Costa Rica: Top Seven Things To Do

A couple years ago Aaron and I took a two week road trip around Costa Rica. We started in Liberia and spent time in Monteverde and Arenal before taking a few days to relax at the beaches in Manuel Antonio. From there we headed to Guanacaste and finished our trip in San Jose. Though our road trip route ended up being a bit wonky, we loved every minute of it.

Here are our top seven highlights from the trip:

Horseback Riding in Monteverde

One of the many activities offered to tourists in Monteverde was horseback riding through the surrounding hillsides at sunset. We’d never taken a horseback riding tour before, but the price ($35 per person) was right so we decided to go for it. I’ll admit I was a little nervous since I had only ever been on a horse once in my life.

Our hotel in Monteverde, the Rainbow Valley Lodge, arranged a sunset horseback riding tour for us with Equus Farm, which included transportation to and from the hotel.

Once we arrived we were each given a horse and some very basic instructions. Then we were off! Thankfully, my horse knew exactly where to go, allowing me to relax a little and enjoy the ride.

Horseback Riding in Monteverde Costa Rica
Horseback Riding in Monteverde

Though I was nervous in the beginning, this experience turned out to be my favorite part of the entire trip!

La Fortuna Waterfall in Arenal

Aside from some spectacular views of the Arenal Volcano, the highlight of our time in La Fortuna was a day spent at the La Fortuna Waterfall.

La Fortuna Waterfall Arenal Costa Rica
La Fortuna Waterfall

This popular attraction was located not too far from the center of town and had well developed locker room and restroom facilities at the entrance. It also had a series of souvenir shops to commemorate your trip to the falls.

Once we purchased our tickets and changed into our swimming suits, we joined the stream of visitors and descended down the nearly 500 steps to the pool beneath the waterfall. Going down was the easy part!

At the base of the waterfall we gingerly scrambled over the slick rocks at the edge of the pool and slipped into the refreshingly cool water. We stuck to the edge of the pool and admired the sheer force of the waterfall as it cascaded down the 200 foot cliff in front of us.

Also, be sure to check out the area below the falls where a drainage stream provides sandy beaches and a more gentle place to swim!

Zip Lining in Manuel Antonio

Costa Rica is well known as one of the pioneering countries for eco-tourism. As such, many of the available tourist activities involve both adventure and spending time in nature. Zip Lining is a prime example and can be done on many parts of the country.

We chose to zip line with El Santiario in Manuel Antonio. Our tickets included pickup from our hotel, a two hour guided zip line tour, and a traditional Costa Rican lunch afterwards.

We didn’t see many animals while whizzing through the trees, but we had a blast! This tour was perfect for anyone who loves a rush of adrenaline in a gorgeous setting.

Zip Lining in Manuel Antonio
Zip Line Tour in Manuel Antonio
Zip Line Tour Manuel Antonio Costa Rica
Aaron Finishing the Zip Line Course

Sunset at Tamarindo Beach

Who doesn’t love watching a beautiful sunset after spending the day at the beach? Our top pick for sunset viewing in Costa Rica: Tamarindo Beach in Guanacaste on the west coast.

Sunset  at Tamarindo Beach Costa Rica
Tamarindo Beach

Also, be sure to catch some waves while you’re there. Tamarindo is quite popular for consistent swells that are ideal for beginner surfers.

Irazu Volcano

On our very last day in Costa Rica, we hired a taxi to drive us from San Jose to the Irazu Volcano. It turned into a full day excursion since we made a couple other stops along the way at an unfinished church in Cartago that kept getting destroyed by earthquakes, the Irazu Volcano National Park, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Angels.

The most unique aspect of our trip to Irazu was the fact that we were able to drive all the way to the top of the volcano. I mean, where else can you do that?

The drive was almost as impressive as the volcano itself. Once we got to the top, there were two observatory platforms that afforded us views into the volcano. The views of the adjacent volcanos and mountain peaks rising above the clouds made me feel like I was standing on top of the world.

Top of the Irazu Volcano  Costa Rica
Annie at the Top of the Irazu Volcano

Jungle Walks

Anyone visiting Costa Rica is pretty much obliged to go on at least one jungle walk to experience the country’s abundant rainforests and wildlife. We enjoyed these guided tours so much that we did a few during our two week trip.

Monteverde Cloud Forest & Night Walk

We took two jungle walks in the Monteverde area. One was a private tour of the Curi-Cancha Reserve, where we saw the elusive quetzal, and the second was a guided group night walk at Refugio Vida Silvestre.

Male Quetzal with Insect in Beak Curi-Cancha Reserve Costa Rica
Male Quetzal

The night tour was a trip highlight for me. It felt so adventurous and also kind of insane to be tromping through the jungle in the pitch black. We saw a ton of animals including sloths, tarantulas, scorpions, and leaf cutter ants.

Our biggest tip is to ask the locals which reserve you should visit. They will be able to tell you where the most birds and animals can be seen at the time you are visiting based on current available food sources.

Glow in the dark Scorpion in Monteverde
Scorpion Seen on Night Walk in Monteverde

Arenal Tropical Forest

If you visit Arenal, it is worth taking a guided tour around the volcano. You will get to see enormous chunks of lava from past eruptions as well as many wild animals in the primary rainforest around the volcano’s base.

On our tour we saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys, a baby pit viper, toucans, and a plethora of frogs to name a few!

