North Carolina Teen Goes On The Ultimate Gap Year Trip

DNU joe baker gap yearReade Paterno (left) and Joseph Baker (right) hanging with elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Photo: Courtesy of Joseph Baker

Instead of heading directly to college after high school graduation, Joe Baker and Reade Paterno of Chapel Hill, NC decided to take a “gap year” and travel the world.

Read about Joe’s decision to take a gap year >>

They waited tables for more than a year to raise funds for the nine-month trip, which took them to 11 countries across three continents. Baker saved around $9,000 before leaving; his grandfather donated another $8,000.

While they didn’t nail down many specifics beforehand, the pair bought several major flights ahead of time. They tried to stick to a strict budget, at times eating only bread and eggs to conserve funds. Baker said he ran out of cash just a day or two before his family met him in Spain for the last leg of his journey.

Baker shared some photos highlighting the best moments of his travels, which he explains here in his own words. Click through to see what his gap year was like.

Click here to see the highlights of Joe’s gap year >
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This is Reade and me at the very beginning of the trip as we were just figuring everything out. We decided that we wanted to get at least one souvenir from each country, so in Peru we could not resist the Bill Cosby-esque sweaters made from baby alpaca wool.

This is the beautiful view we had from our hostel room, overlooking the city of Cusco as the sun went down with the mountains in the background.

These baby alpacas are just as soft as the wool they provided for our sweaters. Groups of women would wander the city with their herds of alpacas and for a small price allow travellers to take a photo with them.

Our inexperience at the beginning of the trip caused us to schedule too much time in Cusco, Peru. But we decided to make the most of it and fill our time with various unplanned activities. Bungee jumping is still one of the most memorable and heart pumping experiences we had the entire year.

Here I am at the highest peak on our 3-day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

After three days of hiking, finally getting a view of the world famous ruins was incredibly satisfying. Much more satisfying than simply taking a bus up to Machu Picchu.

Bolivia does not have the same aviation regulations as the United States and we took advantage of that for our flight to Rurrenabaque, in the Northern part of Bolivia. The pilots were more than happy to allow us to cram into the tiny cockpit.

We spent three days hiking and camping in the Amazon Jungle, and during that time we had numerous encounters with predatory bugs. Reade is about to exact revenge on our bug enemies by eating one of their children. Larva down the hatch!

We spent three days driving in the desert, and eventually felt trapped in our Land Cruiser. I escaped out the window for some fresh air, despite the dust whirling around outside.

Just one the the incredible sights we saw on our three day trip in the Bolivian desert. The lake is coloured by algae and minerals that saturate the water.

During the three days, our only bath came in the form of hot springs we visited on the last morning. The wait was worth it.

Our next stop was Iguazu Falls in northern Argentina. The falls blew away all my expectations, and were even more impressive than Niagara Falls. This photo did cause a little panic back home, as our parents thought we were withering away from malnutrition. Some of our friends even offered to start a food donation fund. We had to explain that when travelling on tight budget, some weight loss is inevitable.

After a stop in Buenos Aires we headed south to Patagonia. The Perito Merino Glacier is one of the last remaining glaciers in the world that is still advancing. The view of the glacier was breath-taking, and hiking on it was even better.

Hiking in Patagonia is probably the highlight of the entire gap year. My experiences there do not compare to anything else I have ever done and the immensity of nature still pushes the limits of my comprehension. Everyday we saw something more incredible than the previous day. Here's Reade enjoying the view.

On our final day we hiked to the best viewpoint of Cerro Fitz Roy, and even though the clouds did not cooperate the view blew me away.

After Patagonia we traveled to Cape Town, South Africa. We spent an entire month in Cape Town and never got bored. It is a beautiful place, with wonderful people and countless things to do. Here we are visiting Boulder Beach, where we were able to swim with penguins.

One of the most interesting parts of South Africa is its history. While we were there we visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for more than 20 years. Our guide was an ex-prisoner. He works as a guide at the prison to educate people about South Africa's difficult history, and work towards a better future.

We visited the Cape of Good Hope, and fortunately experienced beautiful weather. It seemed like an entirely different place than the treacherous coastline described in naval literature.

We went on a road trip to see a little of South Africa outside of Cape Town. One of our stops was an ostrich farm and we were given the opportunity to test the incredible strength of ostrich eggs. In this photo all my weight is being supported by one egg.

During the road trip we also went on a Safari. We saw four out of Africa's Big Five, as well as this cheetah who decided to pose for us.

From Africa we flew to Vietnam. After a stop in Hanoi, we visited Ha Long Bay. The weather was dreary and prevented us from lounging on the deck, but we still had a wonderful time visiting the floating villages and seeing the scenery.

This cave is part of the Phong Nha cave system in Vietnam. National Geographic recently discovered the largest cave in the world in this cave system.

After Vietnam we visited another ancient wonder of architecture. Angkor Wat in Cambodia was very different from Machu Picchu, but just as impressive. Though we aren't morning people, we decided it was worth it to wake up at sunrise.

We celebrated the lunar new year in Luang Prabang, Laos. The new year is celebrated by a town-wide water fight (which represents cleansing) and everybody drinking lots of beer.

The ruins have been around for so long that the tree roots have grown around them.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand we visited an elephant rehabilitation centre. I was impressed by their natural intelligence and friendly personalities. I didn't need any gimmicks like them playing soccer or painting pictures to fall in love with these gentle giants. They were too focused on their food to care that we were using them as a background for an awesome photo.

After Southeast Asia Reade had to go home, but luckily I was able to keep travelling. I flew to Rome and met my girlfriend who had just finished her freshman year of college. Here we are in front of the Coliseum.

The immensity of the Vatican pushed the limit of my beliefs in man made structures in a similar way that Patagonia pushed my ideas about nature.

The canals of Venice lived up to all the hype, but so did the crowds.

Peyton and I hiked in the Dolomites, the Italian section of the Alps. Here she is later, appreciating the detailed construction of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

We toured La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona with my family, who met us. This cathedral, designed by the famous architect Antoni Gaudí, has been under construction for more than 100 years.

We visited Spain's Costa Brava. Here's one of the small towns tucked into the coast's many coves.

My family and Peyton hiking in the Pyrenees. The Pyrenees were one of the last stops on my gap year trip, and they were a good way to end. They were beautiful and I was travelling with everyone I missed during the first seven months.

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