Beauty essentials to pack

travel suitcase

My biggest enemy when traveling is the weight limit of my carry-on luggage (sometimes even my check-in). Call me superficial or silly, but I say traveling is most enjoyable when you have some of your comfort essentials with you. Here are my beauty tools I always have, no matter where I’m going:

1. Garnier Micellar Cleansing Water

The best make-up remover of them all – feels like water, doesn’t irritate your skin or eyeballs and removes ALL residue. My favorite and most affordable micellar water is from Garnier.

2. Harry Josh Tools 2 inch round brush

We all know hair is your crown of beauty – and when I have to tame my long, stubborn hair, this brush does the trick! It’s a mix of boar bristles and Nylon, so it leaves my hair very shiny and bouncy. Harry Josh, the creator of these seafoam-colored products, is a celeb hairstylist that helped make Gisele’s mane as famous as the supermodel herself.

3. Alpha H Liquid Gold with Glycolic Acid

This was recently incorporated in my skin routine, and I’m obsessed! You can read more about the benefits of glycolic acid, especially if anti-aging and acne scarring are your skin’s trouble areas. I use it every 2-3 nights on its own or with a light moisturizer on top. They don’t call it Liquid Gold for nothing.

4. Bumble and bumble Prêt-à-powder

THIS! Dry shampoo is quite possibly the best invention in recent years, and this one does not dry out your scalp like many others. Also, it does not have a strong scent or leave a white residue. Get’s the job done, extends your blowout and adds volume.


5.  Freshmade Coconut Mask by Skinfood

If you love K-beauty, then you will really appreciate this plumping, moisturizing, self-absorbing face mask. It smells like you’re on a beach drinking a coconut, and your skin will have a youthful, fresh glow. It’s has food-based ingredients, which I probably why I love it (food is life, am I right?). Skinfood makes many other masks, but I like that this one you leave on and it melts into your skin without leaving any sticky residue.

6. Ouai Hair Oil

Apply it on wet and dry hair – Ouai’s hair oil is not heavy or greasy, it absorbs quickly and styles hair beautifully. They sell travel size oils in Sephora, but the main size is less than 100 ml, so it’s check-in luggage approved! Did I mention it smells heavenly and created by hair guru to the stars Jen Atkins?

7. Chantecaille Faux Cils Longest Lash Mascara

This magical mascara is quite expensive, but I won’t put anything else on my lashes. It has actual peptides that help your lashes stay strong and grow, not to mention it adds volume and length from the coating. I always get asked if my lashes are real – happy to say that they are, and this is my secret!

8. Trish McEvoy Beauty Booster Eye Serum

Trish knows her stuff – her make-up and skincare products are all made safe for sensitive, allergy-prone skin with the help of her husband, a renowned dermatologist in New York. This eye serum is like an immediate skin tightener, dark circle reliever and de-puffer, which is especially essential for red-eye flights and jet lag. And it has my FAVORITE ingredient, hyaluronic acid!


I am always on the lookout for new products, mainly because my skin changes with time and in different environments. So if you’ve tried other great products that you can’t travel without, please share them below!


The ugly truth of expat life

Pondering the expat lifePondering the expat life

I recently reflected on the conflicting emotions behind being an expat. On one hand, you’re doing something unconventional, you’ve left your comfort zone (perhaps more than once, and you know the drill). You’re learning the local language and have made some expat friends (if you’re lucky, some local friends). You’re getting a hang of your new job, getting along with colleagues (more or less), and you even have some cool trips planned to nearby destinations. All the bureaucratic paperwork is sorted, and life at home alone or with your partner, family and/or flat mates is getting easier. What could be better?

Then you notice cultural differences that at first made you chuckle but now begin to truly frustrate you. The work ethic at the office (or home office) is different than what you’re used to, and it’s either too fast-paced or too relaxed – and that is stressful. Your friends in the new place are all in the same boat, probably here temporarily, in varying stages of their career or family life, but they’re sort of superficial. They don’t know you profoundly from your early 20’s or high school. The memories you share with them are only recent, and frankly, it’s harder to connect with new friends as you get older. And then you begin to get sick of the local cuisine and crave that food from back home, that special snack you’d indulge in that would always bring you comfort, and you can’t get it anywhere now. Suddenly, your honeymoon is over, and you see things for what they are.

You’re a stranger in a new land, and no matter how acclimated you get, you’re still a foreigner and that’s exactly how you feel. Out of place, annoyed at times (or all the time), and scrolling through your social media feeds to see all the faces of friends and family back home doing what you used to do together without you stirs a huge FOMO.

I experienced this cycle three times now at different stages of my life. Third time’s a charm, right? No – the third time is hard as sh*t. When I was little, my family moved from Russia to the USA for my dad’s job. I remember everything quite vividly, especially flying in an airplane where I was convinced the pilot was talking directly to me when he came on the loudspeaker. Never mind that, moving abroad as a kid feels like it’s much easier, because you don’t have a choice, and your family is there with you adjusting as well. And children adapt quicker to new environments, where their identity is still forming and things like learning a new language come easy. I acclimated to American life fairly quickly, and I felt less and less foreign after a while.

The second time around, I moved to Moscow for my job when I was 26. This time I was parting with everyone and everything I knew (including my partner) and was going alone at my own volition for a career opportunity in my motherland. So there I lived a lavish, fun and adventurous life for three years, physically single, but mentally my heart and mind were elsewhere and silently doing a countdown, because I knew this experience would end one day. I had one foot in Moscow and one foot back back home. I was home, technically, in my homeland; I spoke the language; I knew the customs and people; but I still felt foreign. Not unwelcome though, just observing life through a translucent crystal ball, if you will. The experience was enriching but it seemed always at a safe distance, so I could pull away at any time. And when I did pull away, it didn’t hurt as much to leave.

And coming to the third and most profound move yet – moving from to Madrid for my husband’s job. This time, it wasn’t for me – it was for him, or more correctly, for us. One huge hurdle was behind us (long distance for four years… that’s another story) and now loomed another cycle of adjusting to a new place, but one with a new language and no local job for me. I remember looking at the metaphorical mountain of yet another expat life as I got on the plane to Spain – every cell in my body was tired in advance, but also excited. It was trading one huge stress for another. Starting over is hard. Even if your loved one is by your side or the destination is very comfortable to settle into. I think once you know the cycle, the emotional rollercoasters aren’t as extreme, but you still can’t help but wait for the ride to stabilize.

I recently completed my third cycle of expat life after leaving Spain, and I reflected on the experience. I chose to accept the bad with the good. It’s just part of the package. No, I didn’t get to see my friend’s kids grow up, but I got to live in Europe and have that on my life’s resume. No, I didn’t get to spend much time with my mom, brother and grandmother, who aren’t getting any younger, but I will always have cool stories and photos to share with them when we are together. No, I didn’t get to have happy hour with my best friends whenever I wanted, but I did get to make some awesome new friends from all over the world who taught me something new about living abroad. And that’s the ugly truth – or maybe, that’s the beauty of it.

What are some of your ugly truths about expat life?


8 great places for the solo female traveler

Views over Machu PicchuView over Machu Picchu

I am a seasoned solo traveler, and I am immensely proud of this! Perhaps now, it’s less uncommon as it was several years ago, and my heart is full seeing other women embrace the experience of traveling alone. There is something liberating about exploring new places on your own schedule, trying new dishes and sipping a local beverage (Party of 1, what it do?) and the unknown of who you may meet.

Many women worry that traveling alone can be boring, unsafe or they just don’t really know what to do with themselves. I’m here to tell you that you have nothing to worry about, and that a solo adventure will teach you quite a bit about yourself. Here are some GREAT destinations you can try on your own, based on my experience.

1. Dubrovnik or Split, Croatia:

Brela, Croatia

Dubrovnik was actually my first solo trip while living in Russia. Croatia is a tremendously beautiful country, largely overshadowed by its Mediterranean neighbors like Greece and Italy. You can take day trips to islands from Split such as Brac or Hvar, or you can check out stunning Montenegro (Kotor Bay is really nice), or you can explore the medieval old towns in white limestone. Try some burek and crni rizot (black risotto). Learn some history about former Yugoslavia, which has shaped what Croatia is today. People are very nice, but beware going in the peak of summer, where every beach is super crowded with families and kids.

2. Santorini, Greece

Sunsets in Oia, Santorini

Don’t let anyone tell you Santorini is a honeymoon destination. I went alone and LOVED it, and I wasn’t on any honeymoon. In fact, I went in early May before the hoards of tourists arrived for summer, the weather was a bit chilly at night but hot enough during the day to soak up some sunshine. Price-wise, Santorini is not cheap, but if you go during the shoulder seasons, you can get some great deals on places that would otherwise cost an arm and a leg. I stayed in Oia, the picturesque village on the north end of the island with Instagram-worthy views. I did a day trip sailing throughout the caldera, swam in hot springs and enjoyed a fun lunch on board, where I met an amazing couple I still keep in touch with. For my fit vacay folks, you can hike from Oia to Imerovigli in several hours of hours, then take a bus to the volcanic beaches on the south side of the island. And Greek food and Santorini wines? DELICIOUS!

3. Jaipur, India

Jal Mahal, Jaipur

Okay, so India may have stolen a HUGE chunk of my heart, and going there alone engulfed me in so many emotions that I will never forget the experience. Its dirty streets cleansed my heart, ironically, at the risk of sounding completely cheesy. Indians are some of the kindest and most humble people I’ve met. I went in March, and I did a 4-day tour of the Golden Triangle with a private driver and tour, where you see New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. While the Taj Mahal in Agra is a sight to behold and a must visit, Jaipur wins for a place for solo travel. Known as the pink city, the buildings do, in fact, shine in a salmon hues. Be sure to visit the Amer, or Amber fort, ride up by elephant if possible (a tourist cliche, but I was told their treatment is humane, before you judge me for exploiting animal rides!), and take in the majestic mountains of Rajastan. Check out the Man Sagar Lake with the Jal Mahal palace standing erect among its placid water.

