The Sahara / Todgha Gorge / Aït Benhaddou
The Sahara / Todgha Gorge / Aït Benhaddou
The fourth day of my trip to Morocco began with a drive to the Sahara. Spanning some 3.6 million miles (9.2 million kilometers), the Sahara desert is the largest in the world. Though it does not cover much of Morocco like it does the countries of Tunisia, Egypt, Chad, and many more African nations, we had the opportunity on this trip to ride camels into the desert, and camp overnight.
The drive was filled scenic views and gradually changing landscapes:
Date palms in an oasis in the valley, planted hundreds of years before, now flourishing.
Dried and succulently sweet, these dates are chewy and delicious.
After a 10 hour drive, we arrive at Merzouga, a town on the edge of the Sahara. Gathered at the edge of the desert, our camels await to take us into the dunes.
Local guides will show you how to wrap your scarf or shawl into a Touareg turban, used by the natives to protect their faces from the sand and wind of the endless desert.
Camels are much taller than horses, so hold on tight as they stand, kneel, and sit - its a bit of a wild ride.
And away we wander into the vast sands. The setting sun made for some gorgeous reflections of our camel riding.
My first time in the Sahara, its magnificence and vastness was astonishing. One can't help but realize the perils of being lost in such an endlessly arid environment.
Against the backdrop of a setting sun, our string of camels is led into the desert by our local Berber guide.
The temperature differential between day and night in the desert is huge, varying as much as 20 degrees Celsius.
The playful shadows dance across the sand as the setting sun weaved in and out of various dunes all around us.
The Berber people are a group of natives indigenous to North Africa, much like the Native Americans of the U.S. or First Nations of Canada.
We pause atop a dune to capture a few final images of sinking sun.
And continue our journey towards the desert camp in the light of dusk.
Though the moon looks small and faraway here, the stars seen from the Sahara are some of the largest I've ever observed. Comparable to a time in my youth, when I watched stars with my parents in Hawaii.
As our group settled down around the bonfire our guides have created for us for the night - notice how cold it is, everyone is wrapped in jackets, scarves, and hats. The night spent in the desert was a hazy, fun, magical, albeit cold one.
As with every day since I've arrived in Morocco, we are served the omnipresent tagine. Tonight, it is freshly prepared with beef, lentils, carrots, winter melon, and potatoes. A hearty meal to combat the ironically blistering winds of our sandy environment.
The next morning, we hopped back on our camels for the hour-long ride back to civilization. Though my experience at the 'basic' (ie. more 'authentic') Berber style camp was an interesting experience - next time, I'd opt for the 'glamping' option, which comes included with hot showers and air conditioning - seen below.
We were woken early to catch a sunrise in the Sahara. The dawning sun casts tangerine shadows on the sand dunes all around us, and we breath in the endless fresh air admist a windless desert.
The sun rises, and the sands glow orange no more. The Sahara has once more returned to its original, unforgiving form - miles upon miles of endless dunes stretched out into the horizon.
So long, desert, I'd stay longer but I'm afraid I'm running out of bottled water.
Thus we begin our drive to town of Tinghir - home to the famed Todgha Gorge. we were treated to a relaxing day in Todgha Gorge. Upon arrival, another Moroccan lunch awaited: mint tea, left, and chopped tomatoes, onion, and parsley with Moroccan bread (known in Arabic as 'Khobz,' right.
Left, a 'Berber omelette,' typically served in the tagine dish, and right, curry spiced rice, with bits of lamb and onion.
Opting for a relaxing rest of the day, we go for a walk in the nearby village.
A short distance away is the Todgha Gorge itself. More majestic than can be captured in photos, steep cliffs arise on either side of the paved road.
Guesthouses sit at the foot of the cliffs, now predominantly empty due to the damage and danger caused by the falling rocks from the gorge.
The gorge itself is reddish brown in color, and has a small but determined stream of water running through it, reminding us of its origin.
That night, we sit down for another traditional meal, meaning Moroccan soup (left), and chicken cous-cous (right).
Two highlights of the evening: sausages with fries, curried rice, ketchup and mayonnaise, an ever-present tagine featuring 'kefta,' or meatballs, with a poached egg in the middle. The flavors of the tomato, minced meat, and runny egg yolk made for a potently umami taste, making this heavy dinner a good option to combat the cold.
Day 6, and we continue into the Atlas Mountains into the region of Ouarzazate, known for its famed kasbahs and many movies shot on location.
On our way here, we stop by a village market that only happens once a week, a brief glance into an otherwise opaque life of the locals here.
I buy some fresh pomegranates from a vendor, who uses a handheld scale to weigh the goods, the sight of which sends me back decades into the past, to the markets of China when I lived there as a child.
This 'witch doctor' peddles his wares of ostrich eggs, various animal derived essences, and a live komodo dragon to skeptical yet enthralled children in the crowd. We all slowly trickle away after a few minutes' pause, as our guide informed us that the man will expect tip at the end of his...demonstration.
Left, a rice krispy like dessert found at the market, and right, the option to buy a gazillion chicks for 10 cents per round, fluffly ball of joy (I have an affinity for round, fat animals).
Stopping for the first non-Moroccan meal of the trip, we imbibe on a local 'kefta' cheeseburger made with Moroccan bread as the bun, and some extra crisp fries. Right, a ham and crème fraiche pizza, an equally delightful dalliance into Moroccan western fare. Not pictured: a seafood cheese pasta that was also had refreshingly local notes on an otherwise Italian staple.
Something fun I discovered in the supermarkets there - teeth gummies. No, really, they are gummy candy (quite good too), in the shape of gum and teeth, or were they supposed to be dentures?
As previously mentioned, the region of Ouarzazate has been home to many film sets. Below is one of the more famous studios, which has played host to the sets and crews of the Mummy, Game of Thrones, Indiana Jones, and more.
