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Valletta: Europe’s Most Underrated Capital

Introducing Malta: My first impressions and some random facts

When Lonely Planet published its picks for the Top 10 cities to visit in 2015, I felt lukewarm about most of the cities they had chosen – I touched on the topic briefly in this article – but the one city where I wholeheartedly agreed was Valletta.valletta steep streetThis gem of a city is usually overlooked, Lonely Planet said, and I had to admit that I was guilty of that too. While I’ve told you all about my impressions of Malta, my road trip across the island, medieval Mdina and the delicious Maltese food, I didn’t tell you anything about the place I spent the most time in during my visit to Malta, Valletta – the tiny capital of the island nation.valletta balconies maltaValletta was announced ‘European Capital Of Culture’ for 2018, which means at the moment there is an extra boost in restorations and new developments, adding to the city’s attractiveness, and it will help to put Valletta slowly but surely on the list of Europe’s most charming capitals.valletta doors

I am sure that four years from now, nobody will see Valletta as underrated anymore.Malta VallettaLet me take you on a journey of Valletta in photos – because just as I think you shouldn’t skip Malta’s sister island Gozo when visiting the country, you can’t skip Valletta when you’re in Malta, even when you’re staying in one of the beach resorts.
Malta Valletta stairsI don’t think I’ve ever been to a capital city that small and that charming – Valletta is anything but a typical nation’s capital. It is not even the biggest city in Malta.valletta dome maltaThe tiny city with a population of just over 6,000 people is one of the smallest capitals in all of Europe (in fact, only Vaduz in Liechtenstein is smaller), and it is definitely one of the most – if not the most – endearing capitals, with so many picturesque buildings. I never got tired of wandering the streets and photographing the different colors and styles of wooden balconies.valletta colorful balconiesThese wooden balconies started to pop up around Valletta in the 18th century and are believed to derive from the Arab/ Islamic Muxrabija (look-out place), which is popular in northern African and other Islamic states.
malta valletta balconiesWith many ships from northern Africa docking in Malta on their way to the shores of the northern or eastern Mediterranean, it makes sense that the concept of the closed balconies was adopted by the Maltese.valletta street and balconiesThe fortified city sits on a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. The harbors of Valletta, Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour, are a reminder of what an important city it was for the sea trade of the Mediterranean during the 16th and 17th centuries.valletta harbor with legsThe well-preserved, precious buildings from that time also show that Malta was a very wealthy city back then, and most of the houses that are still inhabited today were built under the Hospitallers in the 16th century.malta valletta balconiesThanks to its tiny size – Valletta covers only 0.5 square miles (1.3 sq km) – you can aimlessly wander the streets without ever getting lost.valletta benchOn the fourth side, you’ll hit the old city walls at some point, a remnant of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem who built the city in the 16th century.views over valletta and the portIt was the first planned city in Europe and instead of narrow winding roads like the ones you find in medieval towns in France or Italy (or even other towns in Malta), Valletta is outlined in a grid, with long straight roads. Set on a hill, Valletta’s location turns walking into a little workout every time you head up the hill from the water.Malta VallettaTo outline how tiny Valletta is, walking from south to north won’t take you long – the entire length of Republic Street is only 1 kilometre (0.62 miles). The width of the peninsula on which Valletta sits is even smaller, at only 600 meters (0.37 miles). You will find yourself huffing and puffing up the steep hills and stairs, but turning around and taking in the views of azure blue Mediterranean Sea makes it all worthwhile.valletta boatsThe ocher-colored houses that are typical for Malta and Gozo are prevalent here too, and look particularly beautiful in the golden hour just before sunset. Bathed in the warm light of the setting sun the buildings look almost golden, and it is a great time of day to head to the Upper Barakka Gardens to enjoy the views from there with a cup of coffee (there is a small café in the gardens). Across the bay, you can see the Three Cities – Senglea, Cospicua and Vittoriosa – and parts of the yacht harbor.malta harbor view valettaWalking down Merchant Street or Republic Street, you will pass the Co-Cathedral of St John, which one might almost decide to skip over, because of its unassuming facade.
valletta cathedralOnce you set foot inside though, be prepared to be wowed, since the inside is more elaborate than the outside would indicate. The cathedral was built by the Knights of St John in the 16th century and inside there are two large murals by Caravaggio, one of them being the largest painting he has ever produced. But all the murals in the cathedral are stunning, not only his, and the floors are covered with marble tombstones of the Knights.st johns cocathedral valletta insideThe Co-Cathedral is open Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 4.30pm and from 9.30am to 12.30pm on Saturdays. Make sure to have your shoulders and knees covered and don’t wear high heels (because they could damage the marble floors).

Malta St johns cocathedral valletta
St John’s Co-Cathedral

Another church gem is the St Paul’s Shipwreck Church, which is equally as elaborate and also has some tombs in the floor and a gorgeous dome. The Grand Master’s Palace, which houses Malta’s parliament these days, is also an architectural masterpiece that is awash with marble, gilt, and with ornate coats-of-arms.valletta malta skull sculptureThe Grand Master’s Palace, which houses Malta’s parliament these days, is another architectural masterpiece, looking bright and shiny after its recent renovation.Malta VallettaThere are some museums in Valletta, such as the National Museum Of Fine Arts or the National Museum Of Archeology, but I’d recommend just wandering the streets, and enjoying a coffee in one the many cafes that offer street seating. Caffé Cordina is the most famous one, and if you decide to stop here make sure to peek inside as well, for the intricate interior of the nearly 200 year old café.Valletta Malta Caffe CordinaI loved exploring the city on early morning runs, when most of Valletta was still asleep, and I would enjoy the breeze from the ocean before the sun would get unbearably hot a couple of hours later. On my runs around the city walls, I’d always head down to the water to enjoy the smell of the water… and the incredible blue color.valletta mediterranean shoreIf you are looking for an off-season getaway from northern Europe, I highly recommend Valletta. The summer tourist crowds would have disappeared, the climate is pleasant year-round, airfare and hotel rates are back at affordable off-season prices (check out AirMalta for special fare deals!), and the unbearable summer heat is gone. You’ll have the city almost to yourself.valletta stairs

Where to eat in Valletta

The Grassy Hopper
The Grassy Hopper is a tiny hole in the wall place right by the Grand Master’s Palace, and even though it is tiny, it is a purely vegan place and the first place where I found some super healthy foods in Valletta – think Chia seeds, wheat grass, macca, spirulina or goji berries, all mixed into smoothies of which each sounded more mouthwatering than the next. The main dishes consist mainly of vegan burgers such as beet and bean or chickpea, but there are also some salads and other meatless dishes on the daily changing menu. In addition to the Valletta branch, there is a Grasshopper food truck down on the waterfront (Ta’Xbiex).

Address: #123 Old Theatre Street; open Monday to Fridays from 8am to 4pm and on Saturdays from 9am to 2pmMalta VallettaCaffé Cordina
The above-mentioned Caffé Cordina is a Valletta institution established in 1837, with a grand outside seating area that is great for people watching, and a beautiful inside area with intricately designed walls and ceilings. In addition to a wide selection of yummy Maltese pastries, you can try traditional Maltese dishes such as ricotta-stuffed ravioli or rabbit here.

Address: 244 Republic St, open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 7pm and from 8am to 3pm on Sundays

Cafe Jubilee
Café Jubilee is without a doubt the most charming café I came across in Malta. Decorated with old-fashioned pictures and memorabilia, walking through its doors feels like traveling back in time. The café has everything from hearty breakfasts to dinners, and proudly claims it makes some of the best pastizzi in Malta. It is also a good place for drinks in the evening.

Address: Konvoj Ta’ Sta Marija; open daily from 8am to 1amMalta VallettaBadass Burger
A burger place might sound like nothing special, but once you look at the menu, you know that this place is. There is the Obama, the Daddy or the Rocky, and all of them are massive burgers with special toppings. Of course there is a veggie burger as well, and my salad with buffalo mozzarella and fresh parmigiano felt downright indulgent (especially for a burger place!), but what delighted me the most was the Banoffee Pie on the dessert menu! It was so good that I had to go back the next day and try the Banoffee milkshake. I think I would show up at Badass every day if I lived in Malta.

