Winter Travel: Spain

Winter Travel: Spain

It’s officially winter, which means I’m officially day-dreaming of faraway places.

The normal wintry daydream usually includes white-sand beaches and tropical drinks, but, not for me….not this time, anyway.

I’m thinking of warm, fuzzy coats, Catalan architecture, hot chocolate, and an off-season that delivers.

Like many people, I don’t necessarily have the money nor the time to go to Europe willy-nilly.  The current Euro exchange rate is 1 to 1.19 with the US dollar, which is pretty good, but it still doesn’t make Europe feasible for everyone.


Barcelona in Winter
Christopher Columbus Statue by Benjamin Voros

However, off-season travel (ho winter!) offers opportunity–flights are cheap, hotel rates are low, and the glut of tourists is noticeably thinner.

Last January I went to Spain, and a mere four weeks prior, found a round-trip flight (Delta & Air France) from San Francisco to the El Prat Airport in Barcelona for $430.  My  travel buddy in Colorado found an even cheaper flight from Denver.  We knew we wanted to travel that winter, but we weren’t sure where — when we found these cheap flights to Spain our decision was made.

We planned three days in coastal Barcelona, three days in the capital, Madrid, and one day in the medieval town of Girona.  Though I would have loved to have seen Valencia, Pomplona, and more and more and more, they will have to be saved for another trip….perhaps this winter.

Winter Weather in Spain

Barcelona and Girona are on the coast, so you can expect gray skies with scattered showers.  It won’t be hard to find an umbrella — as soon as a few raindrops hit the ground, vendors come out of the woodwork, selling paraguas and plastic ponchos.  We were able to get by light raincoats and lucky timing.  The 2-3 times the Barcelona sky really opened up, we were in the dry safety of a cafe, bar, or museum. Madrid, on the other hand, is known for its clear blue skies and crisp winter weather.  Residents and tourists alike walk around in chic coats, kick ass boots, and gorgeous scarves.  It is cold (36-60 ° F) but not unbearable.

Barcelona and Madrid in Winter
Gray Barcelona; Blue Madrid


Things to Do


1. See the art & architecture. La Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, and other edifices throughout the city offer a fantastic look into the fairy-tale minds of Anton Gaudí and Eusebi Güell–two famous Catalan architects.  Raining? Go to the Picasso Museum located in the romantic and labyrinthine Gothic District.

Travel to Barcelona in Winter
La Sagrada Familia (Photo by Cristina Gottardi)
Things to do in Barcelona
Park Güell
things to do in barcelona
Barcelona Cathedral
Picasso Museum Gothic Quarter
Gothic Quarter in Barcelona

Food in Spain

2. Eat the food.  My god, the cured meats. Iberian ham (or Jamón ibérico) is delicious and everywhere. You will find plenty of cured ham, chorizo, and delicious cheeses and olives wherever tapas are sold (everywhere). Another common tapa you will see is the Tortilla Espanola, which features no tortillas.  It is more like a fritatta of egg, potato, and onion, sometimes mixed with cheese and ham.  I loved it as a quick and protein-packed breakfast snack. My *favorite* wintertime Spanish treat (is it seasonal?) was the decadent churros con hot chocolate found throughout the city. Dip and die happy.

Now, I know I can’t talk about food in Spain without talking about paella.  Paella is *the* coastal Spanish dish, but I’m not a huge fan….but, it’s me, not them.  I like seafood, I just don’t like it that much.  However, if you’re looking for an authentic and seafood-rich paella experience, try out Can Sole, an elegant restaurant serving quality seafood (thanks, Kara, for dinner!).

Paella in Barcelona
Paella from Can Sole

3. Check out Las Ramblas.  Las Ramblas is known as the place to be, particularly in the summertime.  We walked a few blocks, took a break inside a cafe when it started raining, and then walked until its end at the Christopher Columbus Statue (see very first photo in article). It is quite touristy,  noted by the sidewalk-souvenir-restaurant repetition  offering the same thing.  Hustle and bustle, street performers, music, and history and add color and excitement to the place.


1. Go to a  fútbol game.  We caught a Real Madrid vs. Malaga game in Madrid. The stadium is beautiful and the energy is electric.  If you don’t care for soccer, you’ll sure as hell care for it by the time you leave.  There is no drinking allowed in this particular stadium, which threw me at first, but then I grew to appreciate it.  I did not see or experience any drunken, lecherous harassment, booze-inspired fights, or wasted couples screaming at each other in the wings…just tens of thousands of people, joined together by love of fútbol. We were seated by the band, the cheering section, which boisterously pulled us along and scored the event with sheer enthusiasm.

Santiago Bernabéu Stadium
Santiago Bernabéu Stadium

2. Walk Around.  Plenty of amazing architecture, palaces,  restaurants, mercados, parks, and plazas to bum around in.

cathedral in madrid
Cathedral in Madrid
Travel to spain
Madrid Architecture
Travel Spain in Winter
Royal Palace of Madrid

3. Go to a Museum. I went to the El Prado museum with a small, personal interest in art history.  Even with that, this museum was painful.  Yes, it is  a seascape of the European mastery of painting.  Yes, there are huge works of art, giant and daunting with their history, technique, and meaning.  But after three floors of Jesus as a baby, or Jesus descending the cross, Jesus ascending the heavens, or Jesus as somebody else, you start getting tired of the topic.  Of course, there are some gems, and some other  focus points, such as provincial life by Goya or the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (my favorite!).  Go if you have a particular piece or artist’s works you’re interested in, or if you want to inundate yourself with four to five centuries of art history.

