vacation

Top 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth #8: Nicaragua

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:

Top 10 Most Amazing Places #8: Nicaragua

I first visited Nicaragua when I was 12 years old on an international volunteer trip with Bridges to Community. We went as a family, and before leaving, my mom made sure to tell us that we would have to use outhouses, we would eat rice and beans for every meal, and tarantulas and scorpions would be hiding in every dark corner. We cried and begged to go to Disneyland instead, but my parents thought it would be better to expose us to a lifestyle so different from Westchester, New York.

Some of the many cute kids in the villages.

Little did I know that that 8 day trip would change my life forever. I went back 9 more times (four of those times were trips I organized with my college) to help build schools, wells, orphanages and homes. It’s the reason why I went on to volunteer in Mozambique and Kenya.

Our first trip was to Bajo De Los Ramirez. You can only visit this town during the dry season because the “roads” were all dried up river beds. We were the first white people they had ever seen, and I remember the kids kept running up to touch my skin, and then would scream and run away laughing. When we arrived the whole town got together to greet us and sing and dance for us. I even got to use some of my 7th grade Spanish to introduce myself, “Me IIamo Tracy. Soy de Ustados Unidos. Muchos Gustos!”

Yummy!

We slept on the floor of a church and in the morning pigs would come in and wake us up by licking our faces. We bathed by getting a bucket from the well and taking it to a makeshift shower that was obviously made by men because the plastic wrap only went up to our belly buttons. It didn’t help that it was downhill and the only road was at the top of the hill. I’ll never forget when my sister was taking a shower and a bus full of men drove by and they all started cheering and hanging out the window to get a better look. She made their day!

We spent most of our time building a brick school house, and taking the first census the town had ever had. I think I was the only kid in my middle school who came back from Spring Break knowing how to lay brick!

Me and my beautiful brick wall. Unfortunately I was going through a chubby, awkward phase.

On our last day, the villagers roasted a giant pig for us. It was a startling experience for me because I had just started eating meat after being a vegetarian for 5 years, and now I was eating something that was oinking at me a few hours prior. However, the taste quickly overwhelmed my conscience.

If you go to Nicaragua, you must visit Lake Nicaragua. There is an island for every day of the year, and each island has something unique. One island we swam to was inhabited by wild monkeys. There was no way to get on the island so we just floated around in the water. The monkeys thought we looked funny so they hung from the tree branches and bobbed our heads like it was a game of whack-a-mole (and we were the moles). Eventually we had to leave once the moneys started throwing coconuts at us.

Beautiful Volcano Masaya.

Volcano Masaya is also a must see. There’s a constant haze of sulfuric gases coming out of the imploded crater. It is active, so you need to be carefull. If you climb to the top of the hill there’s an enormous cross because early settlers thought this was the mouth of hell. I saw a porcupine up there!

The cloud forest.

 

And if you have time, take a hike in the cloud forest. It’s so high up you walk through the clouds, and everything gets soaked because of the condensation. This moisture makes for some of the lushest greenery I’ve ever seen. The car ride to the trail is horrifying – they use left over Soviet Union hummers, and they can hardly handle the steep incline and the slippery mud. There’s nothing like watching the car in front of you sliding back towards you. But at least there’s a great view of the coffee fields to distract you from the many near-death moments.

The mural we painted!

And if you have extra time, you should definitely visit the Museum of Archaeology in Ticuantepe! There you can see the mural my classmates and I painted!

On one trip, when we went on a walk through the jungle, I was bitten by a poisonous ant and went into Anaphylactic shock. They gave me three Epi-pens but nothing was working. Through my convulsions I begged the team leader not to bring me to the emergency clinic because I was afraid if my parents found out they would never let me go back to Nicaragua. Yep, that’s how much I love the place.

Eventually my tongue swelled up to the point where I could hardly breath anymore, and they took me to the clinic. It’s a good thing because the doctor said the skin on my ears almost split open! If anyone’s ever seen Hitch, I was twice as swollen as Will Smith after he eats the shellfish. But I’d still do it all over again!

The Old Cathedral

Nicaragua’s one of the friendliest places I’ve ever visited, and it has all the natural beauty of Costa Rica except for half the cost! For some Spanish culture, you can visit Granada. Or for military history, visit the old, national prison where you can still see the blood stains on the walls. Or for some local flavor, visit one of the many market places, and hire one of the young boys to help you. It will only cost about a dollar, and he’ll be one of your best tour guides! No matter what you like to see when you travel, Nicaragua has a taste of everything.

Top 10 Most Amzing Places on Earth: Portugal

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:

Top 10 Most Amazing Places: #6 Portugal

This is a full color picture taken after lunch. I love the spooky quality!

I went here with my brother and parents about 6 years ago. I had made plans to live in Mozambique for the year (a former Portugal colony) and we thought it would be cool to hear some Portuguese and visit a country that I rarely hear about. Originally we were supposed to travel all around Portugal and Spain, but my brother got sick so we had to limit ourselves to a hundred mile radius of Lisbon.

One of the coolest things about Lisbon in the winter is that it’s foggy until about 1pm, so it felt like we were in a haunted dream scape every morning. I kept expecting to see Macbeth with his skull lurking around each corner.

This giant fake christmas tree lights up at night! I think it was the tallest structure in the city.

Another cool thing, they have the world’s largest fake tree in the city center. You can always see it peeking up above the fog. Oh wait! There’s a third cool thing: there’s amazing graffiti everywhere. We even found a tag that looked like my brother!

Rye next to his doppleganger

 

 

 

The seafood was incredible in Lisbon and I highly suggest eating in the old city in a tiny cafe with tables out on the stone stairs. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant but if you’re ever in Lisbon just follow the sent of amazing food and you’ll find it. We ate there three nights in a row and were never disappointed. If you don’t want to go all the way to Lisbon you can try out the restaurant my sister manages! Aldea is an amazing Michelin star, nouveau-Portuguese restaurant in the flatiron distract of Manhattan. I just ate there the other night and was blown away by the creativity and flavors of each dish. This is a restaurant for true food enthusiasts.

Anyways, back to Portugal. Since we had to come up with a new itinerary, each of us took turns reading the guide book and planing a day trip. I think my trip won. And I’m only saying this because when we got off the bus in Sintra my parents looked at me like I was crazy for taking them to a deserted village. But as soon as we walked through the gates a fairytale land opened up before our eyes. Booyah!

Quinta da Regaleira

Back in college I took a history of architecture class, and I never get to use this vocabulary in every day conversation so please indulge me for a moment. Sintra’s castles seamlessly blend Romanesque and Gothic architecture with hints of Arabic pattern and design. Sinuous columns detailed with delicate stone tracery gave the castles a weightless, ethereal quality, which was only heighten by dark, lush forest and mountains in the distance. The pastel hues of ancient homes made where straight out of a children’s book. If Beauty and the Beast were to take place anywhere it would be Sintra.

We spent most of the day in the Quinta da Regaleira. This castle is surrounded by the most amazing gardens, grottoes and waterfalls.  We walked along a stone path (through a lake), behind a waterfall, through a tunnel, and then looked up and realized we were inside a stone well. Fortunately it had dried out years ago. All you could hear was the trickle of water and the buzz of a hummingbird. It was truly magical.

The path to the waterfall

And as if that weren’t enough, there were peacocks walking around! It’s like they asked a little girl what she would want her fairy kingdom to look like and then they made Sintra based off her every whim. Oh and I mustn’t forget, there were also horse drawn carriages, and ancient Greek ruins. No wonder Sintra was named a Unesco Wolrd Heritage site. When in doubt, always visit the Unesco sites!

