• Visas for American Travelers

    Travel Logistics: Visas for American Travelers

    Which countries require visas for American travelers? Our experience acquiring our Brazilian visas. Plan ahead!

  • Lake Yojoa, Honduras

    #SibTrip in Tela, Honduras

    SibTrip is happening and we're heading to Honduras and Lake Yojoa for an adventure and relaxation.

  • Travel Resolutions for 2015

    New Year’s Travel Resolutions

    Travel resolutions for a great 2015 + reflecting on lessons learned in 2014.

  • Iguazu Falls, Brazil

    2015: Travel on the Horizon

    2015 is officially underway and we have some fun destinations on the horizon!

  • New Year in Anguilla

    Best Wishes for 2015!

    Best wishes for 2015 - cheers, friends!

Visas for American Travelers

Our Brazilian Visa Wake-Up Call

If you follow me on Instagram, you may remember the post below:

Brazilian Visa for US Citizens

Yeah, not so fast. Many people who hadn’t visited Brazil (or hadn’t looked into it) didn’t realize that Americans even need visas to enter the country legally. You do, and they can’t be handled at the border. $160 per visa in the form of a money order, plus a visa application that needs to be filled out and submitted online, plus an appointment at the embassy to get everything processed.

Scott and I scheduled a visit to the Embassy of Brazil in New York during our time in NYC in December. Documents in hand and freshly printed passport photos prepped, we approached the window, anxiously awaiting the visa processing. Visa processes are handled differently around the world: some don’t require visas at all, some allow visitors to acquire a visa upon entry to the country for a fee (this was the case in Jordan, Kenya, Turkey, etc.), some allow an eVisa process, some require a visa in advance that can be processed same day, and some take a much longer time to process. Apparently Brazilian visas take a while to process.

I’ll be honest, Scott and I felt like novice travelers sitting there with the representative as she explained that no, we wouldn’t get the visas the same day, and that yes, we would have to leave our passports at the embassy for roughly three weeks for the visas to get processed.

THREE WEEKS?! Lady, we’re going to Brazil on an eight day vacation, I’m not trying to open a business there! Though we already understood this factoid, she explained to us that the visa requirement for entering Brazil as an American is a show of reciprocity. Brazilians are required to acquire visas before entering the United States and the cost is — you guessed it! — $160. For other nationalities, the visa fee is significantly lower, if it’s required at all.

Well, shoot. What now? She suggested we follow up with the embassy in Miami which would likely be the location we’d go through as residents of Anguilla. This was our biggest conundrum: we live on an island wherein any real movement requires a passport. If we go to neighboring St. Maarten to pick up supplies – a mere 20 minutes away – we need a passport. If we had to actually go to Miami to process a visa, we’d have to stay in Miami until the visa was processed since we couldn’t actually return home without a passport. 5 – 10 or more days in Miami to get a visa to go to a place for 8 days?! None of this made sense.

I spoke with the team in Miami. Mailing in our passports wasn’t an option; we’d have to be present – us, not a third party – to ensure the visas could be processed. After explaining this, they also informed us that as residents of Anguilla, we’d probably fall under Barbados’ jurisdiction.

Score. This was turning into quite the run around but I was finally getting somewhere.  

After reading Barbados’ rather convoluted website and trying to figure out this process, it was clear that residents of Anguilla would fall under Barbados’ umbrella, and that we could, in fact, send our passports in as part of a ‘third party’ option. Instead of the $160 per person, the price would be $201.02 per person, but that additional $40 was a heck of a lot cheaper than a flight to Miami or Barbados.

So, with applications filled out, money orders processed, passport photos taken, bank statements produced (they require this to show that you can sustain yourself while in country), and original documents gathered, we FedEx’d our most prized possessions – our passports – to Barbados for processing (a $90 FedEx fee, mind you, for some lightweight docs to be shipped to the Southern Caribbean). So, $500 later, we’re thisclose to finally having our Brazilian visas. On the bright side, these visas should be good for a 10-year period which means there’s a fair likelihood that we’ll be visiting Brazil again within the next decade (gotta make these visas worth it!).

Moral of the story: know the legal requirements for entering a country when you’re planning a trip, and do not underestimate the time it will take to get everything processed. Scott and I have done a fair bit of international traveling and have dealt with visa issues before (in a number of capacities), and we felt like utter amateurs this time around because we took for granted our status as American citizens. We tend to think that with a US passport, we can easily be granted access to any country by flashing our photos and putting down a few dollars for an entry stamp. Not always, guys!