Arenal Volcano Costa Rica
Arenal Volcano

Manuel Antonio

This coastal Costa Rican oasis is known for its beautiful beaches and national park. The best part of a visit here is that you can tour the park to view its wild animals and then spend the afternoon at the pristine beaches within the park.

Make sure you arrive early because entrance into the park is limited and tickets sell out fast! Also, we realized many people skip the rainforest tour and head straight to the beach…

Manuel Antonio Beach Costa Rica
Manuel Antonio Beach

Gold Museum in San Jose

San Jose was a bustling capital city with a hopping downtown area full of shops and restaurants. It had some interesting historical sites as well including the National Theater, the Jade Museum and the Gold Museum.

We felt that two days was sufficient to see most of the tourist track, and our favorite stop was the Gold Museum. The main exhibit walked us through the history of how gold was used by the various groups who inhabited Costa Rica over the years from the Olmec to the Spanish Conquistadors.

What impressed me the most was how intricately the gold was worked by hand. The craftsman and designs were superb!

Gold Museum in San Jose Costa Rica
Gold Museum in San Jose

Happy Travels!

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Costa Rica: Road Trip Across Country

Car Rental in Costa Rica:

In April 2019, we planned to take a two week trip to Costa Rica. We wanted to see many different areas of the country, so we started exploring the idea of renting a car to get around. We solicited opinions from friends who had been before and scouted the Internet for advice. In the end, we decided to go for it and rent a car for the majority of our trip.

Having done so, here’s our advice about car rentals in Costa Rica:

  1. Rent a 4-Wheel Drive Vehicle: It will not be the cheapest option available, but many Costa Rican roads are not passable without the extra maneuverability and horsepower of a 4-Wheel drive car. We ended up with a Toyota Fortuna and loved it!
  2. Get Car Insurance: All car rental companies will require you to get basic insurance through them. It’s a National law. We recommend getting extra insurance that will cover a bit more just in case!
  3. Choose a Reputable Rental Company: We decided to go with Alamo since we were familiar with them from trips in the United States. Our experience with them in Costa Rica was positive.
Man driving Toyota Fortuna in Costa Rica
The road trip begins…

Driving in Costa Rica:

Take Google Maps with a Grain of Salt

We heavily relied on Google Maps for navigation. Typically, one of us would drive while the other navigated. We brought an old fashioned map just in case but it turned out to be relatively useless since we were hard pressed to find any street signs, especially in the smaller Costa Rica towns.

Google Maps was flawless in terms of locating available roads. However, more than once it took us on “roads” that were little more than goat paths. These were the moments we were most grateful for our four wheel drive car.

So, the lesson here is to take Google Maps with a grain of salt. You may end up getting more of an adventure than you bargained for!

The best quote from my navigation: “When the road ends, turn right!”

Man standing in front of Toyota Fortuna in Costa Rica
Aaron with our Toyota Fortuna

Road Conditions in Costa Rica:

Road conditions in Costa Rica vary widely all over the country. During our two week road trip we encountered everything from four lane asphalt highways to single track “roads” where the mud was so thick it threatened to immobilize the tires. These diverse conditions are precisely why we recommend renting a car with four wheel drive.

We also asked locals at our hotels for advice on which roads to take. This is crucial in the rainy season since many roads get flooded and become impassable.

Toyota Fortuna on muddy road in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Road Near Manuel Antonio
One Lane Bridge Costa Rica
Beware the One Lane Bridges

Driving in Monteverde

The most challenging driving we encountered was in the area around Monteverde in the center of the country. Most of the roads were unpaved and required slow speeds to avoid obstacles like rocks and ruts. Even the few paved roads in the area were in rough shape.

Silver Toyota Fortuna on steep road near Monteverde
Steep Road Near Monteverde

Traffic from San Jose to the Beaches on the West Coast

We had a couple of long driving days on our road trip including the drive from the Arenal Volcano area to Manual Antonio.

This drive wasn’t technically difficult, but the traffic was horrendous once we reached Highway 27, the paved, four lane road going west from San Jose to the coast.

We were driving to Manuel Antonio just before the Easter holiday weekend which likely explains the crazy traffic we encountered. We spent hours baking in the hot sun waiting to exit the highway and make our way south.

We learned that if you are road tripping through Costa Rica around a holiday, you’ll likely be joined by many locals who are also looking to celebrate away from home.

Traffic Jam Highway 27 Costa Rica
Traffic Jam on Highway 27

Freedom and Flexibility to Explore:

For us, the best part about renting a car was the freedom and flexibility it afforded us. We were able to explore the country at our own pace and see exactly what we wanted to see. Want to take a detour to a small town off the beaten path? Done. Want to spend a couple extra hours at a favorite spot? Easy.

When we were still considering whether renting a vehicle was a good idea, we came across many transportation services for hire to bring you from one place to the next. We even met folks along the way who used such companies. In the end, we were grateful we could determine our own time schedule and itinerary.

If you are considering renting a car in Costa Rica, please know that it is totally doable, and we highly recommend it!

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Woman  Driving  Toyota  Fortuna  Costa  Rica

Botswana: Safari – The Untold Story

Chobe National Park:

Many people dream of going on safari. The idea of jumping in an open-sided safari vehicle and racing to see as many wild animals as possible is where most safari dreams begin.

As someone who had dreamed of experiencing a safari first hand for as long as I can remember, I was beyond thrilled when the stars finally aligned for us to take a trip to South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.

Herd of Elephants with Baby Elephants in Chobe National Park Botswana
Chobe, Botswana

Safari Wake Up Call:

Most safaris begin long before dawn with a brutally early wake up call at 4:00am. When the alarm sounded, I groaned, rolled my eyes, and thought to myself “I can’t believe I paid for this type of vacation!”

Bleary-eyed with our camera slung over my shoulder, my husband and I made our way down to breakfast in the hotel lobby. It turned out that breakfast meant a cup of tea and a to-go box of breakfast treats that we could eat on the drive to the park.

Hippo Wallowing in Mud Chobe National Park Botswana
Hippo Wallowing in the Mud

Traveling to Chobe National Park:

Temperatures in the early morning out in the African bush lean toward the cool side. The air felt even cooler as the wind whipped against my skin while the open-sided safari vehicle raced toward the park entrance. All thoughts of eating my boxed breakfast disappeared as I threw on every layer I had thought to bring and huddled against the cold.

Fortunately, the adrenaline rush fueled by a promising day of wildlife photography was more than enough to remind me why I signed up for a safari vacation.

Entrance Sign at Chobe National Park Kasane Botswana
Entrance of Chobe National Park

The Impala Lesson:

On our very first early morning safari drive, our first animal sighting was a small herd of impalas. We expressed our excitement with a series of “Ooohs, ahhhs, and Look at that!” and asked our driver to pull over so we could take photos.

He obliged, but he didn’t bother to hide his exasperation. He told us he would stop this one time specifically for impalas but that was it. He said they were so common that we would likely see hundreds more before the day was over.

We all happily snapped away, thrilled at photographing such a magnificent creature so close to the road.

Male Impala on Grassland in Chobe National Park
Male Impala

The further we drove into the park, the more we realized our guide was right. Impalas were everywhere!!! It dawned on us that our excitement over seeing our first impala was akin to being ecstatic over seeing a cow on the side of the road in the Midwest!

Breakfast on Safari:

When we finally did stop for-breakfast, it was the side-of-the-road quick bite variety. My appetite had long-since vanished with the excitement of the drive, but it was nice to enjoy a hot cup of tea provided by our guide.

Safari Guide Serving a Bush Breakfast in Chobe National Park Botswana
Breakfast in the Bush

I will admit that the boxed breakfast provided by the hotel went untouched at the bottom of the safari vehicle. Oh well. I suppose the lesson here is that sometimes meals get forgotten in the excitement of travel.

Photography on Safari:

Before we left for Southern Africa, I invested in a brand new Nikon DSLR camera with an extra 200mm zoom lens. They were totally worth it. I can’t stress enough how important it was to have that extra zoom.

The reasons for this are twofold: First, the zoom lens allowed me to capture photos of animals at a respectful distance. Second, the zoom lens served as a pair of binoculars, magnifying the wildlife for the best views possible.

Three Young Male Lions Seen on Safari in Chobe National Park
Young Male Lions

Safari Sunset Cruise:

Another option for viewing Africa’s stunning wildlife is by boat on a safari cruise. In Botswana, we were able to take several sunset safari cruises on the Chobe River in Chobe National Park.

In my opinion, a safari cruise is more relaxed than a safari drive. When viewing animals overland the ride can get quite bumpy due to imperfections in the road. The locals called this an “African Massage.” Sailing serenely on a river alleviates those discomforts entirely. Plus, on a boat we had the option to get up and move around for better views.

Even though we saw many of the same animals on the cruise and drive, I appreciated the different perspective of each. For example, on the boat we were able to get much closer to hippos, and we witnessed elephants swimming across the river.

Hippos Photographed on Sunset River Cruise on Chobe River Botswana
Hippos in the Chobe River
Sunset over Chobe River in Botswana
Sunset in Chobe National Park

Safari is Worth It!

Overall, despite the early mornings and sometimes uncomfortable conditions, I wholeheartedly believe that going on a safari is well worth the money and effort! It is unforgettable. If taking a safari is on your bucket list, I say “Go for it!”

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Portugal: Highlights of Sintra

Top 3 Must See Sites in Sintra:

For most tourists, a vacation in Lisbon is not complete without a day trip to Sintra. This fairytale town is about 15 miles from the capital and can be reached in a little less than an hour by train.

Why take the time to visit Sintra? In a nutshell, it is beautiful. The town sits just off the Atlantic Ocean atop the Sintra Mountains. Its close proximity to the coast produced cooler temperatures which prompted many royals and wealthy families to build their castles here over the centuries. In fact, there are so many unique places in Sintra that the whole town was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For us, visiting this idyllic town was a refreshing change of pace from the bustling city life in Lisbon. Below are our three “must-visit” sites in Sintra.

Moorish Castle:

It was an overcast, rainy, November day the morning we arrived in Sintra. We departed the train station and decided to make our way up the hill to the Moorish Castle on foot instead of hiring one of the numerous tuk-tuks available. The hike was strenuous and took longer than we expected, but the view from the top of the hill was worth it!

This castle was built during the Moorish occupation of Portugal, hence the name, and served as a lookout post high above the town. As we walked around the outer walls of the castle, we tried to imagine how a guard would have felt as he manned his post – very cold in the winter, we concluded!

Moorish Castle Hilltop Overlooking Sintra Portugal
Moorish Castle
Couple Inside Moorish Castle in Sintra Portugal
Exploring the Hilltop Fortress
Moorish Castle with View of Sintra Portugal
Moorish Castle with Sintra in the Background

Pena Palace:

Our next stop was the Pena Palace. This castle was located on a hilltop adjacent to the Moorish Castle. It’s vibrant colors stood out impressively against the bleak backdrop of gray clouds.

This palace, in terms of architecture and painted hues, was straight out of a Disney Princess fairytale. It was difficult to believe this place was actually real.

Few tourists were with us, making it easy to explore the palace’s hidden nooks and crannies. The timing of our visit proved fortuitous. We got to explore the palace’s exterior for about thirty minutes before a thick blanket of clouds rolled in and obscured the views from the hilltop. The fog was so thick we couldn’t even see ten feet in front of us.

We headed inside and were pleasantly surprised to find that the palace’s interior had been left exactly as the last owner had decorated it giving us a rare glimpse into the life of modern royalty.

Pena Palace Viewed from Moorish Castle in Sintra Portugal
View of Pena Palace from Moorish Castle
Colorful Exterior of Pena Palace in Sintra Portugal
Pena Palace

Quinta da Regaleira

Our final stop of the day was the Quinta da Regaleira, a former private residence turned into a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the center of Sintra.

This expansive property contained an assortment of unique things to see including the main palace, a small but ornate chapel, a series of underground grottos and waterfalls, and the Initiation Well.

The property was quite large, and we didn’t have time to explore it all. We would recommend setting aside at least two hours to make the most of your visit.

Regaleira Palace in Quinta da Regaleira Tourist Site
Regaleira Palace
Man on Balcony of Regaleira Palace in Sintra Portugal
Balcony of the Regaleira Palace
Woman Standing in Initiation Well in Quinta da Regaleira Sintra Portugal
Initiation Well

We found that Sintra undoubtedly deserves its reputation as one of Portugal’s most popular tourist destinations. There is a plethora of activities to entertain tourists of all ages, and its close proximity to Lisbon makes a visit a no brainer.

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Tobago: Cyclists of the Caribbean

“Honey, do you want to come with me to a bike race in Tobago?”

“Sure! Where’s Tobago?”

“It’s an island in the Caribbean. All we have to do is pay for your airfare. The team is paying for mine and our lodgings for the week.”

Team Rio Grande:

Aaron had been racing for the Rio Grande Cycling Team, based in Boulder, CO, for six months before the Tobago trip offer was presented. The team had given Aaron the chance to road race in New Mexico, Arizona, and California, but the Tobago trip was the first time I was given an invite to travel with the team. I knew most of the racers from weekend trips to Boulder for team building events and local races, and I was pleased to discover that the team captain’s girlfriend would be travelling to Tobago as well. It wasn’t exactly my vision of a perfect beach vacation, but it was practically a free week in the Caribbean. So, we packed our bags, eagerly anticipating Tobago’s blue waters and tropical island vibe.

Getting to Tobago:

If you’ve never flown with a bicycle, let me tell you, it is quite the adventure. Not only did we have to drag our wheelies through the airport, we also had to push this enormous box containing Aaron’s disassembled bike. The only relief from this excessive luggage burden came when we finally dropped the bags and bike box off at the check-in counter. In fact, we were so happy to no longer have to drag the bike box around that we were happy to pay the exorbitant luggage fees. Now, imagine that scene with a team of seven cyclists and seven enormous bike boxes struggling to navigate the airport. I’m sure it was quite the comical sight.

We flew out of Miami International Airport and arrived in the early evening in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Unfortunately, it took hours, literally, for us to clear customs. By the time we collected all the bike boxes, we had missed our connecting flight to Tobago, which as it turned out was the last flight of the day.

As all travelers inevitably experience, flexibility was forced upon us and we had to stay the night at a hotel in Port of Spain. Our room was about average in every way with the exception of a giant puddle in the middle of the floor which we had to leap over every time we wanted to use the bathroom. But, hey, it could have been worse and it was only for one night.

The next day we finally arrived in Tobago and checked into our beach front apartment in Store Bay. We immediately threw on our swimsuits, abandoned the bike boxes, and dove into the crystal clear, delightfully warm Caribbean Sea. The long, tedious two days of travel were worth it!

Caribbean Beach at Store Bay in Tobago
Store Bay, Tobago
Sunset View from Store Bay in Tobago
Sunset from Store Bay

Road Cycling in Tobago:

Our first few days in Tobago took on a comfortable routine. We spent the early part of the days at the bike races, Aaron riding and me supporting the team by handing out water bottles in the feed zone, a random spot on the side of the road along the race route. Once the race was over for the day, we headed back to Store Bay and spent the afternoon at the beach.

Since we were in the Caribbean, the weather was hot and humid making water bottles a hot commodity. The value of these water bottles skyrocketed when we discovered the scarcity of bike shops on the island. In other words, lost cycling bottles tossed aside during the races could not easily be replaced. In the feed zone it was a mad scramble to get new bottles to the riders and at the same time collect the discarded empties before another team made off with them.

The most dramatic event of the race series occurred when Aaron’s front wheel shattered after going off-road in the middle of a particularly sharp turn and riding over razor-sharp coral reef rock. He flew over the handlebars and got some gnarly road rash, but the incident led to an interview with ESPN and the resulting bragging rights.

Start of Tobago Cycling Classic Road Race in Tobago
Aaron Taking Off at the Start Line

Day Tour Around Tobago:

One day in between cycling races, we had a free day at leisure that we decided to use to tour the island. We hired Denis, a local driver from the hotel next door to our apartment, and asked him to take us to the best spots around the island.

 We started our tour early in the morning with a stop at Denis’ house to meet his family and pick up a few essential snacks for the road. We learned that he was skipping work at his government job to drive us around the island but that it was “no problem” because his buddy was covering for him. I guess we paid more than enough for it to be worth the risk.

 Next, we headed to Fort James, a small military base in Plymouth left over from Tobago’s colonial era. We also visited the tombstone of Betty Stiven, a local grave famous for its mysterious epitaph indicating that “She was a Mother without knowing it and a Wife without letting her Husband know it, except by her kind indulgences to him…”.

Canons and Stone House at Fort James Tobago
Fort James, Tobago

While pondering this unusual legacy, we drove north into a particularly dense bit of jungle to visit an abandoned sugarcane plantation. The rainforest had made excellent progress in reclaiming the plantation’s man-made structures. Tropical plants of a stunning variety crawled over every surface. The wooden floorboards and walls were thick with slime, making walking a treacherous endeavor. I slipped and lost my balance at least three times, careening wildly and desperately reaching for anything that would stop my fall.

The baroness of the forgotten plantation was both beautiful and sad, evoking feelings of immense loneliness. It was not difficult to imagine the plantation, newly built and at the height of its production, but today we were surrounded only by ghosts and the jungle they left behind.

Sugarcane Plantation in Tobago
Sugarcane Plantation

We continued our tour of the island at Englishman’s Bay, a gorgeous beach cove that we had all to ourselves. We walked the length of the beach hand-in-hand sipping on Carib, a local beer, and congratulating ourselves on the wise idea of exploring the entire island.

Overlook of Englishman's Bay Beach in Tobago
Englishman’s Bay

The next stage of our journey took us into the heart of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, an area of rainforest that runs through the center of the island and has been legally acknowledged as a preservation site since 1776. Our destination was Argyle Falls, a beautiful waterfall with a refreshing natural swimming pool at the end of an easy stroll.

Argyle Falls Waterfall in Tobago
Argyle Falls

For lunch, we dined on freshly caught seafood at Jemma’s Tree House Restaurant in Speyside. The shrimp were to die for and the view of the ocean was unparalleled. With our bellies full we drove to the easternmost point of Tobago to visit Pirate’s Bay, a beach that Denis claimed was the best beach on the island. To get there we navigated some of the steepest, curving roads I have ever seen. In one section, the road’s grade averaged 22% for more than two miles! As we traversed these twisting, mountain-hugging roads, we were blown away that such roads even existed in the middle of the rainforest. Little did we know that Aaron would be traveling the same crazy roads the next day via bicycle.

When we arrived at Pirate’s Bay, we knew the chaotic drive was worth the effort. Denis parked the car on the edge of a cliff and led us down a winding staircase down to the beach, a narrow strip of sand surrounded by rocky cliffs on one side and calm blue ocean on the other. We couldn’t see any signs of civilization, save for a few sail boats lazily rocking back and forth in the water. To us, Pirate’s Bay embodied the ideal combination of seclusion and beauty, perfect for fostering a romantic afternoon.

We tossed our belongings in the golden sand and gleefully dove into the water. As we swam, we took in our surroundings in wonder, grateful that our local guide had shared this slice of paradise with us.

Top Tip from our Day Tour of Tobago:

We highly recommend hiring local guides and drivers to explore a new destination. They provide a wealth of insight into their culture and, of course, know all the best beaches, viewpoints, and eateries.

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Morocco: Sahara Desert Camping Experience

As part of our tour of Morocco, we chose to spend some time in the Sahara Desert, the largest hot desert in the world which spans most of northern Africa. We started our journey in Fes and drove for an entire day to reach Erfoud, a town within one of the Sahara’s precious few oases and the date (the fruit!) capital of Morocco. As we left the mountains of Fes behind, the landscape transformed. Pine forests gave way to barren plateaus. Colorful mountains turned into tan monochromatic desert in every direction.

Like most people, I had pictured the Sahara as consisting mostly of sand dunes (thanks Hollywood!). However, only about 20% of the Sahara is covered by dunes. The rest consists of rocky, seemingly lifeless flatland occasionally interspersed with rugged plateaus. The scenery reminded me of southern Utah and the rugged desert of Canyonlands National Park.

Two Vehicles Driving in the Sahara Desert
Driving in the Sahara Desert

At one point, roughly 450 million years ago, this entire region was under water as evidenced by an enormous amount of sea life fossils left behind. In truth, this nautical environment was difficult to imagine. How could an entire ocean dry up and leave such barren rock and sand behind?

After a long day on the road, we gladly checked into our hotel, and were pleasantly surprised to find a mini golf course on the roof overlooking sand dunes in the distance. Naturally, we had to play. How many people get a chance to play mini golf while watching the sunset in the middle of the Sahara?

Mini Golf in the Sahara
Annie Playing Mini Golf in the Sahara

The next day, we jumped into a Toyota Land Cruiser and headed out to the Merzouga Sand Dunes. There are no roads in the dunes in the Sahara, but there are “flat” areas that are more navigable. Our driver clearly loved his job and was determined to show us a good time. He kept driving “off-road” over the dunes giving us a rollercoaster four-wheeling experience. The most thrilling part was when the car drove over the top of the dune and the sand gave way pulling the car down with it!

An hour later we arrived at the tent camp. The camp consisted of maybe two dozen tents laid out in a square pattern all connected by plush Moroccan carpets so that (God forbid!) we didn’t have to walk on the sand to reach our tent. The interior of our tent was even more surprising. It was equipped with a king size bed, a couch and coffee table, a sink where a tea kettle provided water, a Western-style toilet that flushed, and a shower with hot, running water. How running water was provided in the middle of nowhere, I have no idea. Clearly, this was designed to be more of a “glamping” experience than a “rough-it-in-the-desert” one.

Luxury Camp Accommodations in Sahara Desert Morocco
Our Camp!

Our Sahara adventure continued with a camel ride further into the dunes. For those who have never ridden a camel before, allow me to explain how it works. First, the camel kneels allowing you to swing your leg over its hump. Then, the camel stretches its front legs to stand throwing you backwards in the makeshift saddle and prompting you to hang on for dear life. Finally, the camel extends its hind legs jerking you forward. So, as long as you’ve got something to hold onto, no sweat.

Riding the camel as it ambled along the sand was easy enough. Its slow rolling gait allowed us to enjoy our lofted views of the dunes and take pictures of the desert around us. Granted, going up and down the dunes was a little bumpier than striding majestically on top of their ridges.

Camel Riding in Merzouga Sand Dunes
Camel Riding in Merzouga Sand Dunes

About thirty minutes into our trek, we stopped and climbed a small dune from which we could view the setting sun. Aaron and I took the obligatory photos to record our presence in the Sahara and then took the opportunity to explore the dunes a bit more on our own.

As we left our fellow camel riders behind, the desert took on a silence that only a place untouched by humans can embody. We listened in awe as the wind drifted over the sand dunes, pulling grains of sand from their peaks with every gust. We watched the sand change colors from a reddish hue to liquid gold. We were also made privy to the life that so expertly hides itself in the desert. Tracks of all different kinds of bugs, lizards, and small mammals lay scattered across the sand.

Aaron was even inspired to sprint up the largest dune in the area for a better vantage point. Can you spot him?

Man on top of Sand Dune in Sahara Desert Morocco
Aaron on top of the Dune

After sunset, our faithful camels brought us safely back to camp where we enjoyed dinner with a performance of traditional Berber music. With our bellies full and our minds processing the new experiences of the day, we set off into the sand dunes once more to admire the night sky.

I can honestly say that I have never seen a night sky as beautiful as the one over the Sahara. The limited number of humans and very little light pollution in the area made it so that we could see every star in the sky. Millions upon millions of stars twinkled down at us! The milky way took center stage streaking across the blackness in all its glory.

How sad it is to think that this stunning night sky hovers over the whole world, but we can only see it when we leave all other humans behind. As we embraced this moment, we discussed how grateful we are that such places like the Sahara still exist to showcase nature at its fullest, undiluted potential.

That night we stayed up far too late drinking in the intoxicating sky, but it wasn’t enough. We awoke long before the sun rose to once again experience the stillness of the Sahara and its unbelievable night sky. As we watched the sun rise over the Algerian border, we knew that our time in the Sahara was indeed a life-changing experience.

Couple in Sahara Desert at Sunrise
Sunrise in the Dunes

Our Takeaway: Despite everything humans do to the planet, nature has a way of preserving its true essence. You just have to know where to look.

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Malaysia: Travel Day Nightmare

Anyone who has ever passed through an airport knows that travel days are, at the very least, exhausting. After a good travel day, the excitement of arriving allows people to overcome their fatigue and hit the ground running. On the other hand, after a particularly rough travel day, the phrase “Never again!” is mostly likely to be on the tip of one’s tongue.

This is a story about a horrific travel day experience where we went through the emotional wringer and learned a few valuable lessons along the way.

We began the day in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was hot and humid, our backpacks pressing our clothing into our sweat-soaked skin, but we were in good spirits after touring the Angkor Temple Complex for the past three days. We were looking forward to the next portion of our trip in Bali, Indonesia. But first we had to get there…

We entered the terminal at Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport and proceeded to Air Asia’s check-in counter. We presented our passports and handed over our checked luggage: one large wheelie suitcase and a duffle bag. Little did we know that Air Asia is a budget airline that has excessively strict baggage policies.

The lady behind the ticketing counter kindly told us that our bags were too heavy and that we would have to pay about $400 to take them with us. This sum was outrageous given that the total cost for both our tickets was less than $200. When we balked at the price, she suggested we rearrange our bags to make the heaviest a little lighter. If we could accomplish that, the price to check our bags would drop to $200. Not having much of a choice, we turned into “those people” – the suckers you occasionally see with all of their belongings strewn about the floor in front of the check-in counter.

We did manage to rearrange everything and paid the astronomical fee for our two bags, but the Air Asia agent wasn’t finished with us. Since we had transferred some of our belongings from our checked bags into our carry-on bags, she insisted that she weigh our carry-on bags as well, something we have never experienced in all our years of travelling. Surprise! Aaron’s carry-on was too heavy now too. After round two of being “those people” and shuffling items between our carry-on bags, we were finally handed our tickets and allowed to proceed through security.

Once we reached the gates, Aaron headed straight for the nearest bar and ordered an 8:00am scotch. It was not the best start to our travel day. We couldn’t imagine that it was about to get much worse.

Lesson One of the Day: Always check the baggage requirements for each airline before you depart on your trip.

We flew from Siem Reap to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia without incident. However, when we inspected our tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Bali, we noticed they had completely switched our flights without informing us. Our arrival time in Bali was now five hours later than originally scheduled.

By now I had had it up to here with Air Asia and was determined to give them a piece of my mind. I marched us up to a customer service agent and, with great restraint, politely inquired why they would change our flight without telling us. The agent was exceedingly nice and told us she could rebook us on an earlier flight that would depart in four hours instead of seven. The only catch was that we had to go get our checked bags and re-check them in. Aaron suggested we just wait in the terminal for the later flight, but I was determined to get to Bali as fast as possible. So, against Aaron’s better judgment, we re-booked our flights and went to get our luggage.

What I had forgotten was that customs lay between us and our checked bags. The line at customs was huge. People slowly shuffled forward in lines that snaked around the over-heated room multiple times. I began to suspect that trying to catch the earlier flight was a colossal mistake.

After an hour of waiting, we got through customs and headed to the customer service area to pick up our bags. Upon arrival, we were told that they couldn’t find our bags and that we should return in an hour. At this point I burst into tears, fully realizing the disaster I had unwittingly brought upon us. Aaron came to my rescue and vehemently told them that we were not leaving without our bags. Apparently, that combination of emotions worked on Air Asia’s customer service team because within five minutes our bags were at our feet.

By now it was around noon in Kuala Lumpur’s bustling main departures terminal. The space had lofted, opaque ceilings allowing natural light to illuminate another series of endless lines as people checked in for their flights.

As we navigated the crowds toward yet another customer service line, my phone started ringing off the hook. When I finally dug it out of my bag and answered, my mother’s distress on the other end of the line was palpable. She had been using an online flight tracker to make sure our flight arrived safely when suddenly, according to the map, our flight disappeared mid-route between Kuala Lumpur and Bali. I reassured her that we were still safe, if not particularly happy, on the ground in Malaysia and explained that Air Asia had cancelled our original flight without warning. Her fears assuaged, I turned back to our current predicament: re-checking our luggage.

We made it to the correct customer service counter and got in line. Thirty minutes passed. Forty minutes passed. An hour passed, and there were still two families in front of us. This day had without doubt turned into the most horrible travel experience, and I knew that this portion of it was all my fault. The tears started to flow silently down my cheeks again. It didn’t help that Aaron was silently fuming and shooting me “I told you so…” glares every few minutes.

After an hour and a half, we made it to the front of the line, got our new boarding passes, and re-checked our luggage. Relief washed over us as the customs agent placed a second stamp in our passports, proving that we had indeed spent one day in Malaysia.

Lesson Two of the Day: Unless absolutely necessary, never rebook your flight mid-trip if it means you have to go through customs to collect and re-check your bags.

We were hungry and irritable, but back in the right section of the airport. We found a restaurant that appeared to be serving local cuisine and ordered a late lunch. We were sipping on fresh mango juice waiting for our meal when a rank odor reached our nostrils. We turned around to identify the source of the smell when the cook caught our eye and pointed at the two bowls on the counter. Aaron got up to retrieve our lunch and brought the unpleasant smell back with him. It turned out that we had both ordered the same dish, and whatever was in it did not have the most appetizing aroma.

Not wanting to offend anyone, we hesitantly took a few bites. From what we could tell, the bowl contained noodles, some sort of fermented fish, and a plethora of fiery hot peppers. It was a stretch too far for our Western taste palates.

Lesson Three of the Day: When ordering meals in a foreign country, especially when you can’t read the menu, make sure you each order a different dish in case one does not suit your taste buds.

We did finally arrive in Bali despite the chaos of our travel day. In hindsight, all of these troubles could have been avoided. The fact that all of them happened on the same day…Well, it makes for one heck of a story!

Ulun Danu Bratan Temple in Bali Indonesia
Ulun Danu Bratan Temple, Bali

Tell us about some of your travel day woes…

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Ecuador: You did WHAT in the Amazon?

“You did what in the Amazon?” my mother asked, her eyebrows sky-high as we regaled my parents with tales of our honeymoon.

In a spur-of-the-moment decision, we had chosen Ecuador as our honeymoon destination. The country hadn’t even crossed our minds until I stumbled upon an irresistible trip through Travelzoo, a travel deal watch list I subscribe to. The trip was an eight-day guided tour of the central part of Ecuador via Gate 1 Travel. I reviewed the trip itinerary, proposed the idea to my fiancé, and we booked the trip the next day.

To start the trip, we flew from Denver to Miami, where we spent the first night of our honeymoon sleeping on the airport floor. It was not the ideal way to start a vacation, let alone a honeymoon, but I must confess we planned it that way. Our flight arrived late in the evening in Miami, and our next flight left at 6:00am. We agreed to save a bit of money and camp out in the terminal. We did not anticipate, however, that we would arrive too late in the evening to get through security to sleep at our gate. Our dreams of airport chairs without armrests vanished, and we made do with the cold, hard linoleum floor just outside the ticketing counter.

The next morning, we boarded the plane as two very tired and somewhat cranky newlyweds. After a brief layover in Bogota, Columbia, we finally arrived in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city.

The city sits high up in the monolithic Andes, a mountain range dotted with active volcanoes and filled with the rich history of the Incan Empire. We went on a city tour to explore the Plaza de la Independencia, the historic main square, and Compania de Jesus, a gilded Jesuit church, to learn a bit about the Spanish Conquistadores who conquered the Incan people in the 1500s. We also took a trip to the Middle of the World to straddle the Equator, placing one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere.

Plaza de la Independencia in Quito Ecuador
Plaza de la Independencia, Quito, Ecuador
Couple Sitting on Equator at Middle of the World Monument in Ecuador
Middle of the World: At the Equator

Next, we headed to Otavalo, a small lakeside town with a famous handicrafts market where we purchased several alpaca wool blankets. The third day of our trip, the tour took us through the Cloud Forest to Papallacta, an intimate resort built over a natural hot spring and nestled high in the Andes. We relaxed in the thermal pools and got a couple’s massage, finally participating in what seemed like a typical honeymoon activity.

The highlight of the trip was our stay in Casa del Suizo, an eco-lodge on a private rainforest reserve deep in the Amazon. The only way to access the lodge was by boat via the Napo River, a tributary to the Amazon River. The lodge was surrounded by jungle so dense that a person would easily lose all sense of direction within ten feet of entering the underbrush.

Casa del Suizo Lodge on Napo River in Ecuador Amazon
Casa del Suizo, Ecuadorian Amazon

Our tour guide went above and beyond and got us the luxury suite since it was our honeymoon. This deluxe room turned out to be a private cabin at the very edge of the hotel complex, complete with mosquito nets, vaulted ceilings, and screens for windows. We even had our own veranda with a hammock overlooking the river. It sure beat sleeping on the floor of Miami International Airport.

By now we were convinced that Ecuador was a hidden gem in South America. It’s geographic diversity and the rich culture of its people, both modern and indigenous, were incomparable to anything we had experienced before. To put it simply, Ecuador had it all.

Man Relaxing in Hammock in Ecuador Amazon
Aaron in the Amazon

That evening, the rainforest lived up to its name, and the sky unleashed a deluge. We fell asleep listening to the sounds of the jungle compete with the rain.

The next morning, we took a boat upriver and participated in a guided walk through the rainforest. From the moment we got off the boat, the earth’s abundance and diversity were inescapable. I had never before experienced an environment where every inch of space was occupied. Plants grew on top of each other and trees grew extra roots to shift their position in the jungle, all to compete for precious sunlight. Insects and birds zoomed through the air unconcerned with our presence. Enormous termite nests hung along the path. A small brown tree frog watched as we passed by. Monkeys skittered through the canopy above.

We, as human beings, were superfluous in the Amazon. That much was clear.

Grasshopper in Amazon Rainforest Ecuador
Man Next to Large Termite Nest Amazon Rainforest
Giant Termite Nest

Our rainforest tour concluded with a raft trip back down the river on traditional balsa wood rafts which were constructed by loosely strapping several logs together with rope.

We climbed aboard the raft with a couple of our tour mates, sat down on the logs, and drifted out into the current. Our combined weight forced the rudimentary raft to sink about six inches below the water, which meant that our legs and hips went underwater as well. It was a rafting experience unlike any I had had before. It felt more like rafting through the river than on the river.

Five minutes into the float, we heard a shout and watched one of our tour mates jump into the river, declaring that he would swim back to the hotel. Everyone looked at the gentleman like he was crazy. The river was in fact a tributary to the Amazon!

Our guide, however, seemed unconcerned. She explained that the rain the previous evening had caused the river to rise about ten feet, meaning there was little chance of getting stuck on something underwater. She also said that most of the deadly river predators preferred still or slow-moving water and were not likely to be swimming in this rushing torrent.

That was all Aaron needed to hear. He took off his shoes, handed me his hat and dove in. I watched in disbelief, plagued with horrific thoughts of piranhas, giant anacondas, and unknown Amazonian river beasts. Aaron, on the other hand, was frolicking like he was in a swimming pool, hollering to the wild with a joyful smile on his face.

The river’s current started to pull Aaron faster than the slow-moving balsa raft. In dramatic fashion, I thought to myself, “I don’t want to lose my husband. If we die in the Amazon, so be it.”

So, I jumped in too.

Pushing all thoughts of piranhas from my mind, I swam to catch up to Aaron. As we floated down the river, we held hands and grinned like fools. This was what a honeymoon was meant to be! A memorable life-or-death adventure taken together!

The river was indeed moving tremendously fast, and within ten minutes we were swimming for the beach in front of the lodge. The rest of the tour group finally caught up to us at the lodge, all exclaiming their disbelief at our bravery.

View of Napo River from Casa del Suizo Ecuador Amazon Rainforest
Napo River, Amazon

When we later recounted this story to my parents, they also struggled to believe we went swimming in the Amazon: “You did what in the Amazon?!”

It was an unforgettable honeymoon indeed!

Our takeaway from the Amazon: Sometimes you just have to go for it!

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel