumed in its previous form. In September the city was much more busy and vital than it had been on my previous stay and I had a blast getting reacquainted with the Spanish instructors from my language school. On Saturday morning I was the only one who had an appetite for the bull run, having experienced something similar in Pamplona three years previously. The bull run in San Miguel was a much less orderly affair as the bulls were basically loose in the town square rather than running a barricaded course. Just as in Pamplona, being on the ground with the confused and irritated bulls was a lot scarier than one might realize. I was filming with a digital point-and-shoot camera and I couldn't shake the feeling that the clusters of people moving in front of me would suddenly part and I would find myself staring right into the eyes of an angry bull.

15. Shanghai markets
I've finally reached the top of my list of the best market experiences of my life and it's only fitting I find myself in China, the greatest market country in the world. Sadly, the experience Mei Ling and I had in 2011 couldn't be duplicated today. The Chinese government cleaned many of the best wet markets out of the major cities as part of a modernization drive long before the coronavirus epidemic. Beijing and Shanghai particularly are but shadows of their former market heaven selves. Fortunately I met Mei Ling in time to have her guide me through a whole day of nonstop eating in Shanghai markets and street food stalls. To the best of my recollection we ate seven meals that day, to the point where I wasn't eating out of any sense of hunger but because the food was so unusual and delicious that it was irresistible. In the morning we stumbled on a seafood market just outside of our hotel and Mei Ling bought whatever looked most interesting. We had plastic bags full of fish bladders, eels, and shellfish and she marched us to a nearby restaurant and convinced them to cook it all for us. We sat on a little table outside and plowed into a seven-dish seafood feast at nine in the morning. I still remember the Shanghainese walking to work staring at us disbelievingly as we ate a breakfast that was sumptuous and bizarre beyond belief. Over the rest of the day we walked from the middle of the city all the way to Yu Yuan, sampling food at every market we encountered. Mei Ling always knew when we were near a market from the bags pedestrians were carrying and would track down the source relentlessly. Among the other delicacies we enjoyed that day were a stewed whole turtle, huge meaty snails, and crispy duck heads. The next day we brought my mother with us to the market where we had another turtle for an encore. When it comes to food experiences there aren't many countries that can compete with China, especially when one has a Chinese wife with an adventurous palate and a determined nature.

14. Taj Mahal
This is probably the most obvious of my top travel experiences, but it's not just because of the beauty of the mausoleum. Either we were lucky or our guide chose our timing well because I remember the crowds being very light and with few Western tourists. The white marble of the building was beautiful at dusk and Indians in colorful clothing were relaxing in small groups on the platform. The kids were wandering around and the locals would beckon them over and cuddle and play with them. I felt a great sense of accomplishment at having brought my pregnant wife and young kids to the opposite side of the world to experience what most would consider one of the most amazing and beautiful buildings that has ever been constructed.

13. Fishing for wahoo in La Parguera, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is a small Caribbean island that punches way over its weight. The two weeks that I've spent on the island in two trips account for three of my top travel experiences including two in the top thirteen. If I extended my list from seventy to a hundred I would probably include three or four more. On our return visit to Puerto Rico in 2010 we rented a car and explored a large part of the island including the less-traveled southern coast. The highlight of that trip was a sportfishing trip we took on a small boat out of La Parguera. I don't remember if we went out specifically for wahoo or that's just what was biting that day, but they were among the most fierce and beautiful fish I've ever encountered. It took every ounce of my strength to reel in one of the huge fish and when Mei Ling hooked one I was sure she wouldn't be able to do it on her own. One of my favorite travel videos in my collection is the one I have of my tiny girlfriend straining to lift the rod and pull in her prize over and over again until finally the wahoo was defeated. Once we docked the first mate was cleaning the fish and pulled a red blob out of its insides. "This is its heart!" It was still beating. I guess he expected Mei Ling to squeal or run away but she looked right at it and said "Cut me a piece!" His eyes widened but he cut the heart in half and offered a piece to Mei Ling who immediately wolfed it down. He looked at me next and I did what I had to do. It wasn't bad - kind of like tuna sashimi but bloodier. It broke our hearts to leave behind all that delicious looking fish but we were on the road with nowhere to do any cooking. Eventually we took about a kilogram with us and drove to the nearest resort. We walked into the restaurant which was nearly empty and asked the waiter if the chef would cook it for us. Soon afterwards we were served four different wahoo dishes including a seafood soup, tempura, grilled fish, and escabeche. It was a feast that exceeded our wildest expectations and was the perfect conclusion to an absolutely legendary day of travel and adventure.

