Hands down, one of the greatest hikes in Tucson is to the top of Mount Wrightson. Located about 40 miles south of the city in the lush Coronado National Forest of the Santa Rita Mountains, Mount Wrightson and lesser known neighbor Mount Ian comprise the backdrop of any picture taken in Tucson. At 9,456 feet, Mount Wrightson is Tucson’s tallest peak (Mount Ian is slightly smaller at 9,146 feet) and the views along the way and at the top are quite impressive. Where else in Tucson can you pass through four different ecological zones ranging from the last remains of the Sonoran desert to the Ponderosa pines and finally the majestic Douglas Firs. In a little over five hours, you can have it all and get a challenging hike too.
I first hiked Mount Wrightson over twenty years ago when I was visiting my parents in Tucson. It was in my early hiking years and at the time I found the hike pretty darn challenging. I remember when I reached the top, I realized that it was the highest mountain I’d ever climbed. I’d done a lot of hiking growing up in Minnesota and had even hiked in the Alps but I had never hiked over 9,000 feet before. I’d only skied at that elevation. Being on top of Mount Wrightson felt like being on top of the world. It was exhilarating and set in motion a strong desire to keep climbing.
Five years later, I made another attempt to summit Mount Wrightson but physically it was not meant to be. I was three months pregnant with my son and the morning sickness made the hike impossible. I only got to the first saddle at 7,100 feet. That was in November 2003 and it took another 15 years for me to finally get the opportunity to attempt the hike again.
At the top of Ventana Trailhead overlooking Tucson and a view of Mount Wrightson and Mount Ian far off in the horizon. January 2019.
Reaching Tucson’s highest peak is always an accomplishment and the hike itself is truly quite stunning, affording sensational views all the way into Mexico and beyond as well as getting a feel for Arizona’s incredible ecological diversity. Of course there are plenty of stunning hikes to do in the desert surrounding Tucson yet a climb to the top of Mount Wrightson is truly special and unique. If you are lucky you may also even see wildlife that only lives in higher elevations like the Whitetail and Mule Deer, Wild Turkey, Black Bear, Coati or even a fox. Plus what is not to love about a nice, demanding leg burning hike.
There are two trails to choose from to reach the top of Mount Wrightson (or Mount Ian if you prefer to climb that peak). For those who want to get there faster and have a more challenging hike, follow the Old Baldy Trail, a ten-mile hike through the forest with switchbacks weaving you up to the top. If you want an easier, less trafficked yet longer hike you can follow the 13.1 mile Super Trail (Also known as the Loop Trail). I prefer the Old Baldy Trail.
Both hikes begin right next to the parking lot at the Madera Canyon Trailhead located at the end of the Madera Canyon Road. The 11-mile drive into Madera Canyon is quite spectacular in itself as you leave behind the dusty desert landscape of cactus and mesquite trees and enter the lush Coronado National Forest composed of Evergreen Oaks, Arizona Sycamores, Fremont Cottonwoods and Alligator Junipers.
Along the way are tiny cabins and a few B&Bs where birders from around the world come to spend a night or two. With over 250 species of birds identified in the area, Madera Canyon is one of the most renowned birding destinations in the United States and it is evident by the number of birders walking around with their binoculars, sun hats and enormous cameras.
The start of both trailheads is at 5,450 feet and by this time you have already left behind the desert landscape that surrounds Tucson and have entered the Coronado National Forest lush with a wide variety of trees. The start of the Old Baldy trailhead is wide and a bit rocky until you reach the woods and the first of many switchbacks winding you up to the Josephine Saddle.
In September 2017, I had the honor of attending the White House Summit for Study Abroad and Global Citizenship, a two-day event co-hosted by Hostelling International USA (HI USA) and Partners of the Americas held in New York City at HI USA. The goal of the conference was to inspire a new generation to study abroad and experience the transformational power of travel. During the conference we learned about the abundance of funding options and scholarships available for students interested in studying abroad during college and beyond by various organizations. I had studied abroad myself in my early twenties and that experience profoundly changed my life. However, I understand how lucky I was to have that opportunity as not many people do.
