A Travellerspoint blog

The best travel experiences of my life: The top five

This is the final installment of an eight part series on the seventy best travel experiences of my life that begins here.

5. Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, Indonesia
Tana Toraja was the highlight of the most amazing solo journey I've ever taken, a ten day journey by bus and ferry from the southwestern to northeastern tips of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. It was the roughest traveling that I've ever done but also the most rewarding in a place that few Westerners have heard of, let alone visited. Tana Toraja is an area of central Sulawesi that is home to an indigenous polytheistic society that has remained relatively isolated from the Islamic and Western influences that have defined the rest of Indonesia. Among the unique customs of the Torajans are funerals with sacrifices of domestic animals, internment of the deceased in cliff crevices and caves, and tongkonan houses with characteristic curved roofs. Perhaps the most remarkable custom is the carving of wooden effigies of the deceased called tau tau which are often placed on balconies attached to cliffs. Many of these customs seem primitive and morbid to Westerners but I felt as though I had arrived at the most physically and culturally remote place from my home that I had ever encountered in my travels. Given that I'm already twelve years older and now with a wife and three kids, it's probably unlikely I'll ever travel again in third world transportation shoulder to shoulder with locals conducting their daily lives. It's an experience that I am very grateful to have had in the final months of my single life.
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4. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
When I researched Croatia, Plitvice Lakes came up over and over again as a top destination if not the most rewarding in the country. I hesitated because it was difficult to ascertain how strenuous hiking in the park would be, and even if it might be dangerous for the kids. Eventually I read enough accounts from people who had brought small children that I decided it would be safe and worthwhile. It was quite a struggle to find the entrance to the park due to a lack of cell phone signal in the area. The lakes and waterfalls are formed by a confluence of small rivers that arise from runoff from the surrounding mountains and are shaped by the continuous action of the running water against the porous karst and travertine limestone. The lake at the highest level of the park conveyed a sense of serenity that contrasted sharply with the pounding waterfalls further down. There were paths of wooden planks on either side of the lake system, with occasional transverse pathways connecting them. These transverse paths allowed us to walk right at the base of several waterfalls. The number of shades of green and blue seemed infinite here. There was no question in our minds that all the difficulties and hard work we had encountered that day was more than worth it for the lifelong memory of one of the most beautiful natural places we had ever seen.
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3. Mosquito Bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico
The more I think about Puerto Rico, the more I realize that our experiences there could have taken at least five places on our list. I included the beautiful colonial city of old San Juan, the exciting fishing trip at La Parguera, and now the bioluminescent bay at Vieques but I passed on the incredible views in the Cordillera Central and the roadside pig barbecues in Cayey. If there's one single most important thing to take away from this list, it's that Puerto Rico may be the most underappreciated travel destination in the Western Hemisphere.

Our short trip to the island of Vieques got of to an inauspicious start. While waiting for the little turboprop plane to fly us over we each had a margarita in the airport bar. I didn't feel a thing but by the time we arrived in Vieques Mei Ling was red faced and could barely stand. There also weren't any taxis at the airport. The information desk claimed to be calling us one but we waited at the entrance of the airport for an hour and no taxi showed. Finally some people in a passing car asked us if we needed a ride which we gratefully accepted. When the driver saw me practically carrying Mei Ling into the back seat he asked if we needed to go to the hospital but I declined, and by the time we arrived at our hotel Mei Ling was back to her old self. I had miscalculated the time it would take us to walk to the departure point of the kayak tour of the bay and halfway there I realized we needed to start running. We arrived breathless and just in time to be included. The experience was truly wondrous and unique. The luminescent protozoa filling the water sparkled and shone with every stroke of the oars as our kayaks glided through the darkness. Once we were in the center of the bay we were allowed to jump into the water and admire the glow around our limbs as we paddled. Mei Ling was especially amazed as she had never even heard of the phenomenon. We didn't want to take a chance with our precious cameras by enclosing them in plastic bags for the kayak trip so we don't have any photos of the bay but we have our memories and plenty of other pictures from the beautiful and peaceful island of Vieques.

Be aware that licensed tour operators are no longer allowed to permit tourists to swim in the bay, and also that the bioluminescent phenomenon was severely affected by Hurricane Maria. If you choose to visit Vieques make sure you do your own research to get the most up-to-date information regarding Mosquito Bay.
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2. Carnival in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
Carnival in Trinidad is the greatest party I've ever experienced in my life, and I've seen a few good ones around the world. Everyone's heard of Mardi Gras and Carnaval in Rio, but the awesome thing about Trinidad is that it is for everyone. It's not drunk and rowdy, nor is it exclusive. Everyone gets to participate as much as they want and have an amazing time. Mei Ling and I signed up in advance for a Mas Band, which just requires a payment for costumes but no particular musical or dancing skills. We arrived several days in advance to participate in the many fetes and competitions that lead up to the Mas procession on the final day. We went to an exciting party every night and watched children's parades and steel pan band competitions during the days. The morning before the final parade we woke up at dawn for J'Ouvert, a riotous opening to the official Carnival involving heavy dousing with paint, flour, and chocolate syrup. It took us an hour to shower off the gunk to be ready for our Mas rehearsal. The Mas procession was exhausting but exhilarating, hours of constant dancing to soca music while surrounded by people of every description wearing some of the coolest costumes I've ever seen. One of the things I look forward to most is bringing my kids back to Trinidad for Carnival once they're all old enough to be part of the children's Mas.