Address: Old Theatre Street

badass burger banoffee pieLa Mère
La Mere offers a mix of Maltese, Indian, Mediterranean and Arabian cuisines, and lots of vegetarian options! If you are looking for a break from Maltese cuisine, you’ll find classic Indian dishes (like Thali) here, Mediterranean salads, and Arab-influenced options.

Address: 174, Merchant Street

Where to stay in Valletta

I stayed at the Palazzo Prince D’Orange, a baroque palazzo that dates back to the 17th century and has been divided into three chic apartments (including a penthouse). Newly renovated, the apartments combine the historic style of the palazzo with modern appliances and the elegance of a noble residence. The Palazzo always offers special packages, for example €350 for 3 nights for 2 persons, which is an excellent deal for the comfort and amenities the palazzo offers (like a two shared rooftop terraces, a dining area, a lounge, fully equipped kitchens in each apartment). The Palazzo is right in the heart of Valletta, and within a two-minute walk I was on Republic Street where you’ll find tons of cafes and restaurants. Palazza Dorange Valletta Malta

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Mermaids, sailors and pirates: New York City’s whackiest celebration

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Mermaids, sailors, pirates and lots of naked skin?

I had been fascinated by the Mermaid Parade on Coney Island ever since the first time I heard about it a few years back. And this summer, I happened to be in New York when the iconic parade took place – there was no way I’d miss it (even if that meant not watching Germany’s second game in the soccer world cup).

coney island mermaid parade 2014 seamenconey island mermaid parade 2014 marineA parade with whacky costumes, right by the ocean and in the summer – to me it seemed like this was Brooklyn’s very own version of Halloween and Mardi Gras, all mixed together. Some of the costumes actually reminded me a lot of Mardi Gras – although overall the costumes were less political and more provocative.
coney island mermaid parade costumes popeyeconey island mermaid parade 2014 costumes‘You’ll get to see lots of boobs!’ my friends kept telling me before the event, but obviously that wasn’t the only reason why I was eager to check out the parade 😉

coney island mermaid parade bodypaintingThe Mermaid Parade was introduced in 1983 to celebrate the arrival of summer and to bring to life the mythology behind street names such as Mermaid and Neptune, which are among the main roads in Coney Island. Plus, it was supposed to encourage the locals to express themselves in an artistic way.

coney island mermaid parade 2014coney island mermaid parade 2014coney island mermaid parade 2014 mermaidsSeeing that this June the parade marched down Surf Avenue and the Coney Island Boardwalk for the 32nd time, it seems like Coney Island’s artsy residents have made this celebration a fix institution in their annual event itineraries.
coney island mermaid parade 2014 guysBut not only Brooklynites – over the years, the parade has evolved in much more than a little local festivity, with participants and spectators arriving from neighboring states and far away neighborhoods like the Upper West Side (which feels like it’s a journey from another country, let me tell you.)

golden girl coney island mermaid parade 2014The best thing about the parade is that literally anybody can register to march in it – you don’t need a group or a float, you can just walk by yourself, as long as you have a costume. And oh boy, do people get into their dresses!! Understandably so, because there are several categories for best costume prizes.

coney island mermaid parade whacky costumesBecause anyone can participate, the Mermaid Parade has grown to over 1,500 people marching, making it the largest art parade in the U.S.

coney island mermaid parade mermaidsconey island mermaid parade 2014 sailorconey island mermaid parade mermaid costumesWhile the overall theme of the sea and its inhabitants was prevalent, I noticed that many people also just dressed up in a random costume of their choice.

coney island mermaid parade 2014 marilynconey island mermaid parade CostumesThat’s why there were Transformers…

coney island mermaid parade 2014 transformerZombie-Mermaids…

coney island mermaid parade walking dead…and some costumes I wasn’t sure what they were supposed to be…
coney island mermaid parade 2014  doggieSee that little dog above? There were actually quite a few dogs in the parade:
coney island mermaid parade dogsAnd I spotted several parrots.
coney island mermaid parade 2014 parrotEven the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, joined the parade with his wife and children, and so did Uncle Sam!

Coney Island Mermaid Parade Mayor and Uncle SamThat was another aspect I really liked: lots of families with children were walking in the parade. Knowing how much fun I had dressing up as a kid, I can only imagine how cool it must be for them to actually be in the parade. Right away, I began to hatch a plot to get my little nieces over here one year – no doubt that they’d have a blast walking in the parade dressed up as mermaids.

coney island mermaid parade 2014 little girlsI love how much detail most people put into their dresses – some people spend months tailoring their handmade and self-designed costumes.

coney island mermaid parade 2014 girlsThe mermaid in pink pictured below (on the left) took the prize for ‘Best Mermaid Costume’!
coney island mermaid parade floatsWhile there were some family-friendly costumes, I also saw quite a few provocative costumes.

Coney Island Mermaid Parade Butt*Attention.. the following photos are rated R*

coney island mermaid parade 2014 boobsI loved the eclectic mix of people in the parade – seniors, families, young lovers, queer couples,… and everyone was having a great time.
coney island mermaid parade topless girlsI learned that it is legal for women to walk around topless in the state of New York.
coney island mermaid parade topless mermaidsSo why not embrace our natural beauty 🙂coney island mermaid parade 2014 topless mermaids1coney island mermaid parade 2014 topless lady*If you’re planning to visit New York City next summer, mark 20 June in your calendar – that’s when the next Mermaid Parade takes place!*

Tips for attending the Mermaid Parade:

Don’t forget water, sun screen and your camera! Especially sun screen because there is barely any shade.

coney island mermaid parade 2014 coupleDon’t come hungry. I made the mistake of not eating before heading down there and had to put up with the sub-par fast food options around there (if you love Hot Dogs though, make sure to try one of Nathan’s world famous hot dogs!)

I wish I would have dressed up for the parade! Many of the spectators were also wearing costumes

Come early to get a good spot. It took us about 90 minutes to get from Midtown Manhattan down to Coney Island. The parade started at 1pm this year, and we arrived about half an hour before it started – and snagged about the last two first-row places along the parade route.

coney island mermaid parade BoardwalkThe next time I go, I’ll watch the parade on the boardwalk – I just feel like it is a prettier backdrop for it than Surf Ave.

Check the official website for the detailed route and starting time.

Bring a towel and stay at the beach for a couple of hours after the parade. We loved the festive vibe and had a blast sunbathing with all the mermaids and other participants.

dani at the beach

Which one is your favorite costume? Share in the comments below!

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Easy-breezy Island Life: Highlights of a Malta Road Trip

malta road trip

“Don’t drive on Malta”.

This is a warning I kept hearing whenever I mentioned I wanted to see some more of the island by renting a car for a day, so that I could explore the beaches that Malta is famous for, the little fishing villages, scenic cliffs and coastal views.

Road Trip Malta

I decided to ignore the well-meant advice and the stories about the horrible Maltese drivers and rented a car anyway. Having driven in Rome’s mad traffic, in Mexico and in Argentina, I figured I’d be fine. Driving on the left side of the road also can’t scare me anymore after driving in Central London, so I was just silently praying all the crazy drivers would stay at home while I was cruising down the narrow country roads.While Malta has a pretty good public transportation network, driving yourself is still better – you can stop whenever and wherever you want, even if it’s just a quick photo stop, you don’t have to rely on the bus schedule, and you can also visit places that aren’t covered by the buses. I only paid €22 for a 24-hour rental, and you can add pick-up for an additional €10 (and drop-off for another €10). Even if you pay for pick-up, drop-off and the rental, I think this is a very affordable price, especially if you share the costs with someone.st julians bay at sunset maltaI had asked for the smallest car and this is what I got:malta road trip carIsn’t this the cutest car?!

