Wadi Rum

The Best Sustainable Travel and Adventure Companies

Grab a cup of coffee or tea! This post is going to be a long one but I’m hoping it will be greatly appreciated. You may want to bookmark it for later as I’m certain that this constantly evolving list of the best sustainable and travel adventure companies in the industry will be an invaluable resource for future trip planning!  Enjoy!

The Treasury at Petra.

Love at first sight. The Treasury at Petra.

Although I have traveled all my life, sometime in my late twenties I became a traveler. For most of my life, I had been more of a tourist trying to rush around the world seeing as much as I could possibly see, never fully understanding what it all meant. It was in my twenties that I went on my first truly eye-opening trip to Peru. Within the first half-hour of being on the ground, I was mugged inside a taxi and it was at that point I realized that the world is not a giant playground for me to explore yet a place for me to search for answers and try to understand. Since then, I have continued to follow my promise to be a good, responsible traveler as best as I can.

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San Antonio Women's Cooperative Belize

Empowering Maya Women at the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative in Belize

I woke up to the singsong sound of birds as the sun burst through the drapes, casting a zigzag of light across my room. After two carefree days at the Black Orchid Resort near the tiny village of Burrell Boom in Belize, I’d finally been brought back to life with a newfound energy that had long disappeared. I jumped out of bed, excited for the day ahead as we were heading to San Ignacio, the heart and soul of the Cayo District in Western Belize where we’d be swallowed into a world of thick, lush jungle, mysterious caves and extraordinary Maya ruins. But first, we were making a stop in the village of San Antonio, home of the largest Maya community in all of Belize.  In San Antonio, we would learn about an exciting initiative helping to empower local Maya women called the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative supported by our tour company G Adventures and their nonprofit partner Planeterra.

As out group gathered into the van, I sat up front next to the driver so I could learn more about the four different ethnic groups in Belize. Our driver Carlos was Mestizo (a mix of Spanish and Indigenous decent) which is the largest ethnic group in Belize making up approximately 34% of the population. After Mestizo, the next largest group is Creole followed by Maya and Garifuna. The Creole and Garifuna population both are descendants of African Slaves whereas the Maya population is centered within the tropical lowlands of Central America. Over time, the Maya spread out into parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. The Maya make up about 11% of the population in Belize and there are three different linguistic groups: The Yucatec Maya who came from Mexico and live in the north, the Mopan Maya who live in the Southern Toledo district, and the Kekchi Maya who live in Western Belize.

Nestled in a verdant valley, about a 20-minute drive from the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena in the heart of the Cayo District of Belize lies the village of San Antonio. Populated by primarily Yucatec Mayas, the village is known for its beauty and art, and has a strong farming and agricultural heritage. When we arrived at the co-op, the first thing I noticed was the beauty and lushness of San Antonio. We were surrounded by tropical trees and flowering shrubs. It was no surprise that the Yucatec Mayas chose to settle in San Antonio for its fertile land. Agriculture is king in San Antonio yet it has its downfalls especially for the women who have large families and don’t have the means to earn an income outside of farming.

The San Antonio Women’s Cooperative was founded in 2001 to help promote and conserve Maya heritage, culture and tradition within the community and provide women with an alternative, sustainable income outside of farming. Since most Maya families have on average seven children and education is not free in Belize, girls are often the ones left behind and have few options besides raising a family. Poverty is a big issue and finding employment (especially without an education) in a small village is challenging. The San Antonio Women’s Co-op offers education in traditional pottery making, embroidery, cooking and serving guests through sustainable tourism as a means to preserve their culture and make a living. Today, there are 25 women in the co-op and they are working to encourage youth to participate as well.

