“There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words are an important reminder, a reminder that we are ambassadors of nature – stewards of our natural world; and it’s our job to protect it.
The national park project has been called “America’s best idea”, but what if that idea was taken a step further? What if there was an entire country that was treated as a national park, a country that actually belongs to the people? There is, and it’s closer than you may think. A country once occupied by Vikings, forged by glaciers, filled with fjords; it’s called Norway and it’s wonderfully wild.
The Right to Roam
Picture this, a stranger shows up in your backyard and sets up a tent for the night. What is your first reaction? Call the police? Grab a gun? For the Norwegian’s it’s just another backpacking nomad stopping to rest before moving on to their next destination. Under the Outdoor Recreation Act there are no property restrictions and you definitely won’t come across a “no trespassing” sign. As long as you are 500 ft away from the nearest occupied house, nature’s your playground. If you want to stay an additional night you may need the homeowner’s permission, but you can bet they won’t have an issue. Oh, and you won’t need a permit, or need to pay an entrance fee, heck you don’t even need a fishing permit (when fishing in salt water).
Of course there are some rules:
Be considerate and thoughtful
Always be considerate of other hikers, offer assistance if necessary and maintain a friendly demeanor. Ensure you are aware of your surroundings, and stay focused. Many of the trails can be dangerous, make sure you are properly equipped for your adventure and always take safety precautions; this is paramount.
Don’t damage nature and other surroundings
The “leave no trace“ concept can be implemented here. Nature is precious and leaving it as you would want to find it is a code to live by. Don’t carve on trees or rocks, leave natural objects where you find them, and be mindful of your impact.
Show respect to nature
Stay on the trails, pick up your trash, and other trash you see in the wild. Abide by fire safety regulations and take notice of current fire hazard warnings, don’t damage local flora and distance yourself from wildlife.
These simple constructs create a sustainable culture of respect and appreciation, re-establishing a balanced relationship between humans and nature. Living with nature without restrictions encourages us to get out and explore. Norway is powered by nature, we should be too.
Last spring I did a tour of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt – alone. When I returned home the question, “is Egypt safe?” was a constant topic. While planning this trip I had many close friends and family inform me of the dangers of Egypt, from terrorist attacks to sex trafficking; but misled perceptions weren’t going to keep me from my dream of visiting the pyramids. As with any trip, careful planning and general common sense is required. So is Egypt Safe? Let’s unpack my personal experience in Egypt as a gay solo traveler.
Let’s first point out that much like city’s in the U.S. there are areas in Egypt that are not safe (ie: the Sinai Peninsula). Also, Egypt is still considered one of the most dangerous countries to be a sexual minority. Although in Egypt it’s not necessarily illegal to be LGBTQ, many LGBTQ Egyptians live in fear and are persecuted by local authorities who loosely enforce a “law against debauchery.” As a single gay traveler I kept my conversation mostly conservative.
After visiting Jordan I took an overnight private bus to Cairo via a local travel agency. The bus ride was 10 hours overnight. The bus consisted of myself, a driver who only spoke Arabic, and an Egyptian woman named Janet. The bus had AC and was very comfortable. I spent some of my time speaking to Janet about her country. We shared headphones and swapped our favorite songs. Then I went to sleep.
I woke up to the sound of the bus door slamming open. My heavy eyelids shot open to the sight of an Egyptian military officer with a machine gun strapped across his chest. Janet said “show him your passport.” I jumped up and dug through my bag and presented the passport. He looked me up and down, compared the picture, then stepped off the bus, he gave the bus two slaps to move on. Not the most comforting sight to wake up too.
Throughout the trip, we were stopped 12 more times, each time I was woken up, and greeted with a machine gun. I’m not sure why they didn’t think I needed my beauty rest? How could they expect me to look like that picture in the passport when they keep ruining my naps! Still I didn’t feel unsafe, just uncomfortable. Janet reassured me that these precautions and checkpoints were necessary to keep the country and us safe.
When we finally arrived in Cairo around 7am I was greeted by my private tour guide, Mohamed. Mohamed was an Arabic man who had been giving tours of Egypt for over 10 years. He was very pleasant and only cared about providing me with the very best Egypt experience. He also wanted to reassure me that Egypt was a safe destination. He explained how tourism has suffered due to the media’s portrayal of Muslims. Mohamed spent time with me debunking the western perception of Muslims and distinguishing the difference between the evils of radical Islam and his religion – which he says is rooted in love.
Mohamed asked me introduce myself as Canadian when speaking to guides and guards, he said this was because Americans get asked too many security questions and it would slow down our visits. I’m not entirely sure that this was a direct answer, but I didn’t question it. None of them believed him anyways, they usually laughed and let me right in. Egypt can definitely be a culture shock, but any destination can be where you become the minority.
You don’t need an extended stay to tour the major attractions, just a couple of days. I was able to explore the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, and the Nile all in this timeframe.
The short answer is yes, I felt the areas I visited in Egypt were safe. However, due to the language barrier and human rights concerns I would not have felt safe without a guide. I stuck to a pre-planned itinerary and did not leave my room to explore the streets alone at night. Do your due diligence. Check with FCO or DOS before traveling, and again, use common sense.
Puerto Rico is comprised of one main island and many smaller islands, in the Caribbean Sea. The island is a United States territory, and therefore the primary languages are both Spanish and English, making this country one of the few in the world that is officially bilingual . The island is host to 3.6 million people with 400,000 inhabitants living in the capital city of San Juan.
In September 2017 Puerto Rico was hit with a category 5 hurricane; hurricane Maria. The devastation was tremendous causing flooding, a lack of resources, an extensive electrical outage, and loss of life. Now just over a year later we get to be part of the message that the spirit of Puerto Rico is unbroken, and this island is open for business!
Our flight was an early one from Louisville, KY. January in Kentucky is always unpredictable, and of course we had to to drive through two inches of snow. No delays thankfully! After a short 4 hour flight to San Juan we were greeted with sunny weather and the need to get out of our sweatpants.
Day 1 – Check-In, El Yunque & Fajardo
We rented a car and headed to our Airbnb hacienda in San Juan. This place was gorgeous. We were greeted to our own private oasis. The gate opened up to a secret garden of lush banana trees and beautiful flora, the cobblestone steps lead directly to a private pool with a rushing waterfall fountain. The front porch was appointed with treasures from the ocean, including colorful corals and large shells.
The interior was comprised of an open air floor plan with floor to ceiling windows lining the entirety of the living room, the space was adorned with rich colors, and puerto rican culture. Our host is a retired pilot and is currently a professional paddle boarder. Her home is a perfect display of all of her discoveries from her travels.
The backyard was probably our favorite, an atmosphere curated for relaxation. A sprawling back porch with a hammock, two chickens clucking around, and hanging garden lights swaying with the sea breeze.
Unfortunately we would have to take the beauty our accommodation in at a later time. We had a busy schedule ahead of us; most days shooting would begin at 6am and end at 8pm, so we had to make the most of any free time we had. We decided to head to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forrest in the National Forest system.
It took us 40 minutes to get to El Yunque, but we only had a couple hours of daylight left, so we stuck to one hike. We chose to hike La Coco Falls, it’s a short walk to the waterfall, but our wandering spirits couldn’t just stop there. We decided to hike above the waterfall until we had our own private pool overlooking the forrest giving way to the sunset. A little skinny dipping may have happened here too.
Then came the downpour, expected in a rain forest I suppose; quick tip, don’t ever forget your hiking shoes. Nike gym shoes just aren’t met for wet, slippery conditions.
After the hike we decided to head to Fajardo to night kayak the bioluminescent bay at Laguna Grande Nature Preserve. Fajardo is on the eastern side of the island and is home to one of three bioluminescent bays. Quick fact: There are only five bioluminescent bays in the world and Puerto Rico is home to three!
A 25 minute drive landed us near the bay. We did not make any online reservations with a kayaking company, we literally were just hoping to jump on one last minute. Once we arrived at the bay, we scouted a few different kayaking company tents, and everyone was booked up. Island Kayaking Adventures told us that if we found four more people they would open up one more time slot.
We started recruiting and it didn’t take us long before we had a crew! While we waited we headed to one of the tiny food stands across the street and had the two sweetest elderly ladies make some fresh empanadas. They were so sweet and tolerated my choppy Spanish. After we ate I thought about adopting them as our grandmas but we couldn’t be late for the tour! Bye Grandmas!
After a quick rundown on kayaking we were off. To get to the preserve you must first cross a bay that opens up to the sea. It was breathtaking to kayak by the light of the moon and only being able to see the blue light of the kayak in front of you (groups are color coded so you don’t get lost). As we wound through the narrow canal, our tour guide gave us insight into the wildlife that resided there, he also explained that the flagellates, which are tiny micro-organisms; makes it’s food through photosynthesis, and this process causes them to glow giving the bay its luminescence.
After about 30 minutes we entered the bay. The guide asked us to dip our hand in the bay and wave it back and forth. The water began to sparkle and then ignite as the flagellates came to life. We then locked kayaks and a tarp was passed around kayak to kayak to block out all light. We all put our hands in the water and splashed to light up the tarp, such a neat experience! We were later informed that the bioluminescent bay in Vieques is even more impressive!
After we wrapped up kayaking we drove back to San Juan to prepare for our first day of the photoshoot.
Day 2 – Toroverde Zipline Park & Las Delicias Falls
We were up bright and early to head to our first location for the photo shoot. The first shoot took place at Toroverde Adventure Park in Orocovis. It was an hour and fifteen minute drive up into the mountains of Puerto Rico.
Toroverde is home to the longest zipline in the Americas; The Monster. At one point The Monster held the title of the longest in the world, certified by the Guiness Book of World Records. Interestingly enough we were not the only ones being photographed that day at Toroverde. A very well known celebrity was also there to promote the wonders of Puerto Rico, Jimmy Fallon!
When we arrived at Toroverde we saw Jimmy’s entourage along with Jimmy himself. He was in the middle of a FaceTime call, giving the person on the other line a visual of The Monster. From the sound of it, Jimmy seemed a little nervous to take the leap. You can see Jimmy’s actual reaction here.
We were suited up and the shoot began! We met our photographer Omark and his girlfriend and Puerto Rico influencer Maria.
We really enjoyed working with them, as they encouraged us to be ourselves so they could focus in on our chemistry.
After a few shots of us getting ready, we went on to conquer The Beast as The Monster was occupied by a very hesitant Jimmy Fallon. This 4,745 foot long zipline offered stellar views of the valley below, but it was hard to focus on the valley’s beauty at a speed of 60 mph, your vision tends to get a little blurred.
After conquering The Beast we were back in the car following our photographer through the winding mountain country side to a local hotspot, Las Delicias Falls.
This falls are a definite must see if you plan on visiting Puerto Rico. This was definitely the most entertaining portion of the shoot as Dan and I continued to splash freezing cold water on each other over and over again just to get the perfect shot. However, Dan made the greatest sacrifice when he stood directly under the falls to capture one of our favorite shots ever.
I think Dan’s T.H.O. lasted a few days after this one. That was a wrap for Day 2.
Day 3 – Hotel El Convento, Castillo San Felipe, Umbrella Street, & Pigeon Park
Another early start lands us in the heart of Puerto Rico, the capital city of San Juan. So far you’ve heard about the gay side of the LGBTQ+ shoot, it’s time to add in some lesbian action! We got to meet Riese, CEO and founder of the world’s most popular lesbian website, Autostraddle, and her girlfriend Sarah. They were hilarious, seriously waiting for their sitcom.
We started the shoot at Hotel El Convento, a boutique luxury hotel. Walking into the lobby feels more like an open conservatory filled with local lush plant life; this, partnered with sunny walls, and rustic red flooring immediately offer up the feeling of old world charm.
For this shoot we had a full crew. Rosario, our photographer, Jean Paul (JP) of Discover Puerto Rico, and our own personal stylist, make-up artist, and light crew.
After breakfast and introductions we headed to Castillo San Felipe Del Morro to get some shots around the fort. Castillo San Felipe Del Morro, built in the 1700s, was one of the most feared fortresses and deemed unconquerable by many of Spain’s opponents.
We loved shooting around the fort, taking in the breeze from the Atlantic ocean and strolling the wall that transcends the beauty of the Mary Magdalene Cemetery. The cemetery was built to overlook the Atlantic Ocean to symbolize the spirit’s journey to cross over to the afterlife. A perfect spot to reflect and be grateful.
