A Two-Week, All-Jordan Itinerary

From relaxing on the Dead Sea, to exploring Roman ruins; from the ancient city of Petra to the magical Wadi Rum desert, there’s so much to fill your time in this small country, and this two week itinerary covers it all.

Yes, many people balked when my fiance and I told them we were planning a two week trip to Jordan, leaving the day after Christmas and staying into the new year. “The Middle East?” They asked. “Two weeks?” They questioned. “Is there even anything to do other than Petra?”

Beyond the most famous attractions, including Petra, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, there is so much to see and do: for the history buffs, to the adventure junkies and the spa aficionados. And after researching and planning a full two weeks, once we were on the ground, we found ourselves consistently amazed by what we experienced. In nearly every aspect, Jordan exceeded our expectations.

It should also be noted that we felt safe while we traveled. The locals were extraordinarily friendly, engaging and respectful and the police and security presence was obvious, but not overwhelming. It should be remembered that the government of Jordan has a vested interest in keeping tourists safe and comfortable, and considering their neighborhood, they’ve done a fantastic job. I would recommend Jordan as a tourist destination to anyone who loves desert landscapes, history and cultural immersions.*

Laid out below, in all it’s detailed glory, is our FULL two week itinerary in Jordan, for you to copy or cut from as you like! If you don’t have that much time, you can still hit a lot of the highlights in just a few days, thanks to the small amount of miles between sites and the density of incredible places within this historic country.

*I would of course recommend keeping up with the news and current events ANYWHERE in the world you’re planning on visiting in the weeks leading up to your trip, and exercise caution and good judgement when you are in the country. This guide was written based on experiences and conditions in December 2016, and in this part of the world much is subject to change quickly. But don’t be afraid just because a place is different and the biggest risk you’re taking is breaking down prejudices. There’s already too much fear flying around for that.

Day 1 – 2: Arrive and Explore Amman

Land, get that passport stamp (be prepared for the 40 JD visa you’ll need to purchase upon arrival!) and catch a taxi to your hotel in the center of the capital (about 25 minutes away from the airport). Stretch out your legs as you up and down the steep streets (just like Rome, Amman was originally built upon 7 hills) and eat some hummus and falafel before sleeping.

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The remains of the hand of Hercules, a part of the ancient Citadel complex in Amman, the city sprawling out beyond.

On your first full day in the country, really explore Amman. It’s a sprawling metropolis which has grown incredibly in the last decades and is filled with modern, hip Jordanians, displaced Palestinians and, increasingly, Syrian refugees. Visit the historic Citadel and the Jordan Museum to get a sense of the wide array of history packed into this tiny country, walk Rainbow Street and sit in some smokey, exotic hookah cafes sipping espresso. There are plenty of traditional restaurants, as well as modern, internationally-inspired places that would seem outright American if you were dropped into them without context – English Christmas music playing and all!

On the one hand, Amman is where most Jordanians actually live, and by being here you get a sense of what life is like for those who live here. On the other, (and we happened to visit on a particularly cold, rainy day, which didn’t help us love the city) Amman is a little dirty, very chaotic and doesn’t exactly set the stage for all of the amazing sites and activities Jordan has to offer. But it’s a good place to kick your tour off.

Day 3: Jerash

On the morning of the 3rd day, pick up your rental car and head north. The city of Jerash lies 30 miles north of Amman and the main highlight of the town is the ruins of the ancient Roman city.

With the fertile Jordan River Valley nearby, the ancient city of Jerash flourished and was among the Roman Decapolis cities, allowing the inhabitants to build and maintain some truly incredible structures. With several temples still mostly erect, two theaters, a hippodrome arena (featuring costumed, historical re-enactments if you come at the right time of year) and an impressively-long Cardo Maximus (paved road lined with columns), this huge ruin is truly magnificent and should be on anyone’s must-see Jordan list.

Give yourself at least 3.5-4 hours to fully appreciate and explore these ruins.

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You can sleep in Jerash if you want, but there is only one hotel in town (right across from the ruins) and we opted to drive another half hour to the city of Ajloun for the night.

Day 4: Ajloun, Jordan Valley & Salt

There are many different ways you can spend your fourth day in Jordan. The city of Ajloun may not be the most impressive, but the Muslim-built castle atop the hill is absolutely worth a visit. This impressive fortress controlled and defended the trade route between Damascus and Egypt, and provides incredible views of the surrounding valley, to Israel, Palestine and Syria.

You can spent the day hiking at the Ajloun Forest Reserve, or if you’d prefer to take a driving tour and see more of the countryside, head towards the Jordan River Valley, stopping at the relatively un-excavated, but impressively ancient ruins in the village of Pella, then drive south along the river, through the heavily populated towns and markets in the fertile valley.

If you have time, stop for a few hours in the city of Salt, a pretty market town featuring Ottoman-era architecture.

Arrive in your hotel in Madaba, where you will spend the next two nights.

Day 5: Madaba and Mt. Nebo

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Part of the incredible mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of the Greek Orthodox church in Madaba.

Spend the morning exploring the pleasant town of Madaba, visiting the ruins of incredibly well-preserved Byzantine-era mosaics unearthed throughout the region, including a beautifully detailed map of the Holy Land from Jerusalem and the Dead Sea to Egypt and the Mediterranean on the floor of the church of Saint George. Also walk to the Roman Catholic Church of Saint John the Baptist and descend underground to the ancient well, then ascend the bell tower for views of the region.

Before the sun sets, drive 15 minutes to Mount Nebo, the place where Moses first and finally saw the Promised Land, a place he knew he was destined never to reach. and some more impressively preserved and displayed mosaics in the hilltop church.

