Kelli Lovett is the author and creator of The Vanabond Tales. A blog focused on slow, self-directed travel. A small-town country girl with a passion for travel, Kelli spends most of her life living on the road with her partner in their self-converted van.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
A question that people ask me often, and one to which I am usually unable to respond! It took me quite a while to come up with my top three. Mexico wasn’t my first instinct, but it keeps resurfacing. Growing up in the US, Mexico, never felt that exotic to me. I also imagined Mexico to be comprised mainly of the tourist hotspots seen on tv and in magazines, places like Cancun and Cabo, which didn’t hold much appeal to me. But after spending seven months driving from top to bottom, exploring tiny villages and remote beach towns, travelling Mexico has been one of my favourite experiences, and it has become one of my favourite countries.
Beautiful and diverse with a gorgeous coastline, stunning waterfalls, arid desert, and green jungles, the scenery in Mexico is second to none. Populated with small towns and sprawling metropolises, the people of Mexico are warm and welcoming with a fascinating history and culture. Mexico is also cheap and a safe place to travel. However, if I had to pick one reason why it tops the list, it would be the food. From the ubiquitous street tacos to the hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop restaurants to fine dining, the relationship between culture and delicious food here is close to my heart. My advice for those planning to visit Mexico is that this country is much more than Cabo, Cancun, or Tulum. To see the real Mexico, you need to leave the inclusive resorts and private beaches behind!
I may be a bit biased here as my partner is from Australia, but few countries in the world rival Australia in terms of natural beauty. A vast expanse of unpopulated wilderness surrounded by incredible coastline, Australia plays host to a diverse array of environments, remarkable wildlife, and some of the world’s most acclaimed natural wonders. So it is little wonder why Australia is a bucket list destination for so many.
Some of my favourite destinations and experiences in Australia include the remote, 4WD adventure to the northernmost point in Australia on Cape York known as “The Tip”, hiking Hinchinbrook Island in Far North Queensland, and exploring the magnificent Bungle Bungle Range in Western Australia. But outside of the natural beauty, Australia is one of my favourite destinations because of how easy it is to travel. Despite the vast distances between everything, Australians love to explore their backyard, and their country is well set up for travellers. Australia’s approach to travel (and everything else) is just a little bit more relaxed.
A whirlwind trip to Beirut while living in Europe remains a highlight of all my travel experiences. Delicious Middle Eastern food, fantastic wine, and a rich culture steeped in incredible history, my trip to Lebanon was an experience I will never forget. One thing that struck me about Lebanon was the contrast present in all facets of life. Contrasts such as exploring the world-class wine region of the Beqaa Valley yet having to undergo a weapon search of the vehicle to get there. Derelict buildings and poverty next door to world-class restaurants and bars.
Lebanon, to me, was a place of contradictions. An exotic culture steeped in history, a country torn apart by war and strife, and yet still a modern, developed society full of all the contemporary conveniences we have grown to love. I rarely leave a country already planning my next trip, but Lebanon was an exception.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Snowy Night in Tallinn
One Christmas night in Tallinn, Estonia, altered my course more than any other. Having travelled the world and making so many friends along the way, a backpacker hostel in Eastern Europe was the last place I was expecting to meet someone. Eddie was on a 16-month backpacking journey through Asia and Europe. I was on a weekend trip to see another European country whilst living in Amsterdam. We crossed paths in a small and practically empty hostel in the cold Estonian winter.
After returning to Amsterdam, we stayed in touch and took a couple more weekend trips in Europe together before Eddie returned home to Australia. A few months later, I organised a three-week trip out to Australia to visit and not long after that, Eddie relocated to Amsterdam. Since then, we have travelled South America, the US, Mexico, and Australia together and have no plans to stop anytime soon. It just goes to show you how you cannot predict how your life will turn out. A quick trip to Estonia to tick another country off my list whilst living in Europe has turned into a full-time life on the road with my forever travel buddy.
A Surprise Meeting in Madrid
One of my fondest moments while travelling was another chance meeting, this time in Madrid. As I was chatting with a traveller at the bar, they revealed another woman was in the bar from my home state. I came to find out we knew each other from college. Following this random meeting, we ended up spending the next eight weeks travelling through Eastern Europe, quickly becoming friends for life. If it wasn’t for this travel moment and this friend’s inspiration, I probably would never have travelled solo, never would have visited as many countries as I have, and never would be living a life on the road.
During my university studies, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of the inaugural trip of Lead Abroad. This study abroad trip focuses on hands-on learning as opposed to reading textbooks and your typical study abroad. As part of this trip, we spent a large portion of our time in a nearby township volunteering and engaging with the locals in the community. The following year, the next group of students landed in Cape Town. Unbeknownst to me (and a surprise to everyone else as well), a little Kelli had arrived during the year. A local had decided to name their newest addition to the family after me. It just goes to show you never realise the impact you might have on other people.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Picture yourself fast asleep in the back of your camper van in a foreign country, in the dead of night, when you hear a rustling from within the car. Waking to find your partner is fast asleep, but an unfamiliar pair of eyes gazing at you from the front seat just meters away. This is the exact experience I faced in Palanque, Mexico. As I sat up screaming bloody murder, the stranger, who I suspect was equally surprised to find people sleeping in this particular van, leapt out the passenger door and took off into the night.
I shook Eddie awake violently since he seemed not to hear the screaming, he awoke groggily and stumbled into the street, but it was deserted. Then, getting back in the car, he asked me patronisingly if perhaps I had dreamed the whole thing. The missing lock barrel from the door and various bits and pieces the thief had managed to snag from the front seat corroborated my story. Luckily, he only made off with a camera lens and a rain jacket, but it would be a few weeks later before I slept through the night again.
Route 28b in Peru
While travelling South America with (another) van, Eddie and I found ourselves in a small village near Machu Picchu, Peru, waiting for road blockades and protests over coca leaf prices to abate. When it finally did, and the route was clear, we decided to head for Lima. Google offered us two choices a) backtrack the way we had come via Cusco, which would take 24 hours or b) a shortcut via an inland route which would take (so said Google) just 19 hours. Not a hard choice, right? With our route sorted, we set out on the road only to find we had not one but two deflated tires, victims of the angry mob of protesters who blocked our way previously.
With a bit of luck, persistence, and two trips to the mechanic, we managed to finally get going as the last light was fading. Leaving what we thought was the worst behind, we trundled away towards the inland route. What we did not know was that the adventure was only just beginning. A bitumen road that slowly dwindled to barely a goat track, our inland route was more than we bargained. The 19 hours turned into three days along dirt tracks, pothole-riddled roads, under waterfalls, and through the remote Peruvian jungle. At the time, it was one of the worst travel moments that I had experienced. But, looking back, I should have taken time to enjoy the genuinely spectacular Peruvian jungle!
Turkish Bath Gone Wrong
I visited Turkey in 2013 and experienced my first Turkish bath. I was hesitant at first but decided to give this popular local activity a try. This invigorating scrub down by an older woman in nothing but her knickers, followed by a warm soak, grew to be a favourite Turkish experience. When I visited Jordan a few years later with a friend, I was excited to introduce her to the Turkish bath after a full day of exploring Petra. I should have known something was amiss when I first arrived at the baths as there were no women in sight, but perhaps, they were in the baths.
I generously allowed my companion to go first while I relaxed in the sauna. The second clue, not all was well, came just five minutes later when my travel buddy exited the baths hurrying for the door without a word. But, hey, Turkish baths aren’t for everyone, I thought. A young man appeared at the door to summon me. It was finally my turn for a deep clean. I was surprised by zero friendly older women waiting to scrub me down when I entered the bath. Instead, I was alone in the room with this man who couldn’t have been older than twenty.
The man told me to drop the towel covering my body to lay on the bench. (FYI, it is taboo to be naked at the Turkish baths). Beginning to feel uncomfortable but assuring myself that he was a professional, I did my best to try to relax and enjoy the Turkish bath. As time went on, his hands began to wander. Finally, I decided to end this particular experience early and head for the lockers, confused about how this “bath” was still in business. I should have gone with my gut at the beginning and skipped the Turkish bath entirely. Nevertheless, it was a good lesson learned to trust yourself. If a situation seems a bit off, it probably is.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Take the road less travelled
A cliché but one that has earned its status and one to which I can attest. I can honestly say that the places less travelled and those off the beaten path have been my absolute favourite.
Talk to the Locals
Talking to the locals is especially true for van life and other self-directed travel, but it applies to any type of travel. The locals have the inside track on the best things to do, places to eat, and how to travel safely and respectfully in a region. By opening up a conversation with the locals, you may also open yourself up to new friends, experiences, and invitations from people excited to share their home and culture with you.
Eat street food
A common travel myth is that street food will make you sick. But in fact, street food around the world is some of the most delicious and authentic (not to mention cheapest) food you can find. Just make sure you pick the stall frequented by the locals.