4. Cusco, Peru

The Sacred Valley of Peru

Cusco is so much more than the Machu Picchu starting point. The culture, food and richness of the the architectural ruins throughout the region, nestled among the soaring Andes Mountains, is something everyone should witness. Despite how cold Cusco was when I went in September, the warmth I felt with the host family I stayed with still touches me today. I did a few day trips, including to Rainbow Mountain, Maras, Chinchero, Moray and Ollantaytambo. There are plenty of buses that go to each destinations, or you can opt for a private transfer, arranged through your accommodation. Treat yourself to a Pisco Sour after a day of hiking and exploring, plus some alpaca (to wear and eat!). It’s a lovely city filled with tons of other solo travelers, ones you’re sure to meet and befriend.

5. El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Island hopping, El Nido, Palawan

I first went to the Philippines with my best friends for one of their weddings, and I knew I had to come back to explore more of this incredible country and its thousands of islands. El Nido, Palawan, is paradise on earth, very cheap, and beaches will transform your last ounce of stress  into pure relaxation. I came alone, but almost immediately I met really cool, new friends that I went island hopping with and partied until dawn. You can scuba dive, explore nearby islands, snorkel, sunbathe, kayak, hike – you name it. Palawan has it all! Try some lechon (a giant Filipino pig, literally) and pancit for some local flavoring. Note: the south part of the island can be quite dangerous for tourists, so I am recommending to stay in El Nido. Also, flying directly into El Nido from Manila is much more worth it than flying into Puerto Princesa and taking a 7-hour nauseating van ride.

6. Cape Town, South Africa

Lions Head, Cape Town

I was pleasantly surprised with how incredible and affordable Cape Town was, despite all the warnings I had heard about the dangers in South Africa. Granted, I stayed in nice, safe neighborhoods and away from any crime zones, but I don’t think I looked over my shoulder in fear once. There’s a rich and complex recent history to South Africa that has shaped its diverse culture, but everyone I met was very friendly and helpful. The beaches in Camps Bay are as picturesque as they come, with the Twelve Apostles of Table Mountain looming in the background. Check out hikes to Table Mountain and Lions Head for rewarding views of the land and sea, check out Robben Island to relive Nelson Mandela’s 27-year prison sentence, lounge with penguins in Boulders Beach, sip the country’s best wines in Stellenbosch, take in the magnificent view on Chapman’s Peak, and, of course, hike the southwestern most tip of the African continent at the Cape of Good Hope. Oh, and if you’re really feeling brave, why not go cage diving with great white sharks?

7. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Beijos from Rio

Get ready for a colorful, artistic and musical experience when in Rio. You won’t feel lonely for a second! In fact, after taking a very interesting walking tour of the Rocinha Favela (which I highly recommend), I met very cool new friends with whom I explored the rest of Rio for several days. Stay in Copacabana beach, walk through the iconic Ipanema beach (preferably while listening to “The Girl from Ipanema”), hike through the Tijuca forest, see the EXTREMELY crowded Corcovado Mountain with Jesus looming over the city, and explore the colorful, multicultural Escadaria Selarón. Be sure to try the many flavors of caipirinhas, the heavy typical dish Feijoada, and if you have a sweet tooth, Brigadeiros are to die for! Plenty of rich and fun nightlife in Rio de Janeiro – but of course samba music is what you should catch while in this fantastic city. Note: not all parts of Rio are safe, so I don’t recommend wearing anything too ostentatious while out, especially alone.

8. Tel Aviv, Israel

Relaxing in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv

Forget about everything you’ve heard from the media about Israel. It is hands-down one of the safest places I’ve ever been to in my life. Next, the people are the most vivacious and assertive you’ll encounter – with an obvious history and conflicts that have formed the attitudes and ideals of the Jewish State. Politics aside, I have been to Israel six times, and each time I fell in love with Tel Aviv more and more. Try some yummy Shakshuka for breakfast, relax or play Matkot on the long stretch of Mediterranean coast with extremely clear water, or take a day trip to Jerusalem for some spiritual enrichment (or just to explore a new city, whatever floats your boat!). Let me tell you: solo female travelers won’t stay solo for long here. Between the hoards of extremely attractive men who will be vying for your attention and the super friendly groups who are always welcoming to strangers, especially if you are alone and don’t a place to have Shabbat dinner, you will quickly feel a sense of family here. A remarkable place, where the nightlife rages 7 days a week!



My most memorable hikes


There’s something unique about hiking in the mountains – the fresh air, the varying altitude that at times can make you feel weird in your head, and of course the spectacular views. Above all, I found hiking to be symbolic of overcoming life’s obstacles: just keep going, one step at a time, don’t look back.

And so, ironically, in looking back at some memorable hikes I’ve done, there are three that really stand out in my memory:

  1. Rainbow Mountain, Peru
  2. Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
  3. Preikestlolen, Norway

Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca) Peru

Cusco is probably best known as the base city for exploring the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. That is certainly true, but in addition to those marvelous places, there’s a challenging and exceptionally rewarding hike you can do to what’s called the Rainbow Mountain. There are plenty of tour operators who offer a day trip to do this from Cusco, starting at 3:00 am (yes, don’t expect to be well rested for this), when you are picked up from your accommodation and driven to the base camp for breakfast and meeting the hiking guides. If you can stomach any food (I apparently had no appetite at 4,300 meters or 14,000 feet), you get your energy and begin the hike. Definitely bring good hiking boots! We had a mix of snow and mud on our journey, which made for a slippery mess. You make your way to the highest and most rewarding point of the journey, Rainbow Mountain, standing at a staggering 5,200 meter or 17,000 feet. It’s impossible to put into words how impressive and stunning this journey is, and I loved that when I went in September 2016, there weren’t too many other hikers (especially when compared to the hoards of hikers at Machu Picchu). The mountains were snow-capped on the way up and already melted on the way down. And while I struggled to breathe the entire journey (I can’t tell if the cocoa leaves I was chewing helped or hurt me), I finished on my own without the help of a horse/donkey and porter. That said, if you do need some assistance, you’ve got plenty of chances to pay for a porter on the way. You’re back in Cusco by about 7pm that same day, and while thoroughly exhausted and sore, the sense of accomplishment is incomparable.

