2019 Annual Recap

2019 was another super year with almost non-stop travel all around this beautiful planet. It seems that the more I explore, the more unique and unknown corners of the world I discover.

2019 became the first year I hit all 6 continents in a single calendar year – 4x North America, 1x South America, 2x Africa, 4x Europe, 2x Asia, 1x Australia & Oceania, and 1x Antarctica. And naturally, I sailed or swam in all 5 oceans of the world, including falling through an ice crack of the sea ice in the Arctic. 110 flights with 41 airline, 12 train rides (including a train on a ferry), 39 boat sails (including a rough sea 24 day voyage to Antarctica), 25 self-drive car rentals (including a month-long eurodrive), 17 driver-driven car rentals, and I don’t remember the number of bicycles.

The year began with a trip to Bahamas (I’ve been there only briefly in 2010, so I wanted to do a thorough exploration. I hopped 5 different islands (Exumas, Nassau, North and South Eleutheras, and Grand Bahamas) with beautiful ultra-white sandy beaches, swam with pigs, got close to Bahamian pink iguanas, cruised around aquamarine waters, and ate a lot of conch.

Dominican Republic was next and included both the historic Santo Domingo and whale watching the humpbacks play in Bahia Samana, as well as some catamaran cruising around the super spectacular beaches in the Del Este national park.

Next came the Iberian peninsula, where I finished visiting every province of Spain, that I haven’t seen before, driving over 2000 km around the central and southern parts of the country – Toledo, Cuenca, Murcia, Cartagena, Almeria, Malaga, Cadiz, and dozens of smaller mountain towns. Tasting the fino sherry in Jerez de la Frontera was a highlight. Eating jamon iberico at the source was an even bigger highlight.

Two side trips from Spain took me to the Spanish enclaves in Africa – Ceuta and Melilla. Spectacular medieval fortification in both of them, interesting mix of cultures, panoramic seascape views, and two more unique territories cross off the must-see list.

A quick hop to Rome, and I explored Vatican museums and Florence got an in-depth look.. Order of Malta became another country – smack in the heart of Rome, this entity is recognized as sovereign by 123 other UN members and the must see is the gate at Cavalieri di Malta, where you can see the iconic keyhole with the view of the Vatican’s basilica.

At this point it was time to change the European civilization for something completely different and I launched for 1-month exploration of the Indian subcontinent. Red Fort in Delhi, the ghats of Varanasi with the human-ash-covered holy men and all the fires, iconic Taj Mahal in Agra, amazing step wells, beautiful Jaipur with all its royal palaces, the blue city of Jodhpur, and a desert city of Jaisalmer with absolutely stunning Jain temples and fortresses and havelis. Ancient mosques in Ahmadabad, Rani ki Vav stepwell in Patan, Victorian architecture and the Gate of India in Mumbai, juxtaposition of Hindu and Catholic in Goa, and absolutely surreal Buddhist/Hindu cave complexes of Ajanta and Ellora, as well as Daulatabad fort around Aurangabad. At this point, I was craving less people and more wildlife and nature – and a whole week in the Pench and Kanha national parks yielded many amazing and close tiger sightings, another bucketlist experience.

Southeast Asia was next, with a quick trip to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to see the Petronas Towers and a stop in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Pehn to see the Royal Palace and the Killing Fields memorials. Vietnam was next up for some serious exploration: first Ho Chi Minh city and Mekong delta, then amazing limestone terrain of Phong Nha – home to the world’s 1st, 3rd, and 5th largest caves. A whole weak of cave exploration here, with multiday hikes, true spelunking, swimming in underground rivers, rappelling down underground vertical walls, seeing absolutely unique cave formations, and even camping inside the massive cave of Hang En. A bit more cultural exploration followed in the central Vietnam with historic Hue, Hoi An, and Danang.

Laos was next with the high plateau landscape of Bolaven and the Khmer temple complex of Wat Phou, easily rivaling Angkor Watt, but so little visited. At this point, I needed to unwind a bit and island-hopping in the tropical Thailand sounded like a good idea – Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Ang Thong, Phuket. Oh, and the Full Moon Festival on Koh Phangan – the Thai version of Tomorrowland (well, not really).

Now I was ready for some serious and linguistically-challenging exploration of China. Xian with its city walls and towers and the Terracotta Army, and the absolutely amazing Huanshan Mountains. Then a bullet train journey took me all the way east to Jiayunguan – the easternmost end of the Great Wall of China and the Jiayunguan Fort. But the true attraction here was the Danxia Lanform – a geological park of rainbo-colored erosion hills, displaying absolutely every hue of red, yellow, brown, and white – a true wonder of the world, rivaling the American Southwest. I couldn’t leave China without exploring Shanghai, and a cross-country flight took me to China’s east coast. I climbed all three super skyscrapers – Shanghai Tower, SWTC, and Jin Mao Tower, and admired the night view of all three from across the river. Totally amazing!

