Mongolia is Not Just For Backpackers! Here’s All You Need to Know About Traveling to Mongolia

For The Huffington Post. September 2016.

Mongolia doesn’t come up on many lists as a top tourist destination, though those who have been there can attest to its uniqueness. Traveling to Mongolia feels like you have journeyed to another time and place. Thirty percent of the three million people in the country still live a nomadic lifestyle, herding livestock, and moving their small camps every few months. Driving through the countryside, landscapes evolve from Siberian Altai mountains in the west, and the planet’s oldest lakes in the northwest, to the coldest desert in the world in the south. Simultaneously, the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, looks like any other metropolis in the world, with its high risers, shopping centers and broad avenues. In Mongolia, the past and present coexist, bound together by centuries of history and culture.

Curious to learn more? Here are some commonly asked questions about traveling to Mongolia.

How to get there?

Located in East Asia, Mongolia is the 18th largest country in the world in terms of size. It is possible to enter the country by air, rail, or by road through Kazakhstan, Russia and China. Chinggis Khaan International Airport is the only international airport located in the capital of Ulaanbaatar. Most convenient flights can be found via Beijing (2 hours, Seoul (3 hours), and Moscow (6 hours).

Best time to go?

Summer in Mongolia is rainy (yes it rains in this desert), and winter is covered in snow. In fact, Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital in the world, having an average temperature of -20 °C in January (with minimums of -45 °C).

PHOTO BY AMANDA VILLA-LOBOS
National Sports Stadium in Ulaanbaatar

Peak of summer is the best time to travel to Mongolia. The largest annual event, Naadam Festival takes place from July 11-13 and attracts visitors from all over the world. This ancient Olympics style sporting event is registered with the Intangible Heritage Fund of UNESCO. It measures courage, strength, daring, horsemanship and marksmanship of the nomadic people and warriors, through a series of competitions in horseback riding, wrestling and archery. Festivities take place for an entire week, including music concerts, costume parade, food fairs and family picnics. Tickets to the stadium events must be purchased months in advance. It is also advisable to book your trip through a travel agent, local hotel, or reputable tour company, such as Voyage Unique Mongolie.

Those who enjoy winter scenery should attend the ice festival in Lake Hovsgol or the Thousand Camel Festival, held in the Gobi Desert during February – March each year. The celebration of the endangered Bactrian camel includes camel races, polo competitions, sled races, as well as traditional Mongolian music and dance.

PHOTO BY AMANDA VILLA-LOBOS
Mongolian two-humped camels

How about History and Culture?

The history of Mongolia dates back to nomadic empires spanning couple of thousand years, though surfaced under the rule of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The Mongol empire was once the largest contiguous empire in the world.

Genghis Khan is omnipresent, from the airport to the main square. Visitors are awed by the massive Genghis Khan statue complex, where he is riding the world’s tallest horse sculpture. There is also a well preserved 13th Century National Park (located 2 hours outside the capital) where you can get a fairly good idea of how life was during the Mongol rule. Each of the areas in the park focuses on a different cultural display including Shaman religion, Mongolian scripts, and musical instruments.

The traditional Mongolian dance is bielgee, which is performed by both men and women, and can be seen at local theaters and festivals. Mongolian musicians are especially talented using deep throat singing, and several local instruments, such as the horse head fiddle, drum and gong. These days, techno and rap are also being integrated, creating fun modern tunes.

PHOTO BY AMANDA VILLA-LOBOS
Mongolian dances in the countryside

The Mongolian people are very polite and peaceful. They are not gregarious, but if you ask them for any help, they will go out of their way to assist you. Whenever you enter a Mongolian home, the first thing they will offer you is Süütei Tsai (salty, hot, milk tea), along with Aaruul (fermented dried cheese). At special events, they may offer Airag, fermented mare’ milk and the national liquor of Mongolia. It is respectable to receive whatever your host offers you, even if you do not want it.

What’s there to do?

Besides visiting museums, palaces, Buddhist monasteries, and exploring hundreds of restaurants, cafes, pubs and shops along Peace Avenue in Ulaanbaatar, there is tons to see outside the city. Mongolians have great love for the outdoors, as it is in their nomadic heritage. Most families will spend their weekends in the countryside, camping, fishing, hiking, trekking, horseback riding, etc.

PHOTO BY AMANDA VILLA-LOBOS
Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert

One of the highlights of Mongolia is the great Gobi Desert, the largest desert in Asia and the coldest desert in the world. Due to its high plateaus and expansive dry lands, Gobi observes extreme temperatures from −40 °C (−40 °F) in winter to +50 °C (122 °F) in summer. The Gobi Desert was once a sea and is rich in fossil finds as old as 100,000 years. The first dinosaur eggs were discovered in the Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs) area of the Gobi. It is also where the highest concentration of dinosaur bones has been discovered.

Where will I stay?

In Ulaanbaatar, there are all categories of hotels including well known international brands, as well as economical motels starting at only USD 30/night. Lodging options in the rest if the country is limited to ger camps. Gers (aka yurts) are traditional nomadic dwellings made of felt, poles, lattice, cloth, and ties. Ger lodgings can be limited to basic sleeping facilities, or luxurious, with king-size beds, space heaters and private baths equipped with rain showers and flushing toilets. Most ger lodges have a common area where meals are served. When booking your stay, make sure to compare and contrast the room layout and amenities offered by the ger lodges.

PHOTO BY AMANDA VILLA-LOBOS
Dream Terelj Lodge

What’s the food scene like? 

Mongolian cuisine is great for carnivores. The Mongolian diet consists mainly of meat (beef, horse, goat, sheep, yak, marmot and camel) and milk, yogurt and cheese derived from animals they raise. Heavy soups made with noodles, potatoes and meat are also quite common as it keeps the body full and warm through extreme winters.

The most popular street food is Khuushuur, a fried dumpling stuffed with beef or mutton. While there is no such thing as Mongolian BBQ (that was invented by Taiwan), Khorkhog and Boodog are the local way of heating stones and steaming or grilling meat and vegetables. In the countryside, there are very few restaurants that only serve only Mongolian food, but in the city you can find lots of cafes, bars, along with Irish, Korean, and Indian restaurants.

Why go to Mongolia?

Mongolia is a destination for those who like to see unspoiled natural beauty. It is a place where you can drive for hours and see nothing but herds of yaks, sheep, goats, cows, horses and camels, along with a handful of humans.

It is truly a spot in the world where you can get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. You can find yourself camping in the middle of a vast desert, surrounded by pristine nature, yet have solar panels and a satellite dish on your nomad ger. Mongolia is for adventurous travelers, not just backpackers. Voyage Unique Mongolie is one of the few companies in Mongolia that can provide accommodations in luxurious camps, personal experiences where travelers can visit nomadic families, and opportunities to understand the local culture.

Read more about my adventures in Mongolia on my blog, Go Eat Give.

15 Reasons To Put Chile On The Top Of Your Travel List

For The Huffington Post. July 2016.

Chile is unlike any other country I have visited in South America. Because of its natural beauty, high literacy rate, and fairly stable political situation, it can be best described as the Switzerland of the south. Chile is a paradise for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Within the country, one can find a diverse variety of landscapes including vineyards, volcanoes, deserts, beaches, lakes, glaciers and forests. Nature, culture, food and people just are few of the reasons to visit Chile.

1. Unexplored Destination – Chile has been relatively cut off from the rest of the world due to its remote location. Therefore, the number of oversees tourists is not as overwhelming as in many other places, and there are areas in the country where you can find yourself to be the only visitors. People are friendly and there is no eminent danger. It is easy to move around the long country by air or road. Adventurers may rent a car (with or without a guide) and explore the entire stretch of 2,700 miles from north to south. Picture yourself in the next Motorcycle Diaries?

2. Santiago – Most visitors arrive in the nation’s capital, a city bustling with boutique hotels, restaurants, shops, art and nightlife. Santiago compares to other South American metropolis in terms of bottleneck traffic, but the city itself has a European feel and stands at an elevation of 1700 feet, surrounded by the Andes mountains.

Travel tip: Make Hotel Le Rive, a charming mansion style boutique hotel, your base and make day trips to the nearby Pacific Ocean and wine country. 

Hotel La Casona at Matetic winery

3. Wine Country – Though Chile has been growing wine for a long time, Chilean wines entered the international wine scene only in the 1990s. From Elqui Valley in the north, Casablanca, Maule and Colchagua Valleys in the center, to Maipo Valley in the south, Chile is producing crisp Sauvignon Blanc, robust Cabernet Sauvignon, spicy Carménère, bold Syrah and smooth Pinot Noirs. In the last decade, biking wine tours of Chile have become very popular where visitors can enjoy the countryside, indulge in paired food and wine tastings, and spend overnight at villas in the vineyards.

Travel tip: Stay at Hotel La Casona in Casablanca Valley where you can bike through 6 miles of the farm, and drink award-winning organic and biodynamic wines at Matetic winery.

4. Pucon – This charming alpine town in southern Chile is best known for still active Villarrica Volcano where you can ski, snowboard or snowshoe all though winter. The trail from its peak to Lake Villarrica below is a scenic 1.5-2-hour ski, and hikers can spend a few days exploring the caves in the area. The volcano is surrounded by forests which are still home to the indigenous people who own the land.

Travel tip: Stay at upscale Hotel Vira Vira. This year-old Relaix and Chateau affiliated property boasts contemporary villas with fabulous views of the Licura river and the flaming volcano. Stay includes farm to table meals, activities such as yoga, horseback riding, guided hikes and cooking classes.

5. Indigenous Culture – The city of Temuco (near Pucon) has the highest indigenous (known as Mapuche) presence in Chile. In this region of Araucanía, visitors can see traditional huts made with paja and get a glimpse how they have lived for centuries. The Mapuche people are best known for their textiles, and it is also possible to visit the workshops of women who weave handlooms using sheep wool in traditional ways passed on from generations.

Fall colors in the Región de la Araucanía

6. Región de la Araucanía – Bordering with Argentina, this forest area is home to hundreds of Araucaria Araucana, also know as monkey puzzle trees. With a backdrop of snow capped volcano, these thousand-year-old trees are referred to as living fossils. Fall is especially beautiful in this area as the region is covered with fiery red, yellow and orange leaves sloping along a winding road.

Torta mieloja in Pucon

 7. Manjar – It is believed that Chile invented the famous Dulce de Leche or sweet milk caramel during the Colonial times. In Chile, you can find many desserts prepared with manjar. There are hole-in-the-wall Pastelerías, as well as Swiss style bakeries serving torta mieloja (Napolean style pastry with layers of dulce), brazo de reine (a Swiss cake roll with caramel), and of course, alfajores.

Beer tasting at Kunstmann brewery

8. German Culture – Since Chile opened up immigration to the Germans in the 1800s, entire towns in southern Chile have been taken over by German settlers. Here you can find traditional homes, churches, and schools that will transport you to Bavaria. German restaurants and breweries have also popped up. One of the most famous ones is family run Kunstmann brewery in Valdivia. Locals and visitors flock here for beer tastings, brewery tours and huge portions of currywurst and burgers.

Travel tip: Eat kuchen (cake) and apples strudel at Winkler Family Kuchenladen in the charming German town of Fruitilliar.

9. Chilean Food – The food across Chile differs by region, with more meat dishes in north and seafood in the south. Fried and baked varieties of empanadas stuffed with ground beef and cheese are perhaps the national street food of Chile. Sopaipillas (fried bread), casuela (meat and veggie stew in clay pot), pastel del choclo (corn and beef Shepard’s pie), and cordero al palo (whole roast grilled lamb) are also traditional comfort foods.

Sunrise on Llanquihue Lake as seen from Hotel Cumbres

10. Puerto Varas – One of the most beautiful cities in Chile, located on Llanquihue Lake, acts as the gateway to Patagonia. Summer time is packed with Chilean tourists laying on the beach, kayaking, or picnicking on boats. Winter is bustling with skiers who come to enjoy the 8,700 feet tall slopes of Volcan Osorno.