The good news is that many organizations such as HI USA are working to help young Americans get out and explore the world. HI USA, a nonprofit, member organization founded on an enduring belief in the power of travel to foster a deeper understanding of people, places, and the world around has a wealth of programs and opportunities available to make it easier for young people to see the world. One amazing program currently being offered by HI USA, the nation’s leading hostel brand, is the Explore the World Scholarship which is now open to applications until March 2, 2019.
Explore the World Scholarships
HI USA created the Explore the World Travel Scholarships to help young adults aged 18-30 finance an international service or educational trip abroad. The total award given is $2,000 (split into two equal installments of $1,000) to go towards an international travel opportunity.
This is the fourth year of the program and in 2018, HI USA awarded 104 scholarships to young people across the U.S. so they could go learn Arabic in Jordan, volunteer in India and Vietnam, teach math in the Dominican Republic, or board a plane for the very first time to study abroad in Europe. Scholarship recipients have returned home from their travels with a profound sense of intercultural appreciation, and a renewed dedication to spreading the word about travel and tolerance at home.
In 2019, HI USA will be giving out 110 scholarships to would-be travelers around the country, aged 18-30, who need a little extra help along the way.
The basic program requirements and eligibility to apply for the Explore the World Scholarships include the following:
Must be 18-30, with financial need, and live or go to school in one of 14 metro areas (select counties in CA, DC/Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, Portland, Austin, Houston and Richmond).
Should have an educational or service trip already in mind but cost is getting in the way.
In today’s interconnected world, understanding other cultures and making connections is critical to promoting world peace, stability and a happier planet for all. Traveling has a profound impact on both the traveler and the people they meet along the way. Traveling opens your mind and your heart to differences. It fuels your curiosity and passion for other cultures and places. It helps you understand the world and puts your own identity in perspective. But most of all, it builds connections and fuels your desire to become a global citizen and lifelong explorer.
Here is what a four past recipients of Explore the World Scholarships have to say about their own experiences.
The month of January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Per Polaris, a global leader in the fight to end modern-day slavery, human trafficking is “the business of stealing freedom for profit. In some cases, traffickers trick, defraud or physically force victims into providing commercial sex. In others, victims are lied to, assaulted, threatened or manipulated into working under inhumane, illegal or otherwise unacceptable conditions. It is a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to 24.9 million people around the world”.
As non-profit organizations, governments and business around the world work to spread awareness and fight this hidden epidemic, we as consumers can use our purchasing power to make a difference and change lives. Per Jane Mosbacher Morris (Founder and CEO of To the Market, a social enterprise that connects business and consumers to ethically made products around the world), the retail market is a massive force in the U.S. economy – a $2.6 trillion industry – meaning retail purchases can be powerful tools for social change. Consumers now have the power to make a huge difference on such social issues as fighting poverty, climate change, human trafficking, and sending girls around the world to school. This was the inspiration behind Jane founding To The Market: To economically empower vulnerable communities around the world by hiring them to make the kinds of products people buy every day, harnessing the purchasing power of people and businesses to address social issues. (1)
In honor of Human Trafficking Awareness month, I have compiled a list of my favorite for-profit and non-profit companies working hard to fight human trafficking. A purchase from any of these organizations goes to help victims of human trafficking to not only find an escape but find a future.
To The Market
TO THE MARKET | Survivor-made Goods (TTM) combines the powers of commerce and storytelling to empower the world’s most courageous survivor populations, in the belief that resilience is more powerful than suffering. TTM showcases handmade goods made exclusively by proud and passionate artisans who have overcome the perils of abuse, conflict, and disease. By assisting local partners around the world in bringing these goods “to the market,” we take an active role in equipping the survivor’s they employ with economic independence, while raising awareness of the challenges that they face. www.tothemarket.com
MOTA Makeup Bag Set – Navy Floral. $39 made from recycled Saris
To the Market: Sammana Tote With Leather Straps. $36.50. Recycled saris are re-imagined and hand-stitched in the kantha style by a woman impacted by human trafficking and the commercial sex trade. Every product is “signed” by the artisan, the hero of her own story.
Maroon Kimono: Our handcrafted goods are made by women and girls who have survived or evaded sex trafficking in northern India. These women are now living as artisans, creators and artists with sustainable careers, as well as education and medical care that’s supported by your purchase. Price $40
Purpose is the brand under International Sanctuary, which is a nonprofit whose mission is to empower people escaping trafficking to embrace their true identity and worth. Purpose Jewelry provides freedom from slavery for young women around the world. Each piece of jewelry is beautifully crafted by young women rescued from human trafficking and by purchasing with Purpose, you are providing freedom, dignity and hope for these amazing artisans.
