How To Save On Accommodation While Traveling

When it comes to traveling, accommodation will generally be one of your biggest expenses, behind the cost of your flight and transportation. Especially in western countries, where a night in a basic hotel room can cost well over a hundred dollars in some places. Since I’m more keen on budget travel, I would rather use that money for other things. With so many alternatives out there, it’s easy to cut down on your accommodation costs. And sometimes spending less on accommodation doesn’t necessarily sacrifice comfort! In this day and age, you can still get the same comfort and privacy you would get in a hotel for less.

Hostels
elcafegroup
Hostels are the obvious pick for budget travelers as they can offer a cheap place to sleep. Privacy isn’t usually a priority for people who stay in hostels as they are more well known for dormitory-style sleeping environments. Typically you’ll share a room with 3-6 other people, but there are some pretty big hostels out there. I once stayed in a 40-bed dorm in Munich! On the other hand, plenty of hostels do offer private rooms for people who like their own space, and it’s usually a lot cheaper than a private hotel room!

Hostels tend to be thought of as dirty, your things can get stolen, and in the movies, a place where you might be sharing a room with a serial killer. Granted I have seen some pretty disgusting hostels, but the vast majority of them were actually decent and quite nice. Security matters a lot to guests, so many hostels are often equipped with lockers you can use for free or for a small fee. A lot of times you’ll also find many hostels out there that offer perks like free WiFi, free breakfast, or free BBQ dinners. I even stayed a hostel in Australia once that offered free kayak and surfboard rentals! Nearly every hostel I’ve been to was also equipped with a kitchen, so you can save even more money by cooking your own meals.

Not all hostels are the dark, dingy, and cockroach infested places like you see in the movies. There are a lot out there that are clean, comfy, and sometimes even quite homey and stylish. I’ve even gotten lucky in some places where my “dorm” bed turned out to be a queen size all to myself! Typically a good hostel has social areas where you can meet other travelers. This is why I usually prefer staying in hostels when I travel, because it’s where you can make new friends!

Airbnb
Airbnb is a great resource for people to find and rent lodging while traveling. I’ve used it a few times and it’s especially great when you’re traveling with someone or a group of people since you can split the costs. The way it works is people who have a spare room or even a whole apartment available, lease it out for short-term (and sometimes long-term) stays. You can rent out a room in a shared apartment or even a whole private apartment/house for yourself. You can find some good budget deals on here as an alternative to a hotel, especially when you’re staying in a more expensive city. But if you have the money, you can also find some very unique and interesting places to stay in. There’s even a listing to stay in a castle! 

Housesitting
Another interesting accommodation alternative, if you have the time and flexibility, is housesitting. There are several websites out there, such as TrustedHousesitters and Housecarers, where people who are going on holiday for a period of time are in need of someone to watch over the home and/or take care of pets while they are away. I’ve personally never tried this, but I know people who have and they saved hundreds if not thousands of dollars on accommodation during their travels. The catch is you do need to commit to a longer time period in one place (which isn’t always a bad thing if you have the time). But having a free place to stay for a relatively small amount of work sounds like a fair trade to me!

Camping
Starry Night
Camping is another alternative that can be fun and cheap. Sometimes it can be free! In some countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, freedom camping is pretty popular and can be done in a lot of areas. While road tripping across Australia, my friends and I camped most of the way. It saved us a lot of money and made for a more memorable experience! There’s nothing like sleeping under the stars deep in the Australian Outback.

Couchsurfing
Another great way to cut down the costs of accommodation is to stay with someone who lives in the place you’re visiting. Couchsurfing is a great networking site of people who offer their couches or any free space in their homes for other travelers. While it’s nice to have a free place to stay, I find the most rewarding aspect about this option is that you meet and stay with a local who can show and teach you things about their city that you otherwise might not have known about. I use it from time to time and have had some pretty great experiences! There have even been times where I’ve been invited to local events and parties with my host’s friends. The service is free, but in exchange for letting me stay at their place I generally like to take my hosts out for drinks or make them dinner. It’s a great way to make new friends with the locals and have cultural exchange.

Of course sleeping at a stranger’s place sounds a bit weird and unsafe, but you just have to think smart when you’re searching for a potential host. Key things I look for are people who have complete profiles with pictures, details about their interests and hobbies, and most importantly reviews from other people who have interacted with them before.

Volunteering
Volunteering can add a rewarding and enriching experience to your travels. There are endless organizations and resources out there to find projects and opportunities, from taking care of sea turtles in Costa Rica, to helping out at local schools in Peru, to working on organic farms in New Zealand. In most cases you’re given a cheap or sometimes free place to stay in exchange for your work. I’ve used sites like WWOOFing, HelpX, and Workaway to find opportunities to work a few hours a day in lodges, hostels, and B&Bs in exchange for free accommodation.

My Favorite Places In The World

A lot of times I get asked what my favorite place in the world is. And the answer I give is pretty ambiguous, because it’s hard to choose just one! There are several places I can think of that were especially memorable and favorable, all for different reasons. If I had to narrow it down to a top 10, these would be the ones (in no particular order):

1. New Zealand
Emerald Lakes | Tongariro
Might be a bit biased since I lived there for nearly a year, but New Zealand is one of those places that always seems to be on everyone’s top lists! And for a good reason too, there is so much packed into this little country–towering volcanoes, lush rain forests, beautiful beaches, charming rolling hills, fjordlands, gorgeous mountain ranges. It’s a stunningly beautiful country everywhere you look. As an outdoorsy, nature-loving kind of guy this is the perfect country for me and I love that fact that there’s so many things to do here to get your adrenaline rush fix. Besides that, Kiwis are some of the nicest and friendliest people I’ve met! The Maori culture here is strong and very interesting to learn about.

Highlights: Doing the Tongariro Crossing; heli-hiking on the Franz Josef glacier; black-water rafting Waitomo glowworm caves

2. Australia
Golgum Pool
Even as a kid, I always wanted to go to Australia so having the opportunity to live there for a year was a dream come true! Australia has become my second home and I’m considering moving back here again one day. I’ve fallen in love with the laid-back, easy going lifestyle that defines Aussie culture. The work/life balance here is something I admire. I’m also a lover of the sun, so a sunny warm climate is also pretty ideal for me. Two of my favorite places in the world are here, one being Sydney. I’m not normally a big fan of cities, but Sydney is one I’d live in. The other being the Margaret River region of Western Australia, where I lived and worked for 6 months. Some of the best beaches I’ve seen to date are there and it’s also one of the country’s premiere wine regions. It’s a beautiful place to live. I really hope to make it back to Australia again one day!