I was happy when my friend Umei decided to join me and off we went to our first stop: Marsaxlokk, a traditional fishing village in the south of the island. I fell in love with it the minute we got out of the car – look at these colors:maltese fishing villageThe bay was filled with little fishing boats, called luzzu, which are known for being painted in bright colors and always having a pair of eyes on the front – supposedly to protect them from bad luck and the dangers out at sea.Malta luzzu boats in MarsaxlokkWhile the village seemed sleepy and laid-back when we visited it, Marsaxlokk is buzzing with people every Sunday, when a fish market takes place here. Fishermen arrive with their fresh catch in the port where dozens of stalls sell the seafood right on the spot.Malta MarsaxlokkSimilar to the medieval city of Mdina, I had the feeling I was stepping back in time here.marsaxlokk with boatsIt felt like not much had changed here in the last few decades – the village seemed to be exactly the way it was in a time before TVs, cell phones and the internet (if you blocked out the tourists who were sharing their experience with the world via Instagram and Facebook).MarsaxlokkWe continued on to the Dingli Cliffs from here, to take in some of the spectacular coastline. The Dingli Cliffs are the highest point in Malta, at 253 meters (830feet), and you can usually look out over the Mediterranean for miles and miles. When we were there it was slightly foggy, but we still got a sense for how majestic the cliffs are, and loved the surrounding countryside that was filled with spring wildflowers.dingli cliffs maltaIf you want to discover more of this area, you can take a Segway tour that allows you to glide along the cliffs, while you learn more about the history and the nature of Dingli, and it includes stops at some of the landmarks around here, like the Magdalena Chapel, Palazzo Verdala and Palazzo Girgenti, and the Boschetto Gardens.Dingli MaltaHere it is not uncommon to see horse-drawn carriages, old-fashioned traveling merchants and village people who still travel on foot.malta wild flowerEven though the cliffs were stunning, we also wanted to see some of the amazing beaches that we had heard so much about.malta mellieha bayMalta is known to have some of the clearest waters in the Mediterranean, and when we finally reached Mellieha Bay, I wish it would’ve been warmer already so that I could’ve dipped more than just my toes into the crystal clear water…malta clear waterWhen we got to Golden Bay, clouds had started to cover the blue skies, but I could still imagine how gorgeous this place must be on a sunny summer day.malta golden bayWe had reached the northernmost point on our road trip – which was nearly the northernmost point of the island! Malta is just so compact that you really can fit in most of the island in a daylong road trip.malta st julians bay boatBefore heading south again, we stopped at a roadside stall that wasn’t much more than a table with a couple of boxes of strawberries on it – some of the biggest strawberries we’d ever seen! We couldn’t resist and had to pick up a box. They were the perfect road trip snack.malta strawberriesWe couldn’t pass through Mosta, one of the bigger cities on the island, with a population of nearly 20,000 people, without stopping at the Mosta Dome (also known as the Rotunda of Mosta), which is not only the third-largest unsupported dome in the world, but is also home to the Miracle Of Mosta: In 1942, during World War II, a 200kg bomb was dropped by the German Luftwaffe over the church in which 500 people were hiding and did NOT detonate. Mosta Dome is impressive, but Mosta itself was also really pleasant.mosta domemosta church domemosta maltaOn the way back to Valletta we passed through St Julian’s just in time to see Spinola Bay lit up during the twilight hours. St Julian’s is one of the most popular holiday spots on the island, with lots of hotels and restaurants, and we joined the wandering tourists for a stroll along the promenade where the gorgeous LOVE sculpture has become a popular place with lovers, who ‘lock’ up their love here.st julians bay love sculpturemalta lovelocks st juliansIf you are planning a visit to Malta, I highly recommend renting a car and seeing the island that way – at least for a day or two. Places you shouldn’t miss include Valletta, Mdina, Mellieha Bay, Marsaxlokk, the Dingli Cliffs and St Julian’s.malta flowersst julians bay at nightThis post was brought to you as a result of the Blog Island Malta campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with the Malta Tourism Authority and the support of Air Malta. I maintain full editorial control of the content published on Globetrottergirls.com and it is my policy to provide an honest, objective review, reflecting my own experience and opinion.

malta lovelocks

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Medieval Mdina: Stepping back in time in Malta

Mdina Malta

The minute we stepped through the massive gates that are built into the thick sandstone walls I felt like I had been transported back to the 16th century, when the Knights of St John arrived in Malta and lived in this fortified city, perched high on a hill that made it possible for them to look out over the entire island.

mdina stone lion kings landing

I heard galloping hooves come close behind me and had to jump to the side and press myself against the wall, letting the horse carriage pass by. I wouldn’t have been surprised had a noble lady been sitting in the carriage instead the two wide-eyed tourists who were marvelling at the tall sandy buildings that make up the medieval town.

Horse carriages in Mdina Malta

We walked slowly through the narrow alleys, most of which wouldn’t even fit a normal-sized car (in fact, only a limited number of vehicles are allowed to drive within the city walls), and I tried to imagine what it must have been like to live here during the time of the knights.

mdina malta street

Since the city is confined by the thick city walls, it is easy to just stroll aimlessly without worrying that you’ll get lost somewhere. At some point, you’ll always reach a wall. And with only around 400 people living within the walls, Mdina is tiny.

 

Mdina actually dates back much further than medieval times – the city goes back more than 4,000 years! Over the centuries, or better, the millennia, the city has been inhabited by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Normans and the Arabs.
malta mdina door
Apparently it was here where the Apostle St Paul lived in 60 AD after being shipwrecked on Malta, and the St Paul’s Grotto in Rabat (outside of Mdina’s city walls) shouldn’t be missed on a visit to Mdina.
Mdina Malta
The inhabitation of the city by different cultural groups resulted in a fascinating and quite unique mix of architecture which you can still see throughout town– especially the Arab influence.

Mdina in Malta

The other notable architectural influence is Baroque, which arrived in Malta in the early 17th century. Mdina’s grand cathedral is a fine example of this architectural style.

mdina cathedral

I loved how Mdina still feels and looks the same way it would have looked hundreds of years ago, with well-preserved homes and palazzos and historic churches.
mdina building
The town was actually home to Malta’s most noble families, something that hasn’t changed even today.

mdina balconies

Looking at the fancy buildings, passing by the churches and monasteries, I could picture horse carriages waiting in front of the houses for the noble family to head out into the countryside for a day of hunting.

mdina horse carriages

One thing that struck me about Mdina was how quiet it was. Unless you stumbled upon a tour group, the city was as silent as its nickname, The Silent City, promises. Sometimes we would walk through streets all by ourselves, not a single other person in sight, and just enjoy the quietness. Spending most of my time in big cities, I absorbed as much as possible of the peaceful atmosphere.

mdina limestone buildings malta

I wasn’t the only one who noticed the timelessness of medieval Mdina. When the makers of ‘Game Of Thrones’ first set off to find filming locations, they came here and decided to make it the location for King’s Landing. If you watch Game Of Thrones, some of the places in the pictures might look familiar to you.

Entrance gates Mdina Malta

On the recommendation of a friend, we headed to Fontanella, a restaurant right on top of the thick city walls that offers sweeping views over the countryside surrounding the city and far over the Mediterranean Sea. The selection of cakes at Fontanella is huge so if you stop here, make sure to come hungry.

Streets of Mdina Malta

We later learned that we should have come twice to Mdina – once during the day and once at night, when the city is lit only by the historic street lamps. This is when Mdina is truly silent, and painted in a soft golden tone from the street lights, which makes it feel even more like you’ve been transported back to medieval times.

Mdina Malta

Details

How to get to Mdina

You can easily get to Mdina by bus from Valetta (30 minutes) or Sliema (45 minutes). A day ticket is only €1.50 (compared to a single fare at €1.30)!

mdina plaza malta

Eat & Sleep

Stop at Fontanella’s for coffee and cake, or at Xpresso Bistro Café, which has equally fabulous views.

There is a number of restaurants inside the city walls.

The Xara Palace, a 5-star hotel inside a 17th century chateau, is the only hotel inside the city walls. There are a couple of hotels in Rabat, just outside the city walls.

Mdina Malta

What to see

St Paul’s cathedral has an interesting interior, with the floor covered in marble gravestones (similar to St John’s Co-cathedral in Valletta), and is definitely worth going inside!

The Cathedral Museum is home to a small art collection, including a woodcut print of Albrecht Dürer’s The Life of the Virgin.

St Paul’s Church and Grotto are located in Rabat, outside of the city walls (a 10 min walk)

The Roman Villa (Domus Romana) is a fine example of Roman architecture with typical Roman mosaic floors, and is also in Rabat.

Door knockers in Mdina Malta
mdina balcony malta
Lions in Mdina Malta
malta mdina palace
Statues in Mdina Malta

This post was brought to you as a result of the Blog Island Malta campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with the Malta Tourism Authority and the support of Air Malta. I maintain full editorial control of the content published on Globetrottergirls.com and it is my policy to provide an honest, objective review, reflecting my own experience and opinion.