Living it up in Stauton, VA

This past weekend I took a HeSo rejuvenating trip to Virginia. I have found that taking off a long weekend to go some place relaxing can do more to revitalize you than a full week off. I’ve always been the type who likes to make the most out of vacations. I would save up, and take a few weeks off. I would spend more time planning the vacation than the actual vacation. And once I arrived in a new place, I would feel the pressure to see and do everything. Doesn’t sound much like a vacation to me.

Now I’m realizing it’s much nicer to split vacation time into lots of min-vacations. For one, it’s cheaper and easier to plan. Also, just going to a quiet place, that doesn’t have many tourist attractions let’s you enjoy the long leisurely lunches, the aimless walks, and the window shopping without feeling like you’re missing something.

Staunton, Virginia

This was the perfect trip. On Friday afternoon, we borrowed my parents car (thanks!) and drove to Arlington, VA, to visit my dear friend, Sarah and her awesome boyfriend, Ryan. The next day we drove to Staunton, VA. The ride was beautiful; purple mountains, roaming cows, red barns – what more can you ask for?

The actually town is ADORABLE. We had a tally going for how many times we used the word cute, but I forgot after 100. They had the little local coffee shop, a chocolate store, an ice cream shop, a book store, antique shops and historic mansions. It felt like we were inside a snow globe. The people were beyond friendly, and everything was so clean, and, well, cute.

On Saturday night we went to the Blackfriar’s Playhouse and saw ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. The theater was stunning and it’s the only re-creation of the Shakespeare’s original indoor theatre. It was worth it just to see the intricate wood moldings and marble inlays. They also served wine during the show and sang during the intermission, making the whole theater experience fun and approachable.

The rustic living room

The Hummingbird Inn

After the play, we went to our bed and breakfast called the Hummingbird Inn, about a 30 minute drive from Stauton. Again, the place was real cute. It belongs in Country Living magazine. What made it even more special was that we got matching robes (I’ve always wanted to wear matching robes)! The owners were beyond friendly and we felt instantly at home. There are only 5 rooms in the inn, so it’s pretty hard to get a reservation (I made mine in April). The only drawback about this inn is that it’s near train tracks so we heard it pass a few times at night, but I was so in love with the place that I ended up finding even the train to be charming.

Wade's Mill

The next morning, after a huge country breakfast, we went to the Goshen river and skipped stones, and then the Wade’s Mill and toured a 140 year old flour mill that’s still working. As I write, I’m eating the bread I made from their flour and it’s extra tasty! Next up, we went for a wine tasting at Rockbridge Vineyard. Although this wasn’t the best wine we ever had, it was the nicest tasting I ever went to. Besides for being completely free, they had lots of snacks and they let us taste 12 wines. No kidding.

Back in Stauton, we visited a glass blowing factory, and watched an expert making glass ornaments with young kids. I was super jealous of the kids but they had reservations and we didn’t. If you’re ever visiting this town make sure you sign up ahead to make your own ornament.

Then we had one of those amazing meals that we’ll never forget at Zynodoa. This restaurant sourced most of its food from Polyface farm, which was featured in Ominvore’s Dilemma. If you haven’t read this book yet, just click on this link and read it already. It will change the way you look at food I promise. We started with the Chicken liver mousse. And yes it grossed me out to order this, but it was incredible, and when we ran out of bread to spread it on, we were too impatient to wait for the waiter, so we ate it up with a spoon. Mike licked clean every utensil that touched the mousse – including the knife. Next, I had the scallops on a bed of risotto grits and collard greens, and Mike had some crazy pork concoction. SOOO good.

The next day we left our beautiful inn and started the long drive home – 7.5 hours. It was great to take some days off to experience a different lifestyle and appreciate the simpler things in life, such as soft bed sheets, rolling hills, and stone ground flour. The beauty of the small trip was that when I came back I wasn’t so vacationed out that I couldn’t get back to work. I was refreshed and eager to get back to work on the HeSo Project. If you’re feeling  a little run down take Friday and Monday off and pamper yourself. LivingSocial has great deals for weekend getaways.