25 (more) experiences I’m going to have before I die … updated!

Three years after first committing this list of my 25 must-do experiences to my hard drive, here’s my light-hearted look at what’s been accomplished, what’s still “on the list”, and what’s been ditched …

Why I put my 25 experiences list in writing

When I was in Bologna, I met Judy. Judy introduced me to the idea of writing down the list of things I wanted to accomplish, to help make it real.

25 experiences before I die

Hiking in the (cloudy) Annapurnas, The Himalaya

I had such a list when I was 14. I’ve since seen the majesty of the Himalaya (that one took 22 years to become reality), scored a goal at Scarborough FC’s now defunct McCain Stadium, and dated a tall, dark and handsome guy. I think I must’ve been sniffing school marker pens when I wrote I wanted to compete in the London marathon.

Still, 9 out of 10 achieved must mean the hypothesis of this entirely unscientific experiment with a sample of 2 (me, Judy) must be true. Writing stuff down helps make it happen. Not least because you’re less likely to forget it.

So twenty-(cough)-something years later, this was my new list …

The ones about new experiences

1. Live in another city or country for at least 2 months – rent a place, shop where the locals shop, absorb the culture, speak – or try to speak – the language.
What I’ve done: I’m currently (December 2017) in Oaxaca, Mexico for three-and-a-half weeks. Half (ish) way there!

2. Climb a volcano
What I’ve done. I kinda did this in Guatemala in 2013, but it was so cloudy I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, never mind that I was on a volcano. So I decided it didn’t count, and I’ll be volcano-climbing in Nicaragua in January 2015 instead. Yay!
What I’ve done: I went volcano-climbing in Nicaragua in early 2015, went up Mount Etna on Sicily in April 2016, and saw first-hand the Colima volcano in Mexico in October 2016. We’ll put this one down as accomplished 🙂

25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - Julie Sykes at Mount Etna crater - The Gap Year Edit

At the top of one of Mount Etna’s craters, April 2016

3. Take the train over the Copper Canyon, Mexico. What I’ve done: Finally ticked this one off in October 2016, and it was worth every penny!

Julie Sykes Copper Canyon train - 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

All aboard the Copper Canyon Railway!

4. Drink a cosmopolitan in a fancy New York bar. I’m good at drinking cocktails. I just need to move the venue from York to New York.
Update November 2016: In light of the US election result, I’ve decided not to undertake any personal travel to the USA for (at least) the next four years. Update December 2017: Nope, still not going!

The ones about learning

5. Become fluent – or pretty much, so I can at least talk around things if I don’t know a word – in another language
What I’ve done: My Spanish improvement was slow, but went up a notch in early 2015 when I went to language school in Nicaragua! In late 2016 I took some private Spanish lessons, which ended when my teacher moved back to Spain – boo! However, I’m now (December 2017) in Oaxaca, Mexico, enrolled again in Spanish language school for two more weeks – hurrah!

reading Hemingway on the Florida Keys - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

reading Hemingway on the Florida Keys

6. Read a book by Hemingway. Cos I feel as though I should.
What I’ve done: The Florida Keys were an awesome place to fulfil this one in January 2015!

7. Learn to take fabulous photos of moving water
What I’ve done: Back in March 2015. I got some tips from a photographer guru and put ’em into practice. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to go to Iguazú Falls in Argentina on honeymoon in March this year, and now also own some filters. Sorted!

long exposure photo at Iguazu Falls - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

I used an improvised filter to help take this pic – aka my sunglasses 🙂

8. Learn to ride a motor-scooter, so I have options beyond a push-bike on future Asian adventures
What I’ve done: After finding out where to take classes in my home city, Andrew and I decided we’d buy each other lessons as our wedding (yup, wedding) gifts to each other. Update December 2017: We have singularly failed to do this as yet, but it is definitely still a plan for Summer 2018 🙂

The one about love

9. Fall in love … with someone who loves me too. All together now, aaaaahhhhhh!
What I’ve done: After re-joining match.com, reading lots of books women of a certain age read when they are singletons, gone out, got phone numbers; things finally came together in August 2015 when I braved Tinder and met Andrew. We got engaged a year later, and married this February. He’s fabulous 🙂

Outside York Minster in a tuk tuk on our wedding day - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

Just Married! We had a quick photo stop after our wedding outside York Minster.