 

During this day, if you really want to take a Biblically-inspired tour, you can also use the afternoon to head south to Mukawir, the site of Herod’s palace and the beheading of John the Baptist, or seek out one of the spring said to have emerged from a place Moses struck the ground with his staff.

Spend this night in Madaba again, sampling another of the many excellent restaurants in town for dinner.

Day 6: The Dead Sea

Make time to stop at the Dead Sea Panoramic Complex on your way to the Dead Sea resort of your choice. Even if you don’t need the geology lesson, the views of the lowest point on earth are worth it.

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All of that said, check into your resort (and yes, even budget travelers: it’s worth it to spring for a resort here!) on the Dead Sea as early as you can, and spend at least the whole afternoon bobbing in the water, relaxing in the pool and reading on the beach. That night, get yourself a spa treatment, or at least pop into the sauna.

Day 7: Bethany Beyond the Jordan to Dana

On Day 7, you can either spend another half day lounging as long as you can in the salty waters of the Dead Sea, or you can get up as early as possible and visit Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site of the baptism of Jesus. For us, it was January 1st, and it was a bright, sunny morning and we just couldn’t tear ourselves away from the beach and pool: no matter how wonderful and worthwhile everyone told us Bethany Beyond the Jordan is.

This afternoon, drive south along the Dead Sea Highway, enjoying the spectacular views at 400-plus feet below sea level. At the southern end of the sea, you’ll head east and meet the Kings Highway, an ancient trading route lined with olive trees and clustered with towns and cities.

We had planned on stopping in Karak to tour the crusader’s castle here. Unfortunately, there had been a recent standoff here between locals and police and we opted to avoid stopping in town.

As you drive south, the landscape becomes increasingly more desertous and you start to appreciate how important the fertile Jordan River valley really is to the region. Plan to arrive in the village of Dana before the evening settles in and find a spot along the dramatic cliff side to watch the sun set.

Day 8: Dana Wildlife Reserve

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Get up early and enjoy a big breakfast before descending for the day into the main wadi of the Dana Nature Reserve. The picturesque village of Dana perches upon the side of a cliff which looks down into this dramatic valley and a local revitalization project is aiming to bring villagers who left in the past decades back and rebuild the town. In the reserve, there are plenty of hikes, the most distinct follows the clear path that switchbacks up and down into the valley.

As you walk, keep an eye out for shepherds, wild animals and hawks.

Just remember: unless you’re going all the way to the Eco Lodge 16 kilometers on the other side of the valley, however far you go down, you’ve got to go back up!

It’s about an hour drive from Dana to Wadi Musa, the village outside of Petra, and if you have time and energy, make a stop to explore the crusader castle in Shobak.

Day 9: Petra

There is so much to say about this incredible Wonder of the World, and it deserves a post all on it’s own.

Here’s what’s most important: Prepare yourself for the 50 JD entrance fee (only 55 JD if you’re staying an extra day and going back into the ruins). Get up early to walk the kilometer through the cavernous Siq and see the sun rise over the Treasury, then give yourself at least a full day for exploration of the ancient city. There’s a lot of steps and a lot of walking involved in exploring Petra, so don’t plan to be anywhere other than your hotel in Wadi Musa for a hot shower and a relaxing night once you leave the ruins.

Day 10 – 12: The Red Sea

The drive between Wadi Musa and Aqaba takes about 2.5 hours and is incredibly barren. In fact, all of the landscape right up to the shoreline of the Red Sea are disconcertingly desolate, making the unbelievable diversity of the reef just below the surface that much more impressive.

Spend the afternoon of the 10th day relaxing by the sea at your hotel in the city of Aqaba or Tala Bay (slightly more remote, and closer to the reefs, which was what we opted for), enjoying that now you can see not only Israel, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia from your window. On the 11th day, hire a guided snorkeling or diving tour, or rent wet suits and flippers and explore the array of aquatic diversity in the reefs here. We snorkeled from the Japanese Garden south about a kilometer to our hotel and saw some incredible marine life.

Day 13: Wadi Rum

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Wake up early and drive one hour to Wadi Rum village, where you’ll meet with you pre-arranged tour guide for a day and night in Wadi Rum. This dramatic desert landscape was first given notoriety by Lawrence of Arabia and has been at the crossroads for the nomadic Bedouin tribes who still live here for centuries. On a one-day tour, you’ll hop in the back of a jeep to see interesting rocks formations and ancient petroglyphs featuring camels and directions to springs, climb dunes and hike through canyons. At night, you’ll head to a traditional Bedouin camp for tea and stories around the fire, dinner and music into the night. Take some time to stand outside and appreciate the incredible night sky once the sun has set: there’s truly nothing like this landscape at night.

Day 14: Depart

The overnight tours of Wadi Rum should bring you back to the village early in the morning (check with your tour provider before booking, if you have doubts or a flight to catch), and it’s about a 4-hour drive on the relatively smooth Desert Highway back to the airport near Amman. You can fly out that evening, or opt to spend your final night back in Amman – or quieter Madaba, as we did. On our final morning, we purchased souvenirs and stretched our legs a bit more before heading home.


No matter how much time you can spend in Jordan, and no matter how you choose to spend that time, this small country – so full of history, culture and adventure – is sure to enchant and excite travelers, no matter their interests!

Did we miss your favorite spot in Jordan? Is there a better way around? Tell me about it in the comments!

Jordan Itinerary

Exploring the Italian Alps in Valley D’Aosta

Italy’s smallest region is packed full of incredible mountain vistas, rewarding hikes and historic castles, and it is definitely worth the visit.

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OK, so you’ve heard all about Rome, Venice and Tuscany. Possibly, you’ve even had the pleasure of seeing why these are the most popular tourist destinations in Italy. When you’re ready for a whole different take on la vita bella, however, I suggest the small, mountainous region of Valle d’Aosta. Tucked into the northwestern corner of Italy, with France and Switzerland (geographically and culturally) hugging close by, clusters of castles lining the valley floor, sweeping Alpine vistas everywhere and enough hiking or skiing to keep anyone busy outside, Valle d’Aosta is a rejuvenating divergence from city life.

You can still get view of the Roman Empire in the regions capital city: Aosta, Parco Gran Paradiso – the first national park in Italy – is filled with unique wildlife, and blocking the end of the valley is the monstrous Monte Bianco: the tallest mountain in western Europe.

Whether you want to wander historic cities, take a week-long trek or sample the hearty mountain food of the region, this off the beaten path destination will keep you busy. Here’s a run down of the must-see stops and attractions in the area from our four day weekend in October.

Forte Di Bard

As you enter Aosta from Piemonte, highway E25 makes a 90-degree, westward turn into the main valley. As the road twists through the mountains, suddenly the impressive stone Forte Di Bard rises before you, guarding the entrance to the strategic valley. Napoleon’s encroaching armies were held up by the castle’s defenders for more than two weeks, a resistance which frustrated him so much, he destroyed the entire structure after finally winning it.

Luckily, it has been rebuilt to it’s former glory, and it’s possible to climb the road through the charming Medieval town of Bard, then up the winding side of the cliff the fort perches atop. Alternatively, there is a modern, glass elevator you can ride up to visit the various artistic and historical exhibits throughout the many halls of the fort.

Castle in Fenis

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As you continue your drive through the valley, castle spotting becomes almost too easy. There were times when up to four castles could be seen at once along the road side! It’s hard to know which to take the time and stop for.

If you are looking for an easy answer it’s the castle in Fenis village. With turrets, guard wall and surrounded by cattle pens, there’s something quintessentially Medieval about this structure that made my heart sing. We missed the timing for a tour, but it’s possible to go inside and explore for 7 Euros.

Aosta

The largest city in the center of the valley is full of easily accessible Roman ruins, colorful houses and good food. When we walked into the central piazza of Aosta, I turned to The Fiance and said “I feel like I’m in Torino .” Beyond the fact that we happened to be visited durring the annual chocolate festival, Aosta has a similar sense of refinement and elegance, the mountains just happen to be a lot closer. There’s plenty of shopping here, and the historic center is easy to wander in a few hours.

For dinner, stop into the Osteria dell’Oca for traditional Aostian fare which is rich, hearty and perfect for a winter’s evening in the mountains.

After leaving Aosta, I recommend staying off the highway because though you’ll be traveling a little slower, the main road leads you through long, dark tunnels and you’ll start missing many of the incredible vistas.

We stayed near the village of Aymavilles, which allowed us to easily reach all of the following valleys easily and head back to Aosta for dinner every night, while still enjoying the mountain serenity we were looking for.

Valnontey, Gran Paradiso & Rhemes Notre Dame

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Entering Parco Gran Paradiso

With thick larch forests, dramatic glaciers, lots of wildlife and picturesque villages, Parco Gran Paradiso should be high on the bucket list for anyone who loves mountains. We took two drives into the park from the main valley of Aosta: towards the village of Valnontey at the more popular entrance of the park then towards Rhemes Notre Dame on the western side of the park, which we slightly preferred, perhaps because it was a little less touristy.

Both drives took under an hour, were filled with beautiful vistas that made me increasingly happy I don’t know how to drive a manual transmission car and could just look around me and were filled with hiking trails to branch out onto. From Valnontey, we climbed a few kilometers up the side of the mountain, spotting Alpine Chamois, past a waterfall and towards incredible vistas at the mountain summit.

Just past Rhemes Notre Dame, we walked on a more even-graded path along a river bed, through the brilliant fall colors of the larches.

No matter what, in solid European fashion, you are certain to find cute cafes to enjoy an espresso as you savor the views while considering your next move.

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The tiny village of Rhemes Notre Dame, where we seriously considered just buying a cabin for a lifetime of weekend getaways.

Mont Blanc

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No matter the language you’re discussing this impressive mountain in, the color descriptor is on point. Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco is the tallest mountain of the Alps, is situated in both France and Italy, and features some unique choices for traversing its imposing position. There is a 7.2-mile tunnel running directly through the mountain if you’re in a rush, as well as an incredible cable car which you can ride up and over the glacier that spreads across the wide summit, eventually touching down again in France (get in line early! Wait times can be tedious.)

Alternatively, the Tour do Mont Blanc (TMB) is an 170-kilometer, 11 day trek, passing through villages and mountain refuges across France, Switzerland and Italy, circling the entire mountain. It’s officially on the Bucket List for a future summer.

The city of Courmayeur is a little pricey – being a haven of ski resorts – but there are more valleys to the north and south along the imposing line of peaks along the range before you that offer plenty more hikes where you can spot glaciers and stop for a hot chocolate at a mountain refuge. We had hoped to go south to Val Veny to see what are some apparently amazing glaciers and lakes but the road was closed for the season. In the end, we were not disappointed by turning north and the hike to Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, which took a little more than a hour to reach from the valley floor.

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Looking south to the peaks of Monte Bianco from the hike to Rifugio Walter Bonatti.

Even if you only have the time to drive through the spectacular Valle d’Aosta on your way to France or Switzerland, this tiny Italian region provides a unique divergence from the more traditional Italian tour, and you will certainly be rewarded for your divergence from the beaten path.

