Posts Tagged ‘Albania’

Why I Joined Mountain Ambassadors

While I was attending a Travel Massive meetup at TBEX 2012 in Keystone, Colorado, I found an opportunity. The people from were talking up their Mountain Ambassadors program for writers/bloggers who live near world-class mountain destinations.

Mount Sherman summit at dawn, September 2012

At 14,035 feet on the summit of Mt. Sherman, one of Colorado’s famous “fourteeners”

That weekend in Keystone, I was one of very few people who chose to camp in order to attend the travel blogger conference. The idea was to save money, but I also to share a fun outdoor experience in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Gazing at the stars, I realized that I take these mountains for granted. I made it a goal to spend more time in my great Colorado backyard and decided to join Mountain Ambassadors to help me meet that goal.

Volcano Santa Maria in the highlands of Guatemala

View from the top of Volcano Santa Maria in the highlands of Guatemala

Here are a few more reasons why I think Mountain Ambassadors is a good fit for me:

1) Love for mountains

Growing up in Denver, the mountains have always been right there, decorating the sunset and revealing which way is west. I have childhood memories of summer trips to Evergreen where my dad grew up, Winter Park, Crested Butte, and the Great Sand Dunes. I spent my college summers working at a camp called Rocky Mountain Village near Idaho Springs, Colorado.

Serra Tramuntana, Mallorca Spain

The hiking club that explored the Serra Tramuntana mountain range with me in Mallorca, Spain

When I began traveling abroad, I would always seek mountain adventure. During my semester in Puebla, Mexico I joined the university’s alpine club and summited volcanoes like La Malinche. In the highlands of Guatemala, I reached the top of volcano Santa Maria. In the outdoor adventure club in Mallorca, Spain, I made it to the highest (reachable) point on the island – Massanella in the Serra Tramuntana mountain range.  In my most recent trip to South America, I reached 15,000 feet of altitude near Cochabamba, Bolivia and did some awesome Andean trekking in Southern Bolivia and in the lakes region of Northern Patagonia.

mountains palma de mallorca, spain

Taking in the Serra Tramuntana mountains in Mallorca

2) Winter fun within reach

Despite my Denver upbringing and all my summer mountain adventures, I’m a newcomer to winter mountain sports. I didn’t learn to ski until college, and I’d still describe myself as ‘advanced beginner.’ I was trained on sledding and ice skating as a kid, and I’ve taken up softer winter sports like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, but the full investment in downhill winter sports has always been a little out of reach.

Albanian Alps

Hiking the “Accursed Peaks” of Northern Albania

Now that I’ve moved back to Denver for the foreseeable future, I decided that this is the winter to change that. With the free season pass perk from Mountain Ambassadors, I can finally get out to the mountains often enough to make some progress. I’ve already found a handful of other amateur skiers to join me on blue runs and maybe some blacks if we’re feeling ambitious.  Wish us luck …

At 15,000 feet in the Bolivian Andes

At 15,000 feet in the Bolivian Andes

3) Creative Challenge

With a nine-to-five office job, I have less time for creative travel writing than I did before. My portfolio isn’t growing as fast, and my blog has been getting a little neglected lately. This new gig as a Mountain Ambassador will help me stick with it and hold me to at least two posts a month. I’ll be doing one mountain travel-related post here on my own blog, and one for or It’s a thrill to be selected for this program and I look forward to diving in!

mountains patagonia northern Patagonia

Locating the elusive Laguna Negra in the lakes district of Northern Patagonia


09 2012

Write your ecotourism story, win an ecotour prize

Have you ever had an ecotourism experience? Would you like to win one? If you take a little time to write your ecotourism story and then campaign for votes, you could win one of five ecotourism adventures from all over the world.


The contest is organized by Mynatour, an online community that inspires a modern and responsible kind of tourism. Prizes are sponsored by and its responsible tourism partners in the Galapagos Islands, Quito Ecuador, Estonia, Laos, and Albania.

Don’t just daydream about travel. Think critically about travel experiences you’ve had in the past and whether or not they qualify as ‘eco.’ Think creatively about what could have been more sustainable and responsible about them. Finally, think wishfully about these awesome ecotour prizes and who your lucky companion will be once you rally enough votes to win.

For more information check out the Mynatour contest details. I’ll cheer for you if you ask me to, and good luck!


10 2011

Ways for Women Traveling Together to Bond

This article originally appeared in The Travel Word. To view the original post, click here. February, 2011.

I’ve seen a lot of travel articles written in praise of solo travel for women. They’re great. I’ve done a good amount of travelling alone and I do love the independence and self-fortification as much as the next girl. Yet, it has its limitations. I’ve found that there are certain things I’m just more comfortable doing within the safety of numbers and these pursuits are often a little livelier in good female company. While soloing is great, there’s really no substitute for travelling with friends.

train from tanzania to zambia

So, women wild for non-solo adventure take note: here are five travel activities, some of them more intense than others, to look back on together as little old ladies. After all, reminiscing together in years to come is also part of the fun!

To continue reading, click here for the full article on The Travel Word


03 2011

A Bike Community Grows In Albania

This article appeared on The Expeditioner. To view the original article, click here. February 2011.

Rule of the Road

In Tirana, Albania, cars are king. Pedaling my bike among dense vehicular traffic in this small country in the western Balkans, I switched into warrior mode. I was vastly outnumbered. It always amazed me that personal car ownership, now widespread, has only been a reality here for two short decades.

During the communist regime, the roads were reserved for the vehicles of the ruling elite. Everyone else conveyed themselves by cart, bicycle, or foot. The regime fell in 1990, bringing about a pendulum swing of change. Albanians rushed to exercise their new rights: to migrate to the city, to own property, to start businesses, and to drive cars.


Now, in the capital city, the streets are teeming. One rule governs the roads: the biggest engines make the rules. Pedestrians and bicycles are the new minority. We swerve and dodge our way through the unyielding vehicular chaos. As I made Tirana my home for a summer, I felt a new appreciation for the orderly bike lanes I had left behind in Western Europe.

To continue reading this article, click here.


02 2011

Five Wonders of Albania’s Cave of Pellumbas

This article originally appeared in The Travel Word.  To read the original article, click here.  January, 2011.

I recently got the chance to visit the Cave of Pellumbas, also known as the Black Cave. Located just 27 kilometres southeast of Tirana, Albania, it makes a perfect day trip. I’ve been lucky enough to go spelunking in some incredible caves, but there was a combination of things about this one that I’m still wrapping my head around.

Its Size

For a long time, folk wisdom about the cave was that it was endless. In reality, though, from front to back, it measures 360 metres long, 10 to 15 metres in width and 15 to 45 metres in height. I had read a little about the cave before I visited, but the numbers don’t prepare you for the enormity of it once you’re inside. Voices echo like bat sonar off the cavernous walls.

pellumbas view

Its History

Considered one of Albania’s many great archaeological treasures, the cave has received a good deal of research attention from the Tirana Archaeological Institute, as well as scientists from Italian universities. They have unearthed the remains of an ancient species of cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) that date back to 10,000 to 400,000 BC. They have also found traces of human activity from the Middle Paleolithic period, which spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. Evidence from the entrance of the cave suggests that these early humans were utilising the flint-sharpening and fire technology that developed at the time.

The geological history of the place is also hard to fathom. I saw giant stalactites and stalagmites, but my little human brain couldn’t quite absorb how long it actually took for them to form. The average growth rate of a stalactite is 0.13 mm per year. The formations in this cave are several metres in length and even width. I tried to imagine the time involved, but then I stopped and just admired their phantasmagorical beauty.

How Much Work Has Been Invested in It

As we approached the well-marked trailhead leading to the cave, we were greeted by Behar Duqi, the local village guide and guardian of the cave. He collects the small entrance fee of 100 lek (about US$1) and offers to accompany visitors on the hike from the village to the cave. As we approached the cave, it was evident that forces were at work. Bilingual signs mark the way and warn against littering, guardrails line steep edges, steps ease along the steeper inclines and benches punctuate the trail at the finest viewpoints. The trail is impressively tourism-ready.

Who was behind this massive effort? With funding from the Dutch Embassy in Albania, the Outdoor Albania Association does ongoing work to make the cave accessible to tourists and to protect the area from degradation. The association, through its projects in Pellumbas, Vuno and other sites, has been clearing the path toward a more sustainable tourism future in Albania. This means tourism that places an emphasis on the natural and cultural assets of Albania, preserving these endowments over time rather than threatening them.

How Unnoticed It Has Gone

It is a wonder how an excursion this good is still so far off the radar. None of the many independent travellers I met in Albania had even heard of it. While Outdoor Albania offers a guided day tour, it has received little attention. The In Your Pocket guidebook does mention it, but Lonely Planet does not. Behar Duqi says that the cave received only about 100-200 visitors during the entire summer high season of 2010. Both foreigners and Albanians are missing out! Where is everyone?

The cave’s web presence is also weak. Several of the top search results were actually posts written by my friend Lieke Van Leeuwen, although by modifying my search to include the character ‘ë’ for the correct local spelling – Pëllumbas – a few more informative pages came up. Outdoor Albania Association also maintains a bilingual website about the caves and Pellumbas appears in an index site of caves.

The View

Description is insufficient here. The path looks out toward a stunning panorama. It must be seen to be believed.


01 2011

Six UNESCO Cultural Intangibles I’ve Encountered

One cool thing about tourism is that it can help preserve endangered cultural heritage.  I first realized this in Guatemala watching an indigenous woman practice the ancient art of backstrap weaving.  Tourism was providing an audience and a market for this beautiful craft, helping to keep it alive in communities plagued by poverty and urban migration.


Expressions of local culture are what makes a place really special.  All too often, these intangibles are at risk.  Three years ago, UNESCO began its list of Cultural Heritage Intangibles in hopes of safeguarding these local practices and expressions.  Now, over 200 of them have been inscribed.

As I perused the list, I found six that I have been lucky enough to have encountered in my travels.  They are:

1. The ritual ceremony of the Voladores

I saw this ceremony while studying abroad in Puebla, Mexico in 2004.  The display was absolutely mesmerizing.  As the four “flying men” spiraled gracefully downward from their perch on top of the wood pole, I watched in suspense.  How would it end?  Their landing was as fluid as their descent.

2. Traditional Mexican Cuisine

When I returned home from that semester abroad in Mexico, I had some tangible evidence that I had experienced this cultural intangible — I had gained about 10 pounds.  It was all so worth it.  I think the most memorable new dish for me was mole poblano.  Always a little different, always with dozens of ingredients, it never ceased to amaze me with its use of cocoa as a savory seasoning.  Recommended reading: Like Water For Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel.

3. Spanish Flamenco

Flamenco, to me, will always sound like Granada, Spain.  I first saw a real Flamenco as a performance with my study abroad program in the summer of ’05.  It was in a cave with a small stage — a huge hit with tourists.  I soon realized, though, that I could find street-level, improvisational Flamenco in Granada’s plazas, on the steps of the cathedral, at gypsy bars and at the Mirador.  No ticket necessary.

4. Castells of Catalunia, Spain

I caught a glimpse of one of these Castells (human towers) while I was living in Mallorca, Spain.  During Palma de Mallorca’s annual city-wide fiesta called San Sebastian, a troupe had formed a Castell with a small child(!) on top.  At least he was wearing a helmet.  I found it both entrancing and nerve-wracking to watch.  Incredible.

5. The Mediterranean diet

I sampled some highlights of the Mediterranean diet while in Spain, Sardenia, Albania, and Greece.  The best part is the olive oil.  So good and so affordable there.  I didn’t even like green olives until Spain, where they are taken to a whole new level.  The Mediterranean was also the first place I tried fresh figs and fresh pomegranate — right off the trees!  Spain is famous for shellfish and rice dishes like paella and my personal favorite: arroz negro (black rice) made with squid ink.  I found lots of red wine and roast lamb. Mmmm.