The ones about achievement and challenge

10. Hike more than a week of the Camino de Santiago, Spain
What I’ve done: Sussed out some routes and figured the Portuguese Way from Porto looks good. This is one for 2016 or beyond, I reckon … make that 2018 or beyond 🙂

11. Climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
What I’ve done:
Er, yeah, not even looked at this one!

The ones about lifestyle and fitness

12. Run 10km in less than 55 minutes
What I’ve done: Ok, this one’s frustrating the hell out of me. After joining the almost-as-cheap-as-chips gym near my house and managing to speed up by a few minutes, I entered a 10k in August 2015, in part inspired by Sir Ranulph Fiennes! My racetime was 55:21 – a race PB but 21 seconds short of my target. Since then, I’ve consistently managed to do training runs around the 54 minute mark, but race times of 56 minutes. Grrrr.

However, a bigger achievement was that, in May 2017, Andrew and I each completed an Iron Man triathlon over the course of the month (2.4 miles/3.86km of swimming, 112 miles/180.25km of cycling, 26.22 miles/42.2km of running), raising >£300 for Macmillan Cancer Support in the process. Meanwhile, the 55-minute 10km running goal WILL be achieved in 2018 🙂

Askern 10k, May 2017 - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

May 2017, another 56-minute 10k at Askern (Andrew was a lot faster!), but we raised over £300 in May for Macmillan


13. Do a regular yoga practice
What I’ve done: My yoga practice has been patchy, to say the least. I have gone to the occasional class, but occasional is the operative word. Best have a word with myself.

The ones about being creative

14. Design and sell something artsy.
What I’ve done: Yeah, not done that. Yet.

15. Own a Sulca weaving. He’s a weaver based in Arequipa, Peru, who I visited back in 2007. One day one of his works will be mine. One day …

16. Do cool textiles things in Oaxaca, Mexico. Cos I love Oaxaca. And all things Mexico. And textiles.
What I’ve done: Well, I’m in Oaxaca at the moment (December 2017), so that’s a good start! I’m doing a very good job at window-shopping for cool textiles … but this trip’s all about the Spanish.

The ones about how I earn money

17. I will continue to work hard, take pride in what I do, be decent to people no matter who they are, and live my values. How people respond to me is up to them, but I’m hoping it’ll be good 🙂
What I’ve done: I set up my Limited Company, specialising in marketing and communications, back in June 2015, and interesting work is still coming in. I also have some cool business plans to develop in the early part of 2018.

18. Publish a book
What I’ve done: Got an idea, learnt from an author at a book-publishing talk. Not much else.

19. Get a travel / travel-related article published in a national magazine or newspaper.
What I’ve done:
Hmmmm, this one’s not a priority at the moment – one to revisit in the future.

20. Develop sources of active or passive income
What I’ve done: Errr, compiled a reader offer page and included affiliate links (where I get a small commission) in some of my posts. If you want to use them, that would be awesome! I have a few other irons in the fire too – linked to #17 and my business.

The one from Bologna

21. Have the courage to follow and act on my gut feel earlier and not succumb to some British “being polite and nice” thing I seem to do, even when there’s no need. This doesn’t mean be rude to people, rather that I don’t have to extend the hand of friendship to people whose actions deserve only civility.
What I’ve done: Put it into practice in Bologna (and since)

view over Bologna - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

Bologna – it’s inspirational just to look at it!

The one about getting up early (I am NOT a morning person)

22. See the sun rise over Bagan, Myanmar.
What I’ve done:
The current treatment of the Rohingya population in Myanmar means this one’s on hold.

The one about development

23. Volunteer abroad for at least a month, in a capacity-building role (not “voluntourism”).
What I’ve done: Since November 2015 I’ve been mentoring young people volunteering in Zambia and Uganda in all things business and marketing, via the Challenges Worldwide ICS programme. I’ve also started volunteering on a local community project in York this year (2017).

The ones about my family

I can’t completely influence these, but I can certainly offer my emotional support:

24. For my Cambodian sponsored child to fulfil his dream of becoming a policeman.
What I’ve done: In September 2015 I learnt that my sponsored child’s family had moved away from the area – I suspect for economic reasons, so I will never know if this one comes to pass. Since then I’ve been sponsoring a little girl in Bolivia.

25. For my mum and dad to go abroad. Neither of them have ever left UK shores. Getting them passports will be a challenge, getting them on a plane nigh-on impossible. I’m thinking Eurostar. Maybe Bruges?
What I’ve done: In hindsight, I’m thinking this “must-do” is more about me than it is about my parents. Mum, frankly, isn’t interested; and I’m not convinced Dad is anymore, either. I’ll play it by ear!

So, there you have it … some progress made in 2017! These experiences have already made my life richer, and I hope some of them have made – or will make – others’ lives even just a teensy bit richer too.

Why experiences are important to me

When originally writing this list three years ago, I was thinking about how my abiding memories have all been about the experiences and feelings I’ve had and shared, and the people I’ve met along the way. They’ve not been about anything I’ve bought, with the possible exception of the hangover I had when I was 19, resulting from the fact I’d bought about 16 vodkas 😉

In my view there’s no need to wait until New Year to make a list of what matters to you. If this post touches a chord, why not write your own list, and – where you can – see what you can do to make it happen …

What experiences have been your most memorable? Have you accomplished something you’d previously put in writing? Will you make your own list? Share your ideas and thoughts below.

How to visit Sicily’s Mount Etna by bus from Catania

You don’t need to spend a fortune to visit Sicily’s Mount Etna. Europe’s liveliest and tallest volcano is easily accessible on public transport by bus from Catania.

Mount Etna by bus from Catania | The Gap Year Edit

Etna, baby!

Read on for how to catch the bus there, and what to expect when you arrive.

The bus to Mount Etna from Catania

The bus to Etna from Catania leaves at 08.15am, the kind of time when a morning cappuccino would be preferable.

There are a couple of bus stations in Catania, located within a block of each other and the train station. For the Mount Etna bus, you want the lot nearest the train station just beyond the city transport bus stands. This houses AST buses.

Buy your tickets at the AST office in advance. The office is over the road from the station down a side street (the street has a WIND shop on the corner).

A return to Etna will set you back €6.60 Euro (just over £5 or about $7.50). The office is open early enough to get your tickets on the day, although in the height of summer you may want to get them the day before to make sure of a seat.

The bus winds its way up above Catania, stopping halfway at Nicolosi. Nicolosi is a pretty place, and the bus makes a handy half hour stop – enough time to grab a belated cappuccino and breakfast of granita or brioche in one of the central square cafes.

You’ll arrive at Etna’s Refugio Sapienza, at a height of 2000m above sea level, at around 10.15am.

The bus back is at 4.30pm – don’t miss it! It takes a little less time, as there’s no pause to break the journey in Nicolosi. You’ll arrive back in Catania at 6pm.

Getting to the top of Mount Etna from Refugio Sapienza

If your budget doesn’t stretch any further, there are a couple of old volcanic craters you can explore around Refugio Sapienza.

You could also hike up the remaining 1000 metres from here. Be warned though, the first 500 metres isn’t pretty; walking by the side of the cable car route along a dusty black lava-strewn road.

Fortunately, other options are available, although they’ll cost you a few Euro. Choose your package depending how active you want to be.

Cable car plus hike

For adventurers who want to stretch their legs and experience what Etna has to offer, the cable car plus a 2km hike up the remaining 500 metres is the way to go. The cable car takes you up to 2590 metres, with each car capable of holding six (small!) people.

Mount Etna by bus from Catania | The Gap Year Edit

The impact of Etna is all around. How much lava?

Public transport all the way

If you prefer to keep hiking to a minimum, you can book a jeep to take you from the 2590 metres point where the cable car ends, up to 2900 metres. From here it’s a shorter climb of 100 metres or so.


A return cable car ticket costs €30; check the times so you don’t get stranded (when we were there in April, the last cable car back down Etna was at 4pm).

A return jeep ride is an additional €39, which includes a mandatory guide.

You can pay by cash or card.

Pretty pricey when you add it all up, but the costs of operating on Etna are high. The cable car has been volcano’d out of action three times in the last thirty years!

Hiking from the cable car to the top of Mount Etna

You can feel the thinner mountain air at the top cable car station, some 2590 metres above sea level. Only another 500 metres or so in altitude to go!

The 2km walk up isn’t particularly difficult; although it’s occasionally disrupted by dust from the passing jeeps. Walk on the left on the way up to minimise being dust-blown and allow up to a couple of hours to reach the summit.

The views on the way are stunning. In April there were still patches of snow, which made for some pretty incredible contrasting photos.

Etna has four craters, and you can visit two of the lower ones (at around 3000 metres) easily and without a guide. Both offer variety – one is black lava, the other has a mars-like red glow.

It’s cold and windy at this altitude. On the day we visited it was 26 degrees Celsius in Catania; but my down jacket, gloves and hat were all made full use of on the summit! Don’t leave the sunscreen at home though. The factor 15 we took and reapplied twice still wasn’t quite enough for my now pink boyfriend!

Practicalities for visiting Mount Etna

  • Bring: Water, snacks, high factor sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, gloves, plus other warm clothing and shoes suitable for walking. You can rent warm jackets, walking boots and socks at the top cable car station for €3 Euro per item.
  • Buy: Appropriate travel insurance. Many policies don’t cover you for hiking above 2000 metres, so check the small print and upgrade if needed.
  • Gifts. Shops selling lava souvenirs, liqueurs, honey, wine and more are plentiful at Refugio Sapienza. The cable car gift shop is more expensive than other stores.
  • Eat: Food is in plentiful supply at Refugio Sapienza, plus some liqueur samples on offer when you get off the return cable car. There’s also a snack bar at the top cable car station.

[box type=”info”]I stayed in an Airbnb apartment for most of my time in Catania (££ discount off your first Airbnb stay with this link), and also had a one-night stay in the slightly fancy and recommended Liberty Hotel. I  used the Lonely Planet Guide to Sicily as an overall guide. Help the site by using these links, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

If you’re after a day trip in Sicily, you could do a lot worse than visit Mount Etna by bus from Catania. Crazy landscapes and endless photo opportunities await, along with the chance to tick off a bucket-list achievement (or is that just me?)

[box type=”info”]Prices and info correct in April 2016. You can also check out my other recommended day trips from Catania.[/box]

Have you been to Mount Etna? Did you go by bus or on a tour? Share your experiences below.

Lava, lingo, literature and light – “experiences before I die” progress

The first few months of 2015 have been pretty eventful. I spent two months travelling in Nicaragua, lapping up its spirit and diversity. I negotiated countless chicken buses, and fended off several questions about my solo travel status. I found new contract and freelance work back in the UK. And I met someone I thought I’d connected with, only to see fate have other ideas.

Overall, 2015 has given me a tonne of happy memories.

Many are because I’ve achieved some of my 25 (more) things I’m going to experience before I die. I committed these to paper back in December, and – woo, yay and woo again – progress has been made!

A lava lava action – I climbed a volcano

Nicaragua is home to 19 (count ‘em) volcanoes, so it would have been quite hard NOT to see any whilst I was there. Whilst visiting Volcán Masaya can be done pretty much by driving up to the crater – health and safety laws are a tad different in this part of the world; Volcán Telica near León gave me the chance to hike to the summit and peer into the bubbling lava in the crater below.

Plus, those volcanoes make for some pretty dramatic sunsets. Sigh.

experiences before I did: Volcan Telica crater - volcano Nicaragua

Yup, that is the smoking crater. At Volcan Telica in Nicaragua.

For more, read my post on visiting Nicaragua’s volcanoes without breaking (too much) of a sweat.

Learning the lingo – I became (more) fluent in another language

Ok, so fluent would be a huuuuuugely stretching description of my Spanish language “talents”, but two weeks in language school, followed by independent travel in Nicaragua, helped enormously. At least I can now make a passable attempt at the past tense.

Plus I had a drunken conversation in Spanish at 3am the other Sunday morning after a loooooot of vodka. That counts, right?

For the rest of 2015, going to Spanish Meetup groups will continue. Plus I’m aiming for a trip somewhere Latin America-esque later in the year. There’s still work to do on this one, folks, still work to do…

Classic literature – I read Hemingway on the Florida Keys

Hemingway passed me by at school, so as part of my occasional, “I must read some modern classics” phase (DH Lawrence was a step too far), I decided Hemingway was a must.

And what better place to buy a Hemingway novel than at his former home in Key West, on the Florida Keys?

