A Hike up to Iceland’s Newest Volcano: Fagradalsfjall

On July 29, our family of four took our first trip out of the country since before the pandemic to the magical, surreal landscape of Iceland. I had first visited Iceland back in 2008 with my father and was spellbound by her unearthly beauty and astonishing mystique. While I had wanted to return to this phenomenal country and explore it more, the idea quite frankly did not pop back into my head until late in the Spring when our family had all been fully vaccinated and heard the news that Iceland with its small population of roughly 368,792 hearty souls was welcoming back vaccinated tourists. As someone who follows travel news closely, Iceland’s clever tourism pitch got my attention.

Icelandair has long had direct flights from Minneapolis to Keflavík, and to meet the increase in demand, Delta Airlines also launched a non-stop flight from my home town airport as well. The flight to Iceland from Minneapolis is roughly six hours. The only downfall is that the flight is too short to really get any sleep and the time change is a difficult five hours ahead meaning jet lag was going to be an issue that first day. The good news is we would have nine full days to adjust.

The route from Minneapolis to Iceland takes you directly over Greenland. The view was jaw-dropping!

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The Treasury, Petra, Jordan

Take a Walk with Me Through Petra: One of Jordan’s Most Magical Places

Have you ever had one of those travel experiences that was so magical it was almost spiritual? That is how I felt when I discovered Petra. I honestly did not know much about it before going and perhaps that made the entire experience all the better. I simply fell in love with the beauty, mystique and sheer size of Petra. It is absolutely extraordinary and like no place on earth. Built over 2,000 years ago by the Nabateans as a place for camel caravans to rest and trade, the stunning “Rose City” was once one of the grandest ancient trading centers in the Middle East connecting ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Its massive size and number of intricate hand-carved buildings, tombs, and temples literally blow you away.

The Nabateans were Arab Nomads who thrived from 312 BC to 106 AD. They became wealthy from the prosperous incense trade, using their aptitude for complex engineering and architecture to build one of the region’s most successful ancient civilizations, the Nabatean Kingdom and their capital city, Petra. At its prime, Petra housed over 30,000 people throughout its massive complex of caves, temples, and tombs. Scholars believe that their name, Nabateans, comes from the Arabic word “nabat” which means to extract water from the earth. The Nabateans channeled water to Petra from nearby springs using sophisticated pipes, hand-cut channels and large, underground water containers called cisterns to keep a constant flow of water inside Petra.  As you enter the Siq, you can see the irrigation channel carved into the rock, leading into the depths of the city. It is incredibly impressive.

Petra thrived under the Nabateans until 106 AD when there was a change in trade routes bypassing Petra and weakening the Nabatean’s power and wealth. The Romans conquered Petra and added their own Roman features to the ancient city such as the Colonnaded Street, roman baths and an expansion of the theater to seat more spectators. A massive earthquake struck in 336 AD and another devastating earthquake in 551 which lead to Petra’s eventual demise. It became a forgotten, lost city to most of the world except for the local Bedouin who kept it a secret and called it home.

Petra’s existence was unknown to the outside world until 1812 when it was rediscovered by a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt who snuck into Petra disguised as a Muslim Holy Man. The exciting news of Petra’s existence brought researchers and intrepid travelers to the site. Meanwhile, a large Bedouin community lived in Petra’s caves from the 16th Century up until 1985 when Petra became a World Heritage Site and the locals were relocated to the Bedouin Village Camp.  Today, Petra is one of the world’s most treasured sites and her mysteries are still being uncovered. Spending a few days in Petra was the absolute highlight of my trip to Jordan and a truly unforgettable experience. 

Sometimes a place is beyond words. Come take a walk with me through Petra……

P.S. If you don’t want to read this entire post, you can tour Petra with me in a little over three minutes in this video! I will take you on a walk with me through this incredible place!

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Hike to Lac Blanc, Chamonix, France

Unforgettable Hikes along the Tour de Mont Blanc: Hike from Col des Montets to Lac Blanc

Sometimes in life, the best comes last. Serendipitously, this proved true with our very last hike on our intergenerational do it ourselves Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB). After ten glorious days of hiking the TMB – from the stunning Val Ferret and Val Vény in Courmayeur to our hike above the gorgeous Champex-Lac in Switzerland and finally to a variety of different hikes in Chamonix-  our hike to Lac Blanc proved to be the one hike that had us wondering when on earth we’d ever be able to come back to this magical place. The hike to Lac Blanc reminded me exactly why I hike in the first place: To feel utterly, insanely alive. And, there is nowhere I feel more alive than outside. The pure, raw beauty of the Alps and the Tour de Mont Blanc itself can all be captured in this one hike. It is a must-do for anyone in Chamonix and anyone hiking the TMB.

We had heard about Lac Blanc from our hotel and had desperately wanted to hike there earlier but the gondola lift to La Flégère was closed. So instead, we filled our first two days with a hike to the top of Le Brévent that affords stunning panoramic views of Mont Blanc, and we did an incredible hike along the Grand Balcon on Mont Blanc to the Mer de Glace. While both hikes are exceptionally stunning for some reason I had to see Lac Blanc. I had this nagging, unexplainable urge to do this hike so I persisted. Our hotel manager told us we could reach Lac Blanc a different way – albeit a bit longer of a hike – if we drove past Argentière and parked at the Col des Montets located in the Réserve naturelle des Aiguilles-Rouges. It was rated a difficult hike but was doable in anywhere from 4-7 hours depending on level of fitness. I got my dad and son to agree and on our last day in Chamonix we set off for what would be the greatest hike of the entire trip.

We arrived at the trailhead shortly after ten. There were plenty of parking spots remaining which was of course a good sign that this beloved hike was not too busy yet. It was an absolutely perfect day for hiking with a few scattered powderpuff clouds, brilliant sun and glorious blue sky. We could not have asked for a better day for our last hike.

Reserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges, France

The start of the trail is right behind the Reserve Naturelle del Aiguilles Rouges, France

Reserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges, France

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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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