Finding a Hidden Gem: Exploring Antigua, Guatemala

exploring antigua guatemala

Though I’m usually the one to suggest a trip, it was Daniel who encouraged me to book tickets to Guatemala. Guatemala had never been on my radar of places I wanted to head to, but we decided to go because we had heard from others it was amazing and offered a non-touristy way to experience Central America.

Skipping Guatemala City, we hired someone to pick us up at the airport and to take us to Antigua. Again, this was not my trip and I was not in my element. I had heard only vaguely the things to do there—hiking, volcanoes, ziplining, and Mayan ruins. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the small town of Antigua.

Turns out, for a town so small, there is a lot to do there. After a good night’s rest at the funky hostel we were staying at, we set out to experience Antigua and to see how this small spot an hour and a half from the capital had flourished over the past few years.

convent antigua guatemala

rose convent antigua

Our first stop was the local convent that had been left to fall into disrepair. While that might seem like a waste of time to some, it proved a treasure trove of blooming roses, places to play hide and seek, and wild but pretty gardens. It was nice to have a day to get used to the increase in elevation and to get to know what made this town unique.

After stopping for some tacos along the way (we devoured a lot of tacos) and passing some colorful buses, we ordered fresh fruit smoothies and deliciously dark coffees. Trying some of the local fare that included potatoes, steamed vegetables, and a variety of meat options. (Antigua would be a good spot for vegetarians, too.) I almost always try to taste the local beer wherever I go, so we ordered Gallo in the late afternoon when things started to become humid.

food antigua guatemala

buses guatemala antigua

Along with museums of ancient Mayan art, plenty of places to shop, and the great food spots, Antigua was fast becoming one of my favorite small towns south of Mexico. The cathedral was also worth taking a quick peek at for its gorgeous colors and unique take on Christian art. You’ll find all the statues of Jesus and the Mother Mary have dark skin like locals—a sneaky way to include the Mayan gods along with those of the conquistadors’.

cathedral antigua guatemala

interior cathedral antigua

After a few nights in, we were dying for a night out. Stopping by one of the expat havens, we had a few shots of the Quetzalteca Rosa de Jamaica (sipping, of course). Strong and sweet and cheap all at the same time, if you wanted, you could be knocked on your ass in about a half hour. We settled for tasting and heading to the hopping night club (literally) down the block—the Lucky Rabbit.

Latin music thumped through the speakers as dancers twirled and chose partners of all levels. I could see how someone could fall in love on a night like this and in a place with so much life. Daniel and I took to the floor for a little bit, but it wasn’t long before we just watched and enjoyed the complicated steps and even more complicated chemistry between the dancers.

antigua guatemala street

I almost regretted that we would be heading up the challenging Acentango volcano in the morning and that we had a few more days to enjoy the city. I could see why expats find themselves in Antigua—and why they have trouble leaving.

Alex antigua guatemala

Where is your favorite “hidden” city in Central America?

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander

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5 Places I Wouldn’t Go Back to Even if You Paid Me

5 hated places

We all have the places we love when we travel. I have a list of places I would love to return to and savor the food, atmosphere, or to meet the people again. In fact, I’ve found that returning to a location is why travel never gets old for me. Like having an unlimited stash of books to read and things to learn, locations change and your perspective on the world changes. It’s one of the most beautiful things about traveling, in my opinion.

However, there are some places where I would simply never choose never to go back again. Even if you paid me, I would refuse (which is saying a lot—I’m open to going almost anywhere new). Keep in mind, these are just my places—everyone has their own and one person’s hated locale is another’s home or favorite spot.

1. Zagreb, Croatia

Looking back, I know I should have spent more time in Croatia. I missed the highlights of Split and Dubrovnik, and I was too broke to head to Plitvice Lakes. I was stuck in Zagreb, which had very little culture (despite the dozens of museums the city boasted), and I had four days to wander around by myself. Also, Zagreb has a huge café culture, but not many food options. While the locals spent their time on the streets under umbrellas and chatting with one another, I was busy trying to find a place to eat lunch unsuccessfully.

