three weeks in puerto rico

My contract job at Frontier Airlines ended. I didn’t have a new job lined up. I had time on my hands – a precious commodity often scarce in a regular 9 to 5. I had a summer break for the first time in three years. I had nothing to lose but a missed opportunity. So I booked my flight to Puerto Rico, and off Cam and I set for the Caribbean. Home for the next three weeks.

Looking back, I am SO glad I did it.

We basked in the sun and got funky tan lines. We breathed the salty ocean breeze. We wrestled with vivid turquoise waves. We dipped our toes in fine, white sand. We drove windy and narrow roads in the jungle. We got lost. We climbed mountains. We explored caves. We gambled at casinos. We won. We lost. We explored historic forts and colorful, cobblestone streets by foot. We salsa danced. We had our share of beer, rum and cokes, mojitos, and piña coladas. We hiked jungles full of snails and lizards barefoot in the mud. We saw bamboo and fern trees as tall as the sky. We stumbled upon waterfalls in the rainforest. We watched an explosive sunset gradually dim on the ocean coast. We ate suckling pig, plantains, and star fruit. We got countless mosquito bites. We rode the wrong bus – a couple times. We enjoyed art. We grew fond of AC. We wandered. We laughed. We struggled. We learned. We grew. We lived. We walked out richer than when we came. And that is the beauty of travel.

LIVING LOCAL

Our first Airbnb was in Santurce on Calle Bolivar. Located in a quiet residential neighborhood and surrounded by tropical plants, we had a quite spacious Airbnb with a well-sized kitchen, dining area, large bedroom, AC (thank God), bathroom, hallway, private patio, and shared plunge pool to cool off (where you can hear chirping coqui frogs at night). Having a full kitchen and stove made it easy to cook so we didn’t have to eat out all the time.

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We decided to book different Airbnbs for each week to experience different neighborhoods throughout the city, but our first Airbnb was definitely the most comfortable and accommodating. For three weeks total, we each paid about $400 in rent. Not bad compared to normal rent back in Colorado.

Located in Santurce, a neighborhood once known to be broken, corrupt, and dangerous, now showcases a variety of colorful street art, coffee shops, and well, hipster things.

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In the first week and a half, we had seen and done all the main sights and activities San Juan has to offer. Since we didn’t have a car most of the time (we opted to only rent a car for two days to save money), we rode local buses that run back and forth from Old San Juan to Isla Verde for 75 cents each way and occasionally took an Uber for convenience.

The Modern Museum of Art, Museum of Puerto Rico, and Contemporary Art Museum all had impressive and unique art displays. All three are easily a must for anyone who has a liking for modern and contemporary art.

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OLD SAN JUAN

You haven’t really seen San Juan if you don’t visit Old San Juan. The old town enwraps you with stunning, bright colors and narrow cobblestone streets. Unlike Cuba, the paint is generally crisp and new, the buildings complete and whole.

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We also made sure to visit the Nuyorican Cafe at night where we had a few mojitos too many, watched a live salsa band, and where I salsa danced with the instructor. This place is open till 4 am! So if it takes you a while to warm up to getting on the dance floor, no worries, you have time. There were some stellar dancers…it amazes me that so many locals acquire such natural salsa skills.

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We also visited El Castillo del Cristobal and El Morro – old forts bordering the city that defended Puerto Rico from the Spaniards and Americans. Walking amongst the fort tops, you get excellent views of the ocean, city, and island landscape.

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It’s also worth visiting La Factoria for some artisan-crafted cocktails. This place made the top 50 best bars in the world for its series of hidden rooms and cocktail creations.

BEACHES

Besides the forts and museums, you mainly go to a Caribbean Island for the beach. We managed to visit the beach maybe 8 to 9 days in a row, which explains this impressive tan I’ve gotten. Beachin’ everyday (literally).

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First we visited Condado, then Ocean Park, and then trekked to Isla Verde. So we covered all the primary beaches of San Juan. My favorite – beach wise – was probably Isla Verde. While Isla Verde was more touristy and hosted several resorts, the sand was so fine and white, the ocean so clear and vivid blue, and the shore so vast.

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But this was probably my favorite beach for the memories made there. Cam climbing coconut trees and cracking them open with the sheer power of his throw, drinking fresh coconut water dripping from the crack, being a lil’ tipsy from a piña colada, running straight into the ocean with Cam, dunking each other, being massacred by massive waves.

