Whew - 2016 was quite a year!
I was on the road for nearly half the year, traveling to 11 countries (5 of which were new to me). I found myself at sea level and at 18,000 ft — and at lots of points in between. This last year of travel was a near-perfect combination of solo adventures and shared experiences with old and new friends. It was also my most aggressive year of travel yet: at times I was exhausted, lonely, and/or sick — but honestly I wouldn’t trade any of those moments for anything!
It was extremely difficult for me to distill those 175 days of travel into a post that doesn’t resemble War & Peace in length, but I have managed to summarize the most meaningful moments from my past year of travel here.
In the coming months, look for more thorough posts on the individual destinations I visited last year, as well as stories & more images from my adventures in Africa in January 2017.
Early in the year I found myself on another Within The Frame Adventure back to Myanmar. Burma is my #1 favorite place in the world to visit due to it’s combination of fascinating history, Buddhist culture, and gentle people. The goal on this trip was to spend time with, and to photograph, members of the country’s vanishing tribes. These folks live fairly far off the main tourist track, making our encounter even more special.
I had read so many great things about this incredibly scenic country that I decided to embark on a month-long solo road trip from the top of the North island to the bottom of the South island. I was genuinely blown away from the minute I landed. NZ is a nature-lovers dream, and being a nature lover, I was totally in my element!
Some of my favorite things about NZ: drop dead gorgeous views around every bend; a seemingly endless supply of photo opportunities; many, many places to hike, bike, paddle board, and kayak; ease and safety, especially for a solo female adventure traveler like me; and an intense coffee culture. What more could you ask for!!!
I split my month more or less evenly between the North and South Islands, but I could have easily — and happily — spent a month or more on each island. I particularly enjoyed the South Island due to it’s abundance of National Parks. In a future post I will share details about where exactly I visited and what I loved most about this amazing country. While not the cheapest place to travel, New Zealand remains high on my list of places to revisit. I absolutely loved it — it was that amazing!
I headed to Morocco in the spring, spending part of my time with a dear friend and then traveling solo afterward. My friend and I had an amazing time visiting Marrakesh, the Sahara Desert, and the blue city of Chefchaouen in a whirlwind 10 days. On my own, I went back to Chefchaouen, then visited Fez, Essaouria, and returned to Marrakesh. I particularly fell head over heels in love with Chefchaouen - it is a photographer’s dream!
Not to be missed in Morocco: a cooking class so you can learn how to prepare the tasty tagines that are served at all traditional Morocco restaurants; lots of sweet mint tea; shopping in the souks of Marrakech for reasonably priced and exotic souvenirs; and partaking in wonderfully relaxing hammam (turkish bath) treatments as often as possible!
For sure, Morocco isn’t the easiest place to travel as a white, blond, tall American woman. However, if you travel smart (which I recommend in any country), there is nothing to fear. I found most of Morocco to be very reasonable in cost. I do, however, highly recommend splurging on a high-end trip to the Sahara. My friend and I decided to explore the desert with Desert Camp Morocco so we didn’t need to worry about logistics, food, etc., and we happily found ourselves riding camels and having vodka tonics on the sand dunes at sunset! My time spent in Essaouria was on a Sole Yoga Holidays retreat, another little splurge that was well worth the cost.
I flew from Morocco to Spain, and using mainly AirBnB stays, I explored Grenada, Toledo, Sevilla, and Barcelona. I was stuck by how much the small towns of Spain remind me of Italy, my favorite western country to visit.
I found Spain to be extremely affordable relative to many European countries, and with the recent strengthening of the US Dollar, today it is even a better value. It took me some time to get used to the late night dinners, but the food & wine can’t be beat! I will be spending more time in Spain in the spring of 2017 - I loved it that much!
In the fall I joined another Within the Frame (WTF) adventure that focused mainly on Mongolia, but offered a pre-trip excursion to Beijing to climb and photograph the Great Wall of China. To be quite frank, I personally did not have much interest in visiting China, aside from the Great Wall, so this side trip was perfect for me. It turns out that I didn’t dislike Beijing as much as I thought I would. That said, I don’t see myself heading back any time soon: i found it to be kind of soul-less and overall just blah, but not nearly as crowded nor as polluted as I had anticipated.
The Great Wall was awesome! We went out to the more remote (and therefore less frequented) portions, and practically had the Wall completely to ourselves. The sheer magnitude of the Great Wall was mind-blowing, and we even had one day of crystal clear blue skies.
I didn't know much about Mongolia before I arrived but what I did know is that I wanted to photograph the Eagle Hunters in action and this WTF trip provided that opportunity! Mongolia has a population of 3 million: 1.5 million live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and the remaining 1.5 million are spread across a land the size of Texas. Just think about that.
We traversed 1,200 miles to the western plains of this beautiful country (the majority "off road"), across an unbelievably diverse landscape. I was constantly amazed at the sheer vastness of the open land, and in awe of the nomads who live such a hard and secluded life. We took six days to drive across the plains, each night spent in a ger camp.
Our final destination was the Bayan-Ulgii Province in far western Mongolia, where we spent 5 additional nights at a ger camp, hosted by a Kazakh eagle hunting family. We spent one-on-one time with the eagle hunters, who let us photograph them as they practiced their skills. The last two days were spent at the annual Golden Eagle Festival and competition.
Spending time with the Kazakh eagle hunter family was one of my all time top photography opportunities ever.
From Mongolia I flew to Tibet, where I spent time with another dear friend learning about a country that I have wanted to visited for a very long time. I have visited a lot of Buddhist countries - and am fascinated by these kind, gentle people - so visiting Tibet was high on my list. We organized our private trip though Land of Snows, a great operator run by an American who has lived for many years in Tibet.
The general vibe in Tibet was so very different from China — I could FEEL the spirituality the minute we arrived in Lhasa. We spent a few days enjoying the wonderfully colorful capital city, and then travelled south to Tibet’s Everest Base Camp. The drive was long, but we were able to visit many towns along the way where the Tibetan culture was alive and well.
It was a crystal clear day when Mt. Everest came into sight, providing unobstructed views of the north face of this great mountain! The altitude at EBC in Tibet is 5,200 meters (17,060 ft) and we were able to see the sun rise over the mountains, as well as visit EBC itself. We also stopped at Rongbuk Monastery, which is located at the foot of Mount Everest: this monastery claims to being the highest on the planet.
I really loved Tibet and need to go back and experience more of the culture and spend time with the people there. It was depressing to see “China-fication” creeping into Tibet. I am glad I was able to visit Tibet when I did and i think my return visit will need to be sooner rather than later, as I fear that Tibet may quickly lose it’s wonderful heart and soul
After some well needed sun and relaxation on Riviera Maya and a few fun days in Mexico City, I joined up with a group of friends for a cultural and culinary tour in Oaxaca, surrounding the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations.
I absolutely LOVED Oaxaca — what a great little town. I was surprised to find a real trendy and hip vibe there: the streets were so vibrant and colorful (the early morning light was amazing for a photographer like me), there is a burgeoning food scene, great galleries, shops, tequila and mezcal bars.
Our cooking classes were conducted by Susanna Trilling at Seasons of My Heart, which I would also highly recommend. The decline of peso vs the USD since the fall means your dollars will go extra far in Oaxaca; it’s a must-visit in my opinion. While our activities centered around the Dia de Muertos, I would argue that visiting Oaxaca would be great at any time of year.
From Mexico I flew to Ecuador for some outdoor adventures. I started my time there in Banos, which is a fun little town known as the “adrenaline capital of Ecuador”. Basically anything outdoorsy you want to do, you can: zip lines, bike trips, chasing waterfalls, hiking, etc. There seemed to be many budget accommodations on offer, and again the price of food, etc was very reasonable. There was also the "swing at the end of the world"!!
From Banos I arranged transportation to Chucchilan in order to arrive at the famous Andean eco lodge called the Black Sheep Inn, recommended by an adventurous friend of mine. From the minute I got there, I felt like I had found nirvana: from the amazing grounds, eco-friendly environment, totally chill vibe and great group of people, it was the perfect place to hang out and commiserate about the U.S. Presidential election. It also boasts the world's highest frisbee golf course.
I had some friends meet me there, and we spent a few sublime days acclimatizing to the altitude, hiking and indulging on an unlimited supply of oatmeal cookies.
It was hard to say goodbye to the Black Sheep (I will return, for sure!!!), but my friends and I were off to the main reason for coming to Ecuador: attempting to summit Mt. Chimborazo!! At 20,500 ft (6,250m), the summit of Mount Chimborazo is the highest point in Ecuador, and because of the earth's equatorial bulge, it is also the highest point from the center of earth.
Our home for most of last week was the lovely Estrella del Chimborazo, run by the famous mountaineer Marco Cruz. With warm beds and hot meals every day, this lodge was the perfect base from which to launch our daily acclimatization hikes. And the views weren't too bad either!
We spent several days with our amazing mountain guides, hiking the tough but beautiful terrain in and around this mountain. I won’t give away too many details until my longer post but - spoiler alert - I didn’t make it t the summit. That was actually alright with me, because - as Sir Edmund Hilary said - "It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”.
I finished off the year with a trip to my favorite western country — ITALY! This country remains near and dear to my heart: I honestly don’t have one bad thing to say about Italy.
It had been quite a while since i spent any time exploring Rome, so after a few days hanging out with a good friend in Milan, I went to Rome and did all the touristy sightseeing that I could, while also visiting relatives. It was a fun way to kick off the Christmas season -- and it nicely capped off an exciting and exhilarating year of travel!!!