Do you need a visa?

Planning an upcoming international trip? If you’re traveling within North America or to Europe or South America, you’re probably okay for the most part (there are a few exceptions, like ours). If you’re traveling to Asia, the Middle East or Africa, there’s a decent likelihood that you’ll need to secure a visa, either in advance or at the border. The following countries require visas for American travelers, to be acquired in advance (this list is ever-evolving and is probably not inclusive of all countries, though it represents the majority). Some smaller territories require documentation of their own to enter legally (e.g. places like Crimea):

  • Afghanistan
  • Algeria
  • Angola
  • Australia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Belarus
  • Benin
  • Bhutan (special travel requirements)
  • Brazil
  • Cameroon
  • Central African Republic
  • Chad
  • China
  • DRC
  • Congo
  • Cuba (special travel requirements)
  • Eritrea
  • Gabon
  • Ghana
  • Guinea
  • Iran (special travel requirements)
  • Iraq
  • India
  • Libera
  • Libya
  • Mozambique
  • Myanmar
  • Nauru
  • Niger
  • Nigeria
  • North Korea (special travel requirements)
  • Pakistan
  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Sierra Leone
  • South Sudan
  • Sudan
  • Syria
  • Tibet (special travel requirements)
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Vietnam
  • Yemen

Have you run into any visa issues in your travels? Have you ever been turned away at the border? 

Shannon Kircher

Lake Yojoa, Honduras

What, you haven’t heard of Tela?

I hadn’t either. In fact, when it came to planning our first annual #SibTrip, we evaluated a slew of options including Nicaragua, Mexico, Costa Rica, the Cayman Islands and Colombia, and never once did Honduras really come to mind. Beyond Roatan, it’s not exactly on most people’s radar for a vacation destination. Costa Rica has taken the lead on Central American getaways, followed closely by Belize, but the remainder of Central America’s destinations are largely considered too dangerous or too poorly developed to be worthy of the annual vacation splurge.

What’s #SibTrip?

#SibTrip

Let’s backtrack here. First, what’s #SibTrip? It’s a new tradition-in-waiting that we hope to kick off this year with our inaugural getaway. SibTrip is short for Sibling Trip, a trip that involves Scott, myself, and our siblings (both younger, both same-sex siblings). There’s this thing that happens as you get older: you begin forging your own path, moving forward with your own career, living in a new city (or country!), and generally building your own life and your own family. While life is happening, we sometimes forget to nurture important family relationships and keep up to speed with our siblings. Scott and I are generally fairly good about staying in touch with our siblings but we really get very little quality time to bond; to find out what’s really happening in each other’s lives. This trip – hopefully an annual  getaway – was proposed to do just that; to provide us with one unadulterated week of bonding, of relaxing and of making memories together in new locales. We’ll democratically pick a new location each year – preferably a location that none of us have been to, and preferably a location that makes sense for everyone in terms of travel time (i.e. a somewhat central point).

Here’s the kicker with our sibling trip: it was dreamed up as a way to spend time with our siblings, not as an excuse for a romantic week together. This means that my sister and I share a room, and Scott and his brother share a room. I’m not sure how it works from a guy’s perspective, but some of the best conversations I’ve had with my sister are hanging out before bed, in pajamas, being real, and laughing until our stomachs hurt. For those interested in starting a SibTrip of their own, I’m happy to share other details with you (like what you do when a sibling wants to bring a significant other in the future; naturally, we’ve discussed this and have put rules and regs in place). Read More

Travel Resolutions for 2015

In general, I’ve gotten away from making lofty New Year’s resolutions since they tend to be rather fruitless and generally unattainable aspirations (e.g. I’m going to begin juicing, or I’m going to buy fewer shoes, etc.). Somehow I do feel okay making travel resolutions though since those goals can be wrapped into my bucket list and trip planning. My travel resolutions for 2015:

To enjoy the moment

Travel Resolutions

1This one’s easier said that done, and chatting with fellow travelers during our time in Israel made me realize that this is something many people struggle with (it’s not just me!). I’ve had this nasty tendency to be in the middle of a trip, thinking about our next trip or the next destination that I’d like to see instead of truly savoring every moment of the present. I tried to live in the present during our time in the Middle East, taking in the little things that make trips memorable. This year, I’m vowing to truly do that with each trip we’re on: to remember the color of the sunsets, the smell of a new place, the taste of a local drink, and the sensation and exhilaration of seeing a new place – all of that, without comparing it to another destination or daydreaming about our next getaway.

To truly disconnect

Travel Resolutions

2I struggle with this, as I’m sure many millennials do. We grew up in a hyper-connected generation. There’s wifi everywhere, and we have our email and social channels at our fingertips with our iPhones in hand. Our recent trip to New York in December was actually one of the first trips that I’ve been on where I didn’t feel the need to check my email incessantly or be totally connected to the world. I was too engulfed with enjoying my surroundings and making memories with friends, which is precisely what every trip should bring. I know I won’t be able to do this on every trip, but my hope is that our week in Honduras with our siblings (#SibTrip) will bring a week of real peace and a chance to disconnect with technology + reconnect with each other.

To travel light

Carry-on Only

3You all know how much I struggle with this! No matter how many trips we go on and how much I tell myself that I need to pack light, I always overpack. I’m telling myself that this year will be different. It will be the year of the carry-on, and I will master the art of mixing and matching, and finally learn that it’s okay to not pack ‘what if’ outfits.

To use points… wisely

Flight tickets

42014 was the year of accruing points and 2015 will be the year of masterfully using points. We’ve accrued points on American Airlines (for better or worse, our go-to carrier) and on our Chase Sapphire Card, a card that I swear by. Our goal this year is to find ways to maximize our point usage and finally enjoy some of the fruits of our spending! If we’re paying for tickets, I’m hesitant to allow booking a first-class ticket (I’m frugal and I’m proud of it!), but when the point conversion makes sense, it allows us to enjoy a more luxurious experience without breaking the bank. Our first successful usage of points thus far: first class round-trip tickets from St. Maarten to Las Vegas on Copa Airlines for just a touch more than economy.

To do something new & exhilarating in a memorable location

S & I Parasailing over the Med

5Hiking to the Boiling Lake in Dominica, parasailing in Malta, snorkeling in Kenya — all of those things just add an additional, memorable layer to already great trips. This year, I’m vowing to do the same: not just to see a new place, but enjoy a really unique experience, too. Two things on the radar: hang gliding in Rio + snorkeling with whale sharks in Utila, Honduras.

Brush up on foreign language skills

Travel Resolutions

6In Palestine and Jordan, I got to test my hand at Arabic, and in Peru, Scott and I seriously honed our Spanish skills when we were in less touristy areas. Foreign languages are something I so greatly value and admire and something that I wasn’t really raised with despite growing up in a multicultural family. This year, we’re heading to at least one Spanish-speaking location and I’m vowing to refresh my skills and put them to use while we’re traveling. Grandma would be impressed!

Visit a new US city

Belvedere Hotel, NYC

7Last but not least, I don’t want to neglect my own home country. We focus so much on exotic, far-flung locales that we sometimes forget how wonderful the United States is and the great diversity housed within America. We have a new US city on the list, but I’m keeping it under wraps for now… whether or not it comes to fruition, seeing a new great American destination is a must!

Reflecting on 2014: Successes

Petra, Jordan

I do have to say that 2014 brought a major improvement for me on one front: generally speaking, I stopped comparing. Especially with the prevalence of social media and the associated need to share all of life’s highlights (and none of life’s obstacles), I think we all have a tendency to compare our lives to others. We see snapshots from other people’s seemingly glamorous lives: securing a great apartment in a big city, picture-perfect vacations on a far-flung island, getting a promotion, having children, etc. and we can’t help but compare our own lives to those snapshots: why can’t we live in NYC? Why can’t we have family reunions in Italy? Why can’t I get this dream job that my friend managed to secure? Why can’t we do all of these great things that our friends are doing?

I felt a lot of that for a long time (as we all do), but 2014 brought a huge change for me on that front. It was the first full year that I can totally say that I felt genuinely happy in nearly every facet of life. We have achieved this great work-life balance which perhaps is the key to unlocking bliss. Yes, when we’re at home, we pretty much work seven days a week, and our days are often a bit longer than a typical 9 – 5 gig, but I love what we do and I love where we work. Plus, we have vowed to always have a light at the end of the tunnel; a trip that helps break up life on a tiny island. Yes, living here is beautiful and wonderful, but the key to sanity for us is getting away on a regular basis (every few months or so) to delve into a new adventure for a brief period or enjoy the buzz of a city. I’m entering this year greatly looking forward to what lies ahead!

What are your resolutions for 2015?

Shannon Kircher

Iguazu Falls, Brazil

2014 brought some incredible adventures for us; a rather unbeatable year by most standards with a number of bucket list trips wrapped into some great experiences. While 2015 may not include as many getaways, it’s a year that will be filled with some seriously special celebrations as we ring in a number of milestone birthdays with family. Naturally, this list is ever-growing and ever-evolving, but here’s the line up we’re looking forward to, including many places that I’ve never visited before. If you’ve ventured to any of these destinations, I’d love thoughts on hidden gems, great restaurants, and highlights!

A long weekend in Puerto Rico

Old San Juan

Photo courtesy of Kevin Owens via Creative Commons

1Our first trip of the year is actually a work-related rendezvous in Puerto Rico for the annual CHTA Marketplace Event taking place on the island. This will be my first time in PR, and I’m looking forward to exploring a bit of what San Juan has to offer. It’s a super quick flight from our home in Anguilla but offers a stark contrast to what island life in AXA brings. 

#SibTrip: Honduras

Tela, Honduras

Photo courtesy of Dave C. via Creative Commons

2While this isn’t set in stone quite yet, we’re currently working on a getaway that I’ve dubbed SibTrip, a sibling trip that involves Scott, myself, and our siblings. We came to the realization this year that it had been far too long since we’d really had quality time with our respective siblings. This year we’ve decided to kick off an annual getaway with our inaugural #SibTrip during the spring for a five-day escape in Tela, Honduras at the Indura Resort for a mix of adventure and R&R. This will mark my first time back in Central America in a decade (last time I was in El Salvador visiting family).

Scott’s 30th in Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Photo courtesy of Rubem Porto Jr. via Creative Commons

3The first of a series of milestone birthday celebrations, we’re heading to Igussu Falls and Rio for a fabulous birthday extravaganza during the last part of May and early part of June (which, coincidentally crosses through my birthday, too). We’ll have a few days in Iguassu Falls, exploring primarily from the Brazilian side before heading to Rio for the remainder of the trip. For others interested in traveling to Brazil, do know that Americans need tourist visas, a fact that many people don’t realize since Americans typically travel pretty freely around the globe. Visas must be secured in advance ($160 each). I’ll share our mishap on the visa front in a forthcoming post!

Grandma’s 90th in Las Vegas

Vegas

4We’re swapping out the requisite wild and crazy 21st birthday bash for a wild and crazy 90th birthday bash in Sin City this year. In the Adventures of Scott & Shannon, Vegas has been a staple. We’ve been nearly every year since we started dating and always have such a blast. It’s one of those cities where anything is possible; your experience can truly be whatever you choose which is precisely why we chose it for grandma’s bash. With a few dozen people potentially coming in for the event (including family from El Salvador!), there are opportunities for sunning, spa days, gambling, nightlife, great dining, and awesome shows. Viva Las Vegas!

Cultural Immersion in China

Shangri-La, Yunnan Province China

5After Vegas, we’re taking a couple of weeks away to enjoy a completely different experience: CHINA. I’ve never been to Asia so this is a pretty exciting first for me, and will mark the 5th continent that Scott and I have visited together. The closest I’ve come is the Middle East, and while that may technically fall within the scope of the Asian continent, the culture is distinctly different. While we’ve brainstormed about a thousand incarnations of this trip, we’ve turned our focus away from the glitz and glam of some of the bigger cities (e.g. Hong Kong and Shanghai) and moved towards a more raw experience in the Yunnan Province. We’ll be kickstarting our trip with three days in Beijing before heading to Shangri-La and exploring the country’s most diverse region (both geographically and culturally). We’re still finalizing our itinerary for Yunnan (we’ve toyed with going to Tibet, too) but I’m extra excited for my first run-in with the Middle Kingdom.

I’m looking forward to a pretty incredible and insanely diverse year of travel, and am especially excited to experience some great new destinations with family. Nothing’s better than making those memories!

What highlights on your agenda for 2015?

Shannon Kircher

Cover photo courtesy of SF Brit via Creative Commons

New Year in Anguilla

I have a series of posts forthcoming on the destinations we have in store for 2015 plus travel resolutions along with some hot spot predictions for the coming year but I wanted to take the first day of the year to wish everyone a fun, fabulous, and travel-filled 2015. My family has a series of incredible milestones to celebrate this year – a 30th, 60th and 90th birthday! – and I couldn’t be more excited to be spearheading some incredible adventures with great people.

New Years, Straw Hat, Anguilla

From us to you, HAPPY NEW YEAR! What adventures do you have in store this year?

xo from Anguilla,

Shannon Kircher

Tradition Sailing Anguilla

Buying Christmas gifts for parents (or in-laws) is one of the most difficult tasks. After our first year together, Scott and I opted out of buying each other Christmas gifts and instead opted to pick a travel destination together as our gift to each other. We would both far rather collect memories than things, and we’ve extended that idea to birthdays, anniversaries and special holidays.

When it came time to figure out the perfect gift for his parents, we wanted it to be something great; an experience that the whole family could enjoy. Last year, we chartered a plane and headed to St. Barths for the day (a total blast!) and while we considered a reprise of 2013, we decided instead to try something different. His parents had mentioned their desire to try out Tradition Sailing Charters with hosts Deb and Laurie, and we thought this was the perfect occasion to give it a whirl. (You can read about our first time on Tradition here.)

Tradition Sailing Charters, AnguillacrewTradition Sailing Charters, Anguilla

Tradition is a traditional West Indian sloop that was built on the island of Carriacou. During this trip, we were lucky enough to meet Norman, the man behind the boat. Decades ago, Norman and his father built the boat by hand, without equipment, hauling pieces of wood and slicing metal with a handsaw to get this vessel to come together. It’s an incredible example of artistry and workmanship, and to see Norman masterfully working Tradition was an absolute highlight. Norman visits the Anguilla-based team to add his expertise on the maintenance front, and to see him taking the reigns is a pretty cool sight.

norman Read More

Top 10 Travel Moments of 2014

It’s been another amazing year of memories and it’s difficult to believe that 2014 is coming to a close so quickly. As someone who holds down a full-time gig (with a few part-time gigs sprinkled in), I would say that our year of travel was a rather exceptional one, with some really incredible opportunities to see some bucket list destinations. It’s pretty hard to rank experiences as they’re all different and offer fulfillment in different ways, but this list represents my best attempt.

So, for the 2014 year, my Top 10 Travel Moments:

Celebrating 1 Year in St. John, USVI

St John, USVI

10St. John was a rather impromptu trip planned by yours truly in an attempt to surprise Scott for our one-year anniversary. The surprise actually worked (yay!) and we had a brilliant four-day getaway in the USVI. St. John was lovely, a pleasant mix of Caribbean and American, but the most memorable day was our day-trip to Jost Van Dyke in the BVIs. Read about our trip to St. John here.

24 Hours Gallivanting around Paris

Eiffel Tower, Paris

9It’s amazing how a single day in Paris can be a wonderful enough memory to stand out in a great set of travel experiences. It’s true, there’s something about Paris that’s utterly magical. Luckily Scott and I had been to Paris before (independently) so we were able to enjoy our day there rather than rushing around from sight to sight. Definitely a beautifully romantic city, and a reminder that we must get back for a longer stint! Read about our day in Paris here.

A Wedding-Filled West Coast Adventure

Santa Barbara, CA

8Oh, California. For so many people this is a #1 travel experience but we’re a bit jaded since we’re from the Golden State. Going back was a major reminder for us though that California, despite being ‘home’ is a pretty amazing place. To top off the fact that our West Coast trip took us to Santa Barbara (stunning) to Vegas (always a blast) and San Francisco (one of the world’s best cities), the icing was watching family and friends tie the knot. Read more about our West Coast trip here.