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New Mexico’s White Desert: The Bright and Beautiful White Sands

white-sands-new-mexico

It didn’t happen gradually, but all of a sudden. The paved road we had been following for the last 30 minutes was walled by tall, hilly sand dunes, as far as the eye could see.

White Sands New Mexico streetIt was somewhat surreal, since we had been driving through the barren desert of Southern New Mexico for a while without even seeing any sand dunes yet, and within a couple of minutes, we were surrounded by them completely.

White Sands New Mexico sand dunesThe further we drove into the dunes, the less we could see of the road, and at some point it was covered in sand completely. We were driving through a sand desert.

White Sands New Mexico sandy streetThe Sand Dunes were one of the things we were most excited about when we planned our New Mexico road trip – you might have seen them in music videos like Boyz II Men’s Water Runs Dry or P. Diddy’s Best Friend – and while sand dunes are certainly not uncommon, there are only very few that are bright white.

White Sands New Mexico sand duneTogether with the azure blue New Mexico skies, the constellation of just white and blue as far as the eye can see is incredibly beautiful.

White Sands New MexicoThe dunes sit at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert in the Tularosa Basin, a mountain-ringed valley. In total, they comprise of an area of 710-km² (275-mi²), and we learned from our visitors brochure that they had actually all been part of a massive lake during the last ice age.

White Sands New Mexico waterAfter the lake dried out, it left a large area of selenite (gypsum in crystalline form) on the surface, which were broken into sand-size grains over thousands of years through erosion and weathering. The winds that blow over the basin eventually formed the sand dunes.

White Sands New Mexico white dunesDepending on wind and weather, they actually change their shapes all the time.

White Sands New Mexico flowersThis is why it is nearly impossible for any plants to grow in White Sands – if the plants are not very resistant and fast-growing, they get blown over by the moving sand quickly and don’t survive.

White Sands New Mexico dry flowersHence, you don’t see any plants in the middle part of the dunes – only sand.

White Sands New Mexico jess hikingTowards the edges, there are some plants and flowers, but they are likely to get covered in sand sooner or later, as the dunes change their shapes and the sand moves further.

White Sands New Mexico yellow flowersThere is just as little wildlife as there is flora and fauna – it is barely impossible for anything to survive in this dry, sandy environment.

White Sands New Mexico dunesApparently, there are some mammals, such as foxes, coyotes, rabbits, rats and mice, and several kinds of lizards, but the only sign of life we saw was a lonely black little beetle.

White Sands New Mexico beetleWe loved how empty the dunes felt – even though there were quite a few other cars in the park with us, once we hit one of the hiking trails that led away from the street into the dunes, it felt like we were the only ones in White Sands.

White Sands New Mexico dani hikingWe had planned to hike the Alkali Flat Trail (4.5 mile / 7.2 km round-trip), the longest possible hike in White Sands. By the time we reached the trail head though, it was close to noon and the desert sun was burning down on us with over 100 °F / 38 °C.
White Sands New MexicoWe had already done two hikes under similar conditions through Arizona’s desertscape before heading to New Mexico though, so we still set off on the hike, ignoring the hot, relentless sun.

White Sands New Mexico jessWe followed the posts with orange tape that marked the trail and after five minutes, we were encircled by white sand dunes, there were no people, and we couldn’t see the street anymore.

White Sands New Mexico jess and daniThe further we walked into the dunes, the quieter it got. It got to a point where the tranquility felt almost spooky.

White Sands New Mexico sandWe saw how easy it was to get lost in those dunes – a horrible thought considering the heat and that there was absolutely no shade – if you didn’t look for the trail markers. In fact, several hikers have gone lost in White Sands, overestimating their ability to walk without water or underestimating the heat.

White Sands New Mexico sand dunesAt the 1.5 mile marker, we made the decision to turn around. The hike through the sand was beautiful, the peace and quiet was relaxing, and the solitude felt liberating, but the burning heat had finally defeated us. We knew that we didn’t have enough water to fully enjoy the hike, so we headed back to the car.

White Sands New Mexico daniLooking around us, it was easy to think that we were walking through a huge snow field – had it not been so hot that sweat was dripping off our forehead constantly.White Sands New Mexico jess layingThe vastness of the dunes was simply stunning.

White Sands New Mexico panoramaWe returned to the parking area where there is also a huge picnic area with silver-roofed futuristic-looking picnic tables – the only shaded areas in the dunes!

White Sands New Mexico picnic areaMany of the sand dunes are tall enough to enjoy a ride down on a sled or even a sand board. Sadly, we had missed our chance to pick up a sled at the visitor center, but it was fun to watch other visitors boarding and sledding down the dunes.

White Sands New Mexico sleddingIf you’re planning to sled down the dunes, don’t forget to stop at the visitor center BEFORE entering the park!

White Sands New Mexico sand boarder

Details:

White Sands is a 30 minute drive from Alamogordo. We stayed at the Suburban Extended Stay Hotel, for which we found a great rate ($49 per double room per night) on Booking.com, and which we found clean and comfortable (the room had a kitchenette and free wifi and the hotel is close to all restaurants and supermarkets).

Before you go, check on the White Sands National Park website if the park is open at all – when there are missile testings (which happen up to twice a week at certain times throughout the year), the park stays closed (usually only for a couple of hours though).

A car is absolutely essential to visit White Sands, the National Park is not served by public transportation.

White Sands New Mexico carAdmission is $3 per person, and valid for seven days. You could go one day for sunset and come back the next morning for a hike.

There are guided sunset walks at 6pm. Look out for the meeting point inside the National Park, near one of the parking lots.

If you want to sled down the dunes, the gift shop in the visitor center lends sleds for a fee of $7 (you pay $10 but get $3 back if you return the sled). Make sure to stop there BEFORE you enter the park. The best place for sledding are the dunes near the picnic area (they’re the steepest ones).

The easiest way to see the dunes is by following the 8-mile scenic drive through the National Parks. There are several hiking paths (ranging from the short 0.2mile / 0.3km Playa Trail to the more challenging 4.5mile /7.2 km Alkali Flat Trail)  throughout the park and enough parking available.

Dani running in White SandsMake sure to bring sturdy shoes, enough water, sun screen and sun glasses – it is extremely bright. A hat would also be recommendable, especially if you’re planning to visit around noon and/or going for a longer hike.

You are not allowed to enter the Missile Range that is located in White Sands, but there is a ranger-led hike to Lake Lucero in the Missile Range once a month ($3 per person). You can check the schedule for the tours and make your reservation here.

PIN IT!


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The otherworldly landscapes of Chile’s Atacama Desert

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The first glimpse of the Atacama Desert was crossing the Andes over the 4,300 m (14,100 feet) Jama mountain pass from Argentina to Chile. The ten-hour ride from San Salvador de Jujuy to San Pedro de Atacama travels through a seemingly endless stretch of no man’s land, at one point the bus worked its way up around a grueling 72 switchbacks and the last hour or two the road cuts like a straight (and steep!) downhill line all the way to San Pedro. It is here that we see the Atacama Desert ahead of us for the first time: a barren landscape at 2,300 meters (7,500 feet) stretching as far as the eye can see. San Pedro itself sits on the official border between Argentina and Chile and just a few miles from the Chile-Bolivian border.

atacama desert roadThe Atacama Desert is a 600-mile-long (1,000 kilometers) plateau in northern Chile, close to the borders of Bolivia and Argentina, barely populated, and the driest desert on the planet. It is also among the barest and bleakest sceneries we have ever seen.

atacama desert chile lunar landscape with rocksLooking at this harsh, yet captivating landscape,  I can easily picture the surface of Mars looking exactly like this. The only word that comes to mind to describe this scene is ‘otherworldly’.

atacama desert chile scenery atacama desert chileAt times, dry shrubs and bushes cover the ground, but most of the time there is nothing but rocks and gravel.

atacama desert chile with salt flatsAs the bus descended down that consistently straight, steep road, we couldn’t help but wonder where San Pedro could possibly be. There are no signs of civilization for miles and miles – just the lunar landscapes of the Atacama Desert in all directions.

valle de la muerte atacama desert streetWhen we finally reach the village, we are surprised to see that is actually quite green – a lush oasis in the middle of this desolated part of Chile.

