I’m Kirstie Jeffries, a Californian expat, digital marketer, and travel addict. I’ve lived in Spain as an auxiliar de conversación and then worked in Australia on a working holiday turned 457 visa, before taking off on my current journey around the world!
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: traveling the Balkans ruined my life. Back in 2013, wrapping up my three years as a Spanish resident, I set out on what I thought would be one final grand adventure. Five weeks of backpacking around the Balkan Peninsula were bound to be a blast, but I had no idea just how much the region would change me.
Over those weeks, as several friends and I made our way through Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, I was hit by a realization I simply couldn’t ignore: never again would I be content to live a sedentary lifestyle. I’d been bitten by the travel bug harder than ever, and the wanderlust that the Balkans had instilled in me couldn’t be easily satiated.
Two and a half years of living in Australia and eighteen months of backpacking later, I may be content to stick around the U.S. for a while, but travel will always be an enormous part of my life, and I blame it all on the Balkans.
I had the chance to return to the Balkans this past May, spending time in Serbia, Kosovo, and Bulgaria and further cementing my love for the region. I mean it when I say you absolutely have to see it for yourself to understand what an amazing place it is. While it was tough to narrow it down to just six, these are my top reasons the Balkan Peninsula is the place to visit this year.
Crash courses in an area’s history are one of my very favorite parts of traveling. One of the most fascinating ancient and recent histories you’ll find anywhere around the world, in my humble opinion, is that of the Balkans. Archaeologists can trace the region’s inhabitants all the way back to the prehistoric Neolithic Age, and historians detail centuries of civilizations that ruled the peninsula, including the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans. These conflicting cultures led to severe fragmentation that erupted violently in the 20th century.
The Balkans have been through more chaos and political upheaval in the last century alone than some areas have experienced since the beginning of time, and traces of the tumultuous 20th century can be seen everywhere today. If you recall watching the news in the 1990s and seeing images of the horrific Balkan wars, you’ll be stunned by what a complete 180 the peninsula has undergone in such a short time. Today, the region is incredibly safe, and, for the most part, politically stable. Keep your eyes peeled for military bunkers and ruins, be respectful of cultural divisions that remain, and take time to appreciate how peaceful and beautiful the Balkans have become.
Bunkers still lining the road between the Albanian and Macedonian borders
I’ve tasted some ridiculously magnificent meals around the world, but some of the very best have been in the Balkans. Some of my favorite memories during my travels through the peninsula revolve around meals: stumbling upon cozy restaurants, asking the servers about how dishes are made, and listening to live music while expanding my palate.
Each country specializes in its own dishes, but I have yet to meet a Balkan cuisine I don’t love. Grilled meats, tasty breads, homemade cheeses, stuffed vegetables, and savory pastries seem to be staples around the region, and I’m drooling just thinking about the ones I’ve tried. The best part is that eating out in the Balkans tends to be fantastically inexpensive, meaning you can’t go wrong ordering a plethora of dishes you’ve never heard of. You never know which new favorites you may discover.
Tasting Bulgarian dishes in Sofia this past May
When you’re enjoying the finest Balkan cuisine, you simply can’t forget the drinks! Alcohol is a big part of Balkan culture, and you’d be remiss to not try some of the region’s local specialties. Rakia (sometimes spelled rakija) is the go-to drink in many of these countries. This strong fruit brandy is often homemade and in extreme cases can be comprised of up to 90% alcohol. Serbians drink more rakia per capita than any other country, and, fittingly, Serbia is also its world’s largest producer. It’s not uncommon to see Serbians accompanying each meal with several servings of rakia.
Although sipping on rakia may help you blend in with the locals, it does take a bit of getting used to. Beer and wine may be more your speed, and, fortunately, the Balkan countries excel in these areas too. I always love to try the local, inexpensive lager wherever I go, and you’ll find plenty of different beers throughout the region. Craft beer is also seriously on the rise in the Balkans, and there are plenty of tasty brands to try on your next visit. And while Balkan wine may not be known worldwide, the viticultural tradition dates back centuries, so don’t be shy in ordering a glass with your next meal. You may even consider spending part of your trip exploring the region’s vineyards.
Kosovar beer in Peja, Kosovo
When it comes to new travel destinations, there’s nothing that wins me over quite like reasonable prices. So it’s no surprise I fell in love with the Balkans, one of the least expensive spots in Europe. Though costs differ from one country to the next, each is significantly more affordable than North America, Australia/New Zealand, or Northern Europe. Whether you’re a backpacker on a budget or have the funds for luxury travel, you’ll be delighted by how much further your dollar (or euro or lek or dinar) will stretch while traveling the Balkans.
Depending on your location, a bed in a hostel dorm may set you back only about €5 to €15 euros per night, or if you’re looking for your own space, you’ll find private Airbnbs for under €20 a night in some places (and you can get €33 off through my link!). A multi-course meal at an upscale, sit-down restaurant may cost only €5 to €10 per person, and there’s bargains to find everywhere. Plus, if you’re flying from elsewhere in Europe, you’re likely to find unbelievable airfares on discount airlines. Hard to say no to that, huh?
The Nature and Adventure
If you love to leave big cities behind and get out into the great wide open when you travel, the Balkans are an amazing place to visit. The area’s stunning and diverse mountains, lakes, and rivers are the ideal spots for walking, hiking, and getting a breath of fresh air. National parks abound throughout the region and many are off tourists’ radars, meaning you’ll find plenty of peace and quiet in each.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie when it comes to travel, the Balkans are one of the world’s best up-and-coming regions for adventure activities. You’ll find plenty of tourists embarking on activity holidays in Greece, heading to Albania for lake kayaking, exploring Macedonia by rock climbing, or setting off on whatever adventure their daring hearts desire. Whether you’re skydiving in Serbia or caving in Croatia, the Balkans are bound to serve up a true adventure.
Zipping around Santorini by ATV
If I’m home, inside, and have a blanket and a good book or Netflix to keep me company, I absolutely adore rainy, overcast days. When I’m traveling? Sunshine all day, every day, please! Let’s face it: inclement weather can be a major bummer when you’re sightseeing. Fortunately, Balkan weather is pretty delightful year-round. It’s a big, mountainous peninsula, so, naturally, temperatures and rainfall vary from one location to the next, but the climate tends to range from bearable to lovely year-round.
The northern and central parts of the peninsula do face cold winters – perfect if you want to hit the ski slopes! – but the rest of the year tends to be pleasant, and the rainy seasons lead to gorgeous greenery. The central and southern areas experience a Mediterranean climate, meaning mild winters and hot yet dry summers. If you’re a beach fanatic, you’ll absolutely adore the Balkan coast and islands in the summer. (As if you needed any more convincing to embark on a Croatian cruise or sunbathe in Santorini.)
Soaking up the summer sun in Bled, Slovenia
While some spots – like the Greek islands – have been tried and true tourist favorites for years, the Balkan Peninsula remains chock-full of hidden gems awaiting your discovery. My two trips to the Balkans have turned me into a full-fledged evangelist for the region for these reasons and many more. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that you get a chance to experience this part of the world for yourself and fall just as in love with it as I have.
Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post, but all opinions are entirely my own, as always.