5,200 glorious meters stop Rainbow Mountain
The snowy ascent to Rainbow Mountain

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa

So there’s good memorable and there’s bad memorable. For me, what seemed at the time as a brave and spontaneous decision to take the India Venster route up to Table Mountain, ended up being a bit of a lesson. I’m not a hardcore climber, and I had no idea what I would be facing when I decided to take this route up Table Mountain. I’m a fit and adventurous girl who decided to mountain climb by herself. Mind you, there’s a cable car that goes up in 3 minutes, or an alternative steady-paced hike in another direction, both of which end up at the top of Table Mountain. The India Venster route is for seasoned climbers, those who are prepared for extreme heights, no cables and can manage cloud, wind and some rain on the way up. I was not prepared for any of that, nor did I wear the proper shoes (trainers vs. hiking boots) – plus I began the hike at about 2:30pm, not even considering for a moment I might get stranded overnight without any cell phone signal. Nonetheless, I made it to the top in about 2.5 hours. I got lost a couple of times, even though the path is mostly marked with visible yellow tracks. I may have clung to a huge boulder mid-climb while a cloud passed over me, unable to tell which way was up. I may have cried for a minute and made a ‘If you find this video, I may be dead’ clip on my phone. No matter, I made it out unscathed! Seeing oblivious tourists at the top made me want to hug them tight but also scream with frustration. This hike is really tough, but I also don’t want to mislead the Kilian Jornet’s of the world who are pro’s at climbing. Just recognize what you’re going into, understand all the risks, don’t do it alone, bring plenty of water, and start early in the day. I am happy to report that I did, in fact, take the cable car down…

India Venster climb up Table Mountain
The taunting cable car that would pass above to Table Mountain


Preikestlolen “Pulpit Rock”, Stavanger, Norway

Norway is chock full of beautiful fjords and mountains – too many to list. But if you’re in Stavanger and have a free day, be sure to check out Pulpit Rock. There’s a convenient ferry that leaves from the Stavanger Marina and leaves you at Tau. From here, there are regular buses that take you to the begin the hike to Preikestolen. You can get return tickets to come back the same day. Be sure to pack a nice lunch and plenty of water/electrolytes to stay hydrated. I went on a rather rainy and windy day, so the rocks were extra slippery. I wouldn’t call this a difficult hike though, as people of all ages can go, including kids and elderly folks. The top, offering views of the fjords and the jutting rock that looks straight out of The Lion King, is one for the books. A pretty easy round trip, and when you’re back in Stavanger, treat yourself to a burger and beer. You’ve earned it!

Pulpit Rock “Preikestolen”
The fjord view

Bagan: Sunrise or Sunset?

While I was in Myanmar for two weeks, I heard Bagan was the crown jewel of the country – with over 2,000 Buddhist temples still standing today from an impressive original 10,000. The landscape, a mix of lush green trees and dirt roads over a flat horizon, boasts a plentiful amount of these ancient brick temples as far as the eye can see. Sometimes a mist shrouds the surface, or clouds create impressive contrasts with the sunlight. Nonetheless, I decided to check out the hype of these frequently Instagrammed shots of a sunrise in this mystic ancient city with hot air balloons all around.

As we went in April 2018, one important thing to note was we could not officially climb up temples to claim the BEST spot for sunrise/sunset, high enough to see the other temples but not too high from the ground. Myanmar decided to ban climbing on temples (again). Officially. But we asked locals who agreed to take us to the few temples that people could still climb and weren’t guarded. So we did this for a sunrise at Ta Wet Hpaya, which as of April 2018 was open for secret sunrise viewing.

Good news, it was indeed a beautiful spot to watch the sunrise. Bad news, we weren’t the only ones who learned about this ‘secret’ temple, so there were quite a few of us up there catching the most distinct part of Bagan sunrises: the hot air balloons!

While we didn’t have the clearest day to watch a super sunrise, we ‘got the gist’ of it. We arrived around 5:45 am while it was still dark out, climbed up the stairs to the roof of the temple, waited for the balloons to float out and for the sun to rise. The balloons came out very slowly out of a corner in the horizon around 6:45 am or so. I’ll say this, on a clearer day, I bet it would have been much more beautiful, and the colors would have swirled against that cotton candy pink and blue backdrop into a scorching ball of yellow fire on the horizon. It was a nice experience, but we decided that would be our only sunrise in Bagan, as the weather and cloud cover was supposed to be about the same for the other days. Bottom line: WORTH IT, IF you find a temple to safely climb and you have luck with a clear day. It’s a memorable experience, and I hope Myanmar revisits their ‘no temple climbing’ policy soon!

