8 Days in Morroco: Final Days in Marrakech

So after wandering the desert for forty years, I mean, four days, our driver dropped us off at El Fenn in Marrakech. To say I was thrilled to walk through those doors is a gigantic understatement, as it was my 30th birthday and I had a good dose of Moroccan food poisoning the night before and still felt pretty wretched. I had high expectations for the hotel and was a bit nervous that I’d be setting myself up for disappointment, but our experience at El Fenn was absolutely wonderful and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to stay in the medina for a few days.

30th Birthday Girl / Food Poisoning Survivor

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Spa pool

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Rooftop pool

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Grass on the rooftop

Sights and sounds of the nearby Koutoubia Mosque

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Our wonderful room

With three pools, full spa and hammam services, a fully-stocked bar, and absolutely gorgeous grounds, it felt as if we’d checked into heaven, the perfect place to spend the last two nights of our trip. Our own photos of El Fenn don’t do it justice, but you can check out the hotel’s Instagram feed to get a better idea of how beautiful it is. (You can also search the photos of the folks who’ve tagged El Fenn as their location to see how beautiful the guests are, too!)

There are many ultra-fancy hotels outside the medina in Marrakech, but we loved that El Fenn was in the middle of the action yet still completely calm and relaxing. The wonderful staff was so helpful and genuine, and everyone there always greeted us with a smile. The food at the hotel was also very delicious, although I didn’t have much of an appetite during our two-night stay. However, we did every much appreciate the daily tea-time pastries and complimentary drinks.

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8 Days in Morroco: Erg Chebbi and Ait Benhaddou Tour

When we originally booked this trip to Morocco, all we knew was that 1) we wanted to use Marrakech as our base city, and 2) we needed to do some sort of desert tour. We quickly learned that in order to see the desert properly from Marrakech, you need to either rent a car yourself or hire a driver to take you on a four day-minimum itinerary. Without really knowing what to expect, we asked our first hotel, Riad Meriem, to book a four day tour on our behalf.

All we knew was that we needed this photo

All we knew was that we needed to make this photo happen

I’m not sure if it’s company that Riad Meriem always recommends, but they signed us up with a private tour via Aztat Tours. To be quite frank, I was a bit nervous when I noticed that their company name didn’t match what’s on their website (e.g. Aztat and Atlas) and that they asked for the money up front in cash when we were picked up from our riad, but their reviews were good on Tripadvisor, so we went with it.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Our guide Mustafa, while not necessarily the friendliest of guys, was an excellent driver. His 4×4 seemed well-equipped to handle the windy, bumpy Moroccan roads, and he knew the country like the back of his hand. He had a cold and his English wasn’t so great, but we were just relieved that he delivered us safely to each of our destinations.

Also, the Moroccan landscapes that we saw throughout the four day tour were nothing short of breathtaking. Mustafa whisked us away from the Marrakech medina and before we knew it we were in the middle of the Atlas Mountains. A few hours later we were back on flat ground and walking around the ancient Ait Benhaddou kasbah, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where films like Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia were shot.

The Atlas Mountains

The Atlas Mountains

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

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Moroccan Hollywood

The next day it seemed as though we visited several completely different planets because the terrain started out flat and rocky in Ouarzazate, then suddenly we were overlooking massive canyons, then we were in the green Draa Valley, and finally we arrived at the gorgeous golden sand dunes of Merzouga (a.k.a. Erg Chebbi).

Ouarzazate kasbah

Ouarzazate kasbah

Oh look, a massive canyon in the middle of Morocco

Oh look, a massive canyon in the middle of Morocco

In the middle of nowhere

In the middle of nowhere

Camel trekking in the Sahara

And before we knew it we were camel trekking in the Sahara

The camel trek and Berber tent overnight were definite highlights of the trip, and as you can see below it is shockingly difficult to take good photos while riding a camel.

Camel trekking!

Camel trekking!

Ilana and Aaron of Arabia

Ilana and Aaron of Arabia

Our luxurious desert tent

Our luxurious desert tent

Sunset in the Sahara

Sunset in the Sahara

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8 Days in Morroco: First Impressions of Marrakech

My husband and I just got back last week from a pretty awesome eight day trip in Morocco, but I must admit that I’m glad to be back in San Francisco. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great vacation, but it was one of those trips that also made me really appreciate the comforts of home.

We chose Morocco in the first place because neither of us had been to Africa before and we were looking for a destination that was warm, exotic, and relaxing, but with plenty of adventure. Our plan was to spend two nights at one hotel in Marrakech, go on a private four day/three night desert tour, and then spend our final two nights at another fancier hotel back in Marrakech. (We had originally toyed with the possibility of spending one night in Essaouira at the end of the trip, but boy are we relieved that we nixed that idea. We were completely exhausted by the end of the desert tour, and it felt so nice to just relax in Marrakech when it was over.)

marrakech airport

Bonjour, Marrakech!

Our first two nights in Marrakech were spent at the stylish Riad Meriem, a beautifully decorated boutique hotel in the heart of the medina. The manager Hassan made us feel right at home and was always happy to pour us some Moroccan mint tea or Casablanca beer. Knowing that we’d get hopelessly lost if we even attempted to navigate the confusingly windy roads on our own, he arranged for his colleague to walk us to Cafe Arabe for our first dinner and pick us up again afterward. It felt a bit funny to have a designated escort, but we were grateful! Below are some pics that don’t do Riad Meriem justice:

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During our first full day in Marrakech we sought out some of the major tourist attractions such as the Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa, Bahia Palace, Jemaa el Fna, and Dar Si Said, and in between we made sure to get ourselves lost within the never-ending maze of souks. In retrospect, I wish that we had hired a guide to show us around the souks with a bit more of a sense of purpose and context, but it was fun getting lost on our own nonetheless.

Courtyard of Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa

Courtyard of Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa

Beautiful tile work everywhere

Beautiful tile work everywhere

Bahia Palace courtyard

Bahia Palace courtyard

Dried fruit stall

Dried fruit stall

Marrakech shopping

Marrakech shopping

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Real Non-Honeymoon: South Africa (Part 2)

Monday’s blog post was mostly about my sister Elisa’s awesome safari experience in South Africa. Read on to learn about her favorite restaurants and things they did in and around Cape Town.

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Cape Town:

During our time in South Africa we spent 5 days in Cape Town and absolutely loved it! Below is a list of our Cape Town favorites.

Group shot at the top of Lion's Head

Group shot at the top of Lion’s Head

Dining:

  • The Grand Café & Beach: Casual, shabby-chic waterfront dining on the beach in Cape Town. The perfect place for lunch and/or cocktails near the V&A Waterfront.
  • Paranga: Located in Camps Bay along the sunset strip of the Atlantic Seaboard. A modern and artsy location for sunset dinner and drinks with an ocean view.
  • Harbour House: Beautiful, waterfront dining, perfect for lunch or dinner. Amazing views, amazing décor, amazing food! (There are two locations and we visited the location in Kalk Bay during our drive around the Cape.)
  • The Roundhouse Restaurant: My boyfriend made our reservation at The Roundhouse Restaurant about a month prior to our trip. The Roundhouse is one of the country’s top 20 restaurants and located in a wooded valley overlooking Camps Bay. Our dinner was 7 courses, the menu was personalized with our names and the service was over the top! An extremely special dining experience! Also, arrive early for your reservation and enjoy a sunset cocktail in the gardens overlooking Camps Bay!
  • Gold Restaurant: A cultural and FUN African experience. I read of this restaurant on a previous Peonies to Palm Trees post and knew that I had to go! The night consisted of face painting, dancing, drumming and a 14-course traditional African meal! It was a wonderful evening!
Dinner (and makeover) at Gold Restaurant. Look familiar?

Dinner (and makeover) at Gold Restaurant. Look familiar?

Full-Day Drive of the Cape:

One of the best decisions we made was to hire a private driver and guide to take us on a full-day tour of the Cape! We started at Table Mountain where we took the cable car to the top. At the summit, we walked around, got a coffee at the café, and enjoyed the view.

Next, we visited the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden located against the eastern slopes of Table Mountain and acclaimed as one of the “greatest botanic gardens of the world.”

Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden

After, we drove through Muizenberg (cute surfer town, known for their colorful houses) to Kalk Bay where we stopped for an oceanfront lunch at Harbour House. Next, we proceeded to Boulder’s Beach in Simon’s Town, famous for their penguin colony. (Seeing the beautiful, little penguins on the beach in South Africa was definitely a trip highlight!)

Boulder's Beach Penguin Colony

Boulder’s Beach Penguin Colony

Penguins deserve TWO photos

Penguins deserve TWO photos

We then cut across and continued around the cape to Hout Bay where we stopped at Chapman’s Peak to enjoy the incredible view as the sun was setting. Lastly, we ended in Camps Bay/Clifton for a sunset dinner at Paranga!

Beautiful view of Hout Bay

Beautiful view of Hout Bay

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Real Non-Honeymoon: South Africa (Part 1)

My sister Elisa wrote a really great blog post about her Los Cabos trip last year, so I asked her to write another one about her amazing recent vacation in South Africa. (I also just want to live vicariously through her travels.) Elisa had so much good stuff to say this time around that I decided to break her post into two parts. Today’s post covers her incredible safari experience, and on Wednesday I’m going to publish her Cape Town (and surrounding areas) recs.

View from the top of Table Mountain

View from the top of Table Mountain

When and where did you travel?

My boyfriend and I traveled with his family throughout South Africa in April/May 2014. (Johannesburg, Phalaborwa, Kruger National Park, Sabi Sand Game Reserve, Dinokeng Game Reserve, and Cape Town).

Safari sunrise group shot

Safari sunrise group shot

How long was your trip?

Our trip was 16 days.

Safari sunset

How gorgeous is this safari sunset?

How did you decide on your travel destination(s)?

My boyfriend and I wanted to plan an international trip in 2014 and South Africa was always at the top of our wish list. My boyfriend’s dad was born and raised in South Africa, and the majority of his relatives still live there.  Our decision was solidified when we were invited to his cousin’s May 2014 wedding in South Africa!

The best part of our trip was…

Exeter River Lodge in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve and Cape Town.

Main Lodge at Exeter

Main Lodge at Exeter

Exeter River Lodge:

Exeter River Lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve was unlike anywhere I had ever been, and we had the most incredible experience. The grounds were immaculate, the safari drives were remarkable, the meals were outstanding, and my boyfriend and I had the most stunning private rondavel along the Sand River.

Deck of the private rondavel

Deck of the private rondavel

We took two game drives per day; one in the morning at sunrise and the other in the evening at sunset, with each drive lasting approximately 3-4 hours.  Our Guide and Tracker were extremely knowledgeable, professional, resourceful, personable, and fun! We saw all of the “Big Five” (Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo) plus more! Two of my favorite moments included observing a Lioness roar and her 8 cubs cuddled together at sunset and a herd of approximately 30 elephants (including a baby) crossing a riverbed directly in front of us. It was amazing how close we would get to the animals!

Animals of Africa

Animals of Africa

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Our Next Big Trip Will Be… Morocco!

Hope you all had a great weekend! We spent ours binge-watching Orphan Black* and booking our next big trip to MOROCCO!

morocco

As I mentioned in a post a few months ago, Morocco has been on my wanderlust list for awhile. Aaron and I haven’t been anywhere in Africa yet, we love warm weather destinations, the food is supposed to be fantastic, and CAMELS! Okay fine, camels don’t dictate where we decide to go on vacation, but Aaron hasn’t ridden one yet and I think it’s pretty important that he does so soon.

All we’ve booked so far is our flights into and out of Marrakesh, but I can’t wait to start researching where to go and what to do. I’m hoping to spend several days exploring the city, a few nights by the sea in Essaouira, and some sort of desert excursion. Other than that, we’re totally open to suggestions!

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Wanderlusting: The 10 Countries I Most Want to Visit in the Near Future

My last blog post about travel envy was kind of a bummer, so I decided that I needed to write something a bit more positive before the week was over. Instead of dwelling on the fact that I’m not going to Istanbul with Aaron, I started thinking about the 10 countries I’d most want to visit. My only criteria for the list was that 1) I had to include countries that I’ve never been to before, and 2) they had to be places I’d want to visit in the near future (i.e. in the next 10 years or so – not when I’m much older and less adventurous/active), which was pretty easy because I haven’t been everywhere… yet.

Below is the list that I came up with, with the countries listed in alphabetical order:

Cambodia

Up until very recently, Cambodia was totally at the top of my must-see list. Throughout our honeymoon in Bali & Vietnam, we met several other couples who just raved about the food, beaches, friendliness, and cheapness of Cambodia, not to mention the complete awe of experiencing Angkor Wat. However, another travel blogger that I highly admire recently wrote about why she thinks that Cambodia has recently changed, and not for the better. Kate really knows her stuff, so I believe her when she says that she didn’t love her latest experience there. I’m hoping though that things will turn back around for Cambodia, so I can get enthusiastic again about visiting it.

Cambodia

Cambodia – thanks for the pics, Alice!

Chile

Aaron and I had so much fun backpacking around South America in 2009, but we felt a bit amiss that we didn’t make it to Chile. Ideally, our trip there will include experiencing cosmopolitan Santiago, snowboarding in Portillo, surfing in Pichilemu, and a few days exploring Easter Island.

Ecuador

Aside from wanting to see the Galapagos Islands, I’d never thought too much about visiting Ecuador; that is until my friend Jen came back from a trip there last year and had the best time ever. She promised that she’d one day write a blog post about her trip (right, Jen?), so I’ll leave it to her to tell you why she fell in love with the country.

Ecuador

Ecuador – thanks for the pics, Jen!

Iceland

The Blue Lagoon, live music, Northern Lights, Einstock beer – what’s not to like? If there were direct flights from Reykjavík to Dublin, we would have combined Iceland with our Ireland trip last summer.

Mauritius

My family friend visited Mauritius during her Semester at Sea, and as soon as I saw the photos of the perfect turquoise water and bleached white sand, I knew that I’d have to go there some day. It was definitely in the running as one of our own honeymoon destinations, but we’d like to combine it with a few weeks in South Africa as well, and we didn’t think we’d be able to do all of that right after the wedding. I guess it will just have to be the destination for a special anniversary trip, right?

Mauritius

Mauritius – thanks for the pics, Hana!

Morocco

As soon as I can find the time to spend a week in Marrakech, I’m going to make it happen. My friend Daniel was lucky enough to spend this past NYE at this insanely beautiful estate, and said that he just thought the whole area was really beautiful and interesting. Also, my mom and sisters got to ride camels near Tangier a few years ago which looked really fun.

Morocco

Morocco – thanks for the pics, Rachel and Nicole!

Burma/Myanmar

One of my friends from college has lived in a handful of foreign countries since grad school, and although she’s currently living in Kabul, she is supposed to head back to Yangon soon. Only recently a tourist destination, she says that traveling around Burma is like going back in time. Aaron and I want to see what that’s like before everything becomes too modernized.

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December Dream Vacations

The holiday season always makes me appreciate all of the wonderful people I have in my life, and I’m very fortunate that so many of them live near me in the San Francisco Bay Area.  However, some of the most important important people, for some reason, prefer living in a not-so-moderate climate.  That’s right, we’re off to Minnesota next week to freeze our butts off spend Christmas with my in-laws!

Don’t get me wrong, my husband’s family is totally great.  I can’t tell you how grateful I am that they’ve always been incredibly welcoming ever since I first met them.  I’m especially looking forward to a Cinderella-themed slumber party with my 2 1/2 year old niece, playing with my sister-in-laws’ awesome pups, catching up with my husband’s adorable grandparents, and spending time with everyone else… but, man will it be cold!

Although I’m going to freeze in Minnesota this year, here’s a list of warmer places that I’d like to visit during future Decembers:

Clockwise from top left: Zanzibar, Milford Sound, Turks and Caicos, Langkawi

Clockwise from top left: Zanzibar, Milford Sound, Turks and Caicos, Langkawi

1) Southern Africa + Mauritius: it would be an absolute dream vacation to go on safari in South Africa or Tanzania, visit Mozambique and Zanzibar, then relax on Mauritius.

2) Australia + New Zealand: although I’ve already spent lots of time in Oz and NZ, I cannot wait to go back with my husband to sail the Whitsundays again, visit Milford Sound, and hoard Tim Tams.  I’m pretty sure that he’ll like it there as much as I do :)

3) Turks and Caicos: my husband hasn’t been to the Caribbean before, and since we’ve heard such fabulous things about Turks and Caicos especially, I think we’d have to go their first.

4) Malaysia: I’d love to relax on Langkawi and explore the other gorgeous islands in Malaysia.  Friends have told us that Turtle Island is a must-see, too.

Wherever you spend your holidays this year, I hope you and your loved ones are warm and happy!

Real ROUND THE WORLD Trip: Asia, Australia & Africa

How great would it be to have the time to go on a multi-month round the world (RTW) trip with your signifiant other?  Pretty amazing, right?  When you both have full-time jobs it can be really hard to turn that dream into a reality, so when the opportunity presented itself to Robin and Darin (i.e. a cross-country move and the start of a new job), they enthusiastically took it.  Read all about their absolutely incredible travels in Asia, Australia, and Africa below:

How long was your RTW trip, and how did you find the time to go?

We traveled for seven weeks – July through August [2013] – and we were really lucky to travel for that amount of time. We had been living in Boston, and Darin was offered, and chose to accept, a job in Florida. Since we were moving and both of us were going to have to change jobs, we tossed around the idea of traveling before starting work. Before we knew it, our apartment in Boston was all packed up and heading to storage, our new lease in Florida wasn’t starting until September, and we were on a plane to Asia.

Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef

Where did you go (and how much time did you stay in each place)?

Darin has family in Sydney and Johannesburg, so we knew when we started talking about the trip that we had to go to those cities. We then planned around those destinations and decided to go to places that would not be easily accessible on a one or two-week trip once we went back to work. We basically looked at a map and picked out places we had interest in going to or that our friends had been to. We are an active couple, so we were more excited about seeing a country’s natural beauty rather than eating at high-end restaurants or wandering through museums.

Bike riding in Tokyo

Bike riding in Tokyo

We also tried to plan our trip by choosing destinations that we could get to on direct flights. So inevitably, our first destination was going to be a big city.

The Itinerary:

Tokyo – 3 days
Beijing – 2.5 days
Hong Kong – 2.5 days

At this point in our trip we were tired of big cities and were excited to have the same currency for longer than a few days. We spent about two weeks traveling around Thailand.

Chang Mai – 3 days
Koh Tao – 4 days
Koh Samui – 3 days
Gillham’s Fishing Resort, outside of Krabi – 1.5 days

From Thailand we headed to Cambodia based on friends’ recommendations.

Siem Reap – 2 days

We left the northern hemisphere summer for winter down under. It was nice to be able to spend time with family without being jetlagged.

Port Douglas (launching point for the Great Barrier Reef) – 2.5 days
Sydney – 5 days

From Sydney we had a direct flight to Jo-burg, and met up with Darin’s parents for two weeks of travel throughout Southern Africa.

Johannesburg – 2 days
Botswana – 4 days (Nxabega Okavango (tented camp) and Sandibe Safari Lodge)
Zambia (Victoria Falls) – 2 days
South Africa – 5 days (Londolozi and Ulusaba (Richard Branson’s private game reserve))

At Victoria Falls in Zambia

At Victoria Falls in Zambia

Did you have a set itinerary from the start, or did you play things by ear?

We booked our RTW ticket on OneWorld, and they have a very user-friendly website that made it easy to build an itinerary. Although the ticket is flexible (we could change the flight dates and times without a penalty and pay a small fee to add a city), we had all of our stops planned before we left the States, and we had our hotels booked before we arrived in each city. We only had to change a flight once, which is pretty impressive since we took more than 20 flights during the trip.

We planned most of our activities when we got to city based on hotel recommendations and from other travelers we met along the way.

Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia

How hard was it to pack for a RTW trip?    

The hardest part of packing was that we needed clothes for both the northern and southern hemispheres. Southeast Asia is very hot, humid, and wet in the summer, and southern Africa is very cold at 6AM which is when you do your morning safari drive.

In the weeks leading up to the trip I followed the blog Travel Fashion Girl which has great advice on how to pack for various cities and activities, and there is even a packing list for RTW travel. We certainly were not fashionistas on this trip and definitely packed for function. We are embarrassed to admit that our lifeline in Asia was our Tevas – they kept us cool, they didn’t get ruined in the rain, they were easy to hike in, and we didn’t have to travel with many socks (clean or dirty).

We packed a lot of exercise-type clothes because they are light, sweat-wicking, and easy to hand wash. We quickly got tired of our bathroom being a laundry facility but we couldn’t afford the laundry prices at the hotels. However, just blocks from our hotels we were usually able to find shops that do laundry for $1 / kg.

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China

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Real Honeymoon: South Africa & Mozambique (Part 2)

Yesterday I published the first half of Becky and Bryce’s incredible African honeymoon.  The second half is below – enjoy!

[A continuation of “The best part about our honeymoon was…]

Benguerra Island, Mozambique – Marlin Lodge

Again so many amazing moments so here are a couple:

We arranged to take a tour of the island with two locals who worked at the lodge. We took a jeep around the entire island – saw where all the villagers lived and how they lived (all in grass huts). It was a very humbling experience to say the least. Every time we drove by the kids on the sand streets they would run behind the jeep smiling, waiving and laughing. We also visited their local school and got to talk with and meet the headmaster and some of the children. The children were a bit shy at the beginning but once we showed them the picture we took sitting with them at their desks, we instantly bonded!!!

Benguerra Island School

Hanging out with the kids of Benguerra Island, Mozambique

Maybe my favorite moment was a private picnic lunch the lodge put on for us. They boated us to the other side of the island where they had the most incredible arrangement waiting. There was an umbrella with a blanket and chairs set up as we arrived. They had a gourmet lunch laid out as well along with our drinks of choice – Rosé and Mozambican beer, Manica! There was nothing around us but warm Indian Ocean and white sand – it was surreal! They then left us there all afternoon – we really felt like it was our private island at this point. We liked it so much we did it again the next day!

Benguerra Island Picnic

A private picnic on Benguerra Island

If I knew then what I know now, I’d change…

Nothing, other than we would have gone for 3 weeks instead of 2!

How much planning did you do in advance?

A lot!! I give all the credit to my amazing husband, Bryce, who put a lot of time and effort into making this the best trip of our life!!!!! He found all the hotels and lodges we stayed at and worked with a travel agent to set up the logistics.

Mozambique Sunset

A beautiful Mozambique sunset

What was your biggest honeymoon splurge?

Once we got there everything was already paid for which was very nice. The only place to shop was in Cape Town where I bought some jewelry and my husband got an African warrior shield.

Where do you want to go on your next big trip?

Now that we’ve come to grips that it will be next to impossible to top this trip, we can’t wait for our next adventure. We’re thinking about Russia, Colombia, Sri Lanka or Antarctica.

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