Not only was this one of my best travel experiences, but it was the trip on which I realized that after forty-two years on my own there was no way I would ever let Mei Ling go. Marriage was scary but Mei Ling was just too beautiful and too much fun to be with. After our Trinidad trip I knew that I would never regret spending the rest of my life with her. A month later I asked her to move to Miami and live with me, and six months after that we were married. Nine years and three kids later (including five or six more carnivals around the world) and our life together hasn't gotten any less exciting.
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1. Amazon ecolodge in Brazil
I've finally arrived at the end of this list, my greatest travel experience of all time. Now that I've completed the list I would probably put a few experiences in different order, but not this one. The trip Mei Ling and I took to the Amazon was just one of those charmed events that could probably never happen again in the same way. Even our flight to Brazil was perfect - a five hour direct flight from Miami to Manaus in the center of the Amazon on an empty plane. We slept for the entire duration of the dawn flight stretched out on our own four-seat center rows. We had a fine day in Manaus and were taken by van and boat to our lodge the next morning. Once we arrived we discovered that we would be the only guests at the lodge for the entire three days of our stay. Given that it was 2009, I suspect they had a few cancellations because of the financial crisis. As soon as we disembarked we were greeted by an extremely affectionate and mischievous woolly monkey named Conchita who would be our constant companion and tormentor during our stay. If there wasn't any food in our hands to steal she was crawling into our laps to be cuddled.

None of the staff at the lodge seemed disinclined to work because they only had two guests. In the morning we'd ask what activities were on the schedule and the guides would tell us all the options and ask us what we felt like doing. In the evening we'd ask what was for dinner and they'd ask us what we wanted to eat. Even though we had chosen a fairly cushy Amazon lodge not very far from Manaus, we still had a range of amazing experiences from piranha fishing to a night camping in the jungle. I felt like we were having the same experience a billionaire might get after reserving an entire lodge for his own family. I know we'll do the Amazon again when our kids are old enough but I don't expect we'll be lucky enough to have another lodge entirely to ourselves with another semi-domesticated woolly monkey to enchant our kids.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 16:33 Comments (4)

The best travel experiences of my life: 10-6

I'm finally getting to the best part of the series of blogs that began here. Of course this started out as a ten best idea, but the more I thought about it the more experiences got pushed out of the top ten until eventually I had a list of seventy. Even through the process of writing this blog I've thought of enough experiences that should have been included to round the list out to an even one hundred. Before I do that, though, it's time to get to the real point of making this list. What are the ten places in the world I would want to make other travelers aware of? The places that I would most appreciate having been told about if I had never stumbled upon them on my own? After much deliberation, here are numbers ten through six on my list.

10. Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain
I'm probably the one hundred millionth tourist to run with the bulls in Pamplona since Hemingway published "The Sun Also Rises" in 1926, so I wasn't exactly pushing the envelope of travel here. However, it was still a remarkable and memorable experience. I went to Pamplona for the weekend of the Festival of San Fermin with several friends from my Spanish immersion course in Barcelona. The first task was arranging accommodations using the rudimentary internet tools of 2001. When we arrived I realized we would be sleeping on mattresses in a barber shop with the chairs removed. The partying was legendary. All night long revelers in the traditional white outfits with red scarves stumbled through the streets drinking streams of wine from traditional porrons. Between inebriation and lack of experience, many drinkers had shirts that were more crimson than white as darkness fell. I turned in early for the morning bull run but the clamor outside kept me awake for hours.