Sunset is a different story. Since the temples are officially closed for climbing, the Burmese authorities have attempted to narrow the spots to watch the sunset to two manmade hills where they actually check if you’ve paid the 25,000 Kyat pass to access all the temples. Guess what? We actually didn’t know this, and no one told us about this ticket in advance, so we never bought one. In the end, we got to catch a sunset on one of the hills for zero Kyat, as we convinced them that we left our ticket at home. Oops and yay!

Here, it was way more crowded than sunrise, because like I mentioned it’s a hot spot and one of the few ways to officially watch the sunset, plus it has a controlled entrance. So to get a nice spot in peace without people on the way is harder. Yet again, we did not have the clearest day for a sunset, so we took our pics and enjoyed the weather cooling down after a very hot day. Bottom line: WORTH IT to see sunset from the hill. Just buy your temple passes in advanced.

Lastly, or should I say firstly, we checked out the Nan Myint tower on our first sunset tour, which logically seemed like the highest, ergo best place to see the sunset. Alas, no, it was not and for multiple reasons. Firstly, it is too high up – and remember when I mentioned you don’t need a bird’s eye view, just to be slightly higher than one or two stories up? From the tower, the horizon doesn’t look as impressive. Then, reason 2, it is quite far from the densely populated temple area, which is the gem you want to capture in photos. And lastly, it’s not free. You have to pay an entrance of about US$5, and if you’re thirsty or hungry, the restaurant (with a lovely view) is available for a pretty penny. As such, the bottom line for this: NOT WORTH IT, but if you have an excellent camera lens, you may get some nice zoomed shots.

I think ultimately that sunrises are the most impressive in Bagan, although they depend on whether you can find a temple to climb with fewer people and cooperative weather.

What do you prefer: sunrise or sunset?


Amazing eats in Madrid


Food is of utmost importance to me, and when moving to a new place, I make it a point to figure out great places to eat so I can share with others coming to visit. I was lucky to have met like-minded foodie friends when I first moved to Spain. Spanish food is great and all, but who doesn’t love discovering new and delicious places to consume some calories and check out the scene. While I will continue to update this lists as my stomach encounters more delicious spots, here are a few places I recommend if you’re looking to change up your cuisine while visiting Madrid:

  1. Khachapuri
    Delicious khachapuri dishes
    Eggplant and reg peppers in spiced mut sauce

    If you have ever tried Georgian food, you may already know that it is ridiculously delicious. While living in Moscow, I had my fair share of Georgian food because the cuisine was offered on every corner. But in Madrid, I was limited to just ONE restaurant that shared a bit of motherland cooking – and thank goodness it’s REALLY good. The owners are Georgian and the staff speaks Russian.
    Dishes to try: The Georgian pizza dish called Khachapuri “po-mengrelski”.  Try the Khachapuri “po-adjarski”, which is a similar food but with an egg baked on top of what looks like a breaded ‘eye’. The pork and meat dumpings Khinkali are amazing. And finally, the mixed salad eggplant and red pepper, coated with a spiced nut sauce.

  2. Canadiense
    Burger and ribs
    Sweet potato fries and popcorn chicken

    As you may surmise by its name, Canadiense boats dishes from Canada with a key ingredient made famous in its homeland: Maple Syrup! Seriously though, most of their dishes incorporate maple syrup (or ‘arce’ in Spanish). Don’t let that put you off – the food here is delicious.
    Dishes to try: The Canadian “Canadian Burger” on a brioche bun, braised ribs and chicken popcorn, sweet potato fries.

  3. Peko Peko

    Bao Bun

    Feeling like flavorful asian street food with a Spanish twist? Then this is your place. The portions are quite small, so you can try an assortment of things! The ambience of the place is pretty interesting – at first glance it looks like a fast food (or street food) joint, but it’s pretty well designed and most importantly, tasty.
    Dishes to try: Miso Curry, Gyozilla, Light and fluffy Bao buns and Kimchadillas (a Kimchi twist to the Mexican quesadilla).

  4. La Huerta de Almeria

    The grocery section with fresh produce
    Heathy wraps

    I recently discovered this grocery store/quick bite restaurant, in an effort to get back in shape for the summer. I wanted a place where I could buy healthy, prepared foods besides just salads, and this place had a good selections of yummy alternatives. Their fresh squeezed juices are also a welcoming refreshment, especially during the hot Madrid summers.
    Dishes to try: Tex-Mex wrap; any of the fresh-squeezed juices (my favorite was the strawberry, mango and orange; and one of their homemade vegan carrot cakes.

  5. Apartaco for a twist on Venezuelan cuisine

    Madrid has a large Venezuelan population, and luckily their locale cuisine is plentiful around here! In fact, I hadn’t tried Venezuelan food before moving here, and I certainly am not sick of it yet. Apartaco bring authentic Venezuelan cuisine, both simple and delicious, that satisfies your taste buds – and it has vegetarians options!
    Dishes to try: Tequeños, arepas (of course!), tostones (fright bananas covered in guac, salsa and cheese), and llanero a la plancha (which looks like lasagna).
  6. Habanera for a Spanish-style brunch
    The set brunch menu
    Arepa twist on eggs benedict
    Pancakes a la Nutella

    The brunch culture has caught on in Madrid, but I don’t think quite to an extent yet as in the U.S. I struggled for a while to find a decent brunch spot that really impressed me, but I finally found one! Habanera not only has a gorgeous colonial interior and is immaculately decorated, but its brunch food is so delicious. Be sure to make a reservation – this place books up quick!
    Dishes to try: I highly recommend getting the set brunch menu (for 2 pax minimum), which includes everything you could ever want, from croissants to poached eggs. Then try the La Habanera eggs benedict, a twist on the original recipe with a Venezuelan arepa. And for sweets, be sure to try the Tortitas americanas (cupcakes) soaked in a Nutella mouse and sprinkled with berries and chocolate candies.