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Ventana Canyon Trailhead, Tucson, Arizona

Best Hikes in Tucson: Hiking the Ventana Canyon Trailhead to Maiden Pools

For the past 25 years, I’ve been a regular visitor to Tucson and have fallen in love with her laid back, Southwestern disposition and charm. Tucson has become like a second home to me and there is no place I’d rather be in Tucson than on a hike in the desert or mountains. One of my all time favorite hikes in Tucson is along the Ventana Canyon Trailhead up to Maiden Pools. Located adjacent to Loews Ventana Canyon resort in the Santa Catalina mountains and less than five minutes from my parents’ home, this 4.7 mile hike up the canyon is one of Tucson’s finest.

Known for its spectacular beauty and magnificent views, the hike to Maiden Pools is a moderate two and a half hour hike depending on speed and stops. If you really want a challenge, you can continue on to “The Window” or “Ventana” in Spanish which the canyon is named after. This 12.8 mile rugged hike is quite challenging and takes pretty much the entire day. The majority of hikers opt for the hike to Maiden Pools where you can stop for a lovely picnic lunch and even dip your toes in the water if you like.

The hike

The Ventana Canyon Trailhead is located just to the west of Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. There is a parking lot right next to the trailhead for hikers. When you enter the resort, follow the signs which will lead you to the left side of the resort and the parking lot is just past the employee parking lot.

As you leave the parking lot and follow the trail you are inside the property of Ventana Canyon Resort. The walk brings you around some of Ventana’s rental condos and past the old Flying V Ranch who owns a chance of acres adjacent to the resort and trail.

After about twenty minutes, you reach a walk-through fence where you enter the National Forest boundary and begin the true trail. You can see the stunning steep cliffs of Ventana Canyon rise above you from below in the desert landscape where you are surrounded by cactus and majestic hovering saguaro.

Ventana Canyon Trailhead, Tucson, Arizona

The fence that is the boundary of the National Forest

Ventana Canyon Trailhead, Tucson, Arizona

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Blackett's Ridge Hike, Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

Tucson Travel Guide: How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Tucson

Tucson, with her laid-back charm and sunny disposition, has long been a top destination for travelers craving a visit to the American Southwest.  With an average of over 300 days of sunshine, four different mountain ranges to choose from, a vibrant University scene and a mecca for golf courses, resorts and spas, Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city, offers a great escape from a cold Minnesota winter or quite frankly winter anywhere.

I have been visiting Tucson for over 25 years and have always adored her vibrant desert landscape, rugged mountains, and bewitching southwestern charm. It is no wonder that Tucson is the perfect year round destination for outdoor enthusiasts who come to play golf, bike, hike, and explore nature. The options and opportunities to be outside are endless. For those seeking culture, Tucson’s rich Native American, Spanish and Mexican heritage as well as her Wild West past can be discovered within Tucson’s architecture, food, arts and overall vibe. Perhaps I’m slightly biased given Tucson is like my second home but in my opinion Tucson is a fabulous place to visit.

Why Tucson?

Tucson has a lot to offer given her size compared with her much larger neighbor Phoenix. At under a million people, Tucson is fairly manageable and you don’t have to drive too far to see great things. Although getting from one end of town to the other (such as driving from the Sonoran Desert Museum to Sabino Canyon) can be a bit tedious due to the lack of a freeway system, Tucson is a piece of cake in comparison to massive Phoenix. Furthermore, you are much closer to the mountains and hiking which is huge on my list. There are also some very nice museums to check out and enough luxurious resorts and good restaurants to keep you busy.

There is plenty to do for an entire week whether it involves relaxing at a spa or pool, hiking, biking, birdwatching, exploring culture and arts or taking a few scenic drives. Less than 90 minutes from Phoenix and a little over 3 1/2 hours to Sedona and five to the Grand Canyon, Tucson can easily be added on to an Arizona road trip. However, trust me there is plenty to do for an entire week in Tucson especially if you time your visit right with the weather.

