Cindy Barks is an Arizona-based newspaper reporter, freelance travel writer, and travel blogger. Her blog, NearandFarAZ, gives readers an insider's view of the wonders of the U.S. Southwest, and a traveler's take on far-off locales from Panama to Hong Kong to the Czech Republic. Regardless of the destination, her goal is to find the perfect scenic hike, city walk, beach stroll, or road-trip jaunt, and bring it to life in her blog. Cindy's articles about outdoor adventures have appeared in numerous regional and national publications.
She was kind enough to answer some of our travel questions below.
TA: How many years have you been traveling and what got you hooked?
Cindy: As a college student in the 1980s -- in the days before online hotel reservations and easy credit cards -- I set off with two friends on a nine-week summer backpacking trip through Europe. Not exactly seasoned travelers, we ended up getting lost in every city from London to Athens. But along the way, we had the time of our lives. That trip set the course for the rest of my life as an avid traveler.
TA: Do you specialize in a particular type of travel?
Cindy: I like a variety, but outdoor adventure in Arizona and the rest of the U.S. Southwest is my overriding theme.
TA: What is the best vacation you've ever taken?
Cindy: Tough question, because I always come home thinking "that was the best trip ever." But looking back, a couple of recent trips stand out. I absolutely loved traveling through Panama -- from the lush mountains of Boquete to the unspoiled tropical beaches of the San Blas Islands -- with a friend and her daughter, a Peace Corps volunteer serving on a native Comarca. Another favorite was a trip with my son and future daughter-in-law to Taiwan. I was dazzled by the lively night markets of Taipei and the beautiful hot-springs culture of the northern region.
TA: What's one place you've always wanted to visit?
Cindy: Machu Picchu was on my bucket list before bucket lists were a thing. If I ever get there, I wouldn't be able to resist heading south to the coast of Chile and a road trip through the vast Patagonia region.
TA: What's one thing you ALWAYS pack when you travel?
Cindy: The one thing I really couldn't do without is my iPhone. I depend on it constantly for directions, Uber rides, audio-guide tours, photos, videos, and translations. Oh, also for calling home now and then.
TA: If you could only give a traveler one piece of advice, what would it be?
Cindy: Lean in! Try not to let travel annoyances such as jet lag, late trains, or missed reservations deter you too much. I'm all for getting out there and taking it all in while you can. The inconveniences and complications are all part of the singular experience of travel.
TA: Where was the most unusual place you've ever stayed?
Cindy: The description of accommodations on the San Blas Islands' Isla Diablo referred to the guest dwellings as "huts," and we definitely should have taken them at their word. After an hour-long boat ride through choppy waters, we arrived at the tropical island and were escorted to our sleeping quarters -- open-air thatched structures with sand for floors, blankets for doors, and air mattresses for beds. While the accommodations weren't luxurious, the gorgeous powdery-sand island setting certainly was.
TA: Which country has surprisingly good food?
Cindy: Prior to my visit to the Czech Republic, I had heard a lot about the beer, but not too much about the cuisine. Surprisingly, I found the food to be delicious -- from the crispy-light chicken schnitzel to the creamy risotto to the creatively flavored ice cream. Along with the traditional Czech fare, I noticed a strong Italian-food influence, all excellently prepared.
TA: What is the most beautiful and affordable city you've ever visited?
Cindy: I'll admit that most of my favorite cities are not known as being affordable. (Think San Francisco, Vancouver, and Amsterdam.) When it comes to a combination of beauty and affordability, I would have to go with Panama City, with its quaint, colorful Casco Viejo district. I loved the beautiful harbor and the old town/modern city vibe. Also, the ceviche rocked!
TA: Have you ever met someone while traveling who changed your life?
Cindy: Growing up, I always knew that my grandfather on my father's side had immigrated to the U.S. from Norway, and that the rest of his extended family had stayed in the home country. But my Norwegian relatives were always a bit of a mystery. That changed during a college backpacking trip, when my sister and I spent a lovely five days getting to know our Norwegian heritage. While there, we were able to meet two elderly great-aunts, who cried while they told us about seeing my grandfather off to America as little girls. It was the last time they would see their brother, my grandfather, who died before I was born. For me, it was an overwhelmingly poignant moment, and one that has stayed with me through the years.
TA: Have you ever taken a class while visiting a foreign city? If so, can you tell us a bit about the experience? And would you recommend people take that class?
Cindy: On a recent solo trip to Hong Kong, I decided to immerse myself in the local food scene by taking a cooking class through Home's Cooking School & Wet Market Tour. Along with two classmates from Australia, I met up with the course owner and instructor Joyce at Hong Kong's MTR Shau Kei Wan subway station, and from there, we went to one of Hong Kong's large street "wet markets" to buy ingredients for our coming meal. The market was an eye-opener. Huge trays of prawns in one store front. Mounds of awabi (abalone) in another. And all over -- fresh fish, still flopping from the ocean. From the market, we proceeded to Joyce's high-rise apartment building to cook our meal of golden shrimp, spring rolls, and sweet dumplings -- all delicious. Overall, the course turned out to a high point of my Hong Kong visit, and I would definitely recommend it.
TA: Which underrated destination deserves to be more famous?
Cindy: While much of New Mexico is well-known to tourists, I found the southern part of the state to be somewhat undiscovered, and completely fascinating. On a recent trip, the area around Las Cruces let me indulge in two loves: Sand dunes and green chiles. White Sands National Monument is stunning, and the nearby Hatch, New Mexico at chile-harvest time in a foodie wonderland.