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Ocean Park, on the other hand, has a more local feel. Bright turquoise waters, as well. It was incredibly close to our third Airbnb off of Calle Las Flores and Calle Loiza, a popular main street. Just a five-minute walk from our place made our daily beach routine that much easier.

Condado has a somewhat hotel and resort feeling, but the water is mostly clear and blue consistently. Our second Airbnb, located near the Miramar Food Trucks, was closest to Condado. So we really got to enjoy both Ocean Park and Condado the most during our stays.

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FOOD + DRINK

I was surprised to find that it actually proved difficult to find authentic and pure Puerto Rican food in San Juan. There are several chain restaurants and stores that are back in the States. Many restaurants in Santurce feature more “modern” cuisine, such as burgers, sandwiches, and salads (all things you would normally find in the U.S.), or feature various ethnic foods, such as Italian, Chinese, and Greek. If you do find Puerto Rican food in old town, it’s generally touristy or overpriced.

We wanted simple, homemade, traditional Puerto Rican food that could speak to the island’s true roots. We didn’t give up looking. Persistent, we managed to discover a local mom and popshop in a food court in Old San Juan. Unlike all the other restaurants, this place was tucked away in the back where the lights were dim. Only local, laboring men were found gathered around the table munching away. The ambiance – not so great. The food and price – excellent.

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It was called Grandma’s Kitchen and served generous portions of rice, chicken and pork, and plantains. The flavors were bold, and it was just the authentic food experience we were looking for amidst all the touristy and overpriced restaurants.

We also passed a food truck on Calle Loiza, selling stuffed arepas that were absolutely delicious. Not to mention, they were only 2 for $5! It was probably the closest thing to street food we could find.

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One evening we tried a traditional, Puerto Rican dish called Mofongo on a rooftop overlooking the city at sunset. The Mofongo was good, but it didn’t live up to what it was made to be. We also sipped piña coladas at Barrachina where the original piña colada was first invented.

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Not only did we try the original piña colada, but we also toured the Bacardi Rum Factory, which is the largest premium rum distillery in the world. The tour also included a complimentary drink of choice!

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I always love finding a country’s local marketplace where vendors sell a variety of produce. San Juan’s is called La Placita. It was much smaller than I anticipated (it had maybe five vendors total), but it fulfilled our star fruit needs. The marketplace is actually most popular and crowded at night with locals drinking, enjoying live music, and dancing the night away.

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A better marketplace for a real and local Puerto Rican experience where there’s authentic food and several vendors, selling fruits, vegetables, and a variety of other goods, can be found at Mercado de Rio Piedras. In fact, Andrew Zimmerman from Bizarre Foods made a visit here.

Here you can choose from many different food stalls, serving everything from pork, chicken, stews, and fish to rice and beans, plantains, potatoes, avocadoes, and macaroni. This was the real deal. Food served on foam plates with plastic silverware, packed with flavor. It wasn’t a trendy, new age dining experience, but it was traditional and real.

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CASINOS

One of my favorite nightlife experiences was probably our first time gambling at the Marriott casino in Condado. We tried the slot machines – fail. An easy and sure way to lose money quickly with the press of a couple buttons. We tried the roulette table – fail. Picking numbers is harder than it looks. We tried our first game of Blackjack at the table – success.

Cam went to the $10 minimum bet table and managed to walk away with $30 after betting $20! A $10 win! So we left the Casino $10 richer than when we came in despite the money lost at the slots.

We visited the casino again because we felt confident we could win again. Unfortunately, Cam walked out with the same $80 he came in with (at least not a loss), and I successfully made $32 on a $20 bet! Whoo! This time we played at a table with locals who taught us some tricks of the trade, which definitely helped me win.

I guess we didn’t learn our lesson because we made one last visit to the casino. We both walked out with a loss – $20 for me, $25 for Cam. Naturally, the only way to cope with a quick loss was to have a happy hour mojito.

BAYAMÓN

Before our road trip, we decided to try something new and went to Bayamón instead of the beach. It really came down to seeking out new sights even when we felt we had seen and done almost everything. There we found a tropical jungle with trails – that is, Julio Enrique Monagas National Park.