Best Time of Year to Visit

Tucson can be visited year round however it gets very hot in the summer so that is the one time of year to be avoided if possible. If you do visit in the summer, plan on rising early to do your outdoor pursuits and spending the hottest hours of the day either in the pool or checking out some of the indoor attractions. My favorite time of year to go to Tucson is late March or April in the Spring when all the desert flowers and cactus are in bloom, the water is rushing through the streams and canyons and the weather is delightful with highs usually in the 80s. Another wonderful time to visit is in mid-Fall. October is still warm yet not as hot as September. This is also a nice time to consider a visit to Sedona or the Grand Canyon as it is not nearly as crowded as other months. Winter months (December – February) are nice as well but you can occasionally get cooler weather and rain.

Top Five Things to Do

There is a ton to do in Tucson and it all depends of course on your interests. Here are my top five things to do that cannot be missed when visiting Tucson.

Take a Hike

Tucson is a hiker lover’s paradise. With over 300 days of sunshine a year, a desert climate and four different mountain ranges surrounding the city, there are endless opportunities to take a beautiful walk or challenging hike in nature. Whether it be to the Santa Catalina Mountains in the north, the Rincon Mountains in the east, the Santa Rita Mountains in the south or the Tucson Mountains in the west, you will find no shortage of trails to explore.

One of the best places to hike in all of Tucson, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area with tons of hikes through both Sabino and Bear Canyon.  The best hikes to do:   Walk any distance along the paved road through Sabino Canyon (7.6 roundtrip) , take Phoneline Trail (7.6 miles) or hike to Seven Falls (7.9 miles).

If you go: The Visitor Center is open 8-4:30 pm daily and the cost to park is $5 per vehicle. Location:  5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd, Tucson, AZ 85750. To learn more visit US Forest Service website for Sabino Canyon Recreation Area.

If you really want a challenge, you can spend a day climbing Tucson’s highest peak, Mount Wrightson but be prepared as this is a 5-6 hour challenging hike to almost 10,000 feet.

 

Hike to Seven Falls, Tucson, Arizona

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Blackett's Ridge Hike, Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

The Best Hikes in Tucson’s Sabino Canyon

There is no better way to connect with the raw beauty of nature than by doing a good hike. I grew up hiking and for the past twenty years, I have enjoyed sharing many hikes with my father, my siblings and my own children wherever we can find a good trail especially when we are visiting my parents in Arizona.  Tucson is a hiker lover’s paradise. With over 300 days of sunshine a year, a desert climate and four different mountain ranges surrounding the city, there are endless opportunities to take a beautiful walk or challenging hike in nature. Whether it be to the Santa Catalina Mountains in the north, the Rincon Mountains in the east, the Santa Rita Mountains in the south or the Tucson Mountains in the west, you will find no shortage of trails to explore.

Fortunately for me, my parents have lived in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains for over 25 years and their home is only five minutes away from one of the best places to hike in all of Tucson, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area with tons of hikes through both Sabino and Bear Canyon.  Over the decades Sabino Canyon Recreation Area has become my outdoor playground and I try to hike every day when I’m visiting my parents. It is achingly beautiful and perhaps one of the most stunning places in all of southwestern Arizona.

While there are several hikes and walks to choose from, these are my top four recommendations for the best hikes in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. I have put them in order of difficulty which does not necessarily mean distance. All of the hikes are appropriate for children over ten as long as they have a decent level of fitness however I wouldn’t recommend bringing a child under ten years old on any of these unless you are prepared to take a lot of breaks and be mindful of the dangers that exist. Instead, I would stick with walking on the paved path that runs 3.8 miles (7.6 miles roundtrip) through Sabino Canyon or even wandering around some of the shorter nature paths near the entrance of the recreation center. There is a guided tram service that brings tourists to both Sabino and Bear Canyon which is wonderful for both families with children and also hikers wanting to save their legs by using the tram to reach the start of some of the trailheads.

Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon is beautiful any time of year.

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First Time Guide to Climbing Kilimanjaro

Have you ever had a dream for so long that it never stopped bugging you until you decided to just do it? For me, it has always been Kilimanjaro. I had wanted to climb this epic mountain ever since my father did it in October 1999. There really had not been any dream or travel goal that I have had for that long.