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The Bernina Express: An Alpine Rail Adventure

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For many travelers, the daydream of a European adventure is not complete without the image of themselves relaxing on a train, looking out across rolling vineyards, church steeples on the horizon and Alpine cliffs shinning in the background. Especially if you grew up in the USA, where those brave enough to embark upon an Amtrak adventure might easily end up stuck on the tracks outside of Albany, New York on a freezing December day for 7 hours while a raging, redheaded conductor from Boston reminds them that she has no idea when we’ll be able to get a move on because the freight trains get preference on the tracks, OK? (Yes, I am speaking from experience here).

Since my first trip though Europe, this image of adventure while riding the rails has intrigued and excited me, though with the realities of real life travel (and admittedly, the notorious difficulties of the Italian train system), some of the romanticism has worn away.

It was on a chilly, Thanksgiving holiday to visit friends in Switzerland that I found myself swooning for rail travel once again.

Through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges, the Bernina Express train through southeastern Switzerland is not just an example of incredible engineering, it is the highest rail crossing in Europe, traveling through magnificent Alpine scenery the entire way. It’s even listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Express” is a bit of a misnomer: this bright red train moves leisurely, twisting and turning up mountainous switchbacks, crossing through tunnels from an incredible vista on one side of the mountain to another. You don’t want it to go any faster though: there is so much to look at as the train sways and whistles, traveling from quaint Swiss villages to glacial valleys.

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Looking down over Poschiavo on the train down from St. Moritz

From Milan, it’s easy to catch the hourly train from Centrale station to Tirano: a 2.5 hour trip along the eastern shore of Lake Como (grab a window seat on the west side of the train if you can!) In Tirano, exit the train station and take an immediate right into the other station in the square: towards the red trains.

Ascending quickly up the narrow, village-lined Poschiavo Valley, you spin around the famous viaduct of Brusio before going up the mountain side, above the tree line and to the sweeping vista over Alp Grüm, where you can stop and eat at the restaurant overlooking a magnificent panorama. From here, it’s a glacier spotting adventure, past the grand Lake Bianco, ringed by snow-capped mountains and through the high Bernina peaks.

After about 2 hours of breathtaking travel, the train pulls into St. Moritz, an elegant ski resort city in the heart of the Alps. From here you can continue north on the Bernina Express towards Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland, crossing the 90m high Solis viaduct and through the area with Europe’s highest density of castles. Alternatively, you can head east or west from St. Moritz along the Glacier Express and glimpse the Matterhorn and Rhine Gorge.

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St. Moritz in the off season: mid November and it’s still lovely.

In the summer, the area is full of hiking excursions and in the winter some of the best alpine skiing in the world can be found throughout the region. And it bears mentioning that on a Wednesday afternoon in November, I found myself completely alone on the train, allowing me to unabashedly rush from one side of the car to the other in order to take in the best views as they shifted.

It was on my way home, back down to Italy and near the village of Poschiavo, that I realized I had found my childlike love of riding train all over again. I wasn’t checking my watch, or even getting lost in a podcast. I was present, watching the scenery go by and feeling the movement of travel. I felt adventurous, cosmopolitan and amazed all at once, like I always dreamed I would when I was a little girl, pining away for Old World adventures.

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Find more information about the Bernina Express, as well as schedules and prices, by clicking here.

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My Favorite Place to Ring in the New Year

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We’re past the hump of Halloween, which means Christmas decorations are hitting the stores and Americans are in for two full months of seasonal music. Luckily, so far in Italy it appears that they don’t jump on the bandwagon quite so fast and I’ll be spared the onslaught until December.

But let’s move past Christmas for now, and jump straight into the next big thing: New Years Eve. I’ll be celebrating the beginning of 2017 in a resort on the Dead Sea in Jordan, and perhaps you’ve already got a plan as well. But just in case you’re not booked up and the travel bug has been getting under your skin, might I make a suggestion?

Edinburgh, Scotland

I’ve spent New Years Eve in my fair share of amazing places. I’m a sucker for significant moments, and the transition from one year to the next hits all the right notes: looking back, dreaming forward and making a ritual out of Midnight on a cold winter night. And I’ve done a lot of cool things to ring in the new year: At the beginning of 2011, I stood on the side of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, dancing to a live jazz band while the New Years Baby got thrown from the roof of Jax Brewery. I passed the first night of 2010 in New York City (but not in Times Square – who has the stamina to wait all day and night for the ball to drop?) I’ve rung in the New Year most often at a good friend’s house in Northern Minnesota, surrounded by my dearest family and oldest friends, popping champagne while my dad plays Auld Langs Syne on his guitar and a bonfire burns outside.

But there was nothing in the world like the Hogmanay Festival celebrated in Scotland’s beautifully rugged, historic – albeit sometimes deary – capital city. When I suggested to my British friend (who had so wonderfully invited me to spend Christmas with her family while I was solo backpacking through Europe a few years ago) that we make our way north for New Year’s Eve, I had no idea that we would be taking part in one of the biggest New Year’s Eve parties in the world.

The traditional Hogmanay (New Years Eve) celebration has been revived in the city of year-round festivals in the last decades. With traditional dances, pop superstar concerts, Christmas markets in full swing, fireworks all over the city and even a 8,000 person torchlight processional to begin the festivities, the party in Edinburgh is truly once in a lifetime.