A Pre-Christmas City Fix in NYC

Belvedere Hotel, NYC

7We just returned from NYC for a pre-holiday getaway, giving us our fix of winter weather, holiday shopping, anonymity, delicious dining, plus an opportunity to catch up with friends. I’ll be honest: I’ve long taken New York for granted, not because I’m from there (I’m not), but because it’s a US city. Somehow visiting London, Paris, Rome, etc. seems so much more exotic and glamorous but being in New York was a great reminder that NYC really is fairly unique in the global landscape. There are a few other cities in the world that may be able to compete but it really is the ultimate city fix, and a great contrast to island life. Read More

Dominus Flevit, Israel

My wrap up for our Israel trip is finally coming to a close and I have so much more to share about our holiday trip to New York and some upcoming adventures that I’m really excited to experience. I would be remiss to not touch on one final topic though, one that struck me early on during our time in Israel, and one that I knew I had to share: media vs. reality on the ground when it comes to visiting Israel (and the West Bank and Jordan, for that matter).

Hebron, Cave of the Patriarchs

When we were gearing up for this trip, there was one common sentiment expressed by friends and family before our departure: be safe.

Had we been jetting off to Paris or to the Amalfi Coast, we would have likely heard things like, “Amazing, enjoy!” or “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go there, have fun!” This trip was different, though. Not one person said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go there!” Instead, most people said, “Now? Why?” Or, from supportive friends and family who still thought our actions were a bit questionable, we’d hear the universally shared sentiment: be safe. I’m sure people genuinely hoped that we would have fun but what people felt and shared was a deep-seated concern for our safety in the region. Be safe as you go to the Middle East, an area that the media has told us is replete with terrorism, human rights violations and a million other soul-draining realities. None of that was said, of course, but mainstream media would lead us to believe that these are realistic concerns on the ground as travelers.

I get it. I really do, because none of us are really immune to that feeling; that concern over venturing into unknown territory where linguistic and cultural barriers exist. I still have those feelings when I hear about my LSE comrades traveling to Syria with the UN or doing development work in Afghanistan. I can’t help but think, be safe.

Here’s the reality though – and it’s really not a shocker as we all know how the media loves to sensationalize stories – we never really felt unsafe. There were two occasions that I will say we felt a touch of tension: during our time in Hebron, a hotbed for conflict; and during our time on Temple Mount when there was clearly tension between a large Muslim group on Temple Mount and a Jewish man who entered (he was escorted off the premises by IDF soldiers). Those were the only two moments where I felt a bit more aware of my surroundings and a bit more vigilant. The rest of the time I felt the same that I do visiting any other beautiful, culturally rich locale.

Now, that’s not to say that it’s 100% safe. It’s not, as most large cities in general are not completely safe. Temple Mount was closed the day after we visited due to tension and a shooting that happened in relatively close proximity, and we heard about the saddening murder that happened in a synagogue after our return to the US. That being said, those two events got a fair bit of publicity both within Israel and internationally. And yes, those are horrible incidents; I will never downplay the significance and sadness of either. Let’s ask ourselves though: how much crime is there in Chicago? NYC? Los Angeles? Are we honestly that concerned for safety when we visit any of those cities?

We hear major concerns, like news of the Gaza War this past summer, and can’t help but extrapolate. If there is this great loss of life in Gaza, then Israel is broadly unsafe, and naturally the West Bank is even less safe since it’s Gaza’s weirdly distant sister.

The Reality

Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem

The reality is that the majority of Israel is totally safe (I mean, their military is insanely strong which is worth keeping in mind) and that you won’t walk down streets looking over your shoulder.  Instead, you’re likely to be visiting a hip Jerusalemite restaurant, shooting the breeze with some gorgeous young Israeli who is serving you local spirits from behind the bar and encouraging you to join in on the round of Arak shots (gross, by the way). You’ll navigate the Old City’s narrow streets, sipping freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and slowing your pace to accommodate a cane-wielding older Palestinian who negotiates cobblestone steps with utter mastery. You’ll visit a shop, pop in for a brief moment, only to find that you’re sitting there with a cup of Turkish coffee having a conversation with a shopkeeper in broken Arabic.  You’ll gobble up so much homemade hummus and pita that you’ll swear vegetarianism would suit you just fine. You’ll watch the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee and feel like you’re transported to another world where the sun shines so bright and so vibrant that you’ll want to pause it for eternity. Read More

Dome of the Rock

Our experience in Israel was the first time that we opted for a group travel experience vs. a totally independent journey. I typically prefer to craft my own itinerary, prioritize my musts and work on my own schedule. After all, sometimes the most magical moments are unplanned. Being that we were heading to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan where the history is so rich, the culture is so different, and the logistics can be a bit complicated, we opted to experience a fair bit of Israel through tours.

For those that are in the same boat, thinking group travel or day tours may be the better route to go, here are some thoughts and takeaways from two distinct experiences during our time in the Middle East.

Abraham Tours: The Tour for Non-Tour People

Mar Saba Monastery, Judean Desert, West Bank

I can’t speak highly enough about our experiences with Abraham Tours. If you’re not a ‘tour person’, this is the right choice for you if you want a fun, educational experience and are wary about traveling independently in the region. These were half-day and day tours, which meant we woke up early, had breakfast on our own, headed out, and made it back in the afternoon or evening to explore Jerusalem solo. We weren’t tied to a group for the week which meant we could blend independent travel and group tours to build out the ultimate Israel experience. One of the tours was just six or seven people, small enough so that we got to know each other over the course of the day. Even our two-day Jordan tour was only 15 or so people, all of whom we got to know on a first name basis. We interacted with each of our guides and got to hear their stories which made the experiences much more rich. The majority of the travelers we met on these tours were very well-traveled; adventurers looking to experience the culture of the area and see the human face of a place. The tours were much more real, raw and educational than I expected, plus having the logistics handled made it much easier for us to move across borders and checkpoints.

If you can’t afford to hire a private tour guide, this is the way to go. The groups are small enough so you can ask questions and get some great insight, and the tours are very unique, allowing you to see parts of Israel and the West Bank that may seem intimidating to travel to independently. Major thumbs up to these guys – fabulous experience. Read More

Dead Sea, Israel

We said our goodbyes to Northern Israel, eating breakfast while the sun rose over the Sea of Galilee for final morning. We were making our way south, heading to Jerusalem with a number of stops along the way. I was in for a big bucket list experience: testing my buoyancy in the Dead Sea.

Masada

Masada, Israel

Our first stop for the day was Masada, an ancient fortification that sits on top of a rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. Visitors enter at the base and have the option to hike to the top (about an hour) or opt for the quicker, far easier route: the cable car. In truth, I had intentions to climb to the top to sneak in a bit of exercise and get the full Masada experience. We were limited on time though and our group was taking the cable car up so we could tour the compound and hear the story that makes the fortification one of the most popular sites.

Herod was the man behind Masada and it’s no surprise that this compound was his brainchild. After seeing some of his insanely over-the-top buildings strewn about the Israeli landscape, this one fits the bill. Even if you don’t know the story of Masada, you can’t help but be impressed. Workers built what was (and still is) an incredibly complex site on top of an isolated hill-top to act as Herod’s vacation home. All of the tools and supplies had to be carried to the grounds and then other important resources (you know, like water) had to be routed here to make it a functioning space. Herod went so far as to have wines from Italy shipped to Masada (which meant they literally went by boat, then were carried over ground that then up this hill/mountain top to make it to his dinner table). If you’re visiting Masada, what makes it most interesting is its post-Herodian tale. The Cliffs Notes version is essentially this; the Jews who occupied Masada revolted against the Romans. When the Romans (who outnumbered the Jews greatly) finally laid siege on Masada, the Jewish population worked out a lottery system to kill each other off – including women and children – so they wouldn’t be slaughtered by the Romans (the last man committed suicide since he was solo). Legend tells us that they left their foodstuffs in plain sight so that the Romans would know that they chose death, and that it wasn’t forced upon them by lack of resources. It’s said that upwards of 1000 Jews were killed on that day, but archaeologists tell us it was maybe more like 30 people. Regardless, it’s a sad tale that somehow evokes a sense of courage and pride; for most Israelis, it’s viewed as the heroic ‘last stand’. Until recently, Masada was the graduation site for IDF forces who would take that special moment to swear that Masada would never fall again.

Masada Trail, Israel

The trail you’d hike – you can see the hiker making his way down.

Masada Replica, Masada, Israel

Model of Masada

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Many people who visit Masada do it during sunrise, when the weather is crisper and the experience is magical. Abraham Tours offers one of these early morning tours (275 NIS, about $70) and the travelers that I met that had gone through with the 3AM wake-up call were happy they’d gotten up early and done the hike. From the ground the hike looked incredibly steep and intense, but from up above (in the comfort of our cable car), the path actually looked very doable. If you’re going during mid-day, be sure to pack plenty of water as it gets extremely warm by late morning. Read More