To raise awareness and combat human trafficking, Purpose Jewelry is offering two limited-edition Human Trafficking Awareness Month bracelets. 100% of the proceeds go to support survivors their artisans at International Sanctuary.
In 2010, I went on a life-changing trip to Nepal with my father to hike the Annapurna trek in the Himalayas. Despite having traveled quite a bit, there was something truly magical and mind-blowing about Nepal. I had never experienced anything quite like it before. The chaotic mix of utter poverty and lack of infrastructure juxtaposed against the beauty of the Himalayas, the people and the culture truly touched my soul.
As we trekked through one beautiful remote village after another, I began to wonder how could it be that in this tiny, mountainous country where over 80% of its people live in remote villages like the ones we’d seen, that many people have little or no access to education. I learned that only half of Nepalese women over age 15 know how to read and write and many people are barely making ends meet to survive.
I’d always taken education for granted and it stunned me to realize that so many people in Nepal and around the world didn’t even have the choice to go to school. I also took safe drinking water, proper sanitation, electricity, health care, a warm stable home and access to medical care and employment for granted as well. I had been living in a bubble, and from that point on was determined to change my life and figure out a way to give back, and thankfully I did.
As a stay-at-home mother of two young children, my trip to Nepal reawakened a strong desire to become a writer and do good. I returned home and immediately started my travel and social good blog, Thirdeyemom, and also began building my work as a humanitarian by raising money and telling the stories of the progress being made by amazing non-profit and social good enterprises around the world.
As we were leaving Nepal, Rajan Simkahada, the owner ofEarthbound Expeditions, our trekking company, gave me his card and mentioned some of the social work he was involved with in Nepal. On the back of the card was HANDS in Nepal, a small grassroots, non-profit organization based in California working to bring education to women and children in remote, rural areas of the Himalayas. As soon as I got home, I contacted them. I worked with the founder Danny’s mother, Jan Sprague, for almost a year helping raise money for HANDS in Nepal by selling beautiful, homemade Nepali goods that Jan purchased in Nepal and sent to me. It was a wonderful way to give back and in the end I knew that every sale helped improve the lives of both the women who made the blankets and scarves and the villagers supported by HANDS in Nepal.
Over the following eight years, I kept the promise I made to myself and have continued writing and doing good, raising awareness of such issues as women and girls empowerment, global health, poverty and education. I’ve featured many different non-profit organizations and social enterprises on the blog however I had lost touch with Nepal. A few weeks ago, I serendipitously reconnected with Jan Sprague, now the Director of HANDS in Nepal and it felt like fate. HANDS in Nepal is still working hard to promote education and reduce poverty in the remote Himalayan villages and has began many new projects. Since Nepal will forever be within my heart, I wanted to do an update on the incredible work being done by HANDS in Nepal. I know Nepal is calling me to come back for a visit and I hope too soon.
Interview with Jan Sprague, Director of HANDS in Nepal
HANDS in Nepal Director Jan Sprague inspecting the building of Learning Center #2 in the Astam Village area of Nepal
How did Hands in Nepal get started?
At the age of 20, my son Danny went on his own to Kathmandu after reading about an orphanage called Buddhist Child Home that needed volunteers. He lived with the lady who ran the orphanage for the first month and then moved in with a Tibetan family to study Tibetan Buddhism. He walked to the orphanage each day from his Tibetan house. While working at the orphanage, he met Rajan Simkahada, and they became good friends. Rajan told Danny the “real” Nepal was up in the villages, and he would never see or learn about Nepal if he didn’t go up to the villages. So he went up to the village where Rajan grew up and was blown away by the poverty, the lack of roads, old, ruined school building, and the poor condition of homes. Rajan told Danny how kids up in villages have to walk great distances to attend a school and he asked Danny if he would build a school in his village, Dharka.
Danny Chaffin started HANDS in Nepal after volunteering at an orphanage called Buddhist Child Home in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Danny discovered many children in Nepal work on the streets or beg because of a lack of schools in the villages.