6. Albanian Folk Iso-polyphony

Perhaps the most at-risk intangible cultural heritage that I’ve been exposed to, this traditional chanting has become so rare that it is hardly passed down from generation to generation in the home at all anymore.  Professional performers struggle to keep the form intact.  I didn’t manage to see it performed live, but I heard it on recordings that Albanians (especially the older generations) proudly play for foreigners in their homes and cars.

For every cultural intangible I’ve seen, there are dozens more that I would love to see. And for every intangible that is still going strong, there are dozens that are swimming against the currents of globalization and urbanization. But I’m optimistic about the forms of cultural tourism that will help keep them alive.


12 2010

Tirana, Albania Wishes You Were Here

This article originally appeared on Suzy Guese’s travel blog  To see the original post, click here.
The article was re-posted on Lonely Planet Travel Blogs.  To see it, click here.  December, 2010.

In Tirana, Albania, the line between art and politics is a fine one.  The current mayor, Edi Rama, began his career as a sculptor and painter.  Although he is no longer a practicing artist, there are certain things about his artist mind that show through in his mayoral career.  He references art theory in speeches, for example.  When asked about the job of being mayor, he replied, “It’s the most exciting job in the world, because I get to invent and to fight for good causes everyday. Being the mayor of Tirana is the highest form of conceptual art. It’s art in a pure state.”


Perhaps the most obvious example of the artist-turned-mayor’s influence is the capital city’s buildings.  Rama has carried out a number of beautification projects in the city, including the vivid repainting of the formerly drab and uniform communist-style architecture.  Bright yellows, violets, and greens cover the gray cement of the past.  These are ‘Edi Rama colors.’  On some buildings, wild patterns of stripes, plaids, and polka dots add visual stimulation to the city’s facade.

To keep reading the original article, click here.


12 2010

Albania’s Accursed Peaks Seek Blessing of Eco-tourism

This article originally appeared in Balkan Insight. To view it, click here.  November, 2010.

High in the peaks of the “accursed mountains” in northern Albania, the remote village of Vermosh is waiting for visitors.

ecotourists in the north, Theth Albania

Since 1992, Vermosh has lost half its small population to emigration. The few hundred that remain live in subsistence conditions on traditional small-scale farming, propped up by remittances sent by family members working abroad.

Conditions are harsh, especially in winter, when the village is almost cut off. But while the village’s wild geography and sense of isolation was once seen as a liability, today it is viewed as a potential asset.

This article is premium content.  To continue reading, subscribe to Balkan Insight, or contact the author.


11 2010

The Tattooed Bunker: Colorful “Repurposing” in Shkoder, Northern Albania

This article originally appeared on the TIES blog Your Travel Choice. See the original article here. October, 2010.
The article was reposted on, environmental news and information portal, October 2010

In Albania, around 750,000 bunkers form a gray mushroom network across the country. This drab legacy of recent communism presents a creative challenge today. Albanians are transforming the bunkers into more purposeful structures, often with tourism in mind.

Tattoo Bunker, Shkoder Albania

Remnants of a Paranoid Past

Built of thick cement and iron, the bunkers are phone booth-sized subterranean fortresses with rifle windows and cement dome roofs above ground. Communist dictator Enver Hoxha built them in the 1970s in paranoia of nuclear warfare and xenophobia toward the rest of the world. The bunkers were never used. When Hoxha died in 1985, the communist regime lasted about five more years and collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Only two decades later, this history still haunts the present. Most of the 750,000 bunkers are still standing and crumbling slowly where they were built. Moving or destroying them is no small task. Each one was built with 5 tons of cement to withstand nuclear warfare. Myth has it that Hoxha hired the bunkers’ engineer by instructing him to shelter himself in the prototype while it was attacked by military explosives. The engineer survived, so Hoxha ordered almost a million of his bunkers to be built.

Creative Re-purposing

Today, Albanians face the question of how to address these scars from the past. Most are simply worked around, while some have been destructed by explosives in order to build in their place. While the majority of the 2-person pillboxes continue to blight the landscape with concrete and iron, a rare few have been “re-purposed” into worthwhile structures such as planters, cafes, playground equipment, and pieces of graffiti art.