Well, folks, we made it through another year. And what a year it was. While most of the world sought redemption for the world events of 2016 but were met with a new crop of issues, I had my own roller coaster of a year. I saw eighteen countries, half of which were new to me, and made some of my all-time favorite travel memories before returning home to face the challenge of building a stable life after years abroad.
Georgia (the country, not the state!), my favorite new country of 2017
Since 2011 I’ve summed up my adventures in a year-end recap (check out 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 as well), so I’m back with another edition. Without further ado, my travel recap of 2017!
When I launched my fabulous backpacking adventure of 2016, I was certain I’d be wrapping things up and settling back in the U.S. by the end of the calendar year. However, the best part of travel is that it’s unpredictable. After exploring South America in the final months of 2016, I found myself completely hooked on Latin America, so I kicked off the year by heading down to Central America.
Snorkeling with sea turtles in Caye Caulker, Belize
First stop: Belize, where I spent a week visiting Belize City, the stunning island of Caye Caulker, and the inland town of San Ignacio (including the nearby ATM Cave). I crossed the border into Guatemala and fell in love with the country as I checked out Flores and the Tikal Maya ruins, the natural pools of Semuc Champey, and the colorful colonial buildings of Antigua.
Exploring Guatemala’s Maya ruins of Tikal
Action-packed January then took me to a country I’d been dreaming of for fifteen years: Nicaragua, where I got to see Managua and León, stay in a hostel on a private beach at Islas Brasiles, and experience the city named for the Spanish destination that first made me a true traveler, Granada.
Atop León’s cathedral
I continued my journey south through Central America with a visit to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua and wrapped up my two-week Nicaragua journey by relaxing in San Juan del Sur. I hopped in a southbound van and crossed the border into Costa Rica, where I ziplined through the jungles of Monteverde and chilled in the hippie beach town of Puerto Viejo. Also while in Puerto Viejo, I took a tour of the Jaguar Rescue Center, which (spoiler alert!) ended up playing a major role in my life the following month.
The second I saw these guys, I knew I’d be back.
My final destination on this Central America trip was Panama. First, I visited backpacker island paradise in Bocas del Toro, and then I ventured deep into the jungles of the Chiriquí Province to stay at a part-hostel, part-escape room/scavenger hunt called Lost and Found. After a few days away from civilization, I traveled to Panama City to witness the Panama Canal and enjoy the colorful architecture of Panamá Viejo. Last but certainly not least, I headed to the San Blas islands, where I stayed in a hut on a tiny island surrounded by the bluest water I’ve ever seen.
Who knew water could be this blue? San Blas, Panama
All good things must come to an end, so I said adiós to Central America and returned home to Southern California to celebrate my brother Ean’s bar mitzvah and enjoy a bit of family time before setting off on my next adventure.
I began the month at home sweet home in California, spending time with family, attending a UCLA basketball game and gymnastics meet, and visiting my beloved Disneyland.
But I knew I wasn’t quite ready to end my days as a nomad, and I was crazy about the amazing animals at Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica‘s Jaguar Rescue Center, so I returned south to spend a month volunteering with injured and abandoned animals there. While some days involved unglamorous tasks like moving rock piles or cleaning up monkey poop, I also had the unique opportunity to feed sloths, play temporary mother to baby monkeys, babysit an anteater, and take four rambunctious raccoons on forest hikes.
My life for a month. (I blame the monkeys for the hair.)
It was challenging but completely rewarding, plus Puerto Viejo is an adorable, laid-back town that was a delight to call home for a month. Each day, I woke up, hopped on a bicycle, and rode for several miles along tropical beaches before helping the animals. I guarantee no work commute will ever compare to that. While volunteering, I was also visited by a friend I’d met in Nicaragua and my sister, and I had a chance to explore the surrounding region with both.
I wrapped up my volunteer stint in Costa Rica in early April, spending my final week removed from civilization at their jungle release center. I said goodbye to Puerto Viejo with a chocolate tour, an unbelievable sunset, and a river rafting expedition, and then it was back to California for a few weeks, including a visit to the San Francisco Bay Area and wine tasting with my best friend in Sonoma Valley.
One of my favorite raccoons I took on walks for a week
After meeting amazing people from around the world during my years of living abroad and backpacking, I decided I’d conclude my time as a nomad by returning to Europe to revisit some old haunts and catch up with travel friends. I found an inexpensive flight to Paris, France and spent a few days hanging out with my friend Lauren, whom I’d known from my days teaching in Spain.
Visiting the Moulin Rouge with Lauren
The real catalyst for the trip, though, was a reunion with the travel group I’d spent three weeks with in South America in November. I traveled to Vienna, Austria to see some of these amazing people and rediscover Vienna, as I’d disliked it a lot when I visited in 2012 but totally changed my mind on this trip.
Exploring Vienna with my friend Jeanine, whom I’d met in Bolivia
May is my favorite month of the year, as it’s my birthday month, and, this year, May definitely impressed. After seeing Vienna, my local friend and tour guide Philipp led me on a road trip around some of the most beautiful parts of Austria, including small Alpine villages and gorgeous towns like Salzburg and Hallstatt. We returned to Vienna, and then I spent several hours revisiting Bratislava, Slovakia (I’d loved the city on my 2012 visit) before flying to my next destination.
A flight for a mere €10 (I miss European budget airlines!) took me to Niš, Serbia, where my friend Sarah (another friend from teaching in Spain) was living at the time. She and her Serbian boyfriend played perfect hosts and guides – so much delicious food! Then Sarah and I headed to fascinating Kosovo, where we stayed in Pristina and took day trips to Prizren and Peja. From there, I took a bus to Sofia, Bulgaria, which I’d seen in more depth in 2013 but enjoyed again for a day.
Drinking Peja beer while overlooking Peja, Kosovo after a hike with Sarah
I managed, through my own error, to miss my fabulously inexpensive (just €20!) flight all the way from Sofia to Liverpool, England, but I was able to grab another one there the next day, my birthday. I celebrated with a Vietnamese dinner and an escape room with my Scouser friend I’d met in Vietnam the previous year, Tom. He and his friends showed me around Liverpool, which, I must say, is far nicer than most people give it credit for, and then we took a road trip to Wales. There we stayed in Llandudno and explored the area, including a day spent ziplining and trampolining inside caverns.
From Liverpool, I hopped on over to the country that will forever have my heart, Spain. I flew into Málaga and then visited Sevilla, where I lived from 2011 to 2012, and met up with old friends. While living in Spain, I’d managed to visit sixteen of the seventeen comunidades autónomas (similar to states). On this trip, I finally crossed off the final one, Murcia, by meeting my friend Tomás in lovely Cartagena. I wrapped up my birthday month in my favorite city in the world, also my home from 2009 to 2010 and 2012 to 2013, Madrid.
My backpacking days were coming to an end, but I wanted to go out with a bang, so I chose a region I’d always been curious about but had never seen: the Caucasus. I started in Tbilisi, Georgia, a city I fell head over heels for, met a fantastic group of travel buddies on a free walking tour, and then joined Envoy Tours for several day tours that enabled me to see much of the country in a short time. If I had to pick one favorite country I visited in 2017, it would absolutely be Georgia, and I would highly recommend it to all.
