Besides being a great way to see the country, road-tripping is also a great way to take the pulse of the country. I am incredibly curious to know what’s really going on in these Divided States of America – especially as we head into the elections.
I’ll be hitting the road in September.
My goal is to experience firsthand how people have dealt with COVID-19, the lockdowns, the protests, the riots, and now the post-pandemic reopenings.
My itinerary covers the spectrum from small towns to big cities, blue states, and red states, rural and urban.
I’ll be starting out shortly after Labor Day, returning sometime in December.
My itinerary is built around:
Places that have been on my radar for years but I’ve never gotten to, e.g., Portland Maine, Taos New Mexico, Silicon Valley, CA.
All-time favorites, e.g., Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas.
Major cities, e.g., Chicago, Miami
Tourism meccas, e.g., New Orleans, Memphis
There are 20 ANCHOR destinations plus another 25 spots for day-tripping or overnighting.
Although I have a plan, I’m good with serendipity and last-minute changes. I realize places may or may not be open, some are possibly closed permanently. Some places may be crossed off the itinerary because of quarantine issues.
Here’s what I need your help with:
Feedback on my overall itinerary. Thumbs up/down?
Recommendations for additional or alternative things to do/see, tips for restaurants, and hotels. Watch-outs.
Most importantly, PLEASE let me know if there are people you can connect me with along the way. I will gladly treat people to coffee, lunch, or dinner for a chance to chat and do some “pulse-taking.” I’m not looking to take up too much of people’s time but having the opportunity to meet with locals will be invaluable. I’m especially interested in meeting with entrepreneurs and small business owners.
I took my first Nat Geo Private Jet Expedition in 2015, another in 2017 and the most recent, last month. A lot has changed in 5 years.
Here are 3 major changes I’ve observed over the last 5 years.
1. Solo Travelers
The first time I traveled with Nat Geo, five years ago, there were a total of 4 solo travelers on board (including me). It was a couples world – primarily married couples but also a few friends who were traveling together/sharing rooms.
On this most recent trip, there were at least 12 solo travelers plus approximately 10 friends (and mother/daughters) who were “coupled” up. There were far fewer married couples than on either of my previous trips.
There were so many solo travelers, in fact, that Nat Geo hosted a special Happy Hour for us in DC on the eve of our great adventure.
Also noteworthy, all the solo travelers were women with the exception of one man (a married, retired air force general). The female solo travelers consisted of a mix of married women whose husbands couldn’t (or wouldn’t) come on this particular trip, widows, and singles.
Another major change: the solo women travelers (whether married or not) tended to be business women, often entrepreneurs. It’s an interesting dynamic shift and changes the nature of conversations you hear around a table of women. I like it. It also shows up in the women’s attitudes to travel and their overall approach to life. My favorite quote from this recent trip comes from the Founder/CEO of a major health/nursing organization. She tells her nurses (and is a former nurse herself) to: “get the starch out of your uniforms and into your backbones.” A woman after my own heart!
What’s the lesson?
Don’t treat solo travelers like second rate citizens. Recognize that in the future more travelers will be heading out on their own – make them feel welcome and treat them like the VIPs they are.
Scroll down for more on what is trending in travel
I’m gradually getting back to my day-to-day routine but I kid you not, it is hard readjusting to my normal life after this most recent Nat Geo Expedition. It was one of the most mind-blowing trips I’ve ever taken. Basically, three weeks chock-a-block with once-in-a-lifetime experiences. And, by the way, since coronavirus is pummeling the travel industry, this may be my last big trip of the year. At this point, I’m not optimistic that my upcoming expedition, the “Future of Everything; Global Innovation”will pan out. Bummed out!
Scroll down for the 10 things you must see/do should you consider a trip to Central/South America.
Today, my plan was to share all of the amazing highlights of my Central/South American trip. However, the darkside of what I observed over the last three weeks, while traveling in seven different countries, kept nagging at me. In order to move on, I had to get that out of my system first. Here goes…
So what’s going on in Central and South America? Why so much unrest and turmoil?