Highlights: Living in Dunsborough, WA; road tripping up the East Coast and across the Outback; exploring Kakadu National Park by 4WD

3. France
Birds Eye View of Paris
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in France now, more than any other European country, and I’ve grown quite fond of it! Most of the time I’ve spent there has been in Paris (one of my favorite cities in the world), but in this most recent trip I also got to see a bit more of the countryside in the Alsace Region as well as the city of Lyon. The thing I love about France is despite it’s relatively small size (well compared to the US at least) is how diverse it is. It’s got beautiful farmlands and rolling hills, wine regions, rugged coastlines, high mountains, a warm Mediterranean climate in the south. Plus I have an affinity for French language and culture, making this one of my favorite places!

Highlights: Walking the streets of Paris at night; wandering around the Christmas markets in L’Alsace

4. United States
Daydream
Even though this one is obviously biased as it’s my home country, nothing beats the diversity of the United States. From the polar regions in Alaska, to tropical jungles in Hawaii, to the stunning deserts in Utah and Arizona, there is such a huge range of places to see in the US. As a nation made up of immigrants, there is also such a huge pool of diversity in the people as well and you can find pretty much any kind of food from around the world that you can think of if you look in the right places. Despite living there most of my life, there’s still so much I have to see!

Highlights: Washington State in general, my home state (and the best state!); road tripping around Utah and Arizona; summer days with family on the New Jersey shore

5. Ireland
Stormy Skies Over Connemara
I’m currently backpacking through Ireland at the moment so I might still be caught up with the initial awe and excitement of being here, but I’ve loved every bit of it so far! Ireland is an absolutely beautiful country, especially out west and to the north along the rugged, weathered coast. While the weather might not be so nice all the time (where else is it sunny, then rain sideways, and hails all within a 10 minute time span?), it’s breathtaking when the sun is out. Irish people also have to be the among the most charming and friendly people I’ve met so far. I love Irish accents and find some of the expressions and things they say very amusing! Everyone is so chatty and welcoming that it’s super easy to make friends with the locals here!

Highlights: Driving around Slea’s Head; Killarney National Park; hanging out with locals in pubs

6. Portugal
Lonely Beach | Lagos, Portugal
Portugal is another place I’ve visited recently and absolutely fell in love with. I had no expectations coming here and ended up finding a place with picturesque cities, warm and welcoming people, amazing food and wine (port wine is out of this world), a nice warm climate most of the year, and beautiful landscapes. I was very surprised to find that many people here speak very good English, making it a lot easier to talk to people! It’s also a great destination to go to if you’re on a budget, as everything is cheap here compared to the rest of Europe. I’m still getting over the buzz of being in Portugal and really want to go back again sometime!

Highlights: Drinking port wine in Porto; exploring castles in Sintra; kayaking along the Algarve Coast in Lagos

7. Vietnam
Hmong Family
Vietnam is one of those countries visitors either love or hate, and fortunately I fall in the love category. From the chaotic streets of Ho Chi Minh which are buzzing day and night with the noise of endless waves of motorbikes, to walking with the ethnic Hmong people in the quite rice terraces in the north around Sapa, this is a country rich with history, cultural diversity, and one of the most distinguished cuisines in the world. The food alone is a major reason to love Vietnam. The variety in different dishes they have is astounding. There is quite a defined backpacker/tourist trail that runs the length of the country, but there are so many relatively undiscovered places to explore if you go off the beaten path.

Highlights: Boat trip on the river in Trang An, through stunning karst formations; Hoi An; canyoning in Dalat; trekking and doing a home stay with Hmong people in Sapa

8. Peru
The Locals of Machu Picchu
Peru is a special country to me, because it was the first place where I began traveling solo! I spent a week there in the area around Cusco and hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which is still one of my most memorable trips to date. While I would have liked to have stayed longer to see more of the country, what I did see and experience there was inspiring and made me want to travel independently as much as I could from that point on. I remember feeling so nervous and awkward when I arrived at the airport and I had to bargain with some dodgy cab drivers to get to my hostel. I stayed in a hostel by myself for the first time and forced myself to talk to strangers to make new friends. I Wandered around and got lost in the streets of Cusco and tried new foods in the local market. On the day of the trek our group had breakfast with a Peruvian family on their farm. It was exhilarating Walking through the Andes and being surrounded by stunning scenery everywhere, being in awe as I walked through the ruins of Machu Picchu. I would love to go back here again and see more of South America in general!

Highlights: Cuy (guinea pig) breakfast on a farm in the countryside; trekking on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu; climbing Huayna Picchu

9. Hong Kong
Hong Kong Lights
I love Hong Kong. It’s the kind of city that’s always buzzing with life and there’s always something interesting happening around the corner. It’s blessed with a beautiful harbor and surrounded by jungle-covered mountains. The contrast between nature and cosmopolitan city life here is amazing. One minute you can be on a bustling street surrounded by enormous sky scrapers, the next you can find yourself on a quite path going up into the mountains. And the food here is to die for! I loved exploring all the exotic fruits in the street markets (rambutans and mangosteens are my Asian favs). Chinese food in general is addicting, and the experience of being the only westerner in a family-owned noodle restaurant is memorable. I’ll never be able to look at Chinese food anywhere else in the world the same way again, the real stuff is so good!

Highlights: Eating amazing Chinese food; seeing Victoria Harbour at night; exploring the markets; cable car ride up to the Giant Buddha statue

10. Nepal
Swayambhunath | Kathmandu
As a lover of hiking and mountains, Nepal was always on my list of places to visit. Now I can say I finally have and it’s just as brilliant as I thought it would be! Despite going in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake, the country is very much open for tourism. The country is one of the best places in the world for trekking, the opportunities are endless. I did the Everest trek and although I did have a bout of food poisoning and altitude sickness (not a great combo), it was a very memorable experience. Aside from the stunning beauty of the Himalayas, Nepal is also very rich in culture and diversity. There are over 40 different ethnic groups and tribes living here and the beauty of the Himalaya is stunning.

Highlights: Trekking up the EBC trail and seeing Mount Everest up close.

How I’ve Managed To Travel For So Long

The Beach

Now that I’ve officially been on the road for 2 1/2 years, I think it’s about time to share how I’ve managed to travel for as long as I have. This is one of the most common questions I get asked by people when they discover I’ve been away for so long. “How is it possible?” some ask. “You must surely have taken out loans or have been racking up credit card debt all this time. Perhaps you’ve won the lottery and didn’t tell anyone!” Truthfully it’s neither of those things, so this post is going to answer the big question and talk about a few of the things I’ve done to make long-term travel a possibility.

But first, let’s go back to the beginning a little while before I even left home. It was 2011 and I had just graduated from university, not really sure exactly what I wanted to do even though I had a shiny new degree. I knew for a fact though, that I wanted to travel. I never studied abroad when I was in uni, so I made it a goal to one day have the experience of living in another country. Fortunately, places like Australia and New Zealand make it easy for Americans to get working holiday visas. So shortly after graduation I made it my goal to find a job and work for a year, saving up as much as I could, and I would then spend a year abroad in New Zealand. While it took much longer than I anticipated to find a job (I was unemployed for nearly 8 months), I finally ended up working for Washington State Parks for two summers and at a local hotel in between seasons.

