Travel has become an increasingly important part of my life, both personally and professionally. I have been traveling for as long as I can remember, but with each year, I learn more about what I look for in a trip. I love going off the beaten path. I love adventure and exploring new cultures. I love to journey to destinations that are rich in history. And, I especially love being out of my comfort zone.
Each year I read every travel list I can – 52 places from the NYTimes, Top 10 Countries from Rough Guides, Lonely Planet Best in Travel 2016, and so on. And each year, my goals include visiting several new places included on those lists. For 2016, I decided to develop my own list – five of my favorite places of all time (in no particular order).
- Brazil: I have now been to Brazil quite a few times, and fall more in love with it on each trip. Whenever I return, I speak to countless people who say how much they want to go there. And my response is always, go! While many visitors flock to Rio (as they should), my two favorite places in the country are Iguazu Falls and Paraty. Iguazu Falls is in the southern part of the country, on the border of Argentina and Paraguay. As one of the Seven New Wonders of Nature, the falls are unbelievable. I recommend staying on the Brazilian side – we stayed at Hotel Das Cataratas, the only hotel in the National Park. You’ll need at least two nights to fully enjoy the falls from all angles, and it’s well worth the trip. Paraty is a 3-4 drive south of Rio de Janeiro. First, hop on a boat trip to visit many tiny islands surrounding the mainland. When you return to the colonial town in the evening, grab a table at Banana Da Terra, one of my favorite restaurants ever.
- El Salvador: A country with a very tumultuous history, El Salvador is often avoided by Western travelers due to strong media perceptions of the gang violence that is rampant all over the country. However, as you step off the plane into this tiny country, the experience will be entirely different. As you travel to the city, be sure to grab a roadside coconut to refresh after the 4 hour flight from JFK. The country has beautiful beaches with great surf, some of the best fresh seafood in the world, and mountain landscape that is riddled with beautiful volcanos. While the food is excellent (make sure to grab a pupusa or three) and the people are are wonderfully kind, the importance of visiting El Salvador goes much deeper. The media portrayal of the country certainly has a lot of truth – but the country has so much opportunity. I was able to visit schools, a juvenile detention center, and the first community library, and the sentiment was the same – El Salvador sees hope for the future. So don’t let fear stop you from visiting this beautiful country…instead, add it to your Central America travel itinerary.
- Sedona: In between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon lies Sedona, Arizona. While driving north towards the area, you just wait and wait to see the red rock. Finally, with one turn, it opens up before you. Some of the most ‘out of this world’ views, comprised of huge red rocks, make Sedona look more like Mars than anything else. Sedona has so much to offer, from beautiful hikes, to treks only reached by off-road jeeps, to a spiritual feeling that you just can’t ignore. There is also really, really great food (Elote is my favorite). As you go on a western adventure in the US, don’t forget this gem in the middle of Arizona.
- New Zealand: How can this small Island a few hours from Australia possibly be so beautiful? The vistas and experiences in New Zealand are unparalleled. While the very tip of the North Island has beautiful tiny islands filled with adorable dolphins, the magic really happens in the South Island. I went to Christchurch before the 2011 earthquake. At that time, it was one of the most charming cities I’d been to. It felt more european than pacific island, and had many great cultural offerings. Driving down deeper into the South, I followed the “Lord of the Rings” tour route. The blue and green colors in the country were unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It may be far, but New Zealand is well worth the trip.
- Rwanda: When you think about Rwanda, the first thing that comes to mind might be the horrific genocide that took place just over 20 years ago. However, the first thought could be the amazing comeback that Rwanda is having. It has never been safer, cleaner, or more developed, and is quickly become a blueprint for other developing countries. When you fly in, all that can be seen are lush, green hills. I think it’s an important country to see – the development is impressive, but it’s also incredibly important to see and understand the dark side of its history. You can go to the Genocide Memorial and to other sites where you can see where the genocide took place. Rwanda also has some of the best gorilla trekking in the world. Whenever you go, make sure to enjoy a dinner at Heaven, a lovely little restaurant in the heart of Kigali.
Whenever I travel, I like to learn as much as I can about the country before I go. By spending the time reading and researching, your experience will be enriched, and you’ll leave with a much deeper understanding of the people, history, and culture. Where will you go in 2016? #TravelDeeper