Well, guess what guys…it’s 2014 now! Of course you already knew that. It’s like 12 days in already, and my fourth semester of college has begun.
First of all, before I can go into all of the awesomeness that was 2013, I need to explain myself. The blog has been pretty quiet since the end of last summer. And by quiet, I mean I haven’t wrote anything since wrapping up my experience in Morocco. So I’m here to apologize for that – the lack of posting was for multiple reasons. It was an incredibly busy and stressful semester for me, between 18 credits of classes, two jobs, an internship, and applying to numerous things for this coming summer, I had little to no time for blogging.
The constant work ended up being worth it in the end though, as far as my jobs went, because I successfully saved up enough money for an out-of-country spring break backpacking trip!!! Where to? Colombia!
2014 will bring much more writing along with it, both old stories still lingering in my mind from my North African adventure, and any new adventures that come this year.
But before jumping headfirst into this new year, I need to wrap up the old one. To do that, I’ve rounded up 13 of my favorite destinations from my travels in 2013, whether general or specific, to summarize my year, listed in chronological order of when I visited them.
1. Mt. Cheaha, Alabama
The fun, the parties, and the National Football Championship that kicked off my second semester at the University of Alabama were interrupted momentarily by a very much needed hiking trip. Me and one of my best friends dragged our butts out of bed bright and early one February morning, packed some huge bags with camping gear, and headed to the highest point in Alabama, Mt. Cheaha.
Seeing as it’s only about 2400 ft (735 m), it’s really not high at all; you can hardly even call it a mountain! However, the fresh forest air and peaceful albeit strenuous hike in nature, far away from the lights of the towns and cities, was exactly what I needed.
It was a beautiful area for camping, and despite the freezing temperatures we had to deal with that night, I had a great time overall. Read the whole post here!
2. The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is one of the most beautiful places in the United States, if not the world. Seeing it for the first time was absolutely breathtaking, and blew my expectations out of the water.
Seriously though, just look at how awesome that is. Unlike most of the tourists who just look, take photos, then leave, we decided to hike down into the canyon, along with doing all sorts of daring things (like standing on ledges…)
Hiking into the canyon can be tough, for the one reason that it’s the opposite of a normal hike. You walk down into the canyon first, but don’t realize all of the effort it’s going to take to get back up and out of the canyon. It is incredibly worth it though – the hike brings a whole variety of amazing views and lookout points. Sitting at the edge of the canyon as the sun set, the stars came out, and all went absolutely quiet, was a magical experience as well.
The trail that we took during our hike was the South Kaibab Trail.
Our Grand Canyon excursion was one of the many stops during the epic road trip out west my friends and I took last spring break.
3. Palo Duro Canyon
Everybody in the world always seems to think of the Grand Canyon when they think of the Southwest, but they never think of America’s second largest canyon. Palo Duro Canyon, south of Amarillo in the Texas panhandle, is well worth the visit, without even a fraction of the people who go to the Grand Canyon.
It absolutely doesn’t compare to the Grand Canyon, because in my opinion, no place I’ve seen in the continental USA compares to that place. But Palo Duro is still awesome! There’s all sorts of amazing viewpoints, hiking, camping, and other activities you can do here. When I showed up, I think I saw like five other people besides those in my group. Whereas in the Grand Canyon, throughout the day I probably saw well over 300.
This was yet another stop during the road trip of last spring break, and it was well worth driving slightly out of our way to to get to. Taking lots of awesome photos (including those typical jumping photos) also happened. Quite often.
Nestled right in the Navajo territory of northeastern Arizona, the drive to get here from Flagstaff is spectacular enough. Basically all of northern Arizona, and just the Southwest in general for that matter, is breathtaking to me, especially because of the fact that I grew up in snowy forests. Page itself, right near the Utah border, is without a doubt a highlight of the area though.
Page is home to the beautiful Lake Powell, and multiple canyons and areas for exploration. One of which is the famous Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon which is known for those professional photos you see on the internet of the shafts of light that come streaming in. This was where we were headed during our road trip.
I didn’t take any professional photos, but enjoyed it nonetheless. Walking through the canyon and watching as the colors change with the position of the sun was amazing. We did manage to take this one photo with a little bit of that sunlight just barely streaming in though…
Also in the area around Page are Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River and Monument Valley, both of which I was hoping to see but didn’t get a chance to. That just means I’ll have to go back one day, though. As I always say, I’ll get it next time.
5. Santa Fe
Can you tell that I absolutely love Southwest USA yet? All of Arizona and New Mexico was awesome, but another one of my favorite spots was Santa Fe, once again as part of the road trip in March.
It’s such a beautiful, historical city sitting right at the base of snow-capped mountains. Even though we were only there for about an hour, I enjoyed my exploring enough to add it to this list. And in addition, we got to do it all as the sun was setting. Perfection.
6. Noccalula Falls
People pick on Alabama all of the time, but little do they know about all of the secret but beautiful natural areas of the state. One of these is Noccalula Falls, located right near the city of Gadsden. I remember telling a few natives of Alabama back in April that I was going to this waterfall during the weekend, and they honestly had no idea what I was talking about. Like I said, it’s a relatively secret place.
And on a sunny day, when the mist from the waterfall is just right so that it creates a rainbow, this place is picture-perfect. Most people stand in the overlook area and look down, but for those who are a little more adventurous, if you look around you can find a way to climb down to the river, and actually walk behind the falls. It’s incredible.
The waterfall is named after a Native American princess, whom they have a statue dedicated to. According to the story which is written, this girl could not marry the man she loved, so she committed suicide and threw herself over the falls. It’s a sad story, even though it’s a little dramatic, but the statue is amusing.
I traveled to the windy city for the first time thanks to a Model UN conference I had there, and although I did not enjoy deep-dish pizza, Chicago is a fascinating place. Despite the fact that I visited in April, it snowed one night, but I still had a fun time wandering around in between committee sessions at the conference.
8. Beach Towns of Morocco
Morocco. The country where I spent the most amazing summer of my life is a place I fell in love with. I’ve already told a few stories on this blog from my adventures in this North African country, but I still have many more waiting to be told. You can find all of the posts about Morocco here.
But of all the places that I visited in this country, which ones were my favorite? One category of places I can say I loved for sure were the laid-back beach towns on the Atlantic. Specifically, Asilah and Essaouira.
Both towns were so relaxing and chilled out, especially in comparison to the chaotic cities of Morocco, and they were each fascinating in their own way. Asilah, in the north right near Tangier, was an artist’s paradise, and was clearly influenced by its proximity to Spain.
The buildings of the beautiful medina are painted white with another bright color, most often blue, although I was told that the people change the color every so often. In addition, the walls are covered with beautiful street art which makes the little town that much more aesthetically appealing. Just a short taxi ride (or horse-drawn cart ride, your choice) away is Paradise Beach, my favorite beach in the country. It is huge, covered with rocks for climbing, devoid of people, and with a backdrop of cliffs. Not to mention, there are few camels, because no beach in Morocco is complete without camels.
Whereas Asilah is an artist’s paradise, Essaouira is a hippie paradise, and it’s a 3 hour bus ride from Marrakesh, in the southern reaches of Morocco. It is the perfect place to explore, as well as kick back and relax. I loved grabbing some fresh fruit from the medina in the morning, exploring by day, hitting up the grilled fish cafes for fresh seafood, and kicking back with some chawarma, mint tea, and crepes in an outdoor cafe or on a rooftop by night.
There’s even an annual Gnaoua music festival in the town – and I just happened to be there during the last two days that the festival was happening. Gnaoua is an African form of music with Berber influences, is incredibly calming, and is part of the reason why this place is a hippie paradise, especially during the festival. Even during the other days of the year, you can always find a Gnaoua street performer with a gimbri or “krakebs” (large iron castanets) somewhere in the medina, or dudes with dreads banging away at drums on the ramparts.
9. The Atlas and the Rif Mountains
Well this category sure encompasses a whole lot. Basically, just all the mountains in Morocco were awesome. The Atlas stretches right through the middle of the country, ranging from mid-altitude in the north, to the high peaks in the south, among which is Mt. Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa. These mountains have great trekking opportunities, and are full of all sorts of Berber villages.
I visited the surprisingly green mountainous area around the towns of Ifrane and Azrou, which had beautiful hiking and towns that really didn’t look much like typical Morocco at all. There were even monkeys in the forests!
Near Marrakesh, in the high Atlas, I visited the Ourika Valley, which was amazing, without a doubt. The town I visited was called Setti Fatma, where I hiked to some waterfalls high up in the mountains. The cool, refreshing water served as a reward for hiking in the hot weather.
