We flew into the warmth of Colombia's capital, Bogota, at 11pm. We took a taxi into the city, as public transportation wasn't highly recommended that late at night. As we made our way through the winding streets of Bogota, I could see why. Bogota had a definite presence of a street-active population. Graffiti coloured closed shop doors and gates, men were rummaging through garbage, and it was the first time we've seen a homeless population like we were "used" to back home.
We stayed in the old cobblestoned centre of the city, La Candelaria, and arrived at LimaLimon Hostel around midnight. It was a cute, small and cozy but eclectic space (with breakfast included!)
In the morning, we got up to our free breakfast, and explored the city of Bogota! The historical centre was beautiful and much of the core was made up of pedestrian walking streets. The weather was much warmer than our extended time in Bolivia and Peru so we were ecstatic, however, Bogota is still very high elevation so not quite the heatwave we were hoping for!
Of course, after so much walking we worked up an appetite again. We decided to dive into some cultural dishes of the country!
We sought out the popular and highly recommended restaurant, La Puerta Falsa, established in 1816, for Colombia's most traditional dishes. I ordered a hearty ajiaco which is a traditional thick soup with potatoes, chicken, avocado, and corn. For Carter, he tried the huge portion of tamale which is a mixture of meat/chicken, potato, vegetables and corn wrapped in a plantain leave and then boiled. To finish off the meal we shared a super rich, super-Colombian, hot chocolate con queso!! Yes, you dip a hunk of cheese into the creamy hot chocolate and enjoy... surprisingly delicious, however, do NOT attempt this immediately after a huge meal, we were stuffed but super satisfied!!
We went to the base of Monserrate, a beautiful old church that sits high above Bogota on a mountain peak. You can also hike up the stone-set path to Monserrate like the locals do (for both fun and exercise) without any additional costs, so in the true spirit of budget-backpacking, that is exactly what we did!
It takes approximately 1-1.5 hours up and approximately 45 minutes down. Remember to allot more time if you are not accustomed to being 3,200m above sea level.
When we finally got to the top, it was incredibly breath taking - the entire property was so beautiful with pristine grounds and gardens surrounding the stark white church. I recommend doing this hike for anyone visiting Bogota!
As I said, its on top of Bogota! Here is little Cartesy sitting on top of the world!
Instead of walking back down in the dead heat of the day, we opted for a oneway ticket on the tram.
We did a bit more exploring when we got back down... and Carter did a lot of playing with the birds in the central square (yes, I found this weird as well... but everyone was doing it so "when in Bogota!")
"Good times were had" -Carter
To cool off, we stumbled upon a seriously delicious Colombian chain, Crepe and Waffles, which has locations all over the city (and country). The best part is that it hires only women heads-of-households (single mothers) for its staff and it has the BEST ICE CREAM EVER.
San Gil (pronounced San-Hil) was our first destination outside of Bogota in Colombia. It was 7 hours from Bogota by a speedy, crazy, drawn out and mountainous bus ride (as per usual). San Gil is known as the adventure sports capital of Colombia, so obviously we had to check it out. This was it!!! OMG, finally it was here again...we arrived in San Gil to be greeted by SUNSHINE and 25 degrees celsius...happiest day of my life after being in high altitudes and hiking mountains!!!
San Gil was a little town, with a beautiful big square, that really had everything you could want or need. It was the perfect size to really enjoy yourself for a few days; not many tourists, local fruit markets, great food and...A MALL!! We immediately booked our chosen sports to do while in the area: white water rafting and paragliding...
We chose to go white water rafting in Rio Suarez which is considered the best and longest rafting adventure in Colombia. It is a 20km river track that has 4-5 level rapids. If you're reading this and you're not familiar with rapid levels and they're difficulty... NEITHER WAS I! Carter had rafted before in Thailand, but I was unaware of the WILD surprise that awaited in the river. Sh*t was about to get real!
We were debriefed on the safety and rules of rafting on land before we were even allowed out on the boats; I was thankful for this as sometimes (read: most of the time) the safety regulations around activities and adventure sports are pretty lackadaisical in developing countries. After a 30-40 minute debrief, we were told we had to lift the boats into the water - definitely harder than it seems, being a blow up dingy. Our coach strapped on his contraption to the end of the boat, in order to essentially be our human propeller and steering force. We were then told how to maneuver our feet to help us stay situated in the boat during heavy rapids (if we were lucky). As you can see, we have our front foot tucked in, and our back foot jammed underneath the seats and away we went!
This is us in Level 1 rapids, with only the instructions of "paddle, paddle, paddle, left only, right only, HARDER!" ..."VAMOS" to direct us through the river.
Before we really got going to the level 3 and 4 rapids, we were able to jump out to swim (admittedly, I had to "relieve" myself as I am sure everyone else did as well!)
And after the fun, we had to practice our safety rescues in case one of the crew did fall in during an intense rapid mishap. Thankfully, Carter was (and still is ;D ) my partner so he just hoisted me up no problem - and if he fell out, well.... good luck to ya Carter.
Below is our team, all celebrating a successful "training" and being ready to take on the rapids!
Our guide was amazing, with his knowledge and experience rafting, I had no doubt that we would make it through... until I actually saw what a level 5 rapid looked like. I jammed my feet to the front and back of me so hard, I think my knee caps should have popped out. The trick with rafting is the harder you paddle through a rapid, the best outcome you have to stay within the boat and successfully make it through the rapid. Thankfully, we had a great crew of 3 big guys, a super skilled Colombian semi-english speaking guide... and me.
We nailed all the level 4s, not without water up my nose, in my eyes and down my throat though, as Carter and I preferred the front of the boat (more adventurous, more laughs!) And then we came to our first level 5 rapids...ummmmm woah. Ahead of us were 3 other boats and a kayaker (staff member for quick retrieval if anyone did fall out.) We were the last boat in the que to take on these rapids. Looking ahead, I began to feel a little more unsure about what we had gotten ourselves into because these rapids were HUGE!! Hard hitting, fast water barreling toward rocks and drop offs. You could feel the sense of uncertainty in our once confident group (aside from our cheerful guide). The first boat goes and makes it through after paddling hard and navigating the best route... the second boat goes flying down and boom... launches one person out... now I am getting nervous, the possibility of falling out IS pretty real. The third boat goes and while gaining speed towards the middle of the rapids...KA-BLAMO! Shoots up and FLIPS OVER ENTIRELY, loosing it's entire crew, paddles yard sales across the river. Our guide quickly yells to us "OK, YOU FALL, TUCK IN AND RIDE DOWN LIKE THIS" as he crosses his arms and legs as if about to go down a water slide...SOUNDS GREAT, I'm thinking. I hear our guide yell "OK....NOW! HARD HARD HARD!" and I just think (or maybe I even said it out loud) "oh sh*t, here we go!"
Our objective was not only to get through the rapids, but help recover on the way through. Everyone had safely swam and floated to the banks of the river by the time we were paddling into the rapids. We were all instructed to lean out to grab paddles that were jostling in the waves - as we were still trying to paddle aggressively through the rapids! I actually managed to grab one, but it was our guide that caught majority of them. I was thrilled when all of a sudden they were done and we had made it through safely!!
By the end of the day, we were 2 hours out on the river, survived several high level rapids and had hurting faces from laughing and yelling so much! We docked at a sand bank, and the worst part of the entire trip, was now we had to carry the damn dingy UP a rocky/pebbly HILL to get them on the trucks. Not only are you SO thirsty, sun burnt, and extremely fatigued from so much paddling (not a movement or activity I have ever really participated in my life, let alone 2 straight hours of it!!!) now you have to carry a however-many-pound boat as you step on rocks in bare feet. GAH.