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The festivities begin on the 30th of December with a torchlight procession of 8,000 people carrying real torches with real fire through the historic center for about a mile. First of all, I’m shocked that they still allow 8,000 (not entirely sober) tourists to walk through the city with live fire in their hands – “This is a grand way to burn down your city,” my friend’s dad noted as we set off behind a crew of particularly rowdy Frenchmen. The tradition of the torchlight procession ties back to the Solstice and signifies burning away the old year while carrying light with you into the new. The cool factor and authenticity of actually carrying a real torch (I kind of expected to be given a plastic flashlight shaped like fire for liability reasons) really made it a highlight of the trip for all of us. We were lead by a group dressed as Vikings, bagpipes were playing all along way and the fire in our hands warmed us against the cold breeze. Looking ahead and behind, we created a river of fire through the hilly city.

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After everyone made their way through the city center, the group gathered at Calton Hill, where fireworks begin the real party.

On December 31st we visited the Edinburgh Castle and spent an afternoon trying to decipher exactly who Mary, Queen of the Scots was in the royal lineage. We ate an excellent dinner – in which I almost tried haggis, but backed out, opting instead for delicious lamb – then headed to the ceilidh: a traditional Scottish dance. This was another one of my favorite parts of the trip because I’m also a sucker for learning traditional dances, specifically those with fiddles and drums. The Scottish waltzes felt just similar enough to those I used to attend to as a child that it was a flashback to some of my happiest memories. Of course it was also complete chaos (no one knew what they were doing) but it was an awful lot of fun.

At Midnight, as one year passes to the next, the whole city lights up again with simultaneous fireworks shows over the castle and Calton Hill. From our place just between the two hills, we were awash with lights, cheers and celebrations. As the colors and bombs die down, everyone crosses their arms, grabs someone nearby’s hands and at least mumbles the first line and the tune to Auld Langs Syne. Even if you don’t know exactly what you’re saying in old English, you can appreciate singing the tune in its place of origin with thousands of others.

There were lots of different street parties during this part of the night, including concerts, bumping discos and general eating and drinking everywhere. Basically, the whole city was out celebrating in the streets one way or another late into the morning.

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Inside the Edinburgh Castle

The next morning, if you fancy, there is a rowdy dive of a thousand costumed swimmers into the freezing water or the Forth River. Significantly less, but still a notable amount, of people participate in this activity – though I imagine it helps with the hangover – and probably makes you almost as tough as any given Highlander out there.

Other highlights of the city included: Edinburgh Castle, The National Museum of Scotland, the Cathedral, Arthur’s Seat and a Ghost Tour with Auld Reekie Tours.

Back roads in the Andes: An Inca Trail Recap

5:00 am. We’re waiting – hundreds of us – huddled in a line before a dimly lit check point. It won’t open for a while yet, and no one is sure on the exact time. So we play games to amuse ourselves, 20 Questions (which proves a little hard with slight variations of the English language between the Americas, Brits, Irish, South Africans and Australians in our group) and Never Have I Ever. We’re chilly: the smoke rising from our lips is illuminated in each of our headlamps, but the excitement of the moment keeps the discomforts at bay as we glance ahead. The last three days of labor and hiking have lead up to this: we’re going to reach the mystical city of Machu Picchu as the sun rises.

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After an hour of waiting, the line starts to move and we scramble to our feet, pulling out passports and the trail passes we’ve been carrying for the last 40 kilometers, up and down the Andes. Our group is one of the first to go through: Rosa, our guide, woke us early to get as close to the front of the line as possible. The final campground of the Inca Trail is the size of a small village. Other nights we staked out an area more or less to ourselves. But on the last night of the trek all 500 people allowed to start climbing the trail on a given day (including guides, porters and cooks) sleep in this closest campground to the ruins together.

We’ve been hiking for 3 days. We are disheveled, unshowered, most of us a little  sick to the stomach or light headed, but once we make it through the check point, we all but run the trail, making a snake of headlamps midway up the mountain. In the valley below a train can be heard, carrying tourists from Cuzco. We reach the monkey steps: a set of stairs at a nearly 90 degree angle from the ground, which you must climb all all fours like you would a ladder, and at the top our guide waits, shaking our hand and congratulating us as we walk through the Sun Gate.

Below sweeps a dramatic view, and perched upon a small mountain, dwarfed by those that surround us, is the ancient, mysterious Inca city of Machu Picchu.

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About an hour after we crossed through the Sun Gate, the sun slowly receded beyond the mountains.
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The beginning of the Inca Trail, the 43 kilometer road through the Andes to Machu Picchu.

I don’t remember exactly when or how the idea of climbing the Inca Trail, or even to visit the ruins of Machu Picchu city first piqued my interest. But when I decided that Peru was where I’d spend my summer vacation in 2013, I knew I didn’t want to just see the popular, unfinished UNESCO World Heritage Site. I wanted to take the three day trek through the high altitude Andes in order to reach the city via the stone-paved road built by the Incas. I wanted to camp and to wander the ruins of waysides and smaller cities all along the way. To follow the path the Spaniards never reached when they were warring against the last Inca (emperor) in Ollantaytambo and were lead away from Machu Picchu into the heart of rain forest.

Much has been written about Machu Picchu, and I’m in no way an expert on Inca history. I remember bits and pieces of what we do know about the culture that met it’s match when the Conquistadors showed up. But I wont try to relay any of that here, since it seems trite and beside the point. The point is that when you are actually wandering this back road of the Andes, walking along the stairway built specifically for this journey, all of the details the guide tells you at each resting point create such a tapestry of history and culture against the dramatic mountains, it is more real than any history classroom or museum in the world.