  7. Socarrat for authentic Valencian paella

    Paella is a notoriously delicious Spanish dish, but it tends to be two things: seafood and GIANT portions (2-4 persons). Finally, I have discovered a delicious and authentic paella restaurant with perfect single portions in many flavors, including meat and vegetable, AND the vibe is great! The paella is savory for a great price (8€). You’ll be full for the entire day!
    Dishes to try: The traditional Paella Valenciana (chicken, rabbit, artichoke, carob, rosemary) is a hit for the non-seafood lovers. From the sea, be sure to try Arroz a Banda (an array of seafood, calamari) or Arroz Negro (black rice, squid and a seafood medley).
  8. Bump Green – healthy and tasteful
    Green mint fresh juice and Hummus de Garrofó o remolacha with vegetable chips
    Noodles de Boniato and Burger de Kimchi
    Brownie de Algarroba

    Looking to enjoy gluten-free, vegan, green options? Check out Bump Green – it’s super tasty and innovative ways to eat clean. Very nice staff and cool, green interior.

  9. Toast Cafe for brunch, because you can never have too much brunch

    When you begin to miss good ol’ brunch from the States, head to Toast Cafe, where you can get a very fulfilling brunch menu for 16€. This includes two courses with a coffee and orange juice. And bonus: if you’re a beer lover, this is a bottle craft joint!
    Dishes to try: Definitely the pancakes and french toast, which you can top with seasonal fruits and syrup. I also am a huge burrito lover, and this place has a legit breakfast burrito! The eggs benedict with salmon are also worth trying.

How I quit my job and backpacked the world

IMG_7975Backpacking ready

So, let me begin by saying that there’s not really a magical recipe for quitting your job and traveling for a while. Many will fantasize and ponder of doing so, but few will take action. It’s not for everyone (or, not everyone can afford to do so, due to family obligations, money constraints, or they aren’t ready to part with their job for so long). I will say that circumstances tend to gravitate toward one outcome, even one that may surprise you. Traveling is a great excuse to do what you want and take control of your experiences. Up until a certain point, I was always told what to do, what to study, what career to pursue, what kind of guys to date even! As much as I appreciate sound advice, there comes a time when you just scream STOP! to all the outside noise and try to make a decision for yourself based on your own rationalizations.

When life presents you with a junction, you pick a road to take. Not to get all Robert Frost on you, but I took what I believed was the road less traveled by (ironically, the traveling road) when I decided to travel for a while. I hung up my 8-year corporate badge and the career identity I was convinced defined me for so long, and within one week, I was on a one-way flight to Peru with no further plans or ideas of what to do with myself. I didn’t think about money or what to do after I might finish. I had hastily packed my shit into a new Osprey backpack, thinking “So this makes me a backpacker, right?” No, it turns out a backpacker is more of a mentality than a physical pack. All I knew was that I wanted to see Machu Picchu, and the rest would fall into place.

As for traveling alone, nothing felt more natural. Look, I’m an extrovert, in a committed relationship (long distance at the time), love being social and making friends, but traveling alone is a really cool experience. You’re alone but not lonely. It warms my heart to see so many women of all ages choosing to travel on their own, even if just one trip – we’re not only taking power into our own hands, but we are breaking this stupid societal norm that a woman traveling alone is odd, lonely or dangerous.

For those who think that traveling always requires planning in advance, I challenge you that it’s not always the case. With internet at our fingertips, the planning can happen within minutes, instead of months. Granted, some things I did miss because tickets were sold out in advance of when I was going, or airfare at the last minute wasn’t the most affordable. I never really let that discourage me though. If something is sold out in advance, that’s usually an indicator that it is very touristy and crowded. The chance to breathe a new country’s air and witness their landscape is good enough for me; there’s plenty of off-the-beaten-path place you can discover, you just have to ask the locals.

“But income,” you might say, or “career growth!” “How can you leave a secure job for a life of aimless wandering?” “What will people think?” “What will you do with your life after?”

Let me share with you a post I found sobering – the top 5 regrets of the dying:

Source: https://goo.gl/images/81mKQr

Yes, this is pretty sad stuff, but it’s also a good reminder to focus on the now and to stay true to yourself. If your passion is traveling, why not do it? We often set our own obstacles and convince ourselves we can’t surmount them, therefore something like traveling is just not feasible or appropriate right now. You may hate your job, but quitting it to travel sounds too risky – what if you get offered a great position in two years? Or you’ve got a family or partner that can’t join you or doesn’t support you going somewhere alone. Regardless of the reason, if you do decide to go on a journey, don’t look back or second-guess yourself.