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Sometimes you spontaneously decide to hike the jungle even if you’re wearing a skirt and sandals, but you just roll with it. Mud all over, sweat running down limbs, and bug bites galore. We saw snails, trees with spikes, red flower petals, geckos, birds, and spiders. Eventually being dirty didn’t matter anymore because sometimes adventures are meant to be messy and unpredictable. There wasn’t another soul in sight. It was just the two of us, roaming the jungle.

TWO-DAY ROAD TRIP

The day we had been anxiously awaiting finally arrived! We rose early to pick up our rental car near the airport at 8:00 am. A compact, white Hyundai awaited us. Many of the main roads between cities require tolls, so it’s almost required, or at least highly suggested, that you purchase the Auto Express Toll Pass, which comes out to a reasonable $5 per day.

Without a car, you don’t really get a bigger picture of Puerto Rico. You only get San Juan and its city attractions. So having rented a car for only two days, we managed to see and do so much within 48 hours that showed us more of what the island is all about.

Without wasting any time, we immediately set off for Parque Nacional de las Cavernas del Río Camuy to see one of the world’s largest cave systems. Camuy is located in the Northwestern region. You’re required to join a walking tour that costs about $18 per adult and lasts about an hour and half. The caves were massive with openings to the jungle that cast light amongst the wet darkness. Within we saw lizards, scorpions, and even bats. It was incredible and completely worth it. It was probably the best cave tour I’ve been on.

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After our cave tour, we drove through the jungle towards the Hacienda San Pedro coffee farm in the mountain town of Jayuya that makes La Finca coffee sold in retail grocery stores (this is actually the coffee we bought at the grocery before we knew it was from this farm!).

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Here we were able to drink fresh coffee at their coffee shop straight from the farm. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough visitors on the weekday for them to give us a tour of the farm and coffee roasting process. So if you want a full tour, visit on the weekend instead.

Driving through the jungle, we naturally got lost (I also may not be the world’s best navigator). The roads are incredibly narrow, and the bamboo and fern trees stretch so high that they shade you from the sun. Cam is without a doubt a highly skilled driver now. He passed the real-life test of Mario Kart (jungle edition).

This cost us some valuable time, so we skipped lunch to make sure we made our next destination – Cerro Punta, the highest peak in Puerto Rico at 4,390 feet.

We pulled off the highway into a gravel parking lot, took our pre-climb photo, and set foot up the very steep road towards the summit. The hike only took about 30 to 40 minutes, but the incline made it more challenging. But, of course, this was nothing compared to climbing a Colorado fourteener, which both of us have accomplished more than just once back home.

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We made the summit before sunset and arrived to 360-degree views of the mountainous jungle faintly covered with a cascade of fog. The fog created varying shades of green in the distance. It was breathtaking. It was rewarding. It was beautiful.

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Slowly becoming a tradition, we brought two beers for a summit cheers (good thing the elevation doesn’t even compare to Colorado’s so the alcohol doesn’t affect you as much). We were on top of the island!

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After our climb, we started driving towards our Airbnb we booked in Guayama for the night. It grew late and dark. We were tired and sweaty. We arrived in Guayama, but couldn’t find the Airbnb for almost 40 minutes because there wasn’t an address and the host didn’t speak much English. Weary, we decided to drive to Ponce (the second largest city in Puerto Rico and our next stop) and found a Holiday Inn. It was so nice being able to enjoy hotel amenities for a night and rejuvenate.

The next morning we started the day exploring the European and Puerto Rican art at the Museo de Arte de Ponce, one of the most renowned art museums in Puerto Rico. It mainly hosted classical paintings, which wasn’t necessarily our favorite but, nonetheless, still enjoyable.

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We then stopped by Parque de Bombas, a historic and iconic fire station. It wasn’t particularly that interesting in my opinion, but I kept reading it was popular, so I just took a picture.

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After a visit to the art city of Ponce, we set off for El Yunque National Rainforest, all the way on the Northeast coast. On the way to the rainforest, we took Highway 184, also known as “Pork Highway”.

Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmerman have made their stop here to try the famous suckling pig at food stalls called “Lechoneras”. It’s a local, Puerto Rican specialty primarily found in only the mountains. A whole pig is roasted on a stick over a pit, which is then served with yellow rice and beans, and plantains.

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We drove the pork highway for a good amount of time and still didn’t see any pig. It wasn’t until the very end of the highway that we stumbled upon several Lechoneras. It was completely worth it. The food was so flavorful, fresh, authentic, and just what we were searching for all this time.

We didn’t have time to sit down and eat, so we ate in the car on the way to El Yunque. We arrived to the rainforest at 4:00 pm, just two hours prior to close. There we viewed La CoCo falls, and then did a short hike to La Pina falls. The rainforest was lush, incredibly green, and just gorgeous.

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After El Yunque, we drove further East to Laguna Grande in Fajardo. We read that the bioluminescent bay is visible at night from this area. So we stayed and watched a stunning sunset on the coast. The water never glowed blue like we expected, and we needed to start heading back to San Juan in order to check into our last Airbnb. Even though we didn’t get to see the bioluminescent bay, the sunset and views were very worthwhile.

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Everything about my time – our time – in Puerto Rico for those three weeks was about getting away and living in a different atmosphere and culture. It was about having an adventure and escaping our routines.

I have no regrets and am so happy and grateful I got to explore the Caribbean!

So, I leave it with this – next stop: Israel.

– Angela

 

 

 

a two week journey in new zealand

New Zealand is a natural wonder of the world. No question about it. If you have any liking for the outdoors, New Zealand is a must-visit on your travel list for its over-the-top mountain landscapes, glowing night skies, lush green hills, and striking blue waters.

The North and South Islands together offer a relaxed escape from the commercialized and faster-paced lifestyle back in the United States. Locals are known as ‘kiwis’. There are more sheep than people (60 million sheep and 3 million people, to be exact). Animals roam freely. Mountains surround you at every corner. Organic and local food is the norm. And most importantly, adventure always awaits. 

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There is so much care and compassion for the earth here, and it’s beautiful. Whether it’s how they conserve resources, or how they grow their produce, there is a moral intention and sustainable mindset for future generations. With so much love put in the sowing, there’s no wonder why the kiwis have reaped such a lovely country.

With two weeks on the open road, my parents and I began our journey in the North Island in Auckland before flying to Christchurch to explore the South Island. We focused the majority of our time in the South where you can find the most awe-inspiring and dramatic sights. Two weeks is fairly short to explore all of New Zealand, but it felt more like a month with all of the sights we managed to see.

North Island

Auckland

My first impression of Auckland was that it reminded me of the West Coast. The laid back vibes, hilly roads, abundant trees and shrubs, and vibrant city center felt reminiscent of California and Oregon. We rented a car; the hardest adjustment by far was driving on the left side of the road (quite a stressful feat). While we were only in Auckland for three days, we were able to explore downtown, as well as nearby cities, such as the beach town of Coromandel, Hamilton for its famous Hamilton Gardens, and Waitomo for its glowworm caves.

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Walking downtown, it feels like any big city. Tall skyscrapers, streets lined with shops catered to both locals and tourists, and diverse cultures scattered throughout from immigrant influences.

Auckland’s iconic, downtown landmark features the Sky Tower, the 23rd tallest tower in the world at 1,076 feet (328 meters). Downtown is also home to the University of Auckland where you’ll see plenty of students walking about.

Nestled in an ordinary looking building is a hidden local favorite, the Food Alley. Here you can choose from a selection of authentic, international cuisine, such as Thai, Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Japanese, in a food court layout. It’s a popular place because of the excellent taste, fair prices, and generous portions.

One of the unique aspects of Auckland is its coast. Everyone is outside walking or jogging along trails, enjoying the coastline views and fresh air. There are even ferries that can take you to various islands nearby with different attractions, such as vineyards where they make their famous Sauvignon Blanc.

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One of my favorite parts of Auckland was visiting Mount Victoria in Devonport, a harbor side suburb of Auckland. You can walk up Mount Victoria if you choose, but since we rented a car, we drove up this very steep hill for breathtaking views of the city. When you arrive at the top, you are surrounded by sweeping, 360 degree views of the Auckland skyline, sparkling ocean, and surrounding islands. This is a must-see lookout if you want spectacular city views.

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The surrounding cities near Auckland are more than worthwhile to visit. First stop: the glistening beach town of Coromandel. This region is full of clear blue waters, as well as some of the best smoked mussels and fish n’ chips. Near Coromandel, we also visited a variety of other beaches: Long Bay Beach, Whitianga Beach, and Hot Water Beach (famous for hot water that emerges from digging up sand).

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Coromandel’s Long Bay Beach
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Smoked mussels and fish n’ chips

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Whitianga Beach
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Packed crowd digging up sand at Hot Water Beach

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Second stop: Hamilton. New Zealand itself may already seem like one enormous garden, but the Hamilton Gardens is so worth the visit. Not only is it free to the public, but it features a variety of different gardens from around the world, such as Japanese Gardens, Chinese Gardens, English Gardens, and Italian Gardens. All of the gardens seamlessly connect in a maze of exquisite flowers and plants.

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Third and final stop: Waitomo. Waitomo is famous for its glowworm caves, which means it’s best that you make reservations early! We made the mistake of thinking we could join the most popular Waitomo Glowworm Cave Tour (with the boat ride) upon arrival. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, it was already sold out. We ended up joining an alternate, family-owned glowworm cave tour. Although this tour did not include a boat ride, we still got to see and learn about glowworms and walk the caves by foot.

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Sampling local Kawakawa tea

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While our time spent in the North was brief, we were more than excited to start our road trip in the South Island. So off we flew to Christchurch!

South Island

Christchurch

Our first day in Christchurch was mainly spent prepping for the road – buying groceries, planning details for sights we wanted to see, and well, resting. We were introduced to all of the grocery options in New Zealand while in Christchurch. There are three main grocery chains: Countdown, Pak’nSave, and New World.

Buying food at groceries for the road was not only a great way to budget, but was also incredibly convenient when traveling in remote and natural areas where food was not always readily available. Instead of having to go out of our way to find food, we could prioritize sightseeing.

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Castle Hill

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With a new rental car and some food, we spent our last couple hours exploring the Port Hills viewpoint in Christchurch before beginning the road trip. At the Port Hills viewpoint, there’s a cafe where you can enjoy a drink or meal, while taking in the incredible views.

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Hokitika

From Christchurch, we drove through Arthur’s Pass National Park to a small town called Hokitika. The town lies near Lake Kaniere and the coast of the Tasman Sea. It is worth spending one day here as you drive towards the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers.

There were several stunning sights we saw all within and surrounding the lake. Drive down along Lake Kaniere to the Canoe Dove Walk. Here you can walk an easy in-and-out trail through a forest of enormous ferns and trees along a stream of water.

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From there, stop by the Dorothy Falls, a beautiful, hidden waterfall surrounded by boulders, ferns, and trees.

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Probably my favorite sight in Hokitika, make a final stop at the Hokitika Gorge, famous for its milky, turquoise waters. This was the first time I’ve ever witnessed water with such a milky hue.

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Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers

Considered one of the most popular sights in the South Island, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are absolutely breathtaking with their steep cliffs and jagged mountains, clear blue waterfalls and streams, and sheer vastness. There’s a moderate hike with some incline to reach both glaciers, a longer hike to arrive at Franz Josef glacier than Fox Glacier.

Hiking to Franz Josef, you can expect multiple waterfalls (and maybe spot a rainbow), a grayish blue riverbed, and mossy green mountains.

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Hiking towards Franz Josef Glacier

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Franz Josef Glacier

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Hiking to Fox Glacier, you can expect incredibly tall and steep cliff drop-offs reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings.

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Just near the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, we stopped to take a short hike to Lake Matheson for its famous mirror reflection views of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman.

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Mirror reflection at Lake Matheson

Wanaka

On our way to Wanaka, we stopped by Bruce Bay Beach, Knights Point Lookout, the Blue Pools, and Lake Hawea.

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The Blue Pools especially left me in awe. Unlike the milky quality of the Hokitika Gorge, the Blue Pools have a clear and bright turquoise color. Just next to the pools lie several stacks of rocks towering in various heights.

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We arrived to Lake Wanaka early evening before sunset and stayed for a day and a half. Wanaka is a popular resort town famous for its beautiful lake and mountain views, proximity to Mount Aspiring National Park, and nearby glaciers and forests. Not to mention, people have witnessed the southern lights from this town because of its prime location and pollution-free sky.

And just look at these fall colors!

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Lake Wanaka

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We drove down to Eely Point (a renowned location to witness the southern lights) close to midnight when the night sky was pitch black. We weren’t the only ones hoping to catch glimpse of the lights, considering we arrived to a lot full of parked cars.

While we did not clearly see pink or green hues, we did notice unusual cloud formations. I tried to adjust my camera to the right exposure and only managed to get a shot with some faded pink, which revealed that the southern lights were distantly there. Regardless how long we waited, the timing and conditions for seeing the lights visibly needed to be right.

Arrowtown

This city blew me away with its small town charm and colorful array of fall leaves. Since New Zealand experiences seasons opposite of the States, I was lucky enough to experience fall twice in one year (it’s my favorite season)! Walking through wooded trails covered in golden, red, and orange, fallen leaves with a warm coffee in hand felt so right. The fall trees were seriously unbelievable! Check out these colors.

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Queenstown

From Arrowtown, we headed for the adventure capital of Queenstown. If you have the nerve to bungee jump, this is the place to do it! I was planning to bungee jump myself, but it was just too expensive to fit in my budget. This city also has so many other adrenaline-filled activities, such as canyon swings, zip lines, skydiving, and whitewater rafting.

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The town itself is fairly small and can be walked easily in a day. There are plenty of small shops and restaurants just right next to the lake, which make it a perfect place to stroll and relax.

While downtown, we made sure to stop by the famous burger joint, Fergberger (the New Zealand equivalent of our In N’ Out, but in my opinion, much better). There’s a huge line, but it moves quite quickly! They have a range of options, such as classic beef, lamb, cod, chicken, and more to suit your taste. Not only are they well priced (the original Ferberger starts at 11 NZ dollars), they’re also HUGE.

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The town connects with the Queenstown Garden, which features a wide variety of flowers and plants open for the public to enjoy. I especially loved the rose garden and picnicking in the middle of vast, green space. So peaceful.

Just near Queenstown you can see the Remarkables, a famous Otago mountain range and ski field. From the Remarkables view point, you get some of the best views of the mountains and all of Queenstown. Definitely a view that left me breathless and got me and another visitor simultaneously saying, “Oh. My. God.”

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With three days total in Queenstown, we decided to spend our last venturing a little further to Glenorchy. From here, you can hike the renowned Routeburn Track trail within Mount Aspiring National Park. This famous trail actually treks 32 km through the Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks with insane views of the Southern Alps. We only hiked the short scenic trail yet still enjoyed incredible views and wildlife encounters.

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Milford Sound

From Queenstown, we left very early in the morning to Milford Sound. Because we were there during off-peak season, we were able to just book tickets with a Milford Sound cruise at a local gas station on our way. Normally you would book much earlier during peak season. The tickets included a two hour cruise with lunch and an underwater observatory tour.

But can I just say, Milford Sound is a fiord dream and one of the highlights of my trip. The fiords were carved out by glaciers during the ice age and now have giant cliff drop-offs, waterfalls, plant life, and sea animals. While approaching the Tasman Sea, we saw eight or nine sea lions napping on a boulder. On the return ride, the boat approached a massive waterfall where it’s likely you’ll get at least a little bit wet.

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After the boat tour, we visited the underwater observatory where we saw black coral (actually white in appearance) and a variety of unique fish, sea cucumbers, and more. The best part is that we had a tour guide who could explain to us everything we wanted to know about Milford Sound and its sea life.

On our way out from Milford Sound, we stopped at Lake Te Anau, known as the “gateway to the fiords.”

Dunedin

Dunedin probably surprised me the most. Going into this university town, I didn’t have high expectations, especially compared to all of the other renowned cities we already visited. I was completely wrong. Dunedin has the perfect mix of city and outdoor activities, and I love that it’s larger than small towns like Queenstown and Wanaka, yet still smaller than big cities like Auckland.

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One of the first things we did after arriving was visiting the world’s steepest street, Baldwin Street. It starts at 98 feet and reaches 330 feet at the top, a slope of just over 1:5 across a length of 1,150 feet.

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Walking the city center, we also spotted the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral and Dunedin railroad station. Both have historic charm and stone that add character to the city.

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I have had so many favorites on this trip, but Tunnel Beach tied the top of the list with Milford Sound. Unlike any beach I’ve seen in my life, Tunnel Beach has unique sea-carved, sandstone cliffs, rock arches, and caves that draw you in and command your attention. It is a pure dream. As you walk up the most prominent, jutted sandstone cliff, you witness the turquoise blue waters crashing upon the shore against multiple cliffs and boulders.

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You can walk down steps through a small cave that takes you to a remote shore. From there you climb over boulders towards the sand and get a different, magnificent view of the cliffs and ocean. We were even lucky enough to see a ballerina from the Moscow Ballet doing a photo shoot on the boulders (pretty cool for me being a previous ballet dancer)!

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If there’s only one must-see sight in Dunedin, it’s without a doubt, Tunnel Beach.

We also explored the Dunedin Botanic Gardens (free to the public) and Dunedin Chinese Gardens (9 NZ dollars per adult) because who gets tired of seeing magical flowers and plants?

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A walk around the University of Otago campus was a must while we were in Dunedin. I know countless people who have studied abroad here and have raved about it. The campus is famous for its dark grey and white stone buildings and is decently mid-sized.

To close our last night in Dunedin, we drove up a winding road to see the sunset at the Otago Peninsula. A perfect cap to our time in Dunedin.

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Moeraki

There was no way we would pass up stopping in the small fishing town of Moeraki. I’ve seen pictures, but the Moeraki Boulders are even cooler in person! Uniquely spherical, both broken and whole boulders lie scattered along the KoeKohe beach.

The Maori legend says that they were once used as food baskets and gourds by ancient peoples, yet science says that over about 60 million years, they were revealed from sandstone cliffs by erosion and got their round shape being held together by calcium carbonate, while also undergoing a slow chemical reaction.

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It started raining while we were there, so we were a bit rushed taking pictures, but I like to think that the grey skies and clouds added to the Moeraki mystery.

Lake Pukaki

As we continued traveling back towards Christchurch, we passed by the stunning Lake Pukaki. Lake Pukaki is the largest of the three parallel, alpine lakes in the South Island. From the lake, you get unreal views of Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps. It also has a very distinct blue color caused by finely ground rock particles from the glaciers (glacial flour) from glacial feed.

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This was one of the most serene and special lakes I saw during my whole trip because of its matchless blue hue and gorgeous mountain backdrop.

Lake Tekapo

While not the largest, Lake Tekapo makes up one of the three largest, parallel, alpine lakes mentioned previously. This is yet another stunning lake with mountain views and pretty glacial blue waters just three hours southwest of Christchurch (I’m running out of new adjectives because they’re all simply amazing). It’s known for both its day and night views, a perfect spot for evening stargazing.

Rather than staying in Tekapo, we opted for an Airbnb stay on a local family’s 1,500 acre farm in Fairlie, a small town just near Tekapo. They raise hundreds of deer, cows, sheep, and bulls and have a gorgeous view of Mt. Cook from their backyard.

The farm was so peaceful, spacious, and different from being raised in the suburbs back in Colorado. Staying with them let us have more conversation with local kiwis and understand their lifestyle better, which always makes a trip more interesting and meaningful.

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Backyard views

The family was so welcoming that their son gave us a private tour of the entire farm on his truck. We saw all of their deer, cows, bulls, and sheep up close, as well as the hut where they shear wool that is then sold to wholesalers.

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I would highly recommend having at least one remote Airbnb experience in an environment completely opposite what you’re used to. It opens your world to dissimilar lifestyles and shows you that there are multiple ways to live. 

Akaroa

Just before arriving back in Christchurch to close out our South Island road trip, we made one last stop in Akaroa, known for its French colonization and Akaroa beach. There are many cool artisan shops in town, selling everything from crystals to famous, New Zealand Manuka honey products. After taking a stroll along the harbor, we drove the scenic route up and down hills back to Christchurch (only about 75 km away).

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Christchurch

We arrived back in the evening just in time for one last dinner in Christchurch’s Chinatown. Not only was it my last night in Christchurch, but also in New Zealand. My trip was coming to an end, while my parents stayed two more days in Christchurch before flying to Sydney, Australia.

My journey back to the States was a long one – about 36 hours of travel to be exact. I first flew to Sydney to find out my flight from Sydney to Los Angeles had been delayed five hours. So I enjoyed the Sydney skyline from my terminal’s glass windows, drank a flat white or two, and window shopped. I then had to change my domestic flight from LA back to Denver to a later time due to the delay, which had me waiting in LA for three or four hours. Oh, the beauty of travel.