Up and over Dead Woman’s Pass (4,215 meters or 13,828 feet), down the Gringo Killer stairs, through fields of llamas and bypassed by local women carrying huge colorful bundles upon their backs, the Inca Trail is as iconic and difficult as I imagined it to be. The sun is strong and the nights are cold in July, and the oxygen gets thin all the way up there – beginning from the moment you land in Cuzco. Returning to Cuzco five days later is a victory: the knowledge that you crossed those mountains on your own two feet – slept in them, sagged against them, sweat upon them – is buoying.

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Cuzco, the capitol of the Inca Empire, is literally layers of conquerors covering one another: the Spanish built their colonial buildings atop the foundation of the city they destroyed.

The Specs

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Prepping for lunch one afternoon: warm water and soap was provided to wash our hands, chairs, table cloths and napkins shaped like swans waited in the tent.

I traveled with the adventure travel group GAdventuers. It is required that any traveler on the Inca Trail have a permit and travel with a valid tour group. To put it simply, I loved traveling with GAdventures. The guide was informative, helpful and genuinely loved her job (it was almost her 200th time walking the Inca Trail – in 2013! According to Facebook, where we’re friends, she’s still doing it). I loved the company so much, I traveled through Turkey with them a year later – but that’s a different story. GAdventures really went above and beyond just a hike from the beginning to the end of the trail as well: with tours of the Sacred Valley in the days leading up to the hike, comfortable accommodations and great food- they carried a bottle of wine for us to toast the two(!!) couples on their honeymoons and even prepared a cake on the trail for a birthday!

Though it’s not such a problem any more, there was pretty strong porter and resource exploitation in the past. But at the check points mentioned above all porters bags are weighed and travelers are counted, so everyone on the trail today should check out.

The tour was 7 days, with 3 on the trail and 1 hiking the final few kilometers and finishing with a day-long tour of Machu Picchu. We gathered in Cuzco, toured the Sacred Valley and stayed in Ollantaytambo before beginning the hike. We visited village co-ops where we learned how traditional dies and handcrafts are made, and were able to purchase them directly from the women who made them. The price included the entrance fee to the historic site, as well as the train ride back to Cuzco.

Tents were included in the cost of the tour. We were able to rent camping gear (sleeping bags and mats) as well as hiking poles for very affordable costs. Food on the trail was included, but not for the days spent off the trail.

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Learning about local handcrafts firsthand on the way to start the trail.

Pro Tip: Carry an extra (charged!) battery and sim card for your camera, because you are going to take a million photos in the three days on the trail, and the last thing you want is to have no more battery left when you get the chance to take that money shot with Machu Picchu behind you, or to be scanning for other photos to delete to make room.

A Word on Porters: Yeah, I felt super weird and colonial about this before I started. I read the description of the hike and thought “I’m strong. I’ve backpacked. I’m walking the trail. Why is someone else carrying my stuff for me? Can I get away without it?”

The short answer is no, and not just because they won’t let you get away with it (by this I mean, you can’t not travel with an authorized guide, and all of the tour groups provide porters). I learned very quickly that even though I had trained for this trip, even though I was a mountain-climbing woman myself, the altitude hit me in a pretty rough way, and if I had had more than my day pack on my back, there’s no way I would have made it.

I also realized once I was on the trail and met our awesome group of porters and cooks, that this is a pretty good job, given the area’s economic situation and the regulations passed to protect their interests. My impression was that they make good money given regional options, have a solid community among the group and take pride in their ability to dash past all the struggling tourists, carrying five times as much as them.

Can You do it? Yes. Absolutely yes you can.

Yes, I did do a lot of hiking and a fair amount of training before this trip, and sure, you should be in decent shape before embarking upon something like this. But the fact of the matter is, you’re not hiking that far every day (the most is about 12 kilometers, or about 7 miles, and you have all day to cover the distance). And no one, not even the most fit, can account for how the altitude will affect them once they are on the ground – or really close to the sky, as the case may be. I was horrified when I started getting as sick as I did, and perturbed by the man who hadn’t done a day of prep for the trek and was able to walk up the steep mountainside no problem, but such is life. There were all age ranges in our party, and many fitness levels.

And even if you do get sick, so sick that you are literally vomiting off the side of the mountain, so sick that you force your body to walk five steps up before you sit down on the next step and gulp for breath for several minutes before you can do five more… Even if the guide has to lay you down on those steps and give you give you five minutes of straight oxygen from a small tank she’s been carrying (something she will inform you with a careful smile she does very rarely), you’ll make it up that mountain and back down the other side.

I promise. This exact thing may or may not have happened to a… ahem, *friend* of mine.

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On the final full day on the trail we passed through this ruin. Completely inaccessible except by the Inca Trail, you pass through many more hidden treasures by taking the long way.

As we walked through Machu Picchu, suddenly surrounded by tourists who had woken up that morning in Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of mountain), taken showers and gotten their makeup just right before arriving to pose for their photos, I didn’t at all wish that I was one of them. It wasn’t exactly a spiritual experience for me to have walked through those mountains, as it may have been for the Incas who built the trail and city, but it was a massively rewarding one.

And if it’s one that piques your interest, it’s most definitely the way you deserve to experience these incredible mountains and the history hiding within them.

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On Learning Italian (for real this time) and Working Towards Balance

The Guest House

Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


There is something particular (magical?) about transitions and the art of uprooting one’s life which I believes lends itself towards profound clarity. Outside the protection of routine, light shines in on every part of your life and self, and choices you’ve made or did not make step froward. Relationships that have fallen away, habits you relied on, hopes dreams and fears you’ve been able to ignore all stand before you in the new light of creating rhythm. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s tedious, but I think there is a place for it in our lives from time to time.

