One Very Full Year in Travel, The 20 Best Experiences:
2014 came to a close right at the same time that our first full year of travel has been completed, so we figured it’s a perfect time to recall and share our favorite travel experiences from this past year.
In 2014 we roamed around five different continents and 30 different countries for a total of nearly 40,000 miles. It’s really difficult to pin down a favorite country but we have no problem recounting our favorite experiences over the last year. So here’s our top 20 travel experiences from 2014, presented in chronological order, which correspond with the numbers on the map above.
1) Scuba Diving the Belize Barrier Reef
This diver’s haven did not disappoint! The coral at the Belize Barrier Reef are well protected and very alive. There was so much marine life to look at, it was difficult to determine where to turn your head. At one moment you’re admiring the bright green colors of a moray eel, only to notice a big-yet-tame shark is slowly approaching. The cavernous swim-thrus only further make for a really fun diving experience. And it doesn’t get much better than coming back to laidback Caye Caulker each evening to relax with a few Belikin beers as the sun melts away into the sea.
2) Exploring the Caves of Semuc Champey (Guatemala)
We first began wading into the cave, which soon turned into a full-on swim, holding our candles up out of the water so they would stay lit. Then we reached a point where we had to climb a rope up a waterfall in this pitch-black cave. Upon exiting, we even got flushed down what is known as the “toilet bowl.” It all made for an incredible experience that preceded the awesomeness of Semuc Champey’s beautiful natural pools.
3) Paragliding Over Volcanoes at Lake Atitlan (Guatemala)
This seemingly freighting experience soon turned into a calming gentle glide around the volcanoes that border Lago Atitlan. We soared for about an hour over the scenic lake, catching one thermal to the next. It was one of those experiences that you just didn’t want to end.
4) Volcano Boarding Down Cerro Negro (Nicaragua)
Boarding down Cerro Negro, the largest active black cinder cone volcano in the world! No further explanation needed. This was awesome. That is all.
5) Sailing Across the Caribbean Sea and Panama’s San Blas Islands
The battle between our stomachs and the rough seas while on this five-day sailboat trip was a definite lowlight of our past year. (Spoiler alert: the rough seas won) But the epic three days we had in the calm waters around the remote San Blas Islands was just spectacular. The shallow coral reefs around these islands had incredible visibility to snorkel around. It was also interesting to visit with the indigenous Kuna people who live in this secluded island paradise. But it was the small islands themselves with their pristine beaches that really won us over. They were the most beautiful islands we’ve ever seen.
6) Hiking to Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida
Deep in the Colombian jungle, perched high atop a mountainside, lie the ruins of an ancient city, first inhabited around 800 AD. It takes a strenuous 4-6 day hike round-trip to reach the Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) and is one of those treks where getting there is half the fun. The trail is filled with challenging ascents, river crossings, past remote Wiwa villages, and through the lush jungle itself. The site was definitely worth the effort trekking there and has a magical aura to it. The added bonus was that being so far-off and difficult to get to, means that you have this special place to enjoy all to yourself!
7) Camel Trekking through the Sahara Desert (Morocco)
Riding on camels through the Sahara Desert was one of those bucket list experiences that actually turned out to be even better than expected. Our trip started off very questionable when we were struck by a freak sandstorm but that was just all part of the adventure. Things got better when we went sand boarding down the enormous golden dunes and we just loved connecting with the Berber children who actually call this vast desert their home. What a memorable adventure!
8) Discovering Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains
I feel like this is one of Spain’s best-kept secrets. The tall snow-capped mountains that soar to great heights over North Central Spain are absolutely incredible. We found them to be just as stunning as the famed Alps. Numerous hikes abound like the one through the magnificent Cares Gorge. There are also routes where you can cheat by taking a high flung cable car to the mountaintop to then have a leisure stroll down, stopping at a remote mountain lodge along the way for hot cocoa.
Or just driving through the region can be fun, while stopping at all the pretty alpine lakes to say hello to the happy cows and goats that call this wonderland home. This national park straddles between the Cantabria and Austurias provinces. The food in this region was just as spectacular as the scenery. And don’t even get me started raving about the deliciously tart local ciders that have such unique tradition and culture!
9) Getting Purple at The Haro Wine Fight (Spain)
This local fiesta that takes place each June in the heart of Spain’s wine producing region was two days of non-stop partying that culminates in a sloppy battle on a hillside. The weapon of choice: vino! Red wine is shot from water guns, dumped with buckets, sprayed on by bug sprayers, or more simply poured from whatever ever vessel can deliver it. The Haro Wine Battle was crazy fun!
10) Cycling Through France’s Loire Valley
This is quintessential France that hits all the marks. In June we set off on a 3-day overnight cycling trip in this region along the Loire River. Occasional stops were made to tour castles, have picnics, and sample wines in the vineyards we rode through. Then we would reach a historic village to rest up for the night and enjoy the cuisine the country is known for. This is truly France at its best.
11) Celebrating Bastille Day in Paris (France)
When we realized that we were leaving Paris the day before this national holiday, we decided to extend our stay to see what the festivities were all about. We were glad we did. This was, without a doubt, the best firework display either of us have ever seen. As a symphony orchestra delivers a beautiful soundtrack, the famed Eiffel Tower is lit up in numerous different configurations while fireworks are lit off from seemingly all different angels. And after sitting on the lawn enjoying the spectacle with a bottle of wine, you can then head out to one of the local firehouses for a crazy party that lasts until the wee hours in the morning. What a great night!
12) Drinking Beers Around Belgium
We made our pilgrimage to Sint Sixtux Brewery, in which their Westvyletern 12 (AKA Westy 12) is often cited as the “best beer in the world,” and is only legally available in two places: directly from the doorstep of this small monestary where it’s brewed in very limited quantities or their café next door, In de Vrede. It was a bit of a dream come true for me to sit there in the out-of-the-way Belgian countryside and enjoy a few glasses right in the very hop fields that are used an ingredient in the esteemed brew.
This was just one of the countless number of the fantastic breweries around the country that we absolutely blown away by. De Struise and Saint Bernardus are both right around the corner. Sipping Cantallon’s sour brews while in Brussels was another highlight. But perhaps best of all are all the random little no-name breweries and pubs you can stumble upon in between Belgian’s smaller quaint villages. Beer tourism is growing strong in this region and we were big fans.
13) Partying at Ghentse Feesten (Belgium)
We returned to Ghent since we had been there before, had really enjoyed it and figured it would be a good place to slow down to catch up on some work. Little did we know one of Europe’s biggest party was in town that same week! There wouldn’t be much work completed but we did have a really fun time. Stages were setup all throughout the scenic city center with both original acts and great cover bands ranging from Elvis to classic rock to hip hop to party rock (for lack of a genre).
This all came with copious amounts of delicious and strong Belgian beer to further fuel the night. When you get to a beer tent and the only options are Gulden Draak or Gulden Draak 9000 Quad, this is a most pleasant conundrum. Of course, you can always go to the next tent over to see what other delights they may be offering too.
Then there were the quirky and offbeat events like the weirdest circus we’ve ever been to and a summer-camp themed party where late-night karaoke sessions had crowds singing Christmas tunes in July. It was all one big party and definitely something to consider among Europe’s great summer festivals.
14) Hiking in the Bavarian Alps (Germany and Austria)
Both in Germany and Austria, we were thoroughly impressed by the mighty Alps. The trek to Germany’s highest peak, Zugspitze, was both terrifying and gratifying. And being Germany, there’s even a beer garden on top to reward yourself with a liter!
Yet the trails around the ski resort town of Kitzbuhel with ever changing scenery may have been a favorite hike of all. We could have easily spent a month or two hiking around the awesome terrain of this entire mountain range in both Germany and Austria and still not got sick of it. The hills truly are alive. We’ll be back one day to tackle the Swiss Alps!
15) Paddling the Whitewater Rafting Pub Crawl near Cesky Krumlov (Czech Republic)
I feel like this activity was tailor made for us. They just put two things we love (adventure + beer) into one and it couldn’t have been in a more spectacular setting. Padding from random pub to pub in the middle of nowhere through the Czech countryside was so much fun! Then after one too many, you must get it together to go down sets of rapids. This was probably our most fun filled day in Europe.
16) Roaming Around the Ukraine
Coming to Ukraine was a completely unplanned, last minute addition to our itinerary this year and we were so glad we got the chance to venture around this most interesting and friendly country. After a summer in Europe getting caught up in the tourist hoards, we loved being the only outside visitors for miles and miles. The value of our dollar here also really improved our standard of living during our stay, which was another most welcomed change of pace which made things extremely comfy for us.
