Travel Back Thursday: Union Pacific Depot

vxla, Flickr

Okay, today’s stunning, color photo isn’t actually from many years ago — it was taken in 2011. However, the subject of the photo was most notable in the early 1900s. The Union Pacific Depot opened in 1909, and provided rail services for the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City Railroad. It served as Salt Lake City’s railroad transportation center well into the 1970s.

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Trekking The Planet, Couple Passes 50,000 Mile Mark

trekking the planet

About a year ago, California couple Darren and Sandy Van Soye started trekking the planet on a global tour to raise awareness about world geography and make the subject more accessible to children. To make efficient use of their time and set an eco-friendly travel example, several legs of the journey have been traveled using Princess cruise ships. We caught up with the Van Soye’s recently for a progress report.

“We just passed the 50,000 mile mark on our journey (20,000 miles by cruise ship),” said Darren Van Soye via email this week.

The plan was to visit 50 countries, on six continents, in 424 days, sharing the journey with more than 700 classrooms representing 50,000 students. So far, Darren and Sandy have traveled to 40 countries with another dozen or so to go before returning to the United Sates.
Beating projections, 850 classrooms in 20 countries, representing 55,000 students, are following their journey online.As they have traveled the planet, the 25-year IT industry vets are compiling a library of education modules for teachers along with articles, weekly quizzes and videos, all free to educators.

trekking the planetWe can follow along too by visiting the Live Tracker feature on their Trekking The Planet website, which is becoming a rich resource for travelers as well as their intended audience, kids and classrooms.

In addition to 20,000+ miles via cruise ship, the trekking couple has traveled by rail (10,447 miles), road (7,021 miles) and air (17,035 miles).

“Our last cruise will take us from Valparaiso, Chile, to San Pedro, California,” added Van Soye.

Princess Cruises was keen on the idea from the start. The cruise line had just completed their 50 Essential Experiences: The Travel Bucket List, a year-long blog project where 15+ year Princess Cruises employees shared their personal travel stories, hoping to inspire others.

“We frequently hear stories from travelers who cruise to accomplish a goal – from celebrating milestones with family members to crossing something off their bucket list,” said Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises executive vice president in a statement. “Sandy and Darren are a great example of how cruise travel can be both relaxing and rewarding. We’re inspired by their story and we’re honored they’ve chosen Princess to help them achieve their trekking goals.”

Catching up with the Trekking the Planet team in December, Darren and Sandy review their time in Africa and the Middle East as we see in this video:




The Van Soyes will complete their global journey in March.

[Photo Credit- Trekking The Planet]

Great ‘Cultural’ Spa Experiences From Around The World

spasEven if you’re not a spa junkie, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a great massage or other self-indulgent treatment. I’m actually a massage school graduate, and although I ultimately decided not to pursue that career path, I’ve parlayed my experience into doing the odd spa writing assignment. Not surprisingly, I’m a tough judge when it comes to practitioners, facilities and treatments. I also don’t have any interest in generic treatments. What I love is a spa and menu that captures the essence of a place, through both ingredients and technique.

Many spas around the world now try to incorporate some localized or cultural element into their spa programs. It’s not just a smart marketing tool, but a way to educate clients and hotel guests, employ local people skilled in indigenous therapeutic practices, or sell branded spa products made from ingredients grown on site, or cultivated or foraged by local tribes or farmers.

Sometimes, it’s not a hotel or high-end day spa that’s memorable, but a traditional bathhouse used by locals (such as a Moroccan hammam) that’s special. The low cost of such places is an added bonus: think Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, and parts of the Middle East.

Over the years, I’ve visited a number of spas and bathhouses that have made a big impression on my aching body or abused skin, as well as my innate traveler’s curiosity. After the jump, my favorite spa experiences from around the world.

ninh van baySix Senses Ninh Van Bay: Vietnam
Located on an isolated peninsula accessible only by boat, Six Senses (near the beach resort of Nha Trang) is a seriously sexy property. Private villas nestle in the hillsides and perch above the water, but the spa and restaurants are the big draw here, as many of their ingredients are sourced from the property’s extensive organic gardens.

The “Locally Inspired” section of the spa menu features treatments like the Vietnamese Well-being Journey: three-and-a-half hours of pure hedonism. A scrub with com xanh (Vietnamese green rice) is followed by a bath in “herbs and oils from the indigenous Hmong and Dao hill tribes of the Sa Pa Valley,” and a traditional massage using bamboo, suction cups and warm poultices filled with native herbs.

On my visit, I opted for a refreshing “Vietnamese Fruit Body Smoother” made with ingredients just harvested from the garden: papaya, pineapple and aloe vera. Other body treatments include applications of Vietnamese green coffee concentrate and a green tea scrub.

Foot reflexology: Hong Kong
Foot reflexologists and massage parlors are ubiquitous throughout Asia, and in my experience, it’s hard to find a bad one. That said, one of the best massages I’ve ever had was an hour-long foot reflexology session in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong. It cost me all of ten dollars, and interestingly enough, it also proved eerily accurate about a long-term GI problem I’d been having that had defied Western diagnosis.

My bliss was momentarily interrupted when my therapist pressed a particular spot on the ball of my foot, causing me to nearly leap out of my skin. He informed me that my gallbladder was inflamed, information I processed but soon forgot. I’d already been tested for gallstones with negative results – twice. A year later, I had an emergency cholecsytectomy to remove my severely diseased gallbladder. A trip to Honinh van bayng Kong for a foot massage would ultimately have been cheaper and far more enjoyable than three years of worthless diagnostics.

Verana: Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico
One of my favorite places on earth is Verana, an intimate, eight-guesthouse hilltop retreat located in Yelapa, a fishing village one hour from Puerto Vallarta by water taxi. Husband and wife team Heinz Legler and Veronique Lievre designed the hotel and spa and built it entirely by hand, using local, natural materials.

Although the spa doesn’t focus on traditional Mayan or Aztec technique, Verana grows or forages all of the raw ingredients for its treatments (the gardens also supply the property’s outstanding restaurant), including banana, coconut, lemon, pineapple, papaya and herbs. Try an outdoor massage, followed by a dip in the watsu tub, or an edible-sounding body scrub made with cane sugar and coffee or hibiscus-papaya.

Morocco: hammams
A staple of Moroccan life (as well as other parts of North Africa and the Middle East), hammam refers to segregated public bathhouses that are a weekly ritual for many. A “soap” made from crushed whole olives and natural clay is applied all over the body with an exfoliating mitt. Buckets of hot water are then used to rinse.

Although many hotels in the big cities offer luxury hammam treatments tailored for Western guests, if you want the real deal, go for a public bathhouse. While in Morocco, I got to experience three types of hammam: the hotel variety, a rural DIY hammam at the spectacular yelapaKasbah du Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains, and one at a public bathhouse.

In most public hammams, you’ll strip down in a massive, steam-filled, tiled room. Request an attendant (rather than DIY), who will then scrub the life out of you, flipping you around like a rag-doll. Massages are often offered as part of the service or for an additional fee.

Yes, it’s intimidating and unnerving to be the only naked Westerner in a giant room of naked Muslim men or women, all of who are staring at you and giggling. Once you get over being the odd man (or woman, in my case) out, it’s fascinating to have such an, uh, intimate glimpse into an everyday activity very few travelers experience. The payoff is the softest, cleanest, most glowing skin imaginable.

At hammans that accept Westerners, the vibe is friendly and welcoming, and it’s a way to mingle with locals and participate in an ancient, sacred ritual without causing offense. Do enquire, via sign language or in French, if you should remove all of your clothing, or leave your skivvies on. I failed to do this at the public bathhouse, and increased the staring situation a thousand-fold, because at that particular hammam (unlike the Kasbah), the women kept their underwear on. Oops.

Three highly recommended, traditional, wood-fired Marrakech hammams are Bain Marjorelle (large, modern multi-roomed), Hammam Polo (small, basic, one room), and Hammam el Basha (large, older, multi-roomed). Expect to pay approximately $10 for an attendant (including tip, sometimes massage). Independent travelers can easily find a hamman if they look for people of their own gender carrying buckets, towels and rolled-up mats near a mosque. To ensure you visit a Western-friendly hammam, it’s best to ask hotel or riad staff or taxi drivers for recommendations, and enquire about male/female hours.

Daintree EcoLodge & Spa: Daintree, Queensland, Australia
The Daintree Rainforest, located near Cape Tribulation in Far North Queensland, is over 135 million years old. It’s home to some of the rarest and most primitive flora on earth, muchalto atacama of it traditionally used by the local Aboriginal people for medicinal purposes.

The Daintree Wellness Spa at the low-key, family-owned and-operated EcoLodge has received international accolades for both its work with the local Kuku Yajani people, and its luxe treatments. The spa relies on ochre (a skin purifier) harvested from beneath the property’s waterfall, as well as indigenous “bush” ingredients from the Daintree such as rosella, avocado, native mint, wild ginger, bush honey, quandong, tea tree and spring water. The spa also produces its own line of products, Daintree Essentials (available online).

All treatments integrate traditional Kuku Yalanji modalities and spiritual beliefs, and have received approval from the local elders. I opted for the Ngujajura (Dreamtime) package, which includes a full body and foot massage, Walu BalBal facial and rain therapy treatment (a specialty at Daintree, consisting of an oil and sea salt exfoliation, ochre mud wrap and spring water shower administered tableside … trust me, it’s revelatory). An added bonus: the lodge offers Aboriginal cultural classes that include jungle walks, medicinal plants and bush foods (try eating green ants, a surprisingly tasty source of vitamin C).

Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
This absolutely enchanting adobe property on the outskirts of the village of San Pedro is a slice of heaven, even if you skip its Puri Spa. But that would be a mistake, because then you wouldn’t be able to succumb to treatments and ingredients adapted from what’s been traditionally used by the local Atacameño people for thousands of years.

Atacama is the driest desert on earth, so on my visit, I chose the “Royal Quinoa Face Mask,” made with locally sourced quinoa (for its exfoliating and regenerative properties) mixed with local honey and yogurt. I left the treatment room looking considerably less desiccated.

The real splurge is the Sabay Massage, which uses pindas, or cloth pouches, filled with rice (used here as an exfoliant), rica rica (an herbal digestive aid also used in aromatherapy) and chañar berries (medicinally used as an expectorant and to stimulate circulation, as well as a food source) collected from around the property, which has extensive native gardens designed by a reknown Chilean ethno-botanist. You’ll emerge silky-skinned and tension-free. Dulces Sueños.

[Photo credits: Massage, Flickr user thomaswanhoff; Six Senses, Laurel Miller; Verana, Flickr user dmealiffe]

10 Unique Experiences To Have In Chile

moon valley chile When I backpacked South America, one country I found difficult to plan was Chile. While I had heard they had great wine, adventurous hikes and beautiful landscapes, I had no idea where to actually go and what to actually do. After traveling through the country, I now realize there are way too many worthwhile experiences to have to narrow it down into just one list. However, these are 10 I think everyone should try to incorporate into a trip to the country.

Have a favorite destination or experience in Chile? Share it in the comments below.

Sandboarding In Death Valley/Hiking In Moon Valley

While these are technically two different experiences, you can book a tour in San Pedro de Atacama that allows you to do both in one day. Death Valley is surreal, with gigantic sand dunes and unworldly rock formations. In fact, the site looks so out of this world, many people say it resembles Mars. The basically barren landscape and dry climate is also similar to the red planet. NASA scientists and university researchers go there to test outer space equipment and hypotheses. Moon Valley is also bizarre, with jagged mountains covered in salt, stone and sand formations carved by water and wind, mysterious caves and dry saline-coated lakes. Because of its lunar appearance, a Mars rover was once tested there by scientists.The only company I saw offering the combination tour for both destinations with sandboarding was Atacama Inca Tour. For 12,000 Chilean Pesos (about $25), plus 2,000 $CLP (about $4) to enter Moon Valley, you get transportation, a sandboarding lesson and about two hours of sandboarding, a tour of the Chulacao Caves, which are covered in edible salt, an uphill trek to a viewpoint in Moon Valley to sip Pisco Sour while watching the sunset and a free DVD of the afternoon.

Explore Chile’s Lake District

When visiting Chile’s Lake District, you’ll be surrounded by more than just lakes. The area extends throughout a 210-mile stretch between Temuco and Puerto Montt, and features numerous activities in a world of natural beauty. Along with 12 major lakes, there is also larch forest, jagged peaks, serene waterfalls, green valleys, snow-capped volcanoes and many opportunities for cultural interaction through traditional folklore and indigenous handicraft markets. For many reasons, the destination is often compared to Switzerland. Both have similar landscapes, as well as cultural diversity. While Switzerland has four official languages, Chile’s Lake District was settled by Germans in the 19th century and also has a still existent native Mapuche culture. Make sure to visit Lago Llanquihue, one of South America’s largest lakes with an amazing scene of colors, mountains and volcanoes. For some deep relaxation, visit the geothermal pools at Termas Geometricas. The attraction features a red-planked walkway of slate-covered hot and cold thermal water pools. You’ll also see rivers, waterfalls and canyons. For some, adventure, hiking, biking and rafting are popular modes of transport for exploring Chile’s Lake District.

easter island Go Back In Time On Easter Island

Easter Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not only one of the most isolated travel destinations on Earth, it’s also one of the planet’s most sacred sites. Once in Chile, you can take a flight from Santiago to reach the destination. Most people know the Chilean Polynesian island for its moai, large, personified stone monoliths with very large features. They were created by the Rapa Nui people between the years 1250 and 1500, and average 13 feet in height and 14 tons. While the architecture is impressive – especially given the time period they were built in – the mystery behind why these structures were constructed still remains a mystery. It is believed the moai were built to honor ancestors or another important group of people; however, the Rapa Nui left behind no oral or written history. Popular ways to view the statues are via horseback riding, renting a jeep or car or biking, although the many potholes and unpaved roads making cycling a bit difficult. Other worthwhile activities on Easter Island include scuba diving, snorkeling, relaxing on the beach and visiting volcanic craters where you can see the rock that created the moai carvings.

Climb The Highest Volcano In The World

At 22,615 feet in elevation, Nevado Ojos del Salado (“Source of the Salt River” summit) is the highest volcano in the world. It’s located on the Chile-Argentina border, and can be accessed via Copiapó, Chile. When making your way up the enormous stratovolcano, you’ll be able to hike most of the way, although a bit of scrambling is necessary towards the top. Additionally, once you reach 20,960 feet on the eastern side of Ojos del Salado, you’ll see what is said to be the world’s highest lake. Wondering if it’s active? The last eruption was in 1993, leading scientists to believe there is a possibility it still is.

If you’re interested in doing a longer excursion and scaling multiple volcanoes, the companies Andes Mountain and Amity Tours offer 13- and 14-day trips.

torres del paine Hike In Patagonia Via The “W Circuit” In Torres del Paine National Park

Whether you hike this circuit or just visit the national park on a tour, seeing the bizarre scenery of Torres del Paine is a must when in Chile. The entire time I was there I felt as though I were in the most beautiful Tim Burton film ever created, with animal skulls and twisted roots in front of a snow peaked background, and jagged rock formations and pointy pink mountain spires coming together with shimmering glaciers and colorful skies. The “W Circuit” will allow you to see some of the best views in the park. It takes about three to six days, with the highlights being beautiful lakes, the French Valley and the iconic Towers of Paine, enormous granite monoliths shaped by glacial ice. Note that the hike can be challenging for some, especially due to common strong winds and rough terrain.

Travel Underground In The Largest Open Pit Copper Mine In The World

In the north of Chile you’ll find Antofagasta, home to Chuquicamata, the largest open pit copper mine by excavated volume in the world. Its open pit is 14,108 feet long, 9,843 feet wide and 2,953 feet deep. Despite being exploited for over 90 years, the mine still manages to be one of the largest known copper resources on Earth. In fact, copper is one of Chile’s major exports. Codelco, the official owner of the mine, requires visitors to take a free guided tour if they want to visit. You can choose between English or Spanish, and can contact them at visitas@codelco.cl or +56 55 322122 to make a reservation.

santiago Get To Know History And Culture In Santiago

Santiago is Chile’s capital, and a great home base for exploring nearby areas like the Casablanca Wine Valley, beautiful beaches and the Andes Mountains. You’ll learn a lot just from hanging out in Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square. Here you’ll find the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago, a church as well as a national monument. You’ll also get a firsthand look at the influence of Peruvian immigrants through ethnic food, shops and recreation. Additionally, the city is home to many beautiful parks, like Parque Metropolitano, home to San Cristobal Hill, which offers excellent city views and Parque Forestal, home to the National Museum of Fine Arts and the Modern Art Museum. Moreover, cultural establishments like the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, the Presidential Palace, and various cultural centers will give you a wealth of insight into Chile’s heritage. You should also stop by the Church and Museum of San Francisco, the oldest church in the city. Here, you’ll also be able to see a monolith from Easter Island.

Go Scuba Diving On Robinson Crusoe Island

Robinson Crusoe island, part of the archipelago of Juan Fernandez, is a national park as well as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. This volcanic island of rugged mountain is often described as a deserted area of unspoiled beauty, and for good reason. Both on and off land, the island offers one of the most endemic ecosystems in the world. Furthermore, it features warm, crystal clear water, perfect for scuba diving and submarine hunting. You’ll see a diverse array of marine life, including vidriola, rock salmon, moray, pampanito, corvina, breca and more. You can access the island via a flight from Santiago.

penguins Cross The Strait of Magellan To See Penguins On Isla Magdalena

You can take a ferry from Punta Arenas and arrive on Isla Magdalena, where you’ll see thriving groups of Magellanic penguins. This is where Chile’s largest penguin colonies reside. It is said there are about 60,000 breeding pairs. It’s not surprising this island is the main part of the Penguins Natural Monument. There is a big hill with a lighthouse on top, where most visitors climb to begin their photo taking. If you’d like a tour, Adventure Life offers an excursion to the island via a high-speed zodiac.

Go Wine Tasting In Casablanca Valley

Wine is one of Chile’s biggest industries, and the country is a major exporter of wine. Casablanca Valley is located just 45-minutes outside Santiago. The first vine was planted in the region in the mid-1980s, and quickly made a mark in Chile’s history becoming the first cool-climate coastal region to produce wines. The maritime, foggy mornings and cool Mediterranean climate greatly influence the grapes, which produce crisp, flavorful, aromatic wines. The three major varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, although high quality Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Viognier and Gewürztraminer can also be found. Because it can be a bit tedious to get to, many people either hire a driver or stay the night in Casablanca. Other popular wine valleys to visit include Colchagua Valley, Maipo Valley, San Antonio Valley and Aconcagua Valley. If you’re interested in touring one or more of these regions, Ecotours Chile and Uncorked offer excellent excursions.

[Images via Jessie on a Journey, Anetode, Jessie on a Journey, Metaforico, Hector Garcia]

Sandboarding And Sunset In The Atacama Desert, Chile

sandboarding “They call this Death Valley because of all the people who don’t make it out alive,” our tour guide, Steve, whispered in a haunting voice.

Staring at the enormous sand dunes and unworldly rock formations, I felt fearful of what I was about to do. Of course, Steve was joking. The name actually comes from a mispronuciation by a Belgian priest, Gustavo Le Paige, who thought the landscape looked like Mars, or Marte. Because of the way he spoke, locals believed he said “death,” or muerte.

I found myself here after booking a “Sandboarding in Death Valley + Sunset in Moon Valley” excursion with Atacama Inca Tour. It was during a trip to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, where tour agencies occupy every other storefront. However, this company was the only one I noticed offering this unique combination package. For 12,000 Chilean Pesos (about $25), plus 2,000 $CLP (about $4) to enter Moon Valley, you get transportation, a sandboarding lesson and about two hours of sandboarding, a tour of the Chulacao Caves, which are covered in edible salt, an uphill trek to a viewpoint in Moon Valley to sip Pisco Sour while watching the sunset and a free DVD of the afternoon. The tour also stops at many lookout points, so you’ll be able to get many photos. While Death Valley holds a surreal beauty, Moon Valley has some interesting landscape as well. In fact, the area gets its name due to its resemblance to the moon’s surface.

For a more visual idea of the day, check out the photo gallery below.

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