Look, I left unsure of what to make of my life up until that point. I just knew what I was doing every day, waking up at 4:45 am to get ready and be at work by 7:00 am to perform a job I didn’t love anymore and impress people who viewed me as expendable. I knew I loved traveling and I hated limited myself to going somewhere two times a year. So I left. Just like that.

I came back after 4 months from a world tour of 13 countries, hauling a heavier Osprey on my back and a fuller heart. Above all, I realized the insignificance of what we trivialize in daily life (such as working too hard, pleasing others, comparing ourselves to impossible equals, etc.). I may not have figured out what I wanted to do next, but I was more certain than ever it wasn’t what I had been doing before. And maybe that clarity of mind of what you don’t want is an important step to figuring out what you do what.

And so, consider where you are in life and think if traveling is what you really want to do. You’ll find that justifying or rationalizing your thinking is a learned skill, and as humans, we are innately irrational – so don’t be afraid of letting your instincts drive your decisions to travel. You’ll be glad you did!


European summer holiday ideas

IMG_0268Views from Oia, Santorini

Living in Europe has been a very cool experience, mainly because there are so many beautiful places with cultures and languages that are just a short train ride or flight away. Here are my favorite summer holidays in Europe, ranging in price and landscape.

  1. Sardinia, Italy
    Cala Luna,  Sardinia

    Why I love it: It’s a huge island, so there’s a mix of beaches (literally the entire coastline), hikes, mountains, Italian villages and very delicious food (they cook pizza crust with potatoes, and it’s major noms!). It’s a gem in the Mediterranean best discovered by car, with stomach-dropping hairpin mountain roads and soothing sea views. Price range: $$ (I went in June, but I hear prices skyrocket later in the summer, especially in the pricey Costa Smeralda)

  2. Santorini, Greece
    Oia, Santorini

    Why I love it: No matter who you are, you will agree to the picturesque beauty of Santorini that make it internationally renowned. The food is delicious, they make their own wine, and the views are ridiculously pretty. Famous sunsets on the Oia end of the island will be etched in your memory. I recommend staying in Oia in one of the cave houses. It can get pretty busy in summer, but I went in May, and it was just right. Price range: $$$

  3. Dalmatian Coast, Croatia
    Brela, Croatia

    Why I love it: Croatia is one of those countries that surprised me how much I loved it. A rocky mountain coast with glittering clear water offers amazing sunsets and a refreshing swim in chilly waters. The food in Croatia is VERY good, and you can explore the islands around Split, such as Brač and Hvar. Price range: $$

  4. C’ôte d’Azur, France
    Cannes, France

    Why I love it: While I wouldn’t make a habit of going to the South of France due to the impressive price tag, it’s also something recommend you experience at least once. Between the colorful and classic town of Montecarlo, relaxed and stylish Nice, to the star-studded Cannes, there’s something for everyone, between the beaches, parties and shopping. Be prepared to spend a pretty penny for an unforgettable experience.  Price range: $$$$ (especially during Cannes Film Festival)

  5. San Sebastián, Spain
    La Concha, San Sebastián, Spain

    Why I love it: I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to at least one place in Spain I really enjoyed for a holiday, and San Sebastián takes the bait. From incredibly delicious and cheap Basque pintxos to the glittering Bay of Biscay engulfing the horizon, San Sebastián is both great as a getaway with your partner, your girlfriends or your family! There are enough activities for everyone. If you go during a festival, like Semana Grande, there’s even more activities in the streets that are fun, loud and memorable. Price range: $ (Could be $$ during Spanish holidays)


​10 Do’s and Don’ts for a solo female traveler

IMG_8667Great Wall of China

Do stay in Airbnb’s or guest houses as part of someone’s family in their spare room. It’s the best way to meet people, get insider advice and recommendations about where to go, where to eat and what to avoid. Read reviews, or ask around, if you’re unsure this is where you want to stay. A great host can make a huge difference in your trip.

Do bring a bag of medicine to treat any digestive problems, allergies, pain/inflammation, nausea/vomiting and first aid. In my bag, no matter where I go, I always have the following: Pepto bismol, Imodium, Claritin, Dramamine, Ibuprofen, bandaids, antibiotics (such as a Z-pack), alcohol wipes, and antibacterial/antibiotic ointment such as Neosporin.

Do take group tours. While you have to be more patient and wait in lines, you can connect with really cool people you’d otherwise never meet. Plus, you will learn some really neat history about the place you are visiting.

Do travel alone. You probably won’t even be alone for long. People are more inclusive and friendly than you think. I have had amazing experiences with people I met in my accommodation, tour, beach or even on the street. I still keep in touch with many of them, thanks to social media, so whenever I’m in their home country, I give them a shout. You never know who you’ll meet! And for the times you are alone, it’s rewarding to be one with your thoughts and experiences, to reflect on everything you’ve witnessed and achieved.

Do share your location or hotel name with someone you know, whether locally or back home. It’s an effortless action that has no consequences, but in the rare possibility something might happen, at least your family will know where to look first… not to be ominous!

Jaipur palace and its brilliant colors 

Don’t go to weird or dangerous neighborhoods. I’m not saying only go to touristy places, but go with locals to places they often frequent and can vouch for its safety.