Most of Nepalese live in extremely remote, hard to reach areas. Rajan’s village Dharka is located in the Ganesh Himalayas, an area like many that most people have never heard of. Dharka is reached by first taking a bus from Kathmandu to Dhading Besi, then a bush taxi to where the road ends, then you hike about 5-6 hours up a mountain to the village. This is common for many villages in Nepal which demonstrates the immense challenge in development areas such as education, water and sanitation, health and more. Danny was blown away by his experience in Nepal, and it forever changed the trajectory of his life.
After returning to the US to start college at Naropa University, a private Buddhist University in Boulder, Colorado, Danny did all he could to save up money and return to Nepal to help build the school. The two of us returned the following summer and began figuring out a plan for how we would build their first school in Rajan’s village, Dharka. It would have to be through the creation of a non-profit. We returned home to the US, filed papers for a 501(c)(3) for the start of a non-profit. Hands in Nepal was officially founded in 2007 and the school in Dharka was completed in 2008 and a second school called Shree Ganesh Primary School was opened in 2009.
Danny founded the first school in Dharka, Dhading Besi, in the Ganesh Himalayas, one of the more remote and poorest areas of Nepal.
Awhile back, I was walking around one of my favorite urban lakes in Minneapolis with a good friend and she told me about an amazing program in Guatemala being run by two local non-profits, the Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry and the Community Cloud Forest Conservation. Through a unique partnership, they have been offering transformative intergenerational travel trips to a remote part of Guatemala where families, couples and solo travelers alike can work side by side the local community and do good. The trip brings travelers to the highlands of Guatemala for an intercultural and educational opportunity to work with the Community Cloud Forest Conservation on projects in education and agroecology.
As a strong supporter of sustainable travel, I was instantly intrigued and had the chance to meet with both Tricia Hall of the Community Cloud Forest Conservation and Mary Peterson of the Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry to learn more about their work and the trips to Guatemala. Tricia, a family doctor, humanitarian and mother of three, has been leading the trips to Guatemala since 2013 and I asked her to share a bit more about her inspiring work.
Tell me a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and what were your hobbies when you were a child?
I grew up in Minneapolis and have always loved the lakes and parks of this area. We spent time in Minneapolis, but we also traveled to distant places. My parents are both social workers and we grew up with a strong sense of social justice, both locally and abroad. From an early age, I loved to travel and learn about new and different cultures.
Where did you go to school and what did you study?
I went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan for undergrad and then to Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine for medical school. I have always loved literature and so my undergraduate degree was in English, which I did alongside my pre-med science classes. I enjoyed the variety and have never regretted having both of these areas of study.
Why did you decide to become a doctor and what is your area of expertise?
I started to think about medicine in my high school anatomy class when we dissected a cat and I found it so interesting, particularly all of the muscles. Concurrently, I was starting to do service trips with my church. I knew that I wanted to work in some aspect of service and that muscles were cool, so there you have it! I decided on the specialty of Family Medicine because I loved the interactions with the whole family at the various stages of life.
How did you first get involved with the Community Cloud Forest Conservation (CCFC)?
We first visited Community Cloud Forest Conservation in 2013 when our daughter was just 18 months and our sons were 7 and 10. I wanted to see what my cousin Tara (CCFC co-director with Rob Cahill) and her family had been doing in Guatemala and I was immediately hooked on the beautiful area, but more importantly I was compelled by the beautiful people and the mission of CCFC.
Tell me more about the CCFC. What is their mission and how are they making an impact with the people they work with in Guatemala.
CCFC’s mission is to alleviate poverty and protect forests in the Highlands of Guatemala. These two objectives, although not obvious synergistic goals to most residents of the United States, definitely go hand in hand. The Q’eqchi’ Maya people of this region of Guatemala live in and by the land. As the land is deforested, their lives are denuded as well. Through education, reforestation, sustainable development, leadership scholarships, and ecological improvements to agriculture, CCFC is fulfilling its mission from the ground up. As kids learn about conservation, as young women are empowered to stay in school and fulfill their dreams, and as people from remote, rural villages are partners in collaboration, the physical landscape of the cloud forest improves and the personal landscape of the communities thrives.
Kids from the US and kids from the a village school making friendship bracelets together. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Young women in a leadership training session at CCFC’s ecology center. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Beautiful faces, learning, growing. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Where in Guatemala do they work? What do most of the people in this community do for a living? What are some of the challenges they face?