I read the compelling and descriptively narrated, “The Old Man and the Sea” whilst watching the sunset over the Keys with a glass of wine. A general feeling of “this is the life” ensued.

Letting in the light – I learnt to take photos of moving water

Turns out you use the camera’s “TV” setting and turn the number down a notch. Who knew? I’m gonna pretend this has something to do with “light” (no clue!), cos that’s the only “l” word I could think of for this post title 🙂

The “TV” tip, from a photographer guru, worked a treat on a trip to beautiful Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire, and I’ve been putting in into practice since.

I’ve since joined a couple of photography groups on Meetup, so more opportunities to practice (and learn more from other guru types) should ensue…

More experiences before I die

Lava, lingo, literature and light – achieving these four things from my “25 experiences” list has meant I’ve seen incredible sights, embraced a style of learning I usually shy away from, read something I wouldn’t usually have picked up (and loved it), and met some unforgettable people along the way.

Embracing the “do-er” in me has not only given me those wonderful memories, but reinforced in me my famed sense of pride.

And, with several more of my 25 experiences yet to achieve, I know there’ll be many more proud moments and happy memories to follow …

What are you most proud of so far in 2015? Why did it make you feel that way?

How to visit volcanoes in Nicaragua without breaking (much of) a sweat

If you’re after large dose of volcano without an overdose of activity, here’s how to visit volcanoes in Nicaragua without breaking (too much of) a sweat.

If volcanoes are your world then Nicaragua is your oyster. Situated where the Caribbean and Cocos tectonic plates collide, the country is home to some 19 volcanoes, at least three of which have erupted since 2007!1

As a visitor, your volcano-ventures can come as with as much or as little adrenaline as you want, all with a side-order of stupendous photo opportunities.

Volcano-lite: Admire the volcanoes of Nicaragua from a distance

Grab a view point and admire those smoking summits from a distance. Top locations for spotting volcanoes in Nicaragua from a distance include:

The roof of León cathedral (entrance fee $3)

visit volcanoes in Nicaragua - view from Leon cathedral

It’s a volcano-tastic view from Leon cathedral

The ferry from San Jorge to the twin-volcanoed Volcán Concepción and Volcán Maderas island of Ometepe (ferry cost $2-3), or cycling / kayaking around Ometepe (kayak rental around $5 p/hr or $15 p/day)

The flight from Managua to San Carlos with La Costeña (around $75 one-way)

Stretch your legs at Volcán Masaya

You can drive right up to the crater of smoky Volcán Masaya; and hike a further 20 minutes or so in a couple of different directions (one of which is steep) to see the crater from above. Time it for sunset for some monster vistas.

visit volcanoes in Nicaragua - Volcan Masaya at sunset

Volcan Masaya at sunset. Oh yes.

Sunset’s also the time for checking out the lava-tube caves, home to thousands of bats.

visit volcanoes in Nicaragua - Volcan Masaya lava tubes

lava tubes at Volcan Masaya. Pretty cool.

Tours (around $15) combine sunset and caves for a spooky and smoky adventure.

Workout in the dark at Volcán Telica

The Telica sunset tour (around $25-40, depending on number of participants) features some hiking, a spectacular sunset and red-hot lava. It’s a popular choice from León.

Telica’s road access could be generously described as a 4WD dirt road. Expect bumps. Large bumps.

After the spine-shattering journey, you’ll be ready for an uphill jaunt. 45 minutes of up on the exposed (read: hot) trail brings you to the smoking crater, with views out to other volcanoes in Nicaragua that make up the Ring of Fire.

A further 20 minutes hike and you’re at a stupendous sunset view point, with the orange and red light of the setting sun filling the valley floor below to the brim.

Then it’s back up to the crater (another 20 minutes or so) to see the distant glowing lava in the crater below, before completing a torch procession back down the path in the dark.

More active adventures

For more active escapades involving volcanoes in Nicaragua, you can summit the 1,700 metre+ Volcán Concepción on the island of Ometepe, volcano board down the black ash of Cerro Negro, or trek the 1,300 metre+ peak of Volcán Mombacho.

Whether your desire is to conquer or to photograph, between Nicaragua’s 19 volcanoes, there’s sure to be one for you!

1. Source: Wikipedia.

Have you visited an active volcano? Where was it, and what made the experience memorable? Share your story below.