out of the big city and into pura vida.

In Costa Rica, there’s a saying called “pura vida” which literally translates to “pure life,” and it’s unavoidable: you find it on signs, clothing, storefronts and on the lips of locals. It rolls off the tongue everywhere you go, but it isn’t just a touristy phrase: it truly embodies a way of life unlike any I’ve ever known.

This little marvel of a country rests in Central America below Nicaragua and above Panama, and it’s sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east. When I was initially deciding where to go in Latin America, everything about this place seemed pretty attractive to me: its main exports are coffee and bananas (two of my favorite things!), it has rainforests but also beaches, and it contains 5% of Earth’s biodiversity. What’s not to love about that?

But if I thought I knew what this country would give me, I was wrong.

I’ve long wanted to do some international solo traveling, but I wanted to do it in a way that felt authentic and would allow me to meet as many people and see as much of the country as possible. Enter Contiki. You could pretty much rename it “the Millennial Travel Company,” as it’s for 18-35 year olds like myself who want to get away. Here’s why it’s perfect: Contiki essentially plans excursions in countries all over the world, and you pick your length of trip and the style of travel you prefer (adventure-seeker, in-depth explorer, volunteer, etc.), pay ahead of time, find your own flights, and then you’re off! The only costs you’re responsible for after you reach your destination are a few meals, alcohol and add-on adventures, which are optional, but usually most of the group participates in them because they’re awesome (think white water rafting and cruising on a catamaran).

In the planning stages of this trip, everything sounded like a dream to me, and while I was a bit nervous about traveling with an entire group of people I didn’t know, I was more excited to be in a new place and to have people to explore it with. Travel is way more fun when you share it, and I knew the adventures I’d have here would be unlike anything I’ve ever done before.

Arriving on my own in San José was an exhilarating feeling. I was 100% alone in a country where I don’t speak the native language and had to find my own way to our meeting point at a hotel downtown. My first task in the airport was to get some local cash. When I travel I always prefer to use ATMs to do this rather than exchange money, because it’s hard to find a currency exchange agency that has a fair rate (airports NEVER EVER DO don’t do it) and I’d also read that because tourism is such an integral contributor to Costa Rica’s economy, American dollars are accepted pretty much everywhere. Even the locals use them, which is really strange to watch!

Figuring out how many colones to take out of my bank account was quite the experience. I kept using my phone to do conversions because I realized I had no idea what they equated to in dollars, and eventually I reluctantly typed “50,000” into the machine, double- and triple-checking that I’d selected “colones.” (It amounts to about $88.) I’m happy I did things this way, because vendors in Costa Rica dispense change in colones even if you give them dollars, so I was never really lacking for local currency during my stay.

My nerves were kicking in at this point, and I was eager to find my way into town and get this adventurous show on the road! When I arrived at the hotel, I waited at the front desk next to a blonde woman who looked to be about my age and seemed like she might also be on a trip that tours the country with a bunch of strangers. As I was checking in, the concierge told me I was rooming with someone named Lindsay, and the blonde woman spoke up and introduced herself as Lindsay and just like that, a friendship was born.

Lindsay deserves a full-on shoutout on this blog; she will go down in history as my first-ever Contiki roommate, though I was far from hers, as this trip was her sixth (!!) with the company. She’s been to twice as many countries as I have (#30before30), but what’s truly cool about her is that by day she’s a nurse in the NICU (babies!) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which tells you straight away how big her heart is.

Linz & me
life jacket queens.

Lindsay was my Contiki ride-or-die. From the moment we met, I felt our personalities gel as they only do with great friends, and our interaction as roommates was only ever awkward for the first ten minutes or so when we were getting to know each other. After that, we were bonded for life. Throughout the trip she looked out for me and I her, and she was just lovely and encouraging and fun, and our senses of humor are one and the same. I felt privileged to be adventuring with a seasoned traveler and genuine person. Linz, I love ya, and I can’t wait for more travel adventures with you!

rocky i love you

After we got settled in, Lindsay walked with me to the Central Mercado, where my senses were suddenly overwhelmed with choice! There was fresh meat, all sorts of fruit, handmade goods and mostly local cuisine. I didn’t know what local cuisine consisted of yet, so I opted for some kind of pastry with beans and cheese resembling an empanada (it was delicious). I learned that my new roommate can speak a bit of Spanish because she’s traveled extensively in Latin and South America, and this was super helpful, especially on my first day when I was just getting used to hearing the language all around me.

San José is a scenic, lively city. As Costa Rica’s capital, the streets are busy and filled with cars and people, but everyone we met was kind and everywhere we went was interesting. This is one of my favorite scenes from the streets.

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The architecture here is something special, as it doesn’t adhere to one specific theme. The Teatro Nacional was completed in 1897 and initially stood as a cultural symbol of the country during a time when coffee exports were the main source of economic success. Now, in addition to producing high-end theatre, it’s home to the National Symphony Orchestra and is a tourist attraction.