I say that uprooting one’s life is an art because like art, it takes practice and you are bound to fail and flail, and then suddenly you look around and see something at the center of it all that you can expand upon, take with you to the next step of the journey.

I started Italian courses this week. Beyond the basics of the language, I learned a lot of things, including that no matter where you are in the world, and no matter how old you become, every language class is essentially the same. The same cast of characters is in the room: the people muttering words under their breath, the eager, the distracted, the utterly lost. They just happen to come from all over the world – Brazil, Nepal, Hong Kong, Yemen.  Even here my classmates lift their feet a few inches off the ground, legs straight out before them when they know the answer but have not been called upon. It is a relief to find myself (after nearly 2 years of beat bopping around with DuoLingo and spending about 2 months combined in Italy before this) squarely in the middle of the beginners class, which is better than I’ve ever found myself in a language class.

I also came to quickly learn that my story – the one I could hardly believe happened in real life, it seemed so unreal and magical – is utterly repetitious. In the class of 9, at least 7 of us are here because we have fallen in love with an Italian. I asked the teacher at the end of the class if this was a common percentage (in all the broken Italian I could muster) and he nodded in a way which I couldn’t  quite read: was it exasperation for the obnoxiousness of all this amore, relief for job security or the normal emphatic nature of the Italian language? The proper pronunciation of these words themselves, I’ve learned, leads to waving your hands around, making dramatic faces. It feels emotional. It feels dramatic. I like it more and more.

Even just four days into the class, I’m anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the moment when I suddenly stop being able to understand the teacher and loose the basic concepts we’re covering and fall behind forever, which is my typical modus operandi in language courses. Before I arrived I kept telling people (and therefore myself) that what I needed to actually start speaking the Italian I basically understood was this class. I needed to be able to get used to speaking, to be able to make mistakes without my wonderful, handsome boyfriend or his lovely, eager family watching me excitedly. The stakes always feel so high and my fumblings so much more embarrassing. And, as if I called it forth by magic, this class has been exactly what I needed.

More than just the language (though many people, including the boyfriend and the elderly neighbor who always seems to be walking out his door at the same time as me, have told me that I am speaking better and with more confidence in just four days), when I arrived in that first day of class I felt really purposeful for the first time in the two weeks that I’ve been here. I have routine. I have a goal.  And I have 8 other people in this huge city who not only know me – if even just a little bit – they are in the same boat as me. We’re doing this thing together. I found my newest version of my tribe, for this very particular moment in my life. In that knowledge there is such relief, I walked away from the first class electric.

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I kept saying, in those final long weeks before my plane finally took off, that once I got my feet on the ground here, I’d start walking. I always have. It’s always served me well. And both metaphorically and physically, I’ve been doing a lot of walking lately. Passing time, gaining my footing on the roads through Milan and Legnano, revisiting places that I had been in April.

 This spring, I stood in the courtyard of the Basilica de San’Ambrogio in Milano, an incredible example of Romanesque architecture, one morning and found myself weeping. I had been visiting Milan, staying with my boyfriend at his mom’s house for two and a half weeks, trying desperately to peer forward into my life to come. I felt as though I was looking up a mountain, imagining what the apartment we were moving into would look like completed, envisioning myself walking these streets every day, speaking Italian with confidence. I could see it, but barely.

That morning I was overcome with emotions, and I wept openly. Not entirely good emotions, not entirely bad. The thing about transitions is they are full of emotions, no matter how much you prep yourself for the onslaught. They are like riptides, pulling me under one day and warm waves I can rest upon the next. One minute, the move is the best decision you’ve made in your life, and you can see the community you’ll have, the home you’ll make clearly. The next, you’ve never felt so alone and you can’t believe you gave up the life you just walked away from. There has never been a question for me, from the moment I turned around and really looked this kind, wonderful man in the eyes, that this is my path. But that does not mean it’s not emotional and overwhelming sometimes. The best thing to do, I know, is give into the waves and currents, let them come and go and see where you end up, what the view is when it all calms down. As Rumi says, “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Today I’m a little bit farther down the road, a few switchbacks up the mountain. Not where I imagine myself to be, certainly (for godsakes it’s been two weeks!), but being here now is entirely different from my visit in April. Today I walked to San’Ambrogio again and stood in the courtyard again. I felt emotional again, but in a different way. Still not entirely good, or entirely bad. Whatever it is, I am relishing it, and walking, if not running, towards it.

 I am here. Sono qui.

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Why You Should WWOOF at Least Once in Your Life

Travel cheaply, gain unique cultural experiences and learn some new skills by choosing a whole different way to travel next time you’re abroad (or just over the next state line!)

I think it was from my cousin, who had just bought a book with tips on traveling the world on a budget, that I first learned about WWOOFing. Though it would be years before I had the opportunity to dig my fingers into the soil of my first farm, I was instantly hooked on the idea. The World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms project allows intrepid and willing travelers the opportunity to work and stay on organic farms all over the world for free, in exchange for their helping hands throughout the day. It’s an affordable opportunity to have a unique experience while traveling.

Since I first latched onto the idea, I’ve volunteered at a range of organic farms across Europe. In 2009, I spent a few weeks on a goat and pig farm in County Donegal, Ireland. We also worked in the garden and helped to run the “Farm Shop” in the nearby town where the hosts sold organic goods from farms around the community. In 2014, I spent two weeks each on a goat farm in Germany and a vineyard in Greece. Each farm was incredibly different, with differing amounts of other volunteers working along side me, different types of hosts – from families to bachelors – and daily routines, including schedules, cooking and days off to explore.