But perhaps best of all were the warm and friendly people in this nation. It started the moment we arrived at our first little hotel, the former Soviet Mig pilot owner greeted us with homemade, fresh berries, and an impromptu ATV tour around town. It ended with our last night was filled with fun at a local bar and continually being offered one vodka shot after another after another after another, which we always reluctantly accepted. Despite the huge language and cultural differences between us, there was nothing but smiles the entire way roaming around Ukraine.
17) Traversing through Cappadocia Turkey
We really enjoyed Turkey a lot and Cappadocia was a definite highlight among our many stops throughout this exotic country. The landscape truly amazed and all the nearby hiking and recreation throughout the area satiated exactly what we had been craving. The moonlike terrain seemed like it was made for mountain biking. Stumbling across ancient churches, we felt like modern-day Indiana Jones. And we got to live in a cave for the four nights we were there! Such a neat experience!
18) Hopping Across the Greek Islands
The Greek Islands are a popular tourism destination for a reason: they are truly gorgeous. From historic fortified Rhodes to the picturesque cliffs of Santorini, it’s difficult to determine what is better: the stunning views or the delicious fresh Greek seafood. Perhaps our favorite of the three islands we hopped around was lesser visited Naxos, where we enjoyed a more unspoiled and seemingly more authentic visit.
19) Cruising Across the Atlantic Ocean and Down the Pacific
We spent a total of 45 days as passengers on cruise ships throughout the past year and loved every minute of it. We first crossed Atlantic and then came back across roughly a half-year later. Then we finally dipped down into the Pacific which included the epic Panama Canal crossing. For us, life on these megaships acts as perfect mini-vacations within our travels. After camping in the desert, sleeping in hammocks in the jungle, and dealing with the occasional budget hostel whose hot water doesn’t seem to work – cruises give us just the right counterbalance to give us our mojo back.
It really is nice to be able to occasionally indulge in luxury. We find that these repositioning cruises are an incredibly affordable way to do so while getting us from point A to point B. From the extravagant dinners full of beef wellington, grilled lobster, and chateaubriand to the Vegas-style entertainment and constant activities aboard these luxury liners – we just love it all. Its almost hard to believe that this all comes in at less than the cost of a long haul flight using the same route, as you can easily book a repositioning cruise deal for less than $50 per day. Crazy!
And what’s really awesome is being able to visit some of the more inaccessible and exotic ports of call that these repositioning cruises have brought us to. Both the Azores and Canary Islands provided simply amazing stops to stretch our legs.
20) Swimming with Wild Sea Lions Around the Palomino Islands (Peru)
This was one of our most recent experiences, and without a doubt, one of our favorites. We were able to get right up and close to these curious and friendly sea pups as they swam all around us. The water was freezing but we were quickly warmed by all the excitement of this amazing excursion. New post all about this is coming soon!
On To 2015!
Well that was really fun for us to relive all our favorite moments over again. We hope that you also enjoyed and maybe it even gave you a few travel ideas for your next trip. If we’re lucky Year #2 should bring another 20 incredible experiences in all new places to share with you as we roam around the world during 2015. We tend to update our social media pages more frequently than the blog itself, so if you’d like to see where we’re roaming around next, be sure you’re connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.
But things weren’t always great throughout this past year. In this counter-post, we also reveal our Top 20 Worst Moments in Travel from the past year. Yet hopefully we have learned a lot during the year to minimize these awful experiences moving forward. So cheers to more awesome experiences in 2015 and less of the bad moments!
[email protected] says
Loved this post and fun for me to read about your travels in Europe as we are just at the start of Spain and Portugal after 15 months in Asia and before that, Nicaragua.
We changed our lives as soonas the youngest of our our sons finished high school and we became empty nesters. We got tid of possessions, our house and started our Green Global Trek.
John Widmer says
Awesome! Hope you enjoy Spain! We really did.
I would love to cycle the Loire Valley and go the wine fight in Spain! I read another post on repositioning cruises that you wrote and you convinced me to do this when I do another long-term trip. I hate flying anyway 🙂
John Widmer says
Ah, the Loire Valley was a such a nice bike trip! We did it independently and I’m hoping to find the time here one day to write a guide about it with all the logistics. And so glad to hear you’re considering repositioning cruises for your next trip. I think its often overlooked as a means of transportation by long-term travelers, perhaps by the perceived high costs, but if you play your cards right, I think its actually one of the best travel deals out there and such a great experience! Definitely better than flying!