3. El Rastro. This is one of Madrid’s most iconic Sunday Street Markets.  Every Sunday at 9am, you can find hundreds of stalls set up in the Calle Ribera de Curtidores, in the Embajadores neighborhood.   It gets crowded with local and tourists alike, even in winter.

Markets in Madrid
El Rastro, Madrid

Go before noon for the least amount of foot traffic, after that, it can be difficult to navigate. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like in full-blown tourist season. But you can find great stuff! Antiques, jewelry, second-hand clothes, decorative items, vinyl record, Madrid souvenirs, artwork, and the ubiquitious Spanish Scarf (made in china).  It is  fun place to kills some hours, and just  stone’s throw from the big square, the Cathedral, and other sites.


Walk Around! Girona is made for wandering and can be explored in one day.  It is a collection of museums, galleries, cobblestone streets, medieval walls, and churches. If you Google it, most likely you will be rewarded with this image below — houses bordering the Riu Onyar, which demarcates the ancient center on one bank from the commercial center on the other.  The ancient center is filled with charming hotels, restaurants, cafes, shops, and gorgeous Roman and Gothic architecture. Below, are some more photos from wandering Girona, including images of the Jewish Quarter, The Girona Cathedral, the Basilica de Sant Feliu, and more.


Girona Spain
Jewish Quarter in Girona Spain
The Jewish Quarter : This area (and museum) preserves the memory of the Jewish community that used to flourish in Girona until they were “expelled” in 1492.
City Walls Walkway in Girona
City Walls Walkway
Girona Spain in Winter
Girona Streets
Travel to Spain in Winter
Girona Cathedral


The train is one of the best ways to travel in Europe.  If you are doing a three-month stint through Europe, by all means, get the all-encompassing Eurail or Spain Renfe Pass; otherwise,  single-use tickets should do the trick.  Keep in mind, it pays to book ahead. The later the reservation, the more expensive the ticket; plus, seats can fill up, so you don’t want to leave it to the last minute.  Reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance, so if your schedule is set in stone, book ahead for cheaper tickets (look for PROMO and PROMO+ fares).  These usually have limited availability, sell out early, and have restrictions on refunds and exchanges.

AVE Train in Spain
AVE Train (photo courtesy of The GSA)

The official train operator for Spain is Renfe, which runs Spain’s superb high-speed AVEs and other mainline and local trains.  AVE trains look fast and are fast at 220 mph, linking most major cities with Madrid.  I felt like I was in 2001 Space Odyssey, but that could’ve just been the weed cookie (a theme?).

Renfe’s website has a reputation for its glitches, such as not always/never accepting foreign credit cards.  I had this experience, so after conducting some research, I learned of a site called Loco2, which links directly to Renfe’s ticketing system and charges the same price as Renfe.  Yeah, the name sounds like a scam, but it’s a legitimate website. I used Loco2 to purchase AVE tickets from Madrid to Girona for $50 each (a 3-hour journey) with no issues at all.  As a bonus, Loco2 is in English.

Types of Trains

When searching for tickets you will see a variety of train types, times, and prices. Here is quick breakdown:

AVE: The badass, high-speed, Space Odyssey Train mentioned above.  A typical journey from Barcelona to Madrid is 3 hours, and can cost anywhere from $30-$150.

LD-Ave and MD-Ave: The LD stands for Larga Distancia, or Long Distance, and the MD stands for…you guessed it, Media Distancia.  These trains stop more often than the regular AVE, and sometimes require a change, which results in the journey taking longer, but the tickets are cheaper. A typical journey from Barcelona to Madrid on one of these trains will take 5-7 hours, costing $30-90.

Regional: Regional trains are….regional.  They connect nearby cities (i.e. Barcelona and Girona) and are bare-bones, inexpensive, and run regularly.  You’ll need to purchase a ticket beforehand, but you can usually do this at the train station on the same day that you plan to travel.   Our Girona to Barcelona tickets were about $8 each, and the journey took a little over an hour with plenty of stops in between.


Flying from city to city can save on time and can also save you money.  My travel partner and I were looking at train tickets from Barcelona to Madrid, and we couldn’t find an affordable train which arrived in time for a futbol game at 4 pm, so we started checking flights.  We ended up booking  a flight with Vueling airlines, which allowed us to fly from Barcelona to Madrid in 1 hour for $50 each.  Worth looking into.


Bus travel in between cities should be much cheaper than train or flying, but it takes much longer.  Since we were on a “time budget,” we didn’t end up using the bus for any long-distance travel.

The Metro

If you’re in a city–use the Metro! It is easy to use, inexpensive, and goes everywhere.  You can take it from the airport in both Barcelona and Madrid to nearly anywhere. Barcelona even offers a “Airport Pass” for $4.50, which is cheaper than the $30 it costs to take a taxi to or from the airport. Three to five-day passes are also available, which may save you money if you plan on covering a lot of ground in a few days.  This could be helpful in Madrid, as it is quite spread out; Barcelona is smaller and more compact, so it may not be necessary.  To make getting around even easier, each city’s metro system has an app you can download to help you figure out what you need to take where.


I took one taxi in Barcelona, and it was from the airport to my initial AirBnb.  Otherwise, I used the metro.  The pricing seemed comparable to other cities (i.e. $30-$40 for a ride from the airport).  Keep in mind, Uber and other crowd-sharing car services are illegal in Spain.

Girona Archictecture
Girona Steps by Amat Martínez Vilà


This is just the *smallest* sampling of what Spain has to offer, and it’s an even smaller sampling of what the world has to offer the budget-winter-traveler, or any combination, thereof.

So, with that in mind, how about we check out some plane tickets?


How to Make a Travel Budget

How to Make a Travel Budget

When I left for Mexico years ago, all I had was a few thousand dollars, a desire to learn Spanish, and a vague dream to live and work in a country other than the United States. However, I had no specific strategy for implementation. I needed a plan.

My plan came in the form of a budget, a travel timeline of six months, and an end goal of steady income in Mexico.  My idea was to start in Mexico City, and head south through the country until an eventual arrival in Xela, Guatemala, a place renowned for its glut of language schools.  My itinerary was flexible, though it was the formation of a budget beforehand that allowed me to maximize my time in Mexico, and turn my vague dream into a definite reality.

Pre-Trip Costs

First, consider pre-trip costs, such as the flight to your destination. Depending on where you are going, this can be anywhere from $100 to $1000 USD. Save accordingly.
Consider additional pre-trip costs: visas, travel insurance, immunizations, a decent bag. This can set you back another $200-400. For Mexico, a tourist visa is given upon arrival ($20) and is valid for six months. To renew, you just need to cross the border out of Mexico, either into the U.S. or a Central American country.

Setting Your Budget

Your budget is determined by the kind of traveling you will be doing. Will you be staying in hostels or nice hotels? Do you prefer private cars or public transport? Do you pay top dollar for western cuisine or do you thrive on local food? In Mexico, I lived well on $35 a day. I rented private accommodations, used public transport, ate local fare, and took frequent day trips.

What to do in Chiapas - Palenque
Palenque, Chiapas

Below are cost estimates based on different styles of travel for destinations such as Mexico, South America, and North Africa. To see cost approximations for other countries, check out the crowd-sourced figures from or

  • Budget (hostels, local food, day trips): $35/day
  • Mid-range (private rooms, western meals, frequent activities): $50/day
  • Luxury (nice hotels, lavish meals, private transport): $100/day

Regardless of lifestyle, building a travel budget is the same—begin with the number of days you would like to travel, then multiply that number by your daily cost estimate. For example, say you want to travel for six months, or you want a six-month financial cushion while you acclimate, travel, and network on your way to find steady work. Based on the estimates above, a six-month financial cushion for a “budget” lifestyle is $5400, “mid-range” is $9000, and “luxury” is $18,000. However, if needed, there are several ways you can reduce these numbers. That’s where I come in.  Below I offer a budget plan and savings tips for Oaxaca, though this advice can be applied to almost anywhere with a similar cost of living.

Cutting Costs – Accomodation

Accommodation can add up, especially if you value privacy. Shared rooms go for $10-25 a night and private rooms can be twice that much. If you pay $25 a night, you will be spending over $750 a month on accommodation alone. A great way to reduce this cost is to rent a room in one location and stay for a while.

Staying in one location allows you to use your “home” as a jumping off point for day trips and comes with the added benefit of community involvement. You are able to immerse yourself in the local culture, meet your neighbors, and glean information

Whenever I visited a new town, I would stay in a hostel while I scoured community boards in coffee shops and other tourist havens—oftentimes, there are plenty of advertisements for rooms to rent. In Oaxaca, especially, there were three coffee shops with endless information: Café Brujala, Café Nuevo Mundo, and Lobo Azul Tostadores.

Using those community boards allowed me to find a room in Oaxaca for $150 a month, including utilities.  This apartment was a twenty-minute walk from the city center, and while it was sparsely furnished, it was in a safe area, with a rooftop terrace, and all the amenities (i.e. bed, kitchen, bathroom, internet) I would need.

How to set a travel budget
My home in Oaxaca

By living in my Oaxaca apartment for two months, I was able to keep my spending to a minimum with a daily budget of $35. My private accommodation was $5 a day and I did the majority of my eating at home, buying fresh fruit and vegetables from the nearby ferias and mercados.  Local food is cost-friendly and is also an essential part of the authentic gastronomical experience.  However, I wasn’t overly strict—once or twice a week, I would eat out with locals, expats, or other travelers I had met.  Three meals a day, including superfluous drinks and treats, cost roughly $10-$15 a day.

Food and accommodation was half my daily budget, and the rest was free to spend how I pleased. The remaining $15-$20 a day went to Spanish lessons, special events, and trips (Hierve el Agua, Mitla, Monte Albán, Mazunte, San José del Pacífico, etc), or I saved what I didn’t spend.  In this way, one could live and travel comfortably through Oaxaca and beyond for six months—without working—for $5400.

However, I lived in Mexico for six months starting with only $3000.  How did I do it? Hostel Work and Volunteering.