Each time I’ve WWOOFed, I have had an incredible experience, and I’m here to argue that every traveler should consider adding at least one WWOOFing adventure to your next vacation. See why, and how-to, below!

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Picking grapes in Greece, on the vineyard where I WWOOFed in 2014

Why you should definitely WWOOF next time you travel

  1. It fits the budget!
    One of the most important aspects of any trip is to set and maintain a budget, and just because something is free does not mean it’s not worth it! When you WWOOF, the basic agreement is you work 5-6 hours a day, 5-6 days a week in exchange for three meals a day and a place to sleep. This means you can have large periods of time where you are not spending large chunks of cash to merely survive in a place, allowing you to even extend a trip while still maintaining a small budget! Do keep in mind that you will need to pay the cost of arriving and departing your farm, as well as any side trips you want to take on your days off, or dinner and drink excursions you want to enjoy with your fellow WWOOFers in the nearest town.
  2. Local experiences
    One of the great joys of travel is authentic, cross-cultural experiences. Yes, museums, historic sites and opulent cityscapes hold a special place in any traveler’s heart, but no one can deny that it is the simple, person to person exchanges which truly create our memories of a place. When you WWOOF, you are invited into someone’s home, you experience their rhythms, food and lifestyle in the most intimate way. I have also been invited to several parties, met interesting neighbors and gotten a first-hand view of the life in the country I’m visiting, from traditional folk dancing in Greece to a beer festival in Germany.
  3. Get off the beaten path
    It goes without saying that if you’re on a farm, you probably won’t be within the city limits of the capital of whatever country you’re visiting. Just by arriving, you’ll push the boundaries of the normal vacation routes, discover hidden gems with tips from your hosts, and get to know a whole new region or village.

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    The view from the farm in Donegal, Ireland, where I WWOOFed in 2009, across the Foyle to Northern Ireland.
  4. Gain some skills
    Full disclosure: I DID grow up in the countryside with a heavy exposure to organic farm life. My family had a small a hobby farm, with rabbits, goats and sheep in the yard, there were plenty of horses to ride throughout the neighborhood and our next door neighbor had a full-scale organic berry farm, where I “worked” every summer. So, no, heading out to clean the barn isn’t brand new for me. That being said, from what I’ve heard from hosts, the fact that I have any experience with farming makes me stand out from the crowd of volunteers.
    The whole idea of WWOOFing is that you can learn about organic farming, and who knows when potato picking, vegetable weeding and goat milking will come in handy later in life? I’ve also learned how to cook some incredible dishes – including stuffed grape leaves and home made cheese – how to rotate crops and repair fencing on my various farms.
  5. De-Stress and Re-Establish Rhythm
    This can be especially vital if you are on a long-term, think month+, trip. Everyone has their own limit, but no one can be a tourist every day forever, no matter how much fun it is. When I arrived on Lipisi Island in Greece, I had spent 6+ weeks city hoping like it was my job, and I was so tired of repacking my backpack every morning and not sleeping in the same bed for more than two nights in a row.
    For me, at least, a sense of routine and a project to work on, even while I’m in another fascinating country, brings purpose and relieves stress on the road. Getting my hands dirty and quieting way down internally has proven to be a greatly rejuvenating process in the midst of traveling.
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Early morning fog rises on the family farm in Bavaria, Germany, where I WWOOFed in 2014.

Tips for making the most out of WWOOFing 

  1. Choose your optimal country and farm type before you buy a subscription
    The first step to finding your perfect farm is the visiting the WWOOFing Website. Nearly every country has their own separate WWOOFing network, and there is a small annual subscription fee for each country where you want to begin reaching out to hosts. They vary in technical skills (the best I’ve seen being Ireland and the worst being Croatia) but most allow you to make a profile for yourself and view the hosts profiles so you can get a sense of who they are before sending them a message. Also, before you purchase the subscription you can usually preview hosts site’s without any contact details being shown, so you can get a sense of who’s out there before forking over the cash.
  2. Communicate with your host before arrival
    Every farm is different, and  you can get a good sense of the daily activities you’ll be participating in, the expectations of hours, the proximity of the closest town, how any other volunteers will be there, etc, just by communicating. You’ll also get a good feel for your hosts English competency, which can make a huge difference once your on the ground.
    Also, be mindful of clarity in communication, don’t lie or exaggerate: you’ll be showing up in this person’s home, remember! One slightly embarrassing mistake I made was telling my host in Germany that my train arrived in the closest town at 4:30, not clarifying I meant in the afternoon. Europe being generally on a 24 hour clock, she assumed I meant morning and was NOT pleased when she took the 20 minute trek into town very early and I never showed. (Luckily I had a German friend who helped clear the situation up before I arrived and we smoothed everything over once I got to work!) In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with dotting your i’s, crossing your t’s, and double checking everything is clear, especially if language barriers are involved.
  3. Be open minded, have patience with yourself, the situation and those working with you
    Try to leave expectations at the door and go with the flow. Try something new, even if it’s not what you thought farming was. You may be surprised, or uncomfortable in some moments, but getting outside of your comfort zone is most certainly going to provide you with a story, and is one of the greatest rewards of an overseas adventure.

It’s fair to say that my WWOOFing experiences have created the vivid memories and are often more interesting than even museums and walking tours of historic city centers (and I’m a sucker for these things). Even if you only try once, you’ll come home with real life experiences and relationships in your back pocket, which are irreplaceable.

Plus, it’s not exactly a direct result of the WWOOFing, but it’s worth mentioning I did meet the love of my life on that Greek island I’d never have heard of if I hadn’t gone to the vineyard! You never know what you’ll find along the way.

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