We headed back into town to hit the famous Umbrella Street (Fortaleza Street). Pastel colored umbrellas float above the road, creating a lively technicolor pattern.
We were able to partner up with our lesbian counterparts to develop some unique, never before seen shots. We loved cracking each other up which was captured beautifully. We felt like Dorothy coming down the yellow brick road!
We then strolled over to Pigeon Park. It’s exactly what it sounds like, so if birds freak you out or gross you out, I suggest you stay away. However, this park is an icon in Old San Juan and may be worth a visit for the views it provides of the ocean. For $1.00 you can purchase a bag of bird seed outside the gate to enjoy the pigeon palooza. I think it’s worth mentioning that all of these great sites and attractions are within a short walking distance so don’t miss them!
We headed back to the Hotel El Convento to catch some evening “magic hour” shots of us enjoying the rooftop pool. This ended a perfectly packed day of sightseeing and shooting.
Day 4 – Condado Vanderbilt Hotel
The last day of our shoot consisted of luxury shots of the beautiful Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. We were welcomed with open arms by the staff, they ensured we had everything we needed. We started with pool shots. Rosario got very creative and ended up taking our photo 14 floors up looking down on the pool, our favorite.
Next up was Avo Lounge – a cigar bar. This was a little out of our element, but it was a fun atmosphere, and the shots were very captivating.
It was a short day and final day of shooting so we decided to catch up on some much needed sleep. When we woke up from our nap we headed back to the Vanderbilt for a fine dining experience at 1919. If you want the absolute best service on the island don’t hesitate, you will find it here. A great memory to cap off the night.
Day 5 – Paddleboarding San Juan, Las Paylas Natural Waterslide, & A Taste of Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian
We woke up to our last day on the island and we planned to make the most of it. We decided to take up our Airbnb host’s suggestion and head to Laguna Del Condado in San Juan to paddleboard. Being she is professional paddleboarder thought it best to trust her recommendation.
We headed over to San Juan Paddleboarding and paid $20 for two hours of paddleboarding. We drifted off into the bay and hoped to spot some manatees who occasionally float in from the ocean. It was Dan’s first time paddleboarding, he picked it up very quickly and only fell in once, nice work babe!
The bay is surrounded by a highway which was a little inconvenient but the calm waters helped set a tranquil state of mind. Unfortunately we did not encounter a matinee, oh well, maybe next time!
We beached the paddleboards and drove 45 minutes to Las Paylas Natural Waterslide on the edge of El Yunque. Our photographer Rosario recommended Las Paylas and told us this river was a very beautiful and spiritual experience. We didn’t want to miss it.
When we arrived at Las Playas we were a little stumped, we saw a tiny parking spot overlooking a ridge, but no river. When we got out of the car we were greeted by an elderly Puerto Rican man who spoke very little English. We discovered that this portion of the river was actually on his property and over the years he installed a staircase and a parking area so locals could enjoy the river. In return he asks that visitors pay $5 per veichle to ensure the area’s upkeep. So awesome.
We headed down the short trail which revealed an amazing sight of giant boulders and towering falls. We jumped from boulder to boulder down to the natural waterslide. The waterslide is a neat feature, but is probably more enjoyable for kids. We preferred lounging on the boulders and hanging out in the natural pools.
After a couple hours we headed back to the car, thanked our host and hit the road back to San Juan to explore the opening night of Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian.
Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian is an annual event centered around San Sebastián Street (Calle San Sebastián). This four day event, brings a close to the celebrations of Christmas. You heard that right, Christmas in Puerto isn’t just a day event. The island celebrates the holiday with many sub-holidays through December and January.
The area is shut down to thru traffic, and locals and tourists alike pile into Old San Juan to explore the arts, music, crafts, and cultural heritage of Puerto Rico. We stopped quite a bit to listen to local musicians and tried to follow along with the Spanish singing crowd We strolled through shops that would normally be closed, and enjoyed local foods. A perfect dose of culture to close our perfect vacation.
What do you think, does Puerto Rico have more to offer than you previously thought? Let us know in the comments below!