How To See The Northern Lights in Alaska

It was just about this time last year, when I was making my travel bucket list. One of the things that I wanted to do was see the northern lights. Sure, I had seen them once in passing before, while staying at a sheep farm in Greenland. I also traveled to Lapland, Finland and stayed at the famous glass igloo resort. But it snowed the entire time I was there and I couldn’t see any northern lights. So, this time I decided to plan a trip to Alaska, which is one of the best places in the world to see Aurora Borealis aka the northern lights.

sunset in Alaska
Sunset from top of Charlie Dome

Where in Alaska?

The city of Fairbanks is one of the best places to see the northern lights. You can fly directly into Fairbanks International Airport (most flights come from Seattle) and start your adventure right away. There are nice hotels, restaurants, museums, and a quaint downtown, where you can shop for souvenirs, fishing gear and sportswear. If you time it properly, you can even see the annual World Ice Art Championships or the Iditarod iron dog mushing race. Both attract participants and spectators from around the world.

If you want to double your chances to see a northern lights spectacle, head further north to Chena Hot Springs, or the villages of Barrow, Nome, Anaktuvuk Pass, Bettles, and Fort Yukon. Bear in mind, driving can be difficult in the vast and remote wilderness. There are often icy roads, moose crossings, no cellphone reception, and scarce facilities along the highways. You may not see another car or human for miles or hours!

pikes lodge fairbanks
View of Chena River from Pikes Waterfront Lodge

Best Places To Stay

There are many motels and hotels in Fairbanks. Spend a couple of days at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge located on the banks of the Chena River, and a mile away from Fairbanks International Airport. They offer free airport transfers, family-style breakfast and a small sauna. There’s also a great chef driven restaurant – Pike’s Landing, right next door. The lodge is somewhat rustic, but that sets the tone for an adventure trip. The rooms are comfortable and have balconies overlooking the river and fireplaces to keep you cozy. The main reason to stay here vs. in downtown is of course, the northern lights. You can visit the aurora conservatory on site, sit by the fire pit under the stars, and opt to receive a Northern Lights Wake-Up Call. This means the front desk will call your room to let you know when the lights are out.

Chena Hot Springs Resort is a must during your northern lights visit to Alaska. Set on 440 acres, the wilderness resort offers comfortable accommodation and lots of on-site activities.

hot springs
Warming up at Chena Hot Springs

Most popularly known for its healing hot springs, Chena has all-natural mineral-rich indoor pool and outdoor lake, reaching temperatures of 106F. Now, it may be a daunting idea to get in a bathing suit when its freezing outside, but once you get into the springs, you feel instantly relaxed. Your eyelashes may have icicles on them, but thats a different story.

There is an ice museum with ice rooms and sculptures, and ice chapel. Get married here, or just drink an apple martini out of an ice glass! The geothermal power plant and greenhouse on the property are also worth visiting, as you get to see how your food is grown sustainability in a remote location. This is where most of the food that is served in the resort’s restaurant comes from. Other fun outdoor winter activities while at Chena are dog mushing (make sure to stop by the kennels to see Alaskan Husky), snow machining, ice skating, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing.

winter sports in alaska
Snow machining at Chena Hot Springs Resort

Of course, the main reason to visit Chena Hot Springs during winter is to see the northern lights. And you may see them from your bedroom window. But each night, the resort offers a guided tour, where you ride on military grade SUSV snow trucks up to the top of Charlie Dome. On the top of the mountain, there is zero light pollution and pin drop silence. You will feel like you are in a winter wonderland, with nothing but snow as far as your eyes can see. And hopefully, a star studded sky filled with colorful Auroras as well. Don’t worry, you won’t be outside in negative temperatures. There is a yurt with space heaters, hot chocolate and Ramen noodles set up by Chena.

Seeing the northern lights at Chena was the highlight of my trip. I watched the most unbelievable display of green, red, orange and purple hues covering the entire sky. The display started as soon as we got to the top of the mountain and lasted the entire night.

What Else To Do, Besides The Lights?

It is worth spending a day to explore downtown Fairbanks. There are many historic buildings dating back to gold rush days, a vibrant contemporary art scene, an array of delicious eating and drinking establishments, museums, shops, a cultural and visitors center and, in the center of town, iconic Golden Heart Plaza. Make sure to keep an eye out for painted steam vents, murals, sculptures, and other unexpected public artworks around town.

dog mushing
Dog mushing at Chena Hot Springs Resort

There are a number of distilleries and breweries, all of which have free tours and tastings. Don’t forget to try the Alaskan potato vodka! Also, there are over 40 Thai restaurants in the area that cook spicy dishes using Alaskan seafood, such as red king crab, Alaskan snow crab, wild caught halibut, and Copper River sockeye salmon.

alaska museum
Alaska Museum of the North is a must visit.

Museums

The University of Alaska Museum of the North is a great place to orient yourself to the landscapes, wildlife and culture of northern Alaska. They also have exhibits and movies about the northern lights, so you can learn the science behind them.

Alaska seems like an odd location to see antique cars, but the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is pretty cool. This small museum has perfectly-restored early 20th-century luxury cars, 85 American vehicles from early race cars and elegant classics. Almost all these rolling antiques are driven during summer, to ensure they are still operable.

ice art alaska
World Ice Art Championships 2021

Ice Art

The World Ice Art Championships is an ice sculpting contest in Fairbanks produced on by Ice Alaska, a non-profit corporation started in 1989. The contest is the largest of its kind in the world and attended by more than 100 sculptors from 30 countries every year. Plan to spend at least an hour or two walking around life-size and larger, handmade, ice sculptures. The artists themselves are often hanging out around their pieces, so feel free to ask them about their incredible work.

ice fishing
Ice fishing on frozen river in Alaska

Ice Fishing

If you haven’t tried your hands on ice fishing, Fairbanks is a great place to do that! Rod is a local fisherman who takes groups on ice fishing tours lasting from a few hours to a few days. You drive straight on to the frozen river, and dig a hole through four feet of clear ice to lower your reels. The best part is that the entire expedition takes place inside a warm and sheltered mobile log cabin, so you are not out in the cold. Also, if you happen to catch some salmon, arctic char or rainbow trout, your guide will happily cook it for you or ship it back home.

running reindeers
Cute domestic reindeers at running reindeer ranch

Reindeers

Another unique experience near Fairbanks is walking with the reindeers. Running Reindeer is a family-run reindeer ranch where you can get up close to these cute Arctic creatures. Jane started the ranch when she purchased one reindeer for her daughter as a pet. Over the years, she has rescued and cared for hundreds of animals. Now, they roam free in her backyard which is a boreal forest. On the guided tour, you can learn about reindeers, hike around the property and even pose for a photo.

coldfoot alaska
Landing in Coldfoot, inside the Arctic Circle

The Arctic Circle

You may think you are pretty up north when you are in Fairbanks, and you are, but not quite inside the Arctic! Fairbanks is about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, so you need to either drive or fly to say that you have been to the Arctic. Northern Alaska Tour Company offers an easy 1-hour small plane flight that can take you from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle tour, and bring you back by road or air. The aerial tour offers great views of the mountains, Yukon river, remote villages, and even some wildlife. While in the Arctic, you also get a guided tour of Coldfoot. It is a very small and scenic town nestled in the Brooks Mountain Range. Here you can get up close to see the famous Alaska pipeline, and talk to locals about living in the Arctic.

Alaska northern lights
Aurora Borealis captured with an iPhone

Aurora Pointe

The Aurora Pointe Activity Center is a great place to not only watch, but also learn about the northern lights. Located just a few minutes outside the city, the secluded location offers more space to see the aurora borealis, while enjoying the luxurious of a modern lodge. Alaska-native Kory Eberhard tells you all about northern lights activity, forecasting, photography and their own personal experiences. There are also live cameras, drinks and snacks, so you can stay up all night!

Tips For Seeing The Northern Lights

The northern lights/ auroras are a natural phenomena. There is no guarantee that you will get to see this magical light show and with your desired intensity. But the chances of seeing them are very high when you spend three or more days near Fairbanks. The most important thing is that you have to be OUTSIDE and AWAKE late at night to be able to see the northern lights. Sometimes the lights don’t appear till midnight, and other times they intensify through the night. Plan to stay up all night if you want to see a good show! There are many meteorological forecasts that try to track and predict the northern lights. I found like most weather forecasts, they are not always 100% accurate.

northern lights
Northern lights from Charlie Dome

Secondly, temperature in Alaska during this time can range from low of -25F at night to +15F during the day. So, it is very important to dress appropriately. I was honestly scared of traveling to Alaska in the dead of winter. But because I dressed carefully in lots of layers, I never felt uncomfortable. Generally speaking, you need at least 2-3 layers of pants, sweaters, hats, gloves/ mittens, and socks – I am not kidding! You may also consider carrying lots of hand and toe warmers for when you are doing your winter sports. Prepare to spend a lot of time outdoors, especially at night when you are waiting for the lights to appear.

Night sky photography can be tricky, specially when it’s below freezing outside. My point-and-shoot Canon captured only black skies, though my iPhone 11 did the trick. Make sure to bring a tripod for stability, a clicker so you don’t have to keep touching the screen, and battery packs because the cold drains the phone battery very quickly.

When To Go?

The northern lights are visible from October to April in northern Alaska. However, their visibility is better in the colder winter months when the sun’s rays fall around the poles. After tons of research, I also found that the lights are super vibrant during spring equinox (mid March). During the equinox, the earth’s axis aligns at the best angle for the magnetic field to receive the sun’s particles. Also, it is towards the end of winter, so temperatures are not as bone chilling, and the sun sets between 5-6pm.

Want to travel to Alaska with me? Reach out to info at goeatgive dot com, and allow me to curate your once-in-a-lifetime adventure to see the northern lights!

Active Getaway in Utah’s Red Mountains

Many of us are pursuing more nature, activity and adventure during our travels. This year, most of my travels have revolved around visiting America’s National Parks. And while doing so, I discovered Red Mountain Resort catering to those looking for an active getaway. Nestled in Southwestern Utah’s red rock bluffs, Red Mountain Resort is a one-of-a-kind active destination retreat, inspiring guests to pursue health, wellness, balance and joy. 

active getaway in St George Utah
Enjoy desert sunsets in St George. Photo by Red Mountain Resort Photography.

Getting There

In November, I planned a one-week road trip across Southern Utah’s parks. I flew into Salt Lake City, drove to Moab for 3 nights, where I visited Arches and Canyonlands. Another 5 hours of scenic drive took me to Red Mountain Resort in St. George. On my way back, I drove 2 hours to Las Vegas, where I boarded my flight back home.

You can also fly directly to St. George Municipal Airport or Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, and take a shuttle or taxi to the resort.

The Setting

Red Mountain Resort is in the suburbs of St George, a small town in southwest Utah. I only spent a few hours visiting St George’s town square, the Mormon temple, antique stores and cafes. You can sign up for a guided walking tour through the resort, or just drive around yourself.

The resort itself is surrounded by jaw dropping scenery. There are volcanic rocks right in your backyard, which backs up to Snow Canyon State Park. You can see red rocks, black lava remains, desert like vegetation, and snow covered mountains – all right outside your room!

Utah's stunning scenery
Watch the beautiful scenery at Red Mountain Resort

The Resort

Original site of a wellness research center, you will find some original dome structured buildings at Red Mountain Resort that are now used as a spa and offices. You can get a massage, body wrap, or simply gaze out the large windows lounging in the spa’s relaxation room.

spa at red mountain resort
Relax at Sagestone Spa & Salon

There are 3 swimming pools, jacuzzis and a fitness center. Here you can take dozens of classes such as yoga, stretching, dance, and more – all included in your stay. There are also expert health and fitness consultants at the fitness center, so make sure to book an appointment.

stay active swimming pool
Cool off in one of the pools

I stayed at one of the 82 Desert Oasis Rooms which was spacious and comfortable. The bathrooms were huge, with tiled floors and rain showers. There was a private patio overlooking the pool, and lots of natural sunlight coming in.

The resort gives each guest a welcome gift – a notebook, backpack and water bottle – to take on your outdoor adventures. So, you are not really encouraged to spend much time in your room.

Eat healthy at Red Mountain Utah
Scrumptious dinner of tofu tacos

Healthy Eating

The Canyon Breeze restaurant on sites serves 3 meals a day. They usually offer breakfast and lunch buffets, but due to COVID-19, there’s only seated and to-go meals.

Though the food is not limited to vegetarian or plant based exclusively, the idea is to eat fresh and control portion size. Every dish is less than 500 calories, incorporating health conscious cooking techniques, and packed with texture and flavor. For example, my breakfast of healthy pancakes had 3 bite size discs served with a homemade prickly pear syrup and lots of berries. For dinner, we were always served a vegetable soup and house salad, followed by an entree (shrimp and grits, vegetable tacos), and a small dessert. There is a strong emphasis on wholesome meals that satisfy your palate and keep you nourished.

If you like to drink a glass of wine with dinner, that is feasible too. The restaurant had a decent collection of wines by the bottle that you can order during your stay for an extra charge.

And if you’re vegan, kosher or have any specific dietary needs, the chef can accommodate you too.

active getaway while hiking
Hiking in the Red Rocks

Fitness and Adventure

Those who want to stay active, get into shape, and explore Utah’s national parks would find the biggest draw to Red Mountain Resort. There are lots of classes and guided hikes, which makes it very easy for solo travelers. You don’t have to worry about driving to the parks, finding a parking spot, looking up a trail, or getting lost!

There are different types of hikes that are offered every day, ascending from beginner (Explorer), intermediate (Challenge) and Morning Walks. These go into Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Snow Canyon State Park, and other spots located within a short driving distance. I consulted with the concierge about the hikes, got detailed maps, and did a lot of the hikes on my own.

Each day, I started with a healthy take out breakfast from Canyon Breeze restaurant, followed by a solo interpretation walk around the labyrinth. Then I ventured into a class or two before a scrumptious outdoor lunch, and explored more of the surrounding trails through the afternoon. Here were some of my favorite hikes…

hiking at snow canyon utah
Take a sunset hike in Snow Canyon State Park

Snow Canyon State Park

You can walk from the resort to Snow Canyon State Park, bike or drive there. The park itself is only 20 miles from north to south, but has interesting landscapes. Jenny’s Canyon Trail takes you into slot canyon, while Johnson Canyon Trail offers the chance to see wildlife and is good for all skill levels.

active adventure Red Mountain
Discovering ancient rock art makes the hike even more interesting

Anasazi Ridge Petroglyphs 

This 2-hour trail explores the Anasazi culture where you can see 1000-year old farmstead ruins and petroglyph drawings, along with inspiring panoramic views.

activities in Zion national park Utah
Zion National Park is spectacular anytime of the year

Zion National Park

Utah’s first national park has massive sandstone cliffs, narrow slot canyons, and flowing Virgin River. There are dozens of hiking trails inside Zion National Park that can keep you active for days, so make sure to plan your route ahead of time. Also note that it is mandatory to park your car and take a shuttle inside the park during peak hours.

Kayenta Art Village
Stroll through a live art garden in Southern Utah

Kayenta Art Village

The Red Mountain Resort also organizes trips to nearby Kayenta Art Village (located less than 10 mins away). This artist colony showcases a number of studios, cafes and shops, as well as a collaborative outdoor art installation. Walking through the desert gardens on a sunny afternoon is quite mediative.

All-Inclusive

Unlike other all-inclusive destinations, Red Mountain Resort caters to fitness oriented travelers, who don’t travel to just lay by the pool. Also, it is perfect for singles. You can go by yourself and make friends at the Community Table at dinner, or during one of the group activities.

Still, the resort offers all the amenities of an all-inclusive. All vacations include accommodations, daily guided hikes, bike rentals, three healthy meals daily, fitness classes,  healthy life classes and events, personal discovery activities, and WiFi.

Walking at Red Mountain Resort
Reflective trail and labyrinth at Red Mountain Resort

It’s About You!

Red Mountains Resort feels like the perfect place to get away from the stressful life we often lead, and escape to a quieter place. Here you can invest in yourself – clear your head, feed your body, and work on your health. Simply watch the reflection of the sunrise and sunset on the rocks, as they magically change from red to orange hues. You will feel the energy around you. Plus, the Southwest temperatures make southern Utah an ideal year round destination to pursue outdoor activities.

Do You Know About This Mediterranean Island in Australia?

Until recently, my awareness of Tasmania was limited to the Hollywood movie – Lion. I envisioned it to be a cold, remote wet and dark place, with rough seas and bare mountains, leading on to Antarctica.

But I was absolutely wrong!

Tasmania feels a lot like the Mediterranean, because of its climate, scenery and produce.

Light lunch made with local ingredients at Prospect House

Located 150 miles south of mainland Australia, the state of Tasmania is similar in size to Ireland or Sri Lanka, and there are countless offshore islands. It’s true that Tasmania’s west coast is one of the wettest places in the world, but the eastern part lives in a rain-shadow. Hobart, the second-driest capital city in Australia, receives about half as much rain as Sydney.

At first glance, Hobart looks like a smaller version of Auckland, New Zealand. There are Victorian houses, English cottages with wrought iron balconies, a downtown with modern buildings overlooking the harbor, neat looking shops and restaurants along brick roads.

View of Hobart from my room at MACq01

There are lots of unique places to stay in Hobart. In the historic Hobart waterfront, MACq01 is a luxury hotel that looks like a shipyard from the outside, and a museum on the inside. Throughout the halls and across the walls of the hotel you’ll find engaging pieces of history, tales and fables that make up the remarkable history of Tasmania.

The Maylands Lodge is a 12-room heritage home located in the suburbs of Hobart, converted into an upscale hotel, with large suites overlooking a stunning garden. If you want the feeling of staying at an aristocratic home, where you can sit by the fireplace in a gorgeous living room, play a game of chess, or have a glass of whiskey after dinner, book yourself at Maylands.

View from my cabin at Freycinet Lodge

Freycinet Lodge was one of the most unique places I have stayed at. My wood cabin located inside the National Park, had amazing views of Richardson’s Beach, forest and wildlife. With all glass on the sides and roof, indoor fireplace, outdoor tub, it felt like a private and upscale log cabin. On a clear night, you can see some of the best starry skies in the world, right from Freycinet Lodge.

The food scene in Hobart is trendy. Because there’s a big university, you will find students packed in bakeries, ramen, kebab and dessert shops. Even the hotels serve excellent quality farm-fresh food. Tasmania is a small island, yet everyone has a backyard garden or a farm producing their own olives, fruits, nuts, wines and more. The waters are abundant in seafood, and Tasmanian wines and gins are rated some of the finest in the world.

Tasmanian Wild Seafood Adventures

I had quite a few unique experiences in Tasmania, one of which was a half-day tour on a catamaran to catch my own seafood. It was just me and two guys from Tasmanian Wild Seafood Adventures who dove in the ocean to catch mussels, oysters, periwinkles and more. They cooked a feast for me onboard!

Par Avion: Wineglass and Wildlife tour

Another adventure was flying on a 6-seater air plane over the breathtaking Freycinet Peninsula, Wineglass Bay, the seal colony of Ile Des Phoques, to Maria Island, where we landed among wild kangaroos and wombats. There was wine and seafood picnic spread in the national park, as well as free time to walk around and explore.

Lorraine and I taking a break at Pooley Wines

I also visited a couple of wineries and drove past a dozen of them in Tasmania. There are regular wine tours and tastings at Moorilla Estate, adjacent to

Outdoor art at MONA

The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), one of the oldest vineyards on the island. I also made a stop at Pooley Wines to taste their light and refreshing Riesling and Chardonnay.

Lunch at The Agrarian Kitchen

One of the best meals I had in Tasmania was at The Agrarian Kitchen Eatery. The chef, who was teaching cooking classes from his home until recently, sources ingredients from a community of local growers, farmers and fishermen, as well as grows himself.

Fall colors in April

In April, leaves were turning colors and daytime temperature was in the 60Fs. Tasmania looked a lot like Tuscany in the Fall time.

10 Things I Love About Mongolia

Mongolia was one of the countries that I was fascinated to travel to, but didn’t know much about. In my imagination, I had pictured a vast barren desert with nomadic culture. Though some of that was true, I discovered a lot more in Mongolia during my one-week visit. Here are some of the most beautiful things that took me by surprise…

Lush Green Landscapes – Yes there is a big desert covering a big chunk of the country, but there are also forests with trees, and lush grasslands. The rainy summer season and the rivers help irrigate the area. In winter, most of the country is covered in snow. Note: Ulaanbaatar (UB) is the coldest capital in the world, having a January average of -20 °C (minimum reaching -45 °C).

Village in Terelj National Park/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Village in Terelj National Park/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Free Roaming Animals – During my long drives through the countryside, I saw hundreds of yaks, sheep, goat, cows, horses and camels roaming around on their own. Because Mongolia still preserves it’s nomadic culture, many families keep a herd of animals, and keep moving to different locations for better grazing access. Note: The Mongolian diet is rich in meat and animal products (such as milk, cheese, yogurt) as this is the only source of food in many areas. 

Two humped camels/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Two humped camels/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Cute Kids – The children in Mongolia have a blend of Chinese, Persian and Russian looks. They are chubby and adorable! The kids who grow up in the countryside learn survival skills at an early age. They ride horses, milk animals, collect firewood and build gers.

Family at a parade in UB/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Family at a parade in UB/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Sleeping in Gers – While I am not a big fan of camping, I enjoyed staying at the luxury ger camps – Dream Terelj Lodge and Dream Gobi Lodge. Can you imagine waking up to this view? Here I was able to experience a nomadic home which is constructed using minimum equipment (felt, poles, lattice, cloth, ties). There is a door and an opening on the roof which is uncovered to let the light in. My ger also came with a fan, heater, lights and a private attached bath. Did you know? It takes about 2 hours for a family to construct a ger and only half hour to dissemble it.

Traditional Costumes – The Mongolian national costume is a robelike garment called a deel. It is worn with a thin silk sash several yards long tightly wound around the waist. Attached to the sash are essential objects such as the eating set, tinder pouch, snuff bottle, and tobacco and pipe pouches. Female attires are adorned with ornaments and jewelry. There are different kinds of hats and boots, depending on which part of the country they belong to. Travel Tip: There is a costume parade at the opening ceremony day before the annual Naadam festival in July. This is a good opportunity to see families from all over the country dressed in the traditional clothes. Tourists are encouraged to dress up too!

Mongolian women dressed in traditional costumes/ Sucheta Rawal
Mongolian women dressed in traditional costumes/ Photo by Sucheta Rawal

Winding Back The Clock –  Mongolia’s ancient culture is well persevered at the 13th Century National Park (located 2 hours outside UB). Here visitors can eat traditional food, visit old gers where Shamans practiced religion and Chinggis Khaan’s teacher lived, learn to write in Mongolian script, and play a horse headed fiddle.

Vastness of the Gobi Desert – The Gobi desert is the coldest desert in the world and home to many important cities along the Silk Road. It is said to be high energy place, covered with fossils as old as 100,000 years. Bayanzag aka Flaming Cliffs is a location where the highest concentration of dinosaur bones and eggs have been found. Travel Tip: Travel through the vast region of Gobi can take several days as there are no roads or signs; there are few flights which can be affected by weather conditions; the region shuts down in winters; and there are not many places to stop and ask for directions! 

Flaming Cliffs/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Flaming Cliffs/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Warm Hospitality – My hosts for this trip were Voyage Unique Mongolie. Khishigjargal and her husband, Dorjpurev took us around the entire time, giving us a very personal experience showing us their country. It felt like we were on a holiday with the family. We sang songs and ate candy during long drives, and stopped to have picnics in breathtaking sceneries. No matter where we went, we experienced the same level of polite and warm hospitality. Even when language was a challenge, the employees at hotels and restaurants would make a sincere effort to address our needs the best they could.

Drinking tea at a nomad's home/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Drinking tea at a nomad’s home/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Modern Mongolian Music and Dance – The traditional Mongolian dance is bielgee, which is performed by both men and women. Rhythmic movements, fast beats and expressive gestures that represent daily life, are simply captivating. 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 being integrated, creating fun modern tunes. Travel Tip: Watch a traditional concert by the band Tumen Ekh ensemble at National Recreation Center in UB.

Naadam Festival – The annual festival celebrates the ancient sports of Mongolia – horseback riding, archery and wrestling. The entire country goes on holiday while families dress up, go for picnics and cheer the contestants. The main competitions take place at the stadium in UB, but events are also spread out. One of the most fascinating aspects of the festival is to see 5-12 year old kids race horses for up to 10 kilometers. They ride solo, at very high speeds, through the countryside! The winner receives a medal, money and bragging rights.

Horseback racing at Naadam festival/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Horseback racing at Naadam festival/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Jordan – a Haven in the Middle East

I met Mr. Yousef Hasanat, founder of Desert Paramours Tours through a mutual friend. He arranged for my visit from Israel to Jordan on a short notice, and he welcomed me to his country over tea. We met in the lobby of Hotel Amra Palace in Petra. It was always my dream to see this magical city, but once I arrived there, I was surprised to learn about the state of tourism in the area.

Hasanat told me that because of the unrest in the Middle East, fewer visitors are making their way to Jordan now. As a result, the economy is suffering. This family-run tourist agency, that specializes in active adventure trips across Jordan, Israel, Syria and Egypt has been affected as a result. Before, Hasanat and his brothers use to be occupied every week leading groups to camp, hike, canoe, horseback, and engage in other outdoor activities throughout the desserts. Now, they get a few groups from Europe and Australia. They make a lot less money and have to explore new areas for income.

The ruins of Petra are still a spectacular site, one of the wonders of the world, I must say. You can be lost in the old city for hours and days, exploring each section, taking photos as the rocks change colors with the movement of the sun. I took over 1,000 photos in one day!

petra jordan

Once you come out of the old city though, there are hardly any hotels, restaurants or shops. “There use to be many 5-star hotels, but most of them closed,” Hasanat informs me. It was surprising for me to see that such a unique destination is hardly commercialized. I eat a modest buffet dinner at the hotel, along with the 30 or so other tourists staying there.

petra jordan

On another day, we visit Wadi Rum, another popular destination in Jordan. We reach a desert camp that offers lodging, dining and sightseeing options. I am the only visitor they have today. The entire lodge is deserted. My Bedouin driver takes me in a rustic jeep for a 2-hour long safari. We drive through sand dunes, colored cliffs, stopping to take pictures, and see thousands of years old inscriptions. On the way, we visit, several Bedouin camps, where tea and souvenirs are offered. My 21-year old driver who speaks good English tells me that he was born and brought up in this desert and has never left the place. He learned English only by interacting with tourists.

desert camp jordan

During most of our tour, no one else is in sight, which offers great photo opportunities, but also a reminder of the sad reality this land faces.

jordan wadi rumI am curious to know what are other places in Jordan I must explore if I have more time. Hasanat offers a 11-day tour that takes you through castles of Azraq and Amra in the East, Lake Tiberias and the Golan Heights in the North, Petra and Wadi Rum in the South, and to get bird’s eyes view of Mount Nebo, Holy Land and the Dead Sea in the West. His tours offer a combination of history, culture and adventure.

What I did feel in Jordan was a sense of appreciation. Everyone I met, be it guides, hotel staff or shop vendors, was grateful that I had made a decision to visit, despite the negative perception about the area. People went out of their way to ask if I was having a pleasant stay and if there’s anything they could help me with. The truth is that I never felt unsafe here. Jordan remains to be a peaceful country that is politically stable, and safeguards its tourists.   It offers aid to refugees and trades with it’s neighbors. This may be the ideal time to visit Jordan for those looking to travel to a secluded area, with rich history, tons of outdoor adventures, and amazing photographic opportunities.