12. Rio Carnaval
In 2001 I was freelancing as an emergency room physician and was making my own schedule, which gave me the flexibility to take long vacations. I used one of these to take an overland trip from Santiago, Chile down through Argentina and then up to Rio de Janeiro where the trip finished to coincide with the annual Carnaval. Americans don't usually take long travel holidays when they are young so all the other people in my group were Europeans and Australians. I had a great time for the entire trip and Carnaval was particularly wild. Every day throughout the city there were incessant parades and hundreds of people would follow along behind the floats and the music trucks, dancing until they were exhausted. I stripped off my shirt the second day and didn't put it back on until I left the city. I remember one municipal bus driver, also shirtless and looking to be about eighteen, who rounded curves so quickly and sharply that our feet would leave the floor as we hung desperately onto the overhead bars. We all tipped him handsomely as we left the bus and he shouted with delight. Little did I know that this amazing and riotous party wouldn't be my greatest travel experience in Brazil, or even my most exciting carnival. Unfortunately this was still before I had bought my first digital camera, and none of my Rio photos survived the many moves and housecleanings since 2001.

11. Dordogne evening markets
I haven't broken my promise that no more markets would appear on this list. The "marchés nocturnes" of the Dordogne are actually communal dinners rather than markets. Almost every village in the region has one of these during the summer months, and there are as many as a dozen on each evening of the week. We had dinner at a marché nocturne every night of our five days in the region and found that some seemed very local and others were dominated by tourists. The ones with the most buzz and approval on the internet tended to be the worst, while the ones that I had never heard of that we went to because we happened to be nearby proved to be the best. The really good ones felt like total immersion in the unique atmosphere that makes France one of my favorite countries in the world to travel in. They were celebrations of gastronomy, of community, of tradition, and small town life. The idea of getting a whole town together for dinner and opening the event to visitors is so good, I wonder why more places don't do it.

Next up are my best travel experiences 10-6

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:27

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You have a lot very interesting stories! I am planning to travel to South America (included on our Big Trip, still on money saving phase so it will be yet couple of years..)Did you have your own car or did you use bus? Sorry, I know this is beside your Greatest trips-point but I just had to ask :)

by hennaonthetrek

The only country in South or Central America we rented a car was in Uruguay, which went fine. I would probably be reluctant to rent a car in countries like Brazil or Colombia due to concerns of road safety and crime, but perhaps my fears are overblown. We rented cars in Mexico twice which worked out fine as well.

by zzlangerhans

I was thinking more in the line of travelling via bus and how was it? :)

by hennaonthetrek

Which route did you take and how long it took? :)

by hennaonthetrek

We never did any long distance traveling by bus. We either stayed local or in my case took an overland tour through Argentina and Brazil. However thousands of travelers from North America and Europe travel by long distance buses through South America every year. It's probably not always comfortable but I think it's a pretty safe way to get around. Lots of resources online for that I think.

by zzlangerhans

I'll try eating quite a few things (silkworm cocoons in Pyongyang, fried crickets in Phnom Penh) but I doubt I could be as adventurous as you in those markets. However I'd be very happy just to watch and photograph all the activity!

by ToonSarah

It's a gradual progression from fried crickets to live palm nut grubs. At this point it's pretty hard to imagine anything I wouldn't try at least once!

by zzlangerhans

This is a fantastic article! I really loved it. I admire you guys - traveling with the kids and exploring the world. If you ever get back to Split, Croatia you can join me on my Private Split Walking Tour https://www.tourdesksplit.com/private-split-walking-tour/ I am sure you would love it!

by Perun

Thanks, we will be sure to come back and experience the Palace again.

by zzlangerhans

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