The creative re-purposing of cement bunkers is a telling metaphor for Albania’s recovery from its recent communist past. One project, Concrete Mushrooms, has secured resources for the research and documentation of Albania’s bunkers. The organization works toward “inverting the meaning” of these symbolic structures by “giving bunkers value instead of having them as a burden.” Concrete Mushrooms identifies ecotourism-related uses for the bunkers, such as tourism information points, cafes, and even accommodation, as an area with real potential.

The Tattooed Bunker in Shkoder

On the highland road north from Shkoder to Tamare, where population is sparse, bunkers are also fewer and farther between. Here, a bright example of creative re-purposing can be found. A large bunker has been converted into a tattoo parlor. This one is easy to spot – the concrete is colorful, with “tattoo” painted on the outside dome in graffiti-style lettering.

For fearless tattoo shoppers, ink enthusiasts, or those who are simply curious, it is worthwhile to pull over and see this place and the tattoo artist, Keq Marku Djetroshan, who works there mainly during the summer season.

Having lived in the United States for several years, Keq is fluent in American slang. When his time in the U.S. ended, he came back to northern Albania with his tattoo business. He serves mostly Albanians and Montenegrins who cross the nearby border. Inside the bunker-turned-parlor, the walls display more graffiti and an array of dog-eared tattoo art magazines sit on the table in front of the couch. Keq’s arms are covered with layers of tattoos, perhaps a re-purposing of his own scars from the past.

To visit the tattooed bunker, go to Shkoder & Albanian Alps Hotels, a local connection, for accommodation and tour information about Albania’s northern region.


11 2010

Six storybook guesthouses in the northern Albanian Alps: a photo essay

This article originally appeared in the Local Travel Movement. To see the article, click here. October, 2010
The article was reposted in The Travel Word.  To see it, click here.  October, 2010.

Local-minded travelers in Albania love to get deep into the heart of Albanian nature and culture. That is why they choose traditional, family-run guesthouses for visits to Theth and the northern Albanian Alps. These wood-shingled stone structures have long endured the harsh winter-weather conditions of the region and now exhibit a visual charm captured by Local Travel Movement partner Outdoor Albania’s co-founder and photographer Genti Mati.

The Selimaj Guesthouse in Valbona, Albania.

The Selimaj Guesthouse in Valbona, Albania.

The village of Theth has made its way into the guidebooks as a must-see in the Albanian Alps, and for good reason. The nearby villages of Valbona and Vermosh are also idyllic, photogenic and even less tourist-trodden.

The Nacaj Guesthouse, Vermosh

The Nacaj Guesthouse, Vermosh

The village of Vermosh is in the northernmost tip of Albania, just a few kilometers from the Montenegran border. Given the population of only a few hundred people, rural serenity is guaranteed.

The Nika Guesthouse, Nderlysa (near Theth)

The Nika Guesthouse, Nderlysa (near Theth)

The whitewashed exteriors and antiquated roofing of traditional guesthouses lend them character and distinction. They punctuate the postcard landscape of the Albanian north.

The Mitaj Guesthouse, Vermosh

The Mitaj Guesthouse, Vermosh

The families with guesthouses in Vermosh are hoping that their village will follow in Theth’s footsteps as an emerging destination for tourism in Albania. A highlight in Vermosh is the Mitaj guesthouse and nature hostel, where the owner has actually built a treehouse bar on his land.

The Roza Rupa Guesthouse, Theth

The Roza Rupa Guesthouse, Theth

Various development organizations, such as the German Organization for Technical Cooperation, have worked with the host families in the area to bring their guesthouses up to standard. While travelers must keep in mind that these are very modest, simple and rustic family home environments, they will be pleased to find that the accommodations do provide a comfortable stay.

The Terthorja Guesthouse, Theth

The Terthorja Guesthouse, Theth

The village guesthouses of the north are perhaps at their finest in the late summer and autumn. Fall foliage in this region adds an extra layer of enchantment.


11 2010