Travel Tip: Get one of the balcony rooms at Hotel Cumbres and wake up to see a beautiful sunrise over the lake.

Restaurant El Espantapajaros in Puerto Octay

11. Wildlife – Don’t be surprised to see a huaso (Chilean cowboy) riding down the streets in the countryside. Most of the drives in southern Chile offer picturesque views of rolling hills and grasslands filled with free roaming cows, sheep, llamas and donkeys. In the north, you can see guanacos, alpacas and flamingos too. Remember, not to feed the wild animals!

Travel tip: Take a day trip to family-run Restaurant El Espantapajaros in Puerto Octay, where you can eat homemade German food against a scenic backdrop, and visit the farm animals up close.

12. Patagonia – Torres del Paine National Park is home to beautiful mountains, large glaciers, lakes and rivers. Located in the southern extreme of Patagonia is the largest ice field in the world, Glacier Grey, which creates colorful blue and green icebergs. Get ready for some serious hikes for the best views. This is the perfect place to be one with nature.

Life on Mars is similar to the Atacama

13. Atacama Desert – Due to its high attitude, dry air (driest non-polar place on Earth), lack of pollution and lack of cloud cover, Atacama offers the most spectacular star gazing on the planet. Feel surreal in the vastness of the Mars and Moon valleys, and see the colors in the desert change drastically at sunset. The Atacama Desert is rich in minerals, as well as dramatic lakes filled with salt.

Travel trip: Stay at Awasi Atacama, a boutique resort that combines local architectural elements with 5-star comforts. Personal guides take guests on archeological, star watching, hiking and biking tours.

14. Easter Island – The remote Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean is home to more than 800 Moai Statues created by the early Rapa Nui people. Visit the ancient sites, learn about the indigenous people, and enjoy views of the cliffs and water by biking or hiking around the island.

15. Photographer’s Dream Destination – Many travelers look for destinations where they are inspired to practice their photography skills. In Chile, one doesn’t need to go far to see varied landscapes, animals, people, and food. From star studded skies and dry cracked Earth, to snow covered volcanoes, alpine lakes, and glaciers, there is a great variety of panoramas in this country.

Note: All of the photos in this article were taken with an iPhone 6.

You really need a month to travel around the country and experience all that it has to offer. Custom tour operators such as Yampu Tours can create unique itineraries guided by locals, where travelers can experience the destination, learn about the culture, and interact with the locals. Family-run tour companies like Yampu realize that responsible tourism means supporting these destinations and sustaining their environments and communities for generations to come.

To read more about my travels to Chile, visit my blog, Go Eat Give.

Ten Ways To Make Your Kids Global Citizens

For The Huffington Post. July 2016.

Given the current situation across the world, it is more imperative now than ever before to teach our kids about tolerance and friendship. The next generation must learn not only about world history and geography, but also understand diversity and culture.

Here are ten simple ways in which parents can teach impressionable young minds about the world in fun and educational manners.

1. Learn a New Language. Speaking a second languages is no longer a nice to have, but a “must have” skill. Free language classes are offered by cultural institutions and consulates in practically every city. There are Sunday schools for kids to learn languages, music, arts and culture. Enroll your kids in German, Spanish or French school each year and they will even expand their circle of friends.

2. Make a Pen Pal. Kids of same ages from different parts of the world can be paired through certain subscription based websites. This allows them to practice their writing skills as well as make a connection with another child. If your kid is a member of a homeschooling association, scouts or 4-H, you can use the club’s resources to find a pen pal. Older kids can also use video chat enabled websites to practice languages or just interact with kids abroad. It is a great way to promote cross cultural learning using modern technology.

3. Attend Cultural Festivals – In my city, we have annual Greek, Polish and Vietnamese festivals where people from those countries put together events to showcase their food, music, dance and art. They wear traditional costumes and recreate the ambiance of that country. There are always designated kids areas with lots of fun activities as well.

4. Travel Abroad – Make your family summer vacation count with a trip to a foreign country. There are many cost effective ways of traveling as a family by doing home exchanges, Airbnb or volunteer vacations. Traveling opens up the minds of little ones as they learn life skills such as patience, communication, and adaptability. Almost all parents who have taken their kids to third world countries have told me that their children tend to demand fewer material things and are generally more grateful for what they have after a trip to a third world country.

5. Incorporate Cultural Learning Into School Projects – My elementary school teacher picks a topic for the week to diversify her class’ learning experience. The topics range from animals, foods, costumes or countries of the world. The students do hands-on activities around it such as making paper cutouts or drawings, watching movies or a kid-friendly cooking class.

6. Read Storybooks Based in Other Countries – Popular fantasy tales such as Arabian Nights, Sindbad, and The Jungle Book not only entertain kids, but also provide insightful knowledge about other cultures. They are fun and educational at the same time. Parents can discuss the cultural aspects of the stories after reading the book or watching the corresponding movies.

7. Eat at Ethnic Restaurants – Instead of going to the same family favorite joints, make a plan to dine at an unfamiliar restaurant once a month. Have your kids do some research on what are some of the foods from that country, so they are excited about ordering. You can even try cooking international recipes at home together. Who knows, you may inspire your kid to be the next Master Chef Junior!

8. Celebrate Different Holidays – Growing up, my family and I celebrated every religious holiday, though we were practicing Catholics. We would light fireworks on Diwali, cook rice pudding on Eid-ul-Fitr, and attend the communal lunch at a Sikh temple on Gurpurav. You can research how the festivals are celebrated and recreate them with traditional food, decorations and customs.

9. Organize Themed Parties – Instead of doing the same old superhero and princess themed birthday parties like every other kid, you can encourage your kids to be more creative. Wear sombreros and hang piñatas for a Latin Fiesta, or ask everyone to dress up in kimonos for a Japanese tea party. The kids will have so much fun and learn something new along the way.

10. Decorate Meaningfully – One of my favorite painting tips is a world map mural with pictures and pins. I also like gifting interactive globes, and dolls from different countries. Incorporating toys and souvenirs from all over the world will inevitably make your kids curious about cultures.

Understanding how the rest of the world lives makes kids smarter and friendlier. Starting early means their personalities are impacted and they become open to trying new things as they get older. It also helps them grow up as informed global citizens.

30 Top Travel Accessories of 2015

huffpost-travel-logo

June 2015

As you are getting ready to pack for your summer getaway, shopping for father’s day gifts, or simply want to add to your collection, make sure to check out my favorite travel accessories this year. Each one offers a creative way to solve a travel challenge.

From access to clean water, coping with jet lags, keeping fit on the road, to charging devices on the go – I have found the most innovative products that will address every traveler’s needs.

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Watch the slideshow on The Huffington Post

10 Ways to Fundraise for Your Volunteer Travel That Actually Work

huffpost-travel-logo                                                                    Published on The Huffington Post Travel

You want to travel abroad, learn about a different culture and make a difference in your local community. You have only two weeks of vacation time and very little savings. Do you: (a) not take the trip, or (b) defer the trip to when your financial condition improves?

The answer is (c): Fundraise!

With limited resources and a strong desire to experience meaningful international travel, I have volunteered in Russia, Morocco, Nepal, Spain, Indonesia and Cuba for the past six years.

A volunteer vacation abroad can be quite expensive, even for working adults. Typically, short-term programs run upwards of $1500 per week, plus airfare. The cost of the programs cover accommodations, meals, local transportation, activities and volunteer coordination. Additionally, you need to purchase your international airfare, cover extra hotel nights, weekend stays and sightseeing.

Here are my personally tried and tested ways of fundraising that are guaranteed to generate enough resources for you to afford the volunteer vacation of your dreams.

1. Start by creating a profile on a crowdfunding website, such as GoFundMe. This allows you to devise a straightforward pitch that you can then use for the rest of your fundraising campaign. On your website, share who you are, what you do and your fundraising goal. Be specific about where and when you are traveling, what will you be doing there and why the trip is so important to you. Be sure to make a compelling case as to why someone should give you money to travel.

At this time, you should be registered for a trip through a not-for-profit organization. This will allow your donors to receive tax deductions for their contributions.

2. In addition to creating a profile on a fundraising website, I also recommend starting a blog. When my three girlfriends and I signed up for a volunteer trip to Morocco, we formed a joint travel blog called GirlsToMorocco. On the blog, we took turns sharing our fundraising efforts, featuring sponsors and journaling details about the trip. We also used the blog to document our trip, including a record of where we were staying, facts about the country, whom we were helping, what we learned and funny incidents that occurred in Morocco. It was a good way to keep our donors involved throughout the journey.

3. Check to see if your company or employer has a donation matching program. Some companies offer dollar for dollar matches if you write a check to any charity. Even if your employer doesn’t offer matching gifts, reach out to your spouse, family or friends to see if their employers do. Instead of paying the volunteer program fee myself, I asked my husband to write a check for $500 towards my trip. His employer matched it dollar for dollar, doubling my payment to $1,000 right away.

Also, many organizations have a policy for giving extra paid days off if you are doing volunteer work, which would save you from burning your vacation days.

4. Ask your friends and family members to make financial contributions to your trip fund instead of giving gifts on birthdays and holidays. For my birthday and Christmas party prior to my trip to Morocco, I sent out a “gift giving policy” with the invitation. It stated that if they were considering buying a card, gift or bottle of wine, I would prefer that they give me the same dollar amount as cash instead. I also included a link to where they could donate the money, so that it would go directly to the organization with which I was traveling.

5. Companies like Mary Kay and Pampered Chef offer hosted events at which a portion of the proceeds are donated to the host’s charity of choice. Before my trip to Morocco, I contacted a Mary Kay representative in my area who gladly organized a “Pedicure With a Purpose” party at my house for my friends. I invited a few girls over on a Sunday afternoon, made tea and cookies, and we indulged in free manicures, pedicures and make-up treatments. Many of the attendees bought foot creams, lotions and make-up items, and the representative wrote me a check at the end of the evening.

6. Use your skills or hobbies to make extra cash. Since I like to cook and frequently invite friends over for dinner, I decided to have a themed fundraiser dinner instead. In honor of an upcoming volunteer trip to Russia, I cooked an authentic three-course Russian dinner. I invited a limited number of guests (20-30 in this case), and suggested a $20 per plate donation. My friends came to learn about the trip and got to taste something new. Many of them ended up donating more than the suggested amount.

You may have a different skill you can use to draw a crowd for an event with a cover charge. Perhaps you could host a musical concert, stand-up comedy show, wine tasting event, dance marathon, photography workshop or murder mystery dinner — the possibilities are endless!

7. Ask your friends for frequent flyer miles, airline vouchers and buddy passes to help cover the costs of your flight. Scroll through your Rolodex looking for flight attendants, airline employees, consultants and single travelers. You may know people who travel a lot for work and don’t always use the airline miles they accumulate. Ask them if they could sponsor your ticket using their miles (you can pay for the taxes and fees), and it wouldn’t cost them a dime.

8. Partner with a local restaurant to host a fundraising dinner. I found a Moroccan restaurant in my home city of Atlanta and told the owner my story. She was very excited to learn that I was going to her country to help her people and agreed to host a dinner where she would donate 50 percent of the proceeds to my travel. We advertised the event jointly and invited everyone we knew. I also contacted other local businesses to donate gift baskets, certificates and vouchers for a silent auction and raffle. There were restaurant gift cards, candles, books, tickets to shows and much more. My manager at work donated his vacation home on the beach for a week. With over 20 prizes, it was easy to get people spill out some change!

We also had belly dancing, live music and a traditional Moroccan bridal chariot at our event. This made the evening a lot of fun, and attendees didn’t mind spending $25 for a ticket.

9. While most scholarships and grants for volunteer travel are geared towards high school, gap year, and college students, there are a few available to professionals as well. Travel companies sometimes have grants for volunteer vacations, while theLV Fund offers $500 towards any volunteer trip to Latin America.

10. Find any opportunity to share your story. Each of the fundraising strategies requires some effort and a lot of outreach. This may be the time to use all of your social media skills to get your story, events and requests in front of people. Additionally, you may want to send personal emails to friends and co-workers, and snail mail letters to older family members. Make sure to send reminders, updates on where you stand towards your goals, and thank you notes.

Also, reach out to your network of social and professional organizations. Tell members at your book club, Rotary Club and church that you are fundraising for a volunteer vacation, and you will be surprised to see how readily people offer help. Consider writing a press release and reaching out to the local media, asking them to run a story about your upcoming volunteer trip. You may even end up inspiring some people to go on a volunteer vacation themselves.

Always remember to thank your donors after your trip. I brought back souvenirs such as calendars, bookmarks and key chains for each person who contributed toward my trip. Then I sent them a personal thank you note with a small token of appreciation. For my high-level contributors (those who gave $100 or more), I hosted a thank-you dinner. After I returned from volunteering in Morocco for three weeks, I invited a few friends over to re-create an authentic Moroccan dinner. We sat on the floor of my living room, ate chicken tagine and couscous with our hands, and watched a slideshow of photos from the trip while I shared with them my life-changing experiences.

Sucheta Rawal leads volunteer vacation trips to Belize, India, Indonesia, Cuba and more, through her nonprofit organization, Go Eat Give.

10 Things You Must Do During Your Next Trip to Belize

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Maybe your cruise ship docked for only a day in Belize, which didn’t allow you the time to explore much of the local culture, jungles or coral reefs. Or perhaps you stayed at one of the all-inclusive resorts and didn’t venture out beyond the sun, sand and water. If so, book the next flight you can back to this breathtaking Central American country. Its 9,000 square miles has an abundance of adventures to offer and is often overlooked by travelers. Plan to spend a few thrilling days diving into some of the most unique experiences found anywhere in the world.

Here are 10 things you must do during your next trip to Belize:

1. Fly Over the Blue Hole for Breathtaking Views

Located off the coast of Belize, the Blue Hole is the largest ocean sinkhole in the world. Created by a collapsed underground cavern, it appears as a dark blue circle among the startling turquoise sea. Although cruises and snorkeling boats circle the Blue Hole daily, the most spectacular way to see this marvel is from the air. Only an aerial view does justice to the vast magnitude and deep colors that make this one of the wonders of the world. Astrum Helicopters offers personalized tours over the Blue Hole as well as other destinations in Belize. They will even pick you up from practically any hotel in the country.

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2. Get Your Adrenaline Up at the Longest Zip Line

The longest zip line in Central America is 2,300 feet long and is located at theMayflower Bocawina National Forest near Silk Grass Village on the Southern Highway in Belize. Nestled amidst 7,000 acres of pristine lowland broadleaf forest in the saw-toothed Maya Mountains, this adventure center offers day and nighttime zip-lining, waterfall rappelling and hiking.

The 1.5 miles of zip lines stretches across 12 platforms, starting with short easy zips that get progressively longer, faster and steeper. The final one is the longest, lasting over 30 seconds. There is also a surprise rappel built into the course. Make sure to keep an eye out for waterfalls along the way.

3. Step Back in Time at Historic Mayan Ruins

Belize is considered part of the southern Maya lowlands of the Mesoamerican culture area. The area peaked in growth during the classic period dating from 250 AD to 900 AD, although the settlements date as far back as 400 BC. Many of the excavations highlight preserved plazas, pyramids, temples, frescoes, tombs and ball fields.

Start by visiting Altun Ha and Lamanai in Northern Belize, and then make your way down to Xunantunich (the most impressive ruins), El Pilar, Caracol (the tallest Mayan building in Belize as well as the tallest man-made structure in the country), and Tikal (located on the Belize-Guatemala border and the most excavated Mayan site).

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4. Dive, Snorkel and Kayak at the Second Largest Coral Reef in the World

One of the greatest attractions of Belize is the Belize Barrier Reef, made up of 185 miles of beautiful corals, cays and islands. While water temperatures are pleasant year-round, the best time to dive is December through July. White sandy beaches, turquoise waters and miles of untouched, unspoiled beauty are only a few reasons to dive into the gorgeous waters of Belize. Be prepared to see a variety of hard corals, gorgonians, sea fans, tunicates, shellfish, grouper, stingray, manta ray, spotted eagle ray, hammerhead shark, Caribbean reef shark, whale shark and oceanic white tip shark depending on the area in which you are swimming.

There are hundreds of islands dotting the Belizean coastline, many of which offer resorts, lodges and dive shops for guests looking to avoid large crowds and to be one with nature. The hotels also offer dive tours from the mainland.

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5. Connect with Spirits Through a Real Shaman

Shamanism refers to a variety of spiritual practices involving rituals, prayers and healing. A shaman (priest or practitioner) is considered an intermediary or messenger between the human world and the spirits. A Shaman’s important role in Mayan history has been that of a priest, doctor, spiritual healer and community advisor.

Mr. Jovencio Canto, a Mayan Shaman, offers ceremonial practices at his home or by invitation. A two-hour session may include a dedication to a deceased family member, prayer for one’s health, prosperity, and relationships, or anything else you desire. During the ceremony, spirits are invited and offerings are made.

The holy practice has been passed on from generations to generations, and it is very interesting to observe the strong beliefs that Belizeans of today hold. Although Mr. Canto has a daytime job, he carries on this tradition to help people and to do good deeds. There is no cost for his service.

6. Get Up Close With Frigates

Your concept of birdwatching will change when you take a private boat to one of the tiny bird islands located off the coast of Belize. The Manovar Bird Sanctuary is home to hundreds of magnificent Frigatebirds (also known as Man of War birds or Pirate birds). The male Frigatebirds attract females by inflating their red-colored throat pouches (which look like balloons) and making loud shrill sounds.

There are several bird islands scattered around the waters, but they may be difficult to find on your own. It is best to hire a local guide and ask them to show you the birds that are nesting during that season.

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7. Push Yourself to the Limit at Caves Branch

The adventures at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Jungle Lodge are sure to challenge your mind and body. Leap from six underground waterfalls in 300 feet of darkness while spectacular crystal formations loom above you. Watch Mayan ceremonial centers hidden deep inside caves on a river tubing tour. Finally, rappel down to a sinkhole above the rainforest canopy. If you still have some energy to spare, try rock climbing, hiking and swimming at this private adventure ground.

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8. Romance in the Jungle

Spend a few days reconnecting with your partner at the Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge, located at the foothills of Sibun National Forest Reserve. With only nine private cabanas overlooking the river, thick canopy and oversized indoor/outdoor showers, it is the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of life. Listen to the sounds of the forest while lying in a hammock or watch the brilliantly lit star-studded sky from your outdoor Jacuzzi.

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Enjoy delicious Caribbean creations, including lobster and conch curry, prepared by Chef Ramos and featuring fresh and natural ingredients. With a beautiful view of the canopies, the lodge is the perfect place to enjoy a morning breakfast of salbutes and fresh juice while being greeted by Toucans and monkeys.

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9. Wind Down at a Garifuna Fishing Village

Garifunas were West Africans who were brought as slaves by the Spanish to the island of St. Vincent in the early 1600s. For some well-deserved relaxation, head to the coastal village of Hopkins in East Belize. Known as the cultural center of the Garifuna population, this small, vibrant community prides itself on good food, unspoiled beaches and genuine hospitality. Enjoy Garifuna drumming, live music and authentic cuisine at one of the many local bars and restaurants dotting the sleepy village.

While there are a few options for lodging ranging from cabins and B&Bs to private villas and all-inclusive resorts, the Almond Beach Resort and Spa is one of the top-rated hotels in the country. It offers ocean view rooms with direct access to the beach as well as a spa, restaurant, café and gift shop. It’s also a good place to relish some of the local dishes, such as Hudut (savory fish stew with mashed plantains) and Cassava bread, while watching seductive movements and rhythmic beats performed by the Dangriga Garifuna Dance Academy.

Hopkins was voted “The Friendliest Village in Belize” by Belize First Magazine.

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10. Visit a Mennonite Community

Belize is one of the least densely populated, yet most diverse, countries in North America. In a population of just over 318,000, there are Mayas, Mestizoes, Creoles, Mennonites, Garifunas, East Indians, Guatemaltecos and Hondurans living in peace and harmony. Almost every Belizean can fluently speak at least three languages: English, Spanish and Creole.

It is common to see local Mennonites riding their horse-drawn buggies on the country’s highways while passing Chinese restaurants and Taiwanese-owned supermarkets. The Mennonites in Belize have been known to convert sections of the jungles into highly productive farmlands. They have proven to be excellent agricultural contributors and own dairy farms that produce milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, chicken and eggs.

Travelers can tour Little Belize, an Old Order Mennonite community of about 2,000 residents, in a buggy and visit the papaya-packing plant, a poultry farm, a wood workshop and other local industries. The half-day tour includes lunch in a private home and costs 100 Belizean dollars per person.

To read more about my adventures in Belize, visit my blog at Go Eat Give.

A Brief Travel Guide to the Republic of Macedonia

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What comes to mind when you hear about Republic of Macedonia as a tourism destination? Unless you are from this region, a history buff or extreme travel junkie, you probably know very little about one of the newest European countries in the south Balkans. In fact, less than handful guidebooks have been written on Macedonia and current travel information is hard to find.

History

It is noted that civilization in Macedonia flourished between 7000 and 3500 BC. Over centuries, Macedonian kings, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottoman Turks ruled the nation. After public uprisings and peaceful demonstrations, Macedonia received independence from Federal Yugoslavia in 1991.

During ancient times, Macedonia was the largest kingdom of Alexander III the Great. Statues of Alexander and his father Philip II of Macedon are proudly displayed throughout the country. One of the two largest airports in Macedonia is also named after him.

Culture

Native Macedonians were mountain people who raised sheep, practiced agriculture and created handicrafts. Villages were spread out across mountainous terrains of the country, making them safe havens against foreign invasions. Their traditions are similar to those found in Eastern and Central Europe. The modern writing system in Macedonia, known as Cyrillic shares commonality with Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian.

Macedonians today are very peaceful, happy and friendly people. The most commonly observed religion in Macedonia is Orthodox Christianity, while a third of the population is Muslim. It is interesting to see how Christianity and Islam are practiced alongside without any conflict, when you hear church bells and Islamic call for prayers several times a day.

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Transportation

Skopje Alexander The Great International Airport offers daily departures to Austria, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Serbia, Switzerland and UK. Many visitors drive from neighboring countries of Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Kosovo and Serbia. Highways are modern and driving is quite easy. Gas stations and tollbooths are frequent but many offer free Wi-Fi. Only in the countryside, there are not many street signs and places can be hard to find. Even though the people are very friendly, language can be a barrier, especially in villages. You can drive by an interesting historic site or neighborhood restaurant, and easily miss it if you don’t know exactly where you are going. It is advisable to hire a car with a local driver who can also double as a guide.

Money

It is fairly cheap to travel in Macedonia as compared to other countries in Europe. Macedonian Dinar is the official currency in Macedonia, although most vendors will happily accept Euros. Credit cards are accepted at most places.

Climate

It is possible to visit Macedonia anytime of the year. It follows climatic patterns of the Northern Hemisphere. Certain areas can get cool even in the summer due to mountainous landscapes. Lake regions are busier during summers, while ski getaways are popular in winters.

Cuisine

The food in Macedonia is influenced by European, Turkish and Slavic cuisines. Use of herbs and spices add unique flavor to dishes cooked with care and precision. Macedonians tend to eat locally grown foods that are found in season. Practically everything is made from scratch in conventional ways. Sheep farms, vineyards and fruit orchards are found all over the country.

Locals eat three meals a day, with lunch being the largest. A typical meal consists of fresh sheep cheese, salad of sliced tomatoes, homemade bread, meat (mainly grilled pork) and potatoes. Red and green bell peppers are incorporated into practically every recipe. Fish is found in certain areas namely near Lake Ohrid and River Radika. Rakija (brandy) is a very popular home-distilled fermented fruit alcohol commonly found in Balkans.

Traditional Macedonian dishes include Tavče gravče (beans in skillet), Ajvar (roasted red bell pepper dip), Pinđur (summer pepper dip), Malidzano (eggplant salad), Kebapchinya (mini kebabs of beef), Polneti Piperki (green bell peppers stuffed with rice, meat and cheese), Burek (baked or fried phyllo filled with cheese, meat or vegetables), Pastrmalija (savory pie), and Pleaskavitsa (mixed meat burger patty). Desserts made of phyllo dipped in sugar syrup and topped with nuts are very similar to those found in Turkey. Baklava, Ekler and Tulumba are enjoyed with strong Turkish coffee. Macedonian meals can last for several hours and often past midnight.

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Wine production in Macedonia dates as far back as 13th century BC. From the time of Alexander The Great up until Roman and Turkish rules, wine consumption in this region has remained prominent. There are namely three wine regions in Macedonia – The Central (Povardarie), Western (Pelagonia-Polog), and Eastern Regions (Pchinya-Osogovo). There are altogether 80 wineries in Macedonia.

Destinations

Although tour operators like Macedonia Experience are beginning to focus on showcasing the ancient culture, wine country, outdoors adventures and culinary highlights, the country remains largely underexposed to international tourists. If someone was looking for an off the beaten path destination with a largely preserved culture, unspoiled by herds of tourist buses, Macedonia is a good place to visit. Villages, lakes, churches, monasteries, mountains and parks scatter the entire country, so it’s a good idea to spend a few days visiting several different regions.

Skopje – Capital of Macedonia and the largest city, most travelers make the mistake of stopping only in Skopje on their country hopping tour of the Balkans. Allow for a couple of days to visit the modern city’s historic sites, savor ethnically diverse restaurants, and enjoy the vibrant nightlife. Some of the must see places to visit in Skopje are the Mother Teresa’s museum and home, Stone Bridge in center of the city, the first railway station in the Balkans, Fortress Kale built in 6th century AD, Churches of St. Andreja -Matka and St Spas (Holy Salvation) and the Old Skopje Bazaar, the second largest Bazaar outside of Istanbul.

Mavrovo – Famous for protected forests, picnic spots, scenic views, and mountain shepherds, the Mavrovo National Park attracts year round adventure seekers. Private guides are available to take individuals and groups on hiking, biking, horseback riding, whitewater rafting and camping tours. Diverse variety of flora and fauna can be enjoyed at the park’s numerous valleys, rivers, gorges, falls, glaciers and lake. The park is home to a rare species of lynx and ongoing research ensures the safety of these animals.

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In mid-July, the national festival, Galichka Svadba (Galičnik Wedding Festival) is held in this area. The famous Village of Galichnik, located in the heart of Mount Bistrais a celebratory town for weddings where couples from all over Macedonia enter a competition to have a “Galička” style wedding. For two days, Galichnik becomes an important cultural and tourist attraction. The rest of the year, visitors can pay visits to St Peter’s Church and a little museum at Galichnik.

Ohrid-The picturesque city with narrow cobblestone streets, red terracotta roofs, open-air cafes, and a crystal clear lake with a backdrop of mountains, gives the impression of charming lake towns in the Swiss Alps. Ohrid is popular with Macedonians and foreign tourists looking for a quick getaway. Ohrid is one of the 28 cities that is listed as both a UNESCO’s World Heritage Cultural and Natural site.

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Ohrid is known to have 365 churches at one time, and referred to as “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” Numerous hotels and restaurants dot along the lake, making the entire city walkable. Roman amphitheater, Church of St Sophia and St Clement, Tsar Samoil’s fortress and Ohrid’s marketplace are some of the places to visit.Daily ferries takes passengers from the city square to the nearby Monastery of St Naum. Originally built in the 10th century, the monastery is home to the body of Byzantine St Naum, who is known to have cured patients of mental illnesses.

Krushevo – Worth visiting for its architecture, political history and winter sports, Krushevo is the highest village in Macedonia, located at 4,429 feet (1350 m) above sea level. As the city was rebuilt, an interesting architecture developed. The old-style homes are freestanding, mostly symmetrical, with a well in the ground floor. Painted decorations in blue can be found on the main floor and on the windows. A small balcony with a triangular pediment adds symmetry to the second level of the house.

Traditional Macedonian Independence Day celebrations are held on August 2 every year in Krushevo. The President of Macedonia visits the spot of 1903 Ilinden Uprising, while people dress as Ottoman Turks and Macedonian revolutionary freedom fighters.

DemirKapija valley-No visit to Macedonia would be complete without visiting a winery or two. An overnight stay at Popova Kula Winery, located in Povardarie region in the DemirKapija valley is perhaps the perfect way to learn about Macedonia’s wine production. Popova Kula (meaning Priest’s Tower) began in the 13th century and resurrected in 2004. Hike and bike in the surrounding valleys, take a tour of the winery, enjoy a tasting dinner and relax in the comfort of the rustic hotel.

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Read more about my travel in Macedonia.

For more information about traveling to Macedonia or to book a trip, visit Macedonia Experience

Are You Running a Blog or a Business?

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According to a survey by Foodista and Zephyr Adventures from February 2012, The prototypical food blogger is a married woman in her 30s or 40s living in the United States. While she is either a parent or perhaps on the way to being so, she is likely to be employed full time, part time, or working in her own business. She most likely comes to the food blogging world with some relevant food, marketing, or writing background.

This generalization includes me, a 33-year-old married female blogger living in Atlanta, who started her blog as a hobby while holding down a job in corporate America. The only difference between the 181 million bloggers around the world and myself is that I discovered a way to live my dream lifestyle and have a viable business that emerged from my blog.

Four years ago, I started Go Eat Give as a way to document my travels, restaurant reviews, recipes and inspiring stories of people doing good. The theme of my blog was to connect people, places and palates. In other words, to show how people around the world share the same emotions and aspirations, despite our differences in customs, religions and ethnicities. Food is one component that brings everyone together, whether you are in Kabul or Paris. As a result of reading my blog, people got motivated to volunteer when they traveled, to give back in their own communities and to walk inside a strange-looking ethnic restaurant in their city. The readers started sending me compliments and donations, inviting me to speak at events and share with others my vision of a connected world. What started as a blog became a movement for global change, and I incorporated it as a nonprofit organization that serves to impact hearts and minds of citizens everywhere.

Most bloggers start their blogs because they have a passion for that subject. According to the Foodista and Zephyr Adventures survey, about 40% of food bloggers do it in hopes of turning their blog into a job, yet only 1% of blogs generate enough income to substitute a salary. Sure, they can collect ad revenue and get free samples and complimentary invitations to tastings and festivals. More successful bloggers contribute to magazines, write books or restaurant guides, teach cooking classes and even become a local authority on food. A few lucky ones are able to get a job in a related field, such as food styling, photography, marketing, recipe testing, etc. Some enterprising ones end up opening a food-related business, such as a restaurant or a line of specialty food items (vinegars, sauces, mixes). The bitter truth is 75% of food bloggers do not make any money from their blogs.

Should you stop blogging, then? The answer depends on what you want to achieve from it. If your goal is to share your recipes with the community and spread the message of good eating, you should continue to do what you are doing. But if your goal is to quit your 9-to-5 job and earn a living from blogging, start thinking out of the box.

In fact, when I paid closer attention to the professional lives of my food blogging colleagues, I found that most of them were using their blog as a platform to showcase their work, instead of a direct stream of income. Graphic designer Melissa Crane discovered her passion for food while doing freelance work. She launched her blog Dash of East to get her photography gigs in the food and restaurant industry.

Another inspiring lady, Malika Bowling, started by writing about chefs and restaurant on her Atlanta Restaurant Blog. Before she knew it, companies started hiring her to do their PR, online and social media marketing. With a guidebook (Food Lovers’ Guide to Atlanta) under her belt, Bowling is now the Atlanta Editor of 10Best.com and earns a living through blogging-related business. She has also founded the Association of Food Bloggers to serve as a directory of ethical and reputable food bloggers.

Raleigh based Linda Watson had seen the full spectrum of food blogging. Watson started a campaign for healthy eating for less through her blog Cook for Good, where she posted delicious recipes that one could create with a food-stamp budget. Since then, she has published two books, her latest being Fifty Weeks of Green: Romance & Recipes. Watson tours the country giving talks on fighting hunger, affordable eating and sustainability, creates instructional videos and teaches cooking classes. If there is one thing to learn from Watson, it is that as a food blogger you must never stop being creative and resourceful.

Are Women Empowered to Travel Alone?

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Recently the death of American traveler, Sarai Sierra in Turkey made headlines and started a global conversation about whether or not women should travel solo. Many experienced globetrotting women chimed in engaging in dialogue from both sides of the debate. I was closely following these discussions and taking notes on latest safety tips given by travel pros. I am also a 33-year-old female who travels alone at least once a month, often to countries that are listed under U.S. travel alerts. I feel empowered to see the world, to travel alone, to meet new people, yet I am concerned for my safety.

Does a woman today have the freedom to go to Honduras, Turkey or South Korea by herself, have fun and not risk her life? Being empowered doesn’t mean taking off anywhere, anytime, not having a companion, or being answerable to someone. It means building confidence, gaining insights, understanding yourself, and developing personal skills. Being empowered presumes you have some level of common sense and emotional maturity to make your own decisions, while ensuring your safety, and those of others around you.

When I was volunteer vacationing in Morocco in 2010, many of my friends had forewarned me against famous Moroccan con artists. While I met some really nice and very helpful people there, I kept the advice in the back of my head. While on a train journey from Rabat to Fez, a travel agent approached me offering local transportation and guide service during my visit. The medina (market) in Fez has 9,000 narrow streets without names or directions, and everyone, including locals is known to get lost there. It is highly recommended to go there with a tour guide, so I jumped on the offer. But as soon as I disembarked the train, I paused and gave my decision a second thought.

I considered the worst-case scenario of this situation. What if the agent was a con artist and his intention was to take me to the middle of dessert, rob or rape me, and leave me there? Was it worth risking my life, so as to not get lost in a colorful crowded market? I hurriedly walked past the guide at the train station, and took hailed for a taxi instead.

Last month, when I traveled to South Korea while Kim Jung Un broadcasted his nuclear attack threats on its neighbor, I stayed with a host at his home in Seoul. My host and I had only met online through a travel exchange website a few weeks before. We knew very little about each other and had communicated via email and texts. Although I was nervous about staying alone with a total stranger in a country where I knew no one, I looked for logic and instincts to help me make my decision. My host was a Senior Sargent at the U.S. Army base in South Korea. He lived by himself in a big house, but had a wife and two daughters back in Texas. I made sure this was accurate by doing some research on social media, which by no means qualifies as a thorough background check.

When I met my host at Seoul Station, I instantly knew he was genuine. He looked decent and spoke well, but most of all, I felt positive about his intentions. During the course of next five days, we got along extremely well, sharing several meals and lengthy conversations. He gave me a private room, took me sightseeing around Seoul, and even gave me the keys to his house. The experience is one I would cherish forever.

In both situations, I felt empowered to make the right decision and create unforgettable experiences for myself. By equipping myself with wisdom, good judgment and intuition, I am able to learn about different cultures, places and people.

As you find your own sense of empowerment, you will find there is always a moment when instincts take over reason and emotion. In our busy lives where our attention is challenged into several different directions, it is difficult to silence the mind and tap into our deep-rooted sense of sixth sense. This is the little voice in your head that says, “Don’t do it.” While practical knowledge and common sense are extremely important in decision-making, fall back on the voice. We all have it inside of us. You can use it in your relationships, work, and to travel to exotic places around the world, to in essence always be empowered.