2. Vienna, Austria

I know, I know. It’s very likely that I’m crazy (well, we knew that), but there was something about Vienna that felt cold to me. The people were pleasant enough and kind when I asked for directions, but after seeing the main highlights of Mozart’s house and the museums, I was ready to leave. For me, the places that have left the largest impressions are the ones that are teeming with life. Vienna, while peaceful, felt slightly dead.

3. Lisbon, Portugal

I wanted to love Lisbon so badly! So much was promised to me: great seafood, wine, beautiful views, history. But when I got there, it felt stoic. As I mentioned in a blog post, I think much of it was me. I was tired after a six-hour flight with no rest and was rushing to see everything in a day. Regardless, I thought Lisbon would have a bit more character, and I was disappointed because this was a place I had heard so much about. (Side note: This is one place I would return to with someone who loved the city—I felt like I missed a lot.)

4. Guatemala City, Guatemala

Guatemala was amazing, and I can honestly say that it was a trip I look back on especially fondly. Antigua was a hub of sights, sounds, and good food and Tikal was unlike any place I had ever been (and probably will ever go again). But you would have to tie me up and kidnap me (which could easily happen there) before I would ever go back to the capital. Daniel and I left for five seconds to get food, but other than that, we spent two days in our hostel room—way too freaked out to walk the streets. Danger level for tourists: 10 out of 10.

5. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia was one of the highlights of my travels last year, but the capital was pretty dead in terms of touristic activity. While I encourage all travelers in Cambodia to go to the Killing Fields, Phnom Penh itself had very little to offer. Other than a few historic sights, there are very few good restaurants with local foods. I’m glad I visited because it gave me a good idea of what a Southeast Asian city looks like, but of all the places in the world, I wouldn’t go back.

Where is it that you would refuse to go back to if someone offered to pay for it?

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander

Animal Rights and Travel: Why I Cried at a Bullfight

Bullfight Spain Seville
Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

*Warning: This post contains an account of animal cruelty and some graphic descriptions.*

Daniel and I decided to take a quick trip to Seville in order to get out of Granada over the past few days. We had purchased some tickets to go see one of Spain’s most famous traditions—bullfighting—and we made sure to look up bus times well in advance so we could make sure we wouldn’t miss it.

I was already having conflicting feelings about it before I even pressed the purchase button online. I was incredibly curious, but I also believe in ethical travel and have been an advocate for animal rights while being a tourist. I felt hypocritical telling others travelers how they could keep ethics in mind on the road while choosing to support a complicated, unethical activity myself as a tourist.

I also knew only vaguely of the contentious debate currently going on in Spain and how bullfighting has been banned several times, only to return again because it aids tourism and because older generations claim it as an important tradition. The king of Spain is said to be a big fan and some traditions (however terrible) tend to die hard.

In the end, my curiosity and wish to experience the culture won out.

“I’m going to cry,” I told Daniel, half-jokingly.

horses bullfight seville

But there was a part of me that was also excited that I would be experiencing something that I’ve seen in pop culture many a time, and it is almost impossible not to get caught up in the festive feeling that the bullfights propagated. We arrived early, cheap beer in hand and chatty until the sound of the trumpets echoed around the arena.

Horses entered the arena first with padded armor over them. The matadors followed close behind while photographers snapped their pictures—matadors still enjoy a celebrity status in Spain and the older generation follows its favorite champions. After they had been introduced to the cheering crowd, a group of matadors walked to the outskirts of the arena.

matadors bullfight spain

“Wait,” Daniel said. “Why are there so many of them? I thought there was just one.”

Turns out, bullfighting follows a series of steps. Once they released the bull, each one took turns tiring him out. He was a beautiful animal with a shiny coat and rippling muscle, and it was hard not to admire him for the gorgeous creature he was. Before we could ask someone why there were several matadors, blindfolded horses entered the area once again with riders carrying lances.

bullfight arena seville

“What is going on?” I asked. “What are they going to do to him?”