Additional Ways to Save

Hostel Work

Aside from reducing daily expenses, another way to save is to work in a hostel.  Many hire travelers for reception, cleaning, or bartending in exchange for free accommodation and/or a stipend.  Websites such as Hostel Jobs and Hostel Management lets you find work before you go.  I secured a job in charming San Cristobal de Las Casas at the Iguana Hostel for two months, saved money on accommodation, earned $400, and had a fun and unique experience.

travel in Mexico
Iguana Hostel


Those two months at the Iguana Hostel allowed me to find other opportunities in San Cristobal—volunteer work.  For one month, I volunteered with La Casa del Pan, an organic restaurant located on one of the main tourist drags in San Cristobal.  My compensation was free accommodation and two meals in exchange for six hours of light farm work, five days a week.

Traveling through ChiapasHomestays

At the end of my time in San Cristobal, I rented scooters with some friends I had met while working in the hostel and we traveled through Chiapas.  After a couple days, we ended up at the border of Guatemala, where we parted ways. I headed towards Xela and they returned to San Cristobal.

In Xela, Guatemala, I ended up at the Spanish Language School, El Portal  where they set me up with a home-stay with a Guatemalan family.  A week’s worth of four hours of one-on-one language instruction a day, plus accommodation and three meals a day was around $150.  It was a great way to save money and learn Spanish.  I stayed for one month, dramatically advanced my Spanish, and was able to frequently travel the area (Lago Atitlan, Salcajá, Fuentes Georginas, San Andres de Xecul, Los Vahos, etc) all for less than $1000.

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Fulfilling the Dream

My financial plan played a huge role in my success in Mexico.  By utilizing a daily travel budget, I was able to live comfortably for six months with limited funds while I explored Mexico and Guatemala.  At the end of that period, I had made contacts from all over the country and found steady work in Mexico City– first as a private English teacher, then as a copywriter for a pineapple company, which in the end, launched my current career in freelance writing.

The rest, as they say, is budgeted history.

One Week in Morocco

One Week in Morocco

Marrakech, Morocco

Last year, I hit the road after a long absence.  I had been busy stuck at a job I hated and other excuses.  Luckily, I was jolted from my robotic reverie.

My dear friend, GIS badass, and frequent travel partner, emailed me.  She was working in West Asia and had a week of R & R coming to her in two weeks: can we meet up? Yes. Yes we can. We shot a few location ideas back and forth (Istanbul? Paris? Geneva? Morocco?) and after a quick survey of flight costs and scheduling, we decided on Morocco.  More precisely, Marrakech.

Time & its unfeeling partner, Money, allowed us just six days in Morocco.  At first thought, a week seemed achingly short, but second thought affirmed that one week is better than no week.  No doubt.

Traveling Marrakech Morocco

This was not to be a grand exploration of everything Morocco.  Six days is a good amount of time to become acquainted with one or two places—I did not want to run from kasbah to spire to mosque to square to market to train and repeat.  My needs were simple: quality chill time with my friend, soak up the Moroccan atmosphere, eat tagine, visit a hammam, and be open to impromptu happenings.

What follows are travel tips, reviews, and suggestions based off of my one week in Marrakech, Morocco.

Where to Stay in Marrakech

There are two distinct areas to stay in Marrakech—inside the traditional, high-walled Medina or outside.

Marrakech Medina
Medina Walls

Medina means “old town” and is present in almost every large, North African city.  The Medina of Marrakech is a red-tinted, entangled city section, mostly car-free and full of souks, riads, mosques, palaces, and the best-known square in North Africa (and UNESCO World Heritage Site),  Jemaa el-Fnaa.

Alternatively, you can stay in Guéliz, the modern counterpart to the Medina, full of upmarket shops, restaurants, bars, cafes, and hotels.

We stayed in the Medina, and spent no time in Guéliz, save the hour it took to rent a car, a solidly modern transaction.  If I were to do it again, I would still stay in the Medina. And I would still stay at the Riad Safa. 


Any reading about where to stay in Morocco will most certainly include the word, Riads. What are they? The shit.  Riads are traditional Moroccan guesthouses with an interior courtyard (usually with a fountain or citrus trees) and all of the rooms open into the central atrium space.  Their design encourages privacy, quiet, and cool escapes from the heat.

Riad Safa Marrakech
Inside Riad Safa

There are hundreds of riads in the Medina and it can be difficult to choose.  There are plenty of quality options, and we happened to stay at the Riad Safa, mostly because of its rhapsodic reviews and decent pricing.  There are 5 guestrooms set around two patios, with a gorgeous roof terrace, and clean, white Arab-Andalusian architecture. The cost ($50-60 a night for a 2-person room) includes an amazing breakfast of fresh squeezed orange juice from its courtyard trees, fruit, yogurt, toast, cheese, flatbread, jam, coffee and tea.  You can eat on the rooftop terrace which is the only way to start one’s day.

Breakfast Riad Safa Marrakech Morocco

The staff at Riad Safa were incredibly kind and readily available to answer questions and give advice.  You can pay for airport pickup and drop-off, which I recommend as it can be hard to find the place in the maze-like medina, though if you are down to try, go for it. As mentioned, the staff were essential in helping us hash out our Atlas Mountain trip (clearly, I now join the ranks of its enthusiastic reviewers).  It was quiet, picturesque, and just far enough away from the activity of Jemaa el-Fnaa, but close enough (15 minute walk) to access easily.

