A Travellerspoint blog

Tanzania 2018

Not that it really mattered in the long run since our train arrived nine hours late in Dar Es Salaam, but we definitely held everyone up for a while at the border! We lucked out and everything we needed was available, just not easily available; not that it ever is! Jan, one of the new friends from the Czech Republic, and I had to quick jump out with one of the train employees, grab a taxi into the border town, and access the ATM. It was an incredible relief to see that money come out because the machine didn’t mention anything about accepting MasterCard. We rushed back, exchanged our money to USD, acquired our visas, and soon enough we were through to Tanzania!

As I mentioned before, the train was nine hours late, which meant the three of us spent around fifty-three hours together on that bad boy. It had been declared an “express” train when we departed, but I swear we must have made over one-hundred stops at towns and villages during the journey. Good news was that the scenery really kicked it up a notch once we entered Tanzania; especially the sunsets. Also, the restaurant sustained a surprisingly good quality of food the whole way, and they never ran out of cheap beers! It was the lengthiest train ride of my life, but easily one of the most memorable.

I was originally planning to take the ferry over to Zanzibar that afternoon and had booked a hostel on the island for that night. Luckily, I picked something with free cancellation because I had a feeling a delay could easily occur. Theo, the other member of the Czech cousin team, speaks Swahili. Therefore, upon exiting the train station in Dar, he arranged motorbike taxis to take us to some cheap last minute accommodation. We would take one of the morning ferries and figure it out from there. After chowing down on some local street food, I was pooped and ready for an actual bed!

The ferry ride went on without a hitch and we walked around Stone Town for a while, eventually stopping for lunch. There isn’t a whole lot to see, but all of the small alleyways and shops are certainly worth strolling through. Next, we jumped in a Dala Dala, which is essentially a shared mini-bus packed to the brim. We were headed to the Northern part of the island near the town of Nungwi. It’s not the most comfortable ride, but for a 1.5 hour journey, it’s sure hard to beat a dollar per person! We were hoping to stay at a place recommended by Theo’s friend, who was giving us a discount, but there was miscommunication on how expensive it was. Instead, we showed up and started speaking with the locals until we found someone who was willing to rent out their room to us. We could have probably found a hostel in Nungwi, but we decided we wanted to stay in this same area called Kendwa because there was going to be a full moon party the following night. Our room wasn’t the greatest but you couldn’t beat the price and location! Everything surrounding us appeared to be resorts.

By the time we got settled in, the sun was setting, so naturally, we booked it straight for the beach. It was stunning. Once the dark fell over us, we grabbed dinner, but then returned to the beach bar to meet up with the cousins’ uncle and aunt. It just so happened that their uncle was on assignment with a bunch of other Czechs working on the construction of one of the most beautiful resorts I’ve ever seen. It was going to open in less than a week, but we were given a private tour the following morning. That night we kept it pretty chill on the beach as the temperature was perfect and there were plenty of hammocks to go around.

It was the rainy season so we received several short downpours throughout the weekend, but it didn’t put too much of a damper on our island experience. Saturday afternoon offered great sunshine followed by breathtaking stormy-cloud sunset. We decided to check out a restaurant/bar on the beach in Nungwi where a bunch of the other Czech employees were hanging out before the full moon party. Next thing you know, it’s after midnight, so with the low tide we walked all the way back along the beach for thirty minutes until we reached the party. The scale didn’t compare to the full moon party I’ve been to in Thailand, but there was a still a solid crowd of both locals and tourists. The previous night the area seemed pretty dead, so it was cool to see so many people come from other parts of the island for the event. I had a fun time dancing the rest of the night, eventually making my way home as the sun began to rise.

I thought we would take it easy that Sunday after staying up all night, and make our way back to Stone Town. Our return ferry was Monday morning after all. However, by the time I woke up and found the other guys at the beach, they had already made some new Philipino friends at the bar. Before I knew it, we were already being invited over to their house for a small get together. It was totally unexpected, but we had a great time with them eating homemade food and drinking wine the rest of the night. A fantastic end to our time on Zanzibar; or so we thought.

The next morning we assumed we packed up with plenty of time for our taxi to make it to the port. We didn’t want to risk the lengthier Dala Dala ride. Unfortunately, as it so happened, due to an accident on the main road, we would end up spending just as much time. The detour caused us to miss the ferry by only a few minutes. Of course, the next ferry with available space wasn’t until 4PM. Thankfully, we were able to negotiate our new ticket price down, but we would end up spending some extra time exploring Stone Town. This ended up being nice because we missed a few key spots the first time. After a late lunch, I was definitely ready to pass out on the ferry. Turns out the late lunch was a bad idea. The sea was extremely rough compared to our morning ferry to the island, and within thirty minutes I couldn’t sit any longer. I opted for the deck outside to get some fresh air, which helped, but only for so long. I puked up everything I had eaten and I certainly wasn’t the only one on board with a bag in front of their face.

I was beyond relieved when we made it to shore, but wasn’t feeling 100% again until dinner. Theo’s friend picked us up and brought us to his Aunt’s house. It was very nice and the dinner they had prepared was delicious and plentiful. I definitely needed it to recover. Unfortunately, she didn’t really have space for all of us, so we crashed at a cheap hotel down the street instead. The following morning, breakfast at the house was also way over the top. The plan for the day was to meet up with another one of Theo’s old friends to go to Coco Beach in the North of Dar. It wasn’t nearly as nice as the beaches on Zanzibar. It simply wasn’t anywhere near as clean, but there were many cool rock formations to climb on. We sat down for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the bay and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. I was bummed that I had to miss the dinner that second night because I had a video call for my upcoming graduate studies!

We were out early the next day on a bus toward Moshi. However, we would not be going the entire way. Theo’s father lives in a tiny farming village deep in the bush, so there were many logistics involved to reach it. After an eight-hour bus journey, we hopped on motorbikes for another twenty minutes, slowly crossed a flooded river, and then his father picked us up in his truck for another hourlong ride. We didn’t sit down for dinner in the village until close to 10PM that night! Although very bumpy, the motorbike ride was a lot fun because we were in the middle of nowhere, but the sun was setting and I could see the top of Kilimanjaro way off in the distance.

The next two days were spent exploring the farmlands, and just hanging around, meeting the local villagers and Maasai tribesman. I also got a lot of reading done. It was very relaxing and something I would have never gotten to experience otherwise. We were all pretty confident that I may have been the only American to ever visit that village. Either way, most of those people rarely leave the area so seeing a tourist is a big deal! Mzungou is the Swahili word used in Tanzania for “white person”, and it’s pretty entertaining when all the kids are shouting it out at you. I also continually got a kick out of greeting others with “jambo” or “mambo”. We ate at the same little restaurant for every single meal. The food was simple yet very satisfying and the rice was on point! I was grateful that Theo’s father hosted us for a couple days of the “simple life”.

We were up at the crack of dawn for our ride out of the village. This time we were actually going to Moshi and the logistics would be a little bit different. First, we crammed with a bunch of other people into an SUV. Once we reached the flooded river, we were guided across with canoes. Finally, we hopped in another scrunched car to take us back to the main road. From there, a mini-bus drove us the remaining 1.5 hours. I had to stand awkwardly almost the whole time, but that’s what you get for cheap African transport! Upon arrival in Moshi, we walked to Theo’s grandmother’s shop, then made our way over to her house for lunch. She had a huge house with availability for us to sleep, but after lunch we went a little further down the road to Theo’s uncle’s house. Equally large, we would instead have it all to ourselves, each receive our own room, and most importantly there was a pool!

After settling in, we joined some old friends of Theo’s at this beautiful resort outside of town. There was a wedding that was being hosted, as well as a bar with the World Cup on. Since Theo knew the owner of the resort, and he was attending the wedding, drinks were all paid for us. We didn’t stay too long before moving to an old favorite bar of Theo’s for dinner. We finally made it to our end goal called Redstone, a club, closer to midnight. It was surprisingly big with good sound quality. Additionally, the prices were very similar to the prices at the store or restaurants for drinks, which is unheard of back home! All three of us made some lady friends and danced the night away, but I was completely exhausted by the end of it and passed out as soon as I stepped in my room.

The weather wasn’t ideal, but we decided to have a Sunday fun day BBQ pool party after the long night out. We went to the market and purchased several pounds of meat, veggies, potatoes, and beers, then grilled them up next to the pool. It was so tasty! I just kept eating and eating since we had enough food to feed a small army. The security guard for the house is Massai and some of his friends joined us as well, so we had a good mix of people hanging out that day. We decided we definitely needed to make it happen again that upcoming Friday evening. However, at that point I really had no idea how long I was going to be staying since I was still interested in checking out parts of Kenya.

Monday we took a mini-bus to the town of Marangu. It’s one of the main starting points for the Kilimanjaro climb and has several small villages and farms within its jungles leading up the mountain. Theo had spent some time here in the past and took us to a secret waterfall, as well as to some locals that sell banana beer and another half-fermented drink that they just drink out of buckets. Can’t say I was a fan of the bucket drink as it was quite sour, but I really enjoyed the banana beer at ten percent alcohol! I also had a great time simply interacting with all the school children and viewing the beautiful farms under palm and banana trees. We finished up the day with dinner and drinks at the Marangu Hotel, nestled in a beautifully lush clearing in the forest. I thought this was the end of our Monday, but somehow I let Theo convince me to come out with him on a pub crawl to many of the local spots we had yet to check out. It was pretty dead just about everywhere we went, but we managed to make an entertaining night out of nothing in the end. The highlight was indirectly starting a non-violent bar brawl at our final stop.

The three of us had managed quite a lot of fun so far in Moshi, but it was time to get my safari tour plans settled. Theo had no interest so Jan and I shopped all around town for a couple of hours. After much debate, for some reason Jan decided to bail in order to hang out more with his new girlfriend from our previous night out. That was completely fine with me. I had been with these guys for nearly two weeks already and I was definitely in need of some separation time. So, early the next morning I was picked up from the house and taken to Arusha to meet the rest of my tour group. The crew was a guy from Japan, a couple from France, and our guide Mike. It was really nice to only have the four of us in the back of the Land Cruiser that could seat up to eight beyond the driver.

We set out immediately for our first safari a couple hours away at Tarangire National Park. Supposedly the park is known for elephants, but I felt that they were probably what we saw the least. In any case, right off the bat, there were zebras, giraffes, antelopes, and wildebeests everywhere! The park was very open so you could see quite far in each direction. Soon after, we came up to where many other tour groups had stopped for a peak. Two lions were laying near the edge of a lagoon, pulling at what looked to be a wildebeest carcass. They were a bit far away, but it was my first glance at lions in Africa! We saw a few others just hanging out as we traveled further along that road, but none of them came up close, unfortunately. The rest of the day was great including some close encounters with giraffes, and me spotting a cheetah perched on a nearby rock. We finished the safari with lunch at a picnic area overlooking a river valley with hundreds of zebras. There were also a bunch of monkeys with blue balls, which I didn’t know existed, and they were constantly after our food. One of them actually jumped up on our table and took part of the French woman’s sandwich straight out of her hand!

We had a long ride from the picnic area to the lodge we would be staying at that night. It was located at the top of a mountain overlooking Lake Manyara. I had originally wanted to see Lake Manyara because it often contains thousands of flamingos, but they had recently migrated elsewhere apparently. We managed to catch a beautiful sunset before checking in to our rooms, and I woke up in time for the sunrise the next morning as well for good measure. The views were fantastic and unexpected. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for my room. It was simply a twin size bed in a hut. The good news was that the restaurant at the lodge had a TV and great WiFi, so I ended up hanging out pretty late that night. The dinner provided was filling, and an acrobatic and dance spectacle was put on by a bunch of locals at the conclusion of our meal. This was actually extremely impressive and the variety of tricks they performed was outstanding! The rest of my tour group nodded off to bed, but I stuck around to watch the World Cup and catch up on many online things I had been putting off all week, mostly due to lack of WiFi.

I was a little ticked that next morning that we didn’t depart earlier. The best wildlife viewing is supposed to be near sunrise, yet we didn’t leave until two hours after that, and then still had to drive two hours to enter the Ngorongoro Crater. I had been looking forward to the Crater more than anything else in Tanzania. Part of the delay was due to the fact that we were waiting on two more people coming from Arusha to join us. Although I enjoyed only having four of us the previous day, the addition of the two guys from Mexico and Australia did indeed make our second safari even more fun. I had no idea that the entrance to the National Park laid high up in a dense jungle. As we chugged along, I was so excited for a clearing to open up for a view of the crater. When it finally happened, it was magnificent and so much larger than I had imagined! The contrast between the jungles above fading down into an open expanse with almost no trees at all was staggering. The twisting road we took the rest of the way down showcased this beautiful difference even more. I was loving every second and we had yet to even see an animal.

As we lowered even further into the crater, I was able to start spotting animals from afar; there were dots all over the place. The amount of animals within the crater was ridiculous and it seemed like they continued to pop out of nowhere. We viewed some lounging hyenas near a pond, lions chewing on a wildebeest carcass, ostriches making funny faces, flamingos dancing, and a couple of rare rhinos in the distance! Large migrations of zebras and wildebeests took over much of the landscape, and by far the largest elephant I’ve ever seen loomed over them all. We also spent some time at two different hippo pools, but the action came few and far between. They were only interested in chilling, literally. I never managed to find a leopard during my safaris, which would have checked all of the “Big Five” for me. However, I was so satisfied with everything else I saw, not too mention the sheer beauty of the crater, that it really didn’t matter. Plus, I found out that the Leopard is best seen in the Serengeti, which is significantly more expensive to visit. We returned to the original viewpoint of the crater for more of a sunset take on it, and it was even more glorious than earlier! By the time I made it home that night, it was nearly 10PM. I was exhausted from the long car ride added on to all the time spent in the Land Cruiser that day, but it was well worth it.

That Friday we went through with our second pool/BBQ party, and this time I invited the girl I had met the previous weekend. We had a lot of fun together that night as our group made it out later on to a bar that had karaoke. I also found out that she was a baker on the side, so she agreed to bring me carrot cake cupcakes the following night! Most of that week, and even for the party, the weather in Moshi had not been the greatest. It was either mostly cloudy or overcast. Therefore, when I woke up that Saturday to sunlight, I took full advantage of the pool and continued where we left off. After some fun in the sun, as well as some leftover food and drinks from the previous night, I pulled off a three-hour much needed nap. The best part was that I woke up to a special delivery of some of the best cupcakes ever! Unfortunately, Anneth, my new girlfriend, couldn’t stick around that night, but I knew we would still get to hang out some more before I left Tanzania. I was actually trying to book my flight out of Africa that night and wasted over two hours on the phone with Chase. Their system was having issues and not allowing me to purchase with credit card points, which was a necessity for me! I let it go and hoped I could solve the problem in the morning.

I needed to fly out of Nairobi that Tuesday morning to make it to Paris in time to meet up with my friends. We had a train booked together to take us to the Tomorrowland music festival in Belgium. I went into town that Sunday morning hoping to knock out the flight purchase right away, but immediately ran into major issues. Due to it being a Sunday, all but one of the Internet cafes was closed, and the one that was open was having technical issues, of course! I decided maybe it would just be easier to buy a cheap SIM card for the day and be done with it. After thirty minutes, my phone would not register properly and I had to give up on that as well. In desperation mode, I turned to the only coffee shop I knew had decent WiFi. Thankfully, they were indeed open, but I was still having issues booking the flight. After a final twenty-minute call with Chase where I got disconnected three separate times, my flight was finally secured. I’ve never been so relieved!

I knew that someone was looking out for me as I made my way back to the house. After a much anticipated wait since I had arrived in Moshi, I could finally see Kilimanjaro! Most of the clouds had dispersed and it appeared as if they were going to clear even more as the day went on. I had seen the top of the mountain before we got to Moshi, but this was what I truly came here for. As soon as I returned to the house, Theo informed me that we were departing for some locally known hot springs. We took a combination of mini-bus and Bajaje (Tuk-Tuk) to reach it. During almost the entire ride I could see Kili off in the distance, and the behemoth showed off more of itself as we plugged along. The hot springs were in the middle of nowhere and weren’t actually hot. However, they were situated within a beautiful jungle oasis that made it unique. Many of the locals were swinging on a rope swing and little fish would continuously peck away at my feet, don’t their best to clean me. As we awaited our ride back, the sun set with Kili in the background, drawing an end to my Tanzanian adventure.

We had planned to make it back in time to watch the World Cup Final, but we messed up on the times and arrived at the restaurant just as it had finished up. Anneth met up with us and our group celebrated with a final meal and a couple rounds of our favorite beer, Kilimanjaro, naturally. I had one more night of sleep ahead of me at the house, and the next day I would be taking the bus across the border to Kenya. It was actually kind of hard to leave Anneth because I had spent the most time with her out of any other girl I met on the trip. At the same time, I had Tomorrowland on the brain and I was ready to get out of Africa! I was hoping this last travel portion of the trip would go smoothly, but one final challenge awaited me. First of all, my bus picked me up an hour late, so all of a sudden I was stressing more than necessary. Next, I had both read online and been advised by locals that I could pay the Kenyan transit visa by credit card. Of course, once we reached the border, this was not the case. My bank transfer had not managed to go through over the weekend yet, so I couldn’t pull out more money from the ATM. I then asked one of the only other tourists on the bus if he could spot me, and his debit cards weren’t working either!

After holding up the bus for what seemed like close to an hour; running back and forth beginning to freak out at my dwindling options to cross the border and make my flight leaving in six hours, all of a sudden a godsend tapped me on the shoulder with the required money. He didn’t want me to pay him back, he just wanted to get us moving on our way. I could not have been more grateful! Lastly, I would find out that the bus would no longer be making a stop at the airport. It would only be going straight into Nairobi, which I didn’t think would be the safest spot at 11PM at night. I made friends with the guy sitting next to me and he was so nice as to walk me from the bus station over to the Hilton hotel once we arrived. I knew this would be my best bet because I had no money, and figured the Hilton would help me out with some WiFi to order an Uber to the airport. The plan worked like a charm and I showed up by midnight for my 4:30AM International flight that I could not miss at all costs. Talk about cutting it close! As much as I loved Africa, I had never been so ready to both leave, and see some familiar faces on the other side!

Posted by Krackajak 06:55 Archived in Tanzania Comments (0)

Namibia/Zimbabwe/Zambia

After a couple hours of layover in Johannesburg, I connected to Windhoek, Namibia. For being the biggest city in the country, the airport was awfully small and in the middle of the desert. It was time to saddle back up into a rental car! I thought I would be receiving the wimpiest car possible, but I actually ended up coming away with what I would call a small utility vehicle from Ford. Good thing too because besides the main two-lane “highway” road skirting across the country, everything else is gravel. Luckily, for the most part, these gravel roads were better than in South Africa, and potholes were few and far between. Thank goodness! My journey began with a five-hour drive to Keetmanshoop. If somebody had told me that I was in Arizona, I would have believed them as the landscape was nearly identical; a theme throughout the country. There were very few options for accommodation in Keetmanshoop, even though it’s a decent sized town. I picked a guesthouse that appeared to be one of the cheapest. To my surprise, I received a huge room with two beds and a newly renovated bathroom/shower. It was very unnecessary and I only wish I could have taken more advantage of it.

The thing is that I was dead set on catching the sunrise at Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world. This required a two-hour drive that following morning, so I had to wake up extra early, per usual. The plan was to check out a few of the viewpoints along the rim. Fish River was not nearly as impressive as the Grand Canyon, but the lack of people made it extra special. There were a few others at the main viewpoint, but as soon as I made my way a few minutes South, I had the place all to myself! I felt so small being at such a big canyon in the middle of nowhere in Africa. I shouted out a few times with some incredible echoes hollering back at me and I was absolutely loving it. I wish I had some more time for hiking as there is a trek through the canyon that is popular, but I suppose that’s for another dedicated trip. I turned around to drive back to Keetmanshoop as there is a quiver tree forest nearby. The quiver trees are quite unique in their formation and appear to be from another planet. They grow all over Namibia, but typically it’s just a few at a time, rather than an entire batch of them. It’s Namibia’s version of the cactus and the limbs contain aloe vera instead of water.

As much fun as it was frolicking amidst the trees, I was antsy to reach my next destination before sunset. I had spent the big bucks to stay at a lodge camp near the entrance of Sossusvlei, the National park with some of the biggest sand dunes in the world, and I didn’t want it to go to waste. I almost messed everything up assuming there would be a gas station within a one-hundred mile stretch, but sure enough there was not. On my map, it advised there was a fill-up station in a small town, but this proved false. Therefore, I was required to make a detour, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to hitting empty; at least not when I wasn’t near a city. Crisis averted, I made up a substantial amount of time and reached the Desert Camp well before sunset. The setup was splendid with a pool, bar and TV, and pure openness to nature. An oryx even strolled through camp as I was lounging by the pool and walked right past where I would be sleeping that night. My room was actually a small cabin with a king size bed, giant shower, and outdoor grill and kitchen area. I now understood why it was so expensive, but funny enough, this was the cheapest option within fifty miles.

After a cleansing shower, I called it an extra early night and fell deep into my comfortable bed. I woke up for sunrise again, but this time I was right around the corner from my destination. I found it annoying that you weren’t allowed into the park before sunrise unless you were actually camping or staying at the lodge within the park. In hindsight, I would have rented some camping gear, but I still made the most out of it. You had to drive about thirty minutes from the entrance to a parking lot that could really only be passed by 4x4 vehicles due to the amount of sand. I’m pretty sure I could have toughed it out with my Ford, but I opted to just walk the sandy road with a Dutch couple. After about forty minutes, we reached the main area to access all of the highlights of the park. This included Deadvlei, which is famous for the dried up landscape, almost like a salt flat, with dead trees scattered about. Standing tall above this is “Big Daddy”, the highest sand dune in the world. I made the climb and the views were insane! You could see all the way to the ocean over countless other sand dunes. Most of these were orange in color, which was why I had always dreamed of coming here for photography. The hike up was tough, but the way down was a ton of fun. I pranced down the steep side through the sand in about two minutes!

After exploring more of Deadvlei, I trudged over to the Sossusvlei flat below “Big Mama”. This dune wasn’t quite as big and was more the color of sand that I’m used to, so I didn’t spend nearly as much time. Rather, I walked further into the unknown of the desert to check out some plants and other views of the dunes surrounding me. It was beginning to heat up outside, so I made my way back to the parking area, happy with what I was able to cover while the shadows were good that morning. I had read online that there was a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere along the route back to Windhoek that served up some outrageous apple pie. It was only an hour away, so I made that my lunch, and it truly was some of the best I’ve ever had! Refueled, I made the three-hour drive to my hostel in Windhoek, checked in, then sped over to another online recommendation called Joe’s Beerhouse. Obviously, I had a refreshing beer from the tap, but the main draw for me was one of the items on the menu. It was called the “Namib Bush Fire” and included loin cuts of Springbok, Kudu, and Oryx. All three were delicious with the Kudu being one of the best cuts of rare meat I’ve ever had.

My belly was content and I’m glad I got to make it to the restaurant. The design and atmosphere were legit, and there were several other items on the menu they would have be coming back for sure. When I returned to the hostel, I found out that they had messed up with the bookings, so they would be sending me across the street to another building. Turns out I would get this house all to myself! My streak of nobody else staying in my hostel room in Africa would continue. I had another renovated bathroom and I was all pumped up until I realized the water wasn’t running. Luckily, I had a decent amount of water in my jug to utilize, but the water never came on during my stay. I was forced to take a twenty-four hour bus journey that next day without a shower after all of that hiking in the dunes. I dropped off my rental car, picked up some groceries, and boarded up. The long bus rides always appear as if they’re going to take forever, but they typically fly by for me. I took a nap, read a book that is required for one of my upcoming classes, blogged, slept, and all of a sudden we had reached the Botswana border. At the border, I met the only other white folks onboard with me. A group of six recent grads from Cape Town who were on their way to volunteer at an orphanage and a guy from Finland.

I spent the rest of that morning hanging out with all of them as we crossed the next border into Zimbabwe. Soon enough, we were approaching Victoria Falls. I said farewell to the volunteers, and advised Matti from Finland that we would meet up for dinner later that night. He was staying at a different hostel, but the town was so small that you could easily walk just about anywhere. This included from where the bus dropped me off to the entrance of the falls themselves. We had turned up a little late, and I didn’t want to waste the day, so I immediately set course with my poncho in hand. It was pretty warm out, so I did indeed actually want to get sprayed with water. The poncho was more for protection of my backpack and camera. It wasn’t raining at all, unlike my experience at Iguazu, but I still managed to get completely soaked. Half of the viewpoints were either clear or subjected you to a slight mist, but the other half you could barely see anything through the “rain”. Right from the get go was a shot with a couple falls in view and a streaking rainbow arching between them. The rainbow was not in the least bit dimmed, and I knew I was in for a treat.

As I walked around, exploring the various perspectives of the falls, I found myself trying to compare it to Iguazu. Truth is, you really cannot compare the two, and they are both equally spectacular. I probably would have had a better experience at Iguazu had it not been raining and a better experience at Victoria had it been a different time of the year when the water wasn’t pumping so much. One thing is for sure, I did indeed get the chance to see both sides, Zimbabwe and Zambia, unlike Iguazu where I only managed the Argentinian side. I think Zimbabwe edges out Zambia, but you certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on completing the duo. The bridge gapping the Zambezi to cross the border provides solid views of the waterfall as well. What’s crazy is that because the water was so powerful, I was even getting mist falling on me while walking on the nearby road. I could hear the thundering falls from over a mile away at my hostel. From further away, one would think a forest fire was happening due to the thick “smoke” exploding from the area.

I had purchased a Univisa which allowed me to walk back and forth across the border at will. Upon my return to Zimbabwe, I stopped in at the first tourist agency I saw as it was getting late. Luckily, they had availability and were able to book me in for the following morning for whitewater rafting. I was ecstatic because I had never been before, and the Zambezi is supposed to have world class rapids. On the other hand, I was a bit nervous that my credit card might not work to let me pay for the experience. It didn’t work to pay for my visa or the entrance to the falls; same situation with my debit card for various reasons. The real problem, however, was that I had now used up almost all of my cash, and apparently the ATM’s in Zimbabwe don’t have any! I certainly wasn’t aware of this going into the country. Thankfully, the rest of my time, my card worked without a hitch and I was able to skip out to Zambia unscathed.

After completing the booking, I tested out my card at a recommended restaurant with Matti. This place was aptly names “Carnivore” for the abundance of game dishes on the menu. I had a tough time deciding as I wanted to try so many different meats, but eventually put my finger on the giraffe ribs. The whole time we were waiting on our food I just kept thinking how ridiculously big the ribs were going to be. They turned out to be smaller than expected, but that was because they were cut in half! They were meaty, somewhat tender, and absolutely delicious with a tangy barbecue sauce. I never really at lunch, so I was starving and this definitely did the trick. When I finally checked into my hostel for the night, I got the news that I would once again have my own room. The hostel was literally just a house with a couple of the rooms that were given multiple beds. It felt very homely and the wife took great care of me during my stay with large breakfasts and laundry. After a good night’s rest, I was ready to roll on the waters of the Zambezi.

It took quite a bit longer than I thought before we were actually on the raft in the water. First of all, our tour group met up at a restaurant with a scenic overlook of the gorge for a safety briefing. This is where I made acquaintance with Dan, an older man from Wisconsin who actually went to the same college as my dad. We decided to team up with a family from Scotland to complete our six-person raft squad. Next, we took over an hour to reach the top of the portion of the gorge that we would be climbing down to reach the launch point. Lastly, the hike down took another thirty minutes to complete. Once in raft, our guide had us jump into the cold and refreshing water to get the blood moving. My adrenaline was pumping after seeing a couple other rafts go by already. I was in the front and couldn’t let the team down!

The first rapid was class 4 and we immediately hit what was probably the biggest wave of the entire run. I was having a blast as we crashed into waves over and over, sometimes so hard that the water would slam me to the ground. However, I never fell out of our raft! A couple other members did indeed take the plunge, but I was proud that our raft never tipped. The experience was an exhausting workout of my whole body, yet I didn’t want it to end. I was already looking forward to my next white water adventure. Unfortunately, we had to make another thirty-minute climb out of the gorge at the end. The guides had advised earlier that there would be beer at the end of the tunnel, so I just kept that in the back of my mind and powered through. I slugged down a few beers as we munched on the lunch they prepared for us. I was a happy man the whole ride back to town.

Dan and his wife (who did not go rafting with us) were staying at the nicest hotel in the area and invited me to come chill by their pool for a bit. We ordered a couple more beers and giant burgers because apparently what the tour provided just wasn’t enough to recuperate all of the calories we burned. It was great laying in the sun and relaxing after all of the energy we expended that morning. I started dozing off, so I said my goodbyes and went back to my hostel for a nap. The husband host of my hostel suggested that if I was enjoying trying different game, I needed to check out the warthog steak at a restaurant called “In Da Belly”. I suggested that Matti and his friend who just showed up in town meet me to watch one of the World Cup matches there. The steak was phenomenal. So tender and so flavorful; unlike anything else I’ve had before, and only twelve bucks. For comparison, those giraffe ribs were thirty.

Even with that nap, I was still sleepy after my dinner so it wasn’t long before I was back in bed. I wasn’t in any particular rush the next morning, which was a nice feeling. After breakfast, I just had to cross the border and catch one of the buses going to the capital city of Zambia, Lusaka. Of course, the easiest of plans never go the way they should. Walking across the border and taking a shared taxi to the town of Livingstone went off without a hitch. It was shortly after my arrival that I stupidly let down my guard. I had limited money but at least enough to purchase a bus ticket. I typically ignore anyone that comes up offering to help me, but for whatever reason I decided to hear this guy out because he said the next bus was leaving soon. I wanted to reach Lusaka at a reasonable hour to get dinner so I figured I should try to make this bus. He helped me exchange some of my dollars to kwatcha for what I thought was a good deal, then guided me toward the bus station. Once we approached, he advised to give him the cash so he could go get the ticket inside the building for me quick. Since I thought I might be in a rush, I handed it over to him, and immediately regretted it. Before I knew it, he had slipped away in the crowd, never to be seen again.

Now I had even less money and I would find out quickly that my master card could not pull out more cash. I still wanted to ensure I made the same bus, so I rushed over to the money exchange. They actually gave me an accurate and much better rate than the scammer. Unfortunately, I was still short a few dollars. I was in desperation mode, so I begged and pleaded back at the bus station for a ticket. I took all the kwatcha, a one-dollar bill that I found, and a few euro coins that I had remaining. I combined them all, which technically added up to a couple more dollars than I needed for the ticket, and convinced them to let me board. Whew. I was en route to Lusaka. I just had to hope that the ATM worked when I arrived because I had almost nothing to my name. It was supposed to be a seven-hour trip, but this turned into nine hours because of a two-hour section where the road was in abysmal condition. I was too late to really get a good meal in, but thankfully the ATM at the bus station worked without a hitch, I was able to purchase another ticket for the following morning to Kapiri Mposhi, and my hostel had some leftover food for me to scarf down. All was good.

My 9AM bus didn’t actually leave until 10:30AM because they were trying to fill it up. Luckily, I was smart enough to book the earlier bus precisely for this reason. When I arrived in Kapiri, I gathered some things at the grocery store once again. I wasn’t taking a twenty-four-hour bus, rather I had a two-day train ride ahead of me to Tanzania. While waiting in line to buy my ticket, I met an older man from France named Jack and two cousins from the Czech Republic. It worked out that we would be roommates on the train, so we would be spending quite a lot of time together. We felt very crammed almost immediately, so as soon as five o’clock hit, we were ordering rounds of one-dollar Tanzanian beers at the bar. The Czech guys had quite the interesting backstory. One was born in Mongolia and living in Prague; the other was born in Tanzania and now living in London. They were also ten years apart and looked nothing like each other! Either way, they were a blast to hang out with that night. We tried to forget about the fact that we all had a similar issue. The visa for Tanzania needed to be paid with one-hundred US dollars of cold hard cash, and none of us had it. Going into the train ride, I figured this could all be sorted out with an ATM and a money exchange at the border. Nobody on the train seemed certain on exactly what was available, so it came right down to a waiting game that next morning.

Posted by Krackajak 11:35 Archived in Namibia Comments (0)

South Africa 2018

After passing out while watching the new Jumanji movie, I surprisingly slept most of the overnight flight to Johannesburg. I was pumped because I needed the energy to hit the ground running as I had a long drive ahead of me. It felt amazing to be on the road again! It was great driving around with my parents, but something about road-tripping by myself just lights me up. The only downside is that it can somewhat pricey since I cannot drive manual. However, after seeing the surprisingly high prices of extremely slow moving trains in the country, it was definitely worth it and still cheaper than renting back home. It did indeed take me a little while to get used to driving on the left side of the road; not to mention driving in general since it had been four months. However, before I knew it I felt as if this had been the norm my whole life.

The first leg of my journey was around four hours to the small town of Graskop. I picked it because of the easy access to Blyde River Canyon, the third largest in the world, and Kruger National Park. The first half of the drive was simple and smooth along the highway. I stopped at a gas station to pickup some water and use the restroom. To my surprise, the windows looking out of the restroom had wildlife viewing. I apologize for the TMI, but I couldn’t believe there was game just roaming around while I was taking a pee! I was already getting excited for my real safari and the drive was off to a good start. Unfortunately, these high quality roads did not last long. As soon as I had to pull off of the highway, the road conditions drastically changed. A majority of the roads were littered with potholes that I had to pay close attention to dodge. Additionally, a very long section was completely closed, giving way to a gravel road detour with large humps. I was hoping the pothole problem was only in this particular area, but I would become a recurring theme during the few days. I was honestly shocked to return the Corolla in one piece as there were several smacks, claps, and thumps that I figured had to have done some damage.

Even with the road delays, I made pretty decent timing to Graskop and continued directly on to explore the “panorama route” of the canyon. This began with a couple of nice viewpoints, moved on to a beautiful series of cascading waterfalls and a carved out slot canyon, and then finished up at a breathtaking viewpoint called the “Three Rondavels”. Luckily, I still managed to make it here for my original plan of sunset, and I was so glad I did! As I walked around the area, the view just seemed to get better and better, and the amount of other people there became less and less until it was only me. I sat there in disbelief at a view similar to the Grand Canyon with a much larger river running through it, all to myself. The place was technically closing, but you would have had to hold a gun at my head to move me! Eventually, I gathered my things, walked away as the massive reddening African sun fell behind the mountains, and hopped in my car for the drive back to Graskop.