My question was answered almost instantly as one of the riders stabbed with bull with his lance. Blood spurted out and down the bull’s back. I had known that this would be a gruesome fight, and I had seen a lot of gruesome things on my travels, but there was no sport in this. I had thought it would be a classic battle of man versus beast, a fight that seemed at least even.

It got worse. The matadors speared him with miniature hand spears that dug into his skin and stayed there. It was like a terrible, brutal form of acupuncture that killed rather than relieved pain. The bull was becoming tired now, and was breathing heavily and foaming at the mouth. Finally, the main matador made his appearance, where he did the traditional dance with the bull, encouraging him to charge into his waving cape.

For a moment, I could understand why this remained of the tradition. The bull and matador read each other like partners in a flamenco show. The bull’s horns would come dangerously close to the matador’s body, almost brushing it as he passed. But my acceptance of this show was short-lived when the matador pulled out his sword.

matadors bullfight seville

“I can’t look.” I covered my eyes and looked away. I hadn’t realized, but tears were streaming down my face. They felt hot and wet against my skin as we baked under the sun. I was about to turn my face back to the arena.

“Don’t, Alex,” Daniel said.

I could hear yelling and cheering. Daniel later told me that since the bull didn’t immediately die, they had stabbed him in the face with a dagger over and over again. I sat there, numb, before saying that I wanted to leave. We got up, discarding our unfinished beer, and tried to make sense of why something like this would still exist in our modern day.

I am ultimately thankful that I had this experience this weekend. It is good for me to be aware that events like this are still going on. While it is a personal decision to decide to attend, I encourage travelers to think carefully before purchasing tickets for bullfighting and to think twice about any sort of activity that puts animals’ lives in jeopardy.

Have you ever been to an event like this that has made you reevaluate your ethics when you travel?

Keep wandering (even when it’s hard),

Alex Signature Wander

Mothers and Travel: How My Mother Encouraged Me to See the World

Mothers Day Travel

One thing I am always astounded by wherever I go is how important the role of being a mother is to so many societies. I remember going to Morocco with Gutsy Women Travel (another group of intrepid women) and my guide Nouri talking about how it was his mother who encouraged him to leave his tiny village in the Atlas Mountains and pursue an education for a better life.

My guide with Contiki in Peru, Gabi, took us to meet her mother. Again, it was her mother who had encouraged her to dream big even though she had grown up in a home in the middle of nowhere in the Andes.

If all these stories seem to follow a similar theme, then you’re right. My own story isn’t too different. While my dad was always the explorer when I was growing up and was the one who took us on hiking trips, my mom was always the one who insisted I think outside the box. She was the one who always told me I was going to do great things and to be brave in a world where it’s not easy being a woman.

I went from a tiny town in Montana in the mountains to Italy, New York, and then around the world. I’ve seen and done things that never would have been possible—and much of this has to do with the way I was raised. My siblings and I were taught to think big and to see the world as our playgrounds. When I had completed a novel, my mother was the first to book flights to California where I could meet agents and editors—all at the tender age of seventeen. She didn’t think twice when I was accepted at Sarah Lawrence College in New York—I would be going.

I’ve heard so many stories while traveling about how mothers have made such a difference in so many lives. From chatting with my peers at hostels to meeting locals and even being invited into their homes to meet their mothers, there is something special about how mothers see the world. I know my mother has made an incredibly deep impression on mine. From this encouragement as a young child, she has now become one of my dearest and closest friends.

This Mother’s Day, I’ve been thinking about how we can help mothers as travelers. After some thought, I encourage small donations to organizations such as The Heifer Project, Every Mother Counts, Women for Women, or whichever organization means the most to you. I bought a gift for my mother that encourages the sharing of recipes from around the world and the proceeds go to helping women around the globe.

My mother is flying half-way across the world to see me next month and the two of us are going to embark on the 115km leg of the Camino de Santiago. I’m looking forward to spending time growing with the person who encouraged me to grow the most. This is an opportunity that I know I will look back on and cherish the rest of my life.

In what ways has your mother influenced you as a traveler?

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander

Ancient Wonders: Exploring Luxor’s Treasures

Luxor Egypt Travel

After our hot balloon adventure, we were dropped back off at our hotel for a few hours of rest before we would go to see the rest of Luxor’s gems. We were a bit worn out after a twelve-hour train ride and getting up at four in the morning, and we were also unwilling to face the hot Egyptian sun that tended to arrive in the early afternoon. After a few hours’ nap, we would meet our guide in the lobby and he took us to our first ancient wonder of the day: the Karnak Temple.

Karnak temple is known as known for Rameses II’s contributions and changes, although it had been constructed hundreds of years before he came to power. In fact, that is one of the things Ramses became the most-known for in modern Egyptology—his ability to repurpose temples in order to suit his own needs and show his power. I was amazed how large the columns were. I’m a short person, but I’ve never felt quite so dwarfed in my life. Carvings of the ancient hieroglyphics still remained and in some areas, we could still see the paint they used in order to cover the entirety of the temple.

karnak temple rameses

We were stopped once by a guard. Daniel and I had grown cautious after being approached constantly by vendors and those looking to take pictures with me when I wasn’t wearing a headscarf hiding my blonde hair. However, he simply wanted to take our photo for us, which was a great reminder to approach each interaction with people you meet on your travels individually.

karkak temple columns

alex daniel karnak

After a few hours enjoying Karnak, we headed to our next stop with large, liter bottles of water in tow. The Valley of the Kings was one of the spots I was most looking forward to because it is the location of a work constructed by one of my favorite female rulers in history: Queen Hatshepsut. But first, we had to visit the famed tombs that made up the Valley of the Kings. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but you can get an idea of what we saw here. The tombs went on and on and were decorated in bright colors that any king would be ecstatic to have. I was surprised that there was so much blue and gold.

I could have spent days looking at the hieroglyphics and since we were there in August in the off-season, we had most of the tombs to ourselves. We visited three of them over the afternoon, each more impressive than the last.

valley of kings

It was time to visit the spot I was most excited for—Hatshepsut’s temple. In order to proclaim her right as the pharaoh of Egypt, she built a complex that would not only show how badass she was, but also how she was a much more fit ruler than her deceased husband’s son. Hatshepsut’s temple had a number of statues of her outside of it so all who entered could not fail to see her.

Hatshepsut statue temple

It was an impressive structure and there were a number of intact hieroglyphics which out guide showed us. It’s from these that Egyptologists have an idea of how the hieroglyphics looked before all the paint was worn away.

mosque luxor temple

Or day wasn’t done, however. Our final stop was the famed Temple of Luxor where Rameses II had really taken over. What surprised me the most was how there was still a mosque used by the local people right on top of the temple itself. The local people still deemed it as a very holy place—one that was still worth worshipping at.

luxor templr hieroglyphics

The temple was smaller than the one at Karnak, but it was more than worth seeing. We learned that the two main temples used to be connected by a road and that the pharaoh would ride on his chariot in between the two.

luxor temple road

As the sun was starting to set, we said goodbye and took our last pictures of the impressive structures, wishing we had more time to enjoy them and take a step back into history.

Have you ever seen any ancient sights that took your breath away?

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander

Feeling Good: How Travel Changed My Body Image

Body Image Travel

When I was fifteen, I decided to go on a diet. I was convinced that the body I had wasn’t good enough, and I was disappointed in the idea that I didn’t fit in with the standard ideas of “perfection” advertised to me by the movies I watched, the magazines I perused, even the books I devoured. The young woman featured was almost always very thin—most the time seemingly without trying.

I began restricting how much food I ate and counting every single calorie of what I consumed. It was a constant struggle to look in the mirror and be dissatisfied. I would have a cup of coffee in the morning and make it until dinner time without eating. I was tired, irritable, and convinced that if I lost just another five pounds I would be happy.

I would like to say that my relationship with food was magically solved when I lived abroad the first time (even the second), but it wasn’t. In fact, my eating habits grew worse living in Italy where I would oscillate between stuffing myself on pizza and gelato and then eating only salad for months. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to enjoy myself by enjoying the food in front of me, or if I wanted to try and keep the figure I had starved so hard for.

In the end, it never mattered, anyway. I came home from Italy twice gaining weight and feeling terrible about myself. I didn’t feel attractive and I was plagued by thoughts of dieting and hating how much I hated how I looked when I stepped out of the shower. The thing was, no one commented. My weight was the least of what people cared about after my adventures abroad. They wanted to talk about their own lives or they inquired about my travels.

It wasn’t until I made the choice to live in Italy a third time did I decide that I wasn’t going to care anymore. I would eat what I wanted and I would also make sure to exercise consistently—the more I thought about traveling and what I wanted to accomplish, the more I recognized that it would require personal and physical strength. I began a running routine which I still keep up today (albeit a much more intense one since I’m in shape).

Travel wasn’t what changed my mindset about eating. I was. But it was a catalyst to enjoying my life more. I got in shape for hiking the Inca Trail, climbing a volcano in Guatemala, conquering a sand dune in the desert in Morocco, and this summer, taking on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. I could have never had these experiences if I hadn’t fallen in love with my body and what it can do more than how it looks.

The more I started focusing on how much I liked it, the more it started to look how I wanted it to. I was able to positively change how I saw myself—as beautiful and capable and strong.

I would have never have had this outlook if I can’t become a traveler and I hadn’t wanted to feel good about myself in order to experience the world. If I had decided simply to diet, I would have been too tired to accomplish anything. More than anything, running and exercising serves as a way to get rid of negative thoughts and to focus on completing my next goal—whatever it may be.

I now never think twice about what I am eating and I listen to my body. If it wants pizza, I’ll give it pizza. If it wants vegetables, that’s what it gets. It only seems fair to treat my body well because, in turn, I know it will treat me well too.

How has your body image changed since traveling?

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander

Does Travel Make You Racist?: Learning from Other Cultures

Travel Make Racism

I grew up in a small town in Montana where the majority of the population was white. Much of my experience with those who were different ethnically than who I am stemmed from the travels my parents would take me on. We journeyed all around the United States, road tripping or vacationing. Since I was homeschooled, we took every trip away as a chance to learn—and some of the most important lessons I took to heart was that people of other ethnicities were really not that different than I was.

But I’ve definitely come across other travelers who have mentioned that their travels have made them prejudiced toward a certain culture or ethnicity. Much of the time is starts out as,

“I thought I would love Asia/the United States/Mexico/Canada, but…”

These were travelers who had open minds before their trips, but had them changed as soon as they were immersed in another location and they were dealing with some of the challenges of being in another place. They were fully willing to see the world from another angle, but couldn’t get past cultural barriers.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t had my challenges adjusting to another culture while abroad. I loved Egypt, but it was a shock for me to realize that I couldn’t walk by myself without being harassed. My first thought was to get angry and to blame the people, but that wasn’t really fair. I had met other people in Egypt like my friend Joe who would not have thought to harass a woman alone. Instead of blaming it on the people, culture, or even myself, I decided to take it as a lesson.

There’s also a big debate going on about Chinese tourists across the travel blogging world and how these tourists choose to travel. It’s easy to get annoyed when you are stopped by a crowd of Chinese travelers taking pictures or blocking the street you need to cross, but the reality is that they are opening their minds to new cultures and experiences—something we Westerners could learn a bit about when we decide to visit new places.

Racism is a difficult topic because no one likes to admit that they might have prejudices. We all would like to believe that we are completely unbiased, or where we are from hasn’t shaped us in any way. That’s why traveling is so important—it creates an environment where you must interact with others in order to do anything. The saying “everyone is a little bit racist” is probably true, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t change your perspective. Grouping a series of individuals into a stereotype is not fair—and you’re missing out on meeting some interesting people and improving your view of the world.

Also, many of the stereotypes we associate with other cultures are born of necessity. We might get annoyed walking through the markets in Turkey, Morocco, or Southeast Asia, but we are being approached because these people need to make a living—and it is a culture where it is much harder to do so.