Don’t stay with shady or strange hosts. Read reviews beforehand and make sure the communication has been open and transparent. Listen to your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, get out. Your sense of safety and security isn’t worth savings a few bucks over.

Don’t wear opulent jewelry, shoes, bags and clothes (especially in second and third world countries). Hey, I love my diamonds, Valentino shoes and Chanel bags, but there’s a time and place to wear them, and often it’s not outside of your hometown or a ritzy night out. Be humble and simple, no need to draw unnecessary attention to yourself.

Don’t take your passport, valuables and all credit cards outside of hotel or leave in the car – make a copy of your passport or take a photo with your phone, and take only one major credit card with you (and keep cash on hand). And I feel it’s important to note to never leave valuables in your car. There are people who stalk and prey on tourists who feel their cars are safe storage spots for valuables. DON’T DO IT.

Don’t accept drinks from strangers. Just don’t. When you have no one holding you accountable, things can happen.


Glamping in the Wadi Rum Desert

IMG_1329Sunset over the Wadi Rum desert

On a week long road trip through Jordan, it seemed silly not to have an adventure in the desert, specifically the vast Wadi Rum, called “The Valley of the Moon,” which stretches across Southern Jordan. Visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must if you have a few extra days to explore and are up for a different adventure. Initially, the Wadi Rum desert gained popularity among tourists after “Lawrence of Arabia” made its debut, in which many of its scenes were filmed. Besides memories of Peter O’Toole’s mesmerizing eyes, this desert became one my favorite landscapes worldwide.

After leaving our car in the gate, we were picked up by our hosts. We stayed in the Salman Zwaidh Camp (recommended by Lonely Planet), which is owned and run by local bedouins, or nomadic desert arabs, only they are allowed to operate within the protected areas of the Wadi Rum desert. The host of our camp Salman was very hospitable and ensured we had a wonderful stay at his camp. He really went out of his way to ensure we were comfortable, even though he had limited English. I say kindness and hospitality are among the universal languages we can all comprehend.

Sleeping in the desert can be a hot, windy experience, and since we didn’t have any camping gear, we stayed in a pitched tent with proper beds inside. It gets a bit warm during the day, but at night the desert actually became chilly, which was a welcoming relief to sleep soundly. There are toilets in a small building, running water, and the accommodations were quite nice for being in the middle of the desert.

View from the rocks to the tents with beds
Relaxing in the welcoming shade of the rocks
Beds in the bedouin camp Salman Zwaidh

As for the activities, you can take a truck tour of the desert, do some hiking on dunes and rocks, go on camel rides to watch the sunset, or just relax for a bit. Keep in mind, there’s no wifi or electricity to charge your devices, so it’s a nice opportunity to disconnect and be ‘one’ with nature. We decided to do 4×4 truck tour first to check out the landscape. It takes about 1.5-2 hours, and you stop at various land structures, dunes and bedouin shops, where you’re offered tea and encouraged to shop around from the merchant’s products. We ended up buying the spicy bedouin tea they kept serving us, because it really was good.

Overlooking the vast desert after a dune hike
Welcoming the shade on the 4×4 tour
A seemingly endless climb up a sandy dune
Local bedouin shop where the owner played the rababa
Hiking up the formations with proper shoes offers bonus views

A note here on dress code: this is still the Middle East, so women are expected to dress modest, so it’s not respectful to expose your shoulders or legs, despite the extreme heat. So things like linen, thin cotton are best to withstand the heat. You’ll get sand everywhere though, but at least it’s not sticky like at the beach.

After resting for a couple of hours at the camp, we snacked on some treats offered by Salman, and then decided to take the camel tour to see the sunset. This costs extra, but from what I recall, it was nominal. We made our way into an area with a large, flat rock to climb, and from there we saw the sunset. Nothing quite like seeing a burning ball of yellow fire pierce the horizon with fantastic pastel hues.

Sunset camel rides in the Wadi Rum
Follow the leader


Sunset over the Wadi Rum desert
Magical sunsets
Camels are lucky to have this view daily

By the time we got back to the camp, we were starving. Luckily, the chef was already preparing delicious Jordanian dishes for us to eat, followed by, you guessed it, more tea. When we went, we had just one other family staying at the camp, so it was nice to chat with them to learn their story and what they thought so far of Jordan.

Food prepared at Salman Zwaidh camp in Wadi Rum

The staff offers you privacy, and they don’t annoy you with unnecessary small talk, which may partly be due to limited English. However, they were very open about their lives in Jordan as desert people, how Wadi Rum has always been their home. It was fascinating to learn their ways, but their hospitality was the most impressive. We went to bed that night with bellies full and minds peaceful, free from devices and stress.

Sleeping in the tent overnight felt quite warm, and only around 3:00 am or so did the temperature drop so I could sleep well. I like it cold when I sleep, I mean REAL cold, so sleeping in the desert was something I expected to be a challenge. While it was silent at night, the one thing you could always hear was the wind blowing the through the heat and cooling the sand.

The next morning, we prepared for our journey onward to the Red Sea to Aqaba, but not before Salman treated us to hearty breakfast and more tea. We parted ways with the bedouins and the desert, and for a fleeting moment I felt like I was Santiago in the Alchemist, searching for and finding my treasure.

Tell me about your cool experiences in the desert below!