CCFC is located in Alta Verapaz in the Central Highlands of Guatemala, a mountainous region which is largely indigenous and suffers from extreme poverty. The vast majority of the people in these communities are subsistence farmers, farming corn and beans on the steep sides of the mountains. Although corn is an important part of their diet and also the Mayan culture, when corn is grown as a monocrop, both the land and the nutrition of the people suffer. CCFC is working to increase agricultural diversity, often using ancient Mayan and native cloud forest heirloom crops to decrease deforestation and to dramatically improve nutrition.
What is your role with CCFC?
I feel very blessed to be able to work alongside the directors, staff and volunteers at CCFC and to bring a focus on community health. I have been working with Guatemalan nurses and nursing students over the past three years to assess the health needs and successes of the communities, identify areas for improvement, and develop initiatives to improve the health of the people in the communities.
CCFC in partnership with Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry, offers a unique intergenerational trip each year to see the work in Guatemala. How was the partnership formed?
We have been supporters of Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry for many years and I served on the board until recently and so I knew about LPGM’s partnerships with organizations around the world, building relationships, breaking down barriers, and partnering in the essential areas of need. A collaboration between LPGM and CCFC seemed like a great fit for both organizations. We started with a pilot travel experience and have continued to grow the partnership; because of this partnership, dozens of individuals and congregations around the United States have been able to travel to and work alongside CCFC in Guatemala, expanding the worldviews and potential of people both in Guatemala and here in the US.
Making dinner is fun! Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Peeling cacao beans to be made into chocolate. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Cacao beans. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Picking cloud forest native naranjilla fruit to be made into tasty jam. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Weeding and planting with friends. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
What is the mission of the trip? What does a week look like?
The mission of the trip is to:
Experience and learn from a different culture,
Work alongside CCFC on projects that are ongoing in education and agro-ecology
Shareour lives and God’s love with each other and with those we meet in Guatemala.
When we arrive in Guatemala City, we get an introduction to Guatemalan culture and then we head to the mountains! We spend 4 days partnering with a group of children from a local village school, learning and experiencing together, and at the end of the week, we accompany them to their village, often with trees or other native products to plant. Throughout the week, we are hiking, cave-exploring, making native cloud-forest products, learning about coffee-production, playing soccer, and packing in as much learning and fun as we can. At the end of the trip, we spend a day “adventuring,” either in a natural waterpark or on a volcano.
How does this experience change you?
This summer will be my 6thyear bringing a group to CCFC and I never tire of witnessing the beautiful connections that occur on these trips. To see a 7-year-old US girl from the city and a Q’eqchi’ Maya girl from a remote village walking together, smiling, communicating through hand gestures, and learning about themselves, each other and the world around them—it just doesn’t get any better than that!
Want to learn more about the upcoming summer trips?
June 19-29 2019 | Community Cloud Forest Conservation | Intergenerational Trip – Open
July 27 – August 6 2019 | Community Cloud Forest Conservation | Intergenerational Trip – Open
The usual trip size is around 10-18 people, filled with a mixture of families, couples and even solo travelers ranging from all ages. Cost is $1250 per person plus airfare. To learn more about the trips please click here.
Community Cloud Forest Conservation alleviates poverty and protects forests through education, reforestation, sustainable development, leadership training, and ecological improvements to agriculture. CCFC believes that holistic human / community development through education and capacity building is the key to conservation and development in Guatemala’s central highlands. Education, especially for young women, is key to building peace in this region.
Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry was created in 1995 out of a pressing need to connect people with opportunities around the world and build relationships. Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry shares resources and hope through: Partnerships (with local, national, and overseas organizations), Education (for women and children, transforming lives for a brighter future), Empowerment (empower peace, stability and sustainability through leadership development), and Transformational Travel (to India, Guatemala and the Central African Republic).
I love to ski and while here in the Midwest we don’t have the amazing mountains of Colorado or Utah, Minnesota surprisingly has quite a lot of ski areas to learn on and hone your skills. I grew up skiing Minnesota’s often icy and cold ski areas, learning to ski at the tender age of three. For me, skiing is the best way to survive our notoriously long Minnesota winters and a way to get outside in the depth of our coldest months.
When I tell my non-native friends that I spend my weekends skiing in Minnesota, they are often surprised until I remind them that it was little suburban ski area Buck Hill in Burnsville, Minnesota where one of the best skiers in the world got her start, Lindsey Vonn. Taught at Buck Hill by the renowned Erich Sailer who also groomed slalom racer Kristina Koznick, Vonn put Minnesota on the map for many young ski hopefuls. Vonn eventually moved to Colorado to train on the bigger mountains but often looks back nostalgically on the icy, sometimes brutal conditions of Minnesota skiing where she got began.
Given my love for skiing, my husband and I started our own kids skiing when they were toddlers with weekly lessons at Buck Hill. Once the kids were in elementary school, we joined a Twin Cities based ski and snowboard club called Blizzard that brings us to a different ski area every Saturday from December through March. We have been members of the ski club for six years and have skied all over the state. While one ski area crosses the Minnesota border slightly into Wisconsin and the best ski area is near the Canadian border, all ski areas are within an hour to four and a half hour drive of the Twin Cities. Here is a list of my favorites in order.
Located in Northern Minnesota near the Canadian border is Lutsen Ski Area, one of the largest ski areas in the Midwest. Nestled within the stunning Sawtooth Mountains with massive Lake Superior as a backdrop, Lutsen Ski Area encompasses four interconnected peaks, 95 runs, a gondola, and 825 feet vertical rise (not bad for the Midwest). Although it can be cold, it is by far the best skiing Minnesota has to offer and makes for a great family, friend or couple weekend trip. Besides skiing, there is also nordic skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding and sleigh rides so there is plenty to keep you busy.
About a four and a half hour drive from the Twin Cities, Lutsen is best experienced over a weekend and there are tons of great lodging options available. You can stay mountainside, at the Lutsen resort or at a Lutsen Sea Villa along the edge of frozen Lake Superior. Lutsen has been a favorite ski area of mine since I was a kid. We usually go skiing in early March to escape the colder winter months however you never know when you may just luck out with warmer weather and good snow. Some friends of mine just got back from an early January trip and the conditions were outstanding.
As always, I cannot believe that another year has simply flown by. I swear, time seems to go faster and faster each and every year. 2018 has been yet another whirlwind year awash with highs and lows. It hasn’t been the easiest year yet there have been plenty of wonderful adventures, special moments, time with family and those not so pleasant yet necessary life lessons.
For some reason, it always feels like a shock to jump into another new year and perhaps that is why I love to take a moment to reflect on the year that has passed and be filled with gratitude.
We welcomed in the New Year in San Diego after spending the holidays with my family in Tucson, Arizona. Over the years, San Diego has become a special place for our family and we enjoy spending time hiking, watching sunsets, building sand castles on the beach and taking in the perfect weather. Torrey Pines Reserve is always a must see as well. My favorite post of January: “Why I Will Always Love Torrey Pines” shares some of my favorite photos of this magical place.
We also drove to LA where we discovered another treasure, El Matador Beach in Malibu which is lovely especially if you arrive before the crowds.
While Paris has always been my first love, little did I know that I’d also fall madly in love with the old world charm and beauty of Prague. In my opinion, few cities in the world compare to the magical architecture of these two cities, both equally adored in my eyes. I first saw Prague while I was living and studying abroad in Paris back in 1993, just four years after the Velvet Revolution. With over 40 years of communism, much of Prague’s beauty had been shroud in mystery and wasn’t unveiled for the world to see until 1989 with the fall of communism.
Prague’s history is long and deep which makes this charming city even more fascinating. Founded around the end of the 9th century at the crossroads of Europe, Prague became the seat of the Kings of Bohemia with a thriving marketplace alongside the River Vltava. Feuding kings, bloody wars, and the building of the Old Town Square surrounding the immense Prague Castle defined this prospering city that reached its glory in the 14th century during the reign of Charles IV. Charles IV commissioned the building of New Town, the spectacular Charles Bridge, the Gothic masterpiece Saint Vitus Cathedral and the Charles University, the oldest in Central Europe. Thanks to Charles IV, the “golden age” inspired much of the beauty you see in Prague today.
When to Go
Today, Prague relishes as one of the top major tourist destinations in all of Europe where people from all over the world come to take a step back in time and marvel at this masterpiece of architectural delight. Prague’s multi-layered history of architecture takes us back to her founding 1,100 years ago in the Romanesque era to her flourishing by the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras, all within 3.34 square miles.