Arriving back to Denver was bittersweet: happy to be home yet longing to bring some of New Zealand back with me. Since I couldn’t bring back the country, I instead brought back pounds of Whittaker’s chocolate, Tim Tams, local and organic gummy candies, and New Zealand beanies and shirts.

New Zealand is a gem for outdoor adventure. While it may not have the depth of history and art that places like Europe offer, it offers an original, natural beauty and wonder that is rare to find.

So if I had to share one takeaway from this trip, it would be this:

Kiwis have grasped the value of prioritizing quality of life above all else. The friendly, trusting, relaxed, and open-minded New Zealand lifestyle altered my perception of how we choose to live our finite lives. It contradicted the American standard of work, work, work. 

I would love to return someday and also visit Australia. I am so thankful I could finally experience this place for myself! Now the question is, where to next?

-Angela

road trip to great sand dunes and mt. humboldt

The end of March is approaching, making its transition from winter to spring. Colorado greeted us with summer weather this past weekend, making our weekend road trip that much better basked in the sun – sun roof open, windows down, tangled hair, sunnies on, and nothing but vast land and an open road.

I would say that we truly encountered landscapes in the time we were given. By encountered, I mean we struggled and wrestled with nature. We felt its beauty, its textures, its force, its peace, its power, its vulnerability, and its voice. Whether we were covered in sand climbing the dunes, constantly falling knee-high deep in melting snow, while hiking through pine trees, or almost being blown away by high winds near the summit of Mt. Humboldt, we adapted to changing conditions. Sometimes the adventure requires a physical challenge so that the experience is not just a visual picture, but also a muscle memory – not just seen, but also felt.

It took about four hours to drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park from Denver. By the time we arrived Friday night, it was quite dark, but you could see numerous, bright stars and the milky way fill the sky, due to little light pollution in the southern region. Luckily, we were able to find available campground for the night not too far from the park (also spotted a black-tailed jack rabbit!).

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Admission to the Great Sand Dunes is $15, and the drive in the park to the main dune site is very close. At the very base, you see an incredible field of sand dunes before the tall, Sangre de Cristo mountain range draped in the background and the Medano Creek that runs through the bottom. This park contains the tallest sand dunes in North America, reaching 750 feet tall over almost 19,000 acres. So, of course, we decided to climb the tallest sand dune by foot. Hiking in sand is definitely difficult, but going without boots makes it much easier.

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The views are outstanding from the top. And coming down is one of the most fun and rewarding parts! You can sand board, sled, run, belly-slide, or even roll down (caution: sand will get everywhere…literally).

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Just outside the parking lot from the base, there are several picnic tables where you can have lunch. We enjoyed a spread of French baguette, brie cheese, salami, dried mango, and Chardonnay, which made for a delightful afternoon picnic.

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After spending a little more than half a day at the dunes, we started heading towards the little town of Westcliffe for an early morning fourteener the next day – Mt. Humboldt (14,064 feet).

Woke up at 5 am on our last day to get an early start on our hike to Mt. Humboldt. Started the trail at 6 am when it was still dark – the moon and stars cast minimal dim light. On our way up, the sun began to rise over the trees and soon enough took over the sky in colorful oranges, pinks, purples, and reds. The trail itself was a bit hard to read due to the snow, but we managed to find our way above tree line.

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As we climbed further, the winds picked up, making it incredibly cold and challenging to continue towards the summit. At this point, I felt like I was going to be blown off the mountain. So I decided to call it at that point and started turning around – I am still proud to have made it that far up in those cold mountain conditions though! Cam, however, managed to make the summit despite the winds and even ran down to meet back up with me (what a beast)!

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With just micro-spikes on, the hike down proved interesting. The sun grew warmer and warmer as we got further down, which also meant snow was melting. So, naturally, we kept falling deep into the snow unexpectedly. It is probably best to bring snowshoes! By the time we got down early afternoon, we had hiked approximately 13 miles.

I will be sore for the next couple days, but that’s okay because the adventures were all worth it. First time to the Great Sand Dunes for me, and first time to Mt. Humboldt for both Cam and I. I love that Cam challenges me to go on 13 mile, 5 am, winter mountain excursions like it’s nothing out of the ordinary because each time I push my limits, I grow stronger mentally and physically for the next adventure that awaits.

Sand, picnics, sun, mountains, nature, road trips, and lovely company makes for a pretty awesome weekend.