After another hours drive, we arrive at the famed Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou. Many films have been shot on location here, including a Game of Thrones episode where Daenerys Targaryen rallies her troops in the first season.
Though the background is overexposed, the foreground here captures local villagers carrying crops on their backs, an incredibly anachronistic shot.
Ait Benhaddou is a well preserved 'Kasbah,' or loosely translated as fortress or medina from Arabic, and is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Built thousands of years ago as a fortified village on the trading route between the Sahara and Marrakech, today the village is only home to four families, while most local villagers live in the town to the side of the Kasbah.
From the landing of this ancient fortress, we watch yet another Moroccan sun slowly set into the horizon - ending yet another day in this magical kingdom.
We end our night with a tagine cooking class. With the vegetables chopped and the spices laid out, assembling our chicken tagines was not especially complicated. See my masterpiece, to the right.
Fez is known as one of the cultural capitals of Morocco. A frequented city by many visitors, my one day here was inundated with history. From the Jewish Quarter to the famed Fez Medina, the vibrant sights, colors, smells, and sounds of the city was incredibly novel and overwhelming at the same time. This was a place unlike anything I'd ever known, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Our arrival into this fabled city took place at night - just in time for dinner. We headed to a riad - a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard, usually inhabited by the wealthy - for some food and a show.
Left, various small plates to start, everything from eggplant, to lentils, to diced tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, and marinated olives, with the ubiquitous 'khobz,' bread.
Right, a specialty of Fez - 'pastilla' - a flaky savory pastry stuffed with shredded chicken, eggs, onions, and other spices, topped with sliced almonds, cinnamon, and powdered sugar. Never having had such an eclectic mixture of ingredients in one dish - I found it to be somewhat on the sweet side, albeit interesting.
Left, another classic: stewed beef with dates, topped with sesame. Right - the Moroccan answer to post-dinner dessert - tangeries, apples, and bananas arranged in a fruit tower.
Below, a drumming performance at the riad. If you look closely at one of the men - he's using scissors and playing it a triangle.
Various performances were included with the show that came with dinner. Below, a belly dancer - the way she moves her hips - don't know how she does it!
The next morning, we begin our tour of Fez at the gates of the Royal Palace, also known as the Dar el Makhzen. Dating back to the 14th century, the palace is not open for tourism, but the plaza and its seven golden gates are available for public viewing.
Something I did not know prior to the trip: Morocco still exists today as a monarchy - which means its current King is the head of state, and has the legislative powers of a president or prime minister.
Totalitarian rule aside, during my brief time in the country, I found its infrastructure to be keenly developing and societal order well established.
Neatly uniformed policemen can be found frequently, small hotels, even in rural areas, were very clean, and tourist destinations were marked and regulated to protect visitors.
Something to note about the balconies seen below - notice how airtight the windows are covered, and the lack of access of the terraces to the outside streets.
Because of the conservatism of the Muslim faith and the tendency for females to stay inside the home, most balconies in the Muslim world open into internal courtyards, away from the prying eyes of strangers and the public streets.
Another narrow alleyway in which one cannot peer into the windows, and thus lives, and wives, of strangers.
Art Naji is popular among more artistically inclined tourists who wish to see the creation process behind Morocco's famed pottery and intricate mosaics.
Mosaic fountains, walls, tabletops, and colorful earthenware are central to Islamic architecture and interior design. It all starts here, where clay is mixed and formed into the required forms and left in the sun to dry.
The process continues for vases, plates, pots, and other wares, as artisans mold the clay in the shape they so desire.
Seen here, another artisan creating pieces of a mosaic.
In the store, vases and plates adorn every inch of the walls. Trays, bowls, cups, and even larger pieces of furtniture are available here, shippable via DHL to anywhere in the world.
Finally, we make our way to the bustling medina. The entrance beckons with promises of worldly trinkets, fresh produce, and so, so much more.
Once inside, the cacophony of sounds is immediately overwhelming. The initial sections of the medina are reserved for food. Everything from fresh produce to meat to various sundries under the sun.
In a similar theme, this follow series of corridors are shops of traditional clothing for men and women, as well as various local crafts.
A communal bakery typically shared by many families living in its vicinity. Usually the heat from the stove used to heat hammam baths above are also used to bake 'khobz,' the pita-like Moroccan bread that seems comparable a staple carb of the region.
This particular store sells various metal goods, copper plated lighting, and more.
Known as the 'quiet square' for the precise opposite, workers craft copper pots and pans of various shapes and sizes in the open space.
A brief interlude for lunch: chicken with caramelized onions and the ubiquitous Moroccan bread 'khobz,' freshly chopped tomatoes, onions, and parsley, along with a lentil soup / dip conconction.
A savory and sweet dish of grilled chicken topped with extra caramelized onions, and a plate of fresh olives. Its interesting to note how the cuisine of Morocco frequently features elements of sweet and salty in tandem (pastilla, various tagine dishes) - something usually found in distinctive dishes in many other parts of the world.
Back to the Fez Medina, every twist and turn is an unexpected visual adventure. Geometric walls and juxtaposing alleyways, sharp corners and ornate doorways, visual delights abound in these ancient marketplaces.
Complicated designs and patterns adorn many doorways along the paths of the medina. Many are entrances to 'riads,' or enclosed homes with courtyards and balconies opening onto the inside, for the sake of privacy of those residing within.
Thus, one never really knows whether they might be walking past a magnificent riad of the past, as busy locals and visitors alike jostle for the myriad of goods bought and sold here daily.
Though modern clothing can be seen on most of the youth and denizens of rural and urban areas alike, I was surprised to nonetheless find an abundance of people dressed in the traditional clothing of the region.
Not only a place of business and trade, the medina is also home to what the guide emphasized as the world's oldest university. Seen here, the entrance to this esteemed Koranic school.