With only 1.3 million inhabitants, Prague sometimes can feel overrun with tourists blocking its tiny, winding cobblestone streets and filling up its squares. But despite the hordes of tourists, the magic of this city is spellbinding and is bound to take your breath away.
The best time to go to Prague if you want to avoid tourists yet take a little bit of a chance on weather is during the shoulder season meaning either Spring or Fall. We went in early May and had fairly good weather with a little spring rain. It wasn’t too unbearably crowded or hot like it gets during the busy summer months. I imagine September would be lovely in Prague.
Neighborhoods to See
Prague is made up of five independent municipalities: Hradčany (Prague Castle), Lesser Town (Malá Strana), Old Town (Staré Město) and New Town (Nové Město) and Josefov (the Jewish district) was added in 1850. Although Prague was one of the few European cities untouched by WWII, the Nazi occupation lead to the demise of the Jewish population who either fled or were killed in the Holocaust. The Germans who had formed the largest ethnic group in the city were expelled after the war. Then came 40 years of communism followed by freedom and an opening to the world.
In this guide, I will focus on the top touristic neighborhoods to see first for old world charm and architectural bliss: Malá Strana (Lesser Town), Old Town (Staré Město), Malá Strana (Lesser Town), and Hradčany (Prague Castle). We stayed in Nové Město (New Town) which despite its name, is not new as it was founded in 1348 by Emperor Charles IV to link Old Town with other parts of Prague. There is plenty to see in Nové Město as well in terms of stunning architecture, the Wenceslas Square, department stores, shops, restaurants and more. Another district you must visit is Josefov, Prague’s old Jewish ghetto filled with beautiful synagogues, an old Jewish cemetery and the Jewish Town Hall. We only had time to briefly visit the Old New Synagogue (Staronová synagoga), one of the oldest and most valuable European and world Jewish monuments, and the oldest synagogue in Central Europe. We simply ran out of time. I would highly recommend spending at least half a day in Josefov if not more. If you like to shop, then you could also easily spend a half to full day in New Town as well. The itinerary below is meant for at least 2-3 full days to explore at a leisurely pace.
Over the years, I’ve cultivated an ever-growing list of amazing organizations around the world that offer amazing gifts that also give back to charity. What makes me thrilled is to see so many new, innovative organizations and products entering the industry providing unique often handmade gifts that do good. What a better way to use our consumer dollars this giving season and year-round than to purchase a gift that gives back?
Kupendo Kids is a social impact company that is working to make a difference in Sub-Saharan Africa by selling ethically sourced, handcrafted toys that create jobs for women who need fair paying jobs to support their families. Every time you purchase a toy from Kupendo Kids, they deliver a toy to a child in need. They are currently partnering with SOS Children’s Villages in Namibia and plan to expand to other partnerships as they grow. In 2014, I visited a SOS Children’s Villages site in Ethiopia and I can attest to the amazing work they are doing to help the children. I am so excited to introduce Kupendo Kids and their work.
Can toys really help children learn and grow?
In October 2018, Philip Evangelou, an Australian corporate lawyer based in London visited an orphanage in Namibia where he personally delivered toys, stationary and books and saw how much joy this brought to the children. This filled up Phillip’s heart with so much joy and gratitude for all the toys and love he received in his childhood.
After doing some research, Philip was astounded to find out that there are over 34 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa and figured that most of them had probably never received a toy.
Further to the above shocking statistic, according to UNESCO’s eAtlas of Literacy countries which have the lowest youth literacy rates in the world are Chad (31%), Central African Republic (36%) South Sudan (37%), Niger (40%) and Guinea (46%). This means children in these countries, have less access to educational toys and books.
This sparked a fire in Philip’s belly to do something about the lack of fun, toys and very low literacy rates. Philip thought “Why don’t I start a toy shop that provides a toy or book to an orphan in need, each time a toy is sold?... and so Kupendo Kids was born. Kupendo is Swahili for Love and supplying educational toys and books to vulnerable children in nations such as this will show them love and help lift the youth literacy rates.
Benefits of playing with toys backed by science
Research published by Parenting Science confirms that there are many cognitive benefits of playing with toys in developing the learning brain of children. The benefits include improved memory, brain cell growth, greater attention span, creative problem solving, reasoning, self-regulation, language and numerical skills.