I next caught a van to Yerevan, Armenia, and for the next few days I explored many of the country’s monasteries and mountains with Envoy Tours, stopping for memorable lunches with local families along the way. Due to border conflicts, I had to return to Tbilisi before continuing on to Azerbaijan, but I had the chance to stop at many of Armenia’s gems along the way. Back in Georgia, I reunited with some of my new travel friends and took a day trip to wine country, Kakheti, with an incredibly friendly and generous local I’d met.
Checking out Armenian khachkars
A friend from the free walking tour and I rushed back to Tbilisi and caught the overnight train to Baku, Azerbaijan, the train itself being one of the most memorable parts of the year. I then spent a few days exploring Baku’s dichotomy of old and modern, drinking 50¢ pints of beer, and ending my backpacker days on a total high. I’ve visited 72 countries now, but, of all of them, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were three of the most amazing, and I feel very fortunate to have spent my last days as a nomad there.
It was tough to leave, but back to California I went, driving up to Palo Alto to celebrate my sister’s graduation from Stanford Law School. I stuck around the Bay Area for a few days after, exploring California’s wine country in Napa and Sonoma Valleys with my aunt, uncle, sister, and her boyfriend, catching up with college buddies in the area, and then seeing friends from Sydney in San Francisco before returning home to the Los Angeles area.
Wine tasting with the family
I returned to the Bay Area in early July to visit a friend near Sacramento and spend Fourth of July at San Francisco‘s Golden Gate Park. The following week, another friend from Sydney, a San Diego native, showed me around his beautiful city.
Three guesses where this was taken.
For most of the month, I was back in the L.A. area, building up my freelance business, doing a bit of casual job hunting, and spending time with friends and family. But that’s not to say it was uneventful: highlights of July include meeting my now-boyfriend, going to an Eagles concert with my Eagles-adoring dad and family, exploring L.A. destinations like..
As I headed east in Belize after a few sun-drenched days on the island of Caye Caulker, there was one acronym on everyone’s lips: ATM. And, no, they weren’t seeking the closest cash machine. Actun Tunichil Muknal, the ATM Cave, was touted as the thing to see when visiting San Ignacio and inland Belize. Would it be worth the hype?
The region stretching from southeastern Mexico, through Belize and Guatemala, and to El Salvador and Honduras, was once home to the Maya civilization, which ruled the region as far back as 2600 B.C. Travel through this part of Central America, and you’ll see the Maya influence alive and well in the architecture, ruins, names, and people. But in an area laden with history, the ATM Cave is arguably one of the most important Maya archaeological sites.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (try saying that one five times fast) translates to the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre, so it turns out that “ATM Cave” is just as redundant as “ATM machine.” Nitpicking aside, National Geographic ranked the ATM Cave the top sacred cave in the world, so it’s no wonder visitors flock to explore its hidden wonders. This limestone cave wasn’t explored in-depth until 1996, and archaeologists and tourists alike are fascinated by its intact artifacts and unexplained mysteries.
My tour group en route to the cave
Today, visitors can explore the cave only with a licensed tour guide, and several agencies in San Ignacio compete for tourists’ attention. After researching my options, I chose to a tour with Carlos the Caveman. We met in town the night before our adventure to discuss what I should bring (shoes and clothes that can get soaked are the most essential), and, the following morning, he picked me up at my hostel to begin our day. Our van transported the tour group across narrow, bumpy roads and deep into rural Belize until we eventually arrived at our trailhead.
Visitors are required to leave their cameras behind, which I learned is a restriction that was put into place, sadly, when a tourist dropped a camera and shattered an ancient skull. So, unfortunately, I can’t share many of my own photos of the adventure, but I have to admit: I love that I didn’t spend the entire visit stressing about getting the perfect shot.
Where the hike began
It’s no surprise archaeologists didn’t discover the ATM Cave until relatively recently: it’s no easy trek getting there. Once we exited the van, we were in for an hour-long hike in the pouring rain, slipping and sliding along mud paths and swimming across streams until we finally reached the cave entrance.
But things didn’t get easier there! I’ve visited my fair share of caves in my travels, some of which have been fitted with concrete walkways, railings, and complex lighting systems. The ATM Cave, however, remains just about as natural as it gets. As soon as you enter, you’ll find yourself submerged in water. As you explore the caverns, you swim through dark, narrow passageways, scamper over jagged rock formations, climb rope ladders, and twist your way through openings barely wider than your shoulders.
In a word: amazing. I’ve experienced few things as uniquely adventurous in all my travels, and I felt like a true Indiana Jones as I made my way through the caves. If you don’t consider yourself daring, don’t worry: it all felt incredibly safe and didn’t require significant physical prowess – just the right amount to feel like a total badass.
Snaking through the caverns, Carlos shared with us the history of the region, the Mayas, the ancient cave-dwellers, and the archaeologists who excavated it. No one is exactly sure what the cave was used for or what happened to the people who once inhabited the region, but most believe the cave once hosted rituals or burials because the Mayas spiritually valued being deep beneath the earth.
The cave then opened into a massive chamber, the main cavern, known as the cathedral. This was the ATM Cave’s pièce de résistance, the main archaeological attraction, where ritual vessels, pottery, shards, human remains, and other ancient artifacts can be seen everywhere you turn – and that’s after many have been excavated and removed for study. Most famous of all is a skeleton at the end of the cavern, known as the Crystal Maiden. This skeleton belonged to a young Maya woman who lived about a thousand years ago, although her purpose and significance are unclear.
As we crawled our way back out of the cave and returned to daylight, I found myself in awe of the stark contrast between the life ancient people once lived within the caves and the world to which I was returning. Carlos was a warm, knowledgeable guide who brought the Mayas’ stories to life and instilled in the entire group a deep sense of wonder about Actun Tunichil Muknal.
It’s hard to believe that most countries would allow tourists to embark on such an adventure, with as few restrictions, and get that close to a working archaeological site. Visiting the ATM Cave is a truly unique experience that I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Central America or Belize in particular. Carlos the Caveman is a total delight, and the cost of the tour is worth every penny.
May your travels always make you feel like a badass Indiana Jones!
My tour was partially hosted by Carlos the Caveman, but all opinions are entirely my own, as always!
It took me a lifetime of travel and 72 countries to realize this, but it turns out that one of the world’s most complex, vibrant, fascinating cities was right under my nose all this time. Los Angeles, I’m talking about you. Realizing I’d long taken my hometown for granted, last weekend, I embarked on a Downtown L.A. food tour to discover my city’s delectable cuisine and learn about our fascinating history.
Overlooking L.A. from the Griffith Observatory
I’ve been a bit quiet lately about my current whereabouts, but, yes, the rumors are true: this serial nomad is settling down. I’ve returned to the U.S., I’m freelancing while job hunting (who wants to hire me?), and you know what? I’m really loving it. I didn’t expect to stick around in my hometown, but everything just started coming together, so here I am, a resident of the City of Angels once more.
As I’ve discovered since returning, you can take the girl out of travel, but you can’t take the traveler out of the girl. My days of living out of a backpack and hopping from one hostel to the next every few nights may be in the past, but I’ve returned home with the zeal for discovery I’ve developed over the years. And I’ve very quickly realized that this city that I always took for granted is actually chock-full of incredible sights to explore.
One of Downtown’s most Instagrammable spots: The Last Bookstore
TripAdvisor is always one of my go-to resources whenever I’m planning a trip, so I figured, when playing tourist in my hometown, why not see what the reviewers recommended? In addition to the extensive ratings and reviews of attractions, tours, restaurants, and hotels, TripAdvisor also allows you to book these experiences directly through the website. I came across Avital Tours’ Downtown Food Tour and knew it would be the perfect way to experience a side of L.A. I’d never known. Fortunately, the booking process was super smooth and easy, and, before I knew it, I was counting down the days until the tour.
On the day of, we kicked things off by meeting our guide Penny at Downtown’s famed Grand Central Market. The group size of seven (three of which happened to be celebrating birthdays!) made for a very personalized encounter, and Penny’s enthusiasm for Los Angeles, cuisine, history, and her work shone through immediately. We strolled through the century-old market, marveling at how it’s evolved over the years from a grocery shopping hub into a trendy hipster haven.
Bright lights, big city: Grand Central Market
In a city as young as Los Angeles, you wouldn’t expect a ton of awe-inspiring architecture, but Downtown is packed with gems that are gradually being restored. One of these is the Bradbury Building, the city’s oldest landmarked building and our next stop on the tour. We checked out the interior, used in films such as Blade Runner, while Penny laid out our itinerary for the day.
Inside the Bradbury Building
Next up was our first tasting! The modern café P.Y.T. presented us with one of the most beautiful avocado toasts I’ve seen – and, as it turned out, the most delicious I’ve tried. A former resident of Sydney, I’m no stranger to the trend of avocado toast, but this one was a perfect blend of creamy sauce, citrus, arugula, pepitas, and, of course, avocado. Not a bad way to kick off a morning.
P.Y.T.’s twist on avocado toast
We then strolled through a farmers’ market as Penny told us more stories of L.A.’s past, before wandering through the Spring Arcade and landing at Guisados. Though the restaurant has now become a small chain, it’s a family business through and through, and Penny shared its origin story as we waited to try their menu. We were served two of the restaurant’s best tacos, both featuring perfectly marinated, slow-cooked meats and tortillas that had been handmade just on the other side of the window.
Tacos don’t get much tastier than this
En route to the next dish, we made a detour at an L.A. institution I had somehow never been aware of: Clifton’s. This complex opened in 1935, with a cafeteria, bakery, mountain-lodge style restaurant, and tiki bar occupying its multiple floors – all of which feature elaborate decorations and hidden nooks and crannies, almost like something you’d find at Disneyland. A really neat place that I’ll definitely be revisiting.
The first floor at Clifton’s
Next, we headed to another L.A. classic, Cole’s. As many Angelenos know, there’s a bit of a rivalry between Cole’s and Philippe’s over which Los Angeles restaurant invented the French dip sandwich back in 1908. I’ll admit that I’ve always been Team Philippe’s, but, as I had never eaten at Cole’s, I was eager to give it a try. And it’s French dip certainly did not disappoint. Plus, we got to check out the speakeasy in the back of the restaurant and hear a bit about Cole’s history. My verdict: don’t choose sides in the Cole’s vs. Philippe’s rivalry, and enjoy both whenever you can!
The original French dip? Who knows, but I ain’t turning it down!
It’s not a real food tour without a little dessert, so we finished our walk by heading to quirky Peddler’s Creamery. Here, the organic, fair-trade, and sometimes vegan (how very L.A.) ice cream is churned by bicycle – and if you’re looking to save a few bucks, you can even volunteer to peddle in exchange for a scoop! I was feeling festive, so I tried the pumpkin spice and candy cane flavors, a sweet ending to a scrumptious day.
Ice cream and the bike that made it!
Penny’s culinary and historical expertise combined with the complete joy she brings to her role made this one of the most entertaining tours I’ve experienced anywhere. Every dish I tried was mouthwateringly spectacular, and I got to see sights and hear stories that were totally new to me, even after 28 years of being an L.A. native. TripAdvisor made the booking process fantastically easy, and I’m psyched to continue using it to play tourist as I settle back into California life.
The transition from full-time travel to the “real world” hasn’t always been easy, but it’s experiences like this that remind me I’ve made the right choice in returning to sunny Southern California. Here’s to the many hometown adventures that lie ahead!
This post was written in partnership with TripAdvisor, but all opinions are entirely my own, as always.
Did you know that more than 24 billion liters of wine are consumed around the world each year? That’s a tall order to fill, which is why nearly 19 million acres – 7.6 milion hectares – of our planet consist of vineyards. If math’s not your thing, let me break it down for you: that’s a lot of opportunities to taste wine as you travel the globe.
Travelers previously shared their favorite wine tasting destinations across California and Australia, and you’ll find the top picks for Europe, New Zealand, the U.S., and Canada in upcoming posts. But how about the rest of the world? From popular wine regions in Argentina to surprising vineyard locations like Bali, here are a few travelers’ favorite places around the world to taste wine.
Speak of Argentina’s wines, and most will recall the verdant green vineyards of Mendoza and the delights of a glass of Malbec. Many will not even think to visit Cafayate, the country’s other great wine region.
The birthplace of Torrontes and the gateway to the Quebrada de las Conches, this is a fantastic spot to discover a little nature alongside your chilled glass of vino. For a short visit, take in one of several bodegas located within walking distance of the town centre, or if you have more time hire a bicycle and venture off along dusty roads to explore the thousands of acres of vineyards and a number of the wonderful wineries that call Cafayate home.
Oh, and don’t forget to sample the wine ice cream – with perhaps a little more alcohol than cream, they’re the perfect way to celebrate the end of a wonderful day!
Not only does Argentina hves the perfect soil, altitude, and geographic location to produce wine, but, culturally, the Argentines also know their wine. Wine tasting in Mendoza was one of the highlights of my trip to South America.
This activity was different, as it was not only a sit-down activity, but the tour organiser had us take a quiz, and, based on our answers, they made a wine tasting itinerary. If you like the outdoors, then a biking tour around the vineyard is for you. If your travel style is an authentic food quest, then a wine pairing activity with the best restaurants in Mendoza fits you.
Aside from the activities, Mendoza has a spectacular Andean view that is also a good pair for the wine. Argentina (and its neighbour Chile) is blessed with the great outdoors enveloped by the Andes Mountains.
If you were going to list places in the world where you’d least expect to find a vineyard, Bali would have to be near the top of that list. It’s a tropical island with a wet climate – precisely the type of climate most grape varieties detest! Imagine my surprise then to discover that there is a winery hidden away on the island, and it even makes a decent drop of wine.
Hatten Wines has been established on Bali for over twenty years, with multiple vineyards tucked away on the island’s quieter northern coast. Both the types of grapes grown (mainly French table varieties, rather than wine varieties) and the way they’re grown (on a “pergola” system) are different to usual. Additionally, the grapes grow year round, and are usually harvested twice a year!
You don’t need to head very far to taste some of Hatten’s wines. Most Bali restaurants that have a wine list include the Hatten wines. Alternatively, head to the main cellar door in Sanur or the vineyard centre in Sanggalangit to try the full range, and purchase a couple of bottles.
I am not a huge wine connoisseur, but I certainly know whether I like the wine I’m drinking or not. Sometimes the taste is too strong or too sweet for me, and I’m not enjoying it. When I was in the Golan Heights in the northern part of Israel, I stayed in a village called Odem, and I’ve heard one of the things you should do there is… wine tasting.
Israeli wines were always among my favourite tastes, so I was very curious about Odem Mountain Winery. I tasted all of the wines they had, and I couldn’t decide which one I want to buy as they were all delicious! Sweeter than I usually drink but not dominating. I could purchase only one bottle, as they were around $30 U.S. each (normally I don’t spend more than $7 for a bottle!) but I simply loved the taste.
I chose Amber, a sweet white dessert wine (port style) with a warm aroma of honey, maple and nuts. It had a dark amber colour and amazing smell. I kept it for the special occasion and enjoyed every sip of it. Next time I’m in Israel, I will buy a bottle from Odem Mountain Winery again. They are my favourite wines now!
Constantia is a great place to go for wine tasting, not just because the wines are fantastic, but because it must be one of the most easily accessible wine regions in the world from a major city – this region neighbours the outskirts of Cape Town.
There are many wine farms (as they are called here), including the oldest in South Africa, Groot Constantia. This wine estate is perfect for a visit, and you can reach it easily on the local City Sightseeing bus. It’s home to a restaurant, deli, cellar tours, wine tasting and a historic manor house.
There are many other wine farms nearby, and, with the City Sightseeing bus, you can be dropped off at three different ones. This region is best known for its special red, pinotage, but, as a white drinker, I did prefer the whites.
The prices are fabulous and visiting this region is a lovely way to spend a day.
After about a two-hour drive from Cape Town, and about 1.5 hours from the more famous Stellenbosch wine route, you’ll find the calmer and subtler Walker Bay wine route, just before the quaint, yet posh town of Hermanus – famous for spotting the southern right whale. Meandering along the R320 is the picturesque Hemel en Aarde Valley (literally translated as “Heaven and Earth” from Afrikaans), famous for its internationally acclaimed cool climate pinot noir and chardonnay.
There are so many wineries along this picturesque path where limestone soil meets ocean breeze to create a unique wine that pops with fruit. Every winery has its pros, yet cons are not easy to come by. Personal favorites include the cheeky La Vierge, the indie Barto Eksteen range, internationally famous Hamilton Russell, Newton Johnson and Bouchard Finlayson. There are also pricier variants Ataraxia and Creation, where you can enjoy fine dining among the vines.
If you’re a pinot noir or chardonnay fan, you’ve hit the jackpot. There’s nothing better than parking off at one of these spots for a tasting with well-trained and knowledgeable staff. If you’re not too tipsy, head to Blue Flag Grotto Beach for a dip in the ocean afterward.
Stellenbosch in South Africa may very well be my favourite wine region in the world. It’s a perfect day trip from Cape Town, but I recommend spending at least a few days in the area, because of the great variety of things to see and do.
Naturally, wine tasting is the main activity – the region’s flagship variety is pinotage, a quintessentially South African red, but other reds like shiraz and merlot are usually excellent. You can also go for bike tours around the vineyards, enjoy wine and coffee blending experiences, and try all sort of wine pairings – the one I liked best was wine with cupcakes, truly the best of both worlds!
If you’re wild about wine and seeking travel inspiration, why not plan your next trip around exploring the world’s best wine regions? From the world-renowned wine countries of Argentina and South Africa to the lesser-known hits of Indonesia and Israel, these seven destinations will quench your thirst and please your palate. Happy sipping!
My Travel Talk interview series highlights some of the most fascinating travelers I’ve met around the world and on the web. Today’s edition features Maria of 203 Travel Challenges, who hails from Bulgaria and has spent significant time in Italy and Thailand – in addition to the many places she’s visited – while writing about her adventures.
Maria in Tyulenovo village, Bulgaria
Hi Maria! Thanks for joining us. Tell us about yourself!
My name is Maria Angelova, a twenty-something Bulgarian traveling disaster roaming the world for the last ten years. I’m crazy about mirto from Sardinia, speaking in foreign languages (even if I can’t – actually, mostly if I can’t!) and studying fortune-telling. I’ve lived in Italy and traveled long-term in Thailand. Currently I’m based in Sofia, Bulgaria, and I’m behind most of the travel stories and travel challenges in 203challenges.com. I don’t travel full time, but I can work from wherever I want in the world, so it’s kind of the same thing. I enjoy spontaneous trips, nights when I swap my bed at home for a hammock hung in a forest (that’s my latest favorite thing) and going to places where nobody goes.
What inspired you to start traveling?
At first, it was only curiosity, but now it’s more about story-telling. I travel to tell the stories of people, places, and all amazing, weird, inspiring or otherwise worthy things people do around the world. I think books, movies, songs and all kinds of stories are the best things that can motivate you to travel.
So true! How did you begin writing about your travels?
Ever since I learned how to hold a pen, I started creating my own “newspapers,” which my parents received in their mailbox monthly. I have never really dreamt of doing anything but traveling and writing about it. So now my hobby and my profession have melted together in something I could call a perfect life.
How cool that you’re living your perfect life! What do you enjoy most about being a travel writer?
What I like the most is that when something weird and crazy happens to me, I share it with so many people that there’s always someone who can relate to it, and then I don’t feel like I’m the only person in the world who attracts hitchhiking grannies, drunk AirBnB owners, and friendly engine drivers who let me drive the train!
Sao Paulo, Brazil
You mentioned you’re crazy about foreign languages – which languages do you speak, and which is your favorite?
I speak English, Italian, Russian, and Bulgarian, I understand a little Spanish and even less Turkish (enough to bargain at the markets in Turkey). I love learning phrases in the language of the country I visit, but sometimes things just go wrong. Like in Thailand where people only laughed at my attempts to speak Thai. This, however, didn’t stop me trying at all, although I have to admit that I didn’t succeed to get anyone understand what I was saying.
Making the effort is truly the most important thing, though. What brought you to Italy and Thailand? What were your experiences there like?
Studying Journalism brought me to Italy, while Thailand was my first one-month trip. Both trips changed me in different ways. Italy opened my eyes for the world, while Thailand moved my attention to my inner self, helping me travel deep into myself.
What’s the most amazing place you’ve traveled to?
One of the most amazing experiences I’ve had so far was when I spent the night on a floating bungalow in Cheow Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park, Thailand. After the sunset, I could hear the whole jungle waking up – exactly when I was about to fall asleep. The gentle swaying of the raft house all night was like a lullaby, while the sounds of the jungle were a reminder that I needed to get out of my concrete box more often. After I came back home, I decided to turn this idea into reality. I spent many of the summer nights sleeping in a hammock in the woods near my city and then, after having my campsite coffee, going to work, as fresh as a daisy.
What a life! What three places would you recommend to travelers visiting Bulgaria?
Three mountains: Stara Planina (Balkan Mountain), Pirin, and the mysterious Strandzha full of ancient Thracian sanctuaries. Three cities: Plovdiv, Burgas, and Stara Zagora. Three rivers: Iskar River Gorge, Veleka River mouth where it flows in the Black Sea, and Danube River with its wild islands.
Amouliani Island, Greece
If you could live any place in the world, where would you go?
If this were possible, I’d change places every six months. Diversity is what fuels my inspiration.
What trips do you have planned? What’s on your bucket list?
My bucket list is ever expanding, so I’ve come to realize that sometimes you need to give up something before you go insane. My biggest dreams include an expedition to Antarctica and riding the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I’m always open to exciting new offers that come out of nowhere.
Anyone who’s spent more than just about a few minutes with me can tell you one thing: I am absolutely nuts about Spain. I had my first taste of it when I studied in Granada for a month in high school, and that was enough to get me hooked for life. I returned to spend my junior year of college in Madrid, and, because that wasn’t nearly enough, I also taught English for a year in Sevilla and another year in Madrid. Plus, I’ve been back to visit a few times since. So if I haven’t already persuaded you to check out what I truly believe to be the world’s best tourist destination, well, you can probably guess what’s coming.
Go to Spain! Just do it! Hop on that plane now! Explore the Iberian peninsula! Come on, stop reading, and get flying! Or at least start considering a trip!
If tales of Spain’s landscapes, cities, cuisine, nightlife, history, architecture, music, and people aren’t enough, one of the best things about traveling the country is that it can be done on any budget, no matter how large or small. Bargain hostels and €0.80 cañas of beer will keep even the stingiest of backpackers delighted, but those with a penchant for luxury can also really splurge and enjoy Spain’s finer pleasures. If you count yourself among the second group, or if you’re looking to truly treat yourself on your next España experience, may I humbly suggest Luxury Escapes’ 13-day luxury small-group tour.
Taking in the stunning architecture of Sevilla’s Plaza de España with my sister
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you could spend years traveling around Spain and still have loads left on your bucket list. But if you’re looking for an introduction to the best that Spain has to offer, two weeks will allow you to hit up many of the country’s highlights. This tour kicks off in Barcelona and ends in Madrid, paying a visit to Valencia, Albufera Lake, Sagunto, Granada, Córdoba, Sevilla, Jerez, Cádiz, Ávila, Segovia, and Toledo on the way. It’s a whirlwind ride, but you wouldn’t want to miss any of these spots on a trip to Spain.
Each of those cities is overbrimming with amazing things to do and see, and the tour includes the best attractions and activities in each. Admire the architecture of Granada’s Alhambra, Sevilla’s Alcázar, Córdoba’s Mezquita, and Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. Taste sherry where it originated, Jerez, and enjoy authentic Sevilla flamenco. Hop on a boat and cruise around Albufera Lake while spotting birds and wildlife. Dine on tapas and paella and learn about the significance of olive oil production in Spain. Get lost in some of the world’s most beautiful cities (okay, I may be biased).
Looking out over my favorite city in the world, Madrid
I could tell you all about Spain’s cheap hostels from my experiences there as a student and part-time teacher, but, as I grow up, I increasingly appreciate finer accommodation (remember those amazing hotels I checked out in Taipei and Bali?). This tour offers five-star accommodation for all twelve nights of the trip, with nights at hotels like Le Méridien Barcelona and the Gran Meliá Colón Seville. You even spend one night in a converted sixteenth century convent in Granada – how many people can say they’ve done that? You’ll also be feeling supremely comfortable as you cruise from one destination to the next in private, air-conditioned transport and private airport transfers.
Of course, there are plenty of ways to see Spain, and backpackers can hit me up for all the best tips. But if you’re really interested in enjoying Spain’s greatest luxuries, this tour is a real winner. You can read more details about the itinerary and inclusions here.
Gaudí’s Casa Milà in Barcelona
Honestly, I’m just psyched about the idea of more and more travelers visiting Spain, and I love hearing stories from those who have been, so I hope I’ve done just a little bit to convince you. Now, let me stop raving and start researching L.A.’s best Spanish restaurants – all this talk has seriously got me craving some tortilla!
This post was a collaboration with Luxury Escapes, but all opinions are entirely my own, as always!
Situated between Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra’s name is appropriately derived from the indigenous Ngunnawal word for “meeting place.” The Australian capital, which was built as a planned city in the early twentieth century, unfortunately doesn’t get a lot of love as a tourist destination, but I visited in June 2014 and found it to be an immensely interesting spot, and its location makes for a feasible drive from either Sydney or Melbourne or a quick flight from elsewhere in the country.
The Australian War Memorial in Canberra
Once you’ve found a great place to stay in Canberra, it’s time to start exploring! The nation’s capital, with a population under 400,000, may be relatively small, but it’s still packed with activities to make every moment of your visit a delight. Here are some of the best experiences to enjoy in Canberra.
Immerse yourself in history at the Old Parliament House
The seat of the Australian Parliament from 1927 to 1988 now houses the Museum of Australian Democracy, well worth a visit when you’re in Canberra. Admission costs just $2 for adults or $1 for children and grants you entry to exhibitions detailing Australia’s political history, prime ministers’ stories, democratic procedures, and more. If you’re visiting from overseas, it’s a great introduction to the Australian government, or if you come from the land down under, you’ll enjoy the refresher while learning more about how the commonwealth runs.
Get up close and personal with Australian government at Parliament
Spoiler alert: Australia’s current Parliament Building, built in the 1980s, isn’t nearly as aesthetically appealing inside as the Old Parliament House, although its external façade is one of the most unique of any world parliament. No matter how well-versed in hashtag auspol you may be, visiting the place where a country’s most important decisions get made is always fascinating. Take a free guided tour, look out over Canberra from the top of the building, and, if you’re lucky, you may even be able to catch Parliament in session.
Attend one of Canberra’s fabulous festivals
Canberra hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year, so why not plan your trip around one of these? Floriade, running from mid-September to mid-October each year, celebrates spring with floral displays, food, and concerts. The National Folk Festival in April features over 450 folk music concerts. During the Enlighten Festival each March, the city’s monuments are lit up with architectural projections and host free musical entertainment. And that’s just to name a few!
Get your inner nerd on at Questacon
Questacon, Australia’s national science and technology center, may primarily target children, but whether you’re traveling as a family or you’re just a big kid at heart, this place is a total blast to visit on a trip to Canberra. With more than 200 interactive exhibits ranging from an earthquake simulator to water experiments to an exhilarating free-fall slide. You can spend hours losing yourself in the museum’s exhibits – just try to pry yourself away!
Questacon’s free-fall slide
Spook yourself on an Old Parliament ghost tour
I got hooked on ghost tours while living in Australia, enjoying tours at Sydney’s Quarantine Station and The Rocks, and later following up with ones in Savannah, Georgia and Edinburgh, Scotland and one at Hollywood’s Paramount Studios just this last Friday. The best of these combine history and frights, so the After Dark Tour – Ghost Hunters at Canberra’s Old Parliament House sounds spectacular – too bad they introduced it after my visit! The torchlight tour shares spooky stories of the Old Parliament House’s past and runs Thursdays at 8.
Sample the best of local beers
Contrary to popular belief, Foster’s is not Australian for beer – most Aussies have never even tasted it or treat it with disdain. The country does produce many fine beers and has an active craft brewing scene, however. Enjoy Canberra’s local offerings by embarking on a beer tour, such as Dave’s Capital 3 in 3 or Canberra Explorer. These will take you to a number of the capital’s best breweries, where you’ll be able to sample their best brewed creations while accompanying those with tasty pub grub. If wine is more your scene, be sure to check out my post on the best spots for wine tasting in Australia.