Like most dreams, there have been many obstacles and road blocks along the way. It wasn’t until a few years ago that my decades-long dream became a reality.  I had wanted to make this climb special and have it be somewhat similar to my life-changing trip to Nepal. Serendipitously I was connected with the U.S.-based non-profit Solar Sister, an organization that provides solar electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa. For their fifth year anniversary, an international team was planning to climb Kilimanjaro in June of 2015.  Each climber was required to raise $4,000 to support the hiring and training for 8 new solar sister employees in Africa and to celebrate the success of Solar Sisters, we would climb Kilimanjaro together as a multigenerational, international team. It was a perfect opportunity and I seized it. Looking back today, it was even better than I ever dreamed it would be. It was truly epic. Figuring out what on earth to do next after such an incredible climb will be the challenge.

Why go?

Kilimanjaro, the fourth highest peak among the seven summits, soaring at 19,340 feet (5,895 m) and one of the world’s highest freestanding mountains, has long been one of the most popular climbs given its relative ease of climbing (no technical climbing ability is necessary) and beauty.  Located 200 miles (330 km) south of the equator in Northern Tanzania, the snow-capped volcanic dome of Kilimanjaro dominates the skyline like no other mountain on earth.

Kilimanjaro is actually not a single peak but a vast complex of cones and cores spreading over 38 miles (61 km) long by 25 miles (40 km) wide. There are three distinct volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on Kibo’s crater rim and is the hopeful destination of thousands of climbers every year.

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

For me personally, I had grown up hiking, and climbing Kilimanjaro had been a long-term goal of mine after seeing my dad’s photos of his own climb back in 1999. I also desperately wanted to get there soon before the snow that caps the top of this mighty beast and makes it so stunning, is gone forever. Some scientists predict that the glaciers atop Kilimanjaro will be gone as early as 2030. What a tragedy!

What Route to choose?

There are six main climbing routes on Kilimanjaro with the Marangu Route (also known as the “Coca-Cola Route”) being the easiest and most popular. Our group chose the longer, more scenic Machame route that can take anywhere from 6-7 days and is known as one of the most beautiful routes on the mountain, passing through five distinct ecological zones and affording dramatic views every single day of the climb. The Machame Route also has one of the highest success rates for reaching the summit since it allows proper acclimatization before the final summit push.

Total Length of Hike: 62 miles (100 km) up and 24 miles (38 km) down.

Image of Mount Kilimanjaro Climbing Routes (Wikipedia)

Image of Mount Kilimanjaro Climbing Routes (Wikipedia). Our route was the Machame colored in brown.

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Parque Andino Juncal, Chile

A Magical Hike in Chile’s Parque Andino Juncal

“Frigid winds blow as we turn into the glacier’s gorge. Without foreseeing we begin to step on ice that shines in between the fallen rocks of surrounding towering mountains” – Nicolás Echenique, our guide and the founder of Coigüe Expeditions. 

One of my absolute favorite things to do is to hike and there is no one I’d rather hike with than my dad. Growing up, my dad instilled a deep love of hiking and being outdoors. Over the years, we have continued to hike together as much as possible when I visit my parents in Arizona or on one of our annual trips. Together, we have hiked the Andes of Argentina, Peru and Bolivia, and there was no way we were going to Chile without doing some hiking on our trip.

I was thrilled to discover that many amazing day hikes are reachable right outside of Santiago. On our first full day in Chile, we did an incredible “warm-up” hike to El Morado Hanging Glacier with our own private guide, Nicolás Echenique (Nico) of Coigüe Expeditions and it was a wonderful adventure. We knew we were in for a special treat when we signed up to hike with Nico again in the pristine Parque Andino Juncal, home of the largest glacier in Central Chile.

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Isla del Caño, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

A Day of Snorkeling at Isla del Caño

“In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans”. – Kahlil Gibran Jr.