Granted I was only there for 3 weeks but so lucky to hang out with some stellar local guides (as well as Nat Geo experts). They gave us the lowdown on EVERYTHING – not just the beautiful and historical aspects of our itineraries – but also what’s percolating at the fringes and in everyday people’s lives. And, by the way, there are many lessons for North Americans here – especially as we appear to be making a socialist, who reveres Venezuela, the Democratic candidate for President. All I can say is, we should all get ourselves down to South America to see firsthand what it’s all about. It may not be pretty but we will certainly be more prepared for what’s in store for us versus the socialist fairy tale we’ve been hearing about for the last few years.
What’s causing the turmoil?
1. Venezuelan refugees are fleeing their country in droves
By 2020, according to the Organization of American States, there will be up to 8.2 million displaced Venezuelans worldwide.
In the process, they are overwhelming neighboring countries, e.g., Peru, Panama, Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia. Several countries have recently closed their borders because they can no longer provide needed services, i.e., housing, schools, hospitals.
Based on my experience with local guides, Colombia appears to be the most receptive to the refugees with most referencing the fact that Venezuela had welcomed them when they were fleeing their country during the time of the drug cartels. Nevertheless, when the local guides go off-script, I gathered many people living in Cartagena are getting “fed-up” especially as crime and drug use escalates. Colombia is, however, the only South American country granting citizenship to Venezuelan babies born in the country.
Venezuela’s crime rate is the leading cause of emigration along with the collapsing economy. Venezuela has the highest murder and kidnapping rate in South America. In a 2016 survey, 57% of Venezuelans said they wanted to leave their country.
After fleeing, Venezuelan refugees frequently end up in crime-ridden favelas, i.e., shanty towns (see more below) where the youngest are often recruited to gangs.
2. Rising poverty levels
Virtually every guide, in every country, talked about how bad the economy is for them and their families.
Over half of the population of Latin America (including Mexico, which we did not visit) either lives in poverty or is at risk of poverty.
In Greater Buenos Aires, 40% are considered poor. In Argentina overall, the poverty rate is the highest it’s been since 2001 with 16 million Argentines now considered poor, a rise of 1.5 million people in the past six months.
Labor productivity is also very low in most of these countries because of a lack of education and essential skills for tourism (which is a leading industry in many of the cities we visited). Chile is reportedly the highest scoring country when it comes to education but it is still below average. And not surprisingly, poor educational performance highly correlates with income inequality. Additionally, among the indigenous populations (especially among girls), education is totally lacking. Guatemala, for example, has no mandatory education requirements.
3. Living in favelas
In Brazil, 20% of the population live in shantytowns (favelas). 25% of Rio’s 6.3MM total population live in favelas, i.e., approximately 1.6MM.
In Buenos Aires over 700,000 live in favelas and that number has gone up dramatically since the Venezuelan refugee crisis began.
Cartegana has more than a thousand favela neighborhoods. Rocinha is the largest with between 70,000 -100,000 residents.
Note: Currently, one in seven people worldwide live in favelas or shantytowns. By some estimates, this number will rise to one in four people by the year 2030.
So don’t be surprised if we start seeing favelas in North America as the homeless situation gets worse. In Buenos Aires, one of the biggest favela neighborhoods (Villa 31) abuts the Retiro railway station. The poor first started squatting on the land back in the 1930’s, building their shantytowns with materials they’d gathered from the streets and elsewhere. This is now permanent housing in Buenos Aires and is about to be made an official barrio. I have no doubt that in North America, within the next decade, we will start seeing homeless encampments moved from streets to favelas on city/state-owned land as politicians and city leaders realize that building “affordable” housing in the middle of San Francisco or New York City is a fool’s errand.
Scroll down for details from several key cities on our expedition.
It happens every single time I return from one of these amazing Nat Geo Private Jet Expeditions.
Although many of my fellow travelers indicated they were exhausted and ready to get home, that is decidedly NOT the case for me. I could go on forever. Having the trip come to an end always puts me into a deep, weeklong funk.
8 reasons for my melancholia
I miss the adventure.
I miss being on the move, discovering new lands and new experiences.
I miss the warmth and camaraderie of the Nat Geoteam. Each and every one was terrific but a special shout out must go to Patricio Thijssen, our assistant expedition leader, endlessly sweet and funny and helpful (all that luggage, so many details, all with a smile and barely a hiccup).
I miss having a daily itinerary of options delivered to my room. How will I squeeze the most out of each and every day now that I’ve been left to my own devices?
I already miss my daily interactions with our experts: Bill Saturno(archaeologist and hysterically funny storyteller) and I have never met anyone quite like our geographer David Scott Silverberg. Absolute genius of a man who also happens to be incredibly funny, thoughtful, and poetic.
Spending time with our local guides was fantastic. I learned so much from them just by osmosis through casual conversations. Besides being informative, many were hugely inspiring. Carlos Vivar from Guatemala, who I wrote about previously, was quite possibly one of the most impressive people I have ever met.
I also miss our phenomenal Icelandair crew. What a hoot they ended up being. So fun and dare I say it, super cute! And the captain delivered one of the most moving and “deep” speeches I’ve ever heard on a trip like this. The theme was how “conscious” service is love.
And, of course, I miss hanging out with my fellow travelers (many new friends, others from previous trips).
My father always described himself as a wandering gypsy and clearly the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree when it comes to his daughter. I’m a born nomad. I would travel 90% of the time if money allowed.😜
I am gradually adjusting to being back
But, I am still in withdrawal mode. So strange. Anyone else feel this way after they come back from their travels?
I realize I’ve basically done a 5-star review for Nat Geo. Not my intention when I started writing this but well-deserved. Nat Geo goes above and beyond when it comes to hospitality, in a league of their own. Especially impressive when you consider the demanding and unpredictable nature of the destinations we’re exploring.
Over the next few days I will be sharing more highlights from this expedition. I will also touch on travel trends I noticed on this trip. Many changes in the five years since I first started traveling with Nat Geo. I will also provide my take on the overall vibe I picked up in South America based on what I observed as well as what I learned from our local guides. Just a heads up: all of South America is deeply impacted by the Venezuelan socioeconomic and political crisis.
But for now…
Let me leave you with a quote our Brazilian guide, Erika, shared with us on the wonder – and power – of travel.
Few places have the power of Patagonia. It grabbed me as only two other destinations ever have (Greenland and the Gobi in Mongolia). All three share the following: they’re difficult to access, they have cold weather climates, they’re sparsely populated and most importantly, all are dramatically beautiful.
What’s so unique about Patagonia?
Patagonia is one of the most remote places I have ever visited. We flew 3 hours from Rio to Punta Arenas on our National Geographic jet. Then we switched to a smaller charter flight for a 30 minute flight to Puerto Natales. From there, we took a 2-hour bus ride to Torres del Paine National Park where, surprisingly, an absolute gem of a hotel, the Explora Patagonia awaited us. There are no towns or villages along the way. We spent 3 nights and 2 days in the park. Each day was filled with hikes and adventures, accompanied by our guides. One important observation: I saw not one piece of litter over the course of 3 days. Everything that is brought into the park is taken back out. It is pristine. Of all the places we have visited so far, Patagonia is the most eco and conservation-minded.
Scroll down for 5 highlights from this amazing Patagonia Experience.
A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma – that’s how I feel about my experiences so far in Central and South America.
I have been trying to figure out why I feel so mixed up about what I’ve seen and experienced over the last week. I feel like I have been whiplashed between meeting warm, nice people, seeing the most beautiful natural scenery, staying at chic boutique hotels, learning about mindblowing feats of engineering and at the same time, having no wifi because thieves stole the cables carrying the internet to the entire country. I’m also trying to wrap my mind around people living according to ancient Incan or Mayan values which often fly in the face of what we consider advances in Western culture – especially as it relates to education and equality of the sexes.
Yesterday, on our last day in Lake Titicaca, I stayed ensconced at our wonderful hotel, the TITILAKA, and attempted to put my feelings into words.
Scroll down for 5 highlights and top-of-mind impressions.
Heading to DC today to meet up with Nat Geo and my fellow travelers.
Tomorrow morning, bright and early, we fly to Guatemela to begin the first leg of this 21-day adventure.
I will not be writing with any regularity until I am back in NYC at the end of February. I will, however, be posting daily on Instagram. Please follow me. It would be thrilling to have you e-join me on this amazing journey via the ‘gram.