Meet The Stamp Collectors: Travel Gal Nicole

Meet The Stamp Collectors is a series of interviews with travelers who've reached the milestone of visiting 50 countries, hence they've collected 50 passport stamps. This elite group of adventurers share real-life insights about their love of exploring our precious planet. They are voyagers who seek out unique experiences and develop their own perspective through immersive travel experiences. I hope their stories and sage advice will inspire you to push your boundaries and continue to travel near and far. This is not a contest about who's been to the most countries but a reflection on what it's been like to visit at least a quarter of the world's nations.

Nicole LaBarge got her first taste for travel when she was 16 years old. Ever since then she has been hooked and calls herself a travelaholic. She's halfway to her goal of visiting every country in the world as she's been to 115. She was born in Wisconsin, USA and after college became a serial expat. She lived in London for two years, then Japan for a year before moving to New Zealand where she has lived for 13 years. Every time she goes back to the States for a visit she tries to visit more of the National Parks and has been to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. She also dreams of visiting Alaska. Nicole aka @TravelGalNicole loves traveling and just finished a five month trip around South America and the Caribbean.

What was the 50th country you visited?

The fiftieth country I visited was Belize. I planned a trip from Belize to Costa Rica one summer. Belize as one of my favorite countries in the region. Caye Caulker was the highlight for me as I went swimming with hammerhead sharks and nurse sharks and dived the blue hole. I loved the laid back feel and the people and it didn’t hurt that it was Lobster Festival when I was there! I just hit my 100th country in 2017 in Chile!

What was the first country you visited outside of your birth nation?

I did my first trip abroad to France when I was 16 years old as an exchange program for my French class. We spent three weeks traveling around France and I spent a week with my host family just outside of Nice. Visiting all of these amazing places in France really gave me the travel bug.

What's your favorite phrase in another language you've learned through your travels?

Ka Kite noa which is see you later in Māori the language of the indigenous population of New Zealand.

What is your favorite travel quote?

"I haven’t been everywhere yet but it's on my list!" - Susan Sontag

Which country cemented your love for travel?

I studied abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland during college. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I lived in a castle outside of Edinburgh with 70 other students. Edinburgh is an amazing city and I arrived during the Fringe Festival and Military Tattoo–two unmissable events. We spent our first two weeks in Edinburgh going to shows, bars, and immersing ourselves in all things Scottish. The Military Tattoo is an amazing event to see. It's at night at the Edinburgh Castle with fireworks and bagpipes. We were also able to visit other parts of the UK as well using our long weekends to visit the Highlands, Lake District, York, and Bath. Its also when I first visited London and knew I wanted to live there one day.

Which was your favorite country for food?

India. I have been three times now and every time I’ve been more and more impressed by the food. I love to go vegetarian when I’m India as it is the norm but I also find there is so much variety in the types of food you can eat. I’ve had some amazing curries even though I do not like spicy food! My favorite though is the dosas, Indian sweets, and chai. So delicious!

Which was your favorite country for nature?

Tanzania. One of my favorite countries in Africa. I went on safari in the Serengeti and as soon as we entered the gates we were greeted by a pride of lions and cubs who were only three weeks old! The Serengeti is one of those places where you see something different around every corner. I’ll never forget heading to our campsite and we came across over 50 lions. We stopped and watched them at a watering hole for over an hour. Our driver finally says we have to get to our campsite. My friend and I buckle up thinking we have quite a drive ahead of us but no, we drove less than five minutes around the corner to the campsite! It was quite an experience that night hearing the hyenas laughing, the elephants breaking down trees and the lions roaring in the distance–I’m telling myself they were far, far off!

Which was your favorite country for street art?

Colombia. Walking the streets of Bogota was amazing. The street art there is so unique from what I have seen in other countries. Real artists telling a story through different mediums. There is a lot of talent there and I was completely surprised that some artists are able to create a piece in two hours. Some were able to create pieces with illusions. What I liked most about this is that building owners actually commissioned artists to paint on their building.

Which country left a lasting impression on you?

Scotland has left both good and bad impressions on me. The first time I lived in Scotland I had an amazing experience with the people and of course the stunning scenery. I recently revisited for a wedding and I was shocked by the number of people there and how no one really had time for anyone. That wasn’t the Scotland I knew and loved. I think a combination of over tourism and Brexit had led to uncertainty as to where things were going. Of course, there is still stunning scenery in Scotland, you just have to share it with a million other tourists.

Which country exceeded your expectations, and why?

Argentina. What a stunning country and the people are amazing. And the country is so rich in history and culture. And the empanadas! I do not have a bad thing to say about Argentina and I can’t wait to go back and explore more. The food scene there is right up my alley with steak and wine. One of the coolest things I did was a bike tour of Buenos Aires. I covered so much area and got a really good history lesson about the city. We saw a lot of cool street art along the way too. Our guide was really knowledgeable. The other highlight was Iguazu Falls

Which country disappointed you, and why?

I know this is not a popular opinion but I have to say I was not that impressed by Vietnam when I visited in 2012. I had heard such good things and I was really excited to go from the food to the beaches to Halong Bay! What I found was a very closed country that didn’t want to share much about their history and culture. I was completely moved by the history there and the wars the people have lived through but no one wanted to discuss it or talk about the history. I found that difficult to deal with and I left the country feeling like I hadn’t really explored it which was disappointing. I do want to go back and see if I have a different experience as it is much more open to tourism now.

Which country was completely different than what you expected?

Ecuador. I had booked an Airbnb in Quito and it was one of the best decisions I made there. I had a fabulous host who was like a friend to me. She gave me really good directions to take the bus to the Equator which cost me less than $2 instead of booking a tour for $50. I started feeling more confident about my Spanish and I was able to converse better with people. I was also there to visit one of my dream destinations, the Galapagos Islands. Exploring the Galapagos was amazing as I am an animal lover and wanted to go swimming with seals and snorkeling with sea turtles. I just loved the vibe there and the beaches were absolutely stunning.

What country are you eager to get back to?

Chile. I really want to get to Patagonia and Easter Island. I wanted to spend a month exploring but when I was there earlier in the year I just didn’t have the time so I went to Santiago and Valparaiso before heading to Paraguay. I saw a bit of the Atacama Desert as well when I was exploring the Salt Flats in Bolivia. It's really interesting how different it is in every area of the country which only seems fitting as it is so long!

What is your all-time favorite country?

New Zealand. It’s the country I fell in love with 13 years ago when I first moved here and I still love to return to after every trip. What most people think of in New Zealand is the beautiful landscapes of the South Island. Living in Wellington on the north island I'm near the beach and walk along the harbor when I go to work. I love how friendly everyone is here and also having a good work-life balance.

What keeps you motivated to continue traveling?

Every time I travel to a new country I learn something new about myself! Yes, I learn a lot about different foods and culture and religion but what I take away most is new things about myself. How strong, resilient, and brave I can be. I also learn about what I enjoy and how I want to spend my time doing things I love and learning. I love to dig deep below the surface and see what is really there. Can I make it three days without a shower in 50-degree heat in the Sudan dessert? Yes, I can. Can I speak food in almost any language? Oh yes, I can and it leads to some delicious meals.

What is your top travel tip?

Whenever I arrive in a new place I always have my first 24 hours planned. I know what time of day I will arrive at the airport, how to get from the airport to my hotel, and what is around my hotel so I can grab some food. I find this works really well as I am quite jetlagged flying from NZ to wherever as it is usually at least a 12 hour flight and countless time zones. Once I’ve been able to sleep and get on a schedule I am a bit more relaxed but as a solo female traveler, this is what I need to do to feel comfortable.

What countries are on your bucket list?

I would love to go back to Africa especially Madagascar, Reunion, and Mauritius. I’m fascinated by Madagascar and I want to go before it gets on the tourist trail. I would love to go lemur spotting in the wild and also see the Baobab trees. Plus I’ve heard there are some insane beaches there along with Reunion and Mauritius.

Where are you headed next?

I want to see the more adventurous side of French Polynesia and go caving, swimming with whales, drive ATVs instead of just staying at a resort and laying on the beach in Tahiti–although there will be plenty of time for that too. I love snorkeling so that’s always a great activity to keep you busy following the fish around.

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