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I’m happy our time in San José was limited, because in truth I didn’t come to Costa Rica to spend much time in a bustling city. I came to explore nature and find animals and make new friends.

Fortunately, that evening the group got acquainted in the hotel bar. We made hasty introductions and then went to a restaurant called Aqui es! (“Here it is!”) for our first meal together. All in all our group numbered about 17, with a few others joining us in a couple of days due to flight delays. Seventeen sounds like an absurd amount of people to travel with, but here’s my honest take on it: We were thrown into this experience so quickly, and I’m a firm believer that sharing meals together is a genuine way to get to know someone. Throughout the trip, it truly never felt like we were too many people to get to know, and it meant I could sit next to or eat with someone new each day to change things up. It also ensured there was always someone or a small group to hang out with even when others went off to do something else.

Our Contiki Tour Manager was Erick, a San José native with the most gorgeous eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a man in my life. He’s also one of the kindest and most genuine people I’ve ever met, and as the trip progressed and we all got to know each other better I learned a lot about him. Erick clearly enjoys his job, and because he was our age, it was easy for us to connect with him during our free time in the evenings. He was responsible, knowledgeable and overall an incredible guide for us.

After dinner, despite the travel fatigue most of us were feeling, several of us went to a bar down the street from our hotel that served shit tequila they were trying to pass off as Cuervo. Either way, it was nice to get to know everyone a little better. I realized how truly varied our group was, from nurses to dentists to marketers to weather forecasters to law students to teachers. Our personalities were all over the map, but as I’d learn over the next few days, spending all of your time with the same group of people for over a week forces you to seek out the good in them, and because a passion for travel was everyone’s common denominator, it made the hurdle of “becoming friends” easy to get over.

The next morning we were due out of San José at 6am: our heading was Tortuguero, in the heart of Costa Rica’s rainforests. We all woke bright and early and boarded our colorful little Contiki bus and met our darling driver, Felix, who speaks little English but has a hearty laugh and a radiant soul to match. He soon became a favorite part of the trip for everyone.

The drive was really our first glimpse into native Costa Rican culture. We rode through banana plantations and local villages, men selling pineapples on street corners, and houses with front doors wide open, which I took to mean the country was inviting us in. I felt my soul level itself with this new culture, and I couldn’t wait to get off the bus and experience it for myself.

Arriving in Tortuguero is truly an experience like I’ve never had before. We were scheduled to stay inside the national park, which is of course protected land due to the vast species of wildlife that inhabit the area. Because of its remote location, it’s only accessible by boat or small aircraft. So, all of us piled into a speedboat, luggage and all, and began our hour-long ride into the depths of the forest.

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what a motley crew! photo via the lovely Gayzel Velasquez/our favorite dentist, Dr. Kyle.

Talk about a view. Riding in on the river, it’s impossible not to be awed by the sheer complexity of the vegetation here, which seems to grow on top of each other in bold variations of green and with leaves larger than my head. I understand the meaning of the word “canopy” now, as the trees tower over all of us, human and animal and river alike. It’s breathtaking.

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Our accommodations in Tortuguero National Park were at the Pachira Lodge, a charming little rainforest resort that feels like staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge in Walt Disney World, only more real. There are animals EVERYWHERE. As Lindsay and I headed off to our room to freshen up, we found howler monkeys on the roof of our lodge. And not a couple of them. SIX of them, an entire family, including a sweet little baby. It is amazing to never have spent much time around monkeys and then to suddenly be sharing space with them so freely. We also came across crabs (huge, lively white ones unlike the small blue ones I’m used to from living in Maryland), teeny but vibrant lizards and my personal favorite, the Blue Morpho butterfly. I knew that Blue Morphos existed in South America, particularly in Brazil and the Amazon region, but I had no idea I’d encounter them here. They are so stunning to see up close, and gigantic. This hotel happened to be full of them and I was grateful for the chance to witness them in a natural habitat. I’m sure I was in awe of this place until I left it.

Late that afternoon we took a boat down the river to the small village of Tortuguero, from the Spanish “tortuga” for “turtle” and so named for the sea turtles that come to nest on the beaches here each summer. It was a bit too early in the year for us to see any (sad face) but still nice to know they visit frequently! We stopped by a Sea Turtle Conservancy, which researches the natural behaviors of the turtles who come ashore to nest, and that of their offspring as well, who always return to nest on the beach where they were born. (What a cool job these people have.) One thing I’ve found to be true about Costa Rica is that often you go somewhere for one purpose and wind up discovering something completely unexpected. This, my friends, was my first encounter with leaf-cutter ants!! For such tiny insects, they are both terrifying and awe-inspiring to watch in action. From far off, they appear to be one little trail of green specks in motion low to the ground. Up close, they number by the thousands and are small but mighty, essentially comprised of one long trail of ants, each carrying sections of leaves they’ve chomped away from trees themselves. I read that leaf-cutter ants can destroy an ENTIRE TREE in ONE DAY (!!) and they bring the sections of leaves back to their colony to feed their queen. It truly is a woman’s world, y’all.

