A New Adventure: I’m Joining the Peace Corps!

I’m excited to share my next new adventure – I’ve been accepted to the U.S. Peace Corps! After about 6 months of going through the application and then clearance process, it’s finally official, I will be volunteering in Liberia as a high school math teacher for 2 years!

Why the Peace Corps?

Volunteering with the Peace Corps is something that I’ve always thought I’d like to do and I realized last summer that there would never be a better time than now to do it! I like traveling and want to see more of the world and I’m excited to be fully immersed in a new culture. Volunteering and giving back to the community has always been important to me, and the Peace Corps combines both of these things – getting to see another part of the world and hopefully do some good in it!

Where is Liberia?

Liberia is in West Africa, along the Atlantic coast, and is about the size of Tennessee but with about 2/3 of Tennessee’s population. The official language is English, but most of the country speaks Liberian English so I’ll learn a little of it (more about Liberian English here!). There have been Peace Corps volunteers in Liberia since the 1960s, but during the 1990s, the program took almost a 20 year break due to Liberia’s civil war. The war ended in the early 2000s and the Peace Corps returned in 2008. Liberia continues to rebuild its infrastructure as much of it was destroyed during the war – that includes power grids, so I’m not anticipating having electricity while I’m there! The Peace Corps helps with the redevelopment, primarily focusing on education, as their education system was also left in rough shape following the war. So the ~50 of us 2-year volunteers going to Liberia this summer will all be teaching in middle and high schools with minimal resources.

You’re going into education??

When I applied to the Peace Corps, I applied open-ended to see what kind of opportunity I might get. Having studied business in college and worked in business for the last 6 years, I expected that they’d place me in the economic development sector so I was surprised when they wanted to consider me for an education role! Though I have no formal experience in education, the placement officer I interviewed with still seemed to think I’d be a good fit and said that they’d teach me enough to get started as a high school math teacher during training. I’m excited (and a little nervous!) for this opportunity and any tips or advice from my teacher friends would be appreciated!

So what’s next?

I have just a couple weeks to pack up my apartment, figure out what to pack in the 100lbs that I can bring with me, and see friends and family before I leave! Then at the beginning of June, I’ll leave for staging – two days in Washington DC getting a crash course on the Peace Corps and meeting the rest of my group – before flying over to Liberia (first a 7.5 hour flight to Brussels, then 9 hours to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia). Then for the first 3 months, we’ll have Pre-Service Training (PST) in a town about an hour from Monrovia. After that I will be placed in the school and community where I’ll spend the rest of my time in country.

Kathryn and I started this blog in the spirit of sharing our adventures so even though I don’t know how frequently I’ll have access to the internet, I plan to keep friends and family updated here, stay tuned!

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Going Off the Trail in the Florida Everglades!

Back in December, I took a quick weekend trip to visit my mom in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Thanks to weather delays causing me to reschedule my flight twice and fly out of a different airport (sometimes I have the worst luck when it comes to flying!), it was an even shorter trip than anticipated, but we still had time for an awesome day visiting the Everglades National Park!

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The highlight of our time at the Everglades was the “Wild Walk in the Wilderness” Hike at Shark Valley! We arrived at the visitor’s center in the morning dressed as instructed when we made our reservations earlier in the week: long sleeve shirt, long pants and old sneakers that could get wet and muddy. We met the park ranger that was leading our hike, Anthony, and discovered that Mom and I were the only ones who signed up for the hike. This turned out great because we were able to ask lots of questions and go at our own pace.

We set off on our hike from the visitor’s center beginning on the paved bike path and after walking not even a hundred yards, we found ourselves just a few feet away from 4 or 5 baby alligators sunbathing in the water just off the road! I was nervous that the mother alligator would come charging at us if we got too close but Anthony assured us we were fine because in this part of the park they are used to people (as long as we stayed a few feet away!).

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We kept walking a little further down the path and then the real hike began, time to go “off-roading!” With that, we followed the ranger right into the ankle deep water of the marsh, walking along the trails that alligators had cut through the saw grass.

It felt like walking through a swamp, with the water getting up to our knees at times! But, technically, it’s not a swamp, the Everglades are actually considered a river. This is because the water is slowly flowing (not stagnant like a swamp) which is where they got the nickname “River of Grass.”

While we were hiking, we stopped frequently so that Anthony could point out different things (and for water and photo breaks!). We learned the difference between sawgrass which will cut you if you rub it the wrong way (the reason for long sleeves and long pants!) and the other less harmful grasses. We saw some other plants, like the duck potato plant with its pretty white and yellow flowers, and some wildlife – herons, a turtle, and a lot of snails.

Towards the end of the hike, we arrived at one of the many tree islands we could see amongst the marsh. These little islands, also called hardwood hammocks, are elevated higher than the surrounding area, which allows trees to take root and can support animal and plant species that need dry land or shelter from the wet, open marsh.  They are usually so dense that you can’t walk through them, but this one had a path cut across it, maintained by the park, that was just big enough for the 3 of us to walk across before hiking back to the visitor’s center.

I would highly recommend this hike! It was the coolest way I can imagine to see the Everglades – you can’t get much closer than stomping through the actual alligator trails in mud and water up to your knees!

If you’re interested in this hike, here are the details: The hike is called the “Wild Walk in the Wilderness” and it leaves from the Shark Valley Visitor Center at the Everglades National Park. The schedule varies by season but during the winter (the dry season), this hike is only offered one weekend a month. It is free (so we couldn’t believe there weren’t more people on our hike!) but you need to make a reservation within the week before the hike.

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Naked and Afraid in a Japanese Onsen

Some people are comfortable being naked; I am not one of those people. Locker room changes and communal showers became regulars in my collegiate athletic career, but while my teammates lounged au natural, I quietly changed in the bathroom stall and waited until the showers were all clear. With my aversion to nudity, visiting a nude hot spring never crossed my mind until my travel companions decided to visit a Japanese onsen. Japan is volcanically active, which lays the foundation for thousands of onsens throughout the country. As an important part of traditional Japanese culture, I knew I had to try it!

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Traveling with only male coworkers, I tentatively wandered alone into the women’s locker room. Juggling my towel to attempt to cover every bit of exposed skin, I stripped down then placed the last pieces of my comfort zone in a locker. Using two towels is the custom: a large towel to dry off before leaving and a small hand towel to “cover your privates”. Ummmmmm, girls have two major private areas!?!  After internal deliberation, my hand towel drifted downward. Unsure of where to go next, because all the signs were in Japanese, I scanned the room and found that these women, young and old, skinny and plump, had no insecurities. They let it all hang loose!

By the luck of the draw, I chose door number two and miraculously found the cleansing area.  Slinking into the room, there were many small washing stations each equipped with a showerhead and bottles of soap and shampoo. I took a tentative seat on an open stool (only one cheek of course) and started washing my light blonde hair and tall, pale body. After a full body rinse, I realized that everyone who was washing when I arrived was still going strong.  So naturally, I decided to sit there rewashing myself over and over and over again not wanting to be rude on accident. I stayed until I spotted a small, elderly woman get up who I could follow to the baths.

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After the stressful start, I headed straight to the first empty bath I saw. I bounced from bath to bath to feel the variations in temperatures and jets whenever one emptied, stemming from both a desire to try everything and to escape invaders of my personal bubble. Settling into a bath with jets, I was finally able to unwind. I reflected on how difficult I made this experience for myself, I built it all up in my head. Slowly my tension evaporated, well, until it all repeated getting out…

 

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Iceland Outside the Guidebooks

On our journey around Iceland’s Ring Road we had many destinations we wanted to stop at along our route. What we didn’t realize was that there would be so many more beautiful sites along our journey around Ring Road. Below are just a few of the hundreds of beautiful photos we have from Iceland that were not on our planned itinerary!

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Lava Fields near Reykjavik

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Between Reykjavik and Vik

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Between Reykjavik and Vik

 

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Seen driving from Vik to Hofn

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View of Vatnajokull

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Between Vik and Hofn

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Between Hofn and Egilsstadir

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Fossardulur: Between Hofn and Egilsstadir

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Between Egilsstadir and Dettifoss waterfall

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Between Egilsstadir and Dettifoss

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Near Akureyri

Iceland is a beautiful country with so much to see! The guidebooks are full of incredible places to visit, but don’t miss out on the sights between the destinations!

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9 Things to Do in Bogota, Colombia!

On our recent trip to Colombia, we spent a day and a half in the country’s capital, Bogota! Here are our top 9 things to do while you’re there…

  1. Explore La Candelaria, Bogota’s old city! One of the highlights in this historic neighborhood is Plaza de Bolivar, the main square of the city where you’ll see Colombia’s parliament building, the palace of justice and the cathedral. Other sites to look for are the presidential palace and the El Carmen church that sticks out in the neighborhood with its Gothic style among all of the colonial buildings.
  1. Visit the Botero Museum! Fernando Botero is a Colombian artist who’s known for playing with volume in his paintings and sculptures with exaggerated proportions in his subjects. Keep an eye out for his version of the Mona Lisa!
  1. Learn about Colombia’s pre-Hispanic cultures at the Gold Museum. Exhibits at the gold museum tell the history of the people living in what is now Colombia prior to the Spanish conquest. You can see all kinds of artifacts on display including all kinds of gold pieces, from jewelry to armor to artifacts hinting towards the existence of El Dorado, the City of Gold!
  1. Take the teleferico up Monserrate mountain! To get to the top of Bogota’s iconic mountain, we took the teleferico (cable car) but you can also take the train or walk if you’re feeling adventurous. At the top, there is a church that was built in the 17th century, a couple of restaurants and a market where you can buy souvenirs. And of course, being more than 10,000 feet above sea level, you can see some incredible views of the sprawling city of Bogota!
  1. Try your hand at Tejo, the national sport of Colombia! The game reminded us of cornhole, but instead of throwing bean bags at a board, you throw heavy metal disks at a mud target. And to add some excitement, there are little triangles of gun powder that explode when you hit them!
  1. Stumble upon some awesome street art! As a way of discouraging vandalism graffiti, the city promotes graffiti recognizing that it can be a form of artistic expression. It seemed like we found more everywhere we turned!
  1. Check out a local flower market. Flowers are one of Colombia’s main exports, we accidentally found ourselves in the middle of a flower market full of beautiful flowers during a walk near our hotel!

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  1. Try some local foods – or at least a coffee! While we were in Bogota, we tried some delicious foods. Some we’d recommend trying are Ajiaco, a Colombian chicken soup; tamales and empanadas; and try some juices or fruits! And if you’re a coffee connoisseur, be sure to try some of Colombia’s famous coffee as well!

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  1. Spend an evening in Zona Rosa! By day, Zona Rosa is a great place to do some shopping at many high-end stores and a large shopping mall. Then it turns into a lively area full of restaurants and bars by night!

 And those are our top 9 things to do in Colombia’s capital city! What would you add to our list?

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Around Iceland’s Ring Road: An 8 Day Itinerary

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The Ring Road, or Route 1, is a road that loops around the entire country of Iceland. If you are heading to Iceland
and have plenty of time I definitely recommend leaving the capital city of Reykjavik for some of the amazing natural wonders Iceland has to offer. While 8 days wasn’t nearly enough time to see everything on our list, here is what we did in our 8 days in Iceland:

Day 1: Explore Reykjavik
From the airport we headed straight into Reykjavik to start exploring. We have an entire post dedicated to our time in the capital, including visiting Halligrimskirka Church, Tjornin Lake and the Harpa Concert Hall!


Day 2: Reykjavik to Vik (~2 hours driving)

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We hit a snag early in the day trying to pick up our rental car which put us pretty far behind schedule so we had to race straight to Solheimajokulsvegur glacier for our glacier hike with Arctic Adventures at 1:30 pm. You can read all about it here!

From there we backtracked a half hour to Skogafoss Waterfall for dinner at the restaurant near the falls and hiking behind the waterfall. After dinner we headed to our Airbnb close to Vik for the night.


Day 3: Vik to Hofn (~3.5 hours driving)

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To start off our day we backtracked about 20 minutes to the black sand beaches in Dryholaey and explored a while to see the gorgeous Dryholaey cliff and lighthouse. From Dryholaey we started the drive towards Hofn, stopping for a short hike, after an hour of driving, at Fjadrargljufur canyon.


The day was full of driving but there were plenty of views along the way including Vatnajokull glacier. Our last stop of the day was at the Jokularson Glacier Lagoon. The runoff from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier creates a lagoon with large pieces of ice floating around. Be sure to head to the ocean side of the Ring Road to walk along the black sand beach also covered in more large pieces!


Day 4: Hofn to Egilsstadir (2.5 hours driving)

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After the night at a guesthouse near hofn, we set off for our first rainy day of driving on the trip. We drove into Hofn to explore and stop at a grocery store to stock up on sandwich supplies for lunches. Our next pit stop, an hour and a half away, was in Djúpivogur to see the outdoor sculpture Eggin í Gleðivík. The sculpture by the shore was created in 2009 and is made up of 34 bird eggs all of different shapes and sizes. The eggs are large scale replicas representing the 34 different bird species found in the area.

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In Icelandic, foss means waterfall. So when we stopped for bagged lunches in a place called Fossardalur, it was just what you’d expect – we found many beautiful water falls in the area.

Before dark we headed into the town of Egilsstadir for a round of Frisbee golf in a local park. The course was small but I almost got my first hole in one!

Day 5: Egilsstadir to Akureyri (~4 hours driving)

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After leaving our Airbnb near Egilsstadir, we headed out on a 2 hour drive straight towards Dettifoss Waterfall. Dettifoss is considered the most powerful waterfall in Europe and was a great place for us to eat lunch with a view.

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Next we drove another hour towards Lake Myvatn, making a pit stop at the Namafjell Hverir geothermal area. You are able to walk around the geothermal area to examine boiling sulphurous mud springs and steam vents in a Mars-like landscape!


Nearby, we had to stop at Grjotagja cave as it was a filming location for Game of Thrones! Grjotagja is a giant fissure splitting a shelf of volcanic rock with a clear thermal spring inside. Game of Thrones fans might recognize it as the cave where Jon Snow gets “deflowered” by the wildling Ygritte!


Our last stop of the day before our Airbnb was at Godafoss waterfall. Godafoss is considered to be the “Waterfall of the Gods” and is situated directly off the Ring Road!

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Godafoss Waterfall

Day 6: Akureyri to Reykholt (~3.5 hours driving)

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To start our day in Akureyri, we took a whale watching tour with Ambassador. The tour took us out onto the water up close and personal with a few humpback whales! Read all about our tour here!

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Next we explored Akureyri by car (it was raining) and stopped in at the Akureyri museum. Inside we were able to look at maps of Iceland throughout the years, including some with the fictitious beasts thought to be in the waters surrounding the island. Another cool section of the museum was on Iceland’s previous President Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the first woman in the world to be elected to head of state in a national election! The small exhibit had many of her Icelandic outfits on display and a really interesting documentary.


From Akureyri we hit the road heading towards our Airbnb, about 3.5 hours away, for the night near Reykholt. Along the way we stopped at Grabrok Crater for a hike. There are actually 3 craters in all nearby with hiking paths up and around them. From Grabrok we headed to our Airbnb for dinner and a good rest.


Day 7: The Golden Circle (3 hours driving)

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We left our Airbnb nice and early to drive the 1.5 hours to Thingvellir National Park to snorkel in the Silfra Fissure at 10am. Read our post about it here! The rest of the day we spent going around the rest of the Golden Circle, exploring Thingvellir National Park and visiting Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall, and Faxifoss waterfall. You can read all about our Golden Circle trip here!


Day 8: Reykjavik/The Blue Lagoon (~1 hour driving)
For our last day in Iceland we returned to Reykjavik to drop off our rental car and shop for souvenirs before taking a bus to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa known for its milky waters, is a easily one of the most recognized places in Iceland. Relaxing in the waters with silica face masks was a great way to unwind after our busy road trip around Iceland.


While there are so many more places we would have liked to seen or spent more time at (we didn’t even get close to the Snaefellsnes peninsula!), we really enjoyed the 8 days we spent exploring Iceland!

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11 Tips for Driving Iceland’s Ring Road

Traveling around Iceland is easy by car due to Route 1, otherwise known as the Ring Road. Route 1 circles the entire country (minus the Snaefellsnes Pennisula) and allows visitors to easily see many of the different landscapes and tourist attractions Iceland has to offer. Check out our Top 10 Things to See & Do Around Iceland’s Ring Road for just a glimpse of what this road trip has to offer. To make your road trip a little easier, here are some tips we learned from our trip:

#1 Stop at all the Scenic Viewpoint signs along the Ring Road – Some of the stops were
weren’t super exciting but others had hidden waterfalls, glacier views, craters to climb or beautiful lava fields

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One of the many surprising “scenic viewpoints” along Route 1

#2 NOT ALL OF IT IS PAVED! – This was the most surprising things for us. There is not much warning before the road changes from paved to gravel so keep an eye out especially if you have a 2 wheel drive carimg_7926

#3 Be careful of one lane bridges – Most of the bridges along the Ring Road are only wide enough for one car to cross at a time. Slow down and check the other side before crossing.

#4 Watch out for sheep on the road – Sheep in Iceland are free to roam the mountain sides to graze. There’s fencing set up to try to keep them off the roads but fairly often (mainly on the northern side of the country) the sheep were walking and crossing the roads as we were driving by.dsc_0437

#5 To get gas you need a credit/debit card with a pin – In order to pay at the pump along the Ring Road be sure to bring a credit or debit card with a 4 digit pin number to go with it! There aren’t a lot of gas stations along the route, especially in the north, so fill up whenever you have the chance.

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#6 Know the tourist attraction symbol – When you see a road sign with this squiggly symbol that means that it is directing you to a tourist attraction. Even if you don’t recognize the name, if the symbol leads you nearby it is probably worth the detour!

#7 Stock up on snacks and drinks when you are in a larger city, there aren’t many places to stop – We stopped at the grocery store and got sandwich supplies to eat for lunches along the road and it was a good thing we did. It allowed us to eat on the go wherever we wanted but there was never many other options along the road

#8 Use the bathroom every chance you get – similar to the limited food options along the road there aren’t very many places to take bathroom breaks. Thankfully many of the tourist attractions have some form of bathroom

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#9 Addresses for destinations are usually just town names – We had a bit of a scare at the beginning of our trip when we realized we were given what seemed to be town names for our Airbnbs. Turns out we had nothing to worry about since the “towns” were basically just house names

#10 If you aren’t driving in winter you can get by with a 2 wheel drive (2WD) car – we rented our 2WD car in mid-Sept and didn’t have any major problems along the way. Note, as said before, some of the roads are not paved so a 2WD car will slow you down a bit for some stretches

#11 Download a music playlist or audiobook for the drives as there will be long periods of time spent between destinations. While Iceland’s landscape is beautiful to watch along the way, a little extra entertainment can’t hurt.dsc_0716

Now that you’ve read your tips, you’re ready to get started planning your own road trip around Ring Road! Check out our top things to see on the Ring Road to help plan your itinerary!

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Whale Watching in Northern Iceland

During our 8 day trip in Iceland, we knew one thing we had to do was go whale watching! While there are multiple areas in Iceland to take off on a whale watching tour, we chose to embark from Akureyri, the “Capital of North Iceland”, with the company Ambassador.

From Akureyri, we boarded a boat and headed out to sea. After about an hour ride we slowed and scanned the top of water until we had our first whale sighting. After just a few minutes we were able to see the fins of a humpback whale! The boat sped over to its location just in time for it to take a deep dive flapping his tail to push him deep in the water. We were able to see 3 whales total, one alone and one pair. The whales stayed near the top of the water swimming around for a few minutes before taking deep dives further down into the ocean that usually lasted around 5-6 minutes.

The reason Iceland is a great place to whale watch is that humpback whales travel north to feed. These whales eat in Northern Iceland, building up enough fat to stay warm in cold waters before returning south to breed. Each whale has a unique design on their flute (aka the back of their tails) making them fairly easy to track. The same whales found in Iceland have also been spotted in the Caribbean and even the Horn of Africa!

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Overall the tour took about 3 hours, 1 hour at the whale watching sight and 2 in transit. The guides were very well informed, full of fun facts about the whales. Having spotted 3 whales, multiple times, I’d say overall the trip was a success!

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Sneak Peek: Photos from Colombia!

We started 2017 with our first trip to South America, spending 4 days in Colombia! We’re working on more posts from the trip, but couldn’t wait to share some of our pictures…

We began in Bogota:

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Plaza de Bolivar, the main square of Bogota

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Exploring La Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota

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Visited the Botero Museum, Botero who is known for playing with volume did his own version of the Mona Lisa

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Artifacts from pre-Colombian indigenous cultures at the Gold Museum in Bogota

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Took the telerico up to the top of Monserrate to see incredible views of Bogota!

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Stopped for a snack at Monserrate – Coca tea and giant roasted ants (yes that’s one in Kathryn’s hand!)

After a day and half in Bogota, we flew to Cartagena on the coast of Colombia!

While in Cartagena we took a day trip to Palenque, the first free town in America. It is a UNESCO Heritage Site, the village was founded by escaped slaves in the 17th century and their African heritage is still important to the community today.

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Statue in the main square of Palenque

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Houses in Palenque

And of course, we got to see a lot of Cartagena itself while we were there!

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We climbed to the top of San Felipe fortress that once defended Cartagena from Pirates!

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At the top of San Felipe fortress

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Walked through the Old City of Cartagena

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Colorful houses in Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood

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There’s street art all over Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood!

And that’s our sneak peek! Stay tuned for more from our trip….

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Visiting the Other Islands of Venice, Italy: Murano, Burano & Torcello

The city of Venice, Italy is made up of many islands – over 100 of them! Most of the islands that make up the city are all connected by hundreds of bridges crossing canals and it’s so easy  to walk from one to the next that you almost forget they are separate islands. There are also a few islands outside of the city that you won’t just stumble upon. You have to take the water bus to get to them but they are definitely worth the trip out to them… 

  1. Murano

Murano is known as the glass making island! There are shops up and down the main canal where local glassmakers sell their beautiful creations, everything from earrings and charms to chandeliers. There is the Murano Glass Museum and other glass making demonstrations that you can pay to visit, but if you’re lucky, you can find a shop where you can watch a local craftsman at work. At one of the shops we came across, the owner was creating tiny glass Christmas tree charms!

  1. Burano

While Murano is the glass making island, Burano is known for its lace making! Similar to Murano, if you’re lucky, you can find a local lace maker at work.

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Burano is also known for color – all of the buildings are painted in bright colors. Having seen pictures of the beautiful colored houses in Burano, I had expected it to be just one street. I was happily surprised to find the colorful buildings cover the entire island, even once you get away from the bustling touristy streets to the quieter, more residential areas!

  1. Torcello

Unlike Murano and Burano, Torcello doesn’t have a trade that it is known for – in fact, it is practically deserted now! It was actually one of the first settled islands in the Venetian lagoon, but eventually became too swampy and most of its residents left for Burano, Murano or Venice. According to Wikipedia, the island only has 10 full-time residents today.

Arriving on the island, as you walk down the one main street, there’s a small souvenir shop and a little café. After stopping for gelato, we walked the rest of the way into the town. The main attraction was the cathedral, which we unfortunately got there too late to go inside. But we did take turns sitting on Attila’s Throne, an ancient stone chair sitting in the middle of the courtyard that likely once belonged to a governor or bishop.

A few tips for visiting these islands:

  • These islands are about a 45 minute water bus ride from Venice, but once you’re on one of the three, it’s a much shorter trip to the others, so I’d recommend trying to fit them all into the same trip.
  • Make sure to note when the last water bus leaves – it’s likely in the early evening and you don’t want to miss it!
  • Murano and Burano are great places to shop for souvenirs, but shop around before you buy – you’ll probably find better prices further away from the water bus stops.
  • If you’re looking for an authentic souvenir, one sign that something might not be is if there are others like it (we saw several shops selling lace scarves of the same design in multiple colors). Stay away from duplicates if you are looking for something truly traditional, but know that you will spend more on it!

If you are visiting Venice, I definitely recommend making time to visit these islands, especially Burano and Murano!

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