It’s a lot of work to constantly remain open and approach every interaction you have with someone from another culture uniquely. (One of my favorite authors, George Saunders, recommends staying so open that it hurts.) However, in order to create a better world and to serve as global ambassadors, especially now, it is necessary. As Mark Twain mentions:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander

 

4 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Quit Your Job to Travel

Quit Job Travel

First and foremost, let me say that I don’t mean everyone shouldn’t quit their job to travel. I’m personally coming from my own experience and how I’ve managed to make it work over a long period of time. Some people can take the opportunity to not work and have adventures, but most of us have to figure out how to make a living while doing it. I’ve mentioned before how I’ve made my travels work financially, but not how I think having a job has been beneficial to me while on the road.

Here are some reasons you shouldn’t quit your job when you choose to travel the world:

1. It’s romantic, but it’s not realistic

I love the idea of leaving everything behind and starting out on a journey. And many have done this and have not had a problem. However, the reality is that most of us (unless you have a massive trust fund) will come back and find that they have to adjust again to the “real world.” My boyfriend and I have been living in Spain for a few months and it’s been lovely to be able to go out on a regular basis over lower prices. We know that this won’t last and that at some point we will have to return home and make a living with higher prices.

2. Stalled career

Depending on your age, this might not be an issue. But if you are a twenty-something and you quit your job to travel, you are going to return and find yourself behind the competition. I’ve been working remotely and that has helped me to continually update my resume so I can show that I’ve had work experience—even if it isn’t within the country. The good news? There are a ton of remote positions available and it is becoming more and more common. Just because you aren’t in an office doesn’t mean you can’t work.

3. Working helps you feel productive

Traveling can be amazing—but it can also feel incredibly depressing at times. I’ve found working toward a goal career-wise justifies my travels and taking time to enjoy when I am abroad. Only traveling can feel like the longest vacation in the world, and not all aspects of vacationing are great. I also love the feeling of knowing that I have enough money in my bank account that it is not an issue to order another plate of the local cuisine. Working has made my travels feel like a reward rather than separation from reality.

4. There are ways to make it work while working

Remote work isn’t the only way you can travel while having a job. I know of many travel bloggers who have taught English, worked as nurses internationally, went back to school in a foreign country, or traveled during the weekends. There’s a right way to travel for everyone, and it doesn’t (but it can) have to include waiting until retirement. Lifestyle is something you make—and a lifestyle includes thinking ahead to the future.

I don’t regret any of my travels, and I definitely don’t regret not having a more “traditional” job. But I know I would worry more than enjoy my travels if I knew I was spending all of my money or racking up debt. Again, it is thinking about how you can make a lifestyle change rather than simply dropping everything. Eventually, you are going to have to things up again and you want to feel happy and successful while doing it.

Have any of you quit your job to travel? Disagree?

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander

Up in the Air: Taking a Hot Air Balloon Ride over the Valley of the Kings

alex balloon egypt

After spending a few days in Cairo, Daniel and I were keen to head south to Upper Egypt and check out the temples that had captured our imaginations as children. We booked a 12-hour train ride (which was surprisingly not that bad—we slept most the way) and headed to Luxor, where we would be meeting up with Joe and seeing some of the largest temple complexes in the world—and the famous Valley of the Kings.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were given some tour options. Before Daniel could resist, I booked us a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings at dawn. Daniel looked at me resentfully—he is afraid of heights and didn’t like the idea of being so high up.

“How many people get to have an experience like this?” I begged him.

Reluctantly, he agreed. We went to sleep that night in anticipation—I was thrilled but Daniel was not happy to be getting up at 4 am.

Daniel Balloon Egypt

The next morning, we woke early and were transported by van to the location where we would be going up in the balloon. We enjoyed some tea, which was a welcome relief waking up so early in the morning. There were people there from all sorts of countries. I heard German, Australian, Chinese, and many more languages as they explained the procedure we would follow in the balloon. We watched as the giant balloon began to fill with hot air and stand tall. After climbing in the basket, we were subjected to several more blasts of hot hair that singed our foreheads.

Alex Hot Air

“So far this isn’t fun,” Daniel commented.

