If you could travel for a year, where would you go?

One of the #RTW98 series of posts looking back on the ‘round the world trip that inspired the creation of TripTuner 20 years ago. It’s a story of personal growth and change, with impressions of fascinating places and people around the globe. If you’ve ever considered extended travel, taking a sabbatical or gap year or just wondered what it may be like, this is for you.

If you had an entire year to travel anywhere around the world, where would you go?

It’s a wonderfully tantalizing question.  Try it out on yourself or a friend.  Usually, people will reel off a few bucket list destinations or experiences dreamed up over time: see the Grand Canyon, climb Kilimanjaro, search for the Komodo dragon.  Me? I’d like to snorkel with whale sharks in the Seychelles.

Dig deeper and you’ll sense a person’s appetite for adventure, their passions and a glimpse of their worldview – very helpful in today’s polarized society.  I love exploring new places, so it was easy to create a wish list for my jaunt around the globe.  The more foreign, exotic and different they sounded, the better.  Kelimutu? Cool.  Ouagadougou? Sign me up.

Whenever a place caught my attention, I scribbled a star in a pocket-sized Hammond world atlas I kept with me at all times.  With the flip of a page I could jump to anywhere in the world, wherever I was: on my lunch break, before going to sleep or waiting for a flight.

travel, round the world

More potent than a medal or trophy, more permanent than fame or fortune: the enduring memories of an epic journey.

NARROWING THE OPTIONS 

Destination inspiration and info came from late-night forays into the stacks of guidebooks, magazine clippings and maps that turned my home office into a travel war room.  Potential paths were traced, erased and re-drawn in color-coded dry erase markers on a laminated Mercator projection map.

Trying on different themes like the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” helped narrow down the list.  Only one of the seven – the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt – still existed.  So I added some “Natural Wonders” like South America’s Iguassu Falls, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Rough itineraries emerged as I learned more about each place and what it was really like to travel around the world.  I couldn’t just “Google it” — this was way before Tripadvisor and the advent of online travel.

Fortunately, a few friends had done it before.  David suggested traveling in a westerly direction to mitigate jet lag.  Courtney pointed out that I could pack light by routing my journey according to the seasons – seeking the Southern Hemisphere summer during the U.S. winter months and vice versa.

My travel writing teacher and author L. Peat O’Neill prepared me for the trade-offs of extended hard-core, off the beaten path travel.  It would take weeks, even months to traverse South America, Africa or Asia without flying.  But flying would quickly deplete my limited funds.  To circle the globe in a year, I had to allow for long, uncomfortable bus rides.  Something I would grow used to, then abhor as the year progressed.

REALITY CHECK

After a few months I “narrowed” my wish list to some 75 places around the world.  Giddy with excitement, I took the list to a travel agent, Anita.  She quickly set me straight.  Scanning my hand-written list, she shook her head and stopped multiple times to chide “there’s no airport there.”  Which to me meant, “you can’t go there.”  I was crushed.

It was mostly true.  To this day, many of the world’s spectacular locations like Polignano a Mare, Italy are not found on major travel web sites.  Mainly, it’s due to economics.  Not enough demand.

As a result, many fabulous destinations are excluded from the Global Distribution Systems (GDS) that most travel agents and web sites still rely upon for presenting destination options.  My frustration with this reality inspired a core pillar of TripTuner’s value proposition — the ability to show any destination of the world, period.

Sensing my dismay, Anita suggested some of the RTW (round-the-world) itineraries sold by airfare consolidators.  But none came close to my ambitious plan.  Many were regional in focus, like a Circle The Pacific fare.  Others were a random assortment of big city routes (New York – London – Bangkok – Sydney – LA) that were a far cry from my eccentric itinerary.  No single airline could do it, either.

BOOK IT!

To my delight, Anita found an RTW business class ticket with the Star Alliance (which includes United, Lufthansa, Thai and others) for about US$5,800 –  a great deal, even then (check here for current offers).  Given my ever-changing itinerary, it’s no surprise that I bought it just 11 days before my departure.

A travel agent is still a a great resource for booking a complex trip, but nowadays there are helpful online tools like AirTreks that map out actual segments and quote pricing on RTW itineraries.  Before you buy though, remember you can accrue upwards of 35,000 miles for a single RTW ticket – with potentially significant bonuses when booked with an airline or other credit card.

The Star Alliance ticket best matched my patchwork wish list of destinations.  Its flexibility was pretty amazing compared to today’s nonrefundable fares and stiff change fees.  For no fee I extended my hang in Buenos Aires after a mutual friend introduced me to Doug, who let me crash in his plush apartment.  Months later in Africa, a border skirmish forced me to scratch a Lufthansa flight from Asmara, Eritrea, which I changed to Cairo, Egypt for just $75.

My final itinerary included 8 major stops across 5 continents over 11 months.  Heeding Courtney’s advice, my first flight in February from Washington DC took me to Sao Paulo and South America’s summer warmth.  Jet lag was minimal because it flew directly south.

Like many RTW tickets, I couldn’t backtrack.  From South America the only onward intercontinental option was a nonstop Varig flight from Sao Paulo to Johannesburg, South Africa.  So I had to ditch the idea of traveling in a westerly direction to avoid jet lag.

Pro tip: stay loose – your plans will change, whether you like it or not.

South African Airways was not yet part of the Star Alliance, so I had to rely on local carriers to cover immense distances within Africa: Air Namibia to Windhoek; Air Botswana to Maun; Air Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls and on to Lake Kariba.  Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Ababa to Abidjan and back.  Egyptian Airlines and its cattle boarding system (no seat or boarding group numbers) got me to Cairo.  In between there were buses that drag-raced on two-lane roads, Cessna flights into the bush, elephant-dodging pontoon boats and dugout mokoro canoes.  Hey, it’s all about the journey, right?

The Star Alliance ticket kicked back in with the Cairo to Frankfurt flight and a brief culture-shock stop in Europe before heading to Delhi, Bangkok and Bali.  After maxing out my visa over 2 wonderful months in Indonesia, it was on to Sydney, then Auckland and back to DC via LA.

UNKNOWN CERTAINTY

With the most important logistical task checked off, my mind returned to the emotional reality of leaving Ingrid.  Paradoxically, I’d fallen in love with her while simultaneously planning a year long trip.  That’s a long time to be apart, and surely we’d both change during my absence.

We couldn’t control or foresee what would happen.  The unspoken reality was that it would likely be the end of us – we had no delusions about that.  But deep down we both knew I had to do this trip, to pursue this incredible dream.

For our relationship, it was a journey into the unknown.  The odds of us staying together weren’t great, but we were committed to finding a way to make it work.  It was a parallel analogy to the individual journey I was taking.

Thousands of miles would separate us.  But virtually, spiritually, we were together.  Even more paradoxically, knowing that gave me the confidence to go.  As my friend Neil once counseled, “the deeper the roots, the wider the branches.”

We took a metaphorical deep breath, held hands and leapt.

But not without a little insurance…in addition to my ticket, I bought her a round-trip to Sao Paulo for a rendezvous 6 weeks into my trip.

For the time being, another emotional hurdle was cleared.  Turning to more practical concerns, I wondered: how the hell do you pack for an 11-month trip around the world?

Stay tuned.

Why I Quit My Job to Travel Around the World 20 Years Ago.

20 years ago last month, I boarded Varig Flight 855 from Washington Dulles to Sao Paulo on a trip that would change my life forever.  It was the beginning of an epic 11-month adventure around the world, the dream trip of a lifetime that inspired the creation of TripTuner and reinforced a desire to live life on my own terms.  Yet as I boarded that flight, I thought I was making the biggest mistake of my life.

This is the first in a series of #RTW98 posts looking back on that trip: the mechanics and logistics as well as the inner journey, with reflections on how life may have changed in the exotic lands I visited.  Like many journeys it is admittedly #allaboutme – very personal. But if you’ve ever considered traveling around the world or taking a sabbatical, you’ll find inspiration and tips for your own jaunt. If you’ve done it, I welcome you to relive that unique magic with me.

RTW98-1 Grootfontein

Sometimes life presents you with a choice between two diametrically opposed options, both of which are right.

SPARK

Since childhood, I’ve loved to travel.  But the thought of traveling around the world – and quitting my job to do it – never crossed my mind until I experienced the corporate world.  After 6 years in an intense sales job, I was ready for a change. It wasn’t a dream job, but I loved the independence, social aspect and challenge of sales.  Not to mention it was lucrative – it helped me pay off student loans, buy professional DJ gear and visit Europe and the Caribbean every year. The feeling of being debt-free was empowering, sparking thoughts of jumping off the cutthroat corporate treadmill.

While many of my colleagues bought homes or luxury cars – something our managers explicitly encouraged – I saw it as a trap.  I was young, single and not ready to settle down. The thought of a 30 year mortgage was unfathomable for me. I mean, I couldn’t even figure out what I wanted to do in the next 2 years of my life.  But I knew it wasn’t about getting tied down by debt or a materialistic lifestyle.  So after a particularly good year, instead of buying a Porsche I bought a 10 year old Saab, maxed out my 401K and saved the rest.  For what, I wasn’t sure.

What I did know is that I wanted a change and some time off.  Time to figure out on a deeper level what I really wanted out of my life.  Time to see what life was like outside of an all-consuming U.S. corporate culture that occupied not only most of my waking days, but also my mind when I wasn’t working.

Once I was open to the possibility, inspiration flooded in from everywhere: magazine articles, conversations with strangers (like DC taxi drivers) and tips from friends.  My college buddy David was on his own meandering mini-sabbatical at the time.  His legendary email descriptions of the ochre walls of Petra and sunsets on the Bosporus were welcome distractions to my day — rays of light in my grey-walled, grey carpeted cubicle.  His example begged the question: why couldn’t I do the same?

AWAKENING

In retrospect, the decision to go was a natural evolution of changes that were already in motion: a yearning to do something different, more creative and more meaningful beyond making money.  Before going anywhere my mind was already traveling, exploring a richer world of culture and creativity that was previously unseen through my 9 to 5 lens.

A travel-writing course helped me see the world differently, by noticing details and using sensory descriptions to tell a story.  It was a far cry from the logical position papers I’d written as a political science major in college.  It also sparked an interest in writing poetry and in Pablo Neruda, whose memoir further heightened my wanderlust and provided a theme for my travels through South America and his native Chile.

On weekends I DJ’d at Felix, a James Bond themed bar and restaurant in Washington, DC with an international staff.  Rohit, a London mixologist (before that was even a thing) was my supremely positive spiritual guide.  Sidi, a waiter from Mauritania who would sneak away to dance joyously whenever I played Khaled (no, not DJ Khaled); and Tree the entertainingly eccentric Vietnamese sous chef.  Mixing with this international crew conjured heady visions of faraway lands, fueling my wanderlust.

CURVEBALL

Everywhere I turned there were signs encouraging me to go.  On the flip side, there was little reason not to go. I’d saved enough money, had zero debt and had the brash, youthful confidence that I could do anything. Nothing held me back.

Then I met Ingrid.

An accomplished modern dancer, she broadened my artistic interests and drew me in with a calm demeanor that tamed my “always on” corporate mindset in a direction I wanted to go.  It perfectly mimicked the personal transformation I was experiencing. But as we grew closer I didn’t dare mention my grand travel plan for fear of losing her. Why would she waste her time with someone who was about to leave for a year?

After trying to avoid the subject for awhile, the plans for my trip came up over dinner one night. No longer able to contain my enthusiasm, I shared my desire to explore the wonders of the world, solo, for an entire year.  But I also shared my concerns about burning through savings and halting the professional momentum I’d gained.  “But you’ll be a psychological millionaire!” Ingrid exclaimed.  Wow.  Wasn’t expecting that.  Instead of cutting her losses, she actually encouraged me to do it.  She understood its intrinsic value.  “Keeper!” I thought, as in the old Foster’s Beer ad.

Ingrid’s support accelerated my planning and pushed me even closer to taking the plunge.  It lifted a huge emotional weight off my shoulders, and alleviated my concern that it would damage my career.  In the end, one year wasn’t such a big deal.  As a college graduate with 7 years of successful sales experience, I’d be OK.  Right?

FEAR, GO!

On November 15, 1997, Islamic militants seeking to overthrow the Egyptian government killed 70 people (including 60 tourists) outside a temple in Luxor, Egypt.  It occurred just as my plans were taking shape, and brought to the forefront a fear that I hadn’t confronted yet.  The Pyramids of Egypt were on my list, but this was about more than just one destination and unfortunately was not an isolated incident.  I had to face the fact that I would be alone, traveling in remote parts of the world where anything could happen.

The attack prompted friends of mine to share their own cautionary tales. A co-worker recounted the story of his friend who was murdered while traveling to a developing country.  My friend Tom told me about a fellow hotel guest who ignored the front desk’s advice not to go out for a run after dark.  He returned naked.  Even his clothes were taken from him!

Any one of these stories was enough to make me reconsider my plans.  But as noted travel expert Wendy Perrin reminds us, one is statistically more likely to perish from a car crash or drowning in a bathtub than from terrorism.  Such data provides a rational antidote to doubts, but can’t by itself overcome that primal emotion of fear.  In the end, it was a deeply held spiritual belief in positive outcomes that propelled me forward and sustained me on the road.

I decided to go.  With the world as my canvas, I was free to dream up an epic itinerary.  With so many options though, how could I choose where to go?

Next up in the #RTW98 series: crafting the itinerary.

Stay tuned.

Feeling Right at Home on a Minneapolis Business Trip

It was good to be squinting.  The rising August sun beamed off Lake Minnewashta, fragmenting into millions of diamonds around my paddle as a gentle breeze offset the rising temperature.  It’s a business trip, and I’m on a paddleboard.  Sweet, right?

Minnesota, paddleboard, SUP, lake, travel

Experiencing a place like a local resident is a desire for many travelers these days.  Lately, it’s increasingly a key ingredient for business trips as well.  Just look at airbnb’s business travel tagline: “Travel for work, feel at home.” 

On a recent trip to a Minneapolis conference, I rode this trend like Paul Bunyan on Babe the Blue Ox. Here’s how I rolled (in an intentionally non-numeric list, because the world has reached listicle peak):

No Hotels for Homies.  Like most business travelers, I usually stay at hotels.  But for this trip I pulled an “airbnBRO”, staying at my brother’s house about 25 minutes southwest of the Minneapple.  No big deal, right?  We’ve all stayed with family.  But the traditional conference strategy is to stay close to the event so you can gorge on the precious face time (the real, in person kind) that paradoxically eludes us in today’s hyper-connected world.  A growing number of business travelers however, want to a more feel at home.  Nowadays it’s not rare for a team of colleagues to rent a house for a business trip.  Staying at an airbnb – or a bed in my brother’s pinball arcade basement – is increasingly a viable business stay option for those who want to feel at home.  Feel me, Homie?

Early bird get that worm.  This isn’t a new trend but if The Wire’s Marlo Stansfield says it, you better listen up.  Conferences often beget late-night benders, but keeping a disciplined at home routine is key to bringing your A game on the road.  This means carving out time by getting up early to meditate, plan the day, hang upside down – whatever gets you going.  If you’re not a morning person (or binged the night before) it may be tough.  But you’ll feel better afterwards, and will have the rest of your day to maximize your chances for serendipitous meetings like Zappos Founder Tony Hsieh does.

Work Work Work Work Work (out).  Keeping a home routine on the road often means exercising, even if only to help clear your mind.  As an entrepreneur my mornings are often chock full of ideas that gestate overnight.  Multiply that by 10x on a business trip.  I was lucky to be staying where I could get out on the lake by paddleboard or canoe for 20 minutes each morning.  It set the tone for the day and let me reflect on a previous day’s meeting that sparked a new go-to-market strategy.  No lake, you say? Poor soul. Try this 15 minute high intensity routine in your room.  Any time, any place.

Get some culture.  Wherever you go, there’s a local culture to explore.  For me, it was the Minneapolis music scene.  For those who aren’t fans of Prince (BTW what’s wrong with you?) Minneapolis is where he got his start.  The week Prince died, my brother planned to go to one of his many public, come-as-you-are house parties at his home/studio complex in Chanhassen.  I missed out on those but made the pilgrimage to share in the outpouring of love and support shown by the mass of mementos placed in tribute to the Purple One.  It had special significance for me as a fan but also as a former DJ on the station credited with “breaking” Prince, KMOJ-FM (shout out to Q-Bear, Chazz and the crew).  For more culture in Minneapolis, try the Walker Art Center, and if the elevator tries to bring you down…go concert crazy at legendary First Ave, where Prince filmed Purple Rain’s concert scenes.

MInnesota, Paisley Park, Prince, travel

Eat Local Fare.  This is definitely one area where you’ll need to be flexible about breaking from routine.  At home I usually don’t consume much dairy, and have recently explored gluten-free options (even though I’m not celiac – another trend).  Traveling to the milk and grain midwest heartlands forced me to suck it up and eat local fare: bring on the deep-fried salty cheese curds and local walleye fish tacos from Lake Minnetonka!

Take Care of Business.  Oh yeah, that.  The main reason for my trip.  No trend here – your bottom line should always remain first.  Even though I stayed outside of the city and it required more effort, my “feel at home on business travel” approach yielded insightful meetings, creative inspiration and a chance to dip my toes in the local culture.  Plus quality time with my brother and his family.  A win on all fronts! #StayTTuned

 

 

 

Destination Inspiration from the Headlines

Thanks to Arian Zwegers for the photo

Read the news headlines of late and you know that parts of Europe are going through some hard times with budget cuts and austerity programs. Read between those lines, however, and you can be inspired with trip ideas. With the dollar strengthening against the Euro and demand for hotels in those areas softening, now is the time to take that shoulder-season vacation to southern Europe. As such, we’re highlighting our favorite Greek Island, Santorini, as this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday destination.

There have been some sporadic demonstrations in Athens (hey, we have those here too), but Santorini is worlds away from any tension. You’ll feel all of your own tensions melt away when you arrive to this idyllic postcard come to life with its cobalt-blue-topped, white-washed buildings spilling down the hillsides of the crescent-shaped volcanic island. Winding alleyways, public walking paths, hillsides terraced with bushy grapevines and mesmerizing beaches await the traveler. What’s not to love?

Santorini, also known as Thira, is the southern-most island of the Cycladic group of islands located in the Aegean Sea. It’s 63 nautical miles north of Crete, has a population of about 14,000 distributed among 13 villages, and covers 28 square miles. Here are some of our recommendations should you find yourself visiting this light-bathed beauty:

Take a Walk
Our favorite times on the island have involved unscheduled exploration. The six-mile walking path from Fira to Oia, along a ridge that used to be the lip of the volcano, is not to be missed. You’ll follow the path through small villages and churches that practically demand dawdling. If you can time your meanderings to end up in Oia (also known as Ia) at sunset you’ll be rewarded with one of those moments that sears into your memory for years. Just follow the troops of Apollo worshipers to the zigzagged levels of walkways that offer the best viewing spots and watch a red ball of fire descend into the Aegean.

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The Best-Preserved Colonial Town on the Equator

 

Thanks to jrubenek for the photo

We took a few weeks off from the blog posts at TripTuner because we were doing some late summer traveling ourselves, but are now ready and raring to highlight more of the great destinations found on our site. Columbus Day is just a few weeks away, so now’s the time to start planning your trip. In honor of Columbus’ arrival to the new world, we thought we would highlight a destination in Latin America. This week’s locale is one of the most beautiful capital cities in the Spanish-speaking world: Quito, Ecuador.

Folded between green pleats of rolling hills and the Pinchincha volcano, Quito’s setting is spectacular. Terraced plots on the hillside are decorative mosaics above the shiny metropolis. The whitewashed buildings and colonial masterpieces of Old Town give way to expansive parks and modern edifices as you move up the valley. It really is quite staggering to find such natural beauty in a metropolis of about 2.5 million people.

My husband Bryan and I spent weeks on end in Quito while we were researching a guidebook on Ecuador. The town has it all – intriguing museums, excellent hotels, superior shopping opportunities, and unique colonial architecture. You might even find a Columbus Day (know in Ecuador as “Día de la Raza,” or “Day of the People”) parade while you’re there.

Here are some of my highlights of the city:

Old Town – Quito Antigua
There may be a higher concentration of colonial churches and religious art in Quito’s downtown than anywhere else in the world. That, and the fact that many of the buildings have been maintained in the colonial style, led UNESCO to name the entire area a World Heritage Site. I won’t go into detail about all there is to see downtown, but will simply call out some of my favorites. The tranquil Independence Plaza, with its spotless, manicured lawns, is a must-visit. Closed to traffic on two sides, it’s one of the mellower spots downtown. The soaring Gothic and Baroque-influenced Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the oldest in South America, sits on one edge of the plaza, while the Government Palace is on another. Also worth a visit is the San Francisco Monastery – take a look up to the choir area to notice the elaborate Moorish-style ceiling and large organ. The organ, capable of playing over 5000 notes, is only played once a year because the intricate wooden ceiling is made without nails or glue. Should one piece of wood be vibrated loose, the whole thing will fall.

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Supping Your Way through Seattle

 

Thanks to Acradenia for the photo.

TripTuner reached a key company milestone last week when we exhibited at our first trade show in Seattle. What a wonderful place to “have” to visit when most of the country is breaking heat records. We were greeted with perfect 75 degree and sunny weather — just what Seattle’s Convention & Visitors Bureau ordered. We were so taken by our visit that we have decided to feature the city as this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday locale.

We were in town for the Destination Marketing Association International’s 2012 annual convention. Although the convention kept us busy most of the day and into the night, we still managed to delve into some of the city’s flourishing food scene. You might want to check out some of these spots the next time you are planning a trip to the Emerald City.

The event’s opening night celebration took place on the waterfront at Bell Harbor. Located just up the waterfront from foodie Mecca Pike Place Market, Bell Harbor offers stunning views of Elliott Bay, the Olympic Mountains, and the Seattle Skyline. Against this backdrop we were treated to some of the state’s top culinary and viticultural delights. Here are a few standouts:

Dusted Valley Vintners
This Walla Walla winery was the most memorable for us among the many excellent options at the event. The Syrah was smooth and flavorful with a silky finish and the Rosé was perfect for a warm Seattle evening — very similar to a Côtes de Provence. As the Dusted Valley owners say, “The first two glasses are for your health, the second two are for ours.” Let’s just say that the owners should be feeling pretty healthy these days. (Although the winery is located in eastern Washington, they do have a tasting room about 30 minutes northeast of downtown Seattle that would be worth a visit.)

El Gaucho
After treating our palates to an array of fine cheeses and slurping away at the oyster bar, we were looking for something a little more substantive. The tender and juicy steak from Seattle’s El Gaucho fit the bill. Serving 28-day dry-aged Niman Ranch Angus Beef, El Gaucho prepares its steaks on a one-of-a-kind charcoal grill in an open-exhibition style kitchen. Whatever the process, the outcome is pure delicioso. We were tempted to stop by their downtown Seattle restaurant another evening to sit outside on the waterfront deck and take advantage of the perfect weather, but simply ran out of time.

Theo Chocolate
This swoon-inducing chocolate is made by the first organic, fair trade, bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the United States. Theo’s growers earn a living wage, the factory is powered by green energy sources, and packing and printing methods are sustainable. Most importantly however, the chocolate is divine. The factory, located on Phinney Avenue in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, is open for public tours daily. In addition to learning all about how chocolate is made, you get plenty of tasting opportunities.
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100 Hours of Felicidad in Central America’s New Hotspot

FeThanks to SE Estep for the photo.

One of my favorite books is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. The novel’s fictional town of Macondo, where the illogical is viewed as normal, is as central to the book as the main characters. Although the story is supposed to be set in Marquez’s home country of Colombia, I felt as close to visiting Macondo as I ever have in Nicaragua, this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday destination.

Nicaragua is on my mind because a friend of mine just came to me asking for Central America trip ideas. She knows that I have lived and traveled throughout Latin America, so trusted me for some guidance on her next vacation. My advice to her (and to anybody that reads this blog post) is to book a flight to the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes. A perfect spot for a four-day – roughly 100 hours – visit.

Nicaragua offers a bit of everything for adventurous travelers – the country possesses jungles teeming with monkeys, parrots, and other exotic animals; pristine, empty beaches; charming colonial towns; vast lakes studded with volcanoes; and even Caribbean islands.

Most Americans know Nicaragua only from the headlines created during the Sandinista Revolution in late 70s and early 80s. Over the last twenty years however, the country has transformed into a peaceful and safe vacation destination. Discovered and frequented by backpackers in the last decade, the country is now developing a burgeoning sector of stylish boutique resorts as well. If you wonder what Costa Rica might have been like 20 years ago, then book a flight to Managua, Nicaragua to find out. Here are two don’t miss areas:

Granada
Founded in 1524, Granada offers a surreal mixture of the old and new about an hour southeast of Managua — horse-drawn carriages share the road with ox-carts and motorcycles while centuries-old buildings bear advertisements for cellular phone companies. Parque Colón, the town’s main plaza, comes right out of central casting. A yellow cathedral anchors one end of the tree-covered park and brightly painted facades grace the buildings surround its exterior. To the south looms giant Volcano Mombacho and to the east lays Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.

A parade of humanity uses the plaza as its living room. Old men play cards at rickety tables, women sit gossiping on benches, kids snap old-fashioned clappers, and birds chatter in the trees. The tropical heat slows all movement down to a dreamlike pace.
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