Philip visited a few toy makers in Cape Town, South Africa and found one that employed local talented artisan women who specialise in embroidery and stitching. Philip made sure that the materials used were high quality and the women making the toys were paid fairly for their work and had good working conditions.
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 used to be a guided tram service that brought tourists to both Sabino and Bear Canyon but unfortunately the service has been shut down while the park service rethinks its environmental impact. This has dramatically impacted available hiking options especially for families with young kids or for those who can’t walk as far.
As much as I love to travel, there is no doubt I feel concerned about the negative impact that travel can make on a place due to overtourism and additional stress on the environment. As the world economy improves and more people are being lifted out of poverty, tourism is on the upswing as well. World Count estimates that approximately 1 billion people arrive in a new destination each year which translates into a new arrival every 30 seconds somewhere around the globe.
“Should we feel guilty for traveling”? and “How is tourism the harming the environment and what we can do about it?” are excellent moral questions us as travelers have to often consider when planning a trip, especially to a threatened destination such as The Great Barrier Reef, Iceland, and Machu Picchu to name a few.
In this thought provoking piece, Dafina Zymeri of SUMAS (a Sustainability Business School in Switzerland), shares some areas where travel has negatively impacted the environment and the very culture of a city and how we as travelers can travel more consciously. I have added in my insight where I deemed necessary to expand upon a topic. I am hoping this is the first of many conversations on the importance of sustainable travel for we must protect and think responsibly about our impact as travelers upon the very world in which we desire to see.
It has been estimated that over half of the Great Barrier Reef has died since 2016. What impact does tourism have on this fragile ecosystem and should we go there? Photo credit: Pexels
The Burden of Overtourism
If you search on Google “How tourism is…”, the first suggestion to finish the sentence it will give is “How tourism is killing Barcelona.” Pretty sad, isn’t it? Well, we travelers – or tourists, whatever you call yourself – are destroying the environment of those beautiful countries we’re visiting. Of course, we don’t mean to do so but we are flying, visiting and trampling all over the planet. Our increase in visiting some of these destinations is undeniably having an impact and perhaps not such a positive one.
Let’s take the case of Barcelona. Check out the Guardian’s recent article “How Tourism is Killing Barcelona – A Photo Essay“. We have all seen and experienced beloved destinations like Barcelona that have sadly began to lost their charm and have become overrun with all things tourist. Trinkets, t-shirt shops and crowds and crowds of people is making a once culturally rich city feel more like a Disney-styled theme park. Will Barcelona eventually loose the charm and uniqueness that initially made it so popular with tourists in the first place?
If this isn’t sad enough, the huge increase in popularity of Barcelona is having its own negative impacts on its own people who live there. Barcelona native residents are enraged with the cost of living that they say was inflicted by tourism. Per The Guardian, it used to cost 250€ (or around $280) for a short-term rental permit but now that they are not being issued anymore. Needless to say, the average monthly rent in Barcelona (which is the most expensive in Spain) is around 700€. Residents are seemingly being forced out by high rents in Barcelona neighborhoods with a high presence of Airbnb. Since Airbnb’s intention is “revitalizing neighborhoods”, how is that possible when neighborhoods in their presence are actually losing population to a large degree?
Is tourism ruining the charm of such beautiful places as Barcelona?
Here’s another example to touch your conscience: The beautiful beach of Maya Bay of Phi Phi Lei Island in Thailand had banned, for a certain time, boats of tourists from landing on the shore. The tourists that want to take the trouble to visit need to do it by foot from the neighboring beach Loh Samah Bay. I was heartbroken when I read what the Chief of Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park said the reason behind the temporary closure was that the marine life and corals need time to recover. How utterly devastating. The beach we go to see, swim in, and take pictures of to need a break from us!
And what about Machu Picchu, a World Heritage Site? Thousands of tourists are trampling across ancient ruins every day at a level that is truly unsustainable for keeping them around for further generations. Although UNESCO has strongly recommends that they cap the number of visitors to 2,500 per day, 5,000 tourists visit and walk across these threatened ruins daily. Don’t we want to safeguard and protect Machu Picchu for future generations to enjoy?
Isn’t this how Machu Picchu is supposed to look? Untouched?
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 who 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.
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.
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). Our route was the Machame colored in brown.