Getting around the Medina

You walk, you get lost, then you walk and get lost some more, but you won’t mind. There’s something interesting around every corner—snacks, mint tea, silver, leather, argon oil, spice, unasked for massages. The middle of the medina is the open space of the Jemaa el-Fnaa, and the main souks (shops selling everything you can imagine) are to the north.  Everything is walkable; a map helps, but many people are kind enough to help you find your way if you’re lost.

Map of Marrakech Medina
Map of Marrakech Medina

We spent three days walking through Marrakech, perusing the souks, drinking tea with shopkeepers, eating everything possible at Jemaa el-Fnaa…and we spent an entire evening in a hammam.

Hammams in Marrakech

A hammam is a Turkish bath—the Middle Eastern rendering of my culture’s steam room. I am a water therapy enthusiast, I love steam rooms and saunas in all countries. I make it a point to try every culture’s variant—Mexico’s temazcals, Laos’ herbal saunas, and now, Morocco’s Hammams.

Like the riads, Marrakech offers a wide variety of hammams for every price point and taste.  The super-traditional hammams cost around $5 and typically consist of shared spaces.  The more expensive hammams offer massage, showers, and usually a large woman to come in and scrub you down.  That’s what I wanted, and that’s what I got.

We chose  Les Bains de Marrakech, a cushy hammam located about 5 minutes south of  Jemaa el-Fnaa.  For the price of $50 each, we each had a session in the steam room, a rest period with tea and cookies(!), and an hour-long massage.

Hammam in Marrakech Morocco
Les Bains de Marrakech

Upon arrival, they directed us to the changing room–comfy showers, toilets, bathrobes, lockers.  After changing into robes we were led to a steam room, which consisted of a small room with two stone beds, some bowls of oil and clay, and shower.   The woman wiped us down with oil and left us to steam for 10 minutes or so.  Then, she re-entered and used a rough glove to scrub us down, and I mean scrub.  The semi-violent sloughing felt amazing, and afterwards we were again covered with some clay and left to sweat. Note: Hammams are not for the shy.  You are naked and the woman scrubs down every part of you…and I mean every part. You kind of feel like a giant baby, and it’s nice.

After the sweat session, you take a shower, put the bathrobe back on and are again led to a quiet, small room within a dimly lit lounge.  Water, mint tea, and cookies(!) are brought to you as you cool down and wait for the next session, which for us, was massage.

If you want to pamper yourself, get rid of some layers of skin, or clean up after some dusty traveling, I cannot recommend a trip to a hammam enough…and did I mention, they give you cookies(!)?

The Atlas Mountains

I knew nothing about the Atlas Mountains before going to Morocco, and now I know a little bit more than nothing.  Here it is: the Atlas Mountains span Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, providing a barrier between the Mediterranean coastline and the Sahara Desert.  The range is 1,600 miles long, dug in by canyons and ravines, and peppered with Berber villages. Berbers are a badass ethnic group that’s been around North Africa for thousands of years.  In the early days they were nomadic herdsman and traders, and now, the majority live in the Atlas Mountains workings as farmers, merchants, and craftsmen. They have their own language, customs, style of dress, and they give me culture envy.

Berbers in Morocco
Chez Lahna and Ali

After talking it over with our host in Marrkech, my travel mate and I decided to rent a car and drive through the Atlas Mountains. The ksar (mud-brick-fortified village) of Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and famous film spot, was only a three hour drive away, and we heard the drive was worth it.

Atlas Mountains Travel Morocco

The Atlas Mountains

We rented a car and took our time driving.  We ate lunch, took photos, got pulled over…twice.  By nightfall we arrived to the tiny village of Aït Benhaddou.   Our hotel of choosing (out of two or three, I think), was the quietly fantastic Bagdad Cafe, run by a warm and welcoming Moroccan-French couple.  They serve traditional Moroccan dinner and breakfast (which is GREAT because the rest of the place was a ghost town).  Our plan for the next day was to explore the ksar and then drive 7 hours north to Casablanca, where I would catch my flight the following morning.

ait ben haddou morocco
View of Aït Benhaddou from the Ksar

The ksar of Aït Benhaddou is exactly what I imagined when I imagined Moroccan forts:  Dusty, labyrinthine, and magical.


Aït Benhaddou

We left around noon and drove on, enjoying the scenery along the way, commenting that the Atlas mountain landscape looked a little bit like Utah, but not exactly, because we wanted to affirm we were somewhere other than the United States.  We drove on, and we drove on, and then we were hungry.  cats in moroccoEventually we saw a restaurant sign and pulled over. A Berber man and a small cat came out to greet us and he let us choose where to sit on the empty plateau.

We split a classic Moroccan meal: bell pepper, onion, and tomato salad, chicken tagine, and mint tea.  While we ate, our Berber host—Ali—chatted with us about history, politics, Mexico, Iraq, and how much he hates dogs.  He had studied history at a French university and was now working as  a trained guide in the Atlas Mountains.

We talked about the kasbah of Telouet, which was right across the road.  It didn’t look like much, but the quiet walk was an intimate experience as Ali explained the history of the area, the Berber people, and the construction (and ruin and refurbishment) of the kasbah.

Kasbah of Teloue
Kasbah of Telouet

Parts of the exterior of the castle were either total rubble or close to it.  Once inside, however, everything changed.