For some reason, nearly everything in town closes early, so I made do with a few items from the grocery store for dinner. Nobody else ever showed up in my dorm room, so I had that all to myself. This would ring true the next night and would also be a theme for my hostel stays all throughout Africa (or at least until Tanzania since I’m writing this from Zambia). Apparently it was low season, similar to Egypt? Either way, I was quite content with the scenario. Especially, considering there were still people to interact with at the hostels, they were just staying in the private rooms. Although I was well aware that it was winter, I was not ready for how cold it ended up being that first night. The hostel did not have heat, but luckily I could just take the extra blankets from the other beds! I remember going to bed very early. This was both because of the overnight flight, and due to the fact that I was trying to get to the Kruger entrance for the gate opening at 6AM.

There were no issues getting out of bed at 4AM that next morning because I was anxious to get to my self-drive safari, but I had to be extra cautious while driving. There were still a bunch of potholes along this route, and now it was pitch dark outside! I made it safely to the gate, along with a surprisingly high number of other cars and tour groups. It made sense that they had the same plan because wildfire viewing is typically the best at dusk, but I was certainly curious where they had all come from. I specifically picked and planned out a route for the day and it did not disappoint. Right off the bat, I was spotting impala, buffalo, and elephant within ten feet of my car. The day just kept getting better and I was loving every minute of it. I actually didn’t manage to spot three of the five “Big Five” (rhino, leopard, lion) that day, but I was only there on one day for seven hours. I’m sure if I had tried my luck the following morning, the result would have been different, but I wasn’t worried about it considering this would not be my only safari in Africa. On top of that, the next one would surely be guided for improved locating of the animals.

In the meantime, besides the above three that I mentioned, I came across warthogs, vultures, hyenas, skinks, zebras, giraffes, kudu, impala, baboons, hippos, cheetah, and alligators, so I considered it a very successful first African safari adventure. The two most memorable moments were an all-too-close encounter with a huge elephant nearly stepping on my car, and a bunch of baboons “play-fighting” in the middle of the road in front of me, surrounded by a large pack of impala. I almost made the decision to stick around for sunset, as that would also be great for wildlife viewing, but I was hungry, tired, and did not think that combo driving back in the dark would be a good call. Not to mention that everything in town would be closing early and I really wanted to try this pancake joint I had heard about online. The pancake I ordered was “crepe-style” and filled with milk custard and cinnamon. It was both unique and delicious, but while I waited, I also purchased a pack of biltong next door as a savory appetizer. Biltong is the African version of jerky. The only way I can describe it is that it is not dried as long and looks, feels, and tastes more raw and natural. I’m still undecided if I like it more or less than jerky as it is quite a bit different, but it’s definitely cheaper!

Once again, I hit the sack super early that night. I had messed up a little on the logistical planning for the next part of the road trip in order to spend less on accommodations. My goal was to make it to the Drakensberg Mountains for a five-hour hike by 10AM, and I now had a seven-hour drive ahead of me. Yikes. I would once again be passing over potholes and gravel roads, with a significant portion at night. I somehow powered through and made incredible timing. Most of the way, I saw nobody, which made for some fun driving as the sun came up. The only issue was that once I arrived, the road up to the beginning of the trail was a complete disaster. The lodge nearby provided an expensive thirty-minute 4x4 shuttle, so I joined up with a few other folks, and we eventually began the hike closer to 11:30AM. The good news was that my new friends from Quebec and Latvia were also strong hikers, so we were easily able to cut down the estimated hike time and be back before sunset.

It was crazy to me how little people were climbing this spectacular trail. There were only a handful of others besides us, and I’m not joking when I say that there was climbing involved. During one section, we were required to climb a couple of different sets of metal ladders on the rock face. One of the ladders must have been over one-hundred feet with superb views of the valley below. Once we reached the top of the plateau, it was a walk along a small steam to the cliffs on the other side. During the summer, Tugela Falls should be gushing with water and is the second tallest waterfall in the world, but our experience was nothing more than a trickle. On the positive side, there was snow clinging to the cliff and ice floating on the edge of the stream, which I thought was just as cool considering there were no other signs of precipitation in the area. Additionally, the views around us went on for miles and were equally as impressive as Blyde Canyon. I just wish we could have stuck around for sunset!

We made our way down to the cars and drove to an Ethiopian restaurant suggested by the host of the hostel I was staying at that night. Coincidentally, the couple from Quebec was staying at the same hostel! They didn’t seem to like the Ethiopian food that much, but I had never tried any before, and I thought it was both fantastic and unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I wasn’t the biggest fan of sharing a huge plate and being forced to only eat with our hands, but I guess that’s part of the experience! After dinner, we caravanned to the hostel. I sat down with some tea by the fireplace and felt right at home. That night, I most certainly slept in, for once. My only plan for the next day was to experience the scenic drive through Golden Gate Highlands National Park, a landscape similar to Southern Utah, and then finish up back in Jo’burg for my short flight down to Port Elizabeth. Even though I was in absolutely no rush at all to leave the next morning, I managed to leave my swimsuit again. I had been wearing it as a normal pair of shorts, but that was a very frustrating moment for me; twice in one trip!

Upon landing in Port Elizabeth, I was right back at the rental car booth and quickly en route to my next hostel. However, it was dinner time and I needed some fuel for the two-hour drive to Plettenberg Bay. I noticed almost immediately that they had a Nando’s (the rotisserie chicken restaurant from the UK we ate at) nearby, so I couldn’t pass it up. I ordered a full chicken this time, devoured it, and was back on the road in no time. The only thing stopping me was a protest and rioting going on in Plettenberg, of course. This was blocking the main highway of the garden route, so I was actually escorted on a dirt road detour by a policeman to reach my destination for the night. The events must have persisted until the next day because I was required to make another detour to head West after my morning hike. The hostel lodge that I stayed at that night was hidden in the forest up on a hill with splendid views of the valley below, the ocean, and the peninsula that I would be hiking. I enjoyed all of this while I had breakfast at sunrise that next morning.

My hike on the Robberg Peninsula was easily one of my favorite of the trip. This was due to the great scenery, wildlife, and lack of people. Seals were everywhere, I could see a couple of sharks in the water, and a whale even followed me for about fifteen minutes as I walked the path! The balance of rock formations, beach, and greenery were as good as it gets. Plettenberg has many striking similarities to San Diego, and really the whole portion of the garden route that I drove reminded me of Southern California, but a little more green and mountainous. I drove West of Plettenberg to the Knysna headlands, which didn’t require a hike, but provided even more stunning cliffs, waves, and million dollar homes. I returned back to Port Elizabeth seeing some more of the beautiful landscapes that I passed in the dark the first night. I would love to spend some more time in the area and complete the entire garden route, experiencing more points of interest. There is actually a five day trek along the coast that sounds magnificent.

After dropping off the rental car, I decided to eat another chicken at Nando’s, then slowly made my way over to the bus station. The car drop-off charge in Cape Town was going to be too expensive, so instead, I would be enjoying an overnighter, my favorite. My friend Byron that I made acquaintance with back in Rio would be waiting for me at the bus station upon arrival that next morning. Byron was gracious enough to host me on his couch and show me around the city over the next five days. We chose it hit the ground running; well, hiking. Byron shuttled me from the bus station at 7AM, to his apartment, and to the botanical gardens by 9AM where the skeleton gorge trail of table mountain awaited us. I’m sure glad I didn’t rest at all because this was both a strenuous and lengthy hike! The first hour or so was straight up stairs with some sections of actually climbing the boulders plopped in the stream tumbling down the gorge. There were even a few wooden ladders to add to the fun. It was gorgeous scenery and we were the only ones hiking it.

Once we reached the top, I truly realized how big the table mountain plateau is. We must have walked another hour or so viewing out to each side until we finished up near the landing platform of the cable cars. The landscape on top of the plateau was nothing like I expected. It was more of a marsh than a dry land. There was barely anyone around the entire hike. That was until we got to the cable car area because that definitely offered the best views with the least expended energy. On one end you could see the coast toward Cape Point, the other provided Lion’s Head and the bowl of he city. As awesome as it was up there, the wind was just too much after a while, so we set course back down, this time down the more popular Plattekip Gorge. This was also quite steep, but nothing like Skeleton, and not nearly as beautiful, relatively speaking. This took about an hour, even with us basically jogging down, because apparently that’s how Byron rolls. Finally, we made our way around the contour path, which was close to another hour of several trickling waterfalls and fantastic views of the city. This led us to the bottom of the cable car run where we exhaustingly snagged an Uber home.

This was a great first introduction to Cape Town, a great hike and workout, and I’m also glad we picked the first day to accomplish it because it actually ended up being the best weather of my stay. Byron had work plans that evening, so I gathered back my calories by going out to dinner that night with his roommate, Patrick. Patrick took me to a spot called Beerhouse. We both took care of some flights of beer, naturally, and participated in the special of the day, which was all-you-can-eat spare ribs. None of it was particularly great, but just about anything was going to be good after that hike. I passed out hard that night and slept in quite late the next morning to the sounds of a thunderstorm. I hadn’t experienced a thunderstorm in forever, so I cannot tell you how enjoyable that was, especially considering I didn’t have to walk out into it. The double rainbow created over Table Mountains and Lion’s Head later on was special as well. I knew it was going to be a rainy day, so I spent most of my time catching up on pre-work for my upcoming masters program, and finally uploading pictures as far back as Iceland. I’m thankful that Patrick had a fast laptop, and I took full advantage of that throughout my stay since I hadn’t come across a convenient computer in a while.

That Thursday night was for chilling and watching the opening of the World Cup with some Domino’s. I felt right at home besides the fact that it was soccer instead of football or basketball. I had originally planned to try my hand at shark cage diving on Friday, but the weather forecast forced me to move it to Monday. Therefore, I continued with some computer work in the morning until Byron got back from his job. We were thinking about hiking to the top of Lion’s Head, but it was way too cloudy to make it worth it. Instead, we drove over to the Signal Hill viewpoint and gathered some new perspectives on the city. My favorite part was that you could almost look directly into the soccer stadium. Our self-tour proceeded with drives through Camps Bay, a fancy happening suburb beach town, and Llandudno, a sleepy suburb beach town with excellent views of Little Lion’s Head. The whole Western side of the Cape was delightful, but we had to cut things short as heavy rain came back into the picture! We decided to call it and returned to the city for some Shwarmas at this market called the Eastern Bazaar. A wide selection of food was available, but I was loving the chicken shawarma I ordered because it was absolutely massive and even overflowing with food.

With food in our bellies, we picked up a box of beer and started getting ready for a Friday night in Cape Town. Cape Town is a major city, but the downtown bowl really isn’t that big because the mountains separate much of it. There is one central bar area and we certainly explored quite a bit of it that night. I had a great time meeting locals and we finished up at a club dancing to some hip-hop music. We actually began the night at a German sports bar/restaurant to watch the Spain v. Portugal match. The atmosphere was fantastic and it was honestly the best soccer game I think I’ve ever watched! We were struggling the next morning, so Byron took me to this open-air food market for brunch. I was extremely impressed! They had every type of food imaginable and it all looked so tasty that it took me about thirty minutes to decide. I finally picked this flatbread salad with several types of cheese, sweet potato fries, and ostrich meat. It was gigantic and one of the best meals I had on the trip; maybe even in my life because it was so unique.

I wanted to taste another delicious creation, but I was stuffed, and we had a lengthy drive ahead of us before the sun went down. Firstly, we took aim at the beach town of Muizenberg, known for its great surfing waves. I realized it was a Saturday but there was an incredible amount of surfers there! We didn’t spend long scoping this out before we were on route to Simon’s Town, home of Boulders Beach and the penguin colony. I could have stayed here all day! The boulders were cool, but not significantly different or better than the boulders on the Western side of the Cape. The real magic came from the chance to hang out with all of the penguins. A chance that fell by the wayside in South America didn’t matter anymore because I was up close and personal with those critters now. I enjoyed watching them waddle out of the water as well as chill in their nests with the little ones. Unfortunately, we had to keep it moving to reach Cape Point. We decided to skip the Cape of Good Hope but were easily able to view it from the cliffs above anyways. The views were magnificent but the coolest part about it was just knowing I was at the most Southern point of Africa. I could not believe I had touched two tips of the Earth within three months.

We had to jet-set out of there quicker than I would have liked, especially considering the hefty entrance fee, but we were determined to catch sunset at Chapman’s Peak. However, before that happened, the most insane surprise came out of nowhere! Byron had purchased some Doritos at the coffee shop, and Cape Point being as touristy as it is, there are many baboons hanging out in the area. The next thing I know, out of the corner of my eye, a baboon is darting directly at Byron. He hadn’t even opened the bag yet! The attack happened so quickly that I barely had any time to react. The baboon basically tackled him to the ground, pulled his pants halfway down, and then ran off with the chips. I truly wish I could have somehow caught it all on camera. As soon I realized he wasn’t seriously hurt or bitten, we had a solid laugh about the whole ordeal, but I’m pretty certain he will be traumatized for a while!

It was all worth it when we rounded the bend for the beginning of Chapman’s Peak Dr. The incredibly large Noordhoek beach to our left and one of the most awe-inspiring sunsets I’ve ever seen in front of us. The color mix within the clouds was simply unbelievable and stretched for miles across the ocean. Meanwhile, we were clinging to the side of the cliffs, stopping over and over to admire the display. The final viewpoint overlooked Hout Bay where the colors turned from cotton candy to fire, shooting out and across the mountains. Darkness had fallen over the bay, so we made a brief stop for some Thai food before heading home. What a day it had been and finished off in style! We would definitely be resting up that night, rather than going out, as our plan was to go wine tasting the next day.

The Stellenbosch area, less than an hour outside of Cape Town, is the Napa of South Africa. Byron and I commenced our wine tasting journey at a small winery called Zevenwacht. It was pretty basic and the wine wasn’t the best, but it was a nice start to the day. Plus, the seven wines I got to try totaled to a measly three dollars! Next up was Jordan winery, nestled in a beautiful property full of ponds and gardens. We sipped outside on the patio and the red wines here were some of the best I’ve tasted in a while. I came very close to shipping a bottle home! Our plan was to finish at J.C. Leroux to test out some champagne, but they closed early due to it being a Sunday. Therefore, we got the recommendation to check out Tokara. This winery was actually somewhat expensive, relatively, but was also super fancy. The mountains surrounding Stellenbosch are way bigger and striking than anything around the Napa or Sonoma valleys, and this winery was situated quite high up in them. The scenery was as good as it gets, the art inside and out was top notch, and the wine was stellar. However, I actually just decided to buy a bottle as it was similarly priced to the tasting. Byron and I shared the bottle and a snack by one of the fireplaces as the rain began to fall outside. How romantic!

This romance quickly vanished when we ran out to start the car and head home. We tried several methods but the ignition simply wouldn’t let us go. To make matters worse, we were borrowing Patrick’s car, which didn’t have roadside service insurance. We had to sit in the dark, in the rain, for close to an hour, but luckily we were able to get towed all the way home for less than one-hundred dollars. That would have never happened back in the US, but I’m glad it did! We kept it low key that night with some more pizza and soccer action as I had to wake up early for my shark dive. I went to bed excited for what lay ahead. I was picked up and transported back to Simon’s Town to catch the boat out to Seal Island for sunrise. Along the way I spotted a couple of dolphins, and when we approached the island, the seals were everywhere, naturally. The reason it’s such a hot spot for shark activity is because of all the pup seals swimming back and forth from the island. They become very vulnerable, and as soon as the sun rises, the sharks have the best chance to spot them. We kept seeing babies riding the waves, hoping for one to get snatched, but sadly it never happened.

That would have been an unforgettable sight to witness a great white breaching, but I really just wanted to get up close with them in the cage. Well, after another two hours or so of chumming the water constantly and throwing out fake dying seals, the sharks never came. I saw one briefly pop out of the water about a hundred yards away, but that was it. Nothing during the thirty minutes I sat freezing in the cage. I was overwhelmingly disappointed. It had been a dream of mine to do this for years; ever since I first watched shark week. It was cool to see the thousands of seals on the island and know that I was in the famous shark arena, but it certainly didn’t add up to the price I paid. I tried to keep my head high, knowing I would surely return someday. I took a much needed nap when I got back to the apartment and then hung out with the boys for the rest of the night. I said my goodbyes that night as I would be heading out very early to catch my flight the next morning to Namibia. Although my final day in South Africa did not live up to my expectations, the rest of my experience was wonderful. Cape Town and it’s surroundings are awesome, and I think it’s safe to say that the country as a whole was my favorite of the trip!

Posted by Krackajak 11:29 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

Egypt 2018

It’s extremely unlike me to let somebody else handle itinerary planning, but Lucas arrived in Cairo a day earlier than me, so I let him have at it! For the most part, the tour he negotiated worked out quite well for the both of us. The best part being that I didn’t have to stay up all night at the airport in Amman to figure everything out. I only had five full days before my flight down to Johannesburg, and the entire length of a country to explore. Our tour to the South would incorporate a couple of overnight trains to still provide me with two full days in Cairo, which ended up being perfect. My flight arrived at 7AM and I traveled straight to Lucas’ hostel. He was just waking up, but we quickly made the decision to check out the Pyramids first and foremost, just in case we ran into complications on the way back to Cairo.

We shared a taxi for the day with another guy from the hostel, but in the end, we didn’t really make great use of it. There were a couple of other pyramids in the South of the city, but one of them was closed, and the other carried an expensive price tag, even just to simply drive up close to it. Since we ended up paying quite a bit to ride camels, climb the pyramid steps, and explore a tomb at Giza, we opted out of seeing anything further. We had gotten our fill already! To be honest, the pyramids were smaller than I was expecting, so I couldn’t imagine the others impressing me even more. Instead, we had the driver drop us off in the Coptic neighborhood of old town Cairo. This is the Christian area, and wow were there a lot of churches! As we walked through small alleyways, it seemed as if there was another hidden church around every corner. I was curious as to how people could choose between them, but after entering one that had a cave system below it, I figured it had to be the most popular!

Lucas and I arrived early to the train station, grabbed a quick bite, then boarded our first class car. My dinner was a shawarma wrapped in a crepe instead of pita bread. I loved the new take on it. Unfortunately, we didn’t love our first class accommodations. They could have easily been confused with 2nd class. We would later find out that the differences were minor, similarly to the price points, but the conditions in 2nd class were pretty terrible. Nonetheless, I slept pretty well considering the previous night I had to sleep at the airport. The train was two hours later than advised rolling into Aswan. There was also some miscommunication as to which train we took, because our tour guide was nowhere to be found upon our arrival. Once he finally showed up, the drive to the hotel literally only takes thirty seconds. We could have been all checked in and resting up if we had known what the place was called ahead of time! Rather, now we were rushing to find somewhere to grab breakfast during Ramadan and no nap would be had.

Thankfully, this first day of the tour was fairly short. Not only was I in desperate need of catching up on sleep, but we were scheduled to depart at 3AM the following morning to take a convoy down to Abu Simbel. After visiting the high dam that splits the Nile and Lake Nasser, the world’s longest river and largest man-made lake, respectively, we visited the Philae Temple, which is uniquely positioned on its own island. The day finished up learning about and testing out essences, perfumes, and aromatherapy. We passed out hard after returning to our hotel, waking up in confusion as the sun had already gone down. I almost wanted to just try to keep sleeping through the night, but I knew we definitely needed to eat something. We had been given a recommendation from a fellow traveler of this restaurant that sits on a floating barge on the Nile. He had advised that the food was solid, but more importantly that they had beer, something very difficult to locate in Egypt. The beers were refreshing and just what we needed; the food and the outdoor location were great as well. However, the highlight of dinner was meeting this Norwegian girl sitting at the table next to us. She was on month number seven of biking across Africa, starting all the way back in Cape Town!

The seven-hour roundtrip bus ride through the desert to Abu Simbel was not in the least bit enjoyable. The site was magnificent inside and out, but the journey was most certainly wearing. Also, this was actually the only time we experienced a tourist site in Egypt where there was an abundance of other tourists. The good news was that they were all college girls from Uruguay. Apparently, we signed up for the wrong tour! Once again, we had trouble finding somewhere to eat, but this time we stumbled upon pure deliciousness. What our waiter described as “Oriental”, came out looking like pizzas at first glance. Surprisingly, these pizzas were stuffed full of beef, bacon, cheese, and veggies. They were similar to a casserole, lasagna, a calzone, and yet it was completely unique. I couldn’t believe how much food each of us received, making this by far our favorite meal in Egypt. Sadly, never to be found again!

After a fairly short train ride North to Luxor, it was finally time for some relaxation. After all, there wasn’t much to do at night in Egypt anyways. In Luxor, especially, we didn’t see more than two people in any restaurant or bar, even after the fast had been broken for the night. We decided not too push it since we had a long day of temples and tombs ahead of us. Additionally, Lucas was waking up extra early to take a hot air ballon ride over Luxor. On the other hand, I “slept in” and met Lucas downstairs for our hotel’s breakfast buffet. Unlike our last hotel that only gave us some bread and yogurt, this was full fledged, even including custom-made omelets! Stuffed with energy, I was ready to take on the day. This was probably my favorite day of the tour because we visited a variety of attractions, and there was little driving involved.

Our first stop was the Valley of the Kings, which holds an incredible amount of tombs dug deep into the mountains. We only visited three of them, but it was amazing to see how far down they were hidden, and how colorful all of the hieroglyphics were. The Egyptians are very strict about photography at many of the sites we visited. Especially, at the Valley of the Kings and inside of Abu Simbel. They try to tack on extra tickets for whatever they can, which is very annoying. Luckily, unlike almost everywhere else on the trip, they do have student discounts. Since I had just received my new student card before departing on my trip, I finally got to put it to good use and slashed fifty percent off just about everything. However, after showing my card and the date issued, security still seemed skeptical, and tried to get the normal amount out of me a couple of times. This is just one of the hundreds of instances where the Egyptians tried to rip us off. By the end of our trip, Lucas and I were quite fed up. Everyone, no matter how friendly they may seem at first, would try to sell us something, or want money for a service that should never require a tip. We always needed to double check if something would cost money, or if it was included, which became really annoying. I’ve never seen a country so desperate. I’m not sure if it was primarily because we were there during the low season, but multiple people straight up told us they were having slow days and needed business from us. Egypt relies heavily on tourism and it sure seems that terrorism over the last few years has devastated them in this regard.

After the Valley of the Kings, we continued visiting several other sites on the West Bank of Luxor; each uniquely different than the last. After a brief stop at a papyrus store to see how it’s made, we finished the day off at the Karnak Temple on the East Bank. The highlight for me were the huge pillars within its walls counting in the hundreds. We had a little while before our sunset felucca cruise, so Lucas and I stopped at KFC since nothing else was open, per usual. I was not impressed in the least, and they didn’t even have gravy! On the bright side, the boat ride was great. The felucca is similar to a sail boat and the old school way of floating down the Nile. It was nice to relax as we glided down the river; every once in a while at a surprisingly fast speed. After a long day in the heat, I was so excited to go swimming. As the sun went down, we anchored up near a sand bar and jumped in the perfectly refreshing water. I was feeling pretty good going into our overnight train ride back to Cairo.

We pulled up to the Cairo station very early that next morning, but we had to wait until 9AM for the Egyptian Museum to open. I was really happy that the hostel Lucas booked allowed me to use their facilities not once, but twice that week. Granted, I did buy water and laundry services from them, but the shower and computer usage was truly beneficial. I was tired going into the museum and it is a massive place. You could walk around that thing for hours inspecting all of the statues and artifacts they discovered. It’s remarkable just how much there really is from that era. I’m glad that we toured everywhere beforehand to gain a better grasp on the exact locations of their excavations. Our favorite part was easily the mask of Tutankhamen. Seeing that puppy up close was mesmerizing. It was incredibly detailed and I just kept thinking how crazy it was that he was a king at such a young age.

Lucas and I only had one more touristy visit on our list after the museum. The Salah El Din Citadel complex was enormous. It sat up above on a hill overlooking the city with a view reaching out to the pyramids. I really enjoyed this new perspective of Cairo because you truly get an idea of how large and bustling the city is. The citadel itself had a mosque on the outside and a very high ceiling on the inside, but my favorite part was all of the lights. The chandeliers were stunningly beautiful and radiated the entire room. The complex also contained a police and army museum that were fairly interesting. I was glad we had time to see the citadel, but I was more than done with the sightseeing in Egypt. It certainly wore me out! Five days actually ended up being perfect for me and I was looking forward to leaving the desert. Lucas and I said our goodbyes as he would now be heading to Europe; myself down to South Africa. Despite several things that we did not enjoy about Egypt, we still managed to have a swell time together, making great travel companions. It’s too bad we couldn’t keep running around, but luckily I love traveling by myself. I prepared myself for another overnighter, only this time by plane instead of a train!

Posted by Krackajak 15:51 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Malta/Israel/Jordan

The Middle East portion of my voyage did not get off to the roaring start I was hoping for as I awaited my flight out of Edinburgh airport. In fact, it was so poor that I actually didn’t even end up starting in the Middle East on that first day away from my parents. Instead, I spent the first twenty-four hours in Malta! Completely unaware, I had made my way to the boarding gate without managing to receive my visa check, which is apparently required on all Ryan Air flights for non-EU members. I was denied at the gate and advised there was absolutely no way for me to make this flight because the visa check is prior to security. Feathers ruffled, I accepted my fate as quickly as possible, completed the visa check, and made my way to the customer service desk. Now, Ryan Air was willing to book me on their next available flight at no charge. However, that would not be getting me all the way to Tel Aviv. I would have to sleep in the airport, miss my connection via Malta, and then need to repurchase this portion on my own. Due to it being so last minute, I couldn’t afford anything flying out the following day. My only reasonable option was to wait.

Thankfully, I had not booked much in Israel ahead of time. I did some quick research on Malta and made some plans for what would be a scenic country detour. I arrived on the island and immediately bussed South to the Blue Grotto, a stunning gigantic arch covering the entrance to sea caves. Many people were taking boat tours into the caves, but I opted out as it didn’t seem that different than other experiences I had already had on my trip. Alternatively, I went swimming nearby in the beautiful blue waters, which felt amazing considering I definitely hadn’t adjusted to the heat of the Mediterranean yet. Unfortunately, by the time I made it back to the bus, I was already drenched in sweat again. There would be plenty more exploring that evening, so I figured I might as well just embrace it. I had booked a room in the peninsula town of Sliema, across the bay from the capital, Valleta. My goal was to walk along the cliffs and coast to Saint Julian’s, the peninsula town across the bay on the other side, seeing as much as possible before the sun went down.

My first order of business on this walking tour was to indulge on some gelato. Malta is directly South of Italy, so it only seemed right. As the sun began to set, the view of the old city of Valleta was very impressive, especially seeing boats pass by. Many locals were still hanging out on the rocky shores and/or swimming. Away from the shore, I passed many lively outdoor restaurants that appeared to have great food. I was tempted to keep going down the Italian route with some pasta, but my hostel receptionist recommended I try out a Maltese specialty. As I continued to follow along the bay, I could tell that Malta was a very popular summer destination for Europeans; hearing all sorts of different languages. Multiple fancy restaurants and bars hung over the water, which was home to a significant amount of quality sailboats and other water crafts. Most of the buildings carried a Middle Eastern tone, but Italian influences were very apparent. I finally made it to my final destination to try the recommended Pastizzi, a flaky pastry enclosed with different fillings. Not only were they delicious, but three for a dollar nearly filled me up!

There wasn’t much to it, but I could certainly be convinced to spend some more time in Malta with a few friends in the future. I’m glad I was given the opportunity to check it out, as it may have never happened otherwise. The next morning I was finally flying to Tel Aviv, ready to see what would be in store for me. During my trip, the positivity I had heard from fellow travelers toward Tel Aviv had been consistent, so I was excited to see what all the fuss was about! Truth is, there wasn’t a whole lot to see. This didn’t surprise me, but even so, I walked through the old town area in only a couple of hours. The beach in that part of the city looked nice, but I wasn’t really in the mood that day since I had just been to Malta. My mood had shifted to food, and I came across some tasty treats to try near the flea market. Unfortunately, I did not realize how pricey they were until it was too late. I found out pretty quickly that Israel is simply extremely expensive, especially for food and drink, regardless of supermarket or restaurant/bar.

Nevertheless, the main draw of Tel Aviv for most people I talked to is the nightlife. Therefore, I booked a party hostel, something I had avoided for the most majority of my trip. I picked up the best deal on a six pack of beer that I could possibly find, and partook in a fantastic happy hour on the hostel’s rooftop patio as the sun went down, getting ready for what I hoped to be a fun-filled night. I hadn’t been out since Colombia, so it felt great to be able to socialize again. This was also the most Americans I had hung out with at one time during my entire trip. I was typically the only one at most hostels. Throughout the night, more and more of the group split off, but I stayed until the bitter end at the second club we went to as they were playing good house music. I have to admit, for a Monday night, it was a blast! I’m sure glad our happy hour was so happy though because the one drink I purchased that night was fourteen dollars.

The hostel provided the healthiest breakfast I’ve ever seen that next morning. Carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and hummus with tea and honey. I’m not sure how they considered that to be breakfast, but it was probably the best thing for me at the time. I was immediately rejuvenated and ready to catch the bus over to Jerusalem. It was quite interesting seeing the difference between the walled city and the newer areas of the city. A convenient tram was available, but I decided to make my way by foot to really take in the sights. The large market in the new city was entertaining to walk through, but compared to once I reached the alleyways of the walled city, it no longer felt very special. It now felt as if I had stepped into a completely different world. If you weren’t careful, you get easily get lost in the seemingly endless covered sidewalks. I probably scurried through a little more rapidly than I would have preferred, but I was dying to float in the Dead Sea at sunset. I still made time to admire the Western Wall, check out all of the city’s religious quarters, and even walk around the backside where I didn’t see any other tourists. The only thing I’m still confused about is how to access the Dome of the Rock. I was denied entry twice due to not being Muslim, but could not for the life of me find another route!

In any case, I caught the final bus heading out to the Dead Sea for the night, looking forward to cooling down and relaxing. I had done my research, but I had also forgotten some bits and pieces of it. Of course, I decided to listen to my hostel receptionist. He apparently didn’t know that what the research would have said was that what he recommended was closed for reparations. After seeing a couple of other girls get off at an earlier beach, and then having to basically force the bus driver to stop for me at Ein Gedi, I soon discovered that I was in the middle of nowhere with nobody else around. To make matters worse, all of the signs between the road and the water either read “no entry” or “no swimming”. One of them said something about open pits, but besides this, I was unable to comprehend why exactly they were trying to deny access. Well, naturally, I decided not to head the warnings. I didn’t come all this way to just head back without jumping in the Dead Sea. Not to mention, there were no signs of life to enforce anything besides the occasional car passing by.

Who needs a sensory deprivation tank when you can be floating all alone on the Dead Sea by yourself at sunset. It was a magical experience and I couldn’t help but smile as the salt bobbed me up over the surface of the water. I had been to Mono Lake a couple of years ago where the salt water creates a similar effect, but not to this extent! I was having fun, relaxing, and simply floating and contemplating as the sun passed below the surrounding mountains. Honestly, getting out of the Dead Sea is not fun at all. I was slimy, sticky, and itchy. Everything I touched was reflected by this, and it was quite the uncomfortable bus ride back. I’m just glad I got a ride back at all! Even though the schedule stated there would be one, I started getting a tad bit worried as darkness enfolded over me and the vehicles passing by became fewer and fewer.

That had to have been one of the best showers of my life when I returned to the hostel that night. Unfortunately, the bed was the probably one of the most uncomfortable of the trip. You almost have to purposefully make something that terrible! Nonetheless, I still really wanted to wake up for sunrise over the Western Wall and Dome of the Rock. Although the view was great, I think the coolest part of the early wake up was seeing everyone praying down below. Couple this with walking through the empty alleys that were filled to the brim the previous afternoon and I felt as if I had seen a completely different side of Jerusalem. I couldn’t stick around for too long because I wanted to catch the first bus out to Eilat. This bus actually passed through the same route as going to the Dead Sea, but the destination is located on the borders of Jordan and Egypt, right on the Red Sea. I knew the area was known for its marine life, and I planned to go scuba diving with dolphins that afternoon, but as we approached the city, I was shocked how much it reminded me of Vegas! The surrounding desert and mountains, the massive hotels, casinos, and malls; the only difference being the sea next door.

Eilat definitely seemed like a fun vacation destination, especially with the ability to cool off at the beach, but I was specifically pumped to swim with dolphins. This wouldn’t be the classic experience offered in Mexico, something I opted out of earlier in the trip. Rather, I would be diving in an area where they frequently played. In the end, there wasn’t as much interaction as I dreamed there would be, but one dolphin did zip right past, nearly touching me. On the other hand, I was thoroughly impressed by the diversity of marine life within the coral reef, as well as how colorful it was. The water clarity was superb and there were a number of species of fish, sea anemone, and other crawlers and swimmers that I had never come across before. I sure hope I get another opportunity to explore more of the Red Sea in the future, but this was a great first taste!

I was annoyed that there was no public transportation to cross the border into Jordan, but it wasn’t something out of the ordinary. After my dive, I took a short taxi ride to the Israeli side, seamlessly crossed the border in a matter of minutes, had my visa for Jordan waived, and took another taxi into the city of Aqaba. I was looking for somewhere to eat, anywhere, without realizing it was Ramadan, when this random guy flags me down seeing if I need help. Typically, I hesitate in these situations, especially in unfamiliar territory, but I was starving and everyone else I was approaching couldn’t speak a lick of English. He tells me that his brother owns a hotel nearby and their friend has a great restaurant. I received a five dollar meal to feed a king with bbq chicken and lamb kebabs that really hit the spot! After dinner, the guy, Alaa, who actually turned out to be a couple of years younger than me, took me to the hotel rooftop for tea at sunset. I don’t think he comes across many Americans and he really enjoyed practicing his English, so it was a nice time simply hanging out. I was in no rush at all, and the sunset over the Red Sea with a huge mosque standing right in front of us was spectacular. I finally walked over to my hostel and began my logistical scheming for the next couple of days.

Everything I had read online seemed to go out the window as soon as I started speaking to the owner of the hostel. I spent the next few hours back and forth weighing my options. I had laid my head on the pillow with a final displeased decision in mind, when all of a sudden I heard a knock on the door. This guy from Australia, Lucas, was just checking in to the hostel at 1AM and looking for someone to share a 4AM taxi on the two-hour drive to Petra. I was ecstatic! It was going to be rough on almost no sleep, but not only would I now get to see Petra when it opened, the rest of my plans would easily fall into place as well! Lucas and I were very surprised by the lack of tourists at Petra that day. We thoroughly enjoyed roaming around in the cooler morning weather with few other humans, but it didn’t even pick up that much as lunch time approached. We covered a ton of ground during those seven hours leaving Petra quite pleased with ourselves.

Lucas had to arrange for the taxi to immediately take him back in order to catch a flight, whereas I would be resting up as much as I could at the hostel. I ended up sharing a rotisserie chicken dinner with a guy from China and another from India as the sounds of Ramadan reverberated through the town, signifying the fast could be broken for that day. I just so happened to pick my time in the Middle East during Ramadan, which turned out to be a lucky call. Not only did it mean there were significantly less tourists just about everywhere, but I felt that I really got to experience the culture more than I would have at any other time of the year. After dinner, I tried my best to get to bed at a reasonable time. I would once again have to wake up early, this time for a tour of Wadi Rum. This was the desert, but as we entered the area, I could tell pretty quickly that it was much more Martian-like than any other desert I had previously visited. Myself and an older couple from Italy would be driven around to various points of interest in a covered pickup truck for the day by a seventeen-year old.

Besides a close encounter getting stuck in the sand, everything turned out great. After an initial thirty-minute camel ride, we hiked sand dunes, investigated slot canyons, and climbed rock bridges; finishing up with a splendid sunset over the valley. By the end, I was surprised i wasn’t hungrier. That was until I recalled that at every point of interest, the bedouin men provided two cups of tea. I’ve never had so much tea in my life, and it was once again included with the traditional chicken stew dinner that night. I could have easily passed out then and there, but I would have been kicking myself for missing the starry sky. I climbed up on top of one of the massive rocks looking over our campsite and setup shop. Unfortunately, the Milky Way was not visible that night, but I laid there for about twenty minutes in the most silent silence I think I’ve ever experienced. It felt as if nobody was around for miles, even though there were other camps fairly close to ours. The temperature outside was perfect as I finally retreated to my hut to catch some sleep. It had been another fantastic day in Jordan; completely different than the last.

The following day would strictly revolve around travel. First of all, I split a taxi back to Aqaba with the Italians. This was followed up by a bus ride to Amman, four hours North. Next, I walked about forty-five minutes to a different bus station to link up with the airport express bus. In total, it had been nine hours from Wadi Rum to the Amman airport. Thankfully, it was one of the nicer airports I’ve come across for both comfort and connectivity. This was much appreciated since my flight wasn’t until 5AM. I didn’t mind waiting because I hadn’t planned out my itinerary for Egypt at all, and I would be arriving there in less than ten hours! The good news was that Lucas and I had decided to meet up again in Cairo. He had arrived the day before and gotten the low down from all of the tour operators. Per usual, I’m not a fan of tours. However, the way this one weaved its way into my timeline was perfect, at first glance the price appeared to be very reasonable, and I just knew Lucas and I would have a fun time together based on our day in Petra. Everything was all of a sudden taken care of for me for the first time during my trip! I boarded my flight looking forward to what the next five days in Egypt had up their sleeve.

Posted by Krackajak 11:48 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Ireland/Scotland

Our new rental car that we picked up from the Dublin airport was one of the worst I’ve come across in a while. Stay as far away as you can from the Citroen Cactus! There was nothing redeeming about it and for a new car, it felt like it was back in the 2000s. Add in the fact that we were having to adjust to driving on the left side of the road, and many of the roads along the West Coast couldn’t even fit two lanes of traffic, it was somewhat of a constant struggle. Thankfully, the first few hours of driving were on the motorway to Galway. The nice weather had followed us from Iceland, so we made a brief stop to walk around the center of the city and have lunch. Fish and chips, of course. After what seemed like an eternity stuck in the car due to a “scenic detour”, we finally made it to Doolin, the jump off point for the Cliffs of Moher.

My original plan was to walk half of the cliffs that afternoon and finish up the rest the next morning. We ventured out as quickly as possible after checking in to our hostel because the weather was perfect and the lighting for photography couldn’t have been more prime. My dad is afraid of heights, so he turned back after about thirty minutes and decided he would pick us up at the end of the trail two hours later. Due to us heading out in the evening, my mom and I probably only saw about five other people that whole hike. The mix of a lack of people, the sun, and the sheer beauty at every turn made it an unforgettable experience. It was difficult to not stop and look around every ten feet! This was problematic considering there are a couple of unnerving sections with no barrier and you really have to watch your step. Plus, it was getting late and our chauffeur would be wondering what happened to us! Unfortunately, near the end of the journey the clouds rolled in, making for a very misty scene. This would continue into the next morning, so we only ended up checking out a small part of the second section. Regardless, I still thought it was cool to see the cliffs in more of an eery environment, and I was already overly content with the portion we saw lit up.

We found out from our hostel receptionist that for being a small town, Doolin is actually also known for its pubs and live music. Naturally, we had to check out the Monday night scene. We arrived to a packed house, forcing us to grab a table in the restaurant where my dad and I shared our first “real” Guinness together. Luckily, after about an hour of hearing the music from afar, we were able to join the party. Five people sat in a circle taking turns singing songs anywhere from Irish folk to covering U2. The violinist was superb and really brought it all together. We would have loved to have listened longer, but it had been an exhausting day of travel, and we had another long drive ahead of us the next day to our Air BnB cottage down in the Ring of Kerry.

The house we picked was located on Valentia Island next to the small town of Portmagee. Portmagee was where I planned to take a boat trip from to get to the Skellig Islands, one of the film locations of the most recent Star Wars. It was going to be nice to stay in one spot for four nights; at least in terms of where we were sleeping. Additionally, in terms of sleep, I would have my own room for once! We were staying on the Kerry peninsula, but we decided that the next day we would make the trip up North to the Dingle peninsula. We picked up some smoked salmon along the way and brought it to a beach near the town of Dingle. After eating, it was time to explore the coastline, and it got spectacular quick. All of a sudden we were basically on a one lane road right along the cliffs. There were gorgeous blue waters below and green farms sprawling across the hills with plenty of sheep spotting them. As we approached one of the bays, the water became more teal and we were able to spot a few islands off in the distance.

I found a sign saying that this was another Star Wars film location, and although I don’t remember where exactly it took place in the movie, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. It seemed like a pretty special place. The higher up the hill I climbed, the views opened up gloriously, and I tried my best to hangout with the local sheep. Only a couple miles further up the road, we got out again for what would be another film location. This viewpoint had the whole package! Cliffs, waves, hills, mountains, farms, and homes scattered all over the place. It truly lived up to images in my head of what the coastline of Ireland was going to look like. We weren’t starving, but we had seen that the seafood restaurant in Dingle that a guy I met in Brazil recommended had specials if we made it by 6:30PM. So, there was no time to waste, and we were glad we didn’t! The seafood was phenomenal for all three of us sitting outside on the patio, and each of us received a free appetizer. Mine was a huge bowl of mussels that I couldn’t believe was an appetizer.

It was pretty cold and windy at night on the island, even if the day was brilliant. Therefore, since we had the house, we tried our hand at burning up some peat in the fireplace. For the most part, the flames kept going in and out; not really warming the house at all. Instead, we prepared hot chocolates mixed with Baileys to great success! The next day we figured we would explore the Kerry peninsula. Not too far from Portmagee are the Kerry cliffs. Once again, very impressive, and unique enough from all he other cliffs we had already seen that we spent a solid hour walking around the area. In order to avoid retracing our steps, I next took us through the mountains in the middle of the peninsula. The change of scenery and lack of other tourists, and even lack of humans was great. We managed to meander through some interesting roads, get up close and personal with more spray painted sheep, and finally grab lunch at this cute little place called Strawberry Field that we had read about.

The restaurant/cafe reminded me of a winery in Napa with its beautiful garden patio overlooking the hills. They had a wide variety of both sweet and savory pancakes that we just had to try. Who knew goat cheese on a pancake could be so good?! I would have eaten more if we weren’t planning on a fancy dinner that night in the town of Waterville. We drove the rest of the way around the coast slowly, making pit stops at the ruins of a stone fort and a few viewpoints to ensure we were hungry enough when the time arose. The restaurant, Dooley’s, is famous for their seafood, steak, and lamb, so it was a very tough decision for me, as one can imagine! However, monkfish seemed to be a popular dish in the area, and something I had never tried, so I took the plunge. I loved how sweet and meaty it was; quite similar to crab or lobster, but more actual meat, and way less effort to eat it.

I was bummed when I returned to the house to find out that my boat ride to the Skelligs that next morning would have a caveat. They had deemed it still too dangerous to land at Skellig Michael, where the movie was filmed. I specifically picked this particular date, because the prior year they had begun landing tours just days before. Since simply circling the island was half the price, I decided I should still go for it. After all, this part of the trip was planned around the activity. I’m so glad that I went through with it! As we pulled away from the Portmagee harbor, I was able to get a completely new perspective of the cliffs we had been on top of the day before. After thirty minutes, we approached the first of the two Skelligs and it appeared to have white spots covering every inch of it. I figured they were some type of flower, but I soon discovered that it was a colony of 30,000 birds; many of them circling around the island as well. First of all, it was pretty incredible to see that many of any kind of animal, but secondly, once we approached Skellig Michael, there were almost no birds. Instead, it was a triumphant mass of green and black jagged peaks; impossibly crafted. I could see the bee hives high above, created by the monks long ago, wishing I had the chance to climb. In the waters surrounding us, I finally had my first glimpse at puffins. Unfortunately, not as close as I’d like, but I was definitely able to make out their unique look!

After circling the rest of the island, the ride back was smooth sailing and I sat in contemplation of how unreal both islands were. The experience was absolutely worth it, and I was no longer bummed. Returning to the house, my dearest mother had French toast and scrambled eggs waiting for me. Due to the fact that the next day we would be driving all the way back to Dublin, we all decided to take it fairly easy for the rest of the day. The only driving we would be doing would be around Valentia Island itself to see the various points of interest. There wasn’t too much of interest to us, but during our self-guided tour we managed to find a couple of different rocky beaches with lime green moss and pink flowers. They were a photographer’s dream. At five o’clock we deemed it time to eat and made our way over to a nearby town that has a pizza restaurant inside of an old church. Delicious pizza and wine offerings added to great decor and ambiance made for a fantastic final night in the area.

Although Dublin was directly East, literally on the other side of the country from us, there were still a couple of spots we wanted to hit along the route. The first being the O’Keefe Castle. Not well known and on private land, it ended up being surprisingly beautiful in its own right. The reason for the stop being that my grandmother’s last name was O’Keefe. Next, we would enter the famous Blarney Castle Grounds. The castle was a step up from O’Keefe, but we were more impressed overall by the acres upon acres of colorful gardens within the complex. By the way, we did not kiss the Blarney Stone! Shame on us. Finally, a brief viewing of the Rock of Cashel, a castle high up on a hill overlooking the town. This wasn’t as great as I had hoped, but at least we didn’t go out of our way for it.

We returned our rental car, took a bus to Dublin city center, and walked over to Brazen Head, Dublin’s oldest pub. The establishment was huge, the atmosphere was great, and we had some more traditional Irish fare, which was solid as well. A band began to play as we were finishing up, but we still needed to get down to our guesthouse for the night so is one and done on the songs. We hopped in a taxi to drive us South to Dunleary, which lies right on the sea with somewhat of a beach town feel. Our guesthouse looks dead and nobody answers are multiple door bell rings. Finally, an old man appears, very confused as to why we have arrived. He is full for the night. None of us know how this has happened, and we begin to worry when we see that there are almost no hotels nearby. It’s a Saturday at 11PM and the man eventually takes blame, then drives us to the fanciest hotel in town as he thinks they may have room. Somehow, they have space on a Saturday night before Redbull Flugtag, which is happening down the street. Not only this, but the 4-star price was only two hundred dollars. Our guesthouse friend paid the difference and we got to live the life of luxury that night! We even got a free enormous breakfast buffet breakfast. What a turn of events!

Finishing up breakfast, we conveniently walked across the street for mass, then conveniently walked down to the harbor to watch the Redbull event. Flugtag is where teams take their hand at building a flying device to roll off of a platform built over water. They also dress up and choreograph something before the attempt. It was quite entertaining to watch for a couple of hours, but I’m glad we didn’t have to go out of our way for it. We just so happened to be staying in the town where it was taking place, on the exact date! We took the city train from Dunleary back to downtown Dublin for beers and pizza before boarding the actual train to Belfast. It was a quick two-hour ride and a taxi to our guesthouse for the night. This time we had much better luck, and we also realized that we had actually booked the entire house. A queen size bed in my own room meant some great sleep for me that night. A bus tour (our first and only tour of the trip) awaited us that next morning.

The tour got off to a rough start as the bus driver didn’t show up for work and had to be replaced last minute. This was followed by a couple not listening to instructions and making the whole bus wait. Even after the delays, the weather was holding up and we were enjoying the scenery along the Antrim Coast. Our first true stop was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. None of us ended up crossing as it didn’t seem that great for the price, but the area surrounding it was lovely either way, so we had a nice time exploring. We chowed down on Guinness stew for lunch and arrived at the Giant’s Causeway. Unfortunately, the weather had turned for the worst and rain mixed with wind on our walk down to the water’s edge. This was the main attraction of the tour, and although it was very interesting and unique, I just didn’t have the fun and enjoyable experience I envisioned. It didn’t help that there were a hundred other tourists scrambling around at the same time. Our final activity was to visit the Dark Hedges, which is featured in Game of Thrones. We wouldn’t be there for long, but it really was fascinating seeing it up close. It looks fake! We made it back to Belfast an hour later and located the rotisserie chicken and BBQ restaurant we had read about that morning. We couldn’t have been more pleased with the food, the price point, and our stuffed bellies.

It was our final morning in Ireland riding a cab to the nearby airport. We would be flying to Glasgow where we catch a train through the highlands up to the Isle of Skye. This six hour ride was supposed to be one of the best in the world, and did not disappoint! My dad actually thought it was the highlight of his trip. We picked up our rental car in a town near where you have to catch the ferry, but we were originally told we would have no shot at making the last ferry of the night. We decided to go for it anyways. Our luck kept rolling and they managed to squeeze our car on last, departing only a few minutes after we arrived. We were very relieved because the alternative was going to be over two hours of driving around to the other side of the island where a bridge is located. The ferry took thirty minutes and another fifteen minutes of driving got us to our hostel. The hostel was nice, but our room was even better with a sensational ocean view! We initially had trouble finding somewhere to eat in this small town, but eventually made our way over to this place called Claymore’s. It seriously must have been the only open restaurant because it was crowded.

We were told we would have to wait a while for a table, but we were happy to do so. I spotted almost immediately that they had our favorite new cider, Somersby, on tap! We finally found it again. While we sipped, we started talking to a fellow French traveler who was also waiting for a table. He was higher on the list, so when a table for four became available, we just all ended up eating together and continuing our conversation. I had a fish soup that was probably the best soup/stew of the trip, and haggis, which I actually enjoyed quite a bit. We planned to take our time waking up the next morning, but nonetheless, I was anxious to explore the island!

Checking out all of the Isle of Skye might take a few days, but there is a popular smaller loop that covers about a third of it, so we opted for the latter. The route began at the Old Man of Storr. A short but steep hike from the main road landed you up near large jutting rocks that appeared as if they were looking out over the landscape with a plateau backdrop. The views of the ocean and other nearby islands were breathtaking. Even though we were not that high up from sea level, it truly felt like we were in the clouds looking down. Not too much further up the road we pulled in to a part of the coast with high cliffs and a waterfall tumbling into the sea below. This is where we plopped down for lunch before our second hike of the day. We were refueled and ready to start the trail, when we spotted a little cafe specializing in pies. There was no way we could skip it, and next thing you know we were taking pies to go. As we strolled through an extra pasture down toward the ocean, we passed many sheep at close range while eating our apple and chocolate pies. These sheep seemed to be less anxious than others I had come across and the babies were extra playful for us.

We continued along the rocky coast slowly as this area was the ultimate eye candy. There was a peninsula at the end which allowed a view of the greenest outcropping I think I’ve ever witnessed on the right, and a long distance view of the waterfall we had just visited on the left. Considering how short this hike was, it packed a punch! Our final plan for the day was to drive the road that goes up and over the plateau that runs down the middle of the island. Here lies another potential hike, but with two under a belt, and already spectacular views from the top of the plateau, we figured we weren’t missing too much. In any case, it was time for happy hour! We had been recommended a hotel bar and restaurant by our hostel. It was on our way back and had an overwhelming selection of whiskeys to choose from. This worked out great because I somehow had yet to try any whiskey since showing up in Ireland, and I was more intrigued about the Scottish whiskey anyways. We ordered two flights to share; one a selection from the highlands, and the other originating from Islay, another island famous for whiskey that we had heard about. There were two on the Islay list that I would have to say were the best I’ve ever had!

It wasn’t even necessarily that cold. It had been a perfect day, especially for Isle of Skye standards, but we were definitely feeling warmed up. The sunset that night was glorious out of our bedroom window and we started regretting not staying longer on this magical island. The next morning we would see the Eilean Donan Castle, which rested beautifully on the peninsula of what I would consider a fjord. However, after that we would need to drop off our car and catch the long train ride to Edinburgh. Luckily, this ride ended up being almost as captivating as the last, yet it was also fairly different top to bottom. After snacking most of the train journey, I wasn’t that hungry, but I had a severe craving for Chinese buffet. I had a feeling I might not have the option for a while after Scotland, so we immediately made a visit to one once we arrived in Edinburgh. A bit pricey, but high quality and a large selection of sushi and desserts had me content as can be! We then checked in to what would be our final accommodation of the trip.

We really didn’t have too many plans for our last full day, so it was nice to gradually roll out of bed. We were staying close to Arthur’s Seat, an old volcano that overlooks the city, so we figured we would hike that quick. The view was nothing outstanding, but the area was flooded with gorse, a yellow flowered bush that we had seen throughout Ireland and Scotland. It smells delightful, so being surrounded by so much gorse in the sunlight had the smell wafting in the air. We continued on walking through the city until we reached the National Museum. Entrance was free and we figured it would be nice to learn a little more about the history of Scotland since we were not partaking in any tours. Onward we marched to a fast casual chain called Oink where they have a pig in the window half cut up into pulled pork. Straightforward menu and good food led me to believe this should be introduced in the US. Unfortunately, they weren’t serving up any alcohol, so we took a stroll down “Diagon Alley” to one of the main squares and had ourselves a beer outside. We could not have asked for better weather on our last hurrah!

Next in line, we climbed up the hill to the Edinburgh castle, which also rests on part of the extinct volcano and overlooks the city. We explored that thing in and out and learned a lot about its interesting history. I enjoyed the experience, but as we finished, I could tell I was done with castles for a while! Somehow the timing after this worked out perfectly to see the new Star Wars movie. It had just come out and I had been craving popcorn, so it totally made sense to make it happen before I shipped out to the Middle East. For dinner, Nando’s, a peri peri rotisserie chicken chain was up to bat. I’m also hoping more of these show up back in the States. The only thing that remained was one final breakfast at or guesthouse the next morning, and we were back off to the train station. My parents were taking the train down to London to fly home, myself to the airport to fly to Tel Aviv. It was truly bittersweet that day! I had such an outstanding trip with my parents and was getting used to being with them again, yet I had another two months of what were sure to be unforgettable travel adventures ahead of me in the Middle East and Africa. See you on the other side!

Posted by Krackajak 09:07 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Iceland 2018

After a splendid three days of perfect weather in Chicago catching up with friends, watching American sports both on TV and in person, and stuffing my face with as much American food as humanly possible, I was right back on the travel wagon. My parents met me at the airport and we awaited our overnight flight to Iceland. Leaving at 7:30PM and arriving at 6:30AM would first appear to mean plenty of time to sleep, but due to the time zone difference, it only clocks out to a five and a half hour flight. Since my body isn’t used to going to bed at 7:30, by the time I had finished watching a movie, two hours of subpar sleep was all that remained. On the positive side, I had a whole row to myself!

The landing area outside of Reykjavik was as flat as it gets. Probably one of the main reasons the airport was built in that location, considering the rest of our time in Iceland we hardly came across a similar amount of flat space! The mountains flow out incredibly close to the ocean as you ring around the island. However, before making this journey, we simply had to make a pit stop at the famous blue lagoon. We had reserved for that day’s first time slot. After an uncomfortable night’s sleep, it was the perfect relaxation and rejuvenation solution; especially since we knew we would be stuck in a car for the majority of the next few days. Although it’s a pricey tourist trap, we really enjoyed our experience. Furthermore, since you get to choose a free drink, we discovered a new hard cider called Somersby. We all agreed that it had to be our favorite ever, so the rest of the trip we were on the lookout!

After a two-hour soak and a stop at the grocery store, we hit the Ring Road going counterclockwise toward Vik. I had originally requested that we rent a 4x4 vehicle in order to be able to drive the “F” roads of the inner part of the island. I was bummed to find out that these roads were all still closed due to significant flooding and mud. This was also the culprit that closed down a canyon I was highly looking forward to checking out. The good news was that the extra time that this opened up provided for other amazing discoveries along our route. Plus, there were several instances where it seemed very necessary to have 4x4 anyways! Due to the changes in our original itinerary, the first day was almost completely filled with waterfall viewing. If you were to stop for a look at every waterfall in Iceland, it would probably take you a year to go around the whole island. After a while, falls that would normally be considered “must sees” in other parts of the world, simply made our “drive-by photography” list. Farms/homes resided under a majority of these and we daydreamed of having our own waterfall!

Nevertheless, the scenery was spectacular, and each of the falls that we did indeed make time for exploring was as unique as the last. This trend would continue into the next day as well. The landscape became rockier and volcanic providing interesting formations, including under one of the waterfalls! We were also impressed by the beautiful green moss that covered several large areas of old magma. The second day was finished off by what would be a very quick visit to a glacial lagoon. As we walked from the car toward the shoreline, we felt the brute force of the wind. We thought we were growing somewhat accustomed to the wind of Iceland, but within less than a minute, the brief sunshine and even rainbow behind us disappeared. The wind kicked it up a notch, the rain began to fall, and my face felt as if it were being shot by a pellet gun. I could hardly move forward due to the wind power and hardly continue due to the pain. By the time I reached the shore, I snapped a couple pictures, and immediately turned around. After returning to the car soaked with freezing hands, I couldn’t wait to make it to our room for the night in Hofn.

Both Vik and Hofn are exceedingly small towns; barely even having a grocery store and a gas station. Surprisingly, Hofn does have a public pool with geothermal tubs that our guesthouse gave us free access to use. It was no blue lagoon, but boy it was it needed after the cold we experienced from that wind! The next morning we began the day with what I was hoping to be a tremendous view. Unfortunately, fog had overtaken the peaks of the mountains and it just wasn’t quite what I imagined. That first half of our trip in Iceland was definitely plagued by a lot of rain and fog. Nonetheless, the area still had a remarkable black sand beach spotted with yellow grass mounds, and we were able to explore a small Viking village. We declared the stop to still be worth it and moved on to Jokulsarlon, the most famous glacial lagoon. We were now headed back in the direction of Vik.

The colors occurring in the chunks of glacier that had fallen into the lagoon were absolutely incredible. They littered the water in a variety of shapes and formations that were both striking and otherworldly. As if this wasn’t enough, we followed the water flow down to the black sand beach. Impossibly clear ice chunks were scattered everywhere! The weather was starting to improve a bit, so we decided to head out and hit up a couple of spots that we missed on the initial ride. One of these was the Svinafellsjokull Glacier. The sun was just peaking through the clouds as we approached and beautifully lit up the entire area. Once again, there was a glacial lagoon, but the true draw was being able to quite easily climb right up next to the glacier itself. Although not as grand as the glaciers I witnessed in South America, it was a special experience looking down into the behemoth. I only wish we could have stayed longer because within minutes it started pouring again and we were forced to complete the day back in Vik.

Our second time waking up in Vik, we were finally treated to some sun! Just perfect because our plan was a morning stroll along the beach. Giant waves crashed over and over, followed by a pull of water across the black sand leaving a winding streak of foam that glistened in the morning light. Off in the distance rested multiple jagged rock formations jutting out of the sea, getting battered by the strong current and creating splash explosions that reminded me of fireworks. Up the road, on the cliffs, we could see those same formations now far to the left, some other crazy shapes where we stood and walked around, several rock islands out in the distance, and a rock arch to our right. It was quite the sight made more memorable by the much improved weather. It must have been a combination of it being a Saturday and the best weather in days, but during the drive back toward the Reykjavik area we saw a drastically increased amount of cars and tourist buses rolling down the route we had just experienced. Although we didn’t have the best weather for that portion of the trip, we were glad we didn’t have to jockey for position with hordes of other people.

Before actually checking in to our guesthouse in Reykjavik, we still had two other stops to make. Driving through the countryside with mountains further off in the distance, rather than all up in our face, was a nice change and still very beautiful. This led us to Gullfoss, the largest/widest waterfall of Iceland. Due to its proximity to the city and the weather, it was packed with tourists; quite unlike anything we had witnessed so far. That being said, Gullfoss was certainly an impressive display and remnants of unmelted snow cover surrounding the falls were an added bonus. Just down the road, lay the famous Geysir and its smaller buddy Strokkur. Apparently, Geysir can blow higher than Old Faithful, but rarely erupts. Strokkur, on the other hand was shooting up every five minutes or so, and still fairly high. Since I have yet to visit Yellowstone, this was the first time I had ever witnessed such an event, so it was quite a thrill!

It being a Saturday night, as well as Mother’s Day Eve, we decided to celebrate by treating ourselves (especially my mom) for dinner. My dad had researched a tapas restaurant ahead of time that incorporated several local delicacies. The three of us split two multi-course dinners that allowed us to sample a little of everything. Along with beef, duck, lamb, lobster, and a few different kinds of fish, smoked puffin and minke whale showed up to the party! The entire meal was delicious and pleasing to the eye, with the whale dish surprisingly coming out near the top. It was interesting how they had a mix of Spanish dishes and Icelandic dishes incorporated into the menu. On another note, upon finishing our meal, two guys that we had met at our guesthouse in Hofn walked in. We had also ran into them that morning on the cliffs, so we were all in disbelief!

Our final day in Iceland managed to give us some more great weather. This time we were headed to the Northwest part of the island to the peninsula just South of the fjords. At first, it seemed somewhat similar to the Southern part of Iceland, but we soon realized there was an addition of large lakes, sweeping views achieved by driving up into the mountains, and significantly more snow cover. This was especially true for the humongous Snaefellsjokull volcano. There was so much snow that almost no rock was visible, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen before. The upper part of the volcano sat so far above the other mountains that it could have almost been confused as a huge cloud with all of that snow cover. After checking out what I would consider some of the more gorgeous waterfalls of the trip, that day’s journey ended in the small town of Arnarstapi. Wonderful views of volcanoes and snow capped mountains, a small harbor with turquoise waters, a waterfall going into the ocean, and some of the most interesting volcanic rock pillar formations you’ll ever see made for a terrific ending.

Our plan was to catch the evening mass upon our return to the city, but for some reason it wasn’t running that night. I’m still glad I got to see the church because it sat on top of the tallest hill in the city, and the architecture was unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. My dad had once again done his homework and brought us to a nearby spot called Icelandic Street Food. I never really understood how the name applied to the food they served, but I was an instant fan! Albeit expensive for soup, we received a bread bowl full of lamb chunks, which included a free refill. They also provided free chocolate macaroons and waffles with Nutella for dessert. Overall, it didn’t seem like Iceland offered much in the food department, and what they do have is pricey, but I think we definitely picked out some of the better locales. I also couldn’t believe how much we had seen and done in such a short time in Iceland. It was time to move on to Ireland where we hoped the good weather would continue. Unfortunately, that would require waking up at 3AM to drive back to the airport from which we came, but we were ready for the challenge!

Posted by Krackajak 03:56 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

GalapaQuito-Colombia

We crossed the border into Equador and passed through customs by 3AM. At this point, we appeared to be in okay shape. Next thing I recall was abruptly waking up on the bus, immediately checking my phone for our location and time. Depending on traffic to the station, I still had a shot at my flight! This false hope vanished before my eyes when the bus pulled up. I should have went with my gut and kept my big backpack on board the bus. Not only was the bus employee picking off luggage one by one, but my bag happened to be deep within the hold, and the final piece retrieved. I still cannot believe this took over twenty minutes, washing away any final chance I had at making my flight! I still gave it my best shot, but even my crazy taxi driver couldn’t make up the lost time. Upon arriving at security, I was told the gate doors had just closed.

I would be getting no refund and I would later find out that my travel insurance wouldn’t cover the incident either. Additionally, and more pressing, none of the airlines had remaining seats available to the Galapagos that day. I came very close to the brink of forgoing my visit to the Islands, but I think I would have definitely regretted the opportunity given I was already so close. I booked a costly flight for the next morning and cozied up for what would be another twenty hours at the Guayaquil airport. As much as I was kicking myself, and as much as I was trying to blame the bus company, I had to move on and get excited about the unique experience lying ahead of me! On the positive side, the extra time allowed me to really nail down what I wanted to see on the islands, given I only had four nights to explore. Thankfully, this particular airport did not exhibit outrageous prices and I managed to secure a fairly comfy bench for at least a few hours of sleep!

Upon landing on the island of Santa Cruz, I took a bus, a ferry, another bus, and a taxi to get to my hostel. After a quick lunch that I actually ended up having with a woman from Calgary, I stopped by a tourist agency to plan out my stay. Turned out that they had a bay tour starting in fifteen minutes, which included a couple of spots on my “must see” list. I jumped on it so as not to waste too much more time, considering sunsets were occurring before 6PM. The tour offered a variety of activities, including animal sightseeing, swimming in a waterhole, and snorkeling. In the end, my favorite part was definitely being introduced to the “Sally Lightfoot” crabs and the marine iguanas. They are so unique and so unafraid of humans! After the tour, I ventured to a street in town where all of the restaurants set up tables and chairs on the road; then display their best seafood for the day. I met up with Nadine from lunch and a British couple from my tour. The options were endless, but I went with a massive tuna steak. The Galapagos might be expensive, but this was only ten bucks! I was certainly looking forward to eating more seafood, something that had been lacking in my diet to that point in the trip.

The following morning was a lengthy one. I showed up early to the port for my 7AM ferry to Isla Isabela. The plan was to arrive two hours later, lock down a hostel, and then have the tour company pick me up from that hostel at 11AM. Not even halfway through the voyage, my first boat experienced a failure in two of the three motor engines. We were eventually transferred to a rescue boat thinking we were back on track, but thirty minutes from our destination, one of the motors on this new boat decided to out as well! After slowly chugging along the rest of the way, we hit land around 11AM. My tour guide was waiting on the dock for me, and ten minutes later I was aboard a new vessel for an hour long cruise to our snorkel spot. At this point, I was just grateful to not be sea sick!

We pulled up to a snorkeling area that they call “Los Tunneles”. It wasn’t long before I was seeing giant sea turtles swim around me, followed shortly by black and white tip sharks. This got me excited because the nurse sharks I saw in Belize didn’t look nearly as cool as these! Another impressive attraction was a sea horse clinging onto a branch on the sea floor. It was hard to see floating above, but once I dove down, I was quite surprised by the size of it; probably close to six inches in length. That being said, the cherry on top was free diving into the cavernous area, where Los Tunneles gets its name. There were several sharks either sleeping or just hanging out in the caves and it was a rush coming face to face with them! The only thing that could have made the snorkeling experience better was some improved visibility, but I was loving it either way.

Aboard the boat again, we were weaving through interesting and endless black rock formations along. The majority of the vegetation growing between the rocks were cacti, a consistent them across the islands. All of this against the blue waters was beautiful in itself, but we soon found out that the primary attraction were the blue footed boobies! We approached a male who was simply hanging out until about five minutes later when a female swooped in to the scene. The females’ feet are noticeably more blue, and their eyes are of a slightly different color and shape. For the next fifteen minutes, ten feet away from me was a nature presentation you only see on Planet Earth documentaries. The male flaunted around whistling and spreading its wings in different poses trying to attract the lady. Eventually, our guide told us we needed to leave them alone to “mate”, but it was a wonderful experience!

After striking out on four hostels in a row, I stumbled upon one that not only had space, but I received my own room and shower. While making my way over to watch the sunset, I ran into some of the folks from my problematic boat ride that morning. We decided to catchup over happy hour right on the soft sand beach, and it was a perfect end to the day. Although, the night did not end until I finished off a freshly caught giant Bacalao. Not only was it yummy, but it was easily the largest wholly cooked fish I’ve ever had! I was stuffed and content, ready for a good night’s sleep in a big bed with no wakeup requirements looming over me!

Slowly rising the next morning, I gingerly strolled over to an area full of lagoons. A bunch of iguanas were lounging by the entrance, but the stars of the show were the flamingos. Unlike the flamingos I saw roaming the lagoons high up in the mountains of Bolivia, these beauties were significantly more pink, and they didn’t seem to mind my presence. Instead of scurrying or trying to fly away, they simply sat there cleaning themselves and posing within a few feet of me. Further down the path I reached a giant tortoise rehabilitation center. I had originally planned to see these elderly beasts in more of a “wild” setting, but I was thoroughly entertained by them even in their enclosures. I found it hilarious how slow they really move, how they stick out their necks to jab at one another, and of course the mating process, which I was lucky enough to witness firsthand. It was also great because this habitat housed younger tortoises and even cute little babies!

My final activity on Isabela would be a quick snorkel session at the Concha de Perla, which is right off the shore in a protected cove. Many more iguanas, as well as seals were hanging out by the dock, but the best part was that they happened to jump right in and swim alongside me! Beyond this, I swam past some more turtles and rays, so nothing new and noteworthy, but it was fantastic for free snorkeling. After a quick shower, I was right back on a boat toward Puerto Ayora. Luckily, this time we completed the journey with no complications. Some new friends from my “Los Tunneles” tour and I grabbed happy hour for sunset, and the fun continued from there. I was shocked how much the town expanded out from where I was staying. An overwhelming amount of restaurants and bars to choose from, and by the end of the night we had made it to a legitimate club that went until 3AM. It was definitely the spot to be on the island and we had a blast!

Getting up that next morning was certainly rough, but I was excited for more aquatic adventures. Almost unsurprisingly, arriving for my tour, I was notified that the boat was having mechanical difficulties, and that I would be switched to the Isla Sante Fe Tour. Who knows how amazing Isla Pinzon would have been, but the change was basically a blessing in disguise. I was given some of my money back and provided another “Planet Earth” type experience. After touring around part of the island viewing beautiful rocky cliffs, more cacti, caves, and a variety of bird species, we stopped at our first snorkel location. Over the next thirty minutes, I had the time of my life swimming and playing with seals! At certain times, I probably had seven or eight seals surrounding me, darting in and out, sniffing and biting at my GoPro, and bending their bodies every which way.

I was honestly already quite satisfied with the seal snorkeling, but our second drop off was also very beautiful. We had the whole area to ourselves, the water clarity was top notch, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite that variety of colorful fish in one spot before. There was even a decent amount of coral formations to weave and dive through to spot other hiding swimmers. Finally, we stopped at a hidden white sand beach to relax and eat an unbelievably tasty ceviche prepared by our guides. I was nodding off the whole ride back, and after planning for a quick nap upon my return, I found myself waking up at 9PM. I decided to skip dinner and next thing I knew it was 6AM! After some breakfast at the hostel, I was back on the bus toward the airport, this time flying to Quito, ecstatic about my adventures in the Galapagos.

My new friend Niki that I met in the Galapagos advised me that he would be staying at a place called the “Secret Garden” in Quito, so that’s where I ended up. Very good call on his part! I really enjoyed the atmosphere and they had a rooftop kitchen and bar that overlooked quite a bit of the city. This included extremely good deals on drinks, even when it wasn’t happy hour, and pretty decent food, also at a splendid price. Niki and I met another four people over dinner who were planning on doing the same hike as us. After an omelet and pancakes that following morning, we were fueled and ready. Our group rode the famous “Teleferico” ski lift up the mountain to about 14,000 feet and began the ascent. As we climbed toward the peak of the Pinchincha Volcano, the views of the city down below were spectacular. As much as I had grown accustomed to the high altitudes of the Andes back in Bolivia and Peru, I was definitely back to square one after being at sea level in the Galapagos. I was sucking in air most of the way, and by the time I reached 15,000 feet, about thirty minutes from the summit, I had developed a bit of a headache. With that, including the fact that it had become too cloudy to really see much anyways, as well as the fact that my flight to Colombia was in a few hours, I figured it was a good enough sign to turn back.

I swear I must have walked over a mile through the Bogota airport to reach my connecting flight to Medellin. I’m not sure if the airport is just way too big or they messed up on making the gates close together, but I barely made the next plane. I arrived in Medellin in disbelief that I was now officially in my final South American country. Yet, I was excited because my friend Bekah would be arriving in the morning and we would get to spend the next couple of days together exploring! We screwed up and booked different hostels on the first night, but made the change to the same one after that. As I walked over to meet up with Bekah that first morning in Medellin, I could already tell that I was going to like the city. I’m typically not a huge city fan and prefer to spend less time in them, but something seemed different here, or at the very least the neighborhood we picked to stay in called Poblado.

The first area we decided to explore that day was a lot like the favela I walked through in Rio. It’s called Comuna 13 and the neighborhood has been revitalized with a ton of gorgeous graffiti. We were impressed with how far the wall art expanded up the hill and to the side streets. The sweeping view of the city was also great! After watching Narcos before the trip, the view got me thinking about how far the city had come since Escobar. Besides Poblado, the metro system was cheap, comfortable, convenient, and easy to use, even for Bekah who doesn’t know much Spanish! We took the metro everywhere and our next stop after Comuna 13 was to the soccer stadium to pickup tickets for the next night. Having secured the tickets, we made our way back to Poblado to meet up with some friends Bekah had made in Southern Colombia. They would also be joining us for the game, but that night was more of a food and drink tour.

Bekah and I had to wake up fairy early to catch a two-hour bus ride to la Piedra del Penol. It’s this gigantic stone that sticks up out of nowhere within a landscape of green hills and lakes. Albeit the coolest part is that the Colombians built switchback stairs all along the side so that the top can be reached for terrific views. The landscape is littered with farms and large haciendas, but down the road is the unbelievably colorful town of Guatapé. This town wasn’t that high on my list of must sees for Colombia, but strolling through the streets, it took me by surprise. Probably 80% of the town was painted in a variety of colors, and this included many smaller paintings of symbols, flowers, and animals. Even the tuk-tuks and taxis were sprayed down with vibrant designs zooming through the streets. After a great day, we bussed it back to prepare ourselves for the soccer match.

Bekah had a couple of other girlfriends from SF who flew in that morning, so our crew was six going to the game that night. Unfortunately, as soon as we were about to leave it started raining. It was a light rain at first, but thirty minutes into the game it was raining cats and dogs! Ponchos were basically worthless at a certain point and thunder and lightning added into the mix shut down play. We got the hell out of there as quickly as possible before the stampede; this time with Ubers. We were bummed, but the atmosphere up until that point was awe-inspiring for sure! The plan was to go out that night, but the rain continued and by the time it cleared, all we had left on our minds was food. The night concluded with pizza and passing out.

My last day in Medellin was relaxing, yet Bekah and I still walked all over the city to see a couple of parks and more of the business district. One thing I became obsessed with were these fruit drinks sold on the street. They were only a dollar and included five or six different fruits cut up and placed in a watermelon juice mixed with some yogurt and cream. I couldn’t get enough of them! I also ate several arepas during my stay, which I thought were my favorite, until we came across this Colombian stew. Pleasantly stuffed, our final act was actually to get pedicures together. Bekah suggested it, as well as a massage, but then I realized that I legitimately truly needed one after all of the walking and hiking I had done over the last three months. For six bucks, it was such a great decision! Sadly, I said goodbye to Bekah and boarded my overnight bus to Cartagena.

Classically, my bus pulled in late to Cartagena. On the other hand, the bus station was unusually situated about an hour outside of the center of town. Either way, this did not help me out considering my flight back to the US was at 1:30PM. I only had a few hours to see as much of Cartagena as possible. During the drive in from the bus station, the outskirts of the city made me feel like I was back in parts of Central America. Poverty appeared to be somewhat rampant and the streets were very dirty. When I stepped off of the bus in the old town district, it was a night and day difference. Not only this, but I seriously could have mistook it for a completely different country than Medellin. It had Caribbean vibes all over it!

People looked and even spoke slightly differently. I was a little confused what had just happened overnight. However, taking another glance at the map, it all made sense, even as to the way the city looked. Boy, is Cartagena pleasing to the eye! The architecture, the streets, and even the flowers all flow perfectly together. Every direction I looked I was taken by the beauty, and this continued as I meandered through a couple miles of streets. I could have spent the rest of the afternoon seeing the sights, but I was happy with what I was able to cover. I flagged a taxi with the last of my pesos, ready for my flight to Chicago. I was anxious for some true American food, to see old friends, and of course to meet up with my parents! What a wild ride the last three months had been. I loved every minute of it, but I was looking forward to a small break before heading to Iceland!

Posted by Krackajak 15:43 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Peru 2018

Aubrey and I arrived in Arequipa mid-afternoon after a drive through what seemed like endless desert mountains. After being at sea level in Arica/Tacna for just a few hours, we were climbing back up! I’m glad we didn’t stay down there any longer or are lungs may have adjusted back to square one. Luckily, the strength we had built up in Bolivia carried over to the rest of our “high” experiences in Peru. We were close to being back on track time-wise to our itinerary, but we were starting Peru in Arequipa now instead of Puno. This change would actually prove to benefit us in the end, helping the rest of the buses and tours fall into place nicely.

Aubrey and I wanted to get out and explore Arequipa as much as possible before the sun went down. The city has a massive volcano looming over it, along with a few other snow capped mountains that make for superb scenery. We also found a few beautiful churches and parks, as well as an upscale neighborhood that reminded us more of San Francisco than Peru. Our initial plan was to grab dinner at a traditional restaurant, but our hunger pains led us to a night of touring the street food scene! We tried just about everything, and nearly everything was one sole, which is equal to thirty cents. The winning treat was a Peruvian churro, which we both agreed greatly improved upon the Mexican churro in both crispiness and due to its caramel apple filling!

Earlier, we had mutually decided that we were going to tough it out and take the 1AM bus to Cabanaconde, the main launch point of Colca Canyon, to catch sunrise. We didn’t realize how far away it was from Arequipa, and even with the 1AM departure, we only caught the sunrise from the bus windows. Running on little sleep, we scarfed down a quick breakfast and ventured out to a couple of the primary canyon lookouts. The area was full of green pastures and colorful gardens. It was so peaceful in the morning light and we basically had the place to ourselves beyond the various farm animals roaming around. The views to the bottom of the valley were epic! I had read that this canyon was deeper than the Grand Canyon. It was difficult to tell where that was measured from, but based on where we were standing we could see cacti and desert below, and snow capped peaks far above us on the other side. We were somewhere in the middle, already very high up, and that was enough to impress me, regardless of the statistics.

As it approached noon, we decided it was time to make our way down the canyon. We were hoping to take a dip in one of the pools at the bottom as a refresher before hiking back up to catch sunset. This would also allow us to sleep in the next morning before our bus. However, as it would be, half way through the hike, Aubrey began suffering from pain in her toes, presumably caused by her socks/shoes. Our pace slowed drastically and eventually Aubrey advised me to push forward and wait for her at the bottom. There was no relief from the sun on this trail. By the time I reached the Oasis, a gathering of three hostels, and laid my eyes on the first pool with a beautiful fountain and garden, I made the immediate decision that we would chill there and spend the night, regardless if Aubrey’s feet were feeling any better.

Turns out that they most certainly were not! She was quite relieved to find out that not only would she not be climbing back up that afternoon, but she could hire a mule to give her a ride in the morning. There were only a couple of other people at our hostel, which made for such a relaxing afternoon at the pool, admiring the canyon from a completely new perspective! Some much needed rest and a good night’s sleep had me ready to go that next morning. I started my hike at 6AM and assumed Aubrey would catch up to me quickly. Apparently, she didn’t start up until 6:30AM or so. Not only did I beat her, but I passed about fifty other people along the way, later finding out that they began hiking between 4:30-5:00AM. Multiple people had told me that it would indeed take three hours on the return hike, but once again I proved I can typically cut the standard time in half!

The two of us strutted back to town to confirm and buy our 9AM bus tickets. For some reason the bus driver told us that they were actually leaving at 9:30AM. We had to reason to not take his word for it, so we went back to the hostel holding our backpacks for much needed showers. As I finished up, I heard what sounded like a bus go by. Sure enough, they left without us! Luckily, the hostel receptionist had our back. Within minutes, he had a friend on the way to pick us up in his truck to race us to the bus. This method certainly set us back a few bucks, but it sure did the trick! As we winded back down the same road we came from that prior morning, there were many new sights to behold in the valley below. We had missed so much in the dark! A gorgeous river sided by terraced farms ran for miles. I was relieved to have made the bus, but they sense of relief vanished as soon as we arrived in Chivay.

Despite what we had been told, there was no local/public bus from Chivay to Puno. The only thing available was a tourist bus that was much more costly. It was either this or return back out of our way to Arequipa, then overnight to Puno. Pursuing the former was a great call and the hostel we picked in Puno that night was an even better call! After a savory dinner of Alpaca Lomo Saltado, one of the primary local Peruvian dishes, we checked into our huge room featuring a TV, comfy beds, and a 4th floor balcony. The loft provided us with delightful sunrise views that next morning, even if we didn’t want to wake up yet. On top of that, this spot had the best breakfast layout to date. As a note, Aubrey and I were booking private rooms everywhere, yet this, out of all of them, still felt way more like a hotel than a hostel!

The draw of Puno lies in its proximity to Lake Titicaca. We decided to book the classic full day tour with stops at Los Uros Floating Islands and Taquile Island. We had heard it would be touristy and it sure was! I marveled at their creations of boats and homes made from reed. It was also interesting learning about the language, culture, and lifestyle of the folks from both islands, but it just seemed way too staged for us. It was as if the people living in Puno were forcing the indigenous islanders to dance and sing, and then pretend to be happy while we took pictures of them. Maybe they were giving them more of a cut than we realized, but it sure appeared that they were taking full advantage of the easy target touristic benefits. Strolling around Taquile Island was probably my favorite part of the tour. The hills and homes reminded me of Tuscany, but the views out into this gigantic perfectly blue lake surrounded in part by mountains was the real gem.

The lunch was quinoa soup with locally caught trout. I was quite pleased until we finished up and we were advised that the water, Coke, and beer we were “generously” given actually needed to be paid for, and being on an island meant it wasn’t cheap! The locals tried to get us dancing with them, but I was too full to be moving around. Aubrey was brave enough to get her groove on with a lady three times her age and twice as short. After pretty much passing out the whole boat ride back, we figured we should go for a little walk along the water in Puno before the sunset. In the nearby fields there were hundreds of kids playing soccer, as well as volleyball, surprisingly. Some of the onlookers included a few random horses!

Aubrey and I had seen that there was a pizza place attached to our hostel, so we thought it would make sense to eat a hearty meal before our overnight bus to Cusco. Boy were we wrong! I’ve never been so disappointed by pizza in my life. It’s one thing to provide deceiving pictures, but this pizza literally had no sauce. Chinese food is big in Peru, and the other dinner option we were considering. Let’s just say that the Chinese food ended up happening after that sad excuse for a pizza. Our bus with Cruz del Sur to Cusco was easily the nicest I had taken in all of South America, and I would continue to try to use them throughout my time in Peru. Not only do they have more legroom and more recline, but they provide blankets and a pillow! Not only do they provide charging outlets, but you received your own personal screen and could watch new movies, just like an airplane. The only thing that remained questionable was the WiFi, but I let it slide since they weren’t really any more expensive than other companies.

Somehow I managed to work it out where our tour company for Lake Humantay would send a taxi to grab us from the bus station at 4:30AM for our 5AM tour. Everything worked out smoothly and within a couple hours our tourist van had taken us further up into the mountains for breakfast overlooking a beautiful valley. I remember being served a pancake with what I thought was syrup on top. My excitement quickly turned into disappointment as the pancake was cold and the syrup was concentrated coffee. Luckily, for the most part, Peru had some of the best food in South America, but these last two meals were certainly not indicative of this! After breakfast, we continue climbing up the mountain until we reached a large valley, the starting point of our trail. The path looked pretty steep so Aubrey and I set off right away to beat the crowds forming behind us. The fog made it hard to see much during the hike up. Even once we reached the lagoon, most of the mountain was still covered in clouds. However, literally by the minute, an unbelievable display of sky blue water, greenery, and towering snowy peaks unfolded in front of us.

I had seen similar glacial lagoons in Patagonia, but this topped them all! The color of the water, it’s reflection and clarity, and the height of the mountains watching over everything had us in a state of trance. Eventually, we hiked up the hill a little more to get a new angle on the lake. I couldn’t believe the colors of blue I was seeing! Plus, there was another sweeping valley to our left that nobody else was checking out, equally as stunning. The hike back down allowed us to gain a much better grasp of the area. There was another valley leading to more snowy mountains that was now visible. I soon discovered that this was the beginning of the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. By the time we made it to the van, there was hardly a could in the sky in all directions, and the lunch buffet was vastly improved over lunch!

Our only goal for the night was to see if we could catch the Rockets vs. Timberwolves playoff game. Finding a sports bar in Cusco was actually quite easy, and they seemingly had every channel. However, just our luck that TNT wasn’t actually showing it, rather only some local show. A similar issue occurred when I tried to watch the Final Four on TBS in Brazil. It was a bummer, but the good news was that the other playoff games could be seen on ESPN, and it was refreshing to see some American sports for once. We made sure not to stay up too late because our tour of Rainbow Mountain the next day would be departing even earlier. My alarm went off before 3AM and sure enough our guide was in the hostel’s lobby by 3:15AM. Similar to the first tour, after a couple of hours we stopped for breakfast. This time it was significantly better, but we were definitely still half asleep. Our hopes of snoozing a little more before the hike were dashed when we immediately realized how bumpy the road would be. Luckily, this road followed a river valley that reminded me of a combo between Zion and Yosemite, so I didn’t mind being kept awake!

Once we reached the trailhead, our guide rushed us forward reiterating multiple times to get our butts moving. He wanted to ensure we reached the top before the swarms of other tourist groups arrived. I couldn’t help but look around us as it felt like we had stepped into a Lord of the Rings movie. Aubrey and I walked past herds of alpaca, llama, and sheep as we made our way to over 15,000 feet, becoming the first to reach the lookout summit. All I had really seen online were pictures of the “rainbow mountain” itself, but there was a whole lot more going on! Pink colored mountains were scattered behind the rainbow portions, a wide valley opened up for us to the right, snow covered peaks resided behind us, and Christmas colored formations stuck out to our left. 360 degree eye candy all to ourself for the good part of thirty minutes! I’m glad our guide was so adamant because we truly enjoyed our time up top. As we leisurely returned to the base, we passed hundreds of other hikers either huffing and puffing or riding horses. Nobody else appeared to be prepared for the altitude and I was content we didn’t have to fight for space with all of them!

After another lunch buffet, we were dropped back off in Cusco with enough time for a sunset activity. We made the short climb up to one of the churches perched on a hill and hung out on a park bench. The city sprawled out in front of us, I practiced my newly purchased pan flute as the sun went down, for anyone around us willing to put up with it. This would be the final dinner for Aubrey and I, so we decided to go big. The one requirement was that we needed to try guinea pig! Our first restaurant pick fell short as they were fresh out for the night. We walked into another nice looking restaurant off the main square and they weren’t serving it either. The good news was that the host advised that they had a sister restaurant a few blocks away that certainly would. He also gave us free drink tickets! Walking up through the tiny cobblestone streets with buildings on each side of us painted blue and white reminded me of Santorini. When we showed up at Pachapapa we couldn’t be happier. We were promptly seated and treated to an outdoor patio with heaters and pisco sours. We loved the ambiance and it could tell that this was definitely a hidden gem. We followed this up with stuffed peppers, trout ceviche, and of course the guinea pig masterpiece. We “cheersed” to a great night and an even greater trip, then headed back to the hostel to pass the hell out.

After a quick breakfast, Aubrey and I split ways. Her flight wasn’t until that evening, but I needed to catch my bus to Machu Picchu. It felt strange that she would not be joining me. I had travelled for two months by myself, but now that I had gotten used to having my friends around, I was going to need to adjust back. My bus ride was more of a packed minivan that took over seven uncomfortable hours because of three pitstops along the way. This was just to Hidroelectrica. I then had to walk along the train tracks for two hours to reach Aguas Calientes. The good news was that this walk meandered through beautiful jungle in a river valley, but once completed I was drained. I was very surprised by Aguas Calientes. I had been picturing a small village since there are no cars. Yet, it was a bustling town with nice hotels and restaurants, plenty of locals playing on soccer fields, and a series of bridges gapping multiple river falls. I would have enjoyed exploring a little, but I found myself a rotisserie chicken joint and got to bed as quickly as possible since a 4AM wakeup call was imminent.

I was under the impression that I had booked a dorm room, but it turned out to only be me and another French girl. Our hostel served breakfast beginning at 4AM, which was perfect because both of us were trying to beat the crowds up the mountain. Apparently, everyone else had the same idea. We had heard that the bus line would be long, which it certainly was, but arriving at the trail entrance we found it to be the exact same thing. Not only that, but it began to rain as soon as we showed up! I’m still confused as to why it took so long, but we didn’t start climbing until forty minutes later; the same amount of time it took to reach the top! Thankfully, I didn’t end up getting too wet, but the humidity had me drenched in sweat anyways. Another line was required to pass through the main entrance, and yet another for me to enter the Huaynapicchu trail. I had reserved the 7AM spot, but this ended up being pointless. Honestly, getting to Machu Picchu early in general was pointless. By the time the clouds finally cleared around 9:30AM, I was on the verge of losing my patience. Maybe every once in a while there are epic sunrises, but if I had to do it all over again, I would much prefer not sitting in the rain, then sitting in fog for two hours!

Nonetheless, the view from Huaynapicchu was breathtaking and something a lot of tourists don’t see due to a strict capping of people per day. It’s the mountain in the background of the classic Machu picture and requires a very steep and slippery thirty-minute climb. Now, the problem was that I had to rush the rest of my visit. I can’t believe how much ground I covered in such a short span! The eery and misty ruins of the morning looked completely different and the whole area was surrounded by mountains similar to what you might see in Thailand. However, you were on top of all of them! In order to make it back to my hostel in time to complete the two-hour walk back along the train tracks, some trail running was necessary. Sometimes I forget how much I love trail running; I just wish it wasn’t so dangerous. I had no issues making by return mini-van to Cusco, but once again my legs were fried. The ride back went by surprisingly fast with less stops and I went straight to another rotisserie chicken restaurant. I couldn’t get enough of them because five dollars got you a huge breast, fried rice, fries, and a salad bar. Such great value had me back the following night as well! It was a Saturday night and my hostel was active, but after dinner I was out like a light.

I took the Salar de Maras/Moray tour my last day in Cusco. I truly only wanted to see the Salar, but that wasn’t an option. This was a little frustrating because I had to spend several hours seeing things I was uninterested in and less than thirty minutes at the Salar itself. The tour began with a stop where women were making clothes and blankets from Alpaca and sheep wool. I will say that the way they created soap to wash the wool, as well as the creation of colors to dye it was fascinating! Moray required an expensive entrance fee so I waited outside for the group. I was personally blown away that the Incans formed the salt terraces of Maras. There were over a thousand built on the side of a mountain that releases salt water from inside. It was a beautiful walk; I just wish I was given more time to explore! Cusco has a bunch of women roaming the streets offering cheap massages. I was planning to stop by for a thirty-minute session, but fell disappointingly short on time before my overnight bus to Ica. After all the hiking over the last few days and a few long bus rides ahead of me, I could have really used it!

Not surprisingly, my bus to Ica ran behind schedule, so I rushed into a cab to make one of the 10AM dune buggy and sand boarding tours. Ica is famous for having some of the biggest sand dunes in the world, but I would technically be hanging out in the oasis down the road called Huacachina. The dune buggy ride was exhilarating! I felt like I was on a rollercoaster and the driver completed some insane maneuvers as we cruised up, down and around the slopes. The views looking back over Ica were awesome, and I found it crazy that the city even had a few dunes popping up in the middle of it. I was impressed over and over again by the range of landscapes across Peru and I didn’t even make it to the Amazon! I fail miserably at all board sports, so I rode down the dunes by stomach and butt, but it was still a bunch of fun! After a final descent of the tallest dune, we made our way back to the oasis where I had a few hours to spare before my bus ride to Lima. I spent that time chilling at the pool looking out up at the dunes with some beers and a couple local Peruvians. The hotel I booked the tour with let me hang out for free and even utilize their facilities, which proved to be much needed before what would be a lengthy two days ahead of me.

After a perfect day, my realization in Lima that I had forgotten my swimsuit drying at the pool came at me hard. Not only did I love that swimsuit, but now I was headed to the Galapagos without one and nowhere to buy something that would likely fit me. I tried to forget about it with a giant burger at a food truck near the bus station in Lima. For what would cost twice as much in the US, I was very impressed with the quality, and you could add as many caramelized onions or pico de gallo as you wanted! I was also happy that I was once again bussing with Cruz del Sur that night because that meant personal TV screens with some of the latest movies at my fingertips. I arrived in Piura, Peru early that next afternoon with five hours to spare before a final overnight bus to Ecuador. There wasn’t anything to do in this city, so I decided to make the most of my time at an Internet cafe catching up on life. I then pulled out some USD, since it is Ecuador’s primary currency, and used up my last Soles on another chicken dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I was locked and loaded for the Galapagos. However, a few days before I had made a risky logistical play by booking a flight from Guayaquil at 9AM when my bus was arriving at 7:30AM. When my bus didn’t leave Piura until over an hour after its scheduled departure, I was already sweating bullets.

Posted by Krackajak 13:28 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Bolivia 2018

As expected, entering Bolivia was definitely a pain. I didn’t necessarily get any grief from migration, but the process was so strict, unorganized, and time consuming that it forced me to hold up my entire connecting flight from Cochabamba to La Paz. Once my visa was finally sorted out, the flight literally took twenty minutes wheels up to landing. I’ve never seen flight attendants rush so quickly to provide drinks and snacks! My friends, Aubrey and Gabby, would not be getting in until 3AM that night, so I booked a hostel separate from the hotel they would be staying at. It was actually more of a “glampground” than a hostel, which sounded intriguing to me. Not only was it fairly close to their hotel, but the hostel was situated within a beautiful valley, my tent positioned looking over a small river. I was greeted by a great mix of people who were almost all road-tripping across South America. One couple had even driven all the way from California! The group had started a fire and were nice enough to share some food, and of course, s’mores. Unfortunately, my sleep that night was not nearly as enjoyable. My mat was uncomfortable, it was way colder outside than expected, and due to the newly increased altitude, I kept waking up from shortness of breath.

Getting out of my tent that next morning was a struggle, but I was eager to bike the “death road” and see my friends later that evening. Taxis are already very cheap in Bolivia, but the “collectivo” vans are almost free. For less than fifty cents, you could get a ride across La Paz, which is exactly what I did to make my way back downtown for the tour meet up. Due to there being so many different companies, I lucked out and my tour ended up just being me and two guys from Germany, so we were blowing by other groups the whole day. The bike ride began with forty-five minutes of downhill on a winding paved road through scenic snow capped mountains, waterfalls seemingly in every direction. We had not even reached the actual “death road” yet and I was thrilled! After a brief snack at the turn off to the beginning of the true route, I looked out at the valley below. We were up in the clouds, but you could just make out the twisting trail that we were about to embark upon. I was a little bit nervous, but I had been advised by several people that it wouldn’t actually be that scary.

The road was often quite gravely and bumpy, the sheer cliff drop-offs often unguarded by rails, but somehow I never once felt anxious. For the most part, I stayed clear from the edge whenever possible, taking in gorgeous scenery for over two hours. Besides the last thirty minutes, the entire ride was completely downhill, so all I had to do was brake! Once we cleared the clouds, the landscape became a mountainous rainforest as we sped through multiple waterfalls. An hour later, the sun protruded even more as we continued down into a valley that looked more like California. By the time we reached the bottom, all of our layers were off. The temperature difference in just fifty kilometers was incredible! Luckily, we had cold beers, a lunch buffet, and a pool waiting for us. The three of us were having such a blast, that until we were en route back to town, I had almost forgotten how excited I was to see my friends!

Familiar faces standing in front of me was such a great sight after having travelled for two months alone. Rohit, the fourth member of the new travel crew, would not be arriving until about 5AM. So, the girls and I just caught up with dinner at a surprisingly delicious rotisserie chicken establishment, followed by dessert at an even more impressive coffee shop. We were definitely staying in one of the more upscale neighborhoods of La Paz. The girls had splurged a bit on the hotel, which had an upstairs pool offering terrific views of the city, and a top-notch breakfast buffet. Sleeping on the floor, along with Rohit’s early entrance into the room, once again did not lead to a good night’s rest. However, that next morning I was up and ready to have some fun with my friends at the Valle de La Luna. The specific landscape of this park is actually pretty visible throughout the area, but it is much more concentrated in this specific spot, only a ten-minute drive from the hotel.

There were a few trails in between the rock formations, but this was more of a stroll then a hike. This was perfect for us since we were still adjusting to the altitude, some better than others. The formations reminded me of a mix between the Badlands and Bryce Canyon, so although the area was much smaller than those two, it was still neat being that it was so close to a city! After chilling by the pool for a little while, we stopped by the store for some snacks and drinks, then organized and packed up our bags for the upcoming three-day Uyuni Salt Flats Tour. After a quick dinner at the bus station, we were on board our overnight bus to Uyuni, filled with anticipation. Arriving at 6AM in Uyuni was a bit of a buzzkill as our tour wouldn’t be leaving until 11AM. We were anxious and there was absolutely nothing to do Uyuni, but finally we were being introduced to our guide for the trip, Rolo, as well as a Danish couple that would be joining us four in the Land Cruiser.

We were sleepy, but right off the bat it was obvious that we had acquired an awesome and hilarious guide, and the same went for the Danish duo. The four of us were going to have a fantastic time regardless, but why not enhance it! The tour started off with some exploration of an old train graveyard and salt factory, but soon enough we were rolling on salt, bumping music. The first stop was a salt statue of “Dakar” marking the route for the famous race now moved to South America, along with another statue of flags from all over the world, blowing rapidly in the wind. In another thirty minutes, we were cruising through the heart of the flats, searching for a solid secluded spot to experience “Uyuni”. We realized all of the guides and tours probably had their own unique way of taking perspective pictures and videos, but at the time, we could not have been more impressed with Rolo’s ingenious methods. He had us jumping, dancing, and posing for over an hour, having more fun than I could have ever imagined!

Honestly, we could have stayed in that location all day, but it was time to move on to the much anticipated flooded section of the flats for sunset. Due to rain from January through March, you were able to see a reflection off of the salt in this area. Watching the land cruisers pass through the liquid was stunning alone, but it also appeared we were all walking on water. Once the sun really started setting, it was an unforgettable sight to behold. I’ve seen some mesmerizing sunsets in my life, but the quality of this sunset and the addition of the water reflection was something I’ll never forget. Pink, purple, red, and orange engulfed the sky and surrounded us in nearly every direction. It was as if somebody had placed different colors of cotton candy next to streaking fires. Even after spending thirty minutes staring in awe, and another thirty viewing out the window toward our salt hostel for the night, I was in disbelief and never wanted it to end!

I think we were all surprised by our accommodations that first night of the journey. Somehow the six of us received our very own hostel. We were provided our own dinner, our rooms only had to be shared by two people, and each room had its own bathroom! The food wasn’t great for both dinner and breakfast, but it did the job. We were up early for a what would be a long day of driving through the desert. The second day begun with a visit to some colorful quinoa fields and explanation of the importance of quinoa in Bolivia. I found it quite interesting considering the recent fascination of quinoa in the US. The rest of the day was spent drinking road beers while checking out wildlife, various volcanoes, crazy rock formations, lagoons with flamingos, geysers, and fumaroles. There was even this hard green bubbly looking moss that was growing on some of the rocks, which I found the strangest of all of it!

We were all exhausted by the end of day two, but this was supposed to be the party night of the trip! We stayed in another hostel, this time with the rest of the groups in the company, but thankfully still had our own foursome room. There were no showers this time around, but we were looking forward to the hot springs after dinner! The guides gave each table a bottle of wine with our pasta (no tomato sauce) supper, and we threw in a couple bottles of our own. The girls were tired and still a little sick from the altitude, so Rohit and I mixed up some rum and coke and joined what ended up being only a handful of other people for the chilly walk to the hot water. Not only did it feel amazing, but we had a ton of space to ourselves because apparently the other companies go in the morning. They definitely missed out because our knowledgeable guides spent about thirty minutes explaining constellations and planets in a sky in which I’ve only seen the stars so clearly maybe one other time. The Milky Way was deliciously visible! Safe to say, I slept incredibly well that night.

After seeing another area of strange rock formations and a final lagoon surrounded by the tallest volcanoes of the trip, it was time to say goodbye to our group mates and guides. The mix of knowledge and humor of the three guides from Red Planet was outstanding. I don’t think we could have possibly had a better experience! We were then dropped off at the border to take a transfer bus to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. This would be my fifth time crossing into Chile, and they had typically been fairly strict in the past, but this was certainly the most thorough search process to date. I’m guessing it had to do with us coming from Bolivia, but we waited for over two hours! By the time we finally made it to San Pedro, it was already closing in on the start time of our sunset tour of Valle de La Luna. Yep, another one! Rushing to check in to our hotel, the rest of the squad was stressed and hungry, so I ended up going solo. I didn’t want to come all this way and not see at least some of the area.

The tour involved some hiking, but mostly walking around landscapes similar to Death Valley, albeit even more otherworldly. Additionally, now that I was in the true desert, it was great getting an improved vantage point of the volcanoes we left behind a couple thousand feet up in Bolivia. Unfortunately, San Pedro was the definition of a tourist town, and the sunset portion looking down at the valley was lovely, but way too crowded. I returned to town earlier than expected, ready to grab dinner and drinks, when all of a sudden I received a message regarding our bus for the next morning back to Uyuni. It had broken down and there was no replacement option. Waiting until the next day’s bus would put all of us behind schedule, and Rohit and Gabby had flights to catch back in La Paz. After an hour or so, the four of us had worked together to devise a formidable alternative route. Feeling accomplished, we made our way to a fancy outdoor restaurant for some tasty pizza and wine to polish off the night.

Although initially bummed regarding the morning bus, the cancellation actually worked to our benefit. Not only did we get to sleep in, but we were able to enjoy the magnificent breakfast buffet out by the pool, attributes of the hotel that we had spent good money on. We then spent the remainder of the day simply relaxing, eating, and drinking our way through San Pedro. The finale was a rooftop bar and burger joint where I had the two British girls from the Pantanal meet up with us. Somehow we managed to take the same tour dates for Uyuni, just picked different companies! Our new plan of action was an overnight bus to Arica near the borders of Peru and Bolivia, where we would then split up. Rohit and Gabby would bus from there to La Paz, Aubrey and I to Tacna, Peru, followed by Arequipa. Half asleep at 6AM was certainly not my preferred way of saying my goodbyes, but I was just happy that everyone was still on track for their travel plans. Regardless, Aubrey and I were looking forward to some more adventures over the next week in Peru!

Posted by Krackajak 17:52 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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