I awoke at 6 am to the beautiful sound of the birds yet to a terrible backache. I had tossed and turned all night feeling like the Princess and the Pea moving beds and eventually sleeping on the twin bed in my room with three mattresses stacked on top of each other. Obviously I wasn’t 16 like I felt the night before when I was galloping into the sunset with glee. The horseback ride that I had so blissfully enjoyed had done a number on my lower back and I was feeling more my age.

Despite dealing with chronic back and neck pain my entire life, I wasn’t going to let pain get in my way today or any day on vacation. It was my very last day in Costa Rica and today we were going snorkeling to the reefs off of Isla del Caño, an island about 12 miles offshore of Drake Bay.

Besides hiking, snorkeling and being like a fish in the water is one of my other favorite activities to do while on vacation. Unfortunately living where I do and often choosing mountains over oceans, I don’t get a lot of opportunities to snorkel. Similar to horseback riding, swimming was something I spent a lot of time doing in my youth.

I grew up with an outdoor pool which was pretty crazy given the fact that we lived in Minnesota and our season for swimming was a mere three months. I will never forget the excitement that brewed in my blood come Memorial Day weekend and knowing we would get to remove the ugly dirty tarp and finally fill up the pool with water.

By the end of May, we opened up the pool and for the next three months until Labor Day my brother, sister and me were fish. I spent entire days swimming and eventually joined a competitive swim team for five years until I hit 13 and was too embarrassed of my ugly duckling pre-puberty body in a speedo. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise I quit the hours of practice and turning my neck because a few months later my neck hurt and it hasn’t stopped hurting for 30 years.

Drake Bay, Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

There was a plate of freshly made huevos rancheros with tortilla, beans and dark rich Costa Rican coffee awaiting me on the terrace of our hotel. The sun was long up, the day was warm and clear, and the birds were singing with all their glory. I knew it was going to be a delightful day.

By 7 o’clock, we piled into the Land Cruiser and drove over to Drake Bay where we were fitted for flippers and masks. It was the first time in six days that I had been anywhere near tourists and it felt a bit strange after being in rural, local-based travel lodgings for so long. The group of 20 was a mix of mostly Europeans and all ages. Our svelte snorkel guide was a 40-something man from Spain and he was like a mermaid in the water. So incredibly agile and graceful. He had moved to Costa Rica to follow his passion of free diving and was an incredibly knowledgable guide. We were truly lucky to have him.

We boarded the boat and set off into the hot morning sun, wind blowing in our sun kissed faces and the taste of salt clinging to our tongues.

Drake Bay, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Drake Bay

Drake Bay, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Heading to board our boat that will take us to the island.

A visit to Isla del Caño is one of the most popular excursions from Drake Bay. Roughly a thirty minute boat ride from Drake Bay, the crystal clear waters and reefs surrounding the island make up the Caño Island Biological Reserve, one of the best areas for snorkeling and scuba diving in the Osa Peninsula. The protected reefs around the island shelter a large variety of fish as well as sea turtles and birds. A recent push by the government to protect and conserve the national parks of Costa Rica has helped preserve this pristine ecosystem. Since 2014, the Costa Rican National Park Service has restricted access to the island and only allows a certain amount of visitors each day. You can no longer explore the island on foot and need a permit to visit. There is only a tiny bathroom facility and other than that the rest of the island is wild and undeveloped.

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Fusterlandia Havana Cuba

A Look into Cuban José Fuster’s Fantasyland Fusterlandia

One of the true joys of going on a people-to-people tour in Cuba was the fascinating look inside the real life and culture of Cubans. Our first cultural visit occurred on the very day we arrived in Havana after a charter flight from Miami that morning. We were met at the airport by our fabulous, charismatic Cuban guide Abel, and taken to see the work and community art of Cuba’s most celebrated ceramic artist, José Rodriguez Fuster, at his outdoor ceramic fantasyland “Fusterlandia”.

A step inside “Fusterlandia” is like taking a walk inside a Disneyland of art. The entire community surrounding José Fuster’s studio and home is decorated in Fuster’s unique style of mixing painting and ceramic and it is utterly surreal.

Fusterlandia Havana Cuba

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