cersei

The town of Tortuguero is actually a tiny village on the edge of the rainforest’s shore, and it’s a true embodiment of the “pura vida” way of life. The people are open and warm, and everything is colorful and simple. Children run barefoot through the muddy paths, shop owners greet people happily, and vendors sell “coco loco,” a coconut filled with rum and who knows what else. (Of course I had one. On the beach. For Instagram.)

I had to stop here and appreciate my surroundings for a moment. Here I am, on one of the first full days of this trip, with 16 strangers I’d met just a day and a half ago, drinking on the beach in a national park in the middle of a rainforest. What is my life??

Our meals were mostly provided by the lodge during our stay, and it was some of the best food I’ve ever had. Everything tastes so fresh. Lots of rice and beans, plantains, fish, and always fresh pineapple and papaya and good, strong coffee. I DESPERATELY miss Costa Rican coffee (sorry, New York, but yours can’t compare).

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: This was the only area on our trip where the water wasn’t safe to drink out of the tap, but the resort has water coolers filled with filtered water, so no worries as long as you’ve brought a bottle with you. Also, the humidity.

OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD THE HUMIDITY.

I thought I knew what humidity was, having grown up in the Northeast and lived in Central Florida for a summer. As it turns out, I did NOT. I have never in my entire life been to a more humid place than Costa Rica. My clothes would. Not. Dry. For three days, they remained at a certain level of moist that is altogether unpleasant for someone who’s essentially backpacking across a country for nine straight days. But as uncomfortable and strange as this was, it was probably my only worry through the entire trip.

Friends, I have to tell you, although this had already been an incredible day, the most unbelievable and 100% most memorable part is falling asleep in the rainforest during a thunderstorm with the animals in their natural habitat making their native sounds. I leave you with this thought as I reread this post 100 times, trying to recapture all Costa Rica gave me in such a short amount of time.

And I’m just getting started.

Pura vida xx

one Ring Road to rule them all.

Just call me Céline Dion, because it’s all coming back to me now.

A friend of mine just got back from Iceland, and as she traversed the Golden Circle and posted similar pictures on her Instagram as I had a year before, the thrill of it began to hit me all over again.

Tourism has revitalized Iceland’s modern economy, so pretty much anywhere you go in the country, you have to share it with a bunch of other foreigners. But it’s not a big deal, really. If you’re always focused on places being crowded with travelers, you’ll miss out on the fact that other curious people are enjoying the experience of a place as much as you are.

I have to remind myself of this constantly, as someone who now takes up a bit of space in a metropolitan area that holds 8.5 million people. Living in New York City has taught me to walk as often as I can and to always look around, look around. This city is expansive, overwhelmingly so at times, but it has little pockets of beauty if you take time to notice them. I always try to Instagram the ones that stick with me most, like this gorgeous wall in my neighborhood and this little waterfall on 53rd Street in Midtown.

Reykjavík is like New York, not in size, but in substance. It’s a small city, but it’s charming and full of surprises. There’s unusual street art, colorful houses and a mix of cultural influences that make it pretty unforgettable and totally remarkable.

 

It welcomes you in when you arrive, with its ocean views, mountains in the distance and wide, winding streets that remind me of those in Paris. When it snows, everything is so still you can almost hear it fall.

Part of the fun of traveling is exploring the local cuisine, or drinking at the village pub. I try to make sure to do both, no matter where I am! The food in Iceland is pretty good: because of its coastal proximity, seafood is a prime ingredient in most dishes, so keep this in mind if you’re not a fan of fruit from the sea. However, my good friend is a vegetarian and she didn’t have any trouble eating when we went out, or finding things on the menu that are veggie-friendly.

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If you’re a beer aficionado, you won’t have to look too hard to find it. We spent an evening at MicroBar, named one of Reykjavík’s 11 coolest bars. As the name suggests, this place is Iceland’s newest microbrewery and supports small brewers, both local and foreign. I’m no expert, but my favorite is the Northern Lights beer. The name may seem cheesy, but don’t let it put you off. It’s delicious! If it’s not your thing, there are plenty of other obscure-sounding brews to try, like the Tactical Nuclear Penguin from Scotland. (I desperately wish I could have been in the room when they named this beer.) Or better yet, get a flight and try them all!

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The Frederiksen Ale House is also a fine place to have a drink or share a meal. It’s family-owned and operated, and the staff is super friendly and also amazing at guest photography. I mean, any place with an appetizer of JUST bacon is fine by us.