Honor the nation’s fallen at the Australian War Memorial
This impressive memorial was built in 1941 to honor Australia’s armed forces and consists of a commemorative area, a museum, a research center, and an outdoor sculpture garden. Pay your respects at the Hall of Memory and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before proceeding to the museums, which were honestly some of the most informative history museums I’ve visited anywhere in the world. Visit in the afternoon for the Last Post Ceremony at 4:55pm, which each day shares the story of one of the veterans commemorated on the Roll of Honour. Admission is by donation, and, while visiting the memorial is a somber activity, it’s an educational experience that will stick with you for years.
Paying respects at the Australian War Memorial
Admire the artwork at the National Gallery of Australia
The National Gallery of Australia contains the country’s largest collection of art, including eleven galleries and a sculpture garden, and features works from all over the world. For those looking to explore Australia’s indigenous cultures, the museum also contains the greatest selection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the world. Pay a visit to the Skyspace, a viewing chamber that will affect your perception of the sky, join a scheduled tour, or stop in for a bite at one of the Gallery’s cafés.
Stroll around Lake Burley Griffin
In the heart of Canberra lies Lake Burley Griffin, an artificial body of water with an authentic beauty and serenity. Many of the city’s top tourist attractions, including the aforementioned Questacon and National Gallery of Australia, as well as the National Library, sit on the lake’s shores, so go for a wander on the waterfront paths, admire the six islands, the National Carillon, and the Captain Cook Memorial Jet at its center, or check out the waterfalls and play areas at Commonwealth Park on the lake’s north end. The perfect way to start or end any day in Canberra!
Canberra may not boast the bustling beaches of Sydney, the colorful laneways of Melbourne, or the tropical scenery of North Queensland, but it is quite possibly Australia’s most intellectually interesting city with a quiet, laid-back atmosphere that makes for an amazingly pleasant stay. Enjoy your visit!
From the Outback to the Great Barrier Reef to Sydney’s beaches to artsy Melbourne, Australia is a country packed with unforgettable sights. It’s also the world’s fourth biggest exporter of wine, and you’ll find more than sixty designated wine regions throughout Australia. Whether you’re a wine aficionado or simply looking for some relaxing sipping amongst stunning scenery, wine tasting is a must when visiting Australia. Six travelers share their favorite spots for tasting wine down under.
The supreme wine region in South Australia, without a doubt, is the Barossa Valley. Known for its delicious shiraz and wide variety of wines, the Barossa is a place I hold close to my heart. Currently home to my parents, the Barossa never ceases to amaze me as I explore the countless wineries for delicious tastings. From short strolls from my folks’ house to a half an hour drive, there are wineries everywhere.
Nestled in a stunning valley, filled with beautiful farm land, the Barossa Valley is known not only for its wine but also its glorious food. With this combination, the Barossa Valley cannot be missed when you visit South Australia. The best part is it is only an hour north of Adelaide and is super accessible. So, do yourself a favour and get to the valley to experience wineries like Rockfords, Seppeltsfield & Charles Melton. You won’t be disappointed.
I grew up in country Victoria, Australia, surrounded by wheat, sheep, and little else. The exception to this rule, though, is a place I came to know very well: Grampians National Park. Most famous for its natural beauty and world-famous rock climbing routes, the Grampians is also a wine-growing region.
The oldest wineries in the area are at the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Great Western. No, that is not a hotel chain! Yes, it is the name of the place! These vineyards, established in the 1860s, are historically famous for the red wine, shiraz.
The Grampians is undeniably beautiful and full of all the famous fauna you come to expect in Australia – kangaroos and possums are everywhere. If you are lucky, you may even spot a koala or echidna. The Grampians gives the ideal backdrop to enjoy wine in a stunning part of Australia.
I came to Australia’s famous Hunter Valley wine region as an abject wine virgin. Sure, I’d thrown back casks of cheap wine in college, but the idea of slowly savouring a glass of wine paired with a dark chocolate was utterly alien to me.
Visiting the Broke-Fordwich region of New South Wales’ premier wine growing region, I was taken on a whirlwind tour of tastes and scents that awakened a love of wine that has endured to this day.
With smaller cellar doors manned by the passionate men and women who grow the grapes and make the wine, it’s easy to get swept up in their enthusiasm for their craft. Set that all against the backdrop of idyllic countryside, and you’ve got a recipe for a relaxing escape from nearby cities such as Sydney and Newcastle.
Margaret River in Western Australia is one of the best wine regions in Australia for wine tasting. Although the region produces just 3% of Australia’s wine, that results in 20% of its premium wine production, meaning you know you are looking at a lot of high-quality wine here.
With a similar climate to the Bordeaux region of France, Australia’s Margaret River wineries particularly focus on cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, semillon and of course its famous chardonnays. There are over 200 wineries here, and, although it is particularly notable for its small boutique wineries, some of the more famous ones you may have heard of include Cape Mentelle, Voyager, Vasse Felix and Leeuwin Estate.
Most of the Margaret River wineries have friendly cellar doors open to the public for tastings, and many of them also have amazing restaurants for lunch too. Beyond the wineries, the area is beautiful and has some of the most beautiful beaches I have visited anywhere in the world.
The view from Wills Domain in Margaret Valley (photo by Marianne)
Mudgee, New South Wales
Last time I counted, I’ve visited well over one hundred wineries in Australia. But there’s one particular region that I’ve returned to more than any other. Conveniently, it’s only a few hours drive from Sydney, making it perfect for a weekend getaway, particularly a long weekend. But it’s not the well-known Hunter Valley region; it’s Mudgee in the Central West of New South Wales.
The charm of Mudgee lies in the fact that it’s a proper country town, not just a collection of cellar doors. Dating back to the mid-19th century and the gold rush era, its main street is wide enough to turn around a horse and cart and is peppered with a range of great eateries.
Once you’ve settled into your accommodation, whether a boutique hotel or the conveniently located caravan park, head out of town to spend the day visiting cellar doors. It’s proper Australian countryside, and you’ll often meet the winemaker on site, who will be happy to chat with your about the latest vintage. Don’t miss out on sampling some local olive wine or honey, too!
Yarra Valley is nestled along the Yarra River in the state of Victoria. It is one of the oldest wine regions, dating back to the year 1838.
The valley is about one hour from Melbourne. There is no public transport to the region. However, there are plenty of bus tours that run from Melbourne and organise the wine tastings. A day tour comprises of visiting different vineyards in the region and tasting about four to five of best wines produced at those vineyards. The region is definitely famous for its chardonnay and pinot noir.
I would definitely recommend visiting the wineries at Yarra Valley for the wine tasting, simply because of amazing wines and the variety it offers. It is undoubtedly one of the best wine regions I have visited in Australia.
For a fair dinkum Australian experience, these wine tasting spots are sure to delight. Read about the best places for wine tasting in California, and stay tuned for my features on other parts of the world. Cheers to that!
My global travels have introduced me to people with all sorts of fascinating backgrounds. I created my Travel Talk interview series to share their stories and hopefully inspire you to also pursue your adventurous dreams. Today’s interview features Andrea Mujica of Where She Goes Today, an American who has lived in Chile for six years and now works as a digital nomad.
Andrea at the top of Cerro Monserrate in Bogotá, Colombia. “I only had 24 free hours to roam the city and this was the best thing in the city.”
Hey Andrea! Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m Andrea, a Gemini from 1987. I’m a native Spanglish speaker, professional people-watcher, and I seriously love giraffes. Like, hardcore love. I was born in Orlando, Florida and spent the first 24 years of my life there until life pushed me into the arms of an amazing country called Chile. It’s been six years, and my life has changed for the better. I’ve always worked in marketing and program development for the corporate world until last year when I made the leap to become a digital nomad to work independently in the tourism industry.
What inspired you to start traveling?
I don’t think there was a specific “aha” moment for me. Travel is in my blood. My dad drove to the U.S. from Chile in the 70s with his cousin to see the world. I would say that I have definitely inherited his adventurous spirit. He met my mother, who’s from the Dominican Republic, and then magic happened; my sister and I arrived in the world. Any time we wanted to visit family, we had to get on a plane. Time went by, and when I graduated from college I was in a place in my life where I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do next. I was quite lost. So my dad suggested I spend a year in Chile, and I said, “Why not?” So I went. It was the best year of my life. Then that year turned into six more years.
“View from Sky Constanera of my favorite city in the whole world. Santiago, Chile. It changed my life for the better and has become my new home.”
What a story! How was the transition to living in Chile? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced at the beginning? What were some of the best things?
Moving to Chile was kind of blur, to be honest. Everything happened so fast. I think it was about two weeks from the moment that the suggestion came up to having me board the airplane. But I just took everything one day at a time. I had nothing to lose and a whole country to gain. The best thing is that I immediately got busy; I started volunteering with a non-profit organization, I learned how to use the bus, and I started teaching English so I can travel as much as possible. I was very lucky to have made some amazing friends within weeks. You know when you meet someone, and you just know that they are going to be in your life forever? It was like that. And the feeling was mutual.
I think the most challenging thing I faced at the beginning was the language. I spoke Spanish at home and felt that I was pretty fluent before arriving. But, I didn’t speak Chilean. That’s a whole different language filled with slang and missing letters, and it’s faster than you even try to process. But it just takes practice. Remember those friends that I made? Yes, they taught me all the bad words and the most common slang words. After six years, I can proudly say that I speak Chilean now.
I consider myself fluent in Spanish, but when I visited Chile last fall, I found it tricky too! What are three destinations in Chile every traveler should see?
Only three? Chile is one of those countries that have such diverse landscapes that there is adventure waiting in every region. If you like the outdoors, then you’re going to like Chile. The Atacama Desert and the Patagonia are two destinations that Chile is best known for and they are a MUST-DO. I visited the Atacama Desert earlier this year, and I was blown away. Patagonia is my next destination, so I’m currently prepping for that one. One of my favorite places is Chiloe, Chile’s largest island located in the Lake District. Check out the wooden churches, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, you will not be disappointed.
“Watching the Sunset in the Moon Valley of the Atacama Desert, Chile. The Atacama desert is the driest desert in the world and is filled with adventure for all types of travelers.”
Atacama and Patagonia were absolutely amazing when I visited! What do you love about Chilean culture? What gets on your nerves?
Chileans sometimes have the bad reputation of not being as warm and friendly as their neighboring countries, but it’s not true! They know how to have a good time, especially during the “dieciocho,” Chile’s independence day. It’s basically a weeklong celebration filled with traditional dancing, fair games, and, of course, an overdose of food and drinking. Chileans also have a very sarcastic sense of humor, which is something that gets on my nerves sometimes because it just goes over my head. I don’t really get sarcasm in English, much less in Spanish.
How has your transition to a digital nomad been? What have been your biggest achievements and challenges?
I’m a bit of a daydreamer, yet I have Monica-like tendencies at the same time (like a true Gemini). In my previous jobs, I usually have had great bosses who gave me the freedom to work on my tasks and just check in when needed. Now, I don’t have anyone checking in on me, and I feel that it’s given me a new level of responsibility. If something doesn’t get done, it’s on me and no one else. I’ve grown up a lot in the past year.
Working as a digital nomad for the tourism industry is still quite a bit of new trend in Latin America. I’m not a travel agent and don’t want to do that; I just want to improve the online promotion of travel to Latin American countries. Some countries are totally on board and see the value of my work and others not so much. The challenge I’ve seen is being taken seriously when it comes to being a part of a marketing strategy. People want things for free, but my bills don’t get paid with a “please, thank you, and a share.”
One of my biggest achievements is becoming an active member of the first Association of Chilean Travel bloggers, ACHILETB, whose mission is to show the tourism industry that blogging and social media are valuables channels to add to their marketing strategies and share tips on what to look out for when working with bloggers. We are just getting started, currently with fifteen members, and have established relationships with agencies, airlines and other brands.
“Orlando is my hometown. I grew up here and it definitely has a special place in my heart. I enjoy coming home any chance I get here.”
That’s amazing, and it will be exciting to see you grow even further! What advice would you give to others trying to become a digital nomad?
Find where there is a need and create a product or service that will fill that need. Find your niche, know what you’re good at, and love what you do. Make friends with other bloggers and digital nomads — you can learn a whole bunch from them. Leave your ego at the door. Even if there is someone who has the same niche as you, your followers will follow because you are unique and different than the rest. It’s okay to make mistakes; I’ve made a bunch so far this past year, but I’m learning and growing from them.
Your advice is spot-on. How did you begin blogging about your travels?
Last year, I lost my job and was forced to make a decision about what do next with my life. I decided to leave Chile and travel until I figured out what I wanted. I think I was in Italy when I realized that I should be writing this stuff down. I’ve always had a journal and wrote down my experiences, so it was an easy jump to move to a digital platform. My blog was really just for me to have a digital copy instead of lugging around my journals. Later, I cleaned it up a bit so others could enjoy them too.
What do you enjoy most about being a travel blogger?
Getting to write about what I really want. I have so much freedom when it comes to my blog. People, myself included, make so many mistakes when traveling or say, “Man, I wish I knew this before coming here.” I love reading other blogs when planning my trips, but I find that there is a lot of missing info or not updated info about travel to Latin America. So I’m just filling in the missing pieces with my posts and hopefully encouraging others to travel to Latin America too.
“Street art in Orlando, Florida of Macchu Picchu. Street art is my weakness, especially if it’s a place I’ve been to. I walked four days through the Inca trail to reach Macchu Picchu back in 2011.”
That’s great! Latin America may be the best region I’ve traveled to, so I fully support encouraging others to go. What’s the most amazing place you’ve visited?
Last year I went to Europe for the first time, and I was amazed by everything. One of the places that surprised me the most was Holland. Everything was just perfect: public transportation was flawless, the food was delicious, people were friendly, and the architecture was just amazing. I had to pinch myself every day because it was just so cool. I loved everything about that country.
I love Holland too. What trips do you have planned? What’s on your bucket list?
I’m taking advantage of doing some traveling in the U.S. since I’m here for a couple of more months. Something that has been on my bucket list for seven years now is Patagonia, and this year I’m finally going. I still can’t believe it, like it has set in my brain that I’m finally going to the end of the world. I’m overly excited about.