A Little Photoessay… Two Weeks of Nuance & Culture in Japan

The chaos of Tokyo crashed over me in waves when I first landed in Japan. I had booked my tickets on a whim—I found an affordable last-minute flight and jumped at the opportunity. Luckily, I had time to secure a Japan Rail pass, which allowed me to zip around the country on the speedy Shinkansen bullet trains for a discounted price, but beyond that, I had precious few things in place for my two week trip throughout Japan.

And perhaps it’s due to the tidy and orderly nature of life in Japan, but it all worked out, somehow. I had a few cultural snafus (it’s bound to happen to every traveler), I got terribly lost more than once (par for the course for me!), and I struggled to find vegetarian food. Those hiccups, however, only added to my wonder and joy. Despite usually working during all of my travels, I set aside my laptop and played the consummate tourist for two weeks, exploring the iconic and less-iconic parts of Japan.

And having spent only two weeks there, I can hardly claim expertise, especially since I spent them overwhelmed, my eyes wide and curious at every turn. Japanese history and culture are preserved to perfection. I delighted when I discovered a new cultural quirk. And I marveled at the feeling of anonymity when the crowds in Tokyo swept me through the streets. There was immense natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. It’s a country that I’d recommend to anyone with a curiosity about a thoroughly modern, technologically-advanced country that defies the idea of Westernized development.

Think of what follows as the storybook version of two weeks in Japan (my Japan Travel Guide shares the nitty-gritty details). This photo essay is a snapshot of what it looks like to sink into the travel experience in one of the world’s most fascinating countries, highlighting where to go, what to see, and the experiences you should seek out.

arashiyama bamboo forest

Shukkei-en Garden hiroshima

girls posing selfie in Kamakura

Kofuku-ji temple

Shibuya, Tokyo

Shibuya represented the Japan I had anticipated—bright lights, vibrant colors, pulsing energy, and so. many. people. A friend from college lives in Japan, a lucky circumstance that guaranteed mea familiar face to lead me through my first days in Tokyo. She navigated us through the metro’s maze and the surging mass of people while I tagged along in confused awe.

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

shibuya japan

Zojo-ji Temple & Tokyo Tower

After the heady rush of adrenaline in Shibuya, our next stop juxtaposed that modernity with a slice of quiet and reflection. At Zōjō-ji Temple, the Jizō statues humbled me. These petite statues live in The Garden of Unborn Children and are the first thing you see when entering the temple. Tiny gifts, clothes, and rock piles adorn most statues—it’s a pretty and sweet sight, and as a foreigner, I initially had no clue what they signified. These gifts shorten the unborn child’s trip to the afterlife. The statues rest under giant trees, and the pinwheels near each statue whir in the breeze. Beautiful and a little haunting, this temple was a fascinating first glimpse at Japanese beliefs and customs related to death and the afterlife.

Towering over this quiet garden and temple is the bright orange column of Tokyo Tower. With observation decks at 150 and 250 meters, views from the top include 360 degree sweeping views over the cityscape. I loved peeking into the neighborhoods. Like a bird soaring overhead, I peered down at the shapes and colors of streets and buildings.

Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple

Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple

Zojo-ji Temple

Zojo-ji Temple with Tokyo Temple in the background

views from top of tokyo tower tokyo tower in japan

tokyo cityscape from tokyo tower

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

Much of Japanese culture is centered around specific customs and rituals. When visiting the shrines and temples, tradition and culture are baked into every aspect. After entering the wooden torii gate at Meiji Shrine, we stopped to admire the large wall of saké barrels. These are decorative barrels, never filled with saké in actuality, but instead are representative of a larger donation. According to custom, Meiji Shrine accepts donations from saké producers across the country on behalf of the many smaller shrines. A decorative empty saké barrel accompanies each gift and is then displayed at the shrine’s entrance; shrines throughout Japan use this  gifted saké for celebrations and holidays. Each barrel is gorgeous and unique.

Once we admired the artful barrels, it was to onward to the temple, with a quick stop at the ablution pavilion, where water basins and ladles allow visitors to perform temizu, before entering, which is a symbolic cleansing signifying the removal of evil and pollution.

Yoyogi Park Torii Gate to enter Meiji Shrine 明治神宮 sake barrels at Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo

Meiji Shrine religious hand washing

Hase-dera Temple, Kamakura

The train system in Japan is phenomenal, and affordable if you have time to secure the tourist-only Japan Rail pass before you leave. I took a day trip to Kamakura, a beachside town near Tokyo. At Hase-dera Temple, I found an enchanting moss garden that is surely where the fairies and elves live. The entire temple complex wound through the woods. Families worshipped and tourists wandered. I found a strange little inlet where few people peaked. Towering trees shaded the gentle mist cooling the entire garden, which kept the delicate floor of moss vibrant and healthy.

Elsewhere in the temple, I found more Jizō statues. I had first encountered Jizō statues at the Garden of Unborn Children in Tokyo, and was intrigued to see this other representation. Jizō is a beloved and popular Japanese Bodhisattva known to alleviate the suffering of the living and the dead. And a fun fact, Jizō is also the patron saint of travelers—I mimicked the locals and gave him a gentle splash of water for my journey.

Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan

worshipping at Jizō Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan Little girl pours water shrine at hase-dera temple kamakura

Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan

Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan

Buddha, Kamakura

The most famous part of Kamakura is the gorgeous bronze Buddha statue at Kōtoku-in, which dates to around 1252. It’s a beautiful statue, and I love the way bronze streaked and aged over the centuries, visually marking the passage of time. The statue is 40+ feet tall and used to be entirely gilded, but now there are just faint traces of that gold on his face. The sign outside the temple noted that it is The Temple of Buddha and the gate of the eternal, marking it as an important spot in Japanese Buddhism. I didn’t make it to the interior viewing because the line was insane (I visited during Golden Week), but apparently you can view up into the statue and see the graffiti left there throughout the years.

Kōtoku-in temple giant Buddha

Kōtoku-in is a Buddhist temple of the Jōdo-shū sect in the city of Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan Daibutsu at Kōtoku-in temple in Kōtoku-in buddha in kamakura

Temple and Beaches of Kamakura

Deep shadows hung over the city by the time I made it to my final stop in Kamakura, the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple. This is a beautiful temple complex, perhaps one of the most peaceful that I found in and around Tokyo. I watched the sun begin to set on the reflection pond while sitting underneath a blossoming arbor of gorgeous wisteria. Earlier in the day I had wandered to the nearby beach, but there was an algae bloom tinting the water orange, so I didn’t stick around long.

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple Kamakura Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple the torii gate at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple

wisteria at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine

wisteria at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine  reflection pool Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine

kamakura beach with red tide algae

Kiyomizu-Dera, Kyoto

Japan’s history fills every corner of the islands, and I could have spent months just traveling to the cities and towns near Tokyo. I visited Kawagoe one day, and it is a charming city known for handmade sweets. After a few days in Tokyo, however, it was time to head to Kyoto, a city drenched in history at every turn. During my weeks in Japan, I played the consummate tourist and spent my days far from my computer, instead wandering in and out of elaborate gardens and towering temples.

Kiyomizu-dera is among the most celebrated temples in the country. Founded in 780, the name means “Pure Water” and was so named because the Otowa Waterfall trickles down a ledge and into the temple complex.

Kiyomizu-dera kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera in kyoto Kiyomizu-dera Views from the main balcony Kiyomizu-dera temple statue at Kiyomizu-dera temple

The main temple of Kiyomizu-dera

Views of Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto.

Around Kyoto, Japan

The Kyoto of my imagination was one that I had romanticized by reading Memoirs of a Geisha as a young’un. I pictured small lanes winding through low-slung buildings. I could hear the squeaking of carriages and the click of geisha heels. The reality is a far cry different. Kyoto is huge. It’s a modern city glinting with steel and glass. And yet, it’s still quaint and historic too. I found atmospheric lanes and aging wooden houses. While I didn’t spot a geisha, truthfully, I didn’t look too hard. Instead, I looked for the hidden gardens hiding towering bamboo. I watched a beautiful interpretive dance performance at small temple. I found historic aqueducts leading to tiny caves. A roadside cart converted into a cat hotel. I found the traditional, the ancient, and the quirky.

old building in Kyoto

bamboo forest Kōdai-ji temple kyoto Kōdai-ji bamboo

Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka Preserved Districts

steps near Shoren-in Temple The aqueduct at Nanzen-ji Temple Nanzen-ji Temple aqueduct

the Path of Philosophy kyoto Path of Philosophy in Kyoto

Ginkaku-ji Temple sand garden Ginkaku-ji Temple gardens cats on the Path of Philosophy in Kyoto

Golden Temple, Kyoto

Kyoto’s Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji, reflects beautifully in its garden pond. Throughout my time in Japan I found myself in awe of the precision of each garden and the fastidious care with which each temple scene is created. It’s all so reflective of the orderly and careful Japanese culture that I discovered over my two weeks in the country. This temple, which is formally named Rokuon-ji, was was oddly reminiscent of Myanmar for me. Very few of Japan’s temples and statues are gilded, so viewing this showy temple reminded me of all the vast amounts of gold leaf used throughout Myanmar on every surface of their religious statues and buildings.

And even more fun than just visiting this temple, I met up with an ALA reader Moira and her family. We had emailed in the lead-up to her round the world trip about the route and how she would school her two children from the road. I was delighted to discover that my impromptu trip to Japan meant that I would cross paths with them during their last stop. We wandered the temple complex and then found a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant nearby to talk travel. Hearing their stories of a year on the road together was a highlight of my time in Kyoto.

Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji

school kids at Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Having already confessed to reading the book, I’ll cop to seeing the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, too. For anyone who has seen it, the movie beautifully ends with the orange gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine. The torii gates create a long tunnel snaking up the side of a forested mountain. It’s just as stunning in person. Light dappled through the tree and slanted through the tightly packed gates, which are donated by Japanese businesses because Inari is the long-believed patron of business. The shrine dates to 711, which is so many centuries back that my mind boggles.

伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha

Orange torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine school girls at Fushimi Inari Shrine torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine Orange torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine

garden Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi-Inari Shrine Fushimi-Inari Shrine School girls walk through the iconic orange torii gates Fushimi-Inari Shrine

The Gardens of Nara, Japan

Perhaps the prettiest garden in all of Japan is in Nara. I say this having not visited them all. Instead, I merely assert that I can’t imagine anything prettier than Isuien Garden. Traveling through Japan taught me more about garden landscaping than I thought possible. Isuien Garden a technique called shakkei; it borrows the surrounding landscape to form a perfectly stacked composition. The far temple is a part of Todai-ji temple and the mountains beyond reflect prettily in the pond waters. I wandered these gardens on a warm Saturday afternoon and then decided to sit on a bench for a bit to read and absorb the scene.

Isuien Garden in Nara japan

Isuien Garden in Nara japan Isuien Garden in Nara japan

Okochi-Sanso Villa in the Arashiyama District

Isuien Garden in Nara japan The gardens of Japan.

Todai-ji Temple, Nara

Todai-ji is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings; parts of it date back to 728. This is perhaps my favorite of the dozens of temples I’ve visited in Japan, and it’s because of Komokuten, one of a pair of fierce, giant guardians of the Great Buddha. The massive guardians were an unexpected addition to the temple; they are there to guard the Daibutsu, which is the largest bronze Buddha in the world. They make an impressive addition to an already stunning temple.

Todai-ji

Komokuten in nara, japan Komokuten Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan Aging copper at Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan.

Around Nara

Oh the whole, Nara is a sweet city. Although I know some people visit for several days, I took a day trip from Kyoto and found it was enough time to soak in the vibe. The bowing deer add an unmistakable charm to the visit, and I delighted in feeding them all day long each time I met one in the parks and temples all over town. I love that the cookie in the first photo makes it look like the deer is smiling.

Besides the deer, the massive temple, and that gorgeous garden, there are several other beautiful spots. I spent the last hours of sunlight admiring the view from Nigatsu-dō Temple, and wandering among the moss-covered stone lanterns at Kasuga-taisha Shrine.

nara bowing deer

bowing deer Nara, japan Bowing deer of Nara nara japan

Kasuga-taisha Shrine

Nigatsu-dō temple  sunset Kofuku-ji Temple

park in nara  Kasuga-taisha Shrine

Kasuga-taisha Shrine in Nara, Japan.

Eating All the Things

Japan isn’t the most vegetarian-friendly place in the world—that distinction goes to India—but boy is there plenty to eat. Soups were always easy to find and tasty to consume. And in Hiroshima, I had my hands-down favorite dish of the entire trip, okonomiyaki. It’s a savory pancake-like dish and the vegetarian version has noodles, batter, egg, and piles of cabbage—then it’s all topped with a tasty sauce.

hiroshima style okonomiyaki

Seaweed and spinach, yum!

Hiroshima Shrine

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. It’s a necessary visit for anyone traveling through the city, but especially fellow Americans.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Hiroshima Peace Memorial The Atomic Bomb Dome at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Miyajima Island & Floating Torii

Head to Miyajima Island and plan to spend the day. I know that many people pop over just to see the floating torii, but it’s a gorgeous island. I was down to my final day of travel before needing to journey back to Tokyo for my flight home, so I decided to make a good adventure out of it. I took the cable-car to the near top of the mountain, and then hiked the last 30 minutes for sweeping views of the Japanese coastline. I hiked back down in time for a stunning sunset. And as if the hike and shrine were not reason enough to spend the day, they have bowing deer, too! :)

bowing deer miyajima island

bowing deer of japan Itsukushima Shrine with the tide in floating ferry to miyajima island

cable car on miyajima island

views from Mt. Misen Mt. Misen miyajima

tide out on Itsukushima shrine

Sunset on Miyajima Island, Japan. Sunset on Miyajima Island, Japan. Selfie with the floating torii gate!

Sunet over Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island


Visiting Japan was an experience almost frozen in time. I had long dreamed of visiting, but the cost and the culture clash had always kept me from booking my ticket. I hiked mountains, visited temples, slurped soup, and studied the people. It was a fascinating and contradictory two weeks and among the most interesting places I’ve ever traveled.

Planning a trip to Japan? The detailed Travel Guide to Japan outlines possible routes, nitty-gritty details, and a collection of tips and advice sourced from the ALA community. And visit the Japan Rail site, where you can secure the JR pass before you leave home—it saved me hundreds and freed me to visit more places since the train costs were all included in the pass.
Hierve el Agua, Mexico

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Mexico: Oaxacan Life

Has life sped up? The days, weeks, and months whip past faster than I can count. I landed in Oaxaca, Mexico in January. Two months later, I’m settled but restless. Does that even make sense? Traveling is a hard habit to break. I bought a coffee cup when I arrived. It was a small concession to settling in one spot for six months. Yet, my mind hums with frenetic energy when I ponder the places I still want to experience. And then I look around and remind myself I’m here. I’m in Oaxaca because I need slow, not frenetic.

Oaxaca Valley, Mexico
Oaxaca, the land of heirloom corn and the heart of Mexican cuisine.

Oaxaca’s an easy city. Street food is plentiful. The vegetables are gorgeous. It’s a small enough city that life is accessible. Plus, the old colonial center is all cobbled streets and colorful buildings — you know I’m a sucker for cobblestone! I’ve traveled through swathes of Mexico, and Oaxaca State has a culture all its own. I dig it. This region has the highest concentration of indigenous groups in all Mexico. There are 16 dominant groups, each with unique languages and cultures. Then there’s a whole other subsection of dialects too. It’s this mix of cultures that I find fascinating in a new place. I have fangirled all over Guatemala for years now — another country with an intriguing interplay between the indigenous and hispanic majority. Until now, I hadn’t traveled in Southern Mexico, where a similar dynamic exists.

All this to say, it was a pleasant surprise to find more to learn about Mexico. Before we dive in, many of you have emailed asking for updates and posts via video. I’ve long promised to do more of this, so either read on for the writing, or take a peek at this video. Or both.

On Local Grassroots Tourism

Thanks you to the ALA and Grassroots Volunteering communities for the outpouring of support. I found a wonderful organization here in Oaxaca City. Fundación En Via is a microlending organization working in the Oaxaca Valley. They use tourism to offer interest-free loans to women business-owners. Friends first emailed me about En Via many months ago, when I first floated the idea of basing from Oaxaca. Soon, readers reached out to share their positive experiences with En Via. I had to find out for myself. Now, the more I learn about their work, the more I want to support it.

microfinance in Mexico
This En Via borrower used her loan to bulk buy wool and dye for her weaving business making rugs.

I wrote a profile of En Via for the WTTC, it shares a bit more about their tourism model and mission. Twice a week, I bus into the indigenous communities in the Valley to photograph the women in the program. I also help in their English language program when they need it. Their network of volunteers help run many aspects of the organization’s many programs and support services. If you’re visiting, or thinking of staying for a bit, I totes recommend their tours and their volunteering opportunities.

Other organizations in town also have some neat projects. In my remaining months, I’ll continue exploring the social enterprises scene. Anyone have any that they’ve visited and loved?

En Via microfinance, Oaxaca
A line of carefully embroidered aprons in San Miguel del Valle, a rural town about an hour and a half outside of Oaxaca City.
microfinance volunteering in mexico
On my En Via tour, we visited a seamstress in San Miguel de Valle. She shared her plans for her business, as well as how her embroidery has shifted to meet a growing trend of more elaborate apron designs.

On Work & A Little Adrift

For the first time in many years (a decade?), I have taken a break. I am on a hiatus from the online marketing and SEO work that paid my bills these last years on the road. While some people save up for years to travel, I landed an online job straight out of college. I’ve done that type of work every day since. I took a couple short breaks, once for a Vipassana course, and another to travel through Myanmar. But this is the first time I’m actually taking a sabbatical. Or, a semi-sabbatical. I don’t actually know how to stop working. I told myself I would take a break — I have a small savings that gives me leeway — but I still have one client. And I am still writing a few travel pieces for other outlets.

There are all these articles online about our cult of working; I feel behind when I try to stop. But also, I like my travel work. I like writing.; it’s less like work. My hope though, is to funnel my extra time into career and life projects. With my RSI injury in 2013, I’m careful with my online time. I’m also careful with how I work — this new resource page shares the ergonomic travel system I am using to prevent further injury.

Other things. I took on the task of reading 52 Books in 2016. This page follows that journey with my favorite thoughts and quotes from each book. I’m also committed to spending the spring volunteering as a photographer for En Via. And the final project I hope to accomplish here in Mexico is to expand the site’s helpful resources.

To that end, I’ve launched the first of several ALA-style country guides. These pages will cover places I’ve traveled. They collect all the knowledge and resources you should know before you go. The first handful are up. If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, Georgia, Thailand, Mexico’s Yucatán, or Cuba, I’d be chuffed if you used them! In addition to basic travel facts, each guide to includes responsible travel ideas and social enterprises to support in that part of the world.

oaxacan hot chocolate
Confession: in lieu of things to do, I go hunt down some freshly frothed Oaxacan-style hot chocolate. I read. I drink. It’s all very delicious (the free time and the chocolate).

On Current Travels

Balance. This is a struggle and something I’ve written about in the past. One ALA reader gave me an interesting perspective shift when I last wrote about my struggle. I wanted to create a life that includes travel, but also a balance of work, volunteering, and friends. My musings then noted that I was searching for that balance, and for a place where it existed. He reframed it as something I have to create. So I’m trying. It was a good reframe on the situation. Part of my reasons for living in Oaxaca this spring has been to better balance my life. Besides work and volunteering, I’ve loved using Oaxaca as a base to explore more of the area.

My work with En Via takes me out into the villages, but it’s the day trips with friends that are one of the highlights. My friend Jodi is here too. When her mum came to visit, we all hightailed it out to the beautiful Hierve el Agua rock formation. This is day-trippable from Oaxaca and is one of the prettiest spots in Mexico. The calcium carbonate in the rock creates variegated pools of turquoise water. This post from Jodi shares a bit more about the formation of this spot and travel details.

Then there’s the long history of the region, with the beautiful ruins of Monte Alban. These are not Mayan ruins, like those found in so much of southern and eastern Mexico. It was intriguing to compare this site to those I’ve visited in the Yucatán.

Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca
Found a pair of flipflops on the edge of these pretty pools of water. I think the owner was won over by the beauty and forgot them in the excitement.
Oaxaca Valley, Mexico
Fun with reflections in the mineral-laden waters at Hierve el Agua. The pretty pools of water seem to just fall over the cliff side into the surrounding mountains. These pools of water are part of larger formations that resemble rock waterfalls. The name, Hierve el Agua, translates to “the water boils,” and this site pops against the muted blue and green mountainside. Small springs feed the pools of water. The water is full of calcium carbonate and minerals, causing cool, variegated pools of green and turquoise. It’s all swimmable and it’s a like a nature-made infinity pool with views over the mountains.
The boiling waterfalls of Hierve el Agua
The waterfalls appear frozen against the mountains, with just trickles of water falling down the white “falls.”
Monte Alban, Oaxaca Valley, Mexico
The sprawling ruins of Monte Albán outside of Oaxaca City. This was one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica, about 500 BC. This pre-Columbian archaeological site sits some 6,400 ft (nearly 2,000 meters) above sea level. It’s surrounded by the arid mountains and cool dry air. And it’s scorchingly hot. I love the scale of this site. Tiny people dwarfed by the large pyramids then dwarfed by the vast mountain range.
Zocalo Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City’s zócalo bustles with activity in the late afternoon. On the weekend it’s packed to the gills, with music, bands, dancing, buskers, vendors, and people all enjoying the cool spring evenings.

On What’s Next

I’m here until summer and I am blocking out next steps. I don’t have a plane ticket yet, just a stamp in my passport with a firm date of exit. Whenever I think of what I’ll do after Mexico, that’s when the frenetic energy creeps into me. I’ve floated the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago in the fall. Should I? Thoughts and advice welcome if you’ve done it. And I’d also love to return to Asia sometime soon. And then there’s this whole issue of creating the balance that I want. As I’ve said before, I recognize immense privilege in the ability to craft my life. I’m grateful for these opportunities. I’m also in a transition out of the style of long-term travel I’ve always done. I don’t know what life looks like when I slow down.

For now, this spring I’ll continue creating ALA responsible travel guides. If you’re keen to keep updated on where I am specifically at any given moment, I am much better about updating this “Now” page, and I update Instagram a lot too.

I welcome your thoughts and emails. What is spring looking like for you?

Architecture in Tbilisi, Georgia

A Little Charm… 6 Things to Do That Will Make You Fall in Love with Tbilisi, Georgia

Maybe it was the wine. Or perhaps it was the latticed balconies? The unfettered hospitality played a part. And the idyllic scenery was persuasive. For the life of me, I can’t pin down precisely what made Tbilisi, Georgia so charming.

Since I left the country in late October, I took on the mantle of fangirl for the Republic of Georgia after uncovering a bevy of memorable things to do, experiences to embrace, and sceneries to spark wonder. I gush about it to any willing ear. I returned home late last year to holiday dinners and nights spent playing cards with friends. Between these engagements, I edited photos from my fall travels. Each night, with a swipe of the keyboard, a new image flashed on the screen. Like a slide projector warming up, memories flickered into my consciousness. Each cropped and straightened photo rekindled my crush on this beautiful little city in the far east of Europe.

Map of Georgia and Caucasus Region
Most international governments recognize that Georgia includes the two areas in blue and purple, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These are Russian occupied areas of the country and travelers should research current political issues if traveling around those areas.

Like any good crushee, I immediately wanted to know my crush’s backstory and history. Before I left for Georgia and Turkey, I showed my dad my route. His eyebrows shot to the sky and he released a single, skeptical “hmm.” Now into my eighth year of travel, my parents have long accepted my decision. They don’t always love the places I visit solo, but they trust my judgement. From his face, however, I could tell my dad was wavering. In the absence of context, it’s hard to imagine what Georgia’s like, what sort of things could possibly entertain a traveler. On the edge of the Caucasus Mountains, the country is neighbored by cultures as varied as its topography. Once a stop on the Silk Road, the city became a confluence of the civilizations over the millennia. This peculiar positioning means Georgia is considered a part of Europe or Asia, depending on who you ask. And you would be forgiven for wondering if it’s a part of the Middle East. But the actual vibe: It’s European.

Today’s Georgia is Eastern Orthodox—to the tune of 84%. Monasteries and churches stand proud on mountain peaks around the country. This religious history is important to modern Georgia. That said, despite the overwhelming presence of Christianity, other cultures and religions also found perch in Georgia over the centuries. My wanders through Tbilisi uncovered mosques, synagogues, and even a Zoroastrian temple.

And while a country’s ancient history plays a part in any trip, so too does recent history. Georgia was a part of the former Soviet Union. The country also dealt with political and social unrest throughout the 90s and early aughts. I’ll confess to forgetting the bulk of my World History course in 9th grade. Before I landed, I took to the internets and online readings to flesh out my understanding. I read up on not only the Soviet Union, but the also country’s complex present-day relationship with Russia. Important to understand is the history of the two Russian occupied areas of Georgia that are depicted on the map—South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

For countries with recently attained peace, understanding a foundational history is paramount. It shapes the experience with compassion and empathy. It invites the visitor deeper into the psyche of the culture and people. Only by understanding the past could I so enjoy what makes traveling the Republic of Georgia unique. It’s the resilience of the Georgian that spirit shapes my favorite aspects of traveling there, that shaped the best things to do and see. My memories float to the surface, begging to be shared. Like the delicate smile of a new courtship, the city flirts with visitors. Tbilisi won me over with subtle charms and gentle nudges. Let’s look at the aspects of Tbilisi, Georgia that stand out most prominently in my memories.

The Gorgeous Patchwork Architecture

Beautiful doors and balconies The patchwork architecture in Old Tbilisi is reason enough to visit this pretty capital city. Intricate balconies sigh from tired buildings. Cobbled streets ramble through historic neighborhoods. Sweet, shady trees along Rustaveli Avenue belong as much in Paris as in this tiny Eastern European city. Each day I leapt from bed, energized by the idea of wandering adrift on the streets of Tbilisi, camera in hand.

Quiet courtyards and ephemeral smiles form the bedrock of my memories. Centuries of Persian, German, and Russian architectural influence is visible. But it’s not just the historic aspects that fascinates. Tbilisi’s more recent stability has it screaming into a disorienting modernity. Controversial space-age architecture takes up residence alongside the historic buildings. A gamut of architectural possibilities sit in the shadow of the 4th century Narikala Fortress. Time passes, that’s what the fortress seems to say. Tbilisi has a complicated history that has continued into the present. The aesthetic of the city bears testament.

And yet, the gorgeous laced balconies point to a concerning lack of infrastructure. It’s a similar problem facing places like Havana, Cuba. Decades of little money spent on redevelopment left gorgeous historic buildings in disrepair. There’s conflict in recognizing it needs to change while still loving the beauty it creates. But perhaps there’s a middle ground. Something between shimmering glass bridges and the city’s enchanting old-world charm. Either way, the city has an eclectic mix of styles that keeps things interesting.

 

Mowing Down on Delicious Food & Wine

Real talk: The food culture is wonderful. There’s a reason I started with an overview of Georgian history. History plays a pivotal role in Georgia’s current designation as an upcoming food destination. Cultures brushing against each other over the centuries resulted in a range of delicious dishes. In addition to meat in large supply, the country offers Mediterranean fares like salads, bean soups, cheese, and Georgian pizza. Let’s just say that as a vegetarian, I didn’t starve.

Then there’s the wine. It’s divine. Georgia’s clay vessel wine-making process, Qvevri, made UNESCO’s list for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. During my stay in Tbilisi, I took part in the city’s beautiful café culture, which is reminiscent of so much of Europe. Sprinkled throughout the boutiques and sidewalk cafés are dozens of wine shops and tasting rooms. Wine is the icebreaker with new Georgian friends. Each time I befriended a local, they shared their favorite variety. Even more often, they boasted of their tasty homemade wines. The country has hundreds of indigenous varieties of grapes. Locals maintained their winemaking traditions throughout disparate governments and in the face of deep economic hardships. Georgians love nothing more than to spend a night (or many) sipping wine with friends. Evening shadows grow deep as friends toast to all manner of health, life, happiness, and family.

The Country’s Deeply Entrenched Culture of Hospitality

Kartlis Deda watches over Tbilisi from Sololaki Hill. Her looming aluminum figure is a touch point visible from nearly anywhere in the city. Better known as Mother Georgia, her figure so perfectly typifies the spirit and welcome I encountered in the country. For Georgians, this statue represents the dual priorities of hospitality and freedom. Erected in the 50s, Mother Georgia carries a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. The wine is for friends, the sword for enemies.

In practice, hospitality infuses every aspect of traveling Georgia. As I left, it was the feeling of complete welcome that stuck with me. Conversations with new friends swim to the forefront of my memories. Welcoming visitors is entrenched in the culture. After I posted a photo of Tbilisi on my Instagram, a local woman found the photo and welcomed me to her city. Teo and I clicked immediately. She’s a Georgian woman with a serious case of wanderlust. Now that’s something that I understand. When I admitted to her that I hadn’t yet sampled Georgian wine (I prefer drinking with friends), in quick order we arranged to meet. Across many hours—and many glasses of wine—we swapped travel stories. She shared what it’s like to live, work, and travel as a Georgian. Though I often meet kind travel friends in each new city, there is a palpable quality of joy to Georgian hospitality. If you visit Georgia as a friend, like their statue bids, you leave warm with wine and hospitality.

 

The Landscape is Beautiful & Endlessly Explorable

Tbilisi is a pocket-sized city. Even more, Georgia is small too. Combined, it’s all endlessly explorable. Situated smack between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains, there’s a varied landscape packed into this small country. Lowland lakeside towns on the Black Sea vie for attention alongside snow-capped ski slopes. I didn’t bring clothes suitable for visiting the mountains in near-winter. Instead, I spent my trip based from the capital, exploring on day-trips from Tbilisi.

History and nature collide outside the city. I hired my Airbnb host, Bacho, to show me around. He took to the task with ease and helped me pick which sites I’d like best. One day, we hiked around the David Gareja monastery to the painted caves. The monastery is a few hours outside of the city and our car hummed along lonely, winding roads, through a muted, lunar-like landscape. The monastery is beautiful. One of my favorite moments occurred as we crested the mountain behind David Gareja. Bristling in the cold air, I jerked to a stop as we faced Azerbaijan—a huge flatland plain spanned below, awash in dull greens and browns far into the horizon. As I took in the look of this new land, two eagles soared into the sky, emerging from the mountainside, their massive wingspan casting shadows on the land below. They glided on the breeze, free of the borders holding me to my perch. It was a beautiful moment. Over the following hour, we climbed among the caves carved into the rock mountain.

Other days we visited 4th-century churches—many still in use. These ancient buildings watch in silence as this beautiful nation shifts and changes. The country is making quick strides toward peace and development. In tandem, it also grips the pieces of its unique history and preserves them for future generations.

David Gareja Monastery

David Gareja Monastery

Absorbing Centuries of Music & Dance

Never before have I experienced a culture so taken with song. Rich harmonies drifted from family compounds. Sometimes for mere moments I caught a deep melody floating on the breeze. And they sing not for a coin, but instead for a love of the music. Polyphonic singing is another UNESCO recognized piece of intangible heritage, and is stunning to hear.

I visited Georgia during Tbilisoba, their annual cultural festival. I was taken with the country’s incredible history of song and dance. The festival allowed me to watch, mesmerized, a sampling of regional dances. The men leapt impossibly high, the women twirled and swayed. Each dance told stories of courtship, stories from history, and stories of joy. I was lucky to watch one long performance next to a local woman. She passed me chunks of churchkhela—a local sweet—and translated the introduction for each dance. Her kindness afforded me my sole opportunity for questions during Tbilisoba. With her explanations, I better understood how each region used the arts to preserve its history and maintain a legacy for future generations.

 

***

There’s no way to encapsulate why I am so taken with the Republic of Georgia. The sum total of Georgia won me over. Georgians have formed a deep resilience over the years. Even more, their complex history hasn’t curdled their love of life.

In addition to the many things I loved about the aesthetics, food, and culture, it goes beyond that. The same government and police presence that brought stability to Georgia in the wake of the Rose Revolution has kept the city safe today. The president overhauled the police force in 2005. This ushered in an era of safety for Georgians, according to my Airbnb host. As a new arrival, poor street lighting and rundown sidewalks gave the city an eerie feel. At first, I was uncertain about the assertions of safety. Familiarity with the pace of the city, however, assuaged my concerns. Women teetered home at all hours of the night on skyscraper heels. New friends echoed my host’s sentiments about safety. While caution goes far in any place, the city is at peace. As a solo traveler, I felt comfortable in my skin as I wandered. The relative safety of the city added a welcomed layer to the travel experience since I was weary from recent travels through Turkey.

And my gushing aside, there are a couple of downsides. Every place has them. I’d be remiss to overlook it. The Georgians have a high rate of smoking. As a non-smoker, the clouds wafting into my face during dinner was tough. I picked restaurants based on the availability of a corner where I could wedge myself away from the currents of smoke. I found the smoking even worse, however, in Istanbul. As with all things, it’s relative. The city’s air quality is declining, but again, didn’t even come close to huffing through the streets of Kathmandu.

When you aggregate the kindness, food, and history from my weeks in Georgia, it won me over. I am a lifelong fan. And it’s this same feeling that friends and A Little Adrift readers expressed when I announced my travel plans. Everyone gushed about the Georgian-ness of it all. Never able to quite pin down what they love about it, readers and friends echoed one sentiment: Just go.

I’d have to agree. Sometimes a city just sticks with you. It wins you over with a spirit and subtlety unmatched by previous experiences. For Tbilisi, I found the city as charming as the people who live there. Two weeks is too little time to claim I understand the culture, city, or people, but it’s long enough to admit I’ll be back to try.

Heading to The Republic of Georgia? Check out my Georgia Travel Guide: I aggregated my experiences in Georgia, plus all the tips from A Little Adrift readers. This is a free, comprehensive guide of history, sights, things to do, responsible tourism, and recommended readings.  

Ek-Balam

A Little Adventure… How I Survived 3 Weeks with 2 Boys on an Epic Mexican Road Trip

It was the accessibility of both fun and culture that convinced me Mexico was an ideal place to travel with my two nephews. Long-time readers will remember the epic homeschooling adventure I undertook with my niece Ana. Hard to believe that we left four years ago. Ana had just turned 11-years-old and instead of entering the 6th grade, she and I spent nearly seven months traveling Southeast Asia. As my two nephews neared that same age, it was time take them on adventures too. In fact, the day my nephew Eric turned 11 years-old, he informed me that it was “his turn” and so what did I have planned? He put me on the spot.

My two nephews, Vic and Eric, are 10- and 11-years-old. What would be a good trip for the three of us? I’m not brave enough to travel with them for seven months. But I wanted a place that would—like Asia did for Ana—inspire them to dream of other places and find interests outside of their tiny lives in Florida. Mexico has long been one of my favorite places. The Yucatán Peninsula in particular has a unique mix of Maya culture and ancient ruins. And the region’s miles of sandy beaches are also perfect for two active (and naughty) little boys. I won’t lie, having a lot of activities for them was a big consideration. I was a tad terrified to travel with them both solo. The plan took shape earlier this year; I passport-ed them both and secured their travel documents before I left for Japan in the spring.

In the weeks leading up to our trip, I used Google image searches to show them the possible adventures. They exclaimed over the Maya temples, begged to zip-line high over the Mexican jungle, loved the idea of seeing wild animals, and dreamed of swimming in the icy blue waters of the sunken cenotes.

With three weeks and a rental car, my nephews and I spent the bulk of July driving a winding route around the Yucatán Peninsula. We backtracked at points to visit family. We drove two extra hours to return for a beloved pair of forgotten swimming trunks. There were hairy moments when I knew I was crazy to travel alone with the two of them. But we also had adventures—man, did we have some adventures. A few months out from the trip and I still can’t imagine a better place to have road-tripped with my nephews. Readers often email me asking how I chose when and where to visit—they want to know the reasoning that goes into picking each new place. That question likely goes doubly so when traveling with kids, so here goes. Four main things factored into why I picked the Yucatán for traveling with the two boys:

  1. Everything is condensed and close. Driving days are never longer than three to four hours, and even that long is rare. (unless you backtrack for beloved swimming trunks… … …   :::facepalm::: )
  2. Spanish culture and language are accessible. They both loved practicing the new words and Eric is taking Spanish classes in school this year. Plus, two young boys are hard work and I speak Spanish, so I thought that would help ensure a smoother trip. Places like Japan are fascinating, but add an extra layer. I would have dealt with their culture shock and my inability to speak the language, on top of juggling two kids who have never left the country. Mexico, however, seemed like a solid first-trip adventure.
  3. A huge range of cultural and kid-friendly activities. The Yucatán has a well-developed tourism infrastructure. It’s safe, and has a diverse range of things to do in every area: swimming, beaches, ruins, wildlife, walkable towns, and even theme parks.
  4. It’s affordable. The boys live in Florida. It was a quick skip over the Gulf of Mexico, and once we arrived, I could afford to keep us flush in tacos and fun activities.

After my trip with Ana, many of you guys emailed me to say although seven months was too long, that you’d love to do something similar with your own nieces/nephews/kids. Here it is, an alternative adventure. Three weeks of family-style (mis)adventures all through Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. This is more of a photo-journey through our road-trip with stories—hover over each photo for more information. We started on the beaches, then wound our way inland to the cultural heart, and ended at a biosphere reserve.

For the nitty-gritty and how-tos, I posted detailed detailed Yucatan Road Trip planning resources on our driving route, the places we stayed, and the companies we used to make it all come together.

road trip yucatan mexico

Isla Mujeres

Before we left to Isla Mujeres, I’ll also own to a travel n00b mistake that I can only blame on being totally overwhelmed. It took hours to secure the rental car. It was a headache navigating into the city at rush hour. Once checked in, we headed out to a great park I knew from a previous trip, Parque de las Palapas. I was hungry, the boys were hungry, and they were also humming with excited energy. So we headed to the ATM and then planned on getting food. Sheer chaotic excitement is the only explanation I have for my nephew Vic. He grabbed the cash from the ATM, fanned it out and waved it around the glass booth (which faced the busy street), and exclaimed in sheer elation, “MONOPOLY MONEY.” I was so startled that I left my ATM card in the machine. And yeah, if you follow the site, I’ve done that gem before. I can look at this now and see the humor. Mexican pesos are colorful and he’s never seen them before. It’s funny, right? Right? Sob. Anyway, it set the tone for three weeks of shenanigans.

With only the pesos I had just withdrawn and a small safety stash of U.S. cash, I tried hard not to wig out. I was lucky my dad hadn’t yet left on his cruise. Since he’s on all my accounts (precisely for situations like this), he wired me money. Walmart wire transfer is fantastically cheap by the way (#thingsIwishIdidntknow). Schwab, my bank, which I love dearly, mailed me a new card asap and my parents brought it with them since we were meeting up six days later in Cozumel.

Crisis averted. And with an alarming amount of cash in my purse (and a stern conversation about ATM behavior), we began the adventure.

turtle shells on isla mujeres tortugranja farm mexico visiting isla mujeres turtle farm

The Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm was a highlight of the entire trip and it was the perfect way to start our travels. Isla Mujeres is a small island off the coast of Cancun, but it’s a world apart from the vibe of Cancun. Ferries run all day between Cancun and Isla so we ditched the frenetic party atmosphere and ritzy hotel boulevard in Cancun. Within an hour of leaving Cancun, we found ourselves in a great apartment just a block off of the shallow beach waters.

My Seattle-based aunt was jonesing for the tropics, so she joined us at the start of our trip. The four of us golf-carted around the sweet little island. We spent three days sipping coconuts and digging in the sand. We bought two pool noodles; they proved fun and useful as we moved from pools to shallow bays to sometimes more unpredictable waters. My aunt is a swim instructor and it was fun to watch both boys soak up her advice on how to better their strokes and become stronger swimmers. Although we’re from Florida, they don’t have a pool at their house and I’ve long worried about their weak skills. This trip was an invaluable chance for them to spend a lot of time practicing (and in a place where it doesn’t feel like forced practice!). This was an excellent way to start the trip because the town is small and navigable, and the waters in Playa Norte are shallow for a hundred meters at least.

Much to my amusement, Vic was a little entrepreneur on the island. He is convinced he could have launched a thriving coconut selling business and made millions if we had stayed—he talked one local hammock vendor into buying his coconut for an impressive 75 cents. It was endlessly cute.

Kids selling coconuts on Isla Mujeres The icy blue waters of Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

Cozumel

Cozumel was the island of fun coincidences and meetups. The boys and I timed our Cozumel trip to meet my parents the morning their cruise ship docked. Having already explored the island for two days, the boys and I took them to a hole-in-the-wall spot for Mexican street food. Together we all wandered through the town squares and capped it off with a snorkel. The time passed all too fast before we brought them back to their ship and waved goodbye. But the fun continued and I owe a big thanks to Tam from Travels with Tam. She is a friend, blogger, and A Little Adrift reader, and she welcomed my unruly gang to her home in Cozumel for the afternoon.

In our days on the island, it was the sea life that won out with the kids. Eric raved about his snorkel north of Money Bar; he saw all kinds of fish and sea-crawlies. In the evenings, we wandered the shores near downtown Cozumel; the boys skipped rocks and dug through all the tide pools looking for snails. I’ll likely never claim it’s my favorite spot in the region, but we found beautiful underwater sea life and had a wonderful time visiting friends and family. As my parents continued through the Caribbean, the boys and I journeyed back to the mainland—we had some Maya temples to find!

cozumel tide pools  

Xplor Theme Park and Playa del Carmen

But first, before the Maya temples, we had a theme park to explore. My nephews have spent their entire lives living in south-central Florida—they’re adrenaline junkies. We have a dozen parks within an hours driving distance of my hometown. They live and breathe theme parks. I don’t know where they get it from, I’m terrified of rollercoasters. Two things coincided though. They found out I took Ana zip-lining in Thailand years back. And they found images online of the dizzying number of adventure parks in the Yucatán. The folks at Olympus Tours offered to comp an experience for us, all I had to do was pick. I felt confident traveling the interior once we were poking around through Mexico’s small towns and community based organizations—that’s my thing—but I never neared the theme parks on my last trip to the region. Marhuata and Leo teamed up to take my nephews on a day that they continue to recount at speeds a mile a minute.

We headed out to Xplor early in the day, a theme park that plays off of the natural landscape. It’s actually built into underwater rivers and cenotes—with ziplining, of course, that was paramount to the boys. The park was beautiful, more than I was expecting. We paddled through the underground river, sped across the tree canopy on zip-lines, and generally got our thrills out. I’m usually that aunt. The who gives books and educational toys on holidays. So they were justifiably psyched that I agreed to a Mexican theme park. And as a plus, it also scored me a trade-off promise that they would each read age-appropriate information on Maya culture. Win. It was good fun; it’s a fantastic thing to do with kids and the other nearby parks have varying types of activities. I reviewed the park’s rides, pros, cons, etc at Xplor here.

Hidden bonus? They wolfed down dinner and then passed out cold that day. Who am I kidding, I did too. :)

Gorgeous underground river

Slide! The boys together zipping over the jungle!

At Xplor's Heart ATV Time!

Tulum

We began to shift the tone of our trip in Tulum. While we spent our early days on beaches and with family, Tulum marks the beginning of the history and culture part of the trip. We could have been on any white sandy beaches in the world in the first week of the road trip. We couldn’t help but know we were in Mexico once we reached the sprawling Maya temple complex at Tulum.

These Maya, they sure knew some prime real estate.

Tulum’s ruins run right up to the water’s edge. Grey stone temple complexes all but tumble into the Caribbean waters.

The boys’ fascination with the Yucatan’s iguanas continued here; but I’d be lying if I said the boys loved Tulum. It was a scorchingly sunny day at the ruins. While I wandered and read about Tulum, the boys camped out in the shade near several massive iguanas and soaked in the vibe. The beach waters were also too rough for them, so we passed through Tulum en route to the verdant heart of the region. Next up was Valladolid and the tiny Mexican towns awash in culture, food, and history. (Side note: Tulum is where we left those beloved swimming trunks I had to backtrack for… I am still doing a facepalm that I actually returned for a pair of shorts. I can only say that after the despair we had over losing a pair of beloved goggles, it just seemed easier).

Looking back now, I wish that I had slowed down one bit more and actually done the Akumal turtle swimming experience, which we would have done between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Instead, I thought we needed some history in our trip and skipped it. That was a #fail for me. Lesson learned. Perhaps they would have enjoyed the ruins more if we had started with some sea turtle interactions.

tulum beach

tulum ruins the boys exploring the ruins iguana at tulum

Valladolid

The vibe definitely changed when we reached Valladolid, a Spanish colonial town dating back to the 1500s. This is also when we got down with some serious street eats. I was able to find more of the informal food that I usually eat in Mexico. Before that, the beach towns tended to cater to tourists. The good street food was farther from the tourist areas than we could easily travel on foot. But here, we booked a place on the Plaza Central and used this as a base to go temple-hunting and cenote swimming. The biggest site is Chichén Itzá, and we marveled at the echoing acoustics built into the ball court. Vic fixated for ten minutes on mastering the clap that would travel down the expansive ball court and then bounce back as an echo. He was thoroughly impressed when finally managed to get the echo to sound out.

The real winner though, was Ek’ Balam. The site is far less touristed than nearby Chichén Itzá. There are ruins that you can climb up and see high views of the region. The relief work on one of the tombs is also impressive and the best in the entire region—among the best restored in all the known Maya temples. A huge jaguar mouth sits open with carvings on all sides—serpents, winged men, and hellish creatures. This was a hit with the kiddos. It’s been restored, which makes it easier to see and imagine what these temples might have looked like at the hey-day of the Maya kingdom. It was a small complex, so we headed to the sunken cenotes after, the water cool and refreshing in the heat of July in Mexico!

Ek’ Balam
ek balam archaeological park

jaguar relief at ek balam racing up the steps of ek balam

Chichén Itzá and Cenote Dzitnup

chichen itza pyramid cenote dzitnup

Izamal

All of us agree, there is just something special about Izamal and there’s no way to put our finger on it. If we had only used our guidebook, we might have skipped this tiny, sleepy, yellow Mexican town. But I turned to my friend Wandering Earl for travel planning advice—he lived in the region for years—and he said this was a must-do. We had planned to spend two days. We ended up settling in and spending four days doing little more than playing with new Dutch friends and eating street eats in the central plaza.

And yet.

The boys loved it. Horses clomped through the cobblestone streets, the boys understood the small town’s walkable layout, and they loved the nightly pork sandwiches. The photos perhaps say it better than I can express. It’s just a magical little spot in the heart of the Yucatán.

izamal parque central

  

 Parque central Izamal izamal dog show

sunset in Izamal horse cart in izamal

Cuzamá

En route to Celestún, we broke up the drive with a horse-drawn carriage ride out to a trio of cenotes. Cenotes are underground cave sinkholes. The limestone bedrock in the Yucatán Peninsula is so porous that all lakes and rivers are actually underground. They are the best way to cool off in the interior. A local community based organization operates the Cuzamá cenote. This CBO ensures that profit-sharing among the families near this rural and off-beat tourist attraction. Getting to Cuzamá is half the fun too. If you hadn’t yet woven through the pothole strewn back roads of Mexico, you will en route. Notable is that there is a scammy business just before you reach the CBO. If you’re driving, keep driving until you reach a sun-drenched and informal spot at the end of the road. Men will be waiting there ready to whisk you to the swimming holes. The horse ride was good fun, and the third swimming hole, Cenote Chacsinicche, was by far the best for the kids. They delighted in cannon-balling from the ledge into the cool, clear blue water.

horse cart cuzama Cuzamá cenote chacsinicche

blue waters of cenote chacsinicche cenote chacsinicche

Celestún

We came to Celestún for the flamingos and crocodiles—it was all about visiting the Celestún Biosphere Reserve. Eric loves animals, and his one big request for the trip was seeing crocodiles in the wild. We only saw one baby crocodile, but he was so distracted by the flamingos, birds, and swimming holes that he never noticed (I wondered after if we would have had more success at Río Lagartos :-/  ). The town of Celestún is low-key and tiny. I mean little. It’s a Mexican vacation spot more than a tourist spot, so there wasn’t much English spoken. Most of the families (umm, all of them) were Mexicans taking in the summer vibes. The kids had a blast digging deep holes in the sand, and their industriousness attracted the other kids who helped them dig and collect worms from the sand—an activity that apparently needs no spoken words.

The shenanigans continued here, too, lest I paint too rosy a picture of it all. The boys found a small, beached boat and attempted to drag it out to sea while I procured Gatorade for us all. I sent them back to the sand digging, pulled my sunhat lower, traded my Gatorade for a Sol, and was just glad they hadn’t gotten in the boat and headed for Cuba.

flamingos at celestun

mangrove tunnel celestun boys at sunset mangroves celestun mexico

celestun biosphere reserve Our tour group!

Mérida

One of the sweetest towns in Mexico, Mérida, has a vibe all its own. Each area of town boasts its own central park area, but the main one near the touristy areas is abuzz in activity every night of the week. There isn’t a lot to do in Mérida per se. My nephews were scarcely interested in the museums. They did, however, find the markets intriguing, the parks filled with other children, and plenty of street food and ice cream to keep them chugging along as we toured the various churches and architectural sites. They were little champs most of the time. The three weeks had passed in a blur and Mérida and Celestún were the last stops on our trip. By the third Saturday, we were wheels up on the airplane by 9am and I had them deposited back to my brother soon after. I welcomed the break. Traveling with them gave me a fresh perspective on all the work that goes into juggling two kiddos on the road. But it was a good tired too, for the most part.

sunset in merida

clown in merida streets of merida sunset merida

yucatan-mexicoOn the whole, I had long hoped to share a travel experience with my nephews, and this tripped served in that capacity. With the mix of food, culture, and beach-fun time, it was the perfect place to take two active little boys. Many of my readers have pondered taking a niece, nephew, or sibling overseas, but the logistics can seem overwhelming. In this case, I am so happy I had the chance to show those two kiddos a small part of why I love traveling the world. It wasn’t always easy—they were exceedingly naughty—but I wouldn’t take it back for the world.