Interior Kasbah of Telouet

The interior and central rooms survived the decades of decay, and they are decorated with elaborate stucco pillars, resplendent mosaics, and Moorish doorways.

inside kasbah of telouet

We left and continued onto to Casablanca, where I would catch my flight the following day.  I left humbled and fascinated by the history, hospitality, and mores of Morocco.

So yes, I say one week is in Morocco is better than none.

No doubt.


An In-Depth History of Morocco

An In-Depth History of Morocco

Morocco is in many ways a country apart. It is one of the westernmost states in the Maghreb region, and is the main refuge for descendants of the original Berber inhabitants of northwest Africa. The Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert separate it from the rest of the continent, and its climate, geography, and history are all more closely related to the Mediterranean than to the rest of Africa. Sunni Islam is the religion of almost all of the population, and while Christianity is present, the population is very small (about .01%), and is generally of French descent from the colonial times, or immigrants. Many Moroccans consider themselves to be Arabs, while ethnically they are Berbers who have adopted Arabic language and culture. Their present makeup of religion, ethnicity, and politics is best understood when their history of colonialism is known.

Early History (2000 BC – AD 700)

Morocco’s history begins with the Berbers, the aboriginal people who have inhabited the country since the end of the second millennium BC. Berber identity currently is linked to the language—many of the North Africans calling themselves Arabs are more Berber in origin than Arab. In many areas (especially Tunisia), Berber identity is regarded as negative, mainly because many Berber societies are less developed than those in urban settings, where almost all inhabitants see themselves as Arab.

Morocco enters recorded history about 1100 BC, when Phoenicians founded two trading posts on the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Morocco. There isn’t much of a glimpse into Morocco until 600 years later, but it is certain that there were a number of other trading posts established in Morocco during that time that operated separately from the communities in the interior of the country (Barbour 34). The interior was largely left to its Berber natives and chiefs (Sloane 18).

By AD 42, the Roman Empire had imposed direct rule over the Moroccan coastal region. It became part of the province called Mauretania Tingitana. There is very little knowledge of this province and there are indications that it was relatively undeveloped. Today there are little or no traces of Roman influence in Morocco, and in AD 253 Roman forces began to withdraw from most Moroccan settlements (Barbour 40). But whatever the extent of Roman remnants in Moroccan culture may have been, it was the arrival of the Arabs and Islam at the end of the seventh century that gave Morocco the character and culture that is still possesses.

Arrival of Islam

The first Arab raiding parties reached Tripolitania about AD 647 , about 25 years after the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina (Barbour 43). By AD 670, an Arab governor, Uqba ibn Nafi, had founded the city of Kairawan, and was in control of southern and central Tunisia (Jackson 40). Uqba is believed to have spread Islam to Morocco with a 3000-mile long march around the country, and many Berbers were converted to Islam. Another Arab governor, Musa ibn Nusair, had established Arab rule in northern Morocco and at this point, both Arab culture and Islam started to gain strong positions in Morocco. The converted Berbers played an important part in the Islamic conquest of Spain (Jackson 32). The first Moroccan dynasty was installed with Idriss I who ruled from 686 AD to 917 AD. They installed Morocco’s monarchy in Fez, which is today’s spiritual capital (Gifford 308).

From the 12th century onward the history of northern Africa is concerned with the rise and fall of local dynasties, with constant warfare, religious dissensions and a feudal order comparable to that of Europe. Zirites and Hammadiets, Almohades and Almoravides, the three kingdoms erected on the results of the second Arab invasion, Merinides at Fez, Abd-el-Wadites and Zeiynaites at Tlemcen, Hafsides at Tunis, one and all had some religious beliefs that resulted in civil war and the decline and ruin of the land (Sloan 27). These tumultuous times lasted until the 15th century, when Spain and Portugal saw their opportunity to advance. Although Morocco successfully repulsed these invasions, the tide of European imperialism eventually proved too great, and by the middle of the 19th century Morocco’s strategic importance had become evident to all of the European powers and they engaged in a protracted struggle for possession of the country (Sagay 36).

European Control

The French were able to extract trading concessions from the Sultan (at the time it was Mawlay Abdul-Rahman) and he was used as a weapon in the diplomatic warfare of European powers (Gifford 328). The authority of the Sultan was undermined by the activities of Europeans and ignored by many of the Moroccan chiefs, and between 1860 and 1880 foreign activity in Morocco increased steadily (Sagay 40).

In 1904, France made agreements with Britain and Spain, dividing Morocco into their own spheres of influence. A protest came from the German emperor, Wilhelm II, and he declared his intention of protecting Moroccan independence (Sagay 212). A compromise was reached at the Algeciras Conference the following year when Morocco’s independence was formally recognized by the European powers but Spain and France were allowed to “police” the country in order to restore law and order. The French interpreted this agreement as a license to conquer and began moving troops into their sphere in 1907. Then Spain set out to occupy their sphere in northeastern Morocco. Effective resistance came not from the Sultan but from many of the mountainous tribes, but in 1912 the Treaty of Fez, was signed, and France was given the right to defend Morocco, and a similar treaty was signed with Spain. The European conquest wasn’t complete until 1934 (Gifford 416).

In French Morocco, the Sultan remained the head of state but the real power lay with the French Resident-General. Traditional forms of administration and justice were maintained but all the Sultan’s officials were subject to French control (Sagay 337). Mining rights were all in the hands of French companies and between the two World Wars production of lead, cobalt, phosphates, coal, manganese and oil began (Jackson 78). In the interests of building up an economy based on the output of European farms and industries, Morocco’s roads, railways and harbors were rapidly developed; electricity and irrigation schemes were introduced. These improvements were paid for out of taxation, the burden of which fell heaviest on the Moroccans (Sagay 338).

Spanish Morocco was a much poorer country. The Spanish protectorate was harder to control because of the mountainous country and the fierce independence of the people. It was here that the first effective nationalist resistance emerged. In 1921, Abdul-Karim launched a rebellion against Spanish rule. He quickly increased his territory, and in 1925 he moved into French territory but he was defeated in 1926 (Jackson 79).  His defeat proved to be a triumph for Moroccan nationalism.

Nationalist Movement

In the mid-1920’s a group of Moroccans began to meet in secret to discuss the need for reform. In 1930 some of them formed the National Group. The numbers grew and by 1932 the organization became known as the National Action Bloc (Barbour 57).

The turning point for the nationalist movement came in 1936-7. Poverty and ill treatment led to protest and when the government refused to allow Moroccans to join trade unions, the people realized that the nationalist movement was the only outlet for the expression of their grievances (Sagay 338). The French realized that the membership of the National Action Bloc was expanding, and they banned it in 1937, but its leaders simply organized themselves under a new name—the National Party for Realizing Reforms (NPRR). There was a lull of activity during the Second World War, but in 1943, the NPRR returned to their cause with full force. First of all, they changed the name again to the Independence Party to show that they were not just concerned with reforms, but independence. Secondly, the party emerged as a national party, drawing support from all areas. Thirdly, there was a move to involve Sultan Mohamed VI the nationalist movement (Gifford 428).

Moroccan Independence

In 1947 the growing determination of the Independence Party forced the first important compromise from the French. Moroccans were admitted to the Council of Government, but in 1950 the Resident-General told the Sultan that he must either keep his throne or support the nationalists, and the Sultan decided to retain his throne (Gifford 429). The French threat to the Sultan enraged the Moroccan people and led to increased support for the Independence party. In March 1952 the Sultan demanded total sovereignty over his people, and in 1953, the Resident-General exiled the Sultan to Corsica. This action united all the people against the French. There were attacks all over Morocco, and the French allowed Mohamed V to return in 1955, and upon arrival, he appointed a new government. France and Spain could no longer deny independence to a people united under the leadership of its traditional ruler, and Morocco regained its freedom in March 1956 (Sagay 339). The Sultan formed a government and Moroccans gradually replaced French officials.

In 1961, King Mohammed V was succeeded by Hassan II who presented a new constitution (Barbour 63). The new King worked intensely for his kingdom’s future, and under his reign Morocco’s mentality and demographics changed drastically allowing it to become liberal with a pluralist political system and vast interior developments giving Morocco the status of an emerging country which has attracted large sums of foreign investments (Barbour 68). With his death in 1999, his son, King Mohamed VI, ascended the throne, and his focus has been on the integration of the youth, women, and the rural regions of the Kingdom into politics. Work conditions, administrative transparency, globalization and new technology all share an enormous importance for the young King. And with about 20% of the population living in poverty, economic expansion is a prime goal.

The struggle for independence in Morocco was shorter and less distressing than in neighboring French Algeria, and this was partly because Morocco’s colonial ties were much looser, and partly because Moroccan independence involved no substantial change in the form of government. Morocco has become a magnet for visitors wishing to explore a country that encompasses the best of Arabian and European culture.

Works Cited

Barbour, Nevill. Morocco. New York: Walker and Company, 1965.

Gifford, Prosser and Louis, Roger. France and Britain in Africa. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1971.

Jackson, James. An Account of the Empire of Morocco. London: Frank Cass and
Company Limited, 1968.

Sagay, J.O. and Wilson, D.A. Africa—A Modern History. New York: Africana
Publishing Company, 1978.

Sloane, William. Greater France in Africa. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924.

Guatemalan Graveyards

Guatemalan Graveyards

El Calvario

Homo sapiens have been burying their dead for at least 100,000 years.  Every culture has their own way of dealing with death, and the graveyard is key in laying the dead to eternal rest.

El Calvario Xela Guatemala

El Calvario is one of the oldest cemeteries in Guatemala.  Located in Quetzaltenango (or Xela), El Calvario is a lush, green hillside, dotted with colorful slabs, Roman-style tombs, and Gothic, Baroque, Classical, and Neoclassical mausoleums and sculptures. From the graveyard you can see the Santa Maria volcano in the distance, encased by clouds.  It’s beautiful, eerie, and fantastic.

Guatemalan Graveyards

El Calvario Cemetery in Guatemala

Guatemalan cemetery decor

tombstones in central america

colorful graveyard

Vanushka Guatemala Cemetery

Xela graveyard

guatemalan graveyards

cool cemeteries

Have Smartphone, will travel.

Have Smartphone, will travel.

When I traveled before the world of smartphones, I would either a) not use a phone, or b) use an old Nokia with a country-specific SIM card.  Now, I am reveling in the glories that are smartphones: The access! The simulated feeling of safety and knowledge! Google!