What’s totally opposite of China? Well, probably quite literally – the South America. And a three-week-long Andean adventure followed. Historic Lima and Arequipa, watching giant condors fly in front of me above the Colca Canyon, revisiting Cusco and once again admiring the majestic (though overly touristy) Machu Pichu. Next was a week in the Peruvian jungle, in the most remote lodge in the Amazon Basin, in the faraway corner along Tambopata river on the border with Brazil and Bolivia, where the Amazon begins. Four species of giant colorful macaws, humongous tarantulas and spiders on the night walks in the jungle, half a dozen primate species not found anywhere else on earth, and not the least – jaguars!

Next was the Lake Titicaca – floating islands of Uros, and equally mesmerizing Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side. The tiny historic Andean town of Copacabana at an elevation over 13k feet was beyond beautiful in Bolivia (this is where the Rio’s beach go its name). Overland to La Paz and a thorough exploration of the amazing city (Teleferico is a must!) and several ancient archaeological sites followed. But I really came to La Paz to bike the Death Road – cycling the one-way dirt and gravel road without any roadguards from 15500 down to 3000 feet, from -12 to +35 Celsius in one day. Bucketlist indeed!

Colombia was the last stop on the South American trip, split between Bogota and Medellin: Botero sculptures and art, Salt Cathedral and salt mines, Medellin’s Communa Thirteen and all the colorful graffiti, Piedra el Penol rock monolith, and colorful town of Guatape.

Next was high Arctic and a long air journey took me from the equator all the way to high above the arctic circle in Pond Inlet in Nunavut on the Baffin Island. From there it was another day on snowmobile and Innuit sleds to the edge of frozen sea ice between the Baffin and Devon Islands. Here, at the “floe edge” as its known, I spent a week in a tent set up in the open right on sea ice, with 500m depth of the Arctic Ocean below me. Everyday, it was getting out to the edge of ice and watch the wildlife show of the floe edge – narwhals, polar bears, seals, and myriads of seabirds. Hiking on the uninhabited Devon Island was also awesome, with the unique arctic flora and wildlife slowly waking up to the beginning of the short arctic summer.

Once again, I thrive on complete opposites and change of scenery (short attention span?) – and it was England that came next. A drive along the east coast from London to the Scottish border brought into focus the historic English towns of Cambridge, Norfolk, Lincoln, York, Newcastle, as well as the wildlife sanctuaries of Bempton Cliffs and Farne Islands – full of puffins, guillemots, gannets, grey seals, and much more. A quick hop to Dublin followed to attend “Biggest 90’s Music” festival – and I got to literally hang out with Real McCoy, Maxx, Alice Deejay, La Bouche, Turbo B from Snap, Darude, Sash, Da Hool, Technotronic, Haddaway, Ice MC, and many others. Oh, and Cappella!

Having recharged the energy with all the 90’s eurodance, I fast forwarded myself to the more modern electronic music and hit Ibiza. All the top clubs – Ushuaia, Pasha, Heart, Amnesia, and Hi – with the cream-of-the-crop top deejays within literally a hand’s reach – Armin van Buuren, Claptone, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, and many others, and even Paris Hilton – once again proving that anybody can be a deejay. Ibiza’s west coast beaches and spectacular Formentera island provided an unwind alternative from the pumping bass and pulsating strobe lights of the Ibiza nightlife.

What would be the opposite of Ibiza? How about desolate landscapes of Yukon and Alaska? Over 1200 km on the Alaska Highway, a flight over the Kluane National Park with the highest mountains in Canada and its longest glaciers, panning for gold in Fairbanks, taking another flight up north way past the arctic circle and returning back along the iconic Dalton Highway – all hit the spot for aggressive nonstop adventure.

Next came a longtime bucketlist item of mine – the remote Aleutian Islands. The remote town of Unalaska was like a fairytale with spectacular mountains and glaciers, desolate coves and volcanic beaches, hundreds of bold eagles, stunning and strenuous hikes to panoramic overlooks, amazing temperate island flora, and gorging on salmonberry and Alaskan crab. A ferry journey from the western Aleutians and along the entire island chain followed – with stops at some lost and way-off-the-tourist map settlements of Akutan, Cold Bay, King Cove, Sand Point. Humpback whales, killer whales, seabirds, towering perfectly conical snowy volcanoes, and stunning coastline along the way – it was truly a fairytale!