For readers who have long followed this journey, you may wonder about where Ana was while her brother Vic and cousin Eric went on an adventure? While we road-tripped across Mexico, Ana met up with Dani, a friend Ana and I last traveled with in Cambodia. Dani and Ana have stayed in touch over the years, and since Ana continues to beg for the chance to explore other places, Dani invited her to NYC for a week. They palled around the city, sending me Snapchats and texts. I was so glad she had her own adventure, too. And I am happy to report that Ana, now in the 10th grade, has stayed interested and curious about the world. I hope, if nothing else, this trip ignited in my nephews a lasting curiosity about the people and places outside their home bubble, and that they continue to use that curiosity to finish school and travel more.

So, whatdya think? I felt crazy at times for going solo with them, but it was an adventure. Do you have any plans to travel with kids/siblings/nephews? 

And PS: If you’re planning a similar trip, the Road Trip Yucatan planning details page is here.

A Little Adventure… Going on an Incredible Safari in Tanzania’s National Parks

A quick (and grainy) snapshot from the Kenyan-Tanzanian border. I had already been stamped out of Kenya but didn’t have enough cash to make it into Tanzania. Highlight: the kind Canadian I was about to beg from is in the shot.

Arriving in Tanzania started on a shaky note. I hadn’t realized someone robbed me of my cash my last day in Cape Town until I stood at the border between Kenya and Tanzania. I gutted my bag and found nothing. I sat miffed among my scattered possessions, wondering how my cash had vanished. The very cash that was meant to buy my Tanzanian visa. Others in my van had already returned with their visas, and I had only managed to scramble together $50 in three different currencies from my stashed cash in secret parts of my bag. But that left me still staring sheepishly at the border official when I proffered my passport, cash, and a weak explanation. I just didn’t have another $50.

To say he was unimpressed with my story is an overstatement.

No amount of further searching was going to come up with more cash, so I started phase two of the plan: charmingly beg.

I needed another foreigner—likely the only ones willing and able to lend me that much cash—but the border was fresh out of foreigners. So I sat. And my bus waited. And we sat some more. And I finally found a kind Canadian woman who assumed me a travel noob and graciously lent me a crisp $50.

For as much as it was a debacle for my confounded bus driver (he couldn’t understand why I would have gotten on the bus without cash), the event ended quickly once I passed over the cash. I profusely thanked the Canadian, promising I wouldn’t stiff her—we later met up in Arusha so I could pay her back.

Luckily though, that snafu at the border wasn’t a herald of my time in Tanzania. A spate of kindness and fun followed me throughout the country. With my focus on responsible tourism, I’ve use many of the stories here on A Little Adrift to share what grassroots tourism looks like on the ground, and the impact travelers can have on local communities when they use their tourism dollars effectively. And it’s still something I care about deeply, but sometimes travel is just about fun and the realization of a bucket list item. It’s about making it to the top of that dream mountain, standing in front of an architectural wonder, or—for me—hanging out of a safari car window treating a pack of lions to an enthusiastic photo shoot (clarification: I was enthusiastic… the lions were decidedly unimpressed).

And so, this story shares just that: the photos and anecdotes from my four days on safari where I bumped along the dusty red roads of the Serengeti and pretended I was on assignment for the likes of Discovery Channel or National Geographic. I joined a group of four Danes and split the costs with them. Together, we took a four-day budget trip through Tarangire National Park, Serengeti National Park, and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.

the serengeti

The Serengeti

Sunrise safari in the Serengeti

Dawn arrived over the Serengeti in blinding flash of color—slashes of fluorescent fuchsia and blue lit the horizon beyond the flat acacia trees as my truck rattled down the dirt road for our sunrise safari. The sun began to warm the land and the animals stirred. Us five safari-goers wrapped our jackets tighter against the chilly morning, our heads poking from the top of our safari truck.

We sped by herds of tiny impala—delicate of feature and gait—as they grazed.

Zebras and ostriches roamed the fields and high grasses. But we pressed on, our truck speeding down the straight stretches of ochre road past the small animals: we had higher hopes for our morning safari. The big cats prowl in the early hours and on day three of our safari, we were hoping for a sighting of a live kill.

Twenty minutes later, we jolted to a stop on what had looked like a passable road. Three of the safari truck’s tires were deeply mired in a gushy black mud. It was the first week of rainy season, so though not surprise, we had all hoped the rains would hold out.

But, of course, it’s not an adventure if something doesn’t go wrong. Our driver pulled tools from the back of the truck and attempted to create some traction under the mired front tire. It was a no-go. An hour had passed and we were still forbidden from leaving the safari vehicle; the four Danes and I passed the time by watching the sun crawl higher across the sky. The cool pinks of morning burned off and transitioned into golden tones and scorching light.

stuck in the mud getting out of the mud serengeti

Soon, another safari truck saw our plight and pulled over to help. Minutes later, they too were stuck in the mud, the couple in their car lamenting at their derailed safari. At that point, our two driver/guides decided we weren’t likely to get eaten if we exited the truck, so they let us out. Really though, they just needed our man-power. We banded together for the next 20 minutes, shuttling rocks and branches from a nearby rock outcropping to the holes dug into the mud underneath our mired tires.

With all the rocks and sticks we could find now under our wheels, the drivers floored it and with a cheerfully wet sucking sound the tires were free. We all chased after our safari truck, beating the mud from our feet before we piled into our spots once again. All told, it took about an hour and a half before we were once again rocketing down the road in search of animals. The morning hunts were over, but our driver had word from the other guides and he promised us a treat that would make up for our lost time.

He was right.

Lions in a tree!

a lion sound asleep in a tree

lions sleeping in a tree tree lions

And a lot of them. We counted six in total, though I am fairly certain a stray tail hanging down the back of the tree belonged to a hidden seventh. There morning jaunt tuckered them out, and didn’t do more than yawn and shift as we pulled up to their napping spot.

We continued our Serengeti safari, and I cooed with enthusiasm at each new sighting.

The water buffalo dotted the grassy fields with utter nonchalance, their only outward acknowledgement of onlookers being a brief flicker of their tail. We passed a watering hole for the local giraffes and watched one ungainly guy form a triangle with his legs as he bent to drink. Nearby, that same watering hole seemed to feed into a swampy area that looked straight out of a movie. Tall curved palms angled over a small pond filled with hippos submerged in the dull, muddy water.

Dark storm clouds in the Serengeti

Vultures crowd around a kill Giraffes River

Later, I squeed with fangirl levels of enthusiasm when we spotted a leopard. The leopard slunk around our truck for several minutes before meandering into the grasses along the roadside.

One of the more heart-stopping moments of the safari was watching that leopard pause about 100 feet from our truck, his spots pronounced among the hay-colored grass. Seemingly done with posing for our cameras, he shot us one last indolent shrug before sinking into the tall grasses. He vanished from sight without a trace. The tall grasses shrouded his body, and the soft breeze made all the grasses sway, effectively masking his disappearing act. They told us rule number one of the safari was “never, ever leave the safari truck,” and it wasn’t until that moment when I truly understood why our guide was so hesitant to let us help gather stones and rocks when we our truck was stuck in the mud.

Spotted leopard

leopard A water buffalo with a bird on its back giraffe

zebras running

hippo swamp

monkey Pied Kingfisher bird Ostriches Serengeti river

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Cool air caressed my face as the safari car took a soft right turn and descended into the Ngorongoro Crater, the largest volcanic caldera in the world. I pulled my scarf tighter, though the days were hot, the sun had yet to burn off the layer of mist settling over the gentle slide of green hillside.

We had camped under a giant tree on the rim of the crater, and I woke just before dawn to catch every moment of sunrise. And it was a beauty. Wisps of pink shifted into a deep red, and by dawn the entire campsite activated and began to ready for another day of safari exploration.

Sunrise on the crater rim

Camping on the crater rim Zebras at dawn

Formed two to three million years ago, the Ngorongoro Crater houses all the Big Five animals (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and leopard) and most of the others too, thanks to its unique shape and range of climates. Rainforest covers one wall of this inactive crater, making a soaring backdrop to photos on the grassy plains and swamps in the center of the crater.

Politics play a role in this region of the world, as they do across most arable land in the world. The Crater used to be open grazing and living grounds for Maasai cattle, but now that the Tanzanian government has designated much of the region as national parks and protected land, the Maasai are allowed to graze their cattle in the open plains, but they have to leave the crater area by nightfall. We zigzagged the region for four days and each time we exited one of the parks, within minutes we would begin to pass small circles of huts, manyattas, where the Maasai were given rights to set up roots and graze their cattle.

Maasai in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Children tend the goats A local Maasai school near the manyatta Manyattas on the hillside

With less movement available to them, many Maasai in the area set up pop-in programs to take advantage of the tourism dollars zooming by in safari vehicles every day. Though I had plans to visit the Maji Moto Cultural Camp in Kenya a few weeks later, the group voted to stop at a road-side Maasai settlement, paying $10 per person to tour the huts, view their small school, and learn a little about their culture.

I found the experience contrived. Though their setting was stunning, it seemed the Maasai donned their tourist personas just for our 20 minute visit, then went back to their daily lives… an addendum to their lives now that seemed necessary for their survival, but also sadly out-of-place for their values and way of life. It would provide a stark contrast to the program that Salaton built at Maji Moto in Kenya, which creates an environment of respectful interaction between tourists and Maasai. Sating the tourist’s curiosity while using the funds to maintain the integrity of his culture and their values, and underlying it all, a cultural exchange for both sides.

All that being said, there is far more I need to learn about the region before I could give knowledgeable commentary on the politics between the government, the Maasai, and tourism.

What I do know, is that the Ngorongoro Conservation area is one of the prettiest places on earth, and I can see why the government has taken steps to protect the land, ecosystem, and animals.

Fields of white flowers Pink flamingos

We cruised for several hours through the grasslands, spotting a herd of elephants with the longest tusks I had yet seen. Poaching is a serious problem across Africa. Many of the tusked elephants I spotted in the other parks were younger, the older elephant’s tusks had been removed for their safety. But the unique shape of the crater allows the government to effectively patrol the area, and the mature elephants sported massive ivory dipping in a graceful arc from their face. Perhaps wisely, the oldest elephants maintained their distance—our vehicle wasn’t allowed to off-road so we glided past them in layer of damp morning hovering over the green landscape.

Within a couple of hours we found several lions lounging in the late afternoon sun. After giving them a full photo shoot session, we headed to lunch at the swamp near the Ngoitokitok Spring. Hippos belched and gurgled in the water. Birds soared. I could wax poetic, but suffice to say, it was pretty.

Lion

Lions near our vehicle tired yawning lion Friendly lions

Elephants Crowned Cranes Zebra reflections

A quiet picnic at Hippos at Ngoitokitok Spring

Happy, happy hippos at Ngoitokitok Spring Ngoitokitok Spring hippos

Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks

I booked my safari through African Spoonbill Safaris. As a solo traveler, I had few options on a budget and really no selection. I showed up at the hostel and asked them to help me find a tour to join. Within three days, Benson called me over, excited to tell me that four Danes had room in their safari car if I wanted to join their trip. So I packed up and headed out. Their tour included Tarangire National Park, which is one of the lesser known parks (I had never heard of it), but is famous for its elephants.

The park is full of baobab trees, a favorite of the elephant, and thus it’s easy sightings of large elephant families.

Elephants

Monkey Impala

Looking out at Lake Manyara

Rainbow over Lake Manyara Photo-opp on the rim of the crater

The safari days were like poetry, each one ending with a slow retreat. The animals stirred around dusk. Most began to make their way to hideaways far from the roads zigzagging their home. Our group pitched tents each night and we ate dinner by the dim glow of flashlight, sleeping to the roars of lions and snuffling of nearby buffalo.

Lions at dusk seregeti outlook

Elephants in Tarangire National Park

Quick Travel Tips

African Spoonbill Safaris: I used them and they were a very budget option, working to put small groups together interested in splitting the costs of the safari.

Green Living Hostel: A hostel outside of Arusha and very quiet. They have just the loveliest staff and were incredibly helpful. They also run a lot of local projects and can help arrange short and long-term volunteering in the area. There is a lot closer to Arusha’s city center, but this worked as a landing spot for a couple of days to arrange a safari, and would make a nice base for rural volunteering.

TPK Expeditions: Highly recommended for a higher-end safari experience. It’s woman-operated organization committed to paying their guides fair wages and giving them opportunities to further their education. I will use them to climb Kili next time I visit.

Other tips:

  • Though some budget travelers opted for a self-drive safari split with friends, they missed a lot of the great animals because they didn’t have the walkie-talkie network of guides sharing when the Big 5 were on any given day. I recommend having a driver/guide.
  • Camping on the rim of the crater was magical. Some higher end tours don’t include this, but I loved it because of the chance to see sunrise from the rim at that exact spot.
  • Longer tours (5+ days) go deeper into the Serengeti and they are more specific about making sure you see a live kill and that sort of thing.

And you can view all photos from the safari in this gallery.

A Little Photoessay… Snapshots & Stories from Colorful, Colonial Mexico

The streets of colonial Mexico pulse with color and life. Before traveling, I glimpsed this pocket of culture and history only through small photographs of sun-drenched cobblestone streets making an appearance in my school text-books. And on a good year, my family visited a museum and I peered at the traditional clothes and colors in the works of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and the other greats to come out of Mexico.

The small town of San Pancho, Mexico is one charmed me — it was cute, tiny, and exactly what I wanted earlier this year. At the end of my time in Mexico however, I realized I had seen very little outside of a small pocket of the country. Three weeks before meeting my dad in Panama, I scoured the scribbled notes and hand-drawn maps in my notebook, each entry scrawled in haste as a new friend gave a passing recommendation. Together this advice formed a rough tapestry across the country, dotting small towns and big cities and showing the phone numbers of new friends in each place keen to share a coffee.

Guanajuato, Mexico
Friends first put Guanajuato on my radar when I was looking for a small town to travel to with my niece Ana. Those travel plans fell through and I forgot about Guanajuato until I looked at my notebook and saw the city was directly on my upcoming travel path. This town has a perfect mix of tourists/locals—local sites are in Spanish because the majority of tourists visiting Guanajuato are local within Mexico. My Spanish got better quickly! :)

With a route mapped, I shouldered my backpack and traveled overland from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City with stops in Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and San Miguel de Allende. My bus left the coast and cut inland to small, low-slung towns and a few capital cities. Guadalajara’s size and traffic overwhelmed me (I’m not a big-city person), but the history won me over before I left town. Guanajuato and San Miguel charmed me with unique visual identities and intriguing cultural shifts that come with traveling through colonial Mexico. Gone was the relaxed mix of expats and coastal Mexicans I had lived with for months, nor did I find the trendy, cosmopolitan inhabitants of Guadalajara. Instead, indigenous Mexicans filled the parks and street-side stands selling tamales and fresh tortillas, tacos and fried dough, quesadillas and elotes.

Below are 20+ photos and stories from the tiny, colorful towns of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende; next month I’ll tackle the big cities and sights in Guadalajara and Mexico City.

Guanajuato, Mexico
Mountains and hills surround Guanajuato, which makes for great hiking but variable weather too. The weather alternated between warm and sunny to cool and overcast, but that didn’t stop the town squares from filling with vendors and locals in late afternoon to snack and chat.
Guanajuato, Mexico
The steep hillsides throughout Guanajuato make deliveries quite tough. My hostel had a vertical 10 minute walk up a hillside — these pack animals (are they donkey or mules, no clue) wandered along the main boulevard behind their owner for a spate of deliveries each day.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Charmed by the cobblestone streets throughout San Miguel de Allende, I spent both days on photo walks through town talking to the vendors and exploring the tiny hole-in-the-wall spots for coffee and tacos. Though expats and language schools fill San Miguel, the locals were friendly and keen for conversation as I wandered.
Guanajuato, Mexico
Following the common street-food wisdom of “find the longest line and eat there” I found this woman whipping out tacos, quesadillas, and a number of things I could not name. I ventured for a corn gordita stuffed with cheese and nopal (shredded cactus) — the conventional wisdom served me well because it was delicious!
Guanajuato, Mexico
Translation: “In Mexico, a day without chili is like a day without sun.” They take this sentiment to heart because there were days the tears streamed down my cheeks as I ate. :)
Guanajuato, Mexico
These guys worked on the corner I had to walk past to leave my hostel and head into town and they were hilarious. I often had my camera slung across my shoulder and one night they were quick to call me over and insist I take a photo of the guy on the left. More specifically, they told me I just couldn’t leave Guanajuato without a photograph of his bigote … which means mustache. I obliged (photo here . . . it is an impressive ‘stache) and they collapsed into laughter; afterwards, each time I passed by the street stand they erupted into rousing cheers.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
School children play kickball in San Miguel de Allende’s main courtyard and as the sun slipped lower, more children must have finished their homework because they all burst into the central plaza to join the game.
Guanajuato, Mexico
The Catedral de Guanajuato, the main church in the city dominates the downtown skyline and created a buzzing square of activity joining the various areas of town. In the evenings street-food stalls set up in the cathedral’s shadow to pedal tacos, churros, and treats to the nighttime crowds.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
More like a castle at Disney World than a parish church in the heart of colonial Mexico, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel is a gorgeous pink sandstone gothic church right in the city center.

San Miguel de Allende, MexicoGuanajuato, Mexico

Guanajuato, Mexico
A wander through the back-alleys of Guanajuato twist and turn up the hillsides. I loved the cactus plants and colors accenting this house . . . bright and charming in the warm Mexican sun.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
One of my favorite dishes (and one that is hard to find vegetarian), this tortilla soup was perfect on the cool overcast days (honestly, I ate it almost every day).
Guanajuato, Mexico
Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage town center, is often voted one of the 10 prettiest colonial cities in Mexico and it’s easy to see why. I took this shot from the Alhóndiga de Granaditas — the museum is wonderful, only in Spanish, and filled with school children if you go too late in the day.
Guanajuato, Mexico
A colorful town square in downtown Guanajuato with a delicious veggie restaurant run by the Hare Krishnas just to the right — tasty and affordable if you’re needed a specifically vegetarian fix (and that can happen in Mexico a lot given how much cheese I ate day in and day out).
mexico
The twins on the right raced me to the top of the hillside in San Miguel while their mother laughed at our antics. Naturally, they beat me to the top, but I was rewarded with some chatter with their mom as I caught my breath before continuing up the hill. The mariachi player on the right was a sweet older gentleman who serenaded me as I journaled one afternoon in a courtyard in Guanajuato.
Guanajuato, Mexico
Journaling in a shady courtyard with my afternoon coffee at hand — my best blog posts and introspection are written in longhand, so this is how you usually find me on a random afternoon on the road.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
The pretty, gothic church in San Miguel is lit up on the city’s skyline.
Guanajuato, Mexico
The view from my hostel in Guanajuato, which I loved. This was the reward for hiking uphill every day to La Casa de Dante.

Mexico’s interior was friendly, open, and a wonderful place to travel. I haven’t yet blogged about the assumptions and fears many people have in traveling to Mexico, but these two pretty towns were  a reminder to me that each new place I travel offers unexpected places, people, and friendships.

Quick Tips: Visiting Guanajuato, Mexico

Where to Stay: La Casa De Dante is the best budget accommodation in the Guanajuato, bar none. It’s easy to book on Agoda or Hostelworld, and it’s a gorgeous spot with sweeping views of the city.

What to Do: Wandering the small back-streets and alleys is a highlight of both Guanajuato City and San Miguel de Valle. These cities having charming squares and tiny cafes in shady plazas that are delightful. More formally, you shouldn’t miss Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a museum in the town city. Go early as school children fill the place in the afternoons. You can’t miss the Catedral de Guanajuato, and you shouldn’t. Be sure to wander at different times during the day, as it’s particularly stunning when washed in the yellow late-afternoon sun. Same with Museo Casa Diego Rivera, the exhibits are well done and provide an important background on one of Mexico’s favorite artists. The city has a lot of street food and interesting markets, too. Mercado Hidalgo is the biggest market. You could take a street food tour, or just wander and sample and enjoy. The Mummy Museum is popular, but it’s not my thing so I skipped it, but not visiting horrified many Mexicans that I talked to, who consider it a must-visit. And lastly, you’ll want to get some height and pretty views over the city. If you’re staying at the hostel, then you already have some gorgeous views. Consider taking the funicular to the statue of Pipila, or you could take a hike on foot with water and half a day to explore.

What to ReadThe People’s Guide to Mexico is the best alternative guidebook to Mexico and comes highly recommended for the culture and history. You still might want a Mexico Lonely Planet for the logistics if you are backpacking the area ‚ I nearly always have a proper guidebook on me — but the People’s Guide is the hands-down best option for history and better understanding all aspects of the culture. If you prefer story with your history, then Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico is a memoir that will explain the culture while wrapped in interesting narrative.

A Little Photoessay … A Glimpse of Gaudi’s Masterpiece: La Sagrada Familia

There is something about a church that transports me through time and deposits me at an older version of myself. I step through the doors and past habits and attitudes flood my senses and course through my body. I was raised Christian and, since then, I moved onto a mixed bag of spirituality. I found it impossible these past years on the road not to identify with other cultures and religions as I met so many new people and stories and perspectives.

And although I love the temples of Asia—so much—last month I talked about the vestiges of my own history that are so much more identifiable when I wander the streets of Europe. New wisdoms cedes the floor to customs and traditions ingrained in me since birth. The familiarity of a church washes me in calm; I give myself permission in holy places to release life’s stresses and the hurts. It’s the act of entering the church, not the service. It’s the learned behavior that here, in this special place, you can reflect and release. Going to church was not the point of my visit, I was there for the Gaudí architecture, but the by-product of visiting the Basílica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain was a visit to church—no doubt an activity that made my grandma sigh in relief.

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Eastern side of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain a grey afternoon at la sagrada familia

The Basilica is the crowning jewel of Barcelona; it’s the shining beacon of all touristy visits to the city. With two days free in Spain’s Costa Brava, I decided to play tourist. I was speaking at a conference in Girona, but I couldn’t pass the chance to finally experience Barcelona. Two days isn’t long, and having a speech to prep, I did only the bare minimum research. When visiting La Sagrada Familia, I knew two key facts: 1) it’s still under construction and 2) Antoni Gaudí designed it has his masterpiece. Gaudí was a Spanish architect known for his highly stylized interpretation of early 1900s Modernism. After taking a chocolate tour of the city in the morning, I started a long walk in the drizzling rain to make my late-afternoon appointment at the church (my hostel brilliantly recommended that I pre-purchase my ticket online—more insider tips at the end). I could have used the metro and buses, but the solitude and weather matched my mood that day. It was late September, and I had left my niece Ana home in the States while we decided if I would continue homeschooling her from the road.

For the first time in a year, I was back to traveling solo and my tourist map of the city had little cartoon buildings pointing my way to the church, indicating other buildings Gaudí had designed. I weaved through the lanes, lost in the pulse of city life. When I spotted a tiny nook of a café, I passed the rest of time with a hot Americano and my journal. It’s an interesting way to understand a city, to find a side-street and sit with locals. Eventually, with my time slot on the horizon, I walked toward the eight massive, intricate towers marking La Sagrada Familia (and I worried I would get lost!). Unlike any church I had seen before, the curious shapes, curves, and figures lining the façade became gradually clearer as I walked.

I don’t know the exact moment the church hooked me, but my fascination with the building surprised me. At times on my travels I get fatigued by sightseeing, but if there is one thing that calls to me, it’s passion. Passion and creativity are twin elements that I lament when they ebb from my own life, so as I wrapped the audio-guide around my head and absorbed myself in the story of a donation-funded church constructed over the span of more than century. A church so grand in concept, design, and style that it would become a the magnum opus of a century, not just a single artist.

Gaudí is but one architect on the project, but it was his passion that fueled the building of such a bizarre homage to the Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture of years past. He left plans for the entire basilica for the architects who would come after him—he worked on La Sagrada Familia from 1883 until his death in 1926. I am neither an art buff nor a student of architecture, but I found it impossible to stay impassive when viewing the complex scenes depicted on the Nativity façade. In stark contrast, the Passion façade offers a gaunt, and darker depiction.

The Nativity Façade, designed by Gaudí:

Nativity façade of La Sagrada Familia.

architecture of the Nativity façade Gaudi's façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The Passion Façade, designed by Josep Maria Subirachs:

Passion façade; La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain The Passion façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The Passion façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The inside is exquisite, too.

The ceiling is so extraordinary that I very nearly caved into my desire to lay flat-out on the floor and get lost in the flowing tiers and spires (that would have totes broken social protocol though). Instead, I craned my neck and gawked to the descriptions on my audio-guide. Each footfall inside the church brought into view new twisting, tree-like columns branching out as they climbed upward. Each heartbeat allowed a glimmer of sunlight to dapple through into the interior, as if bathing me in the warm breeze of an orchard.

Ceiling of La Sagrada Familia.

stained glass windows Inside La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

I spent the better part of my afternoon wandering the huge church, then below in the museum looking at the plans and miniature projections of the completed project. Thanks to the magic of computers and technology (which Gaudí did not factor into his two-century timeline for completion of his masterpiece), La Sagrada Familia could be done as early as 2026. (I revisted the church five years later, in 2017, and the architects had made startling progress on the windows and interiors, as well as several of the towers!).

When I emerged from the church, I soaked in the late afternoon sunshine. The welcome change in the weather matched my lifted spirits. I felt lighter after immersing myself so completely in learning about how one man’s creativity and religious fervor could compel him to funnel his passion so narrowly into a project that would affect millions of people and span several centuries.

It blew my mind.

The scope of his vision, the faith that people would continue donating to finish the church, the drive to work with such focus on a single project—I left both awed and envious. And I left living in a wider world, a world with more possibilities for those with the drive to follow a passion through to the end. I bid adiós to the church, but really more of a “see you in 20 years,” when I’ll be back to see Gaudí’s completed magnum opus.

Blue skies at La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona


Quick Tips: Visiting La Sagrada Familia

How: Book ahead through the official site and print your ticket. This was the best advice and help I received by far. You choose an hourlong time window to visit the church and you bypass the huge queue with very quick access. The towers were not open on my first visit because of the rain, so I was only able to do that on my return in 2017. You can and must pre-book this as well—the tower view time slots go very quickly, so book at least two days ahead of time if that is your plan.

How much: There are several options you can pay for; I paid to enter the church and the museum, as well as an audio-guide (worth the price in my opinion). On my return visit in 2017, my niece and I booked a ticket up the Façade (so worth it! The views are gorgeous and it’s an inside look behind the scenes of the church’s inner workings). As of 2017, it costs €15 for a basic ticket to enter the Basilica, €22 for the audioguide and museum too, and €29 to go up a tower and have an audioguide (if you book a tower view ticket, do not be late for your appointment time. (current prices)

Where: It’s a long walk from the downtown Gothic quarter of Barcelona, but I managed it both ways and stopped at the other Gaudí spots on the way. There is a metro stop and what-not, but I did not use it.

When: On recommendation from my hostel (they helped me buy and print my ticket), I took a 4 pm time slot, which was fairly calm (though there was a queue for those without pre-purchased tickets). I was there for over an hour listening to the audio-guide and wandering; it was relatively uncrowded at the end of the day. My photos also came out better by not visiting at high-noon.

Plan and Learn:  Every place is more interesting with back story; read a Guadí biography before you visit for a deeper perspective on this world-famous architect. This beautiful photographic collection showcases his work. And if you’re staying in Spain for a bit, consider the Spanish Lonely Planet as your guide, it was my go-to on both visits.

Dessert-Castles-Jordan

A Little Art … A Gorgeous Pre-Islamic Mural in Jordan

The air around me was cool and damp, the kind of pervasive dampness only found in old spaces, spaces locked off from human habitation for decades, centuries even. On every wall, remnants of an ancient culture depicted animals, kings, triumphs, and women, lots of women. We had visited several desert castles in Jordan that day, and Quseir Amra was the last. We had, it would seem, saved the best for last.

Quseir Amra's gorgeous and detailed fresco.
A full wall of the detailed frescoes at the Quseir Amra UNESCO World Heritage Site in Eastern Jordan.

I’m time-jumping a bit here, away from my recent travels with my niece, and instead into my treasure chest full of stories that have not yet made it onto this site. A few times a month I’d like to share stories that bubble up to the surface, usually inspired from some recent encounter or conversation. In this case, during a discussion with my niece on how we understand and investigate ancient history. How murals left behind show insight into past cultures. I pulled Ana over the computer to show her some of the murals I found on my travels in Jordan last year. Murals abounded. Jerash had murals, Mount Nebo too, and sculptures came to life right out of the walls of Petra.

And, in this case, we looked through and discussed the beautiful frescos from the Quseir Amra desert castle in eastern Jordan, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A wall fresco in suprisingly good condition at the Quseir Amra desert castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site.A wall fresco in suprisingly good condition at the Quseir Amra desert castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Following the path of UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world wouldn’t be a bad way to travel, these sites are rich with history. Natural history in some cases–forest sanctuaries teeming with biodiversity and life. Or cultural history in other places–monuments, castles and man-made structures.

Quseir Amra UNESCO site
UNESCO World Heritage site, Quseir Amra is filled with beautiful, well-preserved frescoes.

Quseir Amra falls into the second category of UNESCO sites. The man-made fortress-cum-castle houses some of the most well-preserved frescoes from the 8th Century. One of the things Ana’s come to appreciate is living history — knowing she can now get on a plane and touch, taste, feel, and experience the places where history happened.

Qasr Kharana jordan
The Qasr Kharana desert castle in Jordan, surrounded by blue skies.

 

camels desert jordan
Shifting sands, trotting camels and nomadic Bedouin fill the miles between the desert castles, perhaps tracing pieces of the old caravan trails that criss-crossed the Middle East for centuries.

This is the short of it. I subjected Ana to a longer discourse on art, the tribal art I studied in college, the churches and art I will take her to see in Europe one day, and the pre-Islamic and Christian art I observed in Jordan.

So tell me, are you a history buff? Any artwork or murals that have fascinated you over the years? :)

The Jordan Tourism Board sponsored my trip; the experiences, photos and stories, though,  are my own :)