San Pedro de Atacama with volcanoSan Pedro de Atacama has doubled its population to 5,000 people over the last decade, becoming more and more popular with travelers from all over the world, but also many Chileans who want to explore this fascinating part of their country.

san pedro de atacama chile with treesOver the next few days in San Pedro, we explored the desert and discovered that there is much more than barren land here: we see dark blue lagoons, vast salt flats and salt mountains, a moon-like valley, a geyser field and sand dunes.

laguna Miñiques atacama desert chilevalle de la luna atacama desert red rocksThere are smoking volcanoes, canyons and gorges, hot springs and remote desert villages with houses made of volcanic rock – for a desert, there is actually much more diversity than you might expect.

atacama desert chile volcanomachuca chile atacama desert churchOf course much of the desert does indeed resemble Mars – and not just the looks but the conditions as well. Water is extremely scarce and much of the desert is inhospitable – not even bacteria can survive in some areas!

valle de la muerte atacama desertFor this reason, NASA actually uses the desert to prepare Mars missions like testing robotic vehicles that will be used on Mars.

valle de la muerte atacama desertWhat looks like snow in these pictures, is actually salt. Parts of the Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) near San Pedro are made up of dry lakes, with salt covering the surface.

valle de la luna atacama desert saltine sceneryvalle de la luna atacama desert saline landscape chileSeveral saline outcrops have been carved into naturally sculptured statues by wind and time.

valle de la luna atacama desert saltine formationThe Three Marias, one of the most recognized salt structures of the Atacama, is made of clay, salt, gems, gravel and quartz and is approximately one million years old.

valle de la luna atacama desert saltine three mariasSalt can also be seen on many of the red rocks in the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) of the Atacama Desert. Many of the rocks are coated in a white layer of salt originating from volcanic eruptions in the area.

valle de la muerte atacama desert salt mountainvalle de la luna atacama desert salt cave rocksThis part of the valley is actually called Cordillera de la Sal (Salt mountain range), and in addition to the salt-covered rocks, we spent time crawling through one of the many salt caves here.

Dani and Jess atacama desertAtacama Desert Salt CaveThe best time to visit the Death and the Moon Valley is the late afternoon, to see how the lights of the twilight hours change the colors of the mountains and sand dunes.

valle de la luna atacama desert at sunsetvalle de la luna atacama desert saltine landscapes at sunsetvalle de la luna atacama desert sand dunes at sunset chileOn one all-day tour, it was incredible to watch the landscape change from dry sand to deep volcanic lakes to the shallow waters on top of the salt flats, where hundreds of pink flamingos pecked their way across the water in search of food.

salar de atacama chile flamingo reflectionThe vast salt flats, the Salar de Atacama, are actually the third largest salt flats in the world, after the nearby Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and the Salinas Grandes across the Andes in Argentina.
salar de atacama chileThe Chilean salt flats feel very different to the other two. Here there are more animals, it seems. Like those flamingos…
Atacama Desert Flamingosand the lizards…
salar de atacama chile lizard… and also the fact that instead of an almost blinding white salt, the salt flats here are made up of big chunks of grayish salt rocks and boulders sticking up out of the ground.
salar de atacama chile salt flatssalar de atacama chileA completely different side of the Atacama Desert are Laguna Miscantes and Miñiques, two altiplano lakes at over 4,200 meters (13,800 feet).

laguna Miñiques atacama desert jessSet next to each other in a spectacular mountain setting, the surrounding yellow grass and brownish mountains create a colorful contrast to the deep blue waters and clear azure skies.
laguna Miñiques atacama desertThe lake shores are white due to the salt in the soil, adding yet another color.
laguna Miñiques atacama desertThe crystal clear skies are one of the most famous features of the Atacama Desert – on over 300 days of the year there are no clouds whatsoever. This is what makes the desert so desirable for star-gazing as well. And not just by amateurs like us. There are a number of international telescopes in the desert owned (or partially owned) by several countries from around the world.
laguna Miñiques atacama desertOn an early morning trip to the El Tatio Geyser fields, we get to see another completely different face of the desert: steaming hot springs, bubbling and erupting geysers with columns of steam surmounting high into the sky.

el tatio geyser field atacama desert chileThe geyser field is among the highest-elevation geyser fields in the world and consists of around 80 geysers!

el tatio geyser atacama desert chileel tatio geyser atacama desert chile sunriseIt is the third largest geyser field in the world, and the largest one in the southern hemisphere.

el tatio geysers chileOn this particular trip, we had the option to hop into the hot springs which was an inviting thought after feeling like our fingers and toes would freeze off for the two hours before and after sunrise. These hot springs are around 35C (95F), as opposed to the freezing winter air at dawn at 4,320 meters (14,174feet).
el tatio geyser field atacama desert chile hot springsConsidering that the Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world, there are actually quite a few green patches and types of vegetation throughout the entire desert, from scrub brush to green tufts of grass to astonishingly high cacti.

atacama desert chileThis leads to plenty of wildlife spottings…
atacama desert llamasFrom domesticated llamas to wild vicuñas…
atacama desert vicunasThere are lots of viscachas, which are a kind of desert bunny that are related to chinchillas…
viscacha atacama desert…and desert foxes.
atacama desert fox chileThe desert is dry as a bone, making it very hard to survive.
atacama desert chile skullThe Atacama Desert is without a doubt one of the most stunning regions we have ever been to, anywhere in the world.
atacama desert chileIf you are planning a visit to Chile, San Pedro and the Atacama Desert are a must-see stop. From Santiago, this region is a 24-hour bus ride or a short flight into the nearby city of Calama and a 60-mile bus or minibus ride from there.

valle de la luna atacama desert salt cave rocks danisalar de atacama chileatacama desert moonscape chileWhat’s the most extraordinary place you’ve ever been to? Share in the comments below!

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Goodbye 2013: Our year of travel in pictures

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I remember leaving for the airport in London like it was yesterday. Dani kept looking at me with my big, funny backpack, and I at hers (and the extra bag she had filled with magazines she just had to finish before we left the U.S.) as we walked to catch the bus to the airport. We were filled with exhilaration that we were actually free – like high school seniors on the last day of school.

2010 brought us from Europe, through the US and Mexico to Central America, it was an unforgettable 2011 through Central America, Europe, Canada, the US and then Thailand. In 2012 we spent time in South East Asia, India and finally to South America.

Now here we are, this is the FOURTH time that we’re looking back at our year of travel. 2013 was as much a year of city-hopping as it was spent in some of the least populated areas of natural beauty on Earth. Our travel style was mostly on four wheels overland and technically slow, visiting only seven countries, but we covered a huge portion of this planet this year across Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, the US, Germany, Bolivia and Peru.

Follow along as we look back at what we are still able pack in, nearly four years after setting off on this nomadic adventure. Click through on the dozens of links to read in more detail about each of these stops along the way.

The year began in Santiago, where we housesat for two months. We still think often about our two adorable Scottie dogs there.

1 january santiago de chileWe were practically becoming locals, so we had to rip ourselves away at the start of February to start our travels through Chile. We began in Valparaiso, and fell in love with this colorful city on the Pacific.

colorful houses in valparaisoFrom there we headed to the Lake District and the island of Chiloe, before returning to the Argentine side of the Andes to explore Bariloche and Nahuel Huapi National Park with its famous black glacier. Then it was time to hit Patagonia.

2 bariloche cathedralAfter that infamously long 27 hour bus ride, we landed in El Chalten, where Dani set off on some solo hikes, and continued to El Calafate, where we visited the impressive Perito Moreno Glacier.

2 argentina perito moreno glacierThen it was back over the border to Chile to see Torres Del Paine. We opted for a full day tour of the National Park, and it became one of our favorite places in all of Patagonia.

3 chile torres del paineAfter a few days in Puerto Natales, the base town for Torres del Paine, we continued our journey south and traveled to Tierra Del Fuego via the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas before finally reaching Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, after hitchhiking from Chile back into Argentina.

UshuaiaOur next stop was Uruguay, a quick flight from Ushuaia, where we visited Montevideo (and almost got robbed!) and the dreamy colonial town Colonia del Sacramento.

3 uruguay colonia del sacramentoOf course we couldn’t leave without visiting some of Uruguay’s famous beaches!

3 march uruguay punta del este3 uruguay beach dayAt the end of March, we went from Uruguay to the north of Argentina and spent a lovely week in Rosario, before we made a 48-hour bus detour to the Iguazu Falls – a detour that was well worth it!

4 argentina dani and jess iguazu fallsWe continued our journey through Northern Argentina to Salta, a city we didn’t love as much as we thought we would, but we fell for the small wine town of Cafayate four hours south of there.

4 cafayate streetThe road took us back north through Salta to Jujuy, where we rented a car to road trip through the Quebrada de Humahuaca for two days.

4 purmamarca street and seven color hillHere we also stopped at the first of three sets of salt flats we’d see this year. 4 argentina salinas grandes salt flats salt rainAfter returning the car, we took a bus to San Pedro De Atacama in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

4 san pedro de atacama streetIt turns out that we seriously love this town and the surrounding scenery on this first of two visits to San Pedro in 2013, and were actually excited to know we’d be making our way back up here again later in the year to continue our travels to Bolivia from here.

4 april northern chile atacama desertDuring this first visit, we took a tour that showed us some of the breathtaking landscapes around San Pedro…

4 april chile atacama desert… including salt flats #2.

4 salt flats chile atacama desertBut instead of heading north to Bolivia from here, we broke our South America journey to fly to New York City for a two-month housesitting gig that made our dream of living in New York come true (at least temporarily!). We landed in New York just in time for our third anniversary as nomads and loved ‘our’ two cats and ‘our’ apartment, just a five-minute walk from the Brooklyn Bridge.

6 brooklyn bridge new yorkIn June, we flew straight to Germany to test out five weeks living in Berlin, which is now one of our favorite cities in the world.

7 alexanderplatz at nightWe couldn’t have asked for a more perfect summer in Germany, where we were featured in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, one of the national newspapers and interviewed by a major radio station about our housesitting book before flying back to the US in August.

sueddeutscheIt felt great to jet set in the summer as we flew from Berlin to New York to spend the weekend. We were mainly on a quest to find the best pizza in NYC, but also had time to revisit some of our favorite places off the beaten path and cycle through Manhattan on the Citibikes.

8 best pizza in williamsburg brooklyn new york city white pizza5 dani roosevelt islandOur next stop was Tucson, to a housesit we’ve done three times now for homeowners and a dog, Miss Millie, who we just love! We enjoyed some quality time by the pool and the desertscape that we love so much.

8 Jess and Millie in TucsonIn September, we took off on one of the best adventures of this year: a road trip through New Mexico, which would finally bring us all the way back to Chicago via Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa.

We started at the amazing yet little-visited Gila Cliff Dwellings, followed by the otherworldly White Sands…

9 white sands jess & daniThen we spent Jess’ birthday at Carlsbad Caverns before moving on to the aliens of Roswell, Las Vegas (the small New Mexican town) and Albuquerque…

9 carlsbad cavernsThen we hit Santa Fe, explored Georgia O’Keeffe country, the Bandelier Cliff Dwellings, various Pueblos and then finally spent time in magical little Taos, our last stop in New Mexico. Here we got to trek down into the Rio Grande gorge with llamas and our wonderful guide Stuart of Wild Earth Llama Trekking.

9 bandelier monument new mexicoAfter 19 incredible days on the road, we reached Chicago, where we visited friends and family, hit plenty of our favorite sightseeing spots and ate our way across the city.

10 bean reflections at night chicagoChicago is where Dani got to experience her first ‘real’ Halloween in the U.S.! Look at what we did to her face! 🙂

10 globetrottergirls halloweenIn what now, looking back, seems like our year of New York City, we spent another long weekend in Manhattan before hopping onto the return leg of our flight back down to Santiago, Chile – but not without eating more pizza, spending time in Williamsburg, meeting up with quite a few good friends and watching the New York Marathon.

11 New York sunsetFinally we flew down to enjoy all the things we love about Santiago – and just in time for the perfect spring weather (and escaping the freezing cold New York weather that hit the day after we left!)

11 santiago lastarria churchInstead of pushing through on the 24 hour bus ride to San Pedro De Atacama, we visited three new places on the way: La Serena, a quiet though sizable colonial town with a wide beach seven hours from Santiago by bus. This is the jumping-off point for the beautiful Elqui Valley, which became one of our five favorite places in all of Chile.

11 la serena street with churchThen we traveled 19 hours through the narrow piece of land between the Andes and the Pacific to Iquique, a beach city in the north of Chile. The town grew on us slowly, and we ended up enjoying our fourth visit to the Pacific in 2013. This was our last beach visit of the year, too.

11 sea lions in iquiqueThen we went on to San Pedro and made sure to visit the Tatio geyser fields – an incredible piece of desert nearly 5,000m high where geysers explode, gurgle and spurt. It was well worth the 4am wake-up call to see the geyser field at sunrise.

11 geyser de tatio chileAfter a few days of an obsessive amount of research on good tour companies, we finally jumped on our three day off-roading tour through Bolivia’s South West, otherwise known as the Salar de Uyuni salt flats tour. Our first ever border crossing in a jeep, on a tour and in the middle of absolutely nowhere, there was so much more than the salt flats. We saw more otherworldly landscapes, volcanoes, flamingos, lagoons and rock formations of just about every shape and color imaginable.

11 Bolivia laguna verde11 laguna hedionda flamingos bolivia11 arbol de piedra and mountain boliviaOn the last day of the tour we spent sunrise out on our third set of salt flats for the year, which also just so happen to be the largest salt flats in the world, the Salar De Uyuni.

11 Bolivia salt flatsThen we started our travels through Bolivia, with our first stop in the 4000m-high colonial town of Potosi. For those of you who think in feet, this is 13,500 ft high, or almost three ‘mile-high’ Denver cities stacked on top of one another. This is officially the highest city in the world, and we enjoyed the beautifully maintained historic town center which was a great introduction to the country – although just walking its hilly streets was a massive challenge at that altitude.

12 potosi viewsNext were three weeks in both of Bolivia’s capitals: first in Sucre, the official capital (and a city we spent two weeks battling a massive stomach bug that practically laid us flat for half the time)…

12 sucre street bolivia…and then La Paz, the de facto seat of the government. It was from here that we signed up (read: Dani signed US up!) for the mountain bike trip down the world’s most dangerous road – and survived (barely 🙂 ).

12 death road boliviaOur final stop in 2014 was Lake Titicaca, first on the Bolivian side in Copacabana, where we spent Christmas, then followed by a couple of days on the Isla del Sol and then crossing the border into our first stop in Peru – Puno – where we are celebrating New Year’s Eve.

lake titicaca with boats copacabana bolivia

This was a big year for us as The GlobetrotterGirls as well!

We released a second and much, much sexier version of our book, The Ultimate Guide to Housesitting – check that out here if you want to start housesitting in 2014.

We started the Break Free podcast, where I interview globetrotting women who have created the incredible life balance of running successful businesses while traveling the world. You can listen on the website or subscribe in iTunes.

Then there was the launch of our Escape Route travel planning and consulting service. We seriously love helping people make the most of the travels, and we’ve loved being able to help readers and clients plan their perfectly customized holidays.

Perhaps most exciting for us is the launch of our GlobetrotterGirls Getaways – starting with our seriously epic overland trip from San Francisco to Seattle in May 2014. If you’re interested in joining us on a seriously unique trip (in a custom-converted American school bus!) read more about the Getaways here. Early-Bird pricing ends today, December 31st, so if you’re interested, save $150 and put down your deposit today!

Dani and Jess in Argentina

Thanks so much for following along on our journey in 2013. Stick with us in 2014 for even more epic adventures through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, the US, Europe and who knows where we’ll end 2014!!

Happy New Year!

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Salta, Argentina has all the makings of a charming city – so what was missing?

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Our trip to Salta was a case of inflated expectations. Most people we had met raved about Salta and for a long time we even considered finding an apartment and really soaking up the city for a month. We needed the rest. So much non-stop long-distance travel had been wearing us out and even though we loved Buenos Aires (population 3 million) and Rosario (population 1 million), we had built Salta up to be our ultimate relief and recovery.