In total, I worked for 1.5 years and managed to save up $14,000, which is actually more than enough to qualify for a working holiday in New Zealand (which requires only $4000 NZD to sustain yourself when you first arrive in the country in case you don’t find work right away). The reason I saved up for so long was because I still had student loans to pay while I was traveling and I wanted to have a big cushion of funds to live off of so I wasn’t so stressed about having to find a job right away when I left. Of course, being able to save so much wouldn’t have been possible without the help from my parents, who allowed me to live with them during this time period so I had very little rent to pay (compared to what I would have been paying if I still lived in the city) and things like food and phone plans were all paid for.

Another factor that helped with savings was rethinking the way I spent my money by keeping track of my expenses. Using a nifty little apps like CashTrails, I started to watch where most of my money was going on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. After a few weeks, I began to see and prioritize on spending and buying things I actually needed (fuel, insurance, loans, etc) and less so on things I didn’t (eating out, going to the cinemas, etc). There are lots of little expenses we pay almost on a daily basis without thinking about it. A $4 Starbucks frappuccino may not seem like a lot, but if you get one several times a week it adds up in the end. Realizing this really helped change my spending habits and I became much more efficient at saving money that could be used for better things later on (like traveling).

Fast forward to September 2013 and I’m on a plane jetting across the Pacific to start a new life in New Zealand. In retrospect, all it took to get there was a willingness to never give up, hard work, and a lot of patience. But what about the actual traveling part? Surely once you start traveling your bank account starts to drain? This is true, but fortunately there are so many ways in which you can stretch your dollar to travel longer.

As I said earlier, I traveled to New Zealand on a working holiday visa (and later Australia), which allows people from participating countries to work and travel within NZ for up to a year. Of course when you’re getting paid to work, you replenish your travel funds as you go. But even when I wasn’t working, there are plenty of ways to keep spending costs down and stretching dollars a little further. Here are some of the ways I saved money while traveling:

Getting Around
Transportation is typically one of the highest expenses you’ll pay for on a trip (especially airfare), but there are plenty of cheap alternatives to get around. As much as I love taking trains, I usually opt for riding the bus which is a lot cheaper and while it may take longer, it saves a lot if you have the time. Sometimes the bus even comes with free WiFi, which makes the time seem to pass by a lot faster anyway. Another faster alternative I recently discovered here in Europe by carpooling with other travelers. Sites like BlaBlaCar (available in Europe only it seems) is one of of a few out there where people offer open seats in their cars for those who are looking in going the same direction. You just split the cost of gas along the way. So rather than taking an £80 train ride from London to Bath, I got there for only £14 by carpooling in the same amount of time and made a new friend along the way. Then of course there is always hitchhiking, which requires a higher degree of caution of course, but it’s free, and you meet really interesting people along the way. I got around most of New Zealand this way!

Cooking Meals
While it’s tempting to eat out all the time when you’re traveling, especially after you’ve spent a whole day touring around and exploring and you don’t really feel like cooking, you save so much by doing your own groceries and cooking your own meals. Most hostels have their own kitchens anyway. If I stay in one place for a few days, I’ll cook up one big meal that can feed me for a few days, saving both time and money.

Visiting Places Where Your Dollar Goes A Long Way
Sometimes deciding where to travel can also save you money. In some parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America, the cost of living is so low you really don’t spend that much on a daily basis. In Southeast Asia, for example, it was actually cheaper to go out and eat (you can easily have a decent sized meal for $2-5) than buying groceries. Hostels and guesthouses typically go for $5-10/night (even cheaper if you share a room with friends) and transportation and most activities are relatively inexpensive compared to other parts of the world.

Staying Sober
I’m not really that big of a drinker to begin with compared to your average backpacker, which has also helped keep costs down. In places like Australia and Scandanavia, where everything is fairly expensive, a beer can cost up to $10 each! So I usually avoid drinking in places like that. Not so much in countries like Germany where they’re known for good beer or France for wine and it’s cheap!

Carry As Much Cash As I Plan To Spend
When you travel long term, it’s important to create and stick to a budget to keep track of your spending. It’s common to spend more when you bring your wallet with you everywhere, so what I usually do is only bring as much cash with me as my daily budget allows and if I run out, then that’s all I have to spend for the day. Of course for special activities and events it’s fun to splurge every now and then. But sticking to this method has helped me save heaps, and if I ever do get robbed (still hasn’t happened yet) I won’t be losing everything so it’s a lot safer as well.

Alternative Accommodations
I’ll admit, I actually hate staying in hotels when I’m traveling solo. You normally pay too much money spent for something you’ll only use at night, and it gets pretty lonesome having a room all to yourself. Usually I prefer to stay in hostels since they’re cheaper, have a much better social vibe where you can meet new people, and sometimes include little perks like free breakfast and bicycle rentals. I think I’ve been pretty lucky with hostels I’ve stayed in, there are good ones and bad ones, and I’ve stayed in some places that felt more like a home than a business. And it’s not only for young people, I’ve met some really interesting older people staying in hostels as well.

When possibly, I usually try and stay with friends whenever I can because A, it’s always nice to see your friends again, and B, you get a free, safe place to sleep! It’s also nice because you also have a sort of a local guide to show you around and hang out with. When I don’t have friends to stay with, every now and then I couch surf, another alternative where you don’t spend a dime and you have opportunities to meet and connect with new people.

I could go on about saving for accommodation as there are so many alternatives to sleeping in a hotel (Airbnb, House Sitting, Camping, etc), so I’ve written a seperate blog post on how to save on accomodation while traveling!

Cleaning for Accommodation
This kind of goes along with the last point in terms of reducing the costs of your accommodations. While I was living in Australia and New Zealand, there were a few times where I volunteered to help with cleaning around the hostel in exchange for free accommodation. Although I may have had another paid job in the evenings usually, it didn’t consume a lot of my time, just a couple hours in the mornings. In New Zealand especially, I hardly spent anything on accommodation the whole 10 months I was there and all those saved dollars went to better use elsewhere.

Changing Spending Habits
Most of all, realizing where your money goes and adjusting to buying mostly things you need versus things you want has been a game changer for me. It’s amazing how your mind thinks when you start traveling long term, because you’re always thinking in terms of what your spending now and how that could be used on something more rewarding later. Traveling became a priority for me, so I did all I could to cut back on other expenses so I could put more money towards my trip. I would much rather forgo that daily Starbucks run or trip to the cinemas if it means I can have another day of traveling. There are a lot of little things we spend on a daily basis, that add up over time. Once I realized what all those little things were, I started to prioritize my spending on experiences rather than materialism.