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After getting our fill of the city, we went back to our AirBnB and prepared for the next day’s road trip across Iceland’s southern coast. We’d booked a tour of a glacier four hours east of Reykjavík, so we had an itinerary of scenic locations to see along the Ring Road, the main route which connects all of the inhabited parts of the island.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Unlike other popular destinations, Iceland has left much of its natural land the way it is, withholding development. As such, it’s not like driving the coast in the States. There aren’t a lot of rest areas or restaurants along the way aside from gas stations, which don’t offer much by way of full meals, so make sure you pack some sandwiches, snacks and plenty of water if you’re going to make the drive. There are several supermarkets in the city where you can stock up the night before you go.

The trip to the east coast and back takes about eight hours total, and with four of us in our travel group, it divided up nicely into two-hour driving segments for each person. The stopping points are spaced out relatively evenly to coincide with this equation, too.

We left Reykjavík around 7am, and I still wasn’t quite awake as we piled into the rental car. The sun was just rising in the distance. It was cold, but the sky was slowly waking behind the snow-topped mountains. We had good music, interesting conversations and nothing but time and adventures ahead of us. And my thoughtful friends knew that as long as I had coffee, I could navigate the morning just fine.

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As you travel the Ring Road, it’s apparent that it was built for a reason: to conveniently link most of the tourist or scenic locations along Iceland’s coast, effectively in a neat circle that follows the shape of the island. It can get pretty snowy the further out you go, at least in winter. In my experience driving it, the snow makes visibility tough in some areas, because everything quickly turns into a blanket of white and the road disappears to blend in with its natural surroundings. There aren’t many dividers, guardrails or reflective surfaces to guide you through the weather. Additionally, sometimes the snow can cause road closures, and because there’s one lane in either direction and few other routes around, be sure to check the forecast as you’re mapping out this journey.

The first stop on this route is the stunning Seljalandsfoss, a small waterfall with a cave behind it. If you leave the city early enough, as the sun is just taking its place in the sky, it hits perfectly in the background to give you your first breathtaking view of the day, of which there will be many.

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You can get out and walk here. It’s freezing as you near the falls, but you can walk behind them, and that’s pretty rad. The falls originate from a river off the Eyjafjallajökull volcano glacier. It’s a popular spot for its panoramic beauty, having been featured in Justin Bieber’s “I’ll Show You” music video. I never exactly caught Bieber Fever, but I’ll give him points for showcasing this place. It makes for a lovely way to start a long and scenic journey.

Seljalandsfoss is a great photo op, but more waterfalls are ahead at Skógafoss. This is probably my favorite place in Iceland, simply for its majesty. The falls, named for their proximity to the Skógá River and the nearby village of Skógar, formed here when the original coastline receded, leaving sea cliffs behind. Because of the large drop and the volume of spray the falls produce, a rainbow is usually visible next to the falls on sunny days, which is inexplicably cool.

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This is the place that convinced me that Iceland is a magical planet we don’t deserve.

There’s a climbing path here, steep like a hiking trail. It’s a long way up, but it provides an overhead view of the falls, which are crowded with tourists down on the ground, making it hard to get a good photograph without a wayward head or hand in your shot. The upper view also provides a solid lookout point for the Icelandic countryside.

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One of my favorite things about driving the Ring Road is passing through valleys of scattered mountains and volcanoes, some of which are still active or have recently been active, as is the case with Eyjafjallajökull, near Skógafoss. It last erupted in 2010, disrupting air traffic over much of Europe for over a month. Seeing this grandeur outside the car windows right next to me was part of the amazing wonder of Iceland. It made me think about the people who live in the tiny villages below the mountains, far away from civilized life. It made me think about the land and how untouched it is and how it remakes itself with each new volcanic eruption or shift in the earth. It made me think about how much we, as humans, underestimate the natural capacity this world has, and how much we should appreciate it.

After the falls, it takes another couple of hours to reach Vík í Mýrdal, more commonly known as Vík, a town famed for its black sand beaches at Reynisfjara. This is the southernmost point in all of Iceland. The water here is surprisingly dangerous, known for its “sneaker” waves, an Icelandic term for what I can only equate to riptides. It was February when we were there, so we had no intention of even going near the water, but I desperately wanted to walk the beach. I’d never seen black sand before I got here. It’s strange, different in both color and texture than what I’m used to. There are also enormous basalt towers, naturally carved, much like those of the Giants’ Causeway in Northern Ireland, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and a tale for another day.

You don’t need more than 20 minutes or so at Vík; there isn’t much else around, and you have a schedule to keep. But take time to marvel at the ocean. I grew up in South Jersey, only ever an hour away from the shore, and so the ocean is a part of my being. Nothing lies due south of Iceland except Antarctica, so the view is pure sea, as far as the sightline goes.

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Back in the car once more! It’s time to go explore a GLACIER.

Vatnajökull is the largest ice cap in Iceland, covering more than eight percent of the country, and it can be seen from space on satellite images of the island. Its name means “water glacier” in English, and the most remarkable thing about this place is that due to the way the water melts, new ice caves form as the seasons change, meaning the ice here is never the same. We had the great fortune of being guided inside, but it’s also stunning from the exterior. 

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It’s quite a famous location, having been used for the opening sequence of the James Bond film A View to a Kill, starring Roger Moore, in 1985, a year before I was born. More recently, it served as a filming location for Season 2 of one of my all-time favorite series, Game of Thrones. In Iceland, winter is always here.

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If Jon Snow were here, he’d most likely agree with me when I say that winter hits you totally in the face in Iceland, but not in the ways you’re used to. For instance, it feels completely surreal to walk INSIDE OF A GLACIER. Like, here I am in an ice cave that Earth naturally made, which will melt and then refreeze next winter into something completely different. EXCUSE ME? HOWWWWWW.

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The tours here are guided, because you need to wear crampons over your boots to ensure you don’t slip on the ice, and you have to ride over the glacier in a van to get out to the ice cave you can walk through. But what an isolating, remarkable experience.

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Iceland is more than anyone bargained for, and I will stand by that statement until I die. It’s easily one of the coolest, most interesting and unexpected places I’ve ever visited in the world, and as I reminisce on this trip I took just over a year ago, I’m still marveling that I got to be there at all. What a beauty and a privilege.

Thanks for inviting me into your beautiful country. I hope I get the chance to go back someday.

wine

Cheers. xx

why is everyone talking about Iceland?

I’m slow to believe the hype on a lot of things, but the Magical Unicornland called Iceland is not one of them.

This teeny country has been on my travel radar since that very first flight I took to Paris in 2007. We had a brief layover on the way, and as I was 20 at the time, I only vaguely remember random bits about the airport in Reykjavík: there were indoor smoking lounges full of Europeans who were significantly cooler than me, you could buy fresh fish fillets right from the shops, and “Cool Ranch” Doritos were called “Cool American” instead, but still tasted the same (I checked).

It seemed like a strange country, but I desperately wanted to know more about it.

Luckily for me, one of the best things to happen to modern travel is WOW! Air. (This post is not sponsored, I just really like them.)

It seems like a gimmick, and I get it. “Fly to Iceland for $100 each way!” These days, travel and airline sites seem to be flooded with DEALS DEALS DEALS to Iceland, which I’m pretty sure exists in everyone’s heads as this floating frozen enigma somewhere in the middle of the ocean.

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It was only a few years ago that this place started becoming oh-so-popular among bloggers and adventure seekers, and people actually started going there and discovering its wonders. And then it exploded onto the travel scene as not only magical, but affordable.

Firsthand, I’m here to tell you that everyone in the world SHOULD be talking about Iceland. And you should pretty much be boarding a flight there tomorrow.

ON THE FLY: How is a place so beautiful so cheap to get to? Well, value airlines are pretty much the only way to fly these days. But it’s important to know what you’re getting, and also what you’re not getting. Value airlines are what they are, and they don’t claim to be anything else. The price of your flight includes the base fare and taxes, and that’s it. No baggage fees, no meals, no in-flight entertainment. I honestly don’t know why people are shocked by this. You get what you pay for! This isn’t Emirates, dahling.

Seriously, though, value airlines are your friend! Here’s how to combat everything you DON’T get when you fly with them:

  • Have a meal or, if you’re me, a few drinks in the airport before boarding. Make sure that tummy is full and that head is a little fuzzy!
  • Pack snacks to sustain you during the flight. Most airlines, even value ones, let you bring unopened food with you, although you may have to remove it from your bags for security screening. (Pro tip: Mini bottles of alcohol are TSA-approved!)
  • Bring a reusable water bottle to stay hydrated. Most airports now have water fountains installed for this purpose, anticipating travelers’ use of their own bottles. I take my S’well bottle wherever I go!
  • Make playlists on your phone or download Netflix shows to keep you entertained until you land. Portable chargers are a great thing to bring, too, in case the plane doesn’t have a charging outlet for you.
  • Challenge your mind with crossword puzzles or Sudoku, or write in your travel journal. Give your eyes a break from the screens they stare at all day.
  • Do the old flight standby: Take some Dramamine and knock the fuck out until you touch down.

In truth, WOW! Air is a fine way to fly. Everyone was friendly and the flight was on-time. No complaints here! If you can get me from New York to Iceland for less than a flight to Vegas, I don’t really care if you have to strap me to the roof of the damn plane. I’ll do it.

So suddenly there I was, in the first country I’d ever been to where I didn’t speak the native language. (As it turns out, EVERYONE in Iceland speaks English, so no worries there.) By sheer happenstance, the gentleman who owned the AirBnB my friends and I had booked in Reykjavík was working in New York at the time, so I met up with him the day before we left to pick his brain about the ins and outs of visiting Iceland. He was very kind, and with every word he said, I could feel the love he felt for his home country. He told me that tourism has 100% revitalized the country’s economy, hence the boom of travel sites offering discounts to go there. It all makes sense now!

Our lovely host also suggested we rent a car and visit areas of the country’s southern coast, where nature truly puts on a show.

He wasn’t wrong, y’all. LOOK AT THIS SHIT.

Are you freaking kidding me?! I had no idea what I was in for.

It was February when we arrived in Iceland, and winter was in full swing. It was cold. I can’t lie about that. But believe me when I say that everything else was so spectacular, I forgot how damn cold it was all the time. And I grew up in the Northeast, where winters are often unforgiving.

Reykjavík is a small city, but it’s lovely. Distinctly European, vaguely Scandinavian. It’s quiet, but subtly in-your-face with its mountainous backdrop and seaside air. You can walk the entire city in a day, but there’s plenty to do. The food is decent and the beer is flowing. It snowed our first night there, and everything was so soft and hushed that it felt like living inside of a snowglobe.

The day we arrived, we had a hot date with the Blue Lagoon. This is a first-rate tourist trap, and we all knew it, but we also knew that we’d regret not going. So despite the jet lag, we made the drive and stood in line for ages. It seemed so silly to be getting ready to strip down to our swimsuits and when there was an actual ICE STORM outside. I remember being so cold in that line that I took a picture of myself to remember how cold I felt.

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If you can put aside the fact that this place is crowded as fuck until you get into the pool, you’ll be fine. Europeans are notoriously better at being comfortable with public showers and changing rooms than Americans are, but just get over it and walk around in your Speedo. Everyone else is! Blue Lagoon rules stipulate that you need to shower once before you get into the pool (hooray, cleanliness!) and they provide special soaps and hair conditioners to counteract the minerals in the water. Just do as they say and get a little grimey. It’s all part of the experience.

And it’s worth it.

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this photo was taken by the lovely Chan Gupta.

How often do you get to drink alcohol in a geothermal pool under the stars while it snows?!

When I say I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life, I mean it. There’s nothing like being out in nature, even if it is man-made and even if it is with a few hundred strangers.

On the ride home that night, after in-the-water face masks and swim-up bars and showering a lot more than I usually do in one day, it was quite dark, and all of us were delirious with exhaustion but more relaxed than we’d ever been in our lives. With our eyes upturned, we were in dreamland.

And then the Northern Lights appeared.

I kid you not, we hadn’t even been in Iceland for 12 hours before the sky lit up green for us.

We were all literally screaming out of the windows as we stopped the car and ran into a field (A SUPER SAFE IDEA FOR A GROUP OF GIRLS IN A STRANGE COUNTRY AT NIGHT DON’T DO THIS OKAY), gazing skyward like idiots. It was faint, and not quite what you see in photographs online (a symptom of being pretty late in the season for ideal viewing), but unmistakable.

By the time we got back to our apartment that night, I felt like my trip was complete, and we’d just arrived. That first day felt like five whole days, but we were only getting started.

Following our host’s advice, we’d planned a few things to do outside of Reykjavík. We were excited to get out of the city and see what this country had to offer. Be sure to follow this sign.

sign

The next day, we drove out into the snowy countryside to begin our adventures on the famed Golden Circle. This is Iceland’s most touristic route, and it loops out from Reykjavík to the southern uplands and back again, making for an easy day’s journey.

We first stopped to explore Þingveiller National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a true wonder. It’s unlike any national park I’ve ever been to, in that it’s basically a wide open area of untouched land, full of mountains, rock structures and waterfalls. There are paths to walk through, but it isn’t confining or restricting. In fact, it’s expansive.

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beauty.
thingvellir 3
more beauty.
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never leaving.

The place is like a postcard, and it’s truly a display of Earth’s magnitude. It sits in a rift valley, which is essentially a lowland formed by the action of a geologic rift or fault; the park lies where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. (I secretly love earth science.) It also partially houses Iceland’s largest natural lake, Þingvallavatn.

I’ve seen photos of the place in other seasons, and it’s a sea of green. I’m glad I visited in winter, though; the snowy overlay made everything appear so stunning, like it was jumping out at me, and I’m not sure I’d have appreciated it as much if I’d gone in warmer temperatures.

After spending a few hours walking through the park, chasing waterfalls and posing for #snowselfies, we got back in the car and headed for the second stop on the Golden Circle tour: the Geysir of Haukadalur.

There are actually two geysirs (geysers) here: The Great Geysir, simply referred to as Geysir, and its smaller companion, Strokkur. While Geysir has been dormant for some time, Strokkur is rather active, erupting at 10-15 minute intervals. Watching a geysir erupt is another thing about Iceland that I’ll never forget. Strokkur’s name is Icelandic for “churn,” which is exactly what the water does before it shoots up out of the earth. You can actually see it beginning to react before it fully erupts, which is terrifying when you realize that this naturally occurs from within the ground every few minutes of every day. Why is it terrifying? Oh, I don’t know. Just reminds me of volcanoes and stuff, spewing hot ash and scorching lava for miles, destroying everything and everyone in their path. Earth is awesome and also insane.

strokkur

The last stop on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss. “Foss” is a word you’ll hear frequently if you explore Iceland; it means “falls,” and there are lots of them. (Just you wait.) This one, however, is the most famous. If you need an easy way to think of this place, just picture Niagara Falls, but lower to the ground. It takes some walking to see the falls, because the flow of the river drops sharply, making the edge of the actual waterfall hidden from view until you approach the cliffside. But God, how majestic.

Gullfoss

You can hear the thundering water from the roadside, and as you take it in, this place will again make you marvel at the planet’s natural beauty.

The Golden Circle eventually brings you back around to the city, and the stops along the way, though popular among tourists, fill up the day nicely with scenes that don’t even seem real. You’ll probably even meet some Icelandic horses by the roadside, who will happily nibble up your apple cores for you. How sweet are my new friends?!

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I could talk for hours about this country! Literally, I’m only halfway done. I’ve still got to take you through Reykjavík in more detail, and show you what it looks like INSIDE of a glacier. Until then, mes amis, enjoy the adventure.

xx

we begin in Paris.

Paris, like Hogwarts, is home.

I wrote that sentence in my travel journal as a bookend to my most recent trip to the City of Light, my favorite place in the entire world. I know, I know. I can hear the eye roll happening from here: Oh look, another dumb travel writer who’s obsessed with Paris. Big fucking deal! We ALL fall in love with Paris.

Isn’t there a certain magic to a place that can collectively make people feel something? (This also applies to Harry Potter, and Hogwarts.)

Well, the more people I meet, the more I find the “collective” adoration for Paris to be a half-truth: you either passionately love it or desperately hate it, as a rule.

But I don’t want to just talk about Paris, and I promise to not be one of those people who quotes Audrey Hepburn (she’s fab though) and posts pictures of themselves smoking in a beret (am I Parisian now omg!!?!) and makes you feel inferior for not having gone there yet. That is not what the city is about, and it is not what this storytelling experience is about.

We begin in Paris because it seems a great disgrace to not give credit to my first excursion out into the world. I attribute my well-forged relationship with every wanderer’s best friend, the Travel Bug, to this incredible city and to the entire country of France. It was where travel became not just a hobby, but a priority.

I was 20. I’d started college the year before, and I was loving every minute. It was different than anything I’d ever known. I grew up in a tiny suburb in New Jersey just outside of Philadelphia, and I’d become used to it. My town was a hundred years old and full of white people who went to church on Sundays and had Italian last names and three or four children who all bore those last names. We were families of people, clannish at times. You knew your neighbors, you could name everyone in your graduating class in high school, you marched in the town’s 4th of July parade at some point in your life. It was a lovely, comfortable place, but I was bored of it.

So I went “away” to college, which meant just two hours down the turnpike to Baltimore, Maryland. I’d laugh about this later, but at the time it felt like a full day’s journey. To me, Towson was a diverse campus with actual representation for people of color and students from states I’d never been to or thought much about. To my roommates and some friends who came from other regions, it was not diverse at all. Regardless, it opened a lot of doors for me, in both opportunity and in thought.

For everything my education was, and for all the new friends I made, and for as much fun as I had, I was still a lonely small-town girl in search of something to provide meaning. I was young, and I was doe-eyed and naïve, and I was, as every woman ever is, questioning my place in the world and my own self-worth. When I took time to think about what I aimed to achieve in my life, I realized that I wanted more than what was being given to me. (Cue the music from Beauty and the Beast. There’s a reason Belle is my favorite Disney princess.) I wanted to go out and take something from the world – not physically, but mentally. Culturally. I wanted to find my own things to learn that didn’t rest in textbooks or final exams or job offers. I wanted to be worldly. And I realized that nothing or no one would MAKE me a worldly person. It was something I was going to have to find a way to BECOME.

belle

I’d been taking French classes since high school, and I continued to take them in college. I liked French, and what’s more, it just came to me. I didn’t have to try hard at the coursework like I did in my other classes. I enjoyed tossing around the words on my tongue with those throaty R’s that no one else seemed to be able to manage. I realize how it sounds, but being good at French was something solid for me that I clung to because it was the first time in my life that I felt superior to everyone else around me. None of my peers were playing on my level. I was not, by any means, fluent and my accent still felt off and I couldn’t yet have a full conversation with a native speaker. But I was on my way to something I didn’t know would change my life.

I’d wanted to study abroad even before I got to college. But by the time I was a sophomore, I was double majoring in fields not related to my burgeoning interest in French, so for me it wasn’t a realistic use of an entire semester if I wanted to graduate on time. I tried to find any way around this that I could, and I caught a lucky break after visiting the Study Abroad office on a whim.

Towson was introducing a new program called History and Civilization from the Middle Ages to the Present. It was a two-week, one-credit course based in Paris, with excursions to other parts of France that were rich in history, like Normandy and the medieval cities of Tours and Rouen. It sounded like a dream. And the best part was that it was running right after the spring semester ended, which meant I wouldn’t miss any work for my other classes. They were encouraging students in the Art, History and French departments to apply, but you weren’t bound to any of those majors if you wanted to foot the bill to go.

Ah, yes. The bill. Nothing in college comes free, and even in my naïveté I knew that, but this program cost $4,000. And it was $4,000 that my 20-year-old broke ass did not have.

I’d love to say I went and got an off-campus job to earn the money to pay for the trip myself. But I was already busy with two majors, a new minor in French, band rehearsals, chorus rehearsals, a fraternity (what’s up KKPsi!), an on-campus job and trying to have a social life. There wasn’t room for me to take on anything else, and I realistically don’t think I could have raised that much money in a couple of months anyway.

So (and please know that I am checking my privilege here) instead I begged and begged my amazing, selfless parents to let me go, citing the fact that I was good at French and explaining how it was important for me to get real-world experiences like this while I still could, before I graduated and became a boring adult with a job and a steady paycheck (two things I have since come to appreciate). Eventually they agreed that the experience would be good for me and my future.

And so, in the summer before my junior year of college, I wasn’t yet legal to drink in the United States, but I got on a flight to Paris with nine other girls, most of whom were complete strangers, and my French teacher, who was running the course. Our assignments to earn the credit were largely completed before we left and after we returned, and our only real responsibility while we were there was to keep a daily journal in French of what we did and learned. It felt like more of a vacation than a college course, but I found the structure of it to be exactly what it should be for a first big travel experience: learning by immersing yourself into the culture you want to know more about. Learning by doing.

From the minute I set foot on the old and wizened streets of Paris, I was enraptured. Here was this place people write books about, sing songs about, paint masterpieces about. I was in it. I was being cultured. It was all around me. There were so many things to see and do and I was ready for it all to hit me like a brick wall and demand that I experience it.

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When I wasn’t being dramatic in castle windows, I went to Normandy and saw the humbling grandeur of the D-Day beaches. I wept at the American Cemetery and felt the pain of the war-age families whose loved ones were buried there. I went to Rouen and saw a steel monument that now stands at the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. (I would later realize this was a powerful moment for me and would spark my involvement in the feminist movement.) I marveled at the Château de Chenonceau and how regal but calm everything felt in the Loire Valley. It was important, but it was also unobtrusive. I sipped wine and ate like a queen and laughed really hard and made several new friends out of these women I hardly knew.

Most importantly, I saw more of France and Paris in those 17 days than most people ever see in their lives, and for that, I feel the most fortunate. I would learn several years later that this was the great shift in me.

I was no longer a girl from a town no one had ever heard of who got good grades and was kind of good at a handful of things. I was a woman the world was waiting to meet.

I learned later that my parents had borrowed the money from my grandmother so that I could go to France that year. It was a gesture I didn’t know how to even begin to thank them for. But it meant my family knew that I couldn’t be contained. They knew on some inherent level that I’d stand in front of the 5th-floor clock at the Musée d’Orsay in awe of the city below, that I would climb the stairs to Montmartre singing the Rufus Wainwright song in my head, that I would willingly eat escargots whenever it appeared on the menu. (It’s soooooo good.) They knew it wasn’t just a trip, or something cool to say I did that one time when I was young.

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They knew I’d be affected and overwhelmed and changed.

And here I am, eleven years later, with more college degrees, more wisdom and more appreciation than I had back then for the short time I have on this Earth and the people I get to spend it with and the wonders awaiting me in other parts of the world.

In 2017, I went to three new countries and solo traveled for the first time. And those are tales I can’t wait to divulge here.

I now live in New York City, which I don’t know if I saw coming but do not regret. It contains an astounding 8.5 million people, but it can still make you feel like you’re the only person who exists in the world. But I navigate it, and I fight it back, and I make it into a place I want to call home, because it’s where I need to be at this point in my life.

I spent much of last year writing poems about adjusting to life in the Big Apple. It’s eye-opening to go back and read them through, one-by-one, and to note the evolution that has occurred in me.

What I discovered is this: It’s easy to see a girl living in the big city. It takes much more finesse and understanding to locate the city within a girl.

Welcome. Let’s be adventurers together.

xx