Laid-back, colonial, small – the description made it sound like just the kind of city we love in Latin America. When we arrived after a 20-hour overnight bus from Puerto Iguazu, we had high expectations about this northern city.

salta iron signSalta ArgentinaOur posada (guesthouse), Casa de Borgoña, was only a few blocks from Salta’s central plaza, Plaza 9 de Julio. We put our bags down and headed straight there for a cup of coffee and some people watching.

salta alfajoresMany memories of Salta, in fact, involve spending time whiling away in cafes, working on our laptops and enjoying the sugary, delicious sweets served alongside our cafe con leche.

salta colonialAfter we caffeinated our way out of our foggy haze, we toured the streets of Salta, taking in the colonial architecture and its colorful neo-classical churches. But neither of us clicked with the city. We liked it enough, but there was no excitement for it the way we had unexpectedly fallen for  Rosario a couple weeks earlier.

salta streetSalta san francisco iglesiaAlthough half the size of Rosario and a fraction of Buenos Aires, somehow Salta felt really congested and overpopulated in parts of town. Especially during rush hour, cars stop and go at snail’s pace and pedestrians are forced to choke down fumes between sidestepping hordes of people in no hurry along the sidewalks. And yet, somehow, at other times of day, the city feels downright sleepy.

salta colonial architecturevintage car saltaIn our experience, you can easily pick up the vibe of a city by its street art and in Salta, even though we spent hours padding the pavement far and wide, we just didn’t come across much that had much of an edge to it at all.

salta street artSalta street art argentina

Salta Highlight 

We decided to take the 1,000 step challenge, and hiked up to the top of Cerro San Bernardo. This is one of the peaks surrounding the city and offers magnificent views out over town. Most tourists opt to take the cable car ride up the mountain, but we wanted to sweat out the challenge.

salta view and cable carAnd we weren’t the only ones! Salteños of all ages use the 1,000 steps as a workout track. Some people sprinted up, down and passed us again in the relatively quick time it took us to ascend to the top of the peak. Once at the top, there is space to continue your workout – like these spinning bikes used for a class right after we arrived. We opted to head back down on foot instead.

salta workout machinessalta viewSalta was the first place we noticed coca leaves becoming more present, and it only becomes legal in this province. It increases in popularity the further north in the Andes regions of South America you go. Any further south, and it’s frowned upon and technically illegal. Shops all around town sell coca leaves and tea, and people chew it everywhere. When we first got off the bus, we noticed the big piles of chewed up green leaves all down the taxi queue, as the drivers chew it up and spit it out between passengers. Coca leaves help reduce high altitude sickness, but is popular for its effects of enhanced energy and reduced hunger – to a far lesser degree than its white powdery cousin.

salta coca storeWe passed this street vendor every day who sells coca along with popular fruits like chimoya, peaches and papaya.  You might see Viagra on his sign as well, though he doesn’t not have any to sell you – Viagra no, Mani (peanuts) si.

salta fruit vendorThe reason for the colonial style of the city is that Salta was founded by Spanish conquerers in the 16th century. It was an important supply station for the Spanish silver mines in Bolivia, just a few hundred kilometers north of Salta. The vibe of the city, today, however, is a balance between Spanish colonial and the indigenous spirit of the Andes, visible in beautifully carved wooden doors, llama wool on sale in the markets and the abundance of native Andean foods like quinoa – which we ate in everything from Empanadas to salads and pasta.

salta monasterySalta ArgentinaAs in any colonial city, the Plaza de 9 Julio is anchored by a stunning cathedral on the north side, and lined by restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating to take in the grandeur of Salta’s most attractive square.

Salta plaza 9 de juliosalta cathedralA few times we snacked at restaurants on the plaza to take it all in, but we also made sure to explore far outside of the tourist center as well to get a true overall feeling of the city.

Overall, it was….fine. On paper, we should have loved everything about it according to our travel style and tastes. But restaurants here do not impress, especially for vegetarians, museums didn’t feel spectacular, and much of the charm we might have felt was numbed by the congestion and busy streets. We didn’t dislike it, but we weren’t impressed either. Was this a case of our expectations being too high?Salta ArgentinaBut we definitely recommend you visit the city – if only as a starting point to escape two different areas we fell over heels in love with: the charming village of Cafayate in the stunning wine country two hours south of Salta and the villages along the Quebrada de Humahuaca a few hours to the north.

Argentina Quebrada de las conchas

Travel Notes on Salta:

The cable car up to Cerro Bernardo runs every day from 10am to 7pm and takes 8 minutes. It is AR$25 each way, or 45AR$ return trip. The 1,000 steps take about 45 minutes and are free.

Our favorite spots included Cafe Balcarce (Balcarce 1) and Cafe Teuco (corner of 20 De Febrero and Santiago Del Estero) for good coffee, alfajores and wi-fi and El Patio de Empanadas (corner of San Martin and Las Malvinas) and El Buen Gusto Empanadas (O’Higgins 575) for empanadas.

We stayed at Casa de Borgoña on España 916, which we recommend. Read our full Salta hotel review here.

Have you been to Salta? What were your impressions? Share in the comments below.

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Through the glass: Scenes from the road in Argentina

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If you love to travel – which seems obvious if you have found your way here – you have heard the old saying: Travel is about the journey, not the destination. That might really hit home with you or just seem like something you read everywhere but this was never more true for us than the roughly three months we spent driving up, down and all around Argentina. We have written extensively about all our favorite destinations – like Buenos AiresIguazu Falls and Rosario, but in Argentina, travel is truly all about the journey. We spent countless days and nights on buses traversing this country from top to bottom, but most certainly not in that order. 28 quebrada de las conchas road argentinaIn fact, we crossed the Andes four times, criss-crossing back and forth from Chile, watched green meadows turn to tropical climates with palm trees lining the roads near the Brazilian border, drove through the dust and salt near the border with Bolivia and froze in the permanent winter climates on Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of the Americas. Each ride was an adventure in itself, and almost always with awe-inspiring views. Scroll down for our scenes from the roads through Argentina.

Bus Travel in Argentina

First things first: buses in Argentina usually look like this:

1 bus argentinaFor our very first ride, which was 24 hours from Buenos Aires to Santiago de Chile, we splurged on first class seats which turned out to be big, comfy leather seats with our own TV screen and meals that included free wine.
2 argentina bus3 argentina bus tv

Eating on the road in Argentina

The food was surprisingly good, with a vegetarian option available when booking the tickets and we were relieved. 24 hours is an eternity on a bus with very few stops. Unfortunately, we would never have that kind of food quality again – and not all buses offer any vegetarian options at all. These little perks also seem to have nothing to do with the price of the ticket – which can vary but is always fairly high.

4 Argentina bus foodBreakfast on buses usually consisted of crackers, a couple of different kinds of cookies, dulce de leche and jam (pictured on the upper left side of the above photo).

6 argentina bus breakfast dulce de lecheOn our bus ride to Salta we collected three sets of sandwiches each, all of them were white bread, ham and cheese.  The stray dogs of Salta were thankful for them, though.

5 argentina bus breakfastOn shorter rides we were usually just given cookies and a cup of instant coffee, always styrofoam. On the overnight buses, coffee was pre-made in a big container, which they loaded with sugar, as per the Argentine palate. Yuck! All long-distance buses have attendants who serve meals and drinks an collect the trash. This is all included in the ticket price.

6 bus snackWhen we didn’t have first-class seats, we shared TVs with the whole bus and enjoyed Lady Gaga and other pop videos together. Well, sometimes we enjoyed them, other times we wished we had opted for noise-cancelling headphones to block some of it out.

7 argentina bus with tvs

From Buenos Aires West To The Andes

From Buenos Aires to Santiago, the entire first day heading west consisted of pretty unexciting views – until the Andes Mountains could be seen on the horizon. We passed the vineyards around Mendoza and finally drove straight into the mountains, following the winding mountain road until we hit the border to Chile at the Los Libertadores mountain pass.

7 argentina mendoza and andes8 andes mountains9 andes mountains argentina

The Road Through The Lake District 

After two months in Chile working our way south, we re-entered Argentina about 1000 kilometers further south via San Martin de los Andes, driving back east straight into the beautiful Lake District around Bariloche.

11 andes mountains argentina19 andes mountain drive11 jess argentina border10 andes mountains towards chile2Our highlight here was visiting Nahuel Huapi National Park and the Black Glacier before we headed further south towards El Chalten on what was the longest and most grueling of all our bus rides.

13 argentina lake district13 nahuel huapi national park5At 27 hours, this ride was intense and bumpy, too. It started off with a gorgeous drive further into the Lake District and with the Andes mountains painted red by the setting sun. But then…

12 argentina lake district with andes15 argentina andes sunset…the road became gravel for hours and hours. And hours. We would see the same exact view out the window, unchanged, from the start to finish of a movie or hour-long TV show. Mountains, rocks, and the most barren landscape we had ever seen. Even in its most boring spots, it was still awe-inspiring how incredibly big Argentina is and how intense it is to drive straight down through the center of it.

15 driving through argentina16 argentina pampa520 argentina pampa3

The Road Through Patagonia

When we finally reached El Chalten it was so gorgeous and so worth it. We really enjoyed the incredible vistas of Mount Fitz Roy.

16 el chalten river and mountains3We followed the paved road alongside the Andes down to our next stop: El Calafate. This three hour ride felt like a snap of the fingers after all those long rides before. El Calafate was our base to explore Perito Moreno Glacier.

17 argentina with andesThe drive to the glacier was one of the most scenic in Patagonia, passing mountain lakes and leading straight into the Los Glaciares National Park, surrounded by the Andes.

18 patagonia panorama19 road through patagoniaFrom this point, now fairly far south, we crossed back into Chile to visit Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and Punta Arenas, where we took the ferry to Porvenir and set foot on Tierra Del Fuego for the first time.

14 argentina river3This is where things got a bit complicated and we were forced to hitchhike back across the border  into Argentina in order to reach the End Of The World, also known as the southernmost city in the world or Ushuaia.

21 Ushuaia mountains

The Road To Iguazu Falls 

At that point, the only way to go was back up north – or down to Antarctica, but that is an adventure for another time. After freezing on our way down through Patagonia, we couldn’t wait to get to Montevideo, Uruguay, and since a three hour flight is the same price as the 50+ hours it would have taken by bus, we decided to give our knees a rest and flew up to Montevideo. After a couple of weeks in Uruguay, we headed west again back into Argentina, to explore the northern part of the country.

21 argentina cows3During our time there, heavy rains had flooded big parts of the country, and some fields were still covered in water when we went up to Iguazu.

21 argentina road iguazu1All of a sudden, we found ourselves in tropical climates with jungles and palm trees surrounding us. Those 24 hours on that bus brought us to an entirely different part of Argentina.

22 argentina sunset from the busUp here near the Brazilian border, it was hard to believe this was the same country that was home to Buenos Aires, or the Lake District, or Rosario…scenes would have felt at home in Nicaragua than the booming cities or tranquil tourist enclaves further south.

23 argentina bus station

The Road Through Northwest Argentina

And then, just like that, the 20 hour ride to Salta brought us out of the tropics, through countless quiet villages and into a sophisticated Spanish colonial city.

24 argentina north east argentinaFrom Salta, we headed to El Cafayate, and even though this was only a four-hour drive, it was easily one of the most spectacular in all of Argentina.

25 quebrada de las conchas argentina road26 quebrada de las conchas red cliffsWe passed through the red rock formations of the Quebrada De Las Conchas on a long, winding mountain road to Cafayate, a dusty winery town surrounded by vineyards and mountains.

27 argentina quebrada de las conchas1428 argentina quebrada de las conchas1329 argentina quebrada da cafayate vinyardOur next stop was equally as stunning: A trip along the Quebrada De Humahuaca, a road which leads from Salta to the Bolivian border. We stopped in Jujuy, just two hours from Salta.

29 quebrada de humahuacaHere we rented a car to do this Quebrada de Humahuaca road trip at our own pace.

31 argentina andes mountain roadThis freedom and flexibility allowed us to take a detour through the Cuesta De Lipan, or Lipan Rise, at an altitude of 4,170 meters / 13,700 feet above sea level, on our way to the Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s salt flats.

30 llamas on the road34 quebrada de humahuaca andes mountain roadIn this mountain range we saw more guanaco families hanging out than anywhere else in Argentina!

36 quebrada de humahuaca andes guanacos35 quebrada de humahuaca andes mountain road2The salt flats in Argentina are much smaller than the famous Salar De Uyuni in neighboring Bolivia, but they were still an incredible sight to drive through.32 argentina road to salinas grandes salt flats33 argentina road through salinas grandes salt flatssalt flats argentina dani & jess with carThe next day we continued on toward the indigenous town of Humahuaca, passing more guanacos and alpacas, plus some of the most colorful mountains we have ever seen. Here we could feel how close we were to Bolivia – the people, the air, the traditional clothes and tourist trinkets for sale in the markets.

37 argentina quebrada de humahuaca14A few days later, it was time for our fourth and final Andes crossing. From Jujuy we caught a bus that would take us west through an incredible no man’s land, a vast expanse of sometimes mountainous and other times flat land. As far as the eye could see, the road stretch out ahead on what felt like an entirely different planet for hundreds of miles at a time. This final leg through Argentina would take us into Chile to the Atacama desert, almost 4000km north of our last crossing point in Patagonia.38 argentina quebrada de humahuaca roadTo find out how much all that cost us, read our post on The Blue Dollar and the real cost of traveling in Argentina.

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The vintage cars of Uruguay

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When we landed in Uruguay, we knew it would be similar to neighboring Argentina, just with a stronger Gaucho culture, better beaches and an even bigger obsession with their maté tea. All of these held true – especially the fact that they never leave the house without their maté.

But who would have thought Uruguay would remind us more of Cuba at times than Argentina! It sure did, though, with thousands of gorgeous vintage cars rolling through the streets like a moving antique car fair or open air automobile museum.

vintage car coloniauruguay classic cars in colonia del sacramentoIn North America in the summer, you’ll often come across vintage car shows, with dedicated owners waxing and relaxing while onlookers admire and consider paying large sums of money to pick up their own vintage car. In Uruguay, the roads themselves are the car show, driven by regular janes and joes who have had these cars in their families for generations.

montevideo vw beetleThere is just something so perfectly fitting about these cars that represents the overall feeling of life in Uruguay – proud, timeworn, defiant, dignified and adorably dilapidated.

uruguay vintage carWhile some cars definitely look used and abused, many are as pristine as in their heyday. There is a sense of nostalgia overload with these gorgeous old-timers parked along the streets of villages that also appear unchanged since the cars first pulled up back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

uruguay classic car colonia del sacramentoIt was during this era that Uruguay experienced a major economic upturn, exporting beef and wheat to sustain Europe throughout both World Wars. With money lining their pockets, Uruguayans proudly began opting for more expensive imported cars, and not just for special ocassions or the very rich. Imported Rolls Royces and Bugattis were even used to make deliveries or left to rust on the side of the road in favor of the latest model.

uruguay classic carThat is, until the economy completely crashed in the 1960s and car imports stopped almost entirely. Uruguayans maintained their love of cars and began preserving their cars to last for decades, and even have a special word for these cars now – ‘cachilas’.

vintage car n uruguayThese cachilas have been passed on to sons and daughters, who passed them on to their sons and daughters, many of whom are still driving them around today. Those cars that don’t run are often still shown love, re-purposed as artistic displays, like many of the cars we saw in Colonia del Sacramento.

uruguay vintage opelIn particular we loved the two classic cars parked in front of the El Drugstore restaurant: a 1930s Citroën sprouting trees and flowers and a 1920s Ford Model T, which has been remodeled into a dining car, for diners to eat at a little table inside the car.

uruguay vintage Citroen Traction Avant with treeuruguay Citroen Traction Avant colonia de sacramentouruguay ford model a dining car coloniaIt didn’t take long for word to get out about Uruguay’s vintage vehicles and in the 1970s, collectors from as far as Japan, Europe and North America flocked to Uruguay looking for rare models at much lower prices.

uruguay vintage car coloniaThe cars of Uruguay, while vintage, can not really be considered antiques. These are living, breathing automobiles that have been consistently in use for over 60 years now. Antique might however be a word used to describe the mechanics who so lovingly restore them. Essentially car historians themselves, the older generation of mechanics have been pouring their hearts in the cars of Uruguay for decades.

vintage car uruguayThe mechanics teach the younger generations the steps to repair the cars, but swear that only the older mechanics can truly keep the vintage cars in tact. Possibly a case of intertwined souls of the cars and the mechanics who have so long loved them?

uruguay vintage ford truckVintage cars have a very special place for everyone in the country, so much so that they are declared by the government to be ‘historic patrimony’. What this means is that a permit from the Commission on Historic Patrimony is required before a car can be shipped abroad that was manufactured before 1940.

montevideo vw beetle greenThis assures that the streets of Uruguay can continue to hark back to the golden era and its car culture for decades to come.

uruguay vintage army jeep_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

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