The Return Flight

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Today, after 375 days of travel across 5 continents, I’m headed back to the U.S. I pack the remaining things that Stoytcho didn’t take with him last week, then it’s off to the Berlin airport. Wow Air had the cheapest flight I could find, so I have a 4 hour layover in Reykjavik before flying on to Boston.

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I board the first plane in Berlin and fly through overcast skies without incident, spending most of the time thinking about apartment hunting and what I’m coming back to. It has been a tumultuous year in the U.S., exhausting to watch from afar, but likely even more exhausting for those living in the States. I don’t exactly know what I’m coming back to, and though I have a job waiting for me, part of me does not wish to return. It’s easier to not go back to the problems. But running from the problems won’t solve anything, and even worse, it leaves behind those who can’t leave.

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I land in Reykjavik just in time for the winter afternoon sunset and spend most of my layover working on blog posts, wandering through the duty free shop, and staring out at the snowy, golden landscape. I am grateful for the warmth of the airport as I board the next plane and experience a brief blast of icy air.

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The dusk flight from Iceland to Boston is the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced. The jagged rocks of Iceland’s coast interlace with the dark sea and wisps of hanging mist. Above the clouds the sun dyes everything a golden orange with purple shadows.

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I drift in and out of sleep and wake to the captain making a PA announcement: we’re passing over Greenland. Below us, a mountainous landscape cloaked in purple and white stretches out endlessly. The winter extends the Greenland landmass with icebergs in the sea.

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Though we are chasing the sun, it outruns us and eventually the plane slips into darkness. I sleep a bit more, and wake to a jolt and the announcement that we’re coming in for landing. Below and ahead, thousands of rainbow lights twinkle on the horizon: the Boston harbor at night.

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As we come in for landing the dots become brilliant streaks of light out the window, and then we’re at a standstill, back on U.S. soil with all of its fear and hope for the future. I spent the better part of a decade planning and saving for this trip. Now it’s time to move on. And while our round-the-world trip is over, the journey is not. It will continue, always, in every person we meet and inspire to take their own first steps away from the comfort of home.

Our 20 best New Zealand landscapes

With its swooping green hills, sandy beaches, and snow-capped peaks, New Zealand is effortlessly beautiful. And while anyone with a camera or phone can capture the country’s wild perfection, though photos don’t do the land justice. For you, who hopes to visit, who has visited, or who lives there now, we present our fifteen most breathtaking landscape photos from our two weeks on the North Island. And it’s just a small slice of New Zealand’s beauty:

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People fishing at sunrise near Mangawhai Heads, Northland Peninsula
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Foragers collect cockles on a beach, south of Auckland
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Early morning at a campsite in the center of the North Island
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Sheep run across a grassy hill near Cape Reinga, Northland Peninsula
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The view from the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, Northland Peninsula
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Clouds (shadows) and people (black dots on right) pass over dunes at the Te Paki Sand Dunes, Northland Peninsula
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The endless hills of New Zealand as seen from the Forgotten World Highway
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Volcanic cones rise from the landscape at Tongariro National Park
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Taranaki Falls and Wairere Sream cut through the landscape of Tongariro National Park
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Wairere Sream just before plunging over Taranaki Falls, Tongariro National Park
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Patchwork vegetation grows in the shadow of a volcanic cone, Tongariro National Park
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The Tongariro National Park landscape on a rainy day
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Tawhai Falls (Gollum’s Pool) on a rainy day, Tongariro National Park
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The cooling tower of Ohaaki Geothermal Station disappears into the clouds, central North Island
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Steam rises from hot springs and rivers hidden in the forest, central North Island
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Late afternoon on the tramping track in Puhoi, Northland Peninsula
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Sunset and cloud formations as seen from the Mounds Walk, Tongariro National Park
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Sunset on a rainy day, including a distant rainbow, at Nevin’s Lookout
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Sunset and dusk in one photo as seen from Nevin’s Lookout
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The last rays of sunset over New Zealand’s hills at Nevin’s Lookout

The Salkantay Trek in 20 Photos

Here is our 4-day, 56 km trek along the Salkantay, for those who would rather have it in pictures than in words:

Day 1

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A fork near the start of the trail. The first day’s trail has several such junctions.
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Reaching Parador Horanda Pata, the first vista along the trail
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Hiking deeper and higher into the Andes
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A view of Salkantay Mountain overshadowing Sorayapampa, the first night’s campsite

Day 2

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A cow rests in the valley below the Salkantay Pass
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Campsite at Salkantaypampa on the way to the Salkantay Pass
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Switchbacks rising from the valley floor up to the Salkantay Pass
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The top of the Salkantay Pass on a rainy day
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The mists of the rainy season hang over the Andes on the other side of the Salkantay Pass
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The rainy season temporarily converts the trail down into a slippery stream. This is how I slipped and fell and hit my neck (but not where it happened, thank goodness, or I’d be much worse off).

Day 3

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A view of Salkantay Mountain over our campsite last night (Wayramachay)
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A turquoise river flows through the dense jungle next to the trail.
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Hiking mostly downhill today, a welcome change. I’m wearing a makeshift neck brace after yesterday’s fall.
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The Santa Teresa/Salkantay River at high levels from the rainy season
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A washout on the steep valley trail beside the river. This one was thankfully passable.

 

Day 4

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Operating the gondola to cross the river at our campsite (Winaypocco). We tried to venture further on this side of the river but encountered an impassable washout.
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Locals wait as a CAT digger clears a washout on the vehicle road. Rainy season brings washouts throughout the valley. Some (like the one above), cut people off from the outside world for several days.
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Hiking the hot, shadeless vehicle road just outside of Playa. From here, we took a car to Santa Teresa to find a doctor and make sure I hadn’t been injured from Day 2’s fall.
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The first hot meal after four days of trail food, after arriving by car in Santa Teresa.
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Reference stacks at the Santa Teresa medical clinic. We visited to make sure I haven’t seriously injured my neck. It all turned out fine.

Our 14 best landscape photos from the Galapagos

This is the end of our time in the Galapagos, which despite tourism has been one of the wildest, most beautiful places we’ve ever seen. Here are the fourteen best landscape shots we took while on the islands:

 

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Salt water is dried to create salt crystals in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

 

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Waves crash on the rocky shore of North Seymour Island

 

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A frigatebird flies in the early evening sky at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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The moon rises over the Palo Santo trees at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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Green lowland scrub and Palo Santo trees against the backdrop of blue sea and cloudy sky at Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

 

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Ripple patterns in the sea in Tagus Cove, Isabela Island

 

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Ripples in a hardened lava flow reflect the afternoon sun at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island

 

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Silhouttes of Palo Santo trees against the cloudy sky at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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A volcanic hill overlooks the marsh at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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Isabela Island rises behind the Santa Cruz II at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island

 

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Champion Island, an extinct volcanic cone, rises from the ocean off the coast of Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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The sun sets over Fernandina Island

 

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Ancient volcanic hills and vents in the sunset at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island
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Sunset on the beach at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

Now we’re off to Cusco, Peru! See you there.

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Natalie flaps farewell to the Galapagos