In the morning none of my companions who had planned to run allowed themselves to be aroused. I walked out alone into the bright sun and saw that hundreds of people were sleeping in the streets, either due to intoxication or lack of accommodation. Many of them had chosen to use the curb as a pillow, with their bodies stretched lengthwise towards the middle of the street. I found a crowd in the main square and pushed my way through it to find the starting point of the run. People pushed back and I cried out in Spanish that I needed to get through, I was there to run. They replied that they were as well. There were several thousand people clustered together at the starting point. After what seemed an interminable wait a bell rang and the mass of people started to surge in one direction. I followed the crowd but soon realized if I kept running that I would reach the stadium at the end of the course without having seen a single bull. That wasn't the experience I wanted, so I backed up against a wall and waited. Soon enough I saw a group of what were clearly experienced runners carrying newspapers and behind them several charging bulls. The runners teased the bulls with the newspapers but always seemed to stay a foot or two ahead of them. Other people were pressed against the building and the barricades like I was. When the bulls got turned around and started running in every direction we were sitting ducks. At that point I had no choice but to freeze motionless and hope that none of the bulls would notice me. Whenever I didn't see a bull facing me I tried to inch a few meters further down the course. At one point I caught a blur of motion and realized that a bull had charged someone about fifty meters away from me and had flipped him up into the air. The bull moved on and I rushed over to where the person lay crumpled on the pavement. It was a girl with blonde hair and a backpack, a tourist. Her head was bleeding and she was unconscious with slow, deep breathing. I had nothing to press against her scalp so I waited by her side to start CPR in case her breathing stopped. Soon enough an ambulance pulled up and they waved me off and I watched them put a cervical collar on her and load her into an ambulance. I never found out what happened to her but it looked bad. By this time they were taking down the barricades on the cross streets so I never did make it to the stadium. I walked back to our accommodation somewhat stunned by the experience. I noticed some people gave me strange looks on the way back, and when I opened the door of the barber shop one of my friends inside looked at me and screamed. It wasn't until then that I realized my white outfit was covered with the girl's blood.

I know that nobody died at the festival that year, but many more than usual were gored and otherwise injured. Later we came across booths where photos were being sold of the day's action including many gorings. Huge photos of grisly gorings were on the front pages of the newspapers as well. I bought some and kept them for years before finally discarding them with our last move. I hadn't brought my own camera with me to the bull run, wisely realizing that I would be endangering myself by taking photos of the action from the middle of the action. I did have some photos from the festivities but those prints disappeared long before I had a scanner to preserve them. It's still the closest I've come to serious injury or death in all my years of traveling.
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9. Rocca Calascio in Abruzzo, Italy
Our best European road trip to date was the time we circled the Adriatic Sea in 2014. Our last day started out extremely well with a rooftop breakfast in the town of Sulmona. After we left Sulmona we spent a couple of hours clambering around an ancient and largely deserted town called Santo Stefano di Sessanio. We still had a couple of hours to kill before we needed to be back in Rome for dinner. I thumbed through my Lonely Planet on the iPad and realized we were close to a ruined mountaintop fort called Rocca Calascio that was briefly mentioned in passing. We decided we would make that our last stop and then head back towards Rome and Fiumicino.

Rocca Calascio was just a few kilometers back on the mountain road we had taken to Santo Stefano, a turnoff just after the small town of Calascio. I had actually passed the fork earlier without taking note of the sign for the fort. We made our way up a steep winding road and past a few hairpin turns until the road eventually terminated in a small parking lot. From here, a pedestrian street led up into another deserted-looking medieval town. We stepped up onto a grassy platform just above the parking lot which was only occupied by a short segment of crumbling stone wall, and could see rolling valleys for miles around. In the distance were peaks and ridges of the Apennines. Behind us was a steep hill on top of which we could see more ruins. A cobblestone path led into the remains of a town that clearly had no permanent inhabitants. Grass and trees were growing over the buildings and paths. After a couple of turns, the path turned into a dirt road and the walk up the hill started to feel more like a climb.

A little further up we encountered the abandoned 17th century church of Santa Maria della Pietà. Although beautiful, its forsaken appearance on that desolate mountainside made it an intimidating sight. I don't think you could have paid me enough to spend a night in that place. At this point, there was no path left at all and rocky outcroppings impeded our view of the top. After a couple of false starts we eventually rediscovered the upward route and proceeded to the fort, which was absolutely spectacular. At the lower level of the ruin, we had the best views yet of the Apennine mountains and valleys extending for miles in every direction. The wind was forceful and would have chilled us to the bone in a cooler climate. As it was, I was grateful that Ian was kept snug by the carrier and my own body heat. We picked our way up the rocky slope to the main fort which was better preserved, with continuous walls and corner turrets. Cleo insisted on walking across the short wooden bridge into the fort by herself, although I was afraid the wind would blow her off her feet.

Rocca Calascio was one of the best experiences of the entire journey, and it came right at the end when we were practically ready to pack it in and head to our airport motel. It's very hard to find the words to describe the isolated beauty of the mountain fort, which felt like walking on the surface of another planet despite being only an hour away from Rome. As we descended the winding roads towards the highway, I wistfully looked at all the other hilltop towns and wondered what other Apennine secrets would remain hidden from us forever.
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8. Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland
This is another experience from way back that remains engraved in my memory. I had a week vacation during my residency in Boston and there were cheap flights to Iceland that only lasted five hours. Why not? I really enjoyed my short stay in Iceland although I spent most of my time in Reykjavik due to time constraints. I only ventured out of the capital for a two day solo excursion to Vestmannaeyjar, a small archipelago off the southern coast that are called the Westman Islands in English. I stayed at a homestay in the only town of Heimaey, the only inhabited island. Vestmannaeyjabær was a picture-perfect Icelandic village with less than four thousand inhabitants. At the time of my visit it didn't seem like much of a tourist destination except for a few hikers.

There wasn't much to do in the village and Heimaey is quite small so I set out on my one full day to explore the entire island. I mounted Eldfell, the 200 meter volcanic cone outside of town that formed during an eruption in 1973, without much difficulty. The views of the town from the summit and the rolling green landscape and coastline on the opposite side were breathtaking. I didn't have enough time to tackle Helgafell, the slightly taller of the two volcanoes, so I took the only road out of town that passed by the airport towards the southern end of the island. Along the way the road passed by imposing sheer cliffs which were the nesting ground for thousands of puffins. After the scattered birdwatchers here I didn't see another human until I returned to town in the early evening. Soon afterward I saw one of the most remarkable events I've ever witnessed. Inside a fenced enclosure were two magnificent black horses that I assume were stallions. At the very moment I set eyes on them one suddenly reared up and attacked the other with his front hooves. The other immediately rose up to defend himself and instantaneously both were standing on their hind legs and facing off against each other like two boxers. Within seconds it was over and the horses were pacing around a few meters from each other. I watched a little while longer as my heart pounded in my chest, but they left each other alone after that. The southern end of the island was a short round peninsula which was mainly composed of a steep, terraced hill covered with thick grass. The only living creatures besides me were a sizable number of woolly sheep that gazed at me phlegmatically as I picked my way around their droppings to the top of the hill.

I made my way back to town suffused with the enjoyment of having explored the entire island and having seen such a diversity of landscapes and lifeforms. In the evening I ate at a restaurant that served grilled puffin which proved to be delicious, with red meat more like a game animal than a fowl. It was another unique aspect of Heimaey that made me feel like I had stumbled upon an undiscovered paradise. Perhaps their are many remote islands in the North Atlantic just as beautiful and fascinating as Vestmannaeyjar, but there's no question that I will return there with my family once the kids are old enough to deal with all the rigors of a road trip around the entire circumference of the country. Hopefully puffin will still be on the menu!
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7. Notting Hill Carnival, London
I've come to my best travel experience in London, my favorite city in Europe and second only to New York City in my heart. One of the ways in which London beats NYC is the sheer beauty of many of its residential neighborhoods, and none of them is more magnificent than Notting Hill. In August 2014 we were incredibly lucky to get an Airbnb in one of the immaculate white townhouses that line many of the streets in the neighborhood. The rows of Neoclassical columns, ornate windowsills, and wrought-iron balconies made a walk through the neighborhood seem like an encounter with an impossible fantasy land. But we hadn't come just to admire the architecture, we were there to party. One weekend a year that exquisite neighborhood is home to the greatest celebration of Caribbean culture outside of the islands themselves, the Notting Hill Carnival. We had been warned that it was dangerous but we've heard that kind of overcautious advice enough times to know that it was likely bred from unfamiliarity. In fact the atmosphere of the festival was extremely warm and welcoming even at the most crowded points. Unfortunately the kids were still a little too young to appreciate what was going on and slept through most of it, but Mei Ling and I still had a blast even with the kids passed out on our backs. There was great Caribbean food, music, and unbelievable energy all around us. The Notting Hill Carnival will certainly be a cornerstone of our visit when we finally return to the British Isles to give them the full and lengthy attention they deserve.
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6. Iguazú Falls, Argentina and Brazil
I can't think of any natural phenomenon I've ever seen that is as magnificent as Iguazú Falls. The best part is that the falls can be seen from two completely different perspectives at the base and at the plateau. The base of the falls on the Argentinian side is incredibly lush with colorful butterflies the size of pie plates and a plethora of rainbows in the omnipresent spray from the waterfalls. The Brazilian side is just as incredible in its own way with a walkway and viewing platform that puts one right at the edge of the keyhole shaped chasm into which the water plunges. Our group splurged on a helicopter ride which gave us the best possible perspective of the majestic Paraná Plateau and the falls. I didn't take any photos because I didn't want my camera to be damaged by the spray but I'm confident that one day I'll return with my family and make up for that deficiency.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:00 Comments (1)

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 amazing sights, but Dotonbori is certainly the most vivid and energetic spot in that amazing city.
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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.
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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.
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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 fruits 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Next up are my best travel experiences 10-6
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Posted by zzlangerhans 08:27 Comments (9)

The best travel experiences of my life: 30-21

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

30. Eating sea urchins with locals in Versailles
Everyone is familiar with the Palace of Versailles but few of the throngs of tourists that visit the landmark trouble themselves to see the fascinating town that gives the palace its name. We chose to spend the first night of our 2015 arrival in Versailles rather than Paris and were rewarded in the morning with one of the most beautiful and exciting town markets we have encountered in France. In the outdoor part of the market in the central square we found Mei Ling's beloved rotisserie, with fat dripping down from the meat onto a layer of boiled potatoes at the bottom. There were golden brown baguettes and an enormous variety of French cheeses, as well as seemingly perfect fruits arranged in beautiful displays. Surrounding the square on every side were indoor arcades with delicatessens, butchers, and fish markets. It was a quintessential French market, far better than any restaurant we could have found. When we were buying some whole sea urchins, another customer asked us in French-accented English how we were going to eat them. We explained that we were simply going to scoop out the roe and eat it raw. It turned out that he was a college professor who lived close to the market, and he invited us to his house to have coffee. We agreed to meet him in the afternoon after we'd had lunch back at our Airbnb since we were dying to consume our purchases at that point. A short while later we were stuffing ourselves with some of the best food we'd encountered on the entire journey. After lunch we drove to our new acquaintance's apartment where we had coffee with him and his wife and showed them how to open and eat sea urchins. Their children were already grown and had moved to other cities and we had a great discussion about parenting and travel. I was amazed that they were so willing to welcome complete strangers into their home, even with small children who were constantly veering towards their fragile antiques.
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29. Ehrenberg castle ruins in Austria
On the road from Neuschwanstein to Innsbruck I saw a ruined castle atop a tall hill from the highway. Something resembling a wire ran from the castle to the top of another tall hill on the other side of the highway. As we drew closer I realized the wire was actually a suspension bridge running hundreds of feet above us. I could see tiny figures moving back and forth across the bridge. I knew this could be an amazing experience if it was possible for us to take the kids up there so I pulled over and did some quick research on my phone. I learned that the bridge was called the Highline 179 and it had only been open for less than two years. We still had some time before the bridge closed for the day so we got our tickets and began the long hike to the top of the hill. Mei Ling vetoed my plan to backpack both the younger kids and Ian did much better than I expected with the hike. We eventually made it to the ruins which were a lot of fun to explore and had great views. Mei Ling couldn't stand to be on the suspension bridge for more than a few seconds so I took the kids halfway across. The sight of the parking lot 350 feet below us didn't seem to bother them one bit. The best part of this adventure was that it was completely spontaneous and would have never happened if we weren't willing to be flexible and challenge ourselves to a task that seemed daunting at first.
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28. Gwangjang Market in Seoul
One thing we can always count on in east Asian countries is that we will be able to find a fascinating market in every major city. Seoul had several and on our second full day we set off by foot to find Dongdaemun, one of the most well-known. On the way there we came across Gwangjang Market which amazed us with the variety of raw and prepared food. Like all the best markets it was a food court as well and people were eating amazing-looking food all around us. After much debate we settled on a stall where a very friendly chef chopped up an octopus and a sea cucumber for us. Just to be technical, the video does not show the consumption of live octopus. It shows us eating a freshly killed raw octopus whose tentacles are still moving because the cut nerves are still firing. Cleo was almost three and just old enough to understand that we were seeing and eating things that were very weird and exciting. I'll never forget her squeals when she saw the tentacles wriggling on the plate. Since then she's definitely become one of us, eating everything from raw oysters in France to crickets in Osaka.

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27. Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakech, Morocco
Somehow in the process of planning our first European road trip I kept getting bolder and bolder. A quick tour of Lisbon and Andalusia grew to incorporate a train journey through Morocco whose farthest point was Marrakech. The historic and colorful city is popular with European travelers so naturally there's a busy industry of vendors, street performers, and other hustlers but the atmosphere is never oppressive. The center of the old town is Jemaa el-Fnaa square, a large open space surrounded by cafes and hotels. In the evenings the square is filled with pop-up restaurants serving grilled lamb and huge buckets of savory boiled snails. We all loved the snails and Cleo helped us demolish a couple of buckets as we moved from table to table. After stuffing ourselves we strolled around the square where musicians were entertaining groups of locals mixed with tourists. Cleo was especially entranced by the friendly Moroccan kids who helped her dance to the lively beat. As usual, our instinct to push the envelope and bring our babies to this faraway place had been rewarded with a delicious meal and memories to last a lifetime.
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26. Ios, Greece
Twenty years ago I was still single and just beginning to realize I should travel every time I had the opportunity. The highlight of a two week trip to the Balkans was my stay on the tiny Greek island of Ios. I had never seen anything like the layers of whitewashed cubical buildings with navy and aqua trim that crept up the rocky hillside. Unlike its more renowned and harder-partying neighbors Santorini and Mykonos, gentle Ios provided warmth and intimacy during the day while there was always high energy in the compact town center at night. One of the trips I look forward to the most is bringing my family back with me to the Aegean islands so we can enjoy their culture and marvel at their beauty together.
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25. Making iguana soup in Leon, Nicaragua
Nicaragua is the only country where we chose to use a private tour company instead of our own wheels. I was uneasy about road safety and the price couldn't be beat. As it turned out, the tour company operator read us perfectly and devised many experiences for us we never could have come up with on our own. On New Year's Eve in the town of León, our guide helped us to buy iguanas and other ingredients at a local market. We were taken by collectivo taxi to private homes in the suburbs where we helped make tortillas and iguana soup, which was delicious. If you're uncomfortable with the idea of eating meat, or the requisite butchering of animals, click here immediately. It was a rare chance to interact with locals in their own homes and have a unique culinary experience.
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24 Camden Market and Regent's Canal in London
We loved Camden Market on our visit in 2013 so we went back when we were in London for Notting Hill Carnival in 2014. On our first visit we had marveled at the chaotic sprawl of vendors and artists and lost ourselves for hours in the network of alleys. This time around the market was a washout thanks to a series of rain showers so we decided to take a walk along Regent's Canal in the direction of Notting Hill. We had no idea we were about to see one of the most beautiful urban landscapes we've ever encountered. The canal winds its way through northern London a level below the city streets, making it an enchanted respite from the furious activity above. The water is carpeted with algae blooms and the sides of the canal are home to eccentrically-decorated houseboats. Set back from the banks are weeping willows and the rear facades of stately mansions and museums. It was probably the best place we could have been on a rainy day in London, with the light drizzle accentuating the verdant and colorful landscape. The best part was that we had never heard of the canal and stumbled upon it completely by accident, making us feel like we had made our own remarkable discovery in this incomparable city.
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23. Municipal market of Oaxaca, Mexico
Mexico is by far my favorite country in Latin America, with the most diversity in culture and cuisine. Although I haven't visited the northern provinces I would be surprised if any of them could eclipse the incredible variety of comestibles that we discovered in Oaxaca. Oaxaca is one of those cities I can't imagine every becoming bored with, like Portland or Valencia. It's just a magical place to spend a day, filled with markets and activities that can be enjoyed over and over again. The most pleasurable and exciting thing we did during our visit to Oaxaca in 2012 was spending half a day in the Central de Abastos, the largest community market in the city. It's easy to get lost in the winding passages of the market but there are so many unique sights that it never takes long to get reoriented. It was the first time in my life I had ever seen sheets of beef sliced so thinly they were translucent hung like curtains around a butcher's stall. The huge barrels of colorful juices, the freshly grilled meat, and the surprisingly fresh seafood buzzed all our senses from the moment we entered. Mei Ling bought an entire lamb's head and we paired it with fresh clam ceviche for one of our most memorable market meals in North America.
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22. Walking around Porto, Portugal
Not every great city in the world is amenable to being walked through. Sometimes the best areas are too far apart, as in Los Angeles or Tokyo. Sometimes they are squeezed too close together, as in Paris or Prague. But some cities like Copenhagen and Budapest are absolutely ideal for a long day of walking, and those have been some of the best travel days we have experienced. I wasn't expecting the relatively unheralded European city of Porto to join that last group when we set off on our expedition, but by the end of the day I was completely enraptured with the city's colorful buildings and verdant escapes. The day's journey included one of the most scenic bridges in Europe, churches emblazoned with vibrant blue azulejo tiles, immaculate gardens, a river ferry, and a cable car. It was also one of the most backbreaking walks in memory as I gave each of my three kids an hour long nap on my back, but the journey was well worth the temporary pain.
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21. Chateaux of the Loire Valley, France
France has no shortage of beautiful castles and estates, but the only place I know of that you can see three or four a day for a week is the Loire Valley. We spent our last few days of an exhausting round-the-world trip in this enchanted and blissful place. The opulence of the castles and rich countryside was a stark contrast from our prior stop in India. I still have vivid memories of exploring the castles with Cleo, who loved the staircases and the balconies. The magnificently landscaped gardens were the perfect places to amble around with the strollers and unwind from the stress of a five week journey before the return flight to Miami.
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To be continued with the top travel experiences of my life numbers 20-11

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:25 Comments (0)

The best travel experiences of my life: 40-31

This is the fourth installment of the top 70 travel experiences of my life that begins with this post.