Destination point of the ferry was Kodiak Island – home to the world’s largest brown bears. A cross-island tiny 3-seater plane takes you to the remote and uninhabited Frazer Lake, where massive Kodiak brown bears congregate to feast on salmon – dozens at a time and with small cubs! Flying above the island was equally amazing, as it has one of the most rugged and spectacular landscape on earth. But driving along the few stretches of the road around Kodiak town brought plenty of attractions as well – a bay with playing grey whales, brown bear cubs running along the roads, spectacular coastal views. And finally, a fishing trip out to the rich waters of Kodiak Island and it was half a day of pulling one fish after another – three species of salmon (king, coho, and pink), two species of cod, rockfish and massive deepwater halibut. 300lb of fish! How do you top this? But yes you can! With watching over 50 humpback whales feeding just along the coastline in high density. I have never seen them in these quantities: water was boiling with spouts, you could snap three tail flukes in one shot, whales were breaching and fins appearing seemingly everywhere. Surrounded by whales!

Overdose of wild nature called for an antidote of European culture and history and a two-month eurotrip followed next. Starting with Paris and paying tribute to Napoleon at Les Invalides and cruising the Seines, I then drove across the German wine region along the Rhine an the Mosel Valley. A winding drive through the historic UNESCO-listed towns of central Germany – Rothenburg, Dinkelsburg, Nordlingen, Nuremburg, Bamburg, Bayreuth, and Regensburg took me into Austria. Here, I went for the alpine scenery of Dachstein Saltzkammergut and the ice caves, and wrapped Austria with Linz and Vienna. Next – on to art nuveau Kecskemet in Hungary, Smeredevo and Nis medieval fortress of Serbia, and finally the spectacular scenery of Lake Ohrid in Northern Macedonia with all the ancient orthodox churches and fortresses. Next was Albania, where I explored all three of the country’s UNESCO sites (Berat, Gjirocaster, and Butrint) in one day, before entering Greece.

Driving across the entire northern Greece and checking out all the ancient Greek sites (Dodona, Pella, Virgina) took me to Quranoupolis, the gateway to the sovereign entity of Mount Athos. Cruising along the coast of the peninsula on the way to Mount Athos at its tip, with a perfect view of all the magnificent orthodox monasteries lining the mountains and coastline. Then a drive down to Athens and exploration in and around, including the atmospheric Temple of Poseidon and the solemn change of guards at the Stygmata Square.

Time to leave the car at the Athens airport’s longterm parking and fly to Crete to explore the ancient civilization and Venetian towns – Knossos Palace, Heraklion, Chenia, Rethymno, and an absolute stunning pink-sand beach of Elafonissi. Oh, and a cave when Zeus was born (kind of shabby). Next island was Rhodes, where I started with yet another super bucketlist item of mine – the tiger moth valley aka Valley of Butterflies. Here millions of colorful tiger moth butterflies rest during the hot season in a cool and shaded valley along a stream in the center of the island – an absolutely surreal sight as the tree trunks and rocks are covered with a layer upon layer of butterflies. But there’s so much on Rhodes – the historic Rhodes medieval walled town with the Palace of the Grandmasters, clifftop castles in Kritenia and Monolythos, and a totally Lord-of-the-ring city of Lindos – whitewashed on top of the cliffs with an ancient Greek temple and surrounded by Mediterranean all around.

Back to Greece mainland, picked up my car and continued full forward to explore the Peloponnese peninsula’s attractions of ancient Epidavros, Tyrins, Mistras, Sparta, and Olympia, before taking an overnight ferry across to the heel of the Italian boot. Then I unzipped (or zipped up) the Italian boot all the way from baroque Lecce to Turin in the far northwest of the country, taking the absolute gems of Trani, Bari, Atri, Loreto, Fracassi Caves, Assissi, Rimini, stunning mosaics of Ravenna, Ferrara, Modena, Parma, and Cremona. Oh, and the Ferrari museum!

The Eurodrive journey ended with two days of exploration in Lyon in France and then a flight to Valencia. Spain again? You bet! It was time for the Tomatina Festival in Buhol, where 25,000 people throw ripe tomatoes at each other in an absolute pandemonium and insanity. Rivers of bloody tomato juice run down the town’s cobblestone streets, buildings are covered with squashed tomatoes, and you are rubbing the tomato juice from your eyes and touch bruises on your head from direct tomato hits. Ouch! But a bucketlist item nonetheless. They should do it in Belarus with potatoes!

Enough of southern Europe, hello Scandinavia! Northern German attractions of Schleswig, Hedeby, and Flenzburg (and now I’ve been to every region of Germany!), followed by an exploration of Denmark’s attractions of Jelling’s runestones, Rabjerg Knude lighthouse falling into the sea, Sahara-like white dunes of Rabjerg Mile, and the northernmost tip of Denmark at Grenen, where the North and Baltic sea meet in a boiling cauldron of currents. Not to miss was the Vi Elsker 90’s Music Festival in Aalborg, where it was a total blast with even more Eurodance superstars like the KLF, Daze, Snap, D-Devils, Cascada, Right Said Fred, Londonbeat, N-Trance, Vengaboys, and – oh yes – Cappella. And the show’s main anchor? Scooter! And I got to hang out with all of them at the afterparty as well. It’s nice to be important!

With my ears still ringing, I took a ferry to Norway and on to Hardangerfjord for the ultimate buckelist prize – the hike to Trolltunga – a rock tongue hanging out high above the fjord. A strenuous 22km round trip hike with a lot of elevation change was well worth a few priceless photo-op moments on the edge above the abyss. More Norway exploration followed with fjord cruising, massive waterfalls, Norwegian apple farms, ancient wooden churches, ferry crossings between islands, Bergen’s historic wharf, Stavanger and Kristiansand.

Then came a long drive to Berlin and a visit to the Berlin Wall and a selfie in front of the iconic graffiti of Brezhnev and Eric Honneker deep French-kissing goodbye to socialism.

Next was flying home to Minsk. Spending around a week in Belarus, I took a couple road trips north to Polotsk and Vitebsk and west to Grodno and Lida, discovering tiny towns with old churches and fortress along the way. Also – Berezinskiy Nature Reserve with the wolves, European bison, wild boars, and lynx. Then a train took me to Moscow, where I spend a day trying to see all of the Stalin’s Seven Sisters skyscrapers. Then I continued on an extended driving roadtrip around the Russia’s golden ring, with a total overload of onion-domed orthodox churches and monasteries surrounded by walled towns all along the way – Sergiev Posad, Rostov Velikiy, Yaroslavl, Vologda, Kostroma, Ivanovo, Suzdal, Vladimir, Murom, and Nizhniy Novgorod – the core of the medieval and ancient history of Russia. And yes, it snowed in September.

Having a Russian overload, I switched gears and went for the opposite, i.e. the USA and the American Southwest – one of the most spectacular natural playgrounds in the world in Utah and Arizona. The red rocks and towers and hoodoos of the Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon, the spires of the Kodachrome Park, the double Grosvernor’s Arch, the Horseshoe Bend overlook of the Colorado River near Page and the toadstool formations with giant boulders underneath the escarpment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But the two main attractions here were the Wave at Coyotte Buttes and the Antelope Canyon – both truly wonders of the world by any measure, and some of my favorite places in the world.

Continuing west across the globe, I once again this year arrived to China – this time to explore the Hainan Island and Guangzhou with its skyscrapers and the iconic Canton Tower and equally iconic Cantonese food. From there it was Chiang Mai in Thailand for the Kratong Festival of Lights, another one of my bucketlist items. Thousands of paper lanterns floating up into the night sky – a surreal experience indeed. Add a little more exploration of northern Thailand and Udon Thani province.

A series of flights then took me to Australia, then Papua New Guinea, and finally the island of Bougainville, where quite coincidentally (or perhaps it was well-planned by me), the people were voting in the Independence Referendum that had been 20 years in the making. I was there on the referendum day of November 23, and thus probably at least temporarily became the first person to have visited all 194 UN countries (assuming the referendum leads to Bougainville independence and UN membership in the future retroactively taking the country’s emergence back to this year).

Using Australia as a base, I then visited the semi-autonomous region of Torres Strait Islands in the north, the capital district of Canberra in the south, and absolutely stunning Lord Howe Island in the east – volcanic peaks, paradise of rare birds, insane snorkeling and beaches, amazing hiking, and the boat trip to Ball’s Pyramid, the world’s tallest seastack. Oh, and I got to see and even hold the world’s rarest insect – Lord Howe Stick insect.

A hop to New Zealand and a brief exploration of Wellington before a flight to the remote Chatham Islands – a middle-of-nowhere islands in the southern pacific with temperate climate, spectacular coastline, rare birds, and seascape panoramic views.

Finally, on December 16, I launched on an Antarctic voyage south to the 6th continent, passing through the Snares Island (penguins and fur seals and sea lions), Macquarie Island (massive king penguin colonies, elephant seals, and equally massive royal penguin colonies), and then a long voyage across the Southern Ocean to the Australian and French Antarctica. Tabular icebergs, adelie penguins, elusive emperor penguins, Antarctic seals, killer whales, humpbacks, and rough seas – this expedition had it all. And I celebrated the New Year’s in Antarctica – not a bucketlist item per se until it became one.

Another spectacular year of global travel, lots of new friends and old friends! Great thanks to everyone who joined me along the way or who shared some of travel experience around all these remote corners of the world. Thanks for following me on facebook with all the photoalbums and story recaps. Don’t forget about the Instagram at @travel2unlimited and my full website at travel2unlimited.com.

Hello 2020!