Traveling doesn’t have to be as expensive as most people make it out to be. There are loads of people out there who are doing the exact same thing I am, it’s nothing original. There are ways to do it if you have the time and are willing to do something a little different. If you’re the kind of person who likes to stay in all inclusive resorts, eat out all the time, and do package tours that might be a different story. But if you’re the backpacker kind of traveler, then you can easily get around on a budget if you’re willing to stretch your comfort zone. And travel is usually a lot more rewarding when you do.

How I Fell In Love With Porto

Porto

Recently I took a trip to Portugal. After traveling around the cold and gray northern parts of Europe most of the winter, I started daydreaming about warmer places where I could thaw out and get some sun. Many of my friends who had been there before said it was a really nice country, so after a quick look on Skyscanner I found a cheap flight from Paris to the northern Portuguese city of Porto. As I got on the plane, I realized I really didn’t know anything about the city other than that it’s the place where port wine is produced and stored. With this I didn’t have a lot of other expectations, but what I wasn’t expecting was how much I would fall in love with Porto (and Portugal)!

My visit was fairly brief–only three days–and I regret not staying a few extra. Despite being one of the biggest cities in Portugal, I found it rather small with a lot of charm and a very relaxing atmosphere. Being situated on a river near the coast, the city is surrounded by water and so there is that hint of fragrance from the sea in the air. The smell of fresh cooking from somewhere within the colorful homes lining the steep, tiny streets was also everywhere. The sound of seagulls, church bells ringing in the distance, and cars driving over cobblestone roads were constantly filling your ears. Everywhere you look, there is something beautiful or interesting around the corner. I was constantly wide-eyed the whole time I was there, letting my senses take everything in.

The people of Porto were also so warm and friendly. Being so far away from the rest of Europe, I thought it would be a little difficult with the language barrier, but I was surprised to find that a lot of people actually speak really decent English! Especially younger people, some of which had perfect American or British accents, making it really easy to communicate with some of the locals. The pace of life for people in this city is also very relaxed and easy going. Unlike me, who is a notoriously fast walker, no one is in a rush to get anywhere. People take their time.

Despite being a small city, there is a fair amount to do and see here. Getting around to most places can be done by foot, although they do have a good tram and bus system to get you to places farther out from the historic city center. Here are some of the things I liked most about Porto:

Beautiful Parks
Spring in Porto

One of my rules of thumb to determining how nice a city is by the amount of parks it has. I like my cities green, with lots of places you can “get away” from the urban jungle and escape to a small patch of nature. Porto has just that, with some beautifully landscaped parks. One of the best ones I thought was Jardins do Palacio de Christal, which was decorated with lots of local and exotic flora. The views of the river and city are pretty outstanding from there as well! The gardens at the Contemporary Arts Museum (Fundação De Serralves) has an entry fee (included with the price of the museum), but is also very nice place to walk through.

The Food & Wine
The View From Taylor's

The most thing that Porto is known for is it’s famous port wine. Port is a very sweet, fortified wine that comes in quite a few varieties, and is a must try when in Porto. Just across the river from Porto city center is the city of Gaia, home of several different wine cellars and producers. You can make a whole day going from cellar to cellar and trying all the different wines. Taylor’s offers a very nice tour of their cellars for just €5 and you can learn about the whole wine making process. It also includes 3 different wine tastings, which you can enjoy out on their terrace that overlooks the city (seen above). I went to a few different cellars, but Taylor’s was the best one I thought. Another producer, Graham’s, is also a nice spot for wine tasting and they also have an outdoor deck with nice views of the city and river. If you have the time, you can even take a tour to the beautiful Duoro Valley region, to the east from Porto where you can see where all the grapes are grown and harvested.

Aside from wine, the food in Porto (and Portugal in general) is splendid and very cheap. You can try Francesinha, a typical Porto dish which is sort of like a meat sandwich covered with cheese, an egg, and sauce, at any cafeteria. A good spot for cheap eats in the city center is a little café called Badalhoca. Most dishes (about €2-€3) are served like tapas and consist of meat or seafood. It’s best to come with friends and order a few dishes to share. Afterwards you can get something sweet and head over to Santinis for some really good ice cream!

If it’s a Monday evening, you can head down to the old district of Rebeira on the riverfront. It’s where all the young people go to socialize and have cheap drinks and baldes (buckets) for only a few euros. Seeing the city from the river at night is also really beautiful!

This Book Store
The Most Beautiful Book Shop

Kind of an offbeat thing to see, but something really worth going to is the Lello & Irmao bookstore located near the city center. It has to be the most beautiful bookstore I’ve ever seen–also known as the Harry Potter library (you’ll find out why when you see it). It’s a small shop, but the décor and atmosphere is amazing with a beautifully carved staircase connecting the first and second floors. There is a small English section for non-Portuguese readers, and your €3 entry ticket can go toward getting a discount if you buy a book!

The BeachPorto Beach

Not only is Porto a river town, but is also blessed with several beaches that face west, making it a perfect place to watch the sun set over the ocean. There is a really nice coastal walk you can do all along the beach area on the north side of the river that makes its way down the coast and along the river back into Porto, with a fortress you can see along the way. Getting to the beach can be done by bus or even better, by trolley car, and only costs a couple euros. Farther north of Porto I heard there are also some good surf spots as well.

The Architecture
Clerigos Tower

Many buildings are decorated with colorful ceramic facades, which is really unique to Portugal. Even the sidewalks are pretty, made out of small black and white stone tiles in a mosaic-like fashion. Closer to the city center you can get lost wandering around the steep and narrow streets, past old churches and little shops. Unlike Lisbon, which suffered heavy damage from a massive earthquake a while back and had to be rebuilt, Porto’s buildings are mostly original and well-preserved. This gives the city a very old and rustic feel, which adds so much to its charming atmosphere. It’s a very pretty and well-designed city.

The Views
Porto

Situated on steep cliffs and hills next to the river, Porto is a very picturesque city (how many times have I said this already?) There are so many places in the city you can find with sweeping vistas, especially from the famous bridge in the middle of the city, Ponte de San Luis.

It may have been all the wine I drank or maybe just the relaxed vibes as I made my way through the city, but I can say Porto is one of those special places that I’ve really fallen in love with and can see myself coming back here again. If I was Portuguese I would definitely live here!

The Truths of Long-Term Travel

The First Sunset of 2014

Having been away for two and a half years now, I can tell you that traveling is not always one big happy holiday. Like any other life path you choose, it has its ups and downs, pros and cons, highs and lows. After a while there are certain things I’ve grown to love and hate about about traveling. Here are some of my observations:

1. It’s about the people, not the place.
When I first started traveling, the most exciting part of the journey to me was seeing new places, discovering new cities, and exploring beautiful landscapes. But the truth is, travel is all about the people you meet. I’ve been to some really dirty, ugly, and otherwise fairly mundane places, but still had a great time because I was with great people. It doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you’re with the right people.

2. You get tired of seeing the same things.
After a while, everything appears to be the same–another church, another waterfall, another beach, another city, another museum. Over time, travel becomes less of a novelty that it once had when you first set out on the road. You start feeling numb and less impressed with seeing things like the way you used to. There are times when I do get bored seeing the same things everyday.

Luckily there are still those gems you find that will always take your breath away, no matter how many times you come back. This is also why meeting new people is the best part of travel, because there are always interesting and unique souls to meet!

3. Your taste for food changes.
Growing up where I did in America, I was lucky enough to be exposed at a younger age to a variety of different cuisines (currently craving my favorite Thai place back home at the moment!). I think this gave me the extra little push when I started traveling to be more curious and open to trying new foods everywhere I went. Once you start exposing yourself to new foods, you can appreciate (or not appreciate) new flavors and tastes. After a while your palate adjusts and that can even change your eating habits. Things that I would have never have eaten, are now things I love. On the contrary, things that I used to like back home, I can barely stand anymore (looking at you McD’s). You’ll never know if you like something unless you try!

4. The connections you make with new people on the road can be powerful.
When you’re on the road, meeting new people is inevitable (unless you’re some kind of hermit that lives under a rock). Every now and then there will be those days where your friends (even people you just met) will invite you to go on spontaneous, unplanned adventures, and to be honest, those where some my happiest and most vivid memories.  It’s what travel is all about–connecting with people through shared experiences. It’s a beautiful thing. I’ve stayed in touch with a few of my friends I’ve made abroad and every time we see each other, no matter how long its been, we can always pick things up from where we left off because we can always go back to that amazing time we spent together.

5. It pays to go one way when the crowds go the other.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s fun to go out and do “touristy” things (they’re touristy for a reason after all, right?). But sometimes it’s really worth going against the grain and taking the path less taken. Walk away from the long lines. Go down that empty path. Take the time to find what’s around the next street corner. You might not find anything special at all, or you might find something totally worth discovering–a hidden waterfall, a hip cafe, a secret beach, a local neighborhood event. It’s amazing what you’ll find when you go off the beaten path sometimes!

6. It can be exhausting.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned after traveling so long is that you get tired of it sometimes. It gets exhausting constantly researching about where you are and where you’re going, figuring out how you’ll get there, finding ways to be frugal so you can stay on budget, being confronted with language barriers, constantly packing and unpacking your bag, the long bus rides…in general always having to be in “on the go” mode. After a while, you get burnt out and have to take a few rest days. There are some days where I just want to stop everything and do nothing for a week.

7. You still have responsibilities.
Some people have this notion that people who travel long term are free from responsibility. Carrying everything I own in just a backpack, it’s true I may not have much to look after. I may not have a car or a house, but I still have other things to tend to. I had a couple jobs and worked for most of the time I’ve been abroad to fund my travels. I still pay for insurance. I still have student loans I’m paying off. Traveling doesn’t get you off the hook for everything!

8. It’s not always so glamorous.
Traveling isn’t always as glamorous as the magazines and TV shows make it seem. I’ve spent way too many times being in a rush to catch a bus, I’ve had flights canceled, I’ve had all my belongings get soaked after being trapped in a massive downpour, spent long sleepless nights on airport floors, sweated like a dog for weeks in a station wagon with no AC while driving through the Outback, witnessed poverty, spent time in places that didn’t have the luxury of electricity and hot water, been so sick I was bedridden for days…these are just a few of the times when things just didn’t go right. No trip will ever be perfect, you can learn a lot from misadventures and mishaps. They also make for good stories and something you can laugh about later on!

9. You learn to appreciate simple living.
Living out of a backpack for the past two years, you learn what you need to live and you learn what you don’t need, and I’ve come to realize that you don’t really need a whole lot to live off of to be happy. Just ask anyone who has ever been to a third world country–the happiest and most generous people always seem to be those with very little. Life experiences and relationships have become more of a priority for me than chasing money. Needless to say I’ve become a bit of a minimalist since I’ve left home.

10. You learn how to adapt and be flexible.
Whether it’s having your flight cancelled, taking a 15 hour bus journey, your ride breaking down, or being thrown into a new environment where you don’t know the local language or customs, travel teaches you patience. With all the mishaps that inevitably happen at one point or another during a long trip, you just learn to accept change and go with the flow. In the end, you always manage and find your own way to make things work out.

11. You gain a bigger picture of the world.
I grew up in a small, rural town on an island in the northwest corner of the US. For most of my life, that was my world. Excluding Canada, I never traveled internationally until I was 20 years old. When I was 24 I moved abroad to live in New Zealand. Living there gave me the opportunity to meet new people, both locals and fellow travelers from all over the world. Leaving my little corner of the world was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The longer I traveled, the more exposure I gained to new cultures, new ideas, and new beliefs. I was able to see for the first time that there was so much more to the world outside of the little bubble I lived in at home. I saw that the world isn’t as scary of a place as we usually imagine it to be, and there’s so much out there just waiting for you to discover. The following quote by St. Augustine really sums this point up: “The world is like a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.”

12. You have to say goodbye. A lot.
Definitely one of the hardest parts about traveling is all the goodbyes you have to make. In the backpacking world, people are constantly flowing in and out of your life. Friendships on the road typically only last a few days, but it’s always a little sad even when you have to say goodbye to people you’ve shared an incredible experience with. As a solo traveler, you arrive in a new place and are forced to meet new people to avoid being a loner. If you’re lucky, you’ll find those special people that you spend a few days with, which might turn into weeks, and sometimes even months, until the day comes when you must part ways. That’s never easy, and the worst part is really the uncertainty of when or if you will ever see them again. It’s a heartbreaking reality.

13. You learn to cherish the small moments.
When we travel we often have a list of big things that we really want to experience. For me it was getting things crossed off of my bucket list. And while achieving those milestones were very memorable and fulfilling, I’ve also learned that small moments matter as well. In fact, some of my favorite memories were the little things that seemed insignificant at the time, but always make me smile whenever I think about them.

14. You learn how to manage money better.
When you’re traveling on a budget, you get creative to find ways to stretch your dollar a little further. Before I started traveling, when I was saving up for my trip, I began to keep track of my expenses. Once I started doing that, I was better able to prioritize spending money on things I actually needed and cutting back on other things that were less important. Now when I travel, I usually have a set daily budget (which changes depending on what country I’m in). I do splurge every now and then (you have to have fun sometimes!), but for the most part I try to stay on budget to ensure that I have enough money to continue traveling.

15. You learn about yourself.
When you spend long hours on trains, buses, and airplanes, you have a lot of time to think. Oftentimes your thoughts become more introspective and you find yourself reflecting on who you are as a person. Now I wouldn’t say I’ve gone and “found myself” on this journey, but I definitely do think I’m a much different person than I was when I first left home. Traveling long term really does shape you. Without the social barriers that you may have had at home, you can really let yourself be who you really are. You become fiercely independent and much more confident. You become more outgoing. You have your beliefs both challenged and affirmed. You face your fears. When you travel you discover things you never knew you were even capable of. It’s liberating.