40. Old San Juan
This will be the first of several appearances from Puerto Rico on this list. I didn't know what to expect from my first visit to the island, one of the early trips I took with Mei Ling before we were married. We spent three days in the historic barrio of Old San Juan and I can only describe it as an epiphany. It was a pleasure just to walk the immaculate streets of this colorful, colonial neighborhood but we were also amazed by the expanse and majesty of the grassy fort on the western promontory. We were blown away by the variety of top level restaurants in the heart of downtown and the quality and character of the boutique hotels we stayed at. The one we enjoyed the most had a half-ruined aesthetic with ubiquitous greenery and artwork and a subterranean swimming pool. It was the beginning of a love affair with Puerto Rico that led us to take my parents back there the following year.
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39. Weekly market in Sète, France
Since leaving Vaucluse we hadn't been overwhelmed by the markets on the Mediterranean coast of France. The large cities of Nice and Marseille had been especially disappointing. We weren't expecting to come across the largest and most diverse market of our trip in the relatively small port city of Sète in Languedoc. However we were fortunate enough to be there on a Wednesday, the day in which the streets around the municipal market sprung to life with vendors selling every imaginable variety of seafood, fresh produce, and local delicacies. Enormous vats bubbled with seafood stews, huge wheels of nougat threatened to crowd each other off narrow tables, and opportunities to eat freshly prepared food were everywhere. We strolled, perused, and ate to our hearts' content. Unlike the markets of Provence it was clear that this weekly market existed primarily to fill the bellies of the locals rather than the Instagram pages of tourists.
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38. Linderhof Palace, Germany
The Bavarian castle on everyone's bucket list is Neuschwanstein but we enjoyed our visit to Linderhof Palace more. Neuschwanstein was crowded and couldn't be appreciated up close. The only vantage point to get a view of the entire castle, Queen Mary's Bridge, was closed when we visited. At Linderhof the relative lack of visitors made it easy to focus on the beautiful features of the palace and the surrounding landscape. The magnificent architecture, gold-plated fountains, and lush gardens made it at least the equal of Neuschwanstein or even Versailles for that matter. It was the perfect place to spend a cool summer afternoon in Bavaria.
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37. Xingshun night market in Shenyang, China
Night markets are one of the features that make East Asia so incredibly fun to visit. Instead of being focused on food staples like the daily markets, they will usually offer a wide variety of prepared food and sometimes entertainment. Many of the night markets in mainland China have disappeared as the government has aggressively modernized the country, but fortunately Xingshun night market in the northeastern city of Shenyang has been preserved. There is a certain degree of artificiality about the market as it seems highly organized with licensed vendors, and some of the offerings like insects on skewers are clearly geared towards tourists. Nevertheless there is an enormous array of exotic food and a very energetic scene, and Mei Ling and I weren't above sampling a smorgasbord of deep-fried bugs and lizards. The locals circled us and looked on with horrified expressions as we wolfed down our arthropodic repast. There was plenty of delicious meat and seafood to sate what remained of our appetite. The tourist factor wasn't as annoying because virtually all the tourism was domestic Chinese.
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36. Tobago crab races
Mei Ling was seven months pregnant with Cleo when we decided to take a short trip to Tobago over Easter weekend. We weren't sure how much traveling we would do with a baby so we wanted to get as many trips as we could in before Cleo arrived. We were completely unaware that Easter weekend was a major festival in Tobago with goat and crab races and a huge feast. We spent Sunday morning strolling around Buccoo watching people preparing crab and conch for their feasts and getting ourselves invited to several, then we went to the fairgrounds to watch the goat and crab races. Mei Ling was given her own crab to race with although hers didn't seem very competitive. We spent an amazing evening feast-hopping with the friendly and hospitable Tobagonians and then headed to the airport in the morning. As we walked through the terminal I saw something oddly familiar on the front page of the Trinidad Guardian, the country's main daily newspaper. It was a huge picture of Mei Ling holding her crab in the air by its leash. We've been all over the world together but that was the first and last time we made the front page of a newspaper.
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35. Houses of Parliament, London
London is my favorite city in Europe and the locale of three of my forty greatest travel experiences. It's hard to list all the reasons I love London but I do believe it has the greatest historical architecture of any city in the world. There's no building that exemplifies London's magnificent architecture more than the Palace of Westminster, commonly known as the Houses of Parliament. I'll never forget walking down Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square and being absolutely stunned by the sheer size and majesty of the building. Once I got past its enormity I was captivated by the complexity of the facade and the intricate detail in the stonework. I felt as though I was looking an illustration from a fantasy novel rather than a real building that humans had created. My attempts to capture the memory in a photograph were defeated by the sheer immensity of the edifice. To this day one of the things I look forward to most when I return to London is the opportunity to stand outside the Houses of Parliament and appreciate it in the only way that does it justice, with my own two eyes.
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34. Muslim wedding in Delhi, India
