Monday, December 31, 2012

Travel Sabbatical: Our Favorites 2012

Until we returned to the States, we had no idea how many people were actually following us on our adventures around the world!  We are utterly amazed and grateful from the bottom of our hearts that so many people took the time to read our blog.  We are truly honored.

Having had a few weeks to meet back up with our family and friends, the number one question has been, "Where was your favorite place?"  The difficulty in answering this question may come as a surprise...we had so many favorites!  We definitely enjoyed experiencing all the famous sites, but in general, the most memorable times have been anytime we were able to get to know the locals.  As we wrap-up 2012, this list of Travel Sabbatical favorites may help answer the question, "What was your favorite ___(fill in the blank)___?

For starters, a large part of our favorite memories center around FOOD.  No shock there. We sure did do a lot of eating, but here are the places we dream about returning to for just one more taste:
  • De Encuentro's hearty traditional Inca soup with quinoa, located on Alfaro Street in Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador.

  • Upscale ceviche and causa at famous Peruvian chef, Gastón Acurio's, La Mar Cebichería in Lima, Peru.
  • Las Cabras Parrilla in the Palermo Hollywood neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina became our neighborhood joint for the 3 weeks while we were there.  We loved the cheap Argentine wine served in a pinguino, the gargantuan steak dinners, and Yerba mate.

  •  El 22 Parilla, also in Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires for the BEST tasting steak in a no-frills neighborhood place. 
  • Tapas bar crawl on Calle Cava Baja in Madrid, Spain!  Our favorite place was La Perejila for their sangria, Spanish vermouth, cava, excellent gazpacho, and free tapas galore!
  • We loved Hostaria Vite Rossa in Mestre, Italy (town across the bridge from Venice) so much that we returned for dinner, then lunch, then dinner, then lunch.  This place was a cozy enoteca (wine bar) that serves a huge variety of cicchetti (Italian equivalent of tapas).  They also had unique beer offerings such as the radicchio beer...yum!  

  • We didn't expect to find a Bosnian chef running an "omakase"-type (means "I'll leave it up to you", in Japanese) restaurant in Sarajevo where he whipped up a custom 4-course meal based on our preferences.  Mala Kuhinja was the best meal we had in the Balkans.
  • Despite knowing we would be disappointed with most of the burgers in the world, we kept trying them because we just simply craved a juicy burger on occasion.  We are pleased to report that in at least 2 places in the world, we can count on enjoying an all American burger.  Boom! Burgers in Sofia, Bulgaria and Sasebo Burger in Tokyo, Japan.

  • We lost count as to how many times we ate at our Beyoglu neighborhood (in Istanbul) restaurant serving homestyle Turkish cuisine.  We dream of walking back into Saray Lokantasi, picking out the type of kebab, soup, pilaf, and stewed vegetables we want, sitting down outdoors on the small sidewalk eating our meal, then finishing off with Turkish tea.
  • Any pad thai stand along the streets of Bangkok, Thailand will make us happy!  
  • When we got tired of Thai food, we found ourselves eating dinner several evenings at the Swan Burmese Restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  The tea leaves salad is still one of the most addictive foods on earth.
  • One of the best places serving consistently good Western food was Chat 'n Chew in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  Touch, the chef, is a trained chef serving high quality western food on a budget in the backpacker district.  The pastas, chicken, salads, everything was good but the 8 oz. Argentine filet mignon with demiglace, side of potatoes au gratin and green beans for less than $10 was worth everything.
  • The legendary Phuong's banh mi sandwich in Hoi An, Vietnam as featured in Tony Bourdain's No Reservations was no TV stunt.  We have no idea everything that went into this sandwich, but we'd take a flight to Vietnam today for another bite, just to try and find out.
  • A visit to Tokyo isn't complete without slurping a bowl of tomato ramen at Taiyo Tomato Ramen in Ogikubo, Tokyo, Japan.  In fact, our friends who visited Japan with us in May also loved it and earned the title of ”last meal in Japan before we have to go home."

Favorite Bar: Ben's Cocktail, a 6-seater outdoor bar on Loi Khrom Street in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Favorite Alcoholic Refreshment: Radler lemon beer in Croatia.

Favorite Non-alcoholic Beverage: Ayran yogurt drink in Istanbul, Turkey.

Favorite Hotel: Hands down, Gloria Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia for all the reasons we already wrote about.

Favorite Hostel: Hostal Pariwana in Cuzco, Peru for the most efficiently and professionally run hostel we've stayed at, not to mention a surprisingly clean and beautiful double room with a private bath in the midst of backpacker heaven.   

Favorite Apartment: Our apartment through in Buenos Aires.  After this apartment, we were ruined for any future apartments we booked through  

Favorite Bus: If you have to be on a bus for 18 hours, it might as well be an "ejecutivo" bus in South America.  Oltursa bus service from Los Organos to Lima in Peru was basically like business class on wheels, complete with huge reclining leather seats, wifi, meals, drinks, etc.  

Favorite Train: We rode on a lot of trains, but the nicest experience was the 4-hour train ride on Peru Rail through the Sacred Valley of Peru going to and from Machu Picchu.  The view was stunning!

Favorite Airline: after 18 flight legs and multiple airlines, we can say with certainty that most airlines around the world are much nicer in amenities and service than the airlines in the United States.  We flew Avianca, LAN, Aegean, Star Peru, Aerosvit, Korean, etc. but the most luxurious of them all was LAN Airlines based out of Chile for its roomier seats, in-flight entertainment, meals, and beautiful flight attendants. :)

Favorite Local Market: Bac Ha, Vietnam came to life on Sundays when the colorfully dressed Hmong hill tribes came from all over the mountainside to trade, sell, and socialize each and every weekend.

Favorite Natural Wonder: Plitvice Lakes, Croatia.  Who knew all this was going on?  Best kept secret on earth.

Favorite Off-the-Grid, No Tourists in Sight, Hideaway: Los Organos, Peru.  We wish we were swinging on one of the hammocks at Muelle Viejo Bungalows.

Best "Glad We Made It" Moment: The Ecuador to Peru overland border crossing was the most dreaded and anxiety provoking from all the difficulties and horror stories we read and heard.  We were very, very glad to report that we made the multiple bus transfers and immigration checkpoints without incident.  We felt very accomplished and relieved.

Best "Glad We Didn't Get Scammed...Too Much" Moment: Yet another irritating overland border crossing, this time from Thailand to Cambodia, where we felt we did enough research to avoid the major tourist pitfalls and scams. 

Best "I Hope We Don't Die Today" Moment: Suspended over the tallest waterfall in Ecuador over a river gorge in a tarabita, a rickety metal basket...

Favorite Cute Animal Moment: Monkeys at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Favorite "Hangout With Locals" Moment:  In June, a large Andean family came down from the mountains to watch the Ecuador-Colombia futbol match at a local bar in Banos de Agua Santa, Ecuador.  They bought a couple of bottles of beer to be shared amongst 15 of them or so.  We ended up buying them rounds of beer while we watched Ecuador win.  Per their custom, we all took small sips/bites from the bottles and snacks being passed around.  We couldn't communicate very well with them, but it was one of the most fun experiences we had.  

Favorite Exotic Adventure: Camel ride along the beach in Tangier, Morocco!

Best Place for "We're Going to Freeze to Death": Being in such high elevation (11,000+ feet), Cuzco, Peru gets very cold at night.  Interestingly, there were no heaters to be found in any of the hotels.  Hmmmm.  We just froze instead.  

Best Place for "We're Going to Die From a Heat Stroke":  Mike was having a mild heat stroke in Madrid, Spain; while Akiko thought she was going to die from a heat stroke in Venice, Italy.  All the walking in the heat with no shade, lots of people around, and reflection from the concrete and asphalt took a toll on our weary bodies.

Favorite Religious Structure: We saw lots of religious buildings, be it a cathedral, church, wat, temple, mosque, synagogue, you name it.  There are a lot of 'em in this world, but the mac daddy of 'em all is: Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  

Favorite Hotel Booking Website: for its free cancellation policy, user-friendly online booking, excellent and reliable review system, and no advance deposit required.  

Favorite "I Can Definitely Live Here" Places: This is a three-way tie between Chiang Mai, Thailand; Banos de Agua Santa, Ecuador; or Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Favorite "How the Heck Did They Build That?" Moment:  Machu Picchu, Peru.

Favorite Sunset: Quito, Ecuador.

Favorite Sunrise: Ko Samui, Thailand.

Best Perros Callejeros (stray dogs): Ecuador.

Favorite Funny Moment: After a "slight" mis-communication, Mike's goatee trim turned into a full-on shave by the barber.  Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

Favorite Souvenir: Hand knitted, baby alpaca hats from Peru.

Favorite Architecture: Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey.

Favorite "In Awe" Moment:  All of Jerusalem.  We still can't believe we got to see and touch the places we've read about in the Bible, all of our lives.  

Best "So Glad We Studied Up on the History" Moment: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge legacy.

Favorite Snapshot "Despite Lots of No Photos Allowed Signs": I couldn't resist.  Picasso's "Guernica" was heavily guarded but I got a quick snapshot anyway (Madrid, Spain).  Also, the interior vault where the dead sea scrolls are kept is a strictly 'no photos allowed' kind of place, which taunts me to want to sneak a shot (Jerusalem, Israel).  

Favorite Luxurious Getaway: Cruise around Halong Bay, Vietnam of course.

And last but not least, our Favorite Clandestine Experience: Being sent to the currency black market through some back alleys, unmarked doors, and secret handshakes to obtain US dollars to pay for our Thai visas.

Surely, we have more favorites, but this is what we came up with for now.  It's been an exciting 2012!