If you want to travel but perhaps have some trepidation about maneuvering public transportation in foreign countries, finding decent places to stay, or don’t have a lot of extra cash to blow, this article is for you.  I specifically focus budget travel in Mexico, complete with a review on all the modern-day amenities that come with using a smartphones—connections to Uber, AirBnB, and even 4G data if you want it.

International Cell Service

I am a Verizon customer, and for my short-term trip to Mexico, I utilized Verizon’s International Plan.  For US customers traveling to Mexico or Canada, this plan is great.  For $2/day (in addition to your normal rate), you have access to the same amount of texts, minutes, and data in your destination country as you do at home.  However, if you’re headed to Europe or Asia, the cost jumps up to $10/day, so depending on your needs, you may be better off using your cell phone just as a camera or as a connection to wifi.  For example, when I was in Morocco, I did just that. I kept my cell phone on Airplane Mode and used it just for photos and as a timepiece.  When I was in my hotel or a cafe, I turned on the wifi and used it to check email or browse the internet.  If you must have a cell phone, there are always solutions.

I know AT&T has a pay-per-use and Passport Plan, and T-Mobile offers international travel rates as well.  Check with your cell phone service provider to see what they offer and what works best with your plans.


Uber and other such ride-sharing companies exist almost everywhere (except where I reside for some reason).  While I was waiting in the Mexico City Airport, I began talking with the people around me, and each person raved about how wonderful Uber was in the city, how easy, how inexpensive! I decided to go with a normal taxi first and download Uber later.

The taxi ride from the airport to my centrally located AirBnb was 200 pesos, which isn’t much considering the 19:1 exchange rate at the time.  However, if I had taken Uber instead, I would’ve  paid less than 100 pesos—half the price I paid using a taxi.  Take a look at the price breakdown below.  All in all, I only used a taxi twice (the second time was because I had no cell service in the TAPO bus station).  All other times I used Uber, the Metro, or walked.

Uber Costs Mexico
Uber vs. Taxi

Besides the monetary savings with the use of Uber, I appreciated the added aspects of safety and convenience.  Years ago, when I was living and traveling  in Mexico, I felt safe the majority of the time, but I did have a few instances where taxi drivers attempted to impose their will onto mine.  I want to stress that in my two years of traveling alone, I took hundreds of taxis and this only happened a few times—it is not the norm.  That being said, with Uber, both the driver’s information and mine is stored in the system.  There’s a record of where I was, when I got picked up, and where I was going. If that doesn’t give you peace of mind, I don’t know what will.

And, as mentioned, the convenience is great.  While metered taxis will charge by distance and time, there are some taxis with which you have to agree upon a price.  If you know where you’re going and how much it typically costs, you should be fine, but if you don’t, you’ll end up paying more than you should.  Uber puts this concern at rest as the cost of the trip is already determined.  You can take it or leave it.

Air Bnb

Yes, yes, we all know about AirBnb.  Love it or hate it, it sure makes budget travel easier.  I love it because I don’t want to stay in shared hostel rooms anymore.  I did that in my twenties, and as I get older I realize that there’s nothing I love more than some goddam privacy.  Plus, I like having a plethora of options when it comes to location, price, and style.

AirBnb In Mexico City

L-R: Studio in Condesa, Rooftop terrace in Escandon

In Mexico City, I stayed in two different colonias (neighborhoods), and a different AirBnb in each one.  One in Colonia Condesa, and one in Colonia Escandon (my old stomping grounds.  Each one was in a great location—walkable, close to food, bars, and parks, and also close to the Metro.  The AirBnb in Colonia Condesa was a terraced building, offering several types of rooms, all with a kitchen, balcony, and private bathroom.  The small, rooftop studio in Colonia Escandon didn’t have a kitchen, but did have a small fridge, hotplate, and a roof terrace to hang out on.  Both were about $27 dollars a night

AirBnb, Uber, and International Data Plans are just a few of the obvious conveniences that come with smartphone travel.  There are thousands of apps designed to make travel easier.  Control is in your hands—use it and go.

Reflections as a Tourist in Thailand

Reflections as a Tourist in Thailand



On the Mekong (or, Drunk Tourists)

Mekong River, Thailand
View of the Mekong from the Thai side, looking to Laos


So this is the cup of life,

the reeds leaning into the

passing day

the drunk non-see-ers

passing time with hiccups



3/4/11 On the Mekong (or, water and dust)

Mekong River Boat

Maybe I am a rock

sitting obstinately in the

shifting ground,

Taking on time like a shoulder bag.

I see people come and go

and think if I hold my ground

the powerful waters will not erode

my wisdom of stillness

into dust.


The Wooden Bridge

Wooden Mon Bridge, Thailand
The Wooden Bridge

You say “thank you” in Thai only to remember these people are Burmese; actually, more specific than that, this boy is Mon (it is his father’s father’s recipe of curry you are eating) and they have no country–just jungle and land which they are denied to keep and these boys who are giving you whiskey and peanuts and smiles are Mon, too…and Karen.  Don’t forget the boy that laughs and calls Jono “wolverine” has a father left to the jungle—a Mon guerrilla fighter who will never be allowed in Thailand.  And the quiet Karen boy, the tall one who goes for more ice and drunkenly crashes his motorbike on the way back, cannot leave this city but can only go back and forth, back and forth, over the wooden bridge.