“Just wait,” I said as we began to rise.

I had never been in a hot air balloon, but my dad had and he told me it was an experience unlike any other. I felt so fortunate to be here, in the place that had captivated me from childhood, doing something I was not sure that I would have ever had the opportunity to do (and for $45 each).

Daniel Alex Egypt

We hovered over the ancient tombs and began to see the lights of the sun over the horizon. Pinks and purples lit up the place I had been looking forward to the most—Hatshepsut’s temple. We were going to explore it the next day, but it was nice just to get a glimpse.

There are 62 tombs in the Valley of the Kings and close to 80 in the Valley of the Queens. Some of them were hidden from our view, but you could see many of them from so far up. The sun rose higher and higher in the sky, and I was struck by how beautiful the irrigation systems were. We could already see the tiny outlines of people beginning their work for the day and urging along donkeys pulling carts. It was amazing for me to think that this irrigations system had been used for thousands of years and that it was still in use in our modern world.

Valley of Kings

hot air balloon

I turned to Daniel. He peered over the basket and smiled.

“Alright,” he said. “This is pretty cool.”

Eventually, what comes up must come down. We began drifting downward into a field where a van awaited to take us back to the hotel. By now, the sun was already turning hot and was starting to burn our shoulders.

We were surprised to see some unexpected visitors waiting for us below. There was a group of children from the ages of about 5 to 8 waiting for us, begging for a coin or two as we landed. We were ushered from the basket to the car and asked not to give them anything, but it was hard. Their hands reached into the van, dirty and desperate.

Hot Balloon Sunrise

It was such a sad and interesting experience to go from a literal high to seeing the realities of a place. Several months later, I look back on this adventure fondly, but it still is hard to imagine those faces and not being about to do anything about the circumstances.

Have you ever had an experience like this traveling where it is bittersweet?

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander

Traveling Green: How Travelers Can Help the Planet

Earth Day Travel

Since it is Earth Day, I’ve been thinking about how we can make an impact when we travel, and whether or not we are required to be responsible for the environment when we are on the road. For me, it seems like a no-brainer. If we are going to take advantage of the opportunity to see the world, we should make sure that we take care of it as we go along. So how do we act responsibly toward the environment while we travel? And can we really make an impact when we are only in a location for a short period of time?

As a travel writer, this means for me that I tell the whole story to my readers. I recently wrote an article about the disappearing glaciers in Glacier National Park for Matador. As much as I try to encourage visitors to my home state, I also want them to be aware that we have work to do as a society in order to maintain our landscapes. I feel as though I have a responsibility when I write to let others know in which ways we are affecting the environment.

As most travelers would probably agree with me, it’s impossible not to see some of the changes that we’ve rendered. The Great Barrier Reef has been proclaimed “dead,” Venice is sinking, and animal and plant species are dying out a terrifying rate. As someone who tries to encourage others to travel, I want to know that we are making an effort to preserve our world the best we can for next generations.

So how do we do this? While I have some issues with many voluntourism organizations, there are a number of them that are truly trying to make a positive difference. One organization that I believe in is Visit.org, which works hard to create ethical volunteer jobs for travelers. I’ve worked with them on a number of projects and I’m impressed by how they work to create tours that connect travelers with locals and work on sustainability.

But you don’t have to always make a big impact every time you travel. In fact, small changes to daily habits can actually make the biggest difference. I’ve started carrying around a refillable water bottle instead of getting plastic bottles every time I need water (and when you’re traveling to many locales, water is important). I don’t buy a lot of things—partially because I don’t have a place to put a ton of stuff, but partially because I don’t really need it and I think of all the natural resources that went into creating that product.

I’ve also committed to finding adventure tours that I can recommend to readers on the blog that are working toward helping the environment. I am journeying with Ninth Wave Global this summer to the Azores (by sailboat) in order to talk with other travelers about sustainability and to write about the current environmental situation that is rapidly changing the islands.

It’s these small things that really make a difference as we travel, but I do believe that it’s an important part of contributing to a world that gives so much to us.

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander