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Bikepacking Spain: Andalusia

Spain is one of my favorite countries – the amazing array of cuisine, music, language, art and traditions. Each region has a distinct culture and history, making exploring the country a rich experience. The natural side of things is just as diverse; Spain is home to lush forests, winding rivers, rugged coasts, natural sandy beaches, expansive savanna, snow capped mountains, an island volcano, and even a desert. On top of that, most of the country is at a high altitude, which, combined with the Mediterranean climate, means very strong distinct seasonal changes.

I wanted to travel Spain by bike in order to cover more ground than a hiking trip but also remain in close contact to my surroundings. Although I have visited many times before, I had never made it to Andalusia in the southern area of the mainland. After looking at a few sample itineraries pulled from commercial cycling tours (I do this a lot – a great way to get a template), I decided on a route hitting major historic cities (Seville, Córdoba and Granada) and mixing in a variety of landscapes (orchards along rolling hills, curving river valleys, arid plains full of cacti, rugged mountains and maybe even some snow in the Sierra Nevada). Sticking with about 80 km a day, I would have the freedom to stop and linger in a place, wander a bit off course and keep enough time to camp and hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains all in eight days time, a realistic international vacation length for an American. The route gains about 2,400 meters in elevation, the bulk of that on day five, the second half of the leg between Córdoba and Granada.

Seville to Córdoba

I took off from Seville where I arrived the previous evening. One night was enough to eat a delicious dinner, walk about the old city center and get to know a few other travelers in my hostel. I departed from the beautiful city in early afternoon after zipping around the old quarter for sightseeing by bicycle before a Friday tourist crowd began to build. Seville is very bright and cheerful with a classic historic area, picturesque narrow and crooked streets and a massive bull fighting arena. The most interesting place for me was the Plaza de Toros, the famous bull ring and museum. I’ve visited much of Spain over the last few years yet haven’t seen an active bullring. Within the building, sits the Museo Taurino, a small museum decorated with old posters and images of past events and I enjoyed the photographs and artistic renditions of bullfighting.

The Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza

As predicted getting through the suburban build up of Seville was a bit of a pain using roads suitable for a road bike. However, once out of the city, the 90 km route to Palma Del Rio felt easy on the legs and pleasantly flat, winding through farm fields and orange groves the entire way. Cacti grow aside the dusty roads along with colorful wildflowers adding some variety to the scorched fields. The area reminded me very much of southern California.

Many of the fields looked empty but I eventually passed a large orange grove in harvest with workers filling massive bins. Many wore a plain blue baseball cap to protect from a strong May sun. By early afternoon the air was thick with serious heat and my white t-shirt was soiled from sweat the dusty air. After battling to keep dry and warm in Portugal, Spain felt entirely different and like a whole new world.

My camping spot for the night was supposed to be in a park near Palma Del Rio. However, after arriving to the site around dusk, I found that camping was no longer offered and the park closed. Due to fatigue I just spent the night wild camping on a river bend just outside of the city. I had no interest in roaming around looking for guesthouses so late an in a transitional season.

Castillo de Almodóvar del Río.

Day two continued from Palma Del Rio to Córdoba after lazily drinking coffees at a cute cafe in the city watching elderly people out on walks, playing dominoes on picnic tables and just enjoying their Friday morning. After an hour or so resting in the town I started back along highway 431 headed straight to Córdoba.

It was foolish to start the day so late and I ended up feeling the heat quickly. Inland Spain doesn’t have a lingering spring like Portugal and leaps right into summertime heat. At round three in the afternoon when the sun was strongest, I noticed a bright blue baseball cap in the ditch near the road. I stopped to pick it up and gave it a once over and noticed what looked like some paint stains and minor use but it looked clean enough to be my new cap! My previous hat was lost to the sea winds between Sintra and Lisbon a week earlier and I very happy to shade my face with my harvester cap.

Some very friendly goats decided to investigate my bicycle.

Not long after, looking into the distance I was able to make out a very steep and high hill with a castle almost cartoonish in its size and appearance; it looked like something out of a movie. As I cycled closer a very well-preserved castle with Moorish details came into view. I decided to check it out and take a break to lunch in Almodóvar del Río. Through a brief conversation with the local townspeople, I found out the castle is 1,300 years old and got some major retouching about 700 years ago. The good condition of the structure has allowed it to be featured as setting for some television shows.

About 25 kilometers after my lunch break I reached Córdoba and went directly to one of the many squares for cake, coffee and people watching. Afterwards began a very difficult and long ascent to Los Villares Park for a night of organized camping. Only nine kilometers out of the heart of the city, the road to the park was incredibly steep and took any remaining energy I had left. I reached the hilltop park at about 9 pm and felt immense relief seeing cars in the parking lot and a small lit building. However, I was a month too early for camping season! The night workers were very kind and said that since I came all the way up on bicycle and darkness was fast approaching, I could pick a spot in the park for the night free of charge. Although that meant no amenities like a shower or a bathroom after the park closed at 10 pm, it was a welcome comprise. The park looked like a gorgeous place to explore and I tried to see as much of it was possible before heading back down to Cordoba the next morning.

A shot from historic Cordoba.

Spain ended up being a tricky place to camp on-the-fly: sometimes “camping” signs with tent icons really meant a site just for RVs or caravans. Many campsites with full websites online didn’t have information about when their season would begin or had possibly never been updated since the previous summer, making it seem open for business. Overall the camp accommodation scene felt a bit disorganized, especially coming from Portugal, where every location was up and running and any campsite located on major mapping apps were in fact campsites. I wrongly assumed camping and outdoor sports would be more common in May before the brutally hot Spanish summer set in. I ‘d recommend planning to stay in guesthouses, hotels or some other form of accommodation in this area in April and May.

I enjoyed grabbing a coffee and just walking the streets and seeing the Moorish-inspired building details in Granada and Cordoba.

Córdoba to Granada

After spending a full day wandering Córdoba and successfully camping (yay!) in El Brillante, actually in the city, it was time for a two-day challenging ride to Granada. Approaching Granada was like entering a magical world. For the first several hours of riding, olive tree fields hug close to the road and go on as far as the eye can see. The terrain slowly changes from flat to dramatic slopes with sudden sharp peaks. On these peaks usually perch fortresses and castles with little medieval towns below. The white red-roofed buildings sit in crooked rows along streets softy coiling around the hill. Highway 432 route passes many of these picturesque towns-Alcaudele, Alcalá al Real, Espejo, Baena. Only in Granada would I hear the term “pueblos blancos” used to describe these places, which apparently makeup a tourist route of sorts, connecting the major cities of Andalusia. I had no idea to expect this kind of scenery and really enjoyed the surprise.

The enchanting Sierra Nevada mountains are visible from far very away and provided a sort of motivation for the toughest part of the trip. It did take a while for me to notice them because snowy white peaks against a very bright sky create an illusion of jagged clouds. It is a strange visual but when you know to look for mountains, it becomes clear. The area between Cordoba and Granada is beautiful and it’s a lot of fun to just ride while enjoying the view.

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Scenes from a wonderful few days in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The feel of Granada was unique among the Spanish towns. The “old town” is fairly spread out so although the entire neighborhood is dependent on tourism, there is no claustrophobic feeling or huge crowds like the old parts of Seville or Barcelona. There is a small shopping area in the center but it’s less youthful and trendy than Madrid, so there’s a bit less madness. I fount it clean, inviting, relaxing and characteristic of much of Spain, and especially Andalusia.

I initially passed through on the way to the Sierra Nevada but would return to Granada to close out the journey. The first three nights in the area were spent up in the mountains at Los Lomas sitting about 500 meters above Granada near a large reservoir with a wonderful view. Cycling up was tough but very much worth it. The area was just beautiful, refreshingly cool and near a nice network of hiking trails (some going deep into the mountains). Camping for a few days provided a bit of rest and recharging after five days of cycling.

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An archway in the Alhambra. I highly recommend a visit if you are near Granada.

After a few days it was time to go down to the city and see some sights. Andalusia is full of Moorish architecture but Granada is the single best place to see these buildings, along with many courtyard gardens and quaint homes along little streets winding up the hillsides. Even the adorable hostel where I stayed had an open central courtyard! In Granada I really took it easy. I spend a day visiting Alhambra, a palace with an amazing display of 14th-century Moorish architecture located on al-Sabika hill. I normally don’t do things like visit the inside of palaces, temples, etc. but I had a feeling this would be special, dazzling and different. The Alhambra was just lovely and each area had detail and color to appreciate; the visit took a long time and was a great experience.

Two days in Granada went by quickly and thus brought an end to a wonderful journey cycling through Andalusia, Spain.

Thanks for reading!

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Work Holiday Visas for U.S. Citizens

Whether an experienced traveler or a newbie, obtaining a Working Holiday Visa, sometimes known as a Work and Travel Visa, can be the key to making a long-term travel opportunity affordable. Visa holders are legally allowed to work in jobs (under certain conditions) while they make their way through a country. The obvious benefits are having income while traveling, the opportunity to network and gain new skills, more intimate access to the local community through co-workers and other relationships built while working, and more time to immerse yourself in the culture of your country of choice.

Basic requirements vary but generally include: a U.S. Passport valid for at least 6 – 12 months past your exit date, a return ticket, be in overall good health and proof of health insurance, not have minor dependents and be able to prove a basic level of savings you can dip into during your stay. Unfortunately, US Citizens get the short stick in the developed world when looking at Working Holiday Visa opportunities; we have established programs with just five nations. We are eligible for Working Holiday Visas in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea.

Australia

Who hasn’t dreamed of visiting Australia? This huge country requires a lot of time to properly explore and a Working Holiday visa is a great way to make a visit budget-friendly. This visa will allow a holder to work for up to six months with each company.

Main industries: Tourism, agriculture, construction, skilled trades and healthcare.
Application fee: Free
Length: 12 months
Age Restriction: Age 18 – 30*
*Applying at age 30 and entering at age 31 after a visa is granted is acceptable

Visit the Australia immigration page for complete information and to start the process.

Ireland

Current and recent students can spend a year working in the gorgeous Emerald Isle, the only European destination on this list.

Main industries: Tourism, some engineering fields, healthcare, IT, finance/business.
Application fee: About $350
Length: 12 months
Age Restriction: Age 18+ Must be currently a post-secondary student or have graduated university in the past year.

Visit the Ireland immigration page for complete information and to start the process.

New Zealand

A beautiful country! A work and travel set up is ideal for the adventurer looking to maximize their stay while on a sporty holiday in The Land of the Long White Cloud.  I personally applied and was granted a visa. I felt the process was fast and no-nonsense. It’s completely uneccessary to pay an agency to do this for you.

Main industries:Tourism, hospitality, agriculture, skilled trades and healthcare.
Application fee: Free
Length: 12 months
Age Restriction: Age 18 – 30*
*Applying at age 30 and entering at age 31 after a visa is granted is acceptable.

Visit the New Zealand immigration page for complete information and to start the process.

South Korea

Forested mountains, beaches, castles and metropoles – Korea has everything.

Application fee: Free
Length: 12 months
Age Restriction: Age 18 + Must be currently a post-secondary student or have graduated university in the past year.

Visit the South Korea immigration page for complete information and to start the process.

Singapore

Singapore is the most competitive Working Holiday Visa open to U.S. Citizens – only 2,000 are granted each year. Be prepared and do your research beforehand to improve your chances of getting accepted.

Length: 6 months
Age Restriction: Age 18 – 25 Must be currently a post-secondary student from a recognized institution.

Visit the Singapore immigration page for complete information and to start the process.

A word of warning: Work and travel visas are best for someone comfortable with change, casual employment and open to doing work in a field that may be unfamiliar.  Although technically most of the visas listed here make one eligible to work a contract or “regular” job on non-permanent basis, these are tough to get. Keep and open mind and be aware your realistic opportunities are in tourism, hospitality or jobs that are seasonal in nature.

Traveling with an Anxiety Diagnosis

There are some things I’ve missed out on or know I cannot do because of my anxiety but solo travel is not one. I took my first solo trip abroad after my anxiety diagnosis. Although I had to work at it, I want to share the fact that I have anxiety and still travel abroad alone. Social stigma leads us (those with mental health conditions) to believe we are incomplete as people and inadequately manage our own lives. That’s simply not true! With proper preparation and coping we can travel, be brave, meet new people and break out of ruts.

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I cope on-the-go with sunshine, exercise and sleep. Many trips are focused on hiking.

Readers of this blog know I love an urban bike ride. Unfortunately biking can be dangerous and a few years ago I received a concussion after falling off a bike and landing on my head. If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I wouldn’t even have the ability to bike again, so I feel lucky being in the place I am. However, after my brain injury instead of responding to stress in a healthy way, I felt confused, panicked and moody.  I was soon diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and since have taken daily medication. Hopefully I will fully heal one day but I have adapted my life to fit my circumstances, although, still push to retain independence and feed my curiosity.

For years I thought about traveling abroad (studying abroad in college was economically out of reach for me) and visiting a Francophone country since taking French classes as a twelve year old. In my 20s I waited for an opportunity to travel on such a trip with friends, family or a partner but things just didn’t work out that way. Eventually it became clear that if I was going to visit France, or any other way away place, I’d need to go alone. After some research I chose to go to Paris; I couldn’t get bored with the art, movie theaters, live music, delicious food and day trip options. It wasn’t cheap (!)  but culturally France is not too different for an American to manage, with entire areas of the city geared toward foreign visitors. The idea of walking all day seeing sights in the sunshine and at my own pace seemed very calming and fun, not stressful at all.

Unfortunately, many people reacted negatively when I first explained my idea to travel across the ocean and stay a week in Paris by myself, and none of it had to do with the challenge of managing anxiety in a new place. I was warned about the dangers for woman traveling alone and some people even mentioned terrorism should keep me out of Europe. Some questioned why someone would want to go somewhere new and foreign by themselves (only a lonely person would do that). After sometimes being a person that skips things out of worry or fear, it felt strange to hear people come up with wild excuses about why I should be afraid to travel and see those comments as laughable and almost anti-social. It made me think about why I should even worry about traveling at all. I would be spending eight days traveling alone, not reinventing the wheel, so I decided to just focus on building the trip of my dreams and enjoying the adventure.

A few people were very encouraging and even shared their own stories of traveling alone. Hearing coworkers, neighbors, and teammates speak fondly about a period of military service, school, volunteer trips and just regular vacations and how they adapted and what they enjoyed about it was really cool. Listening to them made my plan feel more “normal” – if all these people did it before, then I can do it too.

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Paris at dawn and dusk is amazing.

Being concerned about becoming a person that gives up on things after a health setback, I made sure to go into the experience with an open mind and understanding that a smart traveler is flexible and prepared. If I didn’t enjoy the experience I’d never have to do it again. Even though some things did go wrong (my iPhone ended up falling into a sewer, lost forever), I loved the experience and will maintain that it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made – hence my enthusiasm for solo travel and this blog. Now I even make a point of taking winter trips to help stave off the winter blahs for a while and if I’m having a bad day, a future trip gives me something to look forward to. If you are battling moderate depression or anxiety and would like to travel, please do not feel discouraged. With planning it’s possible to have a wonderful, safe and healthy experience. If you are comfortable sharing, I’d like to hear your input on traveling with anxiety or depression.

Thank you for reading!

Goodbye 2016

Now that the sun has begun to set on the year, it’s a natural opportunity to remember all the wonderful things that came out of it. The last twelve months took me away from home for forty nights, visiting four countries as well as eight U.S. states. I was very fortunate to have more travel opportunities than 2015. It made life fascinating and rich, which is exactly how it should be. The experiences were diverse – traveling alone, with family, with friends, with a partner and for work. Adventures included oceans, mountains, castles, redwoods, bears and whales. I got lost, fell ill to food poisoning, cried, and slept on an airport floor. On the whole it was a beautiful year and I’m so thankful the way it unraveled. There were a few ups and downs, one captured in what turned out to be the most popular post of 2016, Mending Myself. Fifty six of you checked it out the day it was published! Take a look if you haven’t seen it.

Over the next week or so I will write about the best things 2016 gave me.

Thank you for reading! I’m happy to know you all take interest in my travels. Also, thank you to my family and friends that encourage travel, join me on adventures and put up with my schedule! These kinds of support add meaning to these experiences.