After my stint in Ourika Valley, I took on a bus ride up and over these colossal peaks on my way to Ouarzazate, by means of the Tizi n’Tichka Pass. That was a bus ride I will never forget. I had this wide-eyed look of wonder as I stared out the window the entire ride, which the local I sat next to found very amusing.
In addition to the Atlas mountains, I must also include the northern Rif mountains. Not only because they are, well, gorgeous as expected, but because they are home to my favorite little town in Morocco. Chefchaouen, the blue city.
10. The Moroccan Sahara
And of course, I did make it to the Sahara during my time in Morocco. Unlike popular thought, the Sahara isn’t all there is to Morocco, and it doesn’t only include the areas where people go on camel treks and camp in the endless dunes (which of course, I did).
Merzouga, the place where I kicked off my Saharan-dune-camel-trekking adventure, was incredible, as was sleeping among the dunes in a Berber tent, under a sky of a million stars. But also part of the Sahara is the area around Ouarzazate, which can best be classified as Arizona on steroids. Red rocks and mountains cover the landscape, interrupted by villages and kasbah fortresses, all built in that similar, impressive architecture style of Morocco’s southern stretches.
I fell in love with the places around Ouarzazate, most especially the remote oasis villages like Sidi Flah, a place and an adventure which my heart will never forget, and whose story will be told soon enough on this blog.
11. New York City
Believe it or not, this year involved me visiting the Big Apple for the first time, ever. The first time was in the fall for what may have been my last Model UN conference, and I also briefly stopped in the city during a road trip in which I was making my way from Alabama to New Hampshire for winter break.
Impressions? My eyes and my taste buds could not get enough of it. It’s such a fast-paced, multicultural city, with an endless amount of things to do. I wanted to eat all the foods while there – everything from the $1 New York Pizza (way better and cheaper than Chicago’s), the ethnic foods of literally every kind, to unique restaurants like this one place that sold pies of all kinds, both desert and meal pies.
I ate a Thai curry pie. Delicious.
I saw Times Square, Chinatown, Little Italy, Rockefeller Plaza, Broadway, the Financial District, and Central Park, but there really is so much more to see, do, and eat in this city, and I hardly scratched the surface.
I just recently discovered one of my new favorite cities in America, just in December while making my way up the east coast and homeward bound. And that place was beautiful Savannah, Georgia.
First looks show the city to be architecturally beautiful, and very historical. The local government ensures that no buildings are over 3 or 4 stories as to maintain the city’s look and charm, and for tourism purposes. It is filled with squares and parks with statues of historical figures, mostly from the Civil War, all of which are covered with the iconic Spanish moss which hangs from the trees.
The houses are all built in the old Southern style, and it is said that Savannah is very haunted. Many people run ghost tours and the like, and a few houses are off-limits for historical (or haunting) reasons. Downtown Savannah, on the other hand, just seems like a lot of fun. It is filled with bars and music and college students, thanks to the multiple universities. Many of these students are artists as well, because of the Savannah College of Art and Design, which makes the city even more interesting.
My couchsurfing host in Savannah was actually an artist student, too! What a coincidence.
Boston is a city that I have been visiting my whole life, but I got to see it in a whole new light this year. I experienced different parts of Cambridge while working with my aunt as an office assistant at MIT, as well as eating cannolis and pizza in the North End.
Then in April, I watched from Alabama as the city went through a tragedy in the Boston Marathon. I watched as it made all the people come together in a difficult time, and remain strong. “Boston Strong” really hit home as many of my relatives and friends are from the Boston area.
This December, a few of my Arab friends from school took a road trip home with me, and then stayed for a few days in New Hampshire. I showed them what I could of the area, and also took them to Boston. In Faneuil Hall, we happened to stumble upon the Christmas lights music show, right when it was about to start. I couldn’t believe our luck! It was my first time seeing the show, and it was awesome.
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Some other places I visited which didn’t make the list include: Every other place visited during the spring break road trip; the rest of Morocco; Oak Mountain State Park, Alabama; Pensacola Beach, Florida; Southern Mississippi during Thanksgiving; Charleston, SC; Norfolk, VA; and New Haven, Connecticut.
Well, that sums up my traveling for 2013! As I’ve said, it was such an amazing year and I feel so lucky that I was able to travel as much as I did, like I hoped. I will never forget all of the wonderful people I met and who continued to be a part of my life this year.
Here’s to hoping I am just as happy and healthy this year! Bring on the adventures, 2014. I’m more than ready.