The Al-Attarine Madrasa, built in 1323-5 by the Marinid sultan.
Today the madrasa is frequented by visitors for its intricate engravings and unique design.
Seen here, a view of the green rooftops from a window on the second floor of the school. Once upon a time, the second floor was used as student dormitories for those pursuing Koranic studies.
And finally, one of the more iconic images of Fez - the famed leather tannery. Seen here, huge caldrons of natural and synthetic dye, and sheaths of leather being manually processed through the colored vats.
Though the smell of dye and leather can be a potent combination, its fascinating to observe the workers move amongst the massive vats of dye, and the large piles of leather laid flat in the sun to dry.
The best vantage point to view the bustling activiti down below is from one of the leather shops that surround the tanneries. Here, all manner of leather goods are sold - from purses to jackets, cushion covers to belts.
Ironically, dinner tonight took place at a restaurant called 'Marrakech.' Food here, however, was delicious, and as usual consisted of tagine and couscous. Below left, the 'couscous royale' and the beef tagine.
I found the couscous in Morocco to be consistently very moist, and the various vegetables (frequently carrots, onions, zucchini, radishes) always very tender. Green pepper, olives, tomatoes came with the beef tagine - the ubiquitous tagine.
The last leg of our journey into Morocco ends in Marrakech. Last but not least, a drive through the High Atlas Mountains takes us to this modern cultural epicenter. Over my two days here, I will be dazed by the commotion of the Jemaa el-Fnaa square, get lost in the souks of the Marrakech Medina, and marvel at the abundance of cacti in Jardin Majorelle. However, the definitive highlight of my two days here was surely the night spent going out in the city. Despite the religious conservatism that pervades across most of life in the country, the locals of Marrakech know how to throw a great party.
Our arrival into Marrakech was welcomed by an iconic structure towering over the other buildings near the ancient Medina - the Koutoubia Mosque.
We begin our time here with some delicious stewed beef couscous, topped with juicy carrots, potatoes, zucchini, caramelized onion, and a single charred soft pepper. The couscous was smaller than any I've had elsewhere, but made for a hearty base for the flavorful medley of vegetables, meat, and glazed onion on top.
Our first stop in the city was the Saadian Tombs where remains of royal members of the Saadian Dynasty (1578-1603) can be found. Originally sealed off with high walls extending far around the original grounds of the tombs, this burial site was only discovered by a flyover of the area by survey plane, in 1917.
Today the tombs are frequented by visitors for the beauty and intricacy of their décor. Note the size of the marble slabs and its height can be used to determine the approximate age and rank of those who are buried under. There were some incredibly small tombs here - a rather sad sight.
From the tombs, we walk through the old town towards Bahia Palace. Large sandstone walls line the paved streets of the city, and hijab ensconced women walk brusquely into the distasnce, harkening back to a distant time, long gone.
The old and the new juxtapose everywhere in Marrakech, streetlamps stand tall next to homes that have housed generations of its inhabitants for millennia.
Bahia Palace was built in the 19th century and was meant to represent the height of Islamic architecture and Moroccan style.
Geometric, symmetric, and lattice designs abound in this palace composed of several courtyards, one of which housed the 'harem.' The word means forbidden in Arabic, and can be used to describe a man's sisters, mother, and daughters in addition to his wives - as all women are 'forbidden' in such a sense and meant to be under his protection.
Workers continuously restore and repair this centuries old palace, tile by tile.
Continuing our walk in the historical part of the city, we wander into the labyrinth that is the Marrakech Medina. Wander, and easily get lost, in the maze of twisting and turning alleyways. Step down a cobblestone path - and feel as if you've been transported back in time - to the ancient times of the Berbers and Silk Road traders.
Seen here, a little boy carrying some bread home for his mother. Children bring baked bread to communal bakeries in the medina, usually located conveniently below a 'hammam,' or traditional bath, to bake in the morning, and by lunch, the return and bring back the freshly baked bread for lunch, and dinner.
I must say that the eclectic mixture cobbled next to one another down alleyway upon alleyway made for some of the most delightful shopping I had ever done on a trip.
Definitely don't be afraid to drive a hard bargain with the vendors here. I bargained for a purse by offering a quarter of the asking price, and it was immediately accepted. Clearly, I had overpaid, and later discovered the right first counter-offer can be as low as 1/10th of the initial asking.
One of the main thoroughfares of the medina, seemingly selling everything under the sun - from your basic tourist wares: magnets, glasses, postcards, to more obscure souvenirs, seen below.
Some of my favorites: Aker Fassi, left, a traditional Berber lipstick made of poppy leaves, pomegranate seeds overlaid on the interior of an open terra-cotta pot. Application is done by finger, wet your finger first.
Left, the bright sapphire blue of indigo captured my eye - my favorite color, brilliant, compelling, majestic and graceful all at the same time.
Various sundries for sale, left, including blocks of musk (for incense, perfume) and kohl powder in wooden containers used to line the eyes.
A tip if you find yourself lost in the souks of the medina - ask any vendor or passerby in the medina for 'la Place,' and they will guide you here. The famous Jemaa El Fna square of Marrakech is home to an eclectic mixture of food stalls, juice vendors, street performers, snake charmers, gypsies, shoe shiners, and much, much more. The cacophony of sounds that will descend upon your ears as one steps into this bustling square can be truly overwhelming.
Apparently a local delicacy, braised snails! A dollar for a bowl of these unshelled goodies - use a toothpick to drag the body out of its home. But don't look too closely, I'm pretty sure some of them were still alive!
Freshly squeezed juice will be tempting under the hot sun, and row upon rows of juice stands await advertising these concoctions. Beware, however, that the elevated stands are often meant to obstruct your view of what they're doing in the stalls, which means either your juice can come diluted with water, or is poured from a pre-made mixture that can consist of a variety of things. I ordered a pomegranate juice, for example, and pretty sure it came with some amount of watermelon in there - not that it wasn't a refreshing mixture, of course.
Insider tip from our guide to capturing the square: find a café or restaurant with a terrace of the plaza, settle down with some mint tea, and take your photos from an aerial vantage point.
Now for the highlight of the trip - our night out on the town: it started with a music venue/fancy restaurant/bar tucked in the midst of a casino...after a (few) bottles of whiskey and some truly amazing live performance, we were ushered to a club for the real party to begin (keep in mind, this was somewhere between 2-3am)
Now I must admit my memory is slightly spotty during this segment of our little interlude into Moroccan nightlife, but lets just say that this (predominantly male) crowd of partygoers knew how to have a good time. There were sofas, dancing, stages, stairs, elevated platforms, DJs, performers, oh, and another fire show. It. was. glorious.
I highly recommend getting a taste of the nightlife in Marrakech. Locals come from all across the nation to go out here, so I suppose in a way, Marrakech is the Las Vegas of Morocco? For those worried about the safety of going out in such a conservative nation, I found that people were all around respectful and kept to themselves. It probably is a good idea to go in a group, and perhaps with someone who knows the city. Party-goers like to dress up for a night out here, so either pack your heels or high-tail to Zara for a taste of local retail therapy.
Ah, the morning after a night spend dancing till 5am (we were assured that it was an 'early' night by local standards. Nothing calms an oncoming headache quite like some strong coffee and a hearty breakfast (ok, lunch).
Kefta (meatball) tagine with an egg in the middle. We had the same dish two days ago, at Todgha Gorge. Right, a house burger that was just, somehow, really good. So fresh, so tender, so flavorful, so much better than a big mac.
Left, a delicious chicken sandwich creation ensconced in mini-pita bread. The chicken seemed to have been marinated and drenched in some kind of creamy curry sauce. Right, an absolute highlight of food eaten on the trip - a chicken and pear tagine, drizzled with sesame seeds and lightly grilled to perfection. The caramelized pear was sweet and fell apart as one tried to fork it, its sweetness adding to the chicken that was truly some of the most tender I've ever had.
A must for the morning (read: the hangover), freshly squeezed OJ, spinach apple juice, and avocado milk. Some strong (Turkish) coffee that hit the spot (woke me up).
One of my favorite restaurants in Marrakech, café des épices featured three floors of seating, large windows and a patio, and scrumptious food. Highly recommend for a well-priced Moroccan & western fare.
Last by not least, we stop by the Jardin Majorelle on our last day in the city (and the country).
Originally a garden owned by the French painter Jacques Majorelle and subsequently purchased by the renowned designer Yves Saint Laurent, today the garden is both a tribute and a museum to the brand and its visionary founder.
Azure, indigo, sapphire - however you name it, this brilliant shade of blue stands out goegeously against any backdrop. Like I said, my favorite color.
Nearby, the Yves Saint Laurent museum; tickets can be purchased either individually or with the admission to the gardens.
Out of this world is the best way I can describe my two days at Iguassu Falls. Sitting between the countries of Brazil and Argentina, the area is actually home to a series of spectacular falls. Graced with some of the best weather and adequate water flow in the falls - I was lucky enough to capture many awe-inspiring photos during my stay here.
We spent a total of two days at the falls, one on the Brazilian side, and the other in Argentina. I would definitely recommend seeing both sides, as they offer different vantage points that allows you to see different parts of the falls, and often different falls altogether, as Iguassu is a series of falls.
Bring your walking shoes for the visit, as many viewing platforms and vantage points require some hiking to get to. The trails are well worth it, however, as every turn one is greeted with heavenly views of water against the lush backdrop of the landscape.
Starting off in the Brazilian side…a trail leads to a network of platforms on which one can view the falls from the bottom. Gorgeous.
I took a ton of pictures, both with and without myself. Indulge me in this one that has yours truly in it - thanks > <
Also on the Brazilian side, a company called Helisu have been running helicopter rides over the falls for a number of years now. I will leave it up to you to opine on the safety of the operation, though one friend did caution me after viewing my videos from the ride that the angles at which the helicopter turned were rather steep, and the engines are known to stall at such angles…
Our second day was spent on the Argentinian side, which features a full fledged nature park, and offers many trails for hiking. There are also activities such as riding a boat into the falls (similar to ‘Maid of the Mist’ at Niagra), and 4x4 vehicle tours. The one place not to be missed is the viewing platform for Devil’s Throat. Surreal.
How do I not sound silly saying this? I, like, thought I was in heaven while gazing at the tumbling water from here. Like, yeah.
My time at the falls coincided with such wondrous weather that I incidentally also saw the most amount of rainbows I’d ever seen in my life. Must be a (majestic) mixture of the water droplets and sunlight (it is). But still gorgeous.
No more expounding on the beauty of this place. Only one thing: go see for yourself. Go. GO
Having always thought of Buenos Aires as a romantic city, my one day there was clouded by dreary weather, but adequately fascinating nonetheless.
Arriving in the city at night, we started our time in the country with some tradition asado, or grill/barbeque.
One day in Buenos Aires
Paired with red wine, I ordered a plate of mixed blood sausage, traditional Argentine chorizo, and sweetmeats.
Typical sides, including crispy potato slices and cheesy creamed spinach.
The typical style of eating Argentinian BBQ is to be served different cuts, and grilled meats at the table.
The Recoleta Cemetery is an unexpected but immensely well known stop in the city. Hailed as the final resting place for many of the city, and even the country’s rich and famous, many of the tombs and mausoleums are a sight to behold.
Interesting statue in the park next to the cemetery…perhaps meant to represent the weight of life?
La Boca is a colorful neighborhood known for its abundance of artists and vibrantly painted houses.
Tango is regularly performed in front of the Caminito, pictured below, site of inspiration for one of the more well-known tangos of the same name.
La Boca is well worth a stroll should one have the time, and is indeed a popular site in the city. Outside of the main tourist area, which is not large, the neighborhood is not particularly affluent and caution is warranted.
A brief stop for lunch, or rather pre-lunch (but lunch was unmemorable so I won’t make mention of it). An adorable old gentleman I discovered selling ready-made sandwiches off one of the main squares of the city center.
What meat/ham/egg combination that was in the sandwich I cannot describe, but it was delicious. (Some Googling turned up the result that the cuts might be a variation on ‘matambre’ - “a dish made of a meat roll stuffed with vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and herbs, then boiled or oven-roasted,” per Wikipedia.
One interesting thing that did come out of lunch was an introduction to mate, or maté - a traditional South American drink that contains ample caffeine, first consumed by the indigenous/native Guarani people and today immensely popular as a shared drink among locals in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and parts of Southern Brazil and Argentina.
The drink itself has a bitter, somewhat soil-like taste. It’s made of some kind of dried, ground powder (that reminds me of a cross between tea and matcha somewhat), and is consumed by pouring boiling water into a special wooden cup, pictured, and drinking the resulting brewed liquid through a special straw (also pictured) from the bottom of the cup. The straw is meant to be shared among friends, family, and neighbors. Indeed, our bus driver in Buenos Aires was drinking this concoction with our tour guides in the morning.
With a bit of time in the afternoon, we wandered off on our own. First stop - El Ateneo Grand Splendid - a bookstore, of all places. Not just any bookstore, however, an opera theater turned bookstore.
Once a performing arts theater and subsequent cinema, El Ateneo has been in existence since 1919. Consistently rated as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, this majestic bastion of knowledge on paper is worth a visit. ( I tried to come up with a better metaphor…)
One last stop before nightfall, a Sunday market we happened upon, one of many, apparently, that occurs on the day of rest in the city.
I believe this is the San Telmo market, one of the largest in the city. The coffee shop on the right, ‘Coffee Town,’ is known for serving up a great cup of joe if you’re in need of a caffeine kick or even need a quick bite to eat.
Ubiquitous in every city - an open air markets typically sell everything under the sun. In Argentina, it ranged from fresh product to copper pots.
On the advice of our guide - we opted to experience more of the Argentinean culture and went for a tango show/dinner combination that evening.
Though the clientele skews heavily towards tourists, Piazzolla offered a wonderful show and better-than-expected set menu dinner that came with the evening.
As can be typical with most Tango shows in Buenos Aires, the evening often begins with a tango lesson for the audience.
Then comes the main attraction, a little more than an hour of twists, turns, swivels, and intense energy from the dancers.
And that marks the end our packed day in Buenos Aires. Known for as a romantic city throughout the continent, our short stay here was definitely impacted by the rather gloomy weather. Nonetheless, our stay here served as a great introduction to the vast country of Argentina. Next - on to a part I’ve been waiting for and one of my main reasons for making the trip - Iguassu.
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
My three days in Rio de Janeiro was as fast-paced, exciting, and out of this world as I thought it would be. Though initially daunted by the rainy weather (winters in Brazil can be quite wet), ultimately my experience with this vibrant city was a great one. Below are some highlights (in approximate chronological order).
Christ the Redeemer was less omnipresent in the city than previously thought, the statue played hide and seek with us as he appeared in and out of the clouds. It is rather a journey to the statue itself, including a winding path through the national park that makes up most of the mountain under the Redeemer, and a switch into special buses to the statue itself.
Finally, however, we were graced with a glimpse of the statue through the fog.
The view from a nearby lookout in the national park - with Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance.
The famed neighborhood of Santa Teresa - draws visitors with its winding, narrow pasts and bohemian vibe. This trendy neighborhood is filled with art galleries and collectives, and apt stop for creative souvenirs.
Santa Teresa is also home to the famed Selaron Steps, a mosaic staircase created over a number of years by Jorge Selarón - featuring patterns and representations from around the world. One of the most colorful & recognizable stops in the city.
The steps consist of 2000 tiles collected from over 60 countries around the world.
Caipirinhas are nearly synonymous with Rio - you’ll find them peddled at nearly every street corner, and are ubiquitous on drinks menus around the city. Whether it be the beach of the top of Sugarloaf Mountain - I hardly seemed to find myself without one while I was there. Then again - I rarely like to find myself without a drink on vacation, so I suppose the point is null (?)
are Brazil's national cocktail. They are made with cachaça, sugar and lime, cachaça being the country’s classic distilled liquor. Variations on the caipirinha can be found with vodka, sake, and various flavors (typically fruit).
Nearby the steps, we stopped for a bite to eat. Local Brazilian fare features heavily on meat, but due to the nation’s history with Portugal - standard fare is also influenced strongly by the Portuguese.
A dish of sauteed sausage, onions, and a maize-based carb side with pork rinds that was out of this world.
Portugese egg tarts are common in Brazil, as is, of course, wine. The aged red wine (right), was typically consumed in sherry-like fashion. Heavy and sweet, it was very palatable as a digestif.
Confeitaria Colombo in the city-center is the oldest cafe in Rio - and rather splendid in its decor.
Stop by for a cup of coffee, and a pastel de nata (egg tart).
If you’re in the mood, the grand cafe also has an endless amount of pastries. Seating is standard, with traditional service, or pay at the cashier and eat at the counter.
Sugarloaf Mountain in nearly as synonymous with Rio as Christ the Redeemer, naturally one cannot step into the city for the first time without stopping by. Cable cars take you from the bottom of the mountain to the top, with a stop at a station midway en-route to the top of Sugarloaf.
The top of mountain features panoramic views of the city, and on a clear day one can see the statue in the distance.
There is a sizable area on the top, with various cafes, souvenir stores, and even…lemurs.
A whole family of lemurs (?) greeted us as we were snapping pictures of the view.
I must admit that going to Rocinha was one of the more difficult decisions of this trip. Having heard about the vibrant, albeit dangerous nature of the favelas of Rio, I was both wildly curious and, at the beginning, quite terrified of venturing inside.
Ultimately, curiosity got the better of me and I booked myself a spot on a tour. The guide was a local resident of the favela himself, having lived there for decades and reassured us that the negative press coverage of rampant crime and violence inside these miniature cities weren’t reflective of their true nature.
Due to the vast amounts of area covered by the favelas, each of these neighborhoods have their own transportation system inside. Seen below in yellow vests are the cab drivers of favela, who for a small fee will drive residents to their destinations within the labyrinth of housing.
Subsequent photos feature snapshots of life in the favela. With news constantly reporting of shootings, crime, and danger, it’s easy to forget that these places are homes to hundreds of thousands. Though recent political tensions have incited violence in many areas of Rio, I found the residents here most amenable and kind.
For less than 50 cents, soft serve made of 100% pure acai. Light and sweet, a refreshing bite in the middle of our walk in the favelas.
Inside Rocinha, there are larger streets that wind around buildings, but most residents live off of small alleyways hidden in the maze of dwellings, wires, stairs, and shelters molded into the side of the mountain on which the favela sits.
A restaurant that came highly recommended, and is indeed already immensely popular in Rio is Lasai. Book in advance to secure seats at the kitchen counter - for an immersive view of the bustling kitchen.
The one central element that has been missing in this post, given its about Rio…BEACHES. There are two main ones in the city - Copacabana and Ipanema.
Copacabana is the larger of the two beaches on the western side of the city - iconic for the waves on the sidewalk that run the length of the stretch of sand.
Graced with a sunny day on my last morning in Rio - the sun drew out locals and tourists alike by the sea. Lots of activity going on - a lot of people selling stuff (!) but also locals being active.
Among other popular beach activities, volleyball and, of all things, treasure hunting mad made the cut. Assuming they were looking for dropped valuables left behind by beach-goers, rather than hidden treasure, but….who knows!
This hut makes me regret not getting my lifeguard certification. Oh, how different life could be…
Stop by any of the myriad of beach-side cafes for a caiprinha and some food. Perfect.
The two beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema meet at a junction known as Copacabana Fort.
One can get a spectacular view of Ipanema beach from this higher vantage points of the rocks surrounding the fort.
Last but not least, don’t forget to stop by one of the ubiquitous Havaianas stores in the city & pick up a pair.
Before I end, just wanted to give a shout out to churrascarias, IMO the unsung heroes of the BBQ world, at least outside of the Latin world, anyway. Featuring a variety of meats and other grilled goods made in the central grill in the kitchen, these restaurants also typically have a buffet of vegetables, fruits, desert..and sushi.
Essentially all you can eat, Brazilian barbecue features waiters bring varies cuts of various meat on a large skewer.
This particular churrascaria wasn’t located in Rio, unfortunately, but on the Brazilian side of Iguassu Falls. I put it here because I didn’t want to distract from the majestic falls in that post - but lets face it, if you’re in Rio already, you might as well as make the trip to Iguassu. Seriously.
Ironically, my favorite grilled foodstuff during this meal was the pineapple. Turns out, hot pineapple? Absolutely phenomenal.
My week in Bali in pursuit of warmth in a midst of a freezing winter was thoroughly enjoyable, though somewhat underwhelming. As far as beaches go, Bali is somewhat middling as a tropic destination, though resorts offered impeccable hospitality and I had more than my fill of delicious Indonesian nosh. With its proximity to Hong Kong and value price range, its certainly a great choice for winter getaway for some sun, water, and on-par relaxation.
As with any tropical journey, lounging by the beach is a must. Preferably, of course, with a drink in hand and snacks.
The resort I stayed in was located in Jimbaran Bay, which had beautiful sunsets but somewhat mediocre beaches. Though the sand wasn't as fine as Australia's Whitehaven Beach, and the water not as crystal clear and blue as the Maldives, Bali was nonetheless an interesting and exotic tropical destination.
Perfect relaxation depends heavily on the locale. Choose your hotel wisely, as the island is comprised predominantly of resorts, and most guests spend a majority of their vacation on premise!
Cuisine, of course, is a large part of experiencing any new destination. Luckily, Bali had no shortage of delicious and colorful Indonesian dishes to offer.
Afternoon tea...for those with a sweet tooth.
Of course, no beach-side vacation is complete without a spa day. I chose the nearby Bamboo Spa by L'Occitane. A worthy experience, and a full day of pampering.
At some point, a weeklong stay in a beach vacation destination needs to be interlaced with a cultural day. The nearby town of Ubud and its surrounding region features exotic duck cuisine, monkeys, Kopi Luwak (poop coffee), rice terraces, and Tanah Lot Temple.
On the way to Ubud, we stopped at some artisan villages that each specialized in particular craft. Cloth making, woodwork, metal smithing and painting, the people of Bali lack no artistic talent.
Next stop: Monkey Forest. Not pictured are the plethora of monkeys running around the place, true to its name. A delightful midday stroll in the cool shade of the forest amidst many cute companions.
A quick lunch stop for a local delicacy, dirty duck, named for the ducks that are bred in rice paddies, whose feathers are often covered with mud.
We stop at a local favorite that's been serving up this 'bebek bengil' to tourists and locales alike for over a decade.
True to recommendations and reviews. the ducks prepared in Bali were some of the best I've ever had. Crispy and tender at once, the meat was succulent and cooked to perfection.
The restaurant offers a variety of other local favorites as well, and surprisingly, makes a mean iced Margherita.
Kopi Luwak, known as the world's most expensive coffee, is typically produced in the Indonesian Archipelago, including on the island of Bali. We visited a plantation which produces the coffee, which had its process of production on display from beginning to end.
Coffee beans are first grown and then eaten by the Asian palm civet, which are then passed out through their digestive system.
These coffee beans are partly encased in their shell, which must be removed to produce the coffee beans that are then packaged, sold, and used. As such, the beans are not directly digested and passed out by the animals, as many assume, and are somewhat more sanitarily encased in an outer shell.
The beans are then de-shelled, roasted, and then pulverized into powder.
The plantation offers booths by the river that guests can try various coffees, and ultimately kopi luwak. I thought the taste somewhat bitter and slightly more nutty than the average black coffee, thankfully no flavor hints that would indicate its already passed through the digestive system once.
A few animals that greeted us as we left, reminding us of the tropical climate that kopi luwak is produced in.
Last stop of the day, Tanah Lot, a temple situated on a rock rising out of the ocean. In times of low-tide, visitors can access the temple. Approaching the site near sunset, however, the tides were too high for the temple to be accessed. A lovely sight to behold nonetheless.
The sun setting over the ocean:
Any trip to Bali is arguably incomplete without a visit to the seafood grilles by Jimbaran Bay for dinner. With tables and chairs set up right on the sand, and fresh seafood barbecued to order, the sunset isn't the thing that makes this a worthy trip.
From grilled lobsters to chilli crab to oysters and more, its seafood-galore at this particular beach.
Unparalleled sunset views:
Last but not least, I leave Bali with a photo of this man, casually selling BBQ corn on the beach. What a cool dude. But actually.
My first time in Taiwan was spent during a period of three days in Taipei. It was, as per many (most) of my travels, filled with eating. Though to be fair, Taipei is well-known for its night-markets, the primary objective of which is to discover various eats at a multitude of booths that stretch hundreds of feet in either direction. More on that later!
My night arrival to Taipei turned into a quick walk around the area of the city I was staying at, Xinyi. The area is central to the metropolis, and features its landmark Taipei 101 as well as many malls and shopping areas.
Dinner at DinTaiFung, at the city where it originated in. Come early if you don't want to wait in an hour plus long line!
Day Two begun with a trip to YongKang Rd. Breakfast was beef noodles, at this famed local eatery that's been in the business since 1963.
Served with the option of half tendon and half beef flank, or either one, I chose the all tendon option for the succulent texture. The store also offers upon steamed intestine and glutinous rice, and ribs and gluntinous rice.
Breakfast part II took place a short walk away, in the form of grilled scallion pancakes. In case you were wondering, our itinerary was indeed largely driven by the philosophy of: stop and eat where there are lines.
The fluffy texture balances out the crispy exterior perfectly. Add egg and ham (right) for a heavier snack.
One last food stop on Yongkang Rd:
Cultural stop of the day, the Gugong Museum in Taipei:
We end the night with more food (as per usual), making a first stop at one of the city's famed nightmarkets. We chose Raohe Nightmarket because the cab driver recommended it, citing that it was less crowded than the more famous Shilin Nightmarket, though the latter is more frequented by tourists.
Fried fresh milk
Taiwanese sausage wrapped in glutinous rice, or more colloquially known, "a larger sausage wrapped around a smaller one," a mouthful, I know. However, it definitely is hands down my favorite nightmarket snack in Taiwan. A must try.
Boiled squid, tastes better than it sounds!
More squid! Grilled this time, and apparently from the...deep sea?
Fried chicken, in spicy sauce (right) paired with sugar cane juice for a sweet kick.
Skewers of various ingredients.
Taro milk, the main ingredient of which can be found in many snacks in Taiwan. Try it fried, steamed, or in this case, blended.
Two nightmarket staples - stinky tofu and oyster omelet:
Pepper pancakes, at the end of the walkway in this nightmarket, drawing plenty of crowds with its savory goodness and flaky crust.
Our third morning started with a journey to the top of Taipei 101. To avoid the observatory, we had a meal at the observatory restaurant instead. Fog and rain ensured we didn't get to see much, unfortunately.
A post-lunch hike to Xiangshan, chasing after missed photo opportunities of the Taipei skyline. Luckily, by the time we hiked up the mountain,
Our efforts were rewarded with clearer skies and a view of the Taipei skyline.
There is even a booth at the peak for a quick pit-stop, or a photo-op.
As the night began to fall, we wandering to the Ximending, the pedestrian shopping area of Taipei.
At the recommendation of a local, we were advised to try Yangtao, or Starfruit Ice at a local outlet that's been serving the sweet/sour concoction since 1966.
Pineapple ice on the left, starfruit on the right. I recommend the namesake ice on the left because of its sour notes. Both bowls feature chunks of the marinated fruit in addition to ice. A simple delight.
Our last stop in Taipei, another nightmarket, naturally. We stopped at nearby NingXia nightmarket, and of course, ate too much.
Arguably the most famous stall in the market, Aunty's Rice-balls always has a line, and with just one aunty making 'em, you'd better settle down for the long haul when getting in this queue.
The rice-balls are completely handmade, and once you finally approach the front of the line, you can watch it being put together with lightening efficiency. Inside, its stuffed with dried fried dough stick, pork bits, salted cabbage.
A must have in Taiwan, braised-pork rice is famously served in this franchised outlet, known as Bearded Zhang. Yum.
Individual pots are served here, where the pots are prepared outside and brought in with the ingredients fully cooked.
Glutinous purple rice milk, featuring the two namesake ingredients blended with sugar - actually delicious.
Finally, I end my (mostly edible) journey into Taipei with another taro treat. This time, fried.
As luck would have it, the four days I spent in Ireland in the summer of 2018 saw the Emerald Isle have some of the warmest weather in nearly two decades. Though not nearly long enough to fully explore the country, my two days in Dublin and day trips to the Cliffs of Moher and Northern Ireland were filled with scenery, good food & drink (read: Guinness & whiskey), and good cheer.
Let me just start by saying that Ireland was, in many ways, not what I expected. The food was excellent - almost every meal hearty, savory, and choke full of meat & potatoes, or seafood. The Guinness - best in the world at its point of origin - naturally. The people, incredibly nice and honest folks who are always happy to help anyone out.
The Spire, below, a landmark in the city of Dublin where locals frequently use as a point of meeting. Indeed, it was used as a location to convene my first day in the city.
If you're someone that needs coffee in the mornings, opt to stop by Vice, a popular caffeine haunt with the locals - that occupies a bar within a Brazilian restaurant during the day time. And because its never too early - grab an Irish coffee while you're at it.
Breakfast wise - the country is most famous for its traditional Irish breakfast. Because there are so many components (10!), I took the liberty of labeling the photo for simplicity's sake. My favorite was the black pudding, essentially a sausage containing blood that's patty-like in its consistency. FYI white pudding is the same thing, just without the blood!
If you're less of a breakfast person, however, opt for a pastry at Camerino instead. Locally owned and sourced fresh, this bakery offers up some delicious scones made with that famed Irish butter.
Of course, I couldn't keep away from the whiskey distilleries of this famed isle for long. I started with a tour of the classic - Jameson.
Having arrived early for our tour - we opted for a few drinks at JJ's Bar within the distillery. Left, two classics: an old fashioned and a whiskey sour. Right, one of my favorites sampled during the trip (and I sampled...quite a few), Midleton Very Rare. The description said something about hints of something else - but I tasted vanilla.
We opted for a tour of the distillery and a "cask-draw" experience. The tour itself featured a lot of interactive exhibits that Jameson just spent 15 million dollars renovating, and a tasting at the end.
Exhibit I: History
The distillery was founded in 1810 when John Jameson took over Bow Street Distillery in Dublin, formerly owned by his wife's cousins. Incidentally, she also hailed from one of the great families of whisky distillation in Scotland. You know what they say...behind every great man....
Exhibit II: Distillation Process
Exhibit III: Tasting
Obviously my favorite part of the tour - although the various projections and videos were quite educational in terms of learning about whiskey production.
The cask draw experience was interesting in that it was located in one of the only maturation warehouses (where whiskey is aged in barrels) in the city of Dublin.
Due to its highly flammable nature, this particular warehouse was outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment and various sensors.
Below, our guide opening the cask from which we sampled whiskey in the process of maturation.
Tools used in the opening of the cask
Pipettes in the center top of the photo were used to add a few drops of water into the whiskey from cask, diluting it slightly to bring out the rich flavors
Dinner time! In search of traditional Irish cuisine, Boxty House came highly recommended by our local guide.
Though Guinness understandably dominates the beer market in the country, Boxty House makes its own craft brew.
A sample of their own in-house craft beer selection
Seafood is abundant and fresh in Ireland - with oysters in particular offered on menus across the nation. Crisp and smooth, a squeeze of lemon is all you need to bring out the rich flavors of Irish oysters.
Bread - a favorite among the Irish aside from potatoes (hate to say that I found the stereotype true during my time here). Soda bread is a type of 'quick bread' that's leavened with bake soda instead of yeast, giving it a heartier consistency and denser constitution.
Soda bread, top right, is a local staple, and often paired with many types of stews and other main dishes in a meal. The middle slice is a loaf baked with Guinness (hence the color), and has the rich depth of the stout in its flavor. The lighter slice was my personal favorite, and had a flaky, scone-like consistency, pairing perfectly with that famed Irish butter.
When thinking of traditional Irish fare, hearty stews and soups often spring to mind. Left, a tasting of three ubiquitous stews of Ireland: beef & stout stew, traditional Irish stew (mutton, potatoes, onions, parsley), and my personal favorite: coddle (sausage, potatoes, vegetables). Right, Irish seafood chowder.
Now for the namesake dish of the restaurant - boxty - essentially a traditional Irish potato pancake. The dishes below are wrapped in the boxty, and features various meat, vegetable, and sauce concoctions within,
Above right, the Gaelic Boxty, with Irish beef medallions and onions in a Leitrim boxty pancake, drenched in delicious mushroom and whiskey sauce. Very Irish, as its name suggests. Very, very good.
Corned Beef Boxty: diced corned beef and cabbage served in a creamy parsley sauce, wrapped in a boxty pancake.
My second day in Dublin (actually the last day of my trip to Ireland), began with...well...Guinness for breakfast. To be fair, its my understanding that beer has a good amount of carbohydrates in it. And Guinness, I found out, actually has lower alcohol by volume (ABV) than many beers, despite its darker color.
Even today, Guinness is still brewed on-site at the storehouse in Dublin. Below is an aerial shot of (what I think) is their production facilities from its rooftop Gravity Bar, offering panoramic views of the city as well.
To be fair, its my understanding that beer has a good amount of carbohydrates in it. And Guinness, I found out, actually has lower alcohol by volume (ABV) than many beers, despite its darker color.
As with all production tours - it ends with a sample of the product. Did you know that Guinness is actually ruby red when held up to the light, and not the typical dark color we asscoiate with the stout?
One of the exhibits featured past marketing efforts of the brand. This room played many of Guinness' more memorable ads on loop on ultra-wide screen - pretty cool.
The self-guided tour starts from the first level and moves its way upward. Definitely don't forget to redeem your complimentary Guinness that comes with your storehouse ticket at the Gravity Bar on the rooftop of the building, and have your libation with some sweeping views of the Dublin.
Admittedly the pint of Guinness this morning was supposed to be breakfast...but let's just say certain beverages seem more potent when consumed on an empty stomach. Luckily, the food at the Guinness Storehouse was some one of the best meals I had in the city.