But at the end of every tunnel, there is light! In this case, the light was a massive buffet meal waiting for us at the top with beer included! Everyone just gorged themselves. We were taken back by truck, Carter and I rode in the front seat and we became best friends with our driver. He was very good at English but he didn't seem to think so, so he kept asking us words and how to pronounce things. Between English lessons, he showed us pictures of his daughter and wife, belted out some Colombian pop songs, and told jokes. We were exhausted and looking forward to getting back our hostel but this new amigo made the entire trip back so enjoyable.
When we got back, we R&R'd for a bit at the hostel and then went on our next adventure... finding dinner! We kept hearing amazing things about a restaurant in town called Gringo Mike's that had American style food, so we decided to go for a splurge and headed out to find this highly reviewed resto!
Well, it wasn't hard to miss... apparently I am engaged to the mascot!
We had UNREAL food; I had a huge curry burger and Carter had the famous burrito. Then we noticed the brownie being delivered to someone else's table... and ordered one with ice cream. Cie La Vie! A day to remember, my first time rafting, surviving it and celebrating a brownie with ice cream to top it off.
The next day we were bused to Chicamocha National Park for our both of our first experience of paragliding! The landscape was unbelievable, very small winding roads causing through vast valleys and canyons. Paragliding is a super finicky sport from our discussions with companies, as the wind conditions need to be just right and the weather has to be cooperative. Luckily for us, we had the most perfect day for it. San Gil and surrounding area had THE BEST weather we've seen in months.
Below is the take-off and landing pad that was on top of the massive canyon (one of many paragliding companies in the park, may I add.)
The pilots, as I learned they were called, like to take their passengers by weight - lightest to heaviest - so even though Carter was still a "skinny b*tch" from his weight lose in our first portion of the trip, I was up first!
Getting ready was pretty easy, they slap on your helmet for you (even though mine was way too small for my head as you may be able to see in the picture below), and hook you up to the pilot and VOILA! You're ready to run yourself off a damn cliff into the second largest canyon on earth! The only thing they really tell you is this that "bolso means bag, "if you want puke, you say bolso". I laughed and just said "no, no - I will be fine, no bolso gracias".
Looking like a true paraglidin' nerd:
To get going, you wait and wait and wait, until the crew feels the right breeze and screams "VAMOS VAMOS". My only responsibility is to run like my life depended on it and to not stop running until the pilot told me so. Well, I ran and ran and ran, and RIGHT when I was about to take my first step off the cliff, we got tugged back. The crew didn't like the way the wind was blowing and we had a false start. The huge parachute came crumpling in all around us and it felt like a total walk of shame turning around and walking back towards the strip. I looked to the side for Carter who was so eager to see me take off, to only see him laughing and throwing his arms up in the arm like "WTF MATE".
Not only was it stressful to have a false start, because I wasn't already nervous enough to hurl myself off a cliff, but the wind picked up in the way the crew and pilot wanted it to, and we were rushed to get running again! It all happened so fast, but the next thing I know I am running in thin air and we've already left the ground and are floating up and and up!
The experience was amazing, flying like an eagle would, using the heat thermo to push you higher and higher. It is crazy how quickly you were within the clouds (or so it felt). The only downside was to get that high and ride within the clouds, you are consistently twirling... after about 10 minutes gliding and with a helmet pinching my skull, I was experiencing motion sickness. The pilot kept trying to talk to me to tell me details about how Chichamocha was the second biggest canyon in the world, next to the Grand Canyon, and I could only kept focusing on how dizzy I was. Now I am regretting saying no to the bolso!
After 35-45 minutes, I actually don't know how long I was up there for, I lost track in my concentration to not puke, we were coming in for the landing. The pilot told me "feet up! feet up!" so I did as I was told and we came in for the smoothest landing of all time. The big bag on my butt really softened the blow.
Next up was Carter!
Carters take off was hilarious because he was running so hard with his little legs, when the ground came out from under him and they began to glide...his feet were still kicking, unsure if he was gonna make it! I died laughing and watched him disappear into the canyon and up. A very cool experience overall.
Carter's landing wasn't as smooth as mine, that's for sure. The pilot came in for a landing attempt and didn't commit, so then they couldn't get high enough to get back onto the landing strip due to winds changing, so he brought Carter back a little below the top of the cliff, and BOOM! Carter had a crash landing LOL It wasn't as bad as it may sound because I immediately laughed rather than having an "OMG" moment. However, they were coming in pretty fast when they hit the dirt on the side of the hill. When I found out Carter was completely fine and the bag still took the majority of the impact, I died laughing again. Just another one of those things that would happen to Carter.
We found a local spot that night that had THE BEST papas rellenas (Fried Potato balls with meat inside) we have ever had, with the best avocado hot sauce. We ate there a few more times while bumming around in San Gil. Overall, one of most extreme and relaxing places at the same time and worth a visit for anyone visiting Colombia!
The little colonial village of Barichara makes for a good day trip from San Gil. We kept hearing how beautiful this little village was so we decided to hop on a local bus that leaves every hour for Barichara! We immediately saw what all the hype was about. It was GORGEOUS! Extremely quaint and picturesque, sitting among the mountains.
^ a nice Colombian man was walking his cute little husky puppy and saw me taking a photo in the middle of the street. He asked me if I wanted to take a picture with the puppy, so OF COURSE I did!
In the village, other than walking around to admire the absolute beauty of the streets, buildings, flowers, and people, there were also some very cute boutique artisan shops to mosey in and out of. Another great option to keep yourself occupied is to do an easy, but super lovely, hike along a historic Spanish road to an even smaller village, Guane. So that's what we did!
After an hour or so hike, here we are entering the even smaller village of Guane, a beautiful "untouched" village:
Carter having a cold one with his relaxing amigos outside of a shop in Guane:
After moseying (yes, I keep saying moseying because the pace of these villages are so relaxingly slow, there was no need to do anything faster than a mosey!) we started our way back to San Gil to get to our next destination...
Villa De Leyva
Our next stop was Villa De Levya, a much more touristy version of Barichara but still, there has been very little development in the last 400 years (so I've been told) because there is no minerals nearby to exploit and the positives of that is that it is one of the few towns we visited in Colombia that has preserved its original architecture and style. The streets and large central plaza are still all cobblestone and the white buildings with brown trim are so completely charming. The town itself was declared a National Monument in 1954 to preserve all of it's original architecture. Thus making it a tourist attraction, and the fact that its much closer to Bogota! With any tourist town, there was plenty of interesting shops, delicious restaurants, and things to do.
As you can see, the main plaza and buildings are just so beautiful and trapped in a moment of time:
It also just so happened to be the tail end of the International Kite-flying festival in August when we were there, who knew??!! One of the mornings we went out exploring the town, an entire elementary school came out to celebrate and fly their own kites!
It was the cutest thing ever but it was absolute chaos! I got hit in the head by a couple kites, strings were crossing and getting tangled, kids were running everywhere, yelling and screaming, laughing and having an absolute blast outside. But in the chaos, it was so magical to see such a beautiful landscape and have all the vibrant colours floating in the sky, the children smiling and working together to get their kite in the sky.
We stayed in the plaza and watched the kids fly their kites, and laughed along with them, for about an hour... yes, the joys and pleasures of having no where to go and nothing to do while travelling... ( I MISS IT ALREADY).
Next, we inny-miney-miney-moe'd a street to start walking down and came across a Colombian show being filmed! I got a picture with all the soldiers. It was amazing to see them dressed in their colonial wear because their costumes completely fit the unchanged backdrop of Villa De Leyva.
We continued to walk, and walk, and walk. Eat, and then walk some more. And then retired to our hotel for the night, as we were quickly leaving Villa De Levya the next day.
Since our time in Colombia, Salento was THEE quintessential Colombian town I was envisioning; the buildings were stark white but SO colourful, friendly dogs running around the square, such great restaurants and people socializing and drinking at any time of the day.
We got to our "hostel", which definitely reflected the price. It was way down a hill, what seemed like a forgotten part of such a beautiful town. We seriously thought it was abandoned as there was NO one there - no guests, no staff, only a dog. We searched and yelled around for about 15 minutes before our hangriness took over and we just gave up to go back into town for some food. On our way through town, there was a lady on a corner handing out coupons for a new restaurant in town. Knowing us and our frugileness by now, you know we cannot turn away a deal! So the lady walked with us to show us where the restaurant is. On the way we asked if she knew anywhere to stay, because where we booked seemed to be empty and deserted. She got us to the restaurant and then said "uno momento!" and ran off. Next thing we know, she knew the owner of the hostel and had brought her out of the wood work, wherever else she was working, and told us that she would walk us back to the hostel when we were done dinner to check us in! Such a small little town vibe it was great.
Dinner was great, it was a cool eclectic-decorated place (my fave) and we got an additional discount for being patrons of our hostel! We still don't know how the two are connected but we didn't question it.
The next morning we did what everyone comes to Salento to do: visit Valle de Cocora! This portion of valley is a part of Los Nevados National Natural Park and is famous for it's Quindio wax palms, which are the national tree of Colombia.
To reach the valley, you have to hitch a ride in a willy (essentially an extended Jeep, see below) in the main square. It takes about 30 minutes to reach to Valley and then you're left to your own to explore the park.
Left alone to our own... without a map or really researching the park before hand... we ended up secretly following this very nice Belgium couple who rode in our willy with us. After following a good distance behind them for a bit, we eventually caught up to them and started a conversation. They didn't really know where they were going either but we both knew we wanted to go on the longer route, around the valley before getting to the wax palms (the main event of the trip). They were a great couple and on their honeymoon, Thais and Jan.
So, the four of us ended up walking together towards the path we thought we should be following. It was so lush, green and beautiful; we crossed little streams, rickety bridges, and saw our first toucan!
After climbing up and up the mountainous side of the valley, around the 3 hours mark, we finally get to this little farm which we think is this magically little cafe that serves really good cheese, as we've been hearing about from everyone on their way down the mountain. We get to this little man who was working the farm, who knows nothing about said queso, and he continues to tell us we cannot walk pass the farm to the Valle de Coroca or else it may take another 7-8 hours. We've walked for 3 hours UP hill, the WRONG way.
After admitting defeat, we turned around. The farmer asked us to close the gate on our way out so his horses wouldn't get out. We thankfully had bananas with us as snacks and since we didn't get our anticipated cheese, we were all SO hungry, so we took out the bananas and I devoured mine, Carter savoured his a little bit. By the time we got to the gate which is where all the horses were hanging around, Carter still had his banana. We all walked through the gate and Carter was last to go through but when he went to step through, a horse stepped right in front of him blocking his way. The horse then proceeded to EAT the whole banana right out of Carter's hands and wouldn't let him pass thinking he had more food to give! So Carter threw the banana peel away from the gate, the horse followed the peel, and Carter ran through slamming the gate right behind him. It was a great laugh. Another one of those things that just seem to happen to Carter.
After 4.5 hours, we finally reached the first view point of Valle de Coroca:
Another 30 minutes later, we were in the Dr. Suess looking wax palmas that stood towering over us. The landscape was incredible and must have been the inspiration for Dr. Suess' Horton Hears a Who trees!
We were all taking a rest and admiring the view, when Carter noticed someone on the same hill wearing a Toronto Blue Jays hat, so of course Carter embarrassingly yells "LET'S GO BLUE JAYS!!". Dan, the guy wearing the Jays hat, yelled it right back at Carter. And with that, Carter went right into full blown conversation with these friendly Canadian strangers. We met Dan and Jackie, who were from Toronto, and Kayla and James from Edmonton. They all happened to have met by coincidence that morning and were also hiking together. We spent the rest of the day together and travelled back to town together, making sure we would go for dinner and drinks that night.
We all met up in the main square, kicked off the evening with a couple beers at a local bar and then made our way to a great restaurant. We had an awesome time getting to know everyone and had a fantastic evening. James, being the great guy he is, decided to surprised everyone by picking up the bill. After dinner we went back to the local bar and hopped around, to end the night where it started back at the main square...having some laughs and gathering a crew of local dogs.
They were such an amazing group of people who we are now all connected with on social media.
The next morning, Carter and I decided to wake up at the crack of dawn and catch the first willy back to Valle de Coroca. We thought we'd go directly to the palmas, rather than getting lost again, to take some drone shots because we couldn't get over how whimsical this landscape was.
We got some great shots in and managed a little photo shoot before the hikers and tourists came in.
Also, before this crazy cloud storm came rolling through. It made the entire valley look so ominous.
That night we sought out TEJO - the famous Colombian game! As normal as our bowling is, Tejo is the leisurely game for Colombians... made with packed gun powder and a couple rocks!
The packs of gun powder are the little white triangles on top of the steel ring that you can see in the picture below. The objective of the game is the throw a rock, hit the gun powder, and have it exploded on impact. Yes, EXPLODE. I think I peed in fright the first time one went off! It was a ton of fun and we played for a couple of hours.
The next morning we did the next most Colombian thing we could do, visit a family run coffee farm! We went with James and Kayla, and as you can see, James & Carter got along like two peas in a pod.. or two mustaches on one face, however you want to put it!
We chose to visit Finca De Don Elias; he and his family have been producing coffee for over 20 years after moving from Cali, Colombia. It was the only coffee farm that was still family run and owned, unlike all the other "plantations" nearby.
When we were dropped off, we had to walk down a narrow dirt driveway, and right away it was clear that this was not only a coffee farm but a family home as well. We were met by a few women sitting out front, a child in a diaper and a teenage boy. They were all family members of Don Elias, the grandfather and patriarch of both this family and the farm. Don came around the corner, much older than I anticipated, walking with a stick and a slight hunch, but man, was he fit and still going strong!
We were lucky enough to be given the tour by Don himself, who knew every inch of his land and the process of coffee from inception to filling your cup. We followed behind Don, along narrow grassy paths that were covered by tall... well, everything. They grew bananas to shade the coffee plants, avocados to help enrich the soil, yucas to help the coffee roots grow, and pineapples and oranges to attract the bugs away from the coffee and onto the sweet leaves of the citrus trees.
Don told us in Spanish (thankfully we had someone in our group who was studying abroad in Colombia and picked up more Spanish from watching Narcos LOL) that they had two coffee plants growing, Arabica and Colombiana beans. To my surprise, Don said that there was no real difference in the final product of the coffee, only that the colour of the beans were different.
He then showed us where the picked beans go to dry; it can take any where from a couple days in the summer's heat to a couple of months in the winter. This portion of the tour didn't last long because this plastic-tent was meant to roast coffee beans dry... and it was definitely working on Carter. I looked over after 30 seconds and he was red in the face with sweat pouring down. It was likely 40 degrees in there.
Don then picked Carter to grind the beans:
Don then prepared the ground coffee for us all to try. He was so meticulous in the way he filtered and stirred the coffee, and making sure the temperature of the water wasn't too hot as to not burn the beans.
Side note: this bag filter is THEE way to prepare the best cup of coffee. We used the same method during our long stay at a hostel in Costa Rica and fell in love with it!
And just like that, we had a 100% organic, farm to table, authentico cup of Colombian cafe sin leche! This was the first time I have ever had coffee black and it was deeeee-licious!
Don's farm produces anywhere from 3 to 3,000 kilos of coffee each year, depending on the weather but after the tour, we of course had to purchase a couple bags! We knew we were headed to Vancouver to stay with our friend Aidan at the end of this leg, and he's a coffee lover, so we got him a host-gift and ourselves a bag as well!
When we got back to town, we went for brunch at a place called Brunch! And O-M-G. If you're ever in Colombia, I would suggest you go to Salento for Brunch's blueberry pancakes, if for NOTHING else!!! They were the best I (or Carter, he of course had some) have ever had, on and out of this trip. DROOLING just thinking about them again! The owner of Brunch is from Bend, Oregon. He had a unique, stylized sombrero like the one Carter had just got in Bolivia so the two started talking about hats. He was a very cool and interesting guy; it ended up that one, Colombia has Costco?!?! WHO WOULD HAVE KNOWN! And two, his son was the inventor of Cretor's Chicago Mix popcorn sold at Costco in the big blue bags, but he just sold the company.... I was blown away that I knew a guy who knew a guy who CREATED THE BEST POPCORN OF ALL TIME!!!
After an amazing brunch, we walked around Salento, in and out of all the amazing stores of artisan trinkets. Then we came upon a set of super colourful stairs to a lookout over the town, so up we went!
Late that afternoon, we had a beer at local billiards club and sat watching the old men in a league play a different type of pool game, that we didn't really understand but were still intrigued to watch.
We got a chariactaure drawn for the fun of it... please scroll down to see the finished product LOL
Probably the best souvenir we got while in Colombia!
Remember those friendly dogs I told you about in the town square? One followed us home that night, so we put out some water and it slept out front porch all night. Colombia was one of the first places we realized that the stray dogs were actually looked after, disease free and friendly. This little guy was our favourite.
Our next stop was Medellin! I fell in love with Medellin during our first cab ride into the city, well, mostly into the city. Our cab popped a tire as he was driving us, so we had to get out and walk the rest of the way. But the city was incredible; it was as hip and trendy as Toronto but situated in a rainforest with a tropical feel, massive bamboo trees, rivers and rocks. There were streets and streets of restaurants, shops, clothing stores, bathing suit stores, vintage clothing stores, home decor stores, any type of store, Medellin had it! It is also known as the eternal spring city because the temperatures are like Goldilock's porridge, not too hot and not too cold.
We stayed in El Pablado, also lovingly referred to as Gringo Town; I will let yourselves make your own assumptions of why it's called that. On our first day we took FULL advantage of the nice cafes available to us. Availability is most definitely a luxury we've learned to be grateful for during this trip. The best part of Colombia? There was no shortage of amazingly delicious coffee! We bounced around having a bite to eat here and a drink there, all the way planning the rest of our trip which was now only a short month!!! To end our day of indulgence, we went to our last foreign mall, Santa Fe! Next to Lima's outdoor mall this was second best, so in my search for the best mall around the world, we were ending on a high!
The next day we went on a Comuna 13 free walking tour with Zippy Tours. A local guide, who lived in Comuna 13, took us on a half-day tour of what was once the most deadly neighbourhood in the entire world, in the most dangerous country in the world. As you can see, the neighbourhood has gone through, and is still going through, a massively positive rejuvenation. Ps. Moms, we're fine!
Our local guide was Lizeth; she had grew up in Comuna 13 and is a part of the new wave of the rejuvenation project. Comuna 13 is vibrantly painted with street art and graffiti that tells the history and story of the neighbourhood. Transformation, rebirth and hope are all reoccurring themes of the art you will see in Comuna 13 and for good reason. The area is no longer known for gang violence, police raids or cartels but now is known for it's street art, community groups and street performances (all to help kids stay out of the city's gangs and off the street.) They also built a metro cable and six outdoor escalators to make life in the comuna much more easy for residents and accessible to tourists.
As you can see, it sits on the side of the mountain looking out over all Medellin. It's a stunning view:
There are definitely people that go to do "dark tourism" activities in Colombia, but especially Medellin, but we were told over and over again do not let locals here you say "the criminals name" and if you are referring to him, refer to him as just that "the bad criminal". You all know what name I am talking about right?!
During our entire tour, we felt safe and very welcomed by the residents. The same feeling can be extended to the whole of Colombia. In every shop we went to, or restaurant we ate at, a local would always make it a point to stop and say "thank you for trusting Colombia and choosing to visit us, please tell your friends and family that is okay to come here again." It was a bit heartbreaking to hear over and over; the people of Colombia were so purely appreciative and grateful to have the trust of other countries starting to climb again.
The next day we did a day trip from Medellin to Guapte! The most colourful town in all of Colombia!
I know I've used the word beautiful a lot in this blog, so I am going to switch it up and bit say this town is EXQUISITE! So vibrant, so playful, so cheery and joyful! You cannot be unhappy in this town, especially with a giant ice cream cone in your hand which is exactly what Carter and I during our trip here.
Other than wandering through the most colourful town in Colombia, Guatape is also known for Piedra del Penol, the giant hundred step rock that sits just outside of town.
After conquering the 650 steps to the top, we were looking over what I called "Colombia's Muskoka". This was a sight for sore eyes for me as it reminded me so much of Ontario's cottage country and where my family's cottage is in Bracebridge. However, unlike Lake Muskoka, many of these lake systems were man made!
The sun was setting as we were leaving the rock and we made our way back to Medellin to meet Jackie and Dan (the Torontians we met in Salento) for dinner!
We spent the next day living up the city life before making our way to our next destination of Santa Marta.
We flew into Santa Marta (yes, we’re getting lazier when it comes to frugal land travel but the flights were only $30 more than the bus and would save us 15-17 hours of our life!) When we got to Santa Marta we were pleasantly surprised (yet overdressed) for the heat! I'm talking HOT heat. On arrival to the Caribbean coast it was 30 degrees but felt like 38. We checked into our hostel, which was beautiful decorated, white, airy and clean, so again we were pleasantly surprised, and headed out to get lunch.
We went to a local eatery right next door and ordered the la carte del dias (menu of the day) for only 12,000COP ($5.50) we got soup, grilled fish with fries, rice and salad, and a freshly squeezed juice! From there we had to re-seek refuge of our fans in our room because of the extreme heat, changed into lighter clothes and went out to explore the small town. The entire city is on the edge of the sea, if it weren’t for a great big ugly cargo port off in the distance, the city’s beach would have been beautiful. We then stumbled across some awesome looking vintage and bathing suit shops - where we found a Canadian, born & raised who played lacrosse in Oakville! It was also the last day for their buy one get one free bather sale, so you better believe I bough two beautiful one pieces as Carter talked to the Oakvillian! All made and designed in Colombia by Colombians, so I haaaaad to do it!
We then came across an artisan market/alleyway where old Colombian mamas were hand knitting bags and crafts. Customized Cartsies (another nickname I have dubbed for him as every chance he get to customize something, he takes it!) sprung into action and started formalizing a plan to get a customized colourful strap for his Bolivian customized sombrero. We picked the colours, Carter explained his vision for what it should look like in very broken Spanish but mostly theatrical hand actions, we left the hat with mama and hoped for the best! The next day we came back and it was perfectly finished! The work was so well done and they were knitting it right before our eyes, I wanted to support yet another Colombian trade so I bought a bag for my sister.
We decided to venture out to Tayrona National Park the next day; only a short hour from Santa Marta and it was supposed to house some of Colombia’s most beautiful untouched beaches. We heard “it was hot” in Tayrona, every single person who we had talked to previously about the national park said just that, “it’s hot”. So we were prepared for it “being hot” ... or so we thought. It was next level hot, scorching heat, I am comfortable saying that it was probably the hottest place we've been on earth this year! And not only the heat but you had to trek almost 3 hours before getting to the campsite! If we had travelled with our backpacks instead of only our day packs, I think we would have actually died.
Aside from the heat, the waterfall was beautiful! .... Just kidding, the only waterfall I saw was from Carter's forehead! The trek was beautiful; we went through the jungle, onto the rugged beaches, back into jungle and also saw indigenous tribe people along the way. They looked a lot like our indigenous native people who still lived their traditional way of life, wearing all white clothe.. now they sell coconuts to tourists... which is a super odd juxtaposition.
But after a non-stop 2.5 hours we emerged from the jungle to this:
TOTALLY WORTH IT. This is San Juan, the most popular camp site in Tayrona National Park. We rented a tent and were horrified to see that all the tents were just sitting out in the open under the blazing sun's heat. We dropped our bags and ran into the Caribbean Sea which was thankfully just cool enough that it was actually refreshing - but if you swam or exerted any energy in the water you would have started to sweat again. We finally had our restful and relaxing day on the beach! It was perfect and one of the more beautiful beaches we had been to all year.
The unfortunate part was we underestimated (aka we must have been reading old blogs before going) the cost of everything in San Juan, so we came in thinking we’d spend two glorious nights camped out on a national park beach when in fact we could only stay for one night. We would also have to ration our food/drink spending to make it out without starving the next day. I think we split a veggie fried rice for dinner and one bottle of water.
The other unfortunate part was that it was SO hot and sunny that come sunset and nightfall, the heat never cracked or lessened whatsoever. Again, I thought Carter may succumb to death by sweat. It felt like we were both breaking fevers all night. But this is how we woke up the next morning and I couldn't have dreamed up a better view... or feeling when we ran right back into the ocean for some relief.
We hung up the clothes Carter slept in to dry because they were drenched in sweat, and then enjoyed splitting one juice between us (hardships starve-ships of rationing). But we’re not complaining, it was a great experience overall and I would do it all over again (but with more money and supplies)!!
We packed up our stuff and started the trek out of San Juan and the National Park. We took a break after the first 30 minutes for a swim, a snorkel and a read on the zero-populated beach, our very own private beach if you will:
We lounged here for a couple of hours and headed out to the next beach, stayed there for another hour and then right in the strongest days heat and maximum sun exposure, started the 1.5 hour trek back to the exit of the park. Sweating.
Vacation Carter in full effect, taking in the last of the rays and relaxation before sweating himself to death on the way out:
We stayed over night once again in Santa Marta and were off to Minca in the mountains the next morning!
Minca is in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, just half an hour from Santa Marta. It's a hippy-vibe, sleepy, backpackers town and a refreshing change from Santa Marta's stale (but very welcomed) heat. In my opinion, there is only two things to do in Minca. The first is visit the "WORLD'S BIGGEST HAMMOCK".
We walked up the mountainous road for 1.5 hours in the pouring rain to get to the most underwhelming "BIGGEST HAMMOCK IN THE WORLD"; we actually thought we weren't in the right place at first and then staff kept assuring us, this was it!
The WORLD'S BIGGEST HAMMOCK is that little thing to the left of the frame below. Although the disappointment in the hammock size, we were not disappointed about the adventure getting there or the experience while there as it was an amazing view over the Sierra Nevada valley. Also, you got a free beer with your "ticket" to see the BIGGEST HAMMOCK IN THE WORLD! So, bonus?
The second thing you MUST do, and this is not being sarcastic after the let-down of the hammock, is eat every single meal at Lazy Cat. Oh my gosh, this restaurant can do NO wrong! We went for dinner, breakfast and lunch here. I feel kind of bad for not being adventurous like we normally are with food and the places we eat, but hell, it was too good to not eat there!
Also, while we were there we ran into and ended up having dinner with the very nice Singaporean couple who called us out in Machu Pichu for not having a Singapore flag on our bag!! I LOVE small world incidents!!
Also what made our trip to Minca that much sweeter was the father and son duo who were staying beside us at our hostel. Ricardo and Eduardo were from Chile; Ricardo, the son, was living in Minca learning how to play a very specific type of drum that Carter is holding in the below picture. Eduardo, the father, was in Minca visiting him for awhile. We sat, talked, sang and played music with them all night and really, really enjoyed their company. Okay fine, you got me, I did not join in on playing the instruments or singing, I would have created a really bad name for Canadian talent if I let my voice fly.
Ah, our last stop in Colombia and our last stop in a foreign city before heading back to North America! Crazy!!!
We were forced to splurge in Cartagena, the Miami of Colombia as people loving call it! We spent $50/night and stayed in one of thee coolest hostels that we’ve stayed in all year, The Clock Hostel. The "rooms" were inlets in the wall (less ideal) BUT they had a hot tub, best A/C, and even had a masseuse come in to give free 15 minutes massages! BONUS!
Cartagena is a beautiful city; so colourful, so colonial, so many shops and amazing looking restaurants (none of which we could afford nor had nice enough clothes to enter). Best of all... it was HOT. Unfortunately, we have very limited photos of it because our camera is acting up and won’t take pictures so hopefully we’ll get that fixed in the US! But if you want to see Cartegena, I suggest you go see it for yourself!! I think everyone can, and should, visit there in their lifetime! If the Real Housewives of New York can do it, so can you!
We met a nice Canadian couple who talked us into going to Playa Blanca in Baru Isle. A beach where we’ve heard it’s not worth going because the sheer hecticness of people... but they were pretty convincing and so we booked Ecohotel Hectar, one of the last hostels at the opposite end of the beach of where all the tourists and vendors are. We were excited at the prospect of getting a little slice of this heavenly beach to ourself... but then reality kicked in when we got off the bus and realized we had to walk 30 mins, in blazing sun, in middays heat, through soft sand with our big bags on our back and day backs in the front. It was PSTD from Tayrona. We were so sweaty it was ridiculous, and again just like Tayrona beach, we dropped our bags and jumped into the sea. Only this time, the sea was warm and wasn’t quite as refreshing as it was in Tayrona. We baked all afternoon, sun worshiping for the last few days of our trip! (I say this because it’s our last week in a developing country - once we hit LA we are half considering us to be home.)
Once we finally reached our 'hostel', I didn't move from this position...
Except to here...
And then we stayed like this...
Until sunset when I finally got up to take my last dip in the ocean:
And then we showered using a bucket at 8pm when the electricity came on again for the night...
And did it all again the next day!
After sweating for another 48 hours and not having electricity for 32 of those hours, we were able to book our last 2 nights at a fancy Cartegena hotel with points (thanks again Deb). So, we made our way off the beach of Baru and back into Cartegena to get to Bocagrande, the REAL Miami neighbour of Cartegena!
Our hotel was right on the seaside with luxury resorts surrounding us. Of course, we went grocery shopping before getting to the hotel so we could afford to eat for the next two days. Our grocery list consisted of the poor man's ingredients: crackers, tuna, avocado and an orange. That's all we would need as breakfast was included and we'd fast until our tuna cracker dinner!
Once we were set up in our rooms, we headed to the pool for the free welcome cocktail and a swim!
The most amazing part of this hotel is that it seemed to be a wildlife center too?! We saw a SLOTH walking, okay... crawling or almost dragging... itself across the patio, which we unfortunately just had our bathers on and no camera! But the whole property was littered with wildlife:
Our last night in Colombia, the sky lit up like fire during the sunset. I think it's Colombia's way to telling us to come back soon. ADIOS COLOMBIA, until next time!
We jumped on a Bolivia Hop bus from La Paz to Peru...*Bolivia and Peru Hop buses are HIGHLY recommended if anyone is not on a tight backpackers' budget; the buses are clean, comfortable and complete with WiFi and charging stations! Meant strictly for tourists, as you will hardly ever see a local on them, which is not usually how we travel BUT in our tenth month of travel (OMFG) we were getting quite lazy with penny-pinching and are starting to feel the constraints of time!
These buses are also great because they make scheduled tourist destination stops. So we stopped for an afternoon breather in... Copacabana, (her name was Lola she was a showgirl!) No, not Barry Manilow's Copacabana. We stopped in the real town of Copacabana that borders Peru and Bolivia and sits on... wait for it... Lake Titicaca!!! Yes! Titicaca DOES exist! I always thought it was a made up place, like timbucktwo. Aside from the super funny name, the lake itself is pretty impressive; it's the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the WORLD!
However cool the name of the place we were in and the lake we were on, the town itself was not. It was a complete tourist trap; we equated it to a very run down, cheesy version of Niagara Falls. On the lake, locals were peddling rental swans, boat tours, sandal repair, you name it. The restaurants were over priced and bad quality - both food and service. We waited in one restaurant for a solid 10 minutes and not a soul came to greet us. The stores were all souvenirs and unauthentic. And there was no place to sit without spending money, and we were scheduled to be here for 4 hours.
The next three photos aren't ours but I wanted to show you what it looked like (I think we were so unimpressed we actually didn't take any real photos):
We ended up at a restaurant rooftop that looked over the lake and we split one appetizer and enjoyed two drinks that melted in the sun because we stretched out our purchase and the right to dwell for so long. For so long, my scalp actually ended up getting sun burned and I had flakes peeling off for weeks afterwards (yummy, I know.)
After the four hours of waiting around and trying to kill time, we finally boarded the bus again and made our way to Puno, Peru, for the night. There is reallllly nothing to report back on for Puno, especially because we arrived in the dark and left right after having breakfast. However, we did find a great little cafe, with delicious coffee and WiFi - so bonus points for Puno!! Because a good traditional breakfast (Eggs, Toast, Real Coffee) spot has been VERY difficult to find around the world!! Unless, of course, you're into over-hard boiled eggs, some sort of carb (possibly with beef in it) and Nescafe instant coffee packs with powdered milk right when you rise - then you'd love breakfast around the world!
From Puno we went all the way to Cusco, the tourist mega hub of Peru! We were dropped off and conveniently taxied into the city center (another bonus of Peru Hop). Our first stop was McDonald’s - mostly because we have been living off unconventional Bolivian fried fast food for the last week or two... so we needed to fuel our bodies with good ol' American fast food, duh. We also needed WiFi to find a place to sleep that night. So with that, Carter added “Peru” to his list of Big Mac experience's around the world... and we quickly realized although beautiful, how freaking expensive it is in Cusco.
We landed with a less than ideal “hotel” for $20usd a night (with breakfast included, always an added benefit) and packed up, left McDonald’s and made our way to Intipackers Hotel. Another realization we quickly came upon was that just like La Paz in Bolivia, Cusco was ALL hills. We had a 20 minute up-hill battle to reach our destination. We were staying in the area of San Blas, which in the later days we would learn is beautiful...although killer on the legs. I thought after climbing a freaking mountain we were done with hills for awhile.
We spent the next day in and out of cafes planning the last two months (OMFG...HOW ARE THERE ONLY 2 MONTHS LEFT??) of our year abroad. We were in serious need of this catch up as we were really going day by day up until this point. We also used this day to prepare for Machu Picchu! One of the main reasons we were in Peru to begin with!
We already discovered that we technically should have booked months in advance if we wanted to walk the Famous Inca Trail into Machu Picchu, and that it was extremely overpriced for our liking. We checked availability in our first few days in Costa Rica and it was already booked until November 2018. But we were hopeful that we could take on Wayna Picchu no problem. This is the mountain that towers over the Inca historical site you see in all of the quintessential pictures of Machu Picchu. We checked online and there was still availability in the next couple of days - so we lined up outside of the cultural heritage office to purchase our tickets. Once we finally got to the front of the line, we were told that there were only afternoon tickets available and if we wanted to climb Wayna Picchu, you could only do so in the morning... which meant we had to wait two weeks for the next morning availability. Nadda, we don’t have the time nor money to wait around in expensive Cusco just to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu with a thousand other tourists. We purchased our afternoon Machu Picchu tickets for August 5th which was still a few days away and went on our merry way.
Since we had time to spare and days to wait, we booked a quick day trip out to a mountain lagoon, Lake Hamuyna. We left the next morning at frickin' 4:00am (sometimes I don't know why I let Carter talk me into these things), to drive 3.5 hours (one way) into the Salkantay mountain range...YES, he seriously made me go back into the snow capped mountains on another deadly/cliff edge road.
We had breakfast in a little village of Molletana around the 2.5 hour mark and honestly, I think it was at someone's house that the tour group struck a deal with. This is where everyone woke up from their very-early-morning-slumber and we got to know our group a bit better; they were all students visiting from Arequipa. So, it was just a big group of Peruvians...and us. But it worked out well because they were all young and educated so they were pretty fluent in English and we had great conversations through out the day!
Our hike started in Soraypampa, at 3,850 metres. We had to make an elevation gain of only 350 metres to reach the lake which sat at the base of this incredibly beautiful snow-covered peak mountain range. Below is a picture of the once again precarious road sitting on the side of a cliff in which busses (including ours) are flying around. At this point...our fear of dying doesn't really exist anymore on roads like this, we just trust the system baby!
After just summiting Huyana Potosí a few days prior, at 6080M, I thought this hike would be a breeze... wrong, altitude still messed with us! We ran out of breath quickly, simple steps up took major effort and you stop a heck of a lot more for rests to get your heart rate back down to a semi-normal rate. It took 2 hours for us to reach the lake...all the while always seeing where we were headed which made it that much worse and agonizing getting there.
The lake was beautiful, a Caribbean blue that was a startling contrast to the white mountains. Just as we approached the base, an avalanche boomed down the mountainside! Again (like Nepal) it was too high up that it never actually reached us or put us in any danger, thankfully. Hearing the sound of an avalanche is definitely something we will never forget!
We spent two hours at the top taking pictures, admiring the views and trying to fly to the drone... but a local guide quickly came running to shut the operation down.
One of our Peru highlights was that we had the opportunity to see an Andean condor!! WOO!! The largest flying bird in the world - based on height and wingspan! The one we saw must have had a wingspan of 8 or 10 feet! That was truly incredible to witness.
After we hiked down (which was obviously much easier and enjoyable), we had lunch and made our way back to Cusco. After all, another incredible experience (okay, sometimes I am glad I let Carter talk me into these things.)
The next day we explored the city center of Cusco. It is historic, beautiful and charming even though it's packed with tourists wanting to visit the nearby world wonder.
Finally, August 5th had arrived!
Now, what no one tells you about Machu Picchu is how freaking CONFUSING and TIME CONSUMING all of the different options are to get there!!! For being a Wonder of the World, you would think there would be endless information stating "do this, go here, and BOOM, you're there!" but no. Everyone and their aunt has a different idea, method, transportation suggestion, etc to get to MP.
Here are some of the options we considered:
The first, most convenient and thereby most expensive option is the beautiful train experience. You board in Cusco, and it gets you to the base of the mountain in 3.5 hours to the town of Aguas Calientes. BUT, to get on the train you're waiting in ungodly long and crowd-pushy line ups, you're also spending close to $400+. The luxury trains also sell out well in advance.
If the fancy Peru Rail or Inca Rail are sold out, you could make your way to a random town of Ollantaytambo and catch a more local train to Aguas Calientes. Getting public transportation to Ollantaytambo is a WHOLE other issue and cluster-ef of confusion in itself as well because every local you ask will be selling their own services at a unregulated price and won't give you the correct information to find a legit public transportation company.
The second option is hiking. You can take a week, 10 days or 2 weeks, 3 weeks or however long you have and want to endure, to do one of the upteen-million trail hikes along the famous Inca Trail. Again, the ship was sailed for us getting to Macchu Picchu this way because the most famous one, that I previously mentioned, had been booked out for months. Also, just having finished summiting Huyana Potosi, I was done with multi-day hiking for a while.
And then we come to the crazy cheap, lengthy, risky backpacker's way... and ultimately, the method we chose. This option is as follows. Book a shared mini bus from a random tour shop that takes you from Cusco, up over the Salkantay mountain pass 6/7 hours to a "town" called Hydroelectrico; quite literally called this because it's not a town at all, it's just a place in the mountains where a hydroelectric plant is located, classic! From there, there is another random train where people can pay to board and ride to Aguas Caliente, a town that sits at the base of Machu Picchu. However, this train is also very expensive and completely over-crowded. Instead of this train, people on a budget will walk with all their bags for three hours along the railroad track to finally reach the town of Aguas Calientes. Finally, from there, you hike another two hours from Aguas Caliente UP to Machu Picchu's entry gate. But we will come to that later...
So...we booked a mini bus with a company we chose after shopping around for the cheapest price all day, the day before. We were told to meet under 'such and such' sign in the main square; so the next morning, we showed up and waited around with no one else in sight... until a random man with little to no English, said to us "Machu Picchu?" obviously we followed him to his van.... again, trust the system and it always works out! We met with our group and we were off!
The trip over and around the mountains was much like any other bus journey in a developing country: nauseating switch back turns, full-speed/psychotic driver, passing trucks on blind turns, an absurd amount of horn honking, cliffs that lead to certain death if the crazy driver makes any slight error and much, much longer than you were told it would take with absolutely no update on when you will arrive. HOWEVER, there were breathtaking views and sights of rural village life. When we finally made it to Hydroelectrico, we were dropped off in the most chaotic mess of buses, vans, and cars we have ever been a part of! Our van inched it's way to the front of the line, the doors opened and we were told to get out and "meet here in two days...maybe at around 3pm". LOL...you got it, my friend.
So, we hopped out and like cattle we began following the crowd of people. Turns out, we were following the wrong crowd. Most everyone getting off these buses and vans were lining up for the train. So, we forged out on our own path with the only tidbit of information we had which was "follow the train tracks". This would have been useful, if the train tracks didn't abruptly end 500M down the line we were following!
So we back tracked once again (for the third time), and found a little sign poking out that read "Machu Picchu: this way -->".
We followed it up a bunch of steps, past a fake tourist payment hut, and out through a trail to the tracks we were to follow. Along our 3.5 hour hike, trains whizzed past us with all the rich tourists enjoying their easy and beautiful ride into Aguas Calientes. Meanwhile, Carter is soaking wet from sweat (obviously); I can feel the blisters from Huanya Potosi acting up, and the horns from the trains are mind-crushingly loud. But finally, we see the emerald city of Aguas Caliente upon us. Lucky for us, we arrived a few minutes before the sun began to set.
As we were walking into Aguas, we caught up and hiked ahead of two other backpackers on the same journey as us. They quickly called us out "Hey, you two! Looking at your backpack you visited every country around Singapore, but no Singapore flag on our backpack - why not?!" They were a very nice Singaporean couple who were also travelling for an extended amount of time. We laughed and told them that Singapore was far too costly for our budget, although we will make it there one day when we're rich and famous! We ended up finishing the walk together, having some laughs getting to know each other, and going our separate ways (keep this little detail of info in mind for our next blog!)
Aguas Calientes was a really neat little town; built in a sliver of the mountainous range beneath the World Wonder of Machu Picchu. In the picture below **It's just beyond the river bend - Pocahontas**
It had nice restaurants, lively bars and glamorously lux hotels (probably for the train dwelling, air conditioning having, rich folk.) We were hot, we were tired, and we had no battery in our phones. We had to find our pre-booked hotel the old fashion way and just walk around town asking and shouting out our hotel name. And wouldn't you just know it...because it was one of the cheaper hotels, it was also one of the furthest away, on top of the steepest street in town; we wouldn't have it any other way. Once we made it to our destination, we were shown to our rooms and we threw all of our bags off, changed and went directly back out to eat our faces off... and maybe had a beer or 5.
We ended on a nicer-ish restaurant that had an old Peruvian man singing and playing live music on a cultural flute.
The next morning we had a good sleep in, filled up on the free breakfast buffet, and headed out for the FINAL hike to get up to Machu Picchu! From Aguas Caliente there is a bus that drives up to Machu Picchu, but once again, we don't believe in paying if we can heel-toe it. We hiked for 2 hours up a fairly easy and straight forward trail; many people were on their way down as the AM ticket holders and from our conversations with many of them, even more people took the bus up for sake of ease and were enjoying the super-easy hike down the mountain. Us poor suckers, had to hike uphill both ways, just like Grandma used to say.
I am going to preface this next paragraph with a reminder that we have been travelling for 10 months now, we have been to 4 of the World Wonders thus far, countless tourist destinations and even to bring in comparisons at home, we have stood in lines at Wonderland and been Black Friday and Boxing day shopping at Yorkdale Mall.... this was BEYOND anything we have ever experienced with the above!! The line up to get into the grounds was A.B.S.O.L.U.T.E.L.Y mental chaos!!! We packed in like sardines and made sure we were heading in the right direction. Although super excited to be there, the entire process was lightly sprinkled with feelings of rage.
and mucho sweat...
We pushed and shoved and GOT pushed and shoved until our tickets were stamped and we were through the gates! Of course, the lines didn't miraculously stop and we weren't able to peacefully glide upon the empty ancient Inca ruins... no. We were herded along, wedged in between tour groups and their leaders wearing an umbrella hat and a flag waving in the air, yelling over a microphone system the history of the land we stood on in whatever language they were speaking. I started to stress eat at this time:
Finally, we get past the bottle neck of people to the edge of a particular viewpoint. We were finally there after all the hiking and waiting. We were about to get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, to experience this glorious site.
Only to instead be greeted by the heard of selfie sticks and awkward smiles...
To be completely candid...Machu Picchu, to this day, was the most chaotic, over-filled site we have ever been to. So much so, it truly almost ruined the experience for us. Thankfully, we were able to hike further up a empty trail to get to a higher vantage point looking over the ruins. We only ran into a few other tourists, who were coming over the mountain into MP from the Inca Trail after a few days of trekking.
The ruins were truly breathtaking when we were able to sit in peace and quiet, and really let the history of it sink in; the history boggled my mind of how this civilization was just lost, overgrown, and forgotten about until an American explorer was told of them by a local farmer and was shown the way by an 11-year old boy.
Here are some pictures:
Look closely at the lines of ant-humans that are covering the entire ruins... gah.
We even got our passports officially stamped to prove we've visited one of the Wonders of the World! (They should all have their own stamp... I was very excited about this!)
We stayed until 5pm, when the grounds close for the night and made our way back down the mountain into Aguas Caliente for another well deserved meal. We stayed the night and in the morning packed everything up and started the 3 hour hike back along the tracks (in the rain!) to catch our van.
We did some research on Machu Picchu and the sad reality is that over 5,000 tourists visit each day. In the past few years it has been put on a list of world heritage sites at risk of danger due to over tourism. They have used a lot more rope and fencing to keep people off ancient sites (which is better for preservation.)
The hike back to Hydroelectrica was a little wet, but the chaos of trying to find our unmarked white van in a sea of unmarked white vans, was a joke. We laughed and kept thinking back to when our driver dropped us off and said he would see us in a few days. We waited an hour, "at around 3pm, maybe" and were looking for others we shared the van with. Then we find out that a couple hundred metres down this van-filled road, someone was calling out names and directing them to the proper vans. So, after almost 2 hours of being confused and lost, we finally made it to our proper van. It was actually concerning that this was the process that takes place...every...single...day.
Want to guess what happens next? Remember our little extra-adventure after the Death Road in Bolivia? Sleeping over in a freezing cold van on the side of a cliff? Roads closed because of snow and ice? YUP! We hit a police check point en route back to Cusco, they informed us the road ahead was closed due to too much snow fall over the mountain pass. AGAIN. The people in our van had a hay-day when we told them this happened to us less than a week earlier!
However, there was two major difference between Bolivia and this experience. One, this snow fall wasn't as bad. It was an amount of snow that would not have been an issue back at home, but for old Peruvian cars and vans (that wouldn't have passed a Canadian emissions test) the snow was another nightmare. Secondly, these people in our van were much less positive and way more short tempered. So the overall vibes during this whole debacle was not as fun-loving and carefree as Bolivia. Not going to lie though, Carter and I were having Bolivian flashbacks and serious concern was kicking in for how long we may be in the van for.
After about 4 hours of waiting, we finally get the go ahead to attempt the climb up. We inched up and up and up. The roads were mushy, slushy, icy and covered in snow but nothing that would have held a good ole' Canuck back. See what I mean:
AGAIN, look at the lines of cars on this tiny road, trying to pass one another, for hours. Finally, about 2 hours of inching closer and closer through the mountain pass, we hit the top and made our way down the mountain, toward Cusco, back into warmer climate and out of the snow.
By 2am, we were almost home-bound and just closing in on the outskirts of Cusco (about an hour out)... and then we see flashing red lights. Our driver gets out after waiting for 30 minutes to see what's going on. Believe it or not, there is a random/bad luck/coincidental tractor trailer roll over accident up ahead. We thought, "wow that sucks, hope everyone is okay, let's take the other way home" YA...RIGHT, it just can't be that easy, why would it be that easy?! Our driver informs us that this is the only road back to Cusco, so we can't go anywhere until the accident is cleared, we will likely need to sleep in the van for the night. People in our van were up in arms; a few of them left the van to walk back to Cusco, literally... which I don't even want to fathom how long, cold or dangerous that walk could have been. Then our driver comes back and says in broken English "there is another way, much much longer, we can do it if you like...but ONLY IF every people give money for gas because we don't have enough to get back, we need more gas." Again, cue angry van mob. After heated debated, everyone decided the what would be equivalent to $5 was worth getting home (we knew this was likely the bus driver trying to get a few extra bucks in his pocket, but it was time to get the heck home to bed.) So, we gave our share of money and said VAMOS!
We arrived back safely to Cusco at 5am!!! We slugged our way back up to San Blas neighbourhood, in the door of our hostel, and fell into bed. When we finally rose from our comas, we knew it was time to leave Cusco and make our way to Lima, Peru's capital.
We took a Cruz Del Sur overnight bus to Lima. We beat the system and somehow managed seats in the VIP section, with leather lazy-boy style chairs and a TV in front of us. We had a "private-ish" washroom for the 12 people sitting in this section; everything was pristine, clean and stainless steel...this was the nicest bus we had been on this year. We weren't even phased that this bus trip was another 21 hour drive because this bus was a god sent. Carter was thrilled! Finally bus seats that fit his long body, pillows, wifi!!! He couldn't believe it! The highlight was definitely when he returned from going to the bathroom for the first time "Wow Britt, that bathroom is incredible! It's huge! And man, I don't ever think I've seen a hand dryer on a bus before! I mean it wasn't working, maybe the bus driver has to turn it on, but still really cool!!" I immediately raised an eyebrow, and replied "what hand dryer? I didn't see a hand dryer?"... Carter proceeds to describe this immaculate silver cylinder right below the sink that he tried a few times to stick his hands in to dry but no air came out.... OMG, well when I realized what he was talking about, I burst out laughing!!! So much so that I was squealing and other bus riders were beginning to stare. I eventually worked up the ability to get the words out to him "Carter, are you friggin kidding me? That silver bowl is the URINAL!!!" Ahaha oh man we laughed forever; he tried to explain that he was too tall to really see into it and see what it was but no... note to self: never stick your hands into an unknown bowl in a bus bathroom!
Later on as Carter slept, and I looked our the window (yes, this is the first time in the history of Carter and I as humans, that he was the one sleeping and I was the one awake on transportation), I realized Peru is probably one of the most beautiful countries to travel. To literally travel, sitting on a bus or a train and to watch the landscape unfold in front of you. There are always mountains; sometimes their snow covered and towering over you, sometimes their rolling hills with huge cacti growing sporadically throughout. There is always a rushing powerful blue river flowing between the valley or down the sides of the cliffside; and many times the waterfalls gushed out onto the road, down the next hairpin turn, and the bus or van has to push through the mini river. The cities are, for the most part, beautiful with old colonial style, clay shingled roof buildings. The villages are quaint and have a special charm to them. More of planet earth's true beauty.
WOOO! After a great sleep and a few movies on our 21 hour bus ride, we got to the capital of Peru, Lima. We hit a coffee shop, did some research and decided it best that we splurged on an AirBnB apartment; I definitely needed a dose of normalcy after being stuck on yet another bus on a mountain and a LOT of ground covered in a short period of time.
Our apartment was in Miraflores, one of the nicer areas of Lima. We order Dominos pizza, got a bottle of wine, did laundry and scrubbed clean...our actual paradise.
Carter's dose of normalcy was finally shaving... but not without making every questionable progression of facial hair options, like this one:
But at the end of the day, it was the return of the moustache. I knew I would one day see it again.
We ate the all famous ceviche, again, and again, and again. The food was fantastic and abundant in Lima.
The next morning we walked the city. Naturally, we ended up at the mall...but this wasn't a mall like any other - it was probably the coolest located mall, ever! Open concept, overlooking the ocean with the best bars, restaurants and patios.
Oh ya, I forgot to mention that Lima has two seasons.... blue, clear skies in summer and complete nothing but grey in winter. But I am talking 100%, no chance of sun, grey wall of grey clouds, all the time...grey.
However, the lack of blue and sunshine doesn't stop people from their activities in the city!
Oh, or surf with the locals... like Carter did:
AND ALL IN 50 STEPS FROM THE MALL!!! Did I mention how cool this mall is??
A little more from venturing around the beautiful city, mostly eating and drinking:
We also visited the "old city" within Lima. I don't know what it was that we came across but the royal guards were on duty, a band was playing within the gates, locals ran over to the gates for a better view with their phones and then 4-5 people came out on a small balcony of this royal building and waved to the crowd. We couldn't get across our question of who they were in Spanish, so to this day it remains a mystery but we were happy to be a part of whatever it was!
We visited Bar Cordano, by mystical whim, but it is the oldest bar in Lima. We ate their best-selling menu item of Chiccharon (pork belly) sandwiches and a Peruvian chicken soup with quinoa. Carter's sandwich heaven.
Then we stumbled across a super busy hole in the wall shop to see what all the commotion was about, we were pleasantly surprised with the outcome: a fresh churro filled with dulce de leche: (fried dough with caramel filling)
After we ate our way through Peru, it was time for the heat and sunshine of Colombia!! Our last exotic stop in our year adventure!
We flew into Santa Cruz from Panama City (Above: my first Bolivian friend) and we were pleased with the surprise of a warm climate. We thought we’d immediately be met with Bolivian winter. The second thing we noticed was the neighbourhood that we were staying in, was highly populated with Caucasian Mennonite looking farmers. The men all wearing blue jean overalls, plaid shirts, cowboy hats, and steel toed boots. The women all wore bonnets, florals dresses, panty hose and black footwear.
We didn’t know much about Bolivia before landing... so needless to say, we were pretty confused. The most confusing of all was when Carter and I walked down the street, they ALL stopped and stared! They would stop right in the middle of their own conversations and stare at us. When we went to say 'hi' they wouldn't respond, they would look down quickly and walk away; it felt like we were in some sort of strange Mennonite twilight zone! We spent the morning walking around our neighbourhood in awe, as they were also speaking Spanish (double weird). Finally when we walked a few blocks out of the area we were staying in towards the main market, a little sigh of relief came, ah - actual Bolivian locals. We did fly into the right country! After later research (we needed to know what the deal was with the Mennonites!!) The Mennonites in Bolivia are mostly so-called Russian Mennonites who are descendants of Friesian, Flemish and North German people who came to South America starting in 1927...
Below: a typical scene of local Bolivians hanging out in the city selling various items or simply catching up:
Santa Cruz isn’t on the main tourist path... and probably rightfully so. It’s a big city, with extreme wealth and extreme poverty in one, also not much of anything to do as a tourist. Seriously, if you Google “what to do in Santa Cruz” one of the top 3 things to do is "Go to the Mall". So after walking around and seeing the main city square, we found ourselves at the mall. We typically visit a mall in big cities to feel like civilized/regular humans every now and then. Carter was going on about his newest obsession, finding hiking boots in his size: GOOD ONES, waterproof ