2013 was an interesting travel year for me. Even though I spent a lot of time in Milan, which was my home base until last month, I managed to visit 17 new and exciting countries – as well as revisit a few more that I really like. Of these 17, some really impressed me more than others, so I want to share with you my top 5 new countries, my highlight moments, and favorite place or city there. Shall we dig in?
Morocco had been on my list of places I had to go for a long time. I actually planned going there a few times before I actually did, but for some reason and logistics, I never made it there. This past March, though, I arrived in Casablanca and traveled as much as I could of the country in one month.
Morocco has a very colorful and strong culture that is engrained in everything they do; from their handcrafts, food, music, performance, and even architecture. While most Medinas in Morocco felt almost the same to me, the cities that held them were a completely different story. Each Moroccan city presents a different environment with a convoluted history that often involves strong influences from other countries like Spain, Portugal, and France, among others. This is one of the reasons why Morocco is so diverse all around.
A few of my highlights – Walking on the beach in Essaouira, seeing the blue city of Chefchaouen, visiting the breathtaking Ksour in Ouarzazate, driving through the Atlas Mountains (or at least taking a bus through), camping in the Sahara Desert.
Favorite destination in Morocco – This one is hard for me since I can’t decide between Essaouira and Ouarzazate. Essaouira is a very small and relaxed town by the sea. It still has this hippy vibe it picked a few decades ago, but it also shows a strong Moroccan cultural presence. Ouarzazate, on the other hand, is more about spending time in the desert and visiting historical sights, especially the architecturally impressive Ksour.
I’ll be honest by saying that I visited Tunisia only because I had to leave Europe (or at least exit Schengen after 90 days there) and it was cheap and easy to fly there from Milan. Little did I know that Tunisia was beyond impressive and extremely interesting from a historical and cultural point of view. For me, Tunisia is one of the best-kept secrets of Northern Africa.
Revolutions may have clouded the country’s image in the past few years, but today, Tunisia is a safe country to visit – and even more interesting, in my opinion. The Sahara Desert blankets the entire south of the country while the north is covered by green Mediterranean fields that were once populated by the Roman Empire. Exquisite Roman ruins and mosaics form a major attraction in the north (as well as the beaches, when in season), but in the south, the focus shifts towards the tribal life of the Berbers and Bedouins, as well as the beauty of the desert.
A few of my highlights – Camping in the Sahara Desert near Douz, sleeping at a former Troglodyte home in Matmata, visiting the Ksour in Tataouine, seeing several Star Wars sets/buildings, visiting the Roman ruins of Bulla Reggia, seeing El Jem Roman stadium, hopping between oasis by Tozeur.
Favorite destination in Tunisia – Matmata. It is a completely surreal village. Most houses, called Troglodyte homes, are built underground in huge round pits that open to the sky. Most of these pits are connected underground by tunnels. When you see the village from above, it looks like a giant whack-a-mole game in the desert. I guarantee you this is a place that will leave you amazed.
I had the luck of visiting Brazil with a local, so instead of hopping between many cities, I visited only a few to get to know them a bit better than if I was on my own. Brazilians are some of the liveliest people I’ve ever come across with and they do love their parties. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention how delicious their food is!
Part of my love for Brazil also comes from the unique architecture designed by the late Oscar Niemeyer. I visited Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, and Rio de Janeiro in search of some of his most iconic buildings. And of course, Rio is a city that cannot be missed.
I need to return to Brazil. My three weeks there were just a taste of all the things the country has to offer. But an extremely good taste, indeed.
A few of my highlights – Visiting Inhotim – the biggest open air museum in the world, swimming at Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, visiting the colonial town of Ouro Preto, relaxing at Ilha Grande, visiting the Christ Statue, eating, eating, eating Brazilian food!
Favorite destination in Brazil – Rio de Janeiro. Yes, I know Rio is overrated, but I really loved it. While many there pretend to be “the beautiful people” of Brazil, the truth is that Rio sort of demands this type of attitude. The city’s beauty doesn’t come aesthetically, but instead it is created through the people’s energy, the clash of social classes that go from favela residents to multi millionaires, the beach culture, and the surrounding mountains.
Mongolia is one of the last countries in the world where nomadic life is still a living tradition. With only 1.7 people per km², Mongolia has the lowest population density of any independent country. It is mostly occupied by the Gobi Desert, which brings this vast and majestic emptiness that has become the country’s enduring appeal. Mongolia, as I feel, is all bout creating this close connection and strong experience with nature and its nomadic inhabitants.
I experienced the Mongolia thanks to the Mongol Rally, which gave me the opportunity to cross most the country – passing through very small villages in the desert and stopping every now and then at sporadic Gers (nomad homes) miles away from anything else.
From the 9am drunk men (Mongolians drink a lot!) to the families who invited us to eat and sleep at their Gers, Mongols always had a way to impress us with their customs, social awkwardness, and hospitality.
A few of my highlights – Crossing the Gobi Desert, getting to interact briefly with a few nomads, tasting the (horrible) Yak Cheese, visiting several small towns along the desert, enjoying the remote beauty of Mongolia, reaching Ulaanbaatar after driving in the desert for a week.
Favorite destination in Mongolia – The Gobi Desert. To be honest, Mongolia doesn’t offer the typical sights that might make places memorable. Instead, places in Mongolia become memorable out of your own experience there. For this reason, the Gobi Desert is my favorite destination there. I got lost in the desert, met a lot of people there (including nomads), drove for countless hours, and had challenging moments too. But they all amount to an unforgettable rally and overall experience.
Myanmar is still a mystery to many, and to me it was all a mystery until I visited it a few weeks ago. In fact, Myanmar is still sort of a mystery to me since I feel like I only scratched the surface there. Myanmar’s people and history are a complex yet glorious mishmash of settlers and invaders from all fronts, and you can sort of see this in their daily life. Traditions here were some of the strongest I’ve ever experienced in my travels so far, and several destinations still had their off-the-beaten-path feel – even when they were in the main tourist routes in Myanmar.
You can see most women with their painted face (called Thanakha) as they do traditionally, the fishermen paddling on the lake with their foot (as they do in Inle Lake), monks walking the streets and temples, and the farmers and goatherds working tiredlessly in their fields.
Myanmar still doesn’t have a developed tourism infrastructure and many areas of the country are still restricted to tourist, yet, the recent ease of border crossings and visa acquisition has made Myanmar an ever-increasing destination for all types of travelers.
A few of my highlights – Visiting the longest wooden bridge in the world in Amarapura, visiting the floating village and floating gardens in Inle Lake, watching the sunrise and sunset from the top of ancient temples in Bagan.
Favorite destination in Myanmar – Bagan. This will sound cheesy, but I’ll say it. You haven’t visited Myanmar until you visit Bagan. Bagan is the touristiest place in Myanmar, but you can still get away from the crowds easily by taking a bike and roaming around the temples through secondary dirt paths. There are over 2000 temples, so you have a lot of space to explore. Bagan is all about history, culture, and the deep relationship both have had for centuries, expressed all in their ancient architecture. Not to miss are the sunrises and sunsets from the top of several temples. I watched 4 sunsets there, and they were all Uh-ma-zing!
Which were your favorite destinations in 2013?