Long-term travel isn’t for everyone of course, but I believe it’s healthy for people to travel, even if it’s just once in their life. You don’t even have to travel long-term to reap its benefits. Just take a trip somewhere, no matter how long. Go somewhere new. Try something new, meet new people. You might be surprised what you can learn not only about the world, but about yourself.

A Weekend In Kakadu National Park

The Kakadu Crew in Ubirr

Towards the end of my year living in Australia, I had the chance to visit one of the country’s greatest treasures: Kakadu National Park. I was lucky enough to have a friend who had access to a 4WD truck, which is required to see some of the bigger and more remote sights in the park. After living and working my last three months in Darwin, we decided to go out and spend our final weekend in Australia camping and exploring the park with some other adventurous backpackers.

Kakadu is huge, covering nearly 20,000 square kilometers. That’s half the size of Switzerland! At this size, getting around obviously takes some time, which is why a proper visit should take at the least a couple days. At first glance, driving through the park is fairly monotonous as we drove through a large expanse of gum tree forests, a lot of which has been burned by bush fires. There are, however, a considerable number of hidden gems and interesting places that make Kakadu one of Australia’s most popular and unique national parks: stunning gorges, hidden waterfalls, lush wetlands, and ancient aboriginal art sites. All of this combined makes it one most beloved places in Australia and it has the status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are just some of the major highlights you can find:

Ubirr & Nourlangie Art Sites
Sacred Art
The East Alligator and Nourlangie regions of the park are where you’ll find one of the park’s major attractions: ancient aboriginal rock art. Some of the paintings are believed to be 20,000 years old and typically depict creation stories, but also paintings of animals that the Aborigines hunted and paintings depicting the first encounters with white settlers.

Location: 12° 51.894’S 132° 48.611’E
Accessibility: Most sites are accessible by paved road, but may be restricted by flooding in the wet season.

Sunset From Ubirr Rock
Kakadu Wetlands
The sunsets in the Top End are legendary, with brilliant displays of color reflecting off the billabongs and wetlands. A great spot to catch the sunset is from the top of Ubirr Rock (pictured above).

Location: 12° 24.522’S 132° 57.255’E
Accessibility: All vehicles (may be restricted due to flooding in wet season)

Croc Spotting At The East Alligator River
The King of Kakadu
Ironically, there are no alligators in East Alligator River. It is instead the home to thousands of fresh and saltwater crocodiles. If you want to see some big crocs, this is the place! We took a brief break here and in just 10 minutes we spotted 7 in one little section of the river.

Location: 12° 25.577’S 132° 57.914’E
Accessibility: All vehicles (dry season)

Jim Jim Falls
Jim Jim
Perhaps the most famous waterfall in the park, this area can only be accessed during the dry season by 4WD vehicle and a 2 km walk over boulder fields and through monsoon forests. At the peak of the dry season (July-October), the falls actually dry up and cease to flow so the best time to visit is at the beginning of the dry season when the falls are still thundering down the cliff face surging with wet season rain.

Location: 13° 16.399’S 132° 50.311’E
Accessibility: 4WD only (dry season)

Maguk Pool
Maguk Falls
Also known as Barramundie Gorge, this quite swimming spot is in the southern part of the park. Getting here is recommended by 4WD but it may be possible for a car to make it here. Unlike some of the other falls in the park, this one flows year-round.

Location: 13° 19.097’S 132° 26.280’E
Accessibility: 4WD only (dry season)

Gunlom Falls
Golgum Pool
My personal favorite place in the park, this serene place is like a natural infinity pool. The plunge pool is situated on top of a cliff among a shady grove of gum trees with sweeping views overlooking the park. Getting there requires a short but steep climb to the top of the falls and on a hot day a dip in the pool is super rewarding and refreshing!

Location: 13° 25.874’S 132° 25.081’E
Accessibility: Possible with 2WD, 4WD recommended (dry season)

No trip to Australia is complete without visiting Kakadu National Park. It’s exactly how I imagined Australia to be–huge skies, big gorges, endless expanses of gum trees, great camping, big crocs and other Aussie wildlife, Aboriginal culture. It’s a special place not to be missed!

Why You Need To Go To Nepal Now

EBC Trek | Ama Dablam

As my plane touched down at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, I really wasn’t sure what I would find in a place that recently suffered from natural disaster. The date was November 30, 2015, a little over 7 months after news spread across the world of a massive earthquake that rocked a small country nestled among the highest mountain range in the world.

From the airport I took a taxi into the city, and as we drove I looked out the window and assessed the conditions of post-quake Nepal. To my surprise, everything seemed to be business as usual as far as I could tell. The only thing that became apparent to me right away was that even during rush hour, the roads seemed much emptier and lacking the endless bumper-to-bumper traffic that is typically omnipresent throughout Asian cities. My initial assumption was that this was a result of the earthquake, but my driver explained to me that the big concern at the moment for most Nepalese people is actually India’s oil embargo on Nepal. This has gone on since September 2015 and many believe India’s actions are in response to the country’s newly drafted and controversial constitution. As a landlocked nation, Nepal is entirely dependent on it’s southern neighbor of India for fuel and other important resources. The resulting fuel shortage means more people are off the roads (which might help a little in reducing the high pollution levels in Kathmandu), but it also means that the people have less access to foods and supplies (like medicine) that normally have to be imported by trucks.

To make matters worse, since the earthquake, the western media has portrayed Nepal as an unsafe and unstable place to visit. Even in the weeks prior to my arrival, I was still seeing images of famous, beautiful temples in rubble and buildings in ruin. This has resulted in a huge setback in the tourism industry. Fewer visitors, unfortunately, means many people who work as guides, porters, hoteliers, and many other tourism-based jobs that are vital to the economy (tourism is the largest industry) are unemployed. It was shocking to see the numbers posted on this sign at the park office at the entrance to Sagamartha National Park, down on average 50% of the usual inflow.

EBC Trek | Tourist Numbers

While I did observe some damaged areas in Kathmandu, it certainly wasn’t widespread. Most of the main historic sights and infrastructure had been reopened or was being rebuilt. Unfortunately the epicenter was closest to the most densely populated part of the country, which is why there was such a high number of people affected. But at the time of the earthquake, news media made it seem as if the entire country was destroyed. In many other areas around Nepal, such as the popular Everest region, the effects of the earthquake were much less. When I did my trek in early December 2015, I noticed hardly any signs of damage aside from a few buildings, which may have suffered due to poor construction to begin with anyway. In other regions, such in the country’s far west and east, minimal to no damage was reported.

Harati Devi Temple | Kathmandu

To hear all the negative news coverage was discouraging because during my few weeks in Kathmandu and trekking in the Himalayas, I saw a very different Nepal. I saw a colorful, diverse, and vibrant nation full of stunning scenery and friendly, resilient people who are desperate for the tourists to return. The truth is, there’s nothing much to worry about at the moment for visitors. It’s still fairly safe, the country is still stunningly beautiful, and the people who are well-known for their friendliness are just as warm and hospitable as ever.

Nepal has declared itself open for tourism. They desperately need visitors to return. So if there was a better time to go, let 2016 be the year to see this amazing place.

10 Magical Places In Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is a remarkable part of the world. The region is bursting with vibrant cultures, wild jungles, alluring beaches, exotic temples, natural beauty, and fascinating cuisines, making it one of the most desirable destinations for travelers. Despite the ever-growing tourist trail that people typically follow, there are still a few places here and there that still make you feel as if you’ve discovered something special. Here were some of my favorite spots during my three month trip through Southeast Asia:

1. Secret Waterfall | Bali
Secret Waterfall | Bali
The Bali highlands are littered with gorgeous waterfalls, some more well-known than others. We planned on spending a day finding some that we read about on Google, but after a chat with our scooter rental man, he advised us of a beautiful set of falls hidden somewhere deep in the mountains that not many westerners ever make it to. So off we went on our scooters through a maze of back roads that brought us up and down steep, jungle-claded hills, through rice farms, narrow paths, and towards the end a long, steep staircase into a canyon where we had to cross a small stream before finally reaching the falls. There were actually five in total, gently cascading down through luscious green foliage clinging to the rock wall. Although I’ve seen much bigger falls in the past, these were especially memorable because of the crazy journey it took to get there–and we nearly had the whole place to ourselves!

2. Ubud Rice Terraces | Bali
Ubud Rice Fields
Just outside of the Balinese cultural center of Ubud, you can find yourself wandering through vibrant green rice farms and rice terraces. There are plenty around to get lost in, including the famous terraces of Tegalalang, but one of my favorite spots was only a 20 minute walk out of town at a little restaurant called Cafe Pomegranate. Built overlooking the rice fields, coming here in the evening hours is an enchanting experience as the sun goes down and the fireflies come out. Their coconut curry is also some of the best I’ve ever had!

3. Angkor Wat | Cambodia
Hidden Temple
While Angkor Wat is perhaps the most well-known destinations in all of Asia, it’s immense size allows for opportunities to leave the crowds and explore the ancient ruins in solitude. It’s so huge that there plenty of places away from the main attractions that see scarcely any visitors. Although we did see the big sights such as Angkor Wat temple and Bayon (which are incredible), we found it amazingly simple taking a side road to other less-visited temples set back further into the jungle. There was even one decent-sized complex that we had all to ourselves! Sometimes it pays to go one way when the crowds go the other.

4. Koh Rong | Cambodia
Koh Rong
A few years ago this place was lying pretty low on the traveler’s radar and was considered a hidden gem. Today, the island gets much more visitors as the secret has gotten out, but compared to other SE Asian tropical islands it’s still relatively undeveloped. And while it rained during the majority of our visit, there was something enchanting about this island. Maybe it was serene atmosphere that came with the absence of cars and motorbikes (there are no roads on the island). Maybe it was, when the sun actually was out, the stunningly blue seas and beautiful white sand beaches. Whatever the reason may be, Koh Rong was for sure one of my favorite places in Cambodia.

5. White Sand Dunes | Vietnam
White Dunes
On the southeastern coast of Vietnam is a little fishing town called Mui Ne, and just outside of Mui Ne is a landscape that will make you believe you are in Saharan Africa rather than Southeast Asia. Huge mountains of sand rise up here, a stark contrast to the green countryside that’s typical in Vietnam. You can rent an ATV to get around on the dunes, but they’re rather noisy and get stuck in the sand easily. The best way is to just walk, feeling the warm sand between your toes and hearing only the wind blow.


6. Tam Coc & Trang An | Vietnam

Tam Coc
One of my favorite places in Vietnam, the area around Ninh Binh looks very similar to the famous Ha Long Bay just a few hours away, only it’s located inland among rice fields. The landscape here is breathtaking with beautiful karst formations that rise up from the earth resembling the backs of dragons. Taking a boat trip on the Tam Coc and Trang An rivers are the highlight of this area, taking you through some epic scenery and mesmerizing grottoes beneath the mountains. Best of all, the area is somewhat off the main grid that so many travelers in Vietnam follow. On my ride up the river in Trang An, I was the only westerner and had a great trip connecting with some of the local Vietnamese tourists in my boat, making for an enriching experience!

7. Hoi An | Vietnam
Evening In Hoi An
If you ever ask anyone where to go and what to do on a trip to Vietnam, there is a really good chance they will mention Hoi An. Hoi An is a beautiful little town on a river with a long history of Chinese and Japanese traders settling here. Although there really isn’t much to do here per se, Hoi An is well-known simply because of its relaxed, yet vibrant atmosphere. On any given night, the lantern filled streets and archaic buildings almost seem like a scene out of a Miyazaki film. It’s also a great foodie destination. Some of my favorite Vietnamese foods originate from Hoi An. It’s a place not to be missed when traveling in Vietnam!

8. Kuang Si Waterfalls | Laos
Kuang Si Waterfalls
This place is a real gem, situated about 18 miles outside of Luang Prabang in central Laos. Consisting of several tiers of turquoise-colored pools amidst a lush green tropical Laotian jungle, it might as well be paradise. Especially on a hot day, a swim in the pools is so nice and refreshing!

9. Ko Nang Yuan | Thailand
Koh Nang Yuan
Somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand are three little islands interconnected to one another by a beautiful white sandbar. The island, just a short hop away from the diving mecca known as Ko Tao, is a perfect place for a day trip relaxing on the beach or snorkeling among the coral gardens in the shallow clear blue waters.

10. Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh | Thailand
Maya Bay
Made famous by the movie “The Beach”, this beautiful place is often extremely crowded and overrun by tourists by day. Fortunately you can avoid the crowds by going later in the evening or early in the morning. I came here on an overnight boat trip and as the sun went down the numbers dwindled, and we literally had the whole beach to ourselves. There is nothing like watching the stars come out while laying on the sand, which literally felt as fine as flour, with the turquoise blue sea gently lapping at your feet. We even went swimming at night to see the phosphorescent plankton–a truly magical experience!

13 Reasons Why I Love Hong Kong

1. The Food Is Incredible
Hong Kong Eats

I had a feeling Chinese food here would be much better than anything I could get back home, but I was blown away by how amazing it really is. I spent a few days eating mostly dim sum and noodles, but there are also lots of other incredible foods here that just make your taste buds dance. Never again will I be able to eat Chinese food any where else with the same appreciation.

2. Hong Kong Milk Tea
11054782_10203933679413955_7018594233665817209_n

As a big lover of bubble tea I just had to try Hong Kong’s famous milk tea. It didn’t disappoint, I had some of the best bubble tea during my time here!

3. Getting Around Is Super Efficient and Easy
Hong Kong Street Car

There are so many ways to get around Hong Kong. Taxis, trams (pictured above), buses, ferries, gondolas, cable cars, hydrofoils, pedicabs, and an extensive metro system makes getting around the city easy and cheap. There are even underground walkways in some parts of the city so you don’t have to deal with traffic, rain, or the sweltering heat. Getting around the city is a sinch!

4. It’s Both Modern and Traditional
Monastery

One one side of the street you can have a modern skyscraper and just opposite you can find a monastery decorated with traditional and colorful Chinese elements.

5. The Festivals
Cheung Chau Festival

I was lucky to be there during the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, a quirky local festival that takes place a ferry ride away from the main city on the island of Cheung Chau. Aside from traditional ceremonies and a parade through town, the highlight of the event involves competitors climbing a 60 foot tower made of buns. It’s kind of a strange event, but that’s what makes things here so unique! It’s just one of several festivals that take place throughout the year in Hong Kong.

6. The Harbor At Night
Hong Kong Lights

There is nothing like strolling along the Avenue of the Stars at night to see the city light up across beautiful Victoria Harbour.

7. It’s Easy To Find Solitude
Cheung Chau

Despite being a major city, most of Hong Kong is actually rural and quite pristine. There are miles and miles of hiking trails through mountains and lush jungles around the city. And with hundreds of islands around, there are plenty of beaches you can go to and have the place to yourself!

8. The City Is Always Moving
Streets of Hong Kong

No matter what time of day, the city never seems to sleep.

9. There Is Always Something Interesting Around the Corner
Hong Kong in Rain

You never know what you’re going to find.

10. There Is Nature Everywhere
Kowloon Park

I have never seen a more literal interpretation of the term “urban jungle” than in Hong Kong. One minute you can be strolling along the city streets, the next you can find yourself on a quite path through the forest.

11. The Markets
Hong Kong Street Market

Hong Kong is full of markets and you can find so many interesting things in them. From cheap clothes to expensive, tailored suits and dresses, useless knick knacks, natural medicinal remedies, electronic accessories, flowers, exotic fruits and veggies, and amazing street food, you can find pretty much anything in the markets. There’s even a famous goldfish market full of aquariums where you can buy what else–goldfish of course.

12. Beautiful Art Is Everywhere
Guardian of the Monastery

There is beautiful art everywhere in Hong Kong, both modern and traditional. Especially in parks, which are beautifully decorated with stone statues, shrines, and zen-like gardens.

13. This View
Hong Kong at Night

There’s nothing like the glorious view that can be found from the top of Victoria Peak, making Hong Kong one of the most picturesque cities in the world.

Finding Paradise in El Nido

El Nido - Dolarog Beach

When I think of the Philippines, I think of beautiful beaches fringed with coconut trees, dense jungles, colorful coral reefs, and tiny little islands scattered across a vibrant blue sea. While there are many places throughout this island nation that may fit that description, it couldn’t have been more so than in El Nido on the island of Palawan. Going to El Nido was actually one of the main reasons why I decided to go to the Philippines. A few years ago I was watching an episode of the Amazing Race and they went to what was then a tiny little fishing village nestled between towering limestone cliffs. They then had to sailed out to the stunning Bacuit Archipelago just off the coast, and I was instantly enamoured with the place–I knew I wanted to go there one day!

So now that I’ve been there and seen it first-hand, I can tell you it was the most beautiful place I went to in the Philippines. In fact, I’d say it is a pretty good contender for one of the most beautiful places in world. While it’s obvious that the town has seen some growth in the past few years due to increased tourism, it’s natural beauty still remains mostly unspoiled. The islands here are spectacular and are riddled with thousands of dramatic limestone formations, hidden coves, and secret beaches. Island hopping is biggest activity to do here and can easily be arranged at any of the numerous tour operators in town. Day trips are generally around 1200 php (about $27 USD) and include lunch. Depending on the operator, you may or may not have to rent out snorkel gear (fortunately I had my own as our boat didn’t include it). The tours are simply named Tour A, B, C, and D, with A and C being the most popular as they take you to some of the archipelago’s best spots and highlights.

El Nido Town
El Nido

The boats generally leave around 9 am and come back late in the afternoon, so there is plenty of time out on the water. If that’s not enough, some operators also offer overnight tours, which I wish I had known about as spending a night on one of the islands sounds amazing! I ended up doing Tour A with a friend I met on the ride up to El Nido. Since it was the middle of the high season a lot of the boats were full of people, with 15-20 pax in each boat. We got lucky with ours somehow as it was just us and only two other people. It might as well been a private trip!

We made several stops throughout the day to explore a beach or go swimming, but my favorites by far were the Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon. The Big Lagoon is shallow passage between tall limestone cliffs that guard a large sheltered lagoon. Since the water is shallow inside the passageway, boats can only really enter at high tide. Small Lagoon is similar in that it’s surrounded by beautiful cliffs, but can only be accessed by a small hole in the rock that you have to swim or kayak through. Both were stunning and I couldn’t believe that places like this actually exist.

Entering The Big Lagoon
Big Lagoon
Island Hopping - El Nido

For snorkeling-lovers like myself, El Nido was heaven. While the snorkeling in the beautiful lagoons themselves were so-so, there are plenty of reefs around the islands you could spend a lifetime exploring. The coral gardens around are so colorful and abundant with life. We saw a sea turtle, barracudas, and a even a sea snake! When the boat wasn’t moving, we were snorkeling–we spent so much time in the water swimming with the fish. I think the snorkeling was actually the best part of the tour.

Under The Yellow Sea
El Nido Reef

Back in El Nido, when we weren’t sailing around the islands, we simply spent our days on the beach. The town beach in El Nido proper is okay, but the water is mildly murky and the bay is crowded with boats. A better place is Las Cabanas Beach just a few kilometers south of town and easily accessible by tricycle for about 50 php. It’s much more relaxed here compared to the town beach and there are some good places to get good food and drinks right on the sand. It’s also one of the best places to watch sunsets!

El Nido Sunset
El Nido Sunset
El Nido Sunset

Compared to the famous islands in Thailand or places like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, El Nido is still relatively undiscovered and may as well be one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets. Only until recently, in November 2014, the town itself only had electricity for a few hours a day. There’s not even an ATM machine, so travelers must stock up on cash before arrival. Getting there is an adventure in itself–it’s 5-6 hours by van or 6-7 hours bus, all along curvy rural roads that are still unpaved in areas. However, the region has attracted lots of attention in recent years thanks to a growing tourism industry and I can imagine in a few years El Nido will be the next big tourist destination for travelers in Southeast Asia. So get there while you still can!