2023 Annual Recap

58 unique countries and territories (49 UN-member countries). 5 new territories/non-UN countries 95 flights on 39 different airlines, 41 train rides, 28 ships and boats, 43 car rentals (24 self-driven and 19 with a driver) – 29,000+ kilometers driven. 729 FB albums posted with 43,000+ pictures! (Still lagging behind with quite a few, so stay tuned). Many already are (and the rest will soon be) available on travel2unlimited.com. And now to the recap! The year began in Germany with its Christmas markets and sizzling bratwursts. The first adventure of the year was Nicaragua – climbing volcanoes and looking down into the lava cauldrons, exploring historic Granada and Leon, baking in the Pacific Ocean. Colombian San Andres offered a classic Caribbean beach paradise. Next was the tri-border Amazon jungle of Colombia, Brazil and Peru with lots of river cruising, pink river dolphins, canoeing, zip-lining, sleeping in tree-houses, nocturnal hikes, and insane Amazonian wildlife and flora (like giant piracuru fish and the massive lilies). Next – on to Brazil and Rio for carnival, an experience unlike anything else on earth! The South American exploration continued into Uruguay with its European-like coasts, and Texas-like ranch interiors, and then on to Argentina. Argentina was a true in-depth exploration where we visited all provinces but one in a giant roadtrip – from Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls (with a crossover into Brazil and Paraguay), west to the Andes with colorful mountains and vicuñas and llamas, spectacular landscapes, vineyards from Calafate to Mendoza and lots of wine tasting and late night steaks. A quick hop in and out of Chile and then another cross-continental drive across the Argentinian pampas. More Argentina followed in peninsula Valdez and then Patagonia in Ushuaia. The Atlantic Odyssey expedition cruise took us through the Atlantic Ocean from Ushuaia in Argentina to South Georgia (hundreds of thousands of penguins, sea lions, elephant seals, whales) to the remote Gough Island with its albatross colonies, to even more inaccessible Tristan da Cunha (where we did land after multiple tries), plus two nearby islands of Nightingale and Inaccesible. More days at sea and we got to Saint Helena, exploring its unique history, Napoleonic sites, and spectacular bird cliffs and sea life. Next was another travel jewel of Ascension Island, and then on toward the equator and north to Cabo Verde. A quick reload in the springtime Germany and New York and another block began in the Caucasus mountains in the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan, the capital of Baku, and the Karabakh region with its landscapes and complicated political history. The Central African block followed next, starting with the Equatorial Guinea (finally got to see live pangolins) and a trip to the remote Anabon island, Gabon (trekking the elusive mandrills), and driving around the super-friendly São Tomé and its cocoa plantations. Then we went hardcore into the real west Africa – Cameroon with its northern kingdoms, both Congos (finally saw bonobos and cruised the mighty Congo River). Democratic Republic of Congo is always a true adventure – hardly democratic and barely a republic, but most certainly a true messy and jungle-clad heart of Africa – Congo. A flight across the African continent and we were searching for the elusive shoebill in the swamps of Lake Victoria in Uganda, driving across the mountains and tea plantations of Burundi, and going on game drives in the savannas of the eastern Rwanda, adjacent to Serengeti. A change of scenery followed and we flew to Philippines to begin our Southeast Asian block. Philippines came with a lot of rain, but spectacular rice terraces, historic churches, and the white sand beaches of Boracay. Next were the mosques and bridges of the tiny but rich Brunei Darussalam, and then the glass towers and quays of Singapore and its otherworldly and futuristic Garden by the Bay – stunning at daytime, but totally incredible at night. Malaysia was next, where we explored two historic areas of Malacca in the south and Penang in the north. The Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc was the next island destination, with its stunning cable car, the longest in the world, pristine beaches, and world famous fish sauce factories. Northern Vietnam was next with the capital of Hanoi, the limestone landscapes of Trang An, the ancient capital of Hoa Lu, and the Buddhist insanity at the Bai Ding complex. Luang Prabang in Laos followed next with trips along the Mekong, monks walking down the streets in the early morning, and night markets bustling with insane food in the evening. Next we swang to Yangon to admire all its gold pagodas, before we made it to Siem Reap on Cambodia. For the next week we explored all the jewels of the ancient Khmer empire – from Angkor Wat, Ta Prom, and Banteay Srei to the remote Koh Ker and Preah Vihear, and then a giant loop to Mekong River in search of the super rare irrawaddy river dolphins (we got to see them!). The longest block exploring the East Asia and Pacific began in September with a quick stop in Ulaanbator in Mongolia to say hello to the land of Chenghiz Khan, and then into South Korea for a full exploration – Seoul, DMZ, Sawon, Busan, and all around the southern and eastern coasts – amazing country culturally and with phenomenal cuisine. Japan was next and second longest country in terms of time spent – well over 2 weeks. The JR Pass for the Shinkansen trains worked wonders as we literally explored every single stop between Fukuoka and Tokyo and the islands around. Japan had everything – temples, wild deer, hot springs, mountains, hiking, medieval castles (a dozen of them), distilleries, Kobe beef, and unlimited amounts of the best sashimi and sushi imaginable, plus local specialties like horse meat and mintai caviar. Best cuisine in the world, hands down! Another visit to Philippines to the sites we haven’t seen on the earlier trip – Mayon volcano, swimming with whale sharks at Oslob, experiencing sardine run at Moalboal, and sampling juicy lechon at Carcar. This was followed by a monthlong expedition cruise through remote islands and regions of Papua New Guinea, Bougainville, Salomon Islands, and Vanuatu – with lots of underwater adventures, cultural singsing experiences, jungle hiking in search of rare endemic plants and birds, and much more. The spiritual dancing on Ambrym island and the Tanna volcano were absolutely surreal and once in a life time experiences. Island hopping continued through Lifou in New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, and the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. We had a very brief time in NZ – just enough to see Rotorua volcanic wonderland, spelunk through Waitimo glowworm caves, see kiwi, and roam around Hobbiton. Pacific island hopping continued with Samoa (all around the main island with its churches and beaches and waterfalls), overly touristic Fiji, sinking archipelago of Tuvalu, and the remote Vavau island group of Tonga. Plus the least visited country in the world – Nauru – a phosphate-depleted island blob on the equator. We then went on to Australia – east in Brisbane, north in Kakadu National Park (including wilderness glamping), and the Great Ocean Toad and blue penguins on the south. Plus a quick flight to and back from Timor Leste and exploration of the western part of the country. We then spend a pre-Christmas week on the Kiritimati aka Christmas Island in the middle of nowhere in central pacific. The place is insane, and not just for bonefish fishing, but for scenery and bird islands where you can see rare species almost literally at the end of your fingertips. Finally the year ended with a bit of Big Island magic in Hawaii – black sand beaches, green sand beach, waterfalls and orchids, snow at Mauna Kea, and a lot of rain in Hilo. Alas, no lava. (Many posts are lagging and coming in January, stay tuned). On to 2024!