In retrospect we were crazy to make a stop in Delhi on our round-the-world trip in 2015. We had two toddlers with us and Mei Ling was six months pregnant with Spenser. Mei Ling has always tolerated her pregnancies well, at least in the second trimester, and I had become convinced that if we didn't go to India before Spenser was born we might have to wait fifteen years. We chose a small business hotel in the old city, close to the markets and the Jama Masjid mosque. We had expected the crowds, the heat, and the crushing poverty but it was still brutal to experience in person. On our second night we ate near the mosque and walked back towards the hotel on a busy street packed with motorcycles, scooters, and pedestriand of every size and description. On a side street we pressed ourselves against a building as a line of cars slowly moved past us. One car was covered in garlands and we realized we were witnessing a wedding procession. We allowed the crowd following the cars to carry us forward down the street to a reception hall. We thought that would be the end of it but people beckoned us to come inside. Mei Ling was ushered to a special area for women, stroller and all, while I was allowed into the groom's tent to witness a religious ceremony in progress. I felt a little self-conscious in my sweaty tourist clothing and Cleo conked out on my back but no one objected as I took video of the ceremony. It was a captivating and magical experience, and very typical of the extraordinary hospitality we received everywhere we went in India. We made it through our six day stay without the slightest disturbance to our well-being, gastrointestinal or otherwise.
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33. Dune of Pilat in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France
In 2018 we detoured west from Bordeaux to visit the Dune du Pilat on the Atlantic coast of France. I knew the long drive would be worth the trouble since I could still remember visiting the gigantic dune from my own early childhood. I'd been looking forward to surprising the kids with the enormous mountain of sand for the whole trip and I wasn't disappointed. As soon as we reached the end of the short trail through the woods and they looked up at the dune, their jaws dropped. Once we'd clambered to the top the views around us were breathtaking. Inland was a forest canopy that extended to the horizon, and from the other side we could see across the bay all the way to Cap Ferret where we'd spent the morning. It was a great reminder that the natural world has as much to offer the intrepid traveler as the urbanized one.
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32. Napa Valley wineries, Northern California
Napa Valley is a wine region that's acquired an almost mystical status among travelers. The opulence of the wine estates has surpassed anything one might see in Bordeaux and now approaches the historical chateaux of the Loire Valley. With the proliferation of Michelin-starred restaurants, concerts, and art galleries the Cabernet Sauvignon that the region became famous for is now almost an afterthought. The greatest challenge for us was to find the seven or eight best estates to visit during the three days we spent in Napa and Sonoma. I think we did well overall, but the ones I remember as being the most visually stunning were Castello di Amorosa and Darioush. The exhilaration of exploring estate after magnificent estate in the invigorating and clean spring air was a sensation that I will never forget.
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31. Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica
At the conclusion of a week long trip to Costa Rica in 1995, my travel companion flew back home two days before me. I was in a hostel in San José and impetuously decided to drive to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, despite our car rental agent having explicitly advised us that our two-wheel drive Toyota Tercel was sufficient to get around the entire country except for Monteverde. That was the kind of decision I made back in the days when I was traveling alone. It was a beautiful drive and I ascended the gravel road to the top of the mountain without much difficulty. The forest was beautiful and it was incredible to look out through breaks in the trees on the trail and see clouds floating underneath me. At the end of the afternoon it was still light and I decided to descend on the opposite side and try to spend the night near Arenal Volcano. This proved to be a much more challenging endeavor than the drive up the mountain. It was before the days of internet and GPS so all I had was the map from the car rental company, meaning I got lost frequently. I found a small village with an open convenience store where they told me that Arenal was just ten kilometers further. After this point the road conditions deteriorated dramatically but I still drove nine kilometers over a rocky and uneven dirt track before reaching a dry creek bed that seem impassable. I figured I had taken a wrong turn and spent another half hour driving the nine kilometers back to the convenience store. There I was told that I just needed to suck it up and drive through the creek bed and I would have reached my goal. Back I went all the way to the creek bed and slowly forced the Tercel across it, expecting any moment to hear my undercarriage being torn to pieces by the huge rocks underneath me. Somehow I managed to get to the other side unscathed and soon afterward I was driving on asphalt road again. All the buildings were closed and dark so I eventually drove up a hillside, rolled down the car windows, and got into the back seat to sleep. In the morning I was awakened by the sensation of a rough, damp cloth being wiped all over my face. When I was able to open my eyes all I could see was some pink material blocking my field of vision. Once I was able to arouse myself and sit up I realized a cow had stuck her head through the window and was licking the salty sweat off my face. She retreated and I found my way back to town where they told me I had parked on the side of the volcano. Apparently there had been a lava flow on the other side the previous day so I had risked being incinerated. Were they exaggerating? I'll never know. Those last two days in Costa Rica are one of my few experiences with traveling rough in the third world before the internet came along to make everything safer and easier. Unfortunately whatever photographs I might once of had from that trip are long gone but I have every intention of returning to the Cloud Forest and Arenal once my kids are old enough to participate in all the wild activities Costa Rica is famous for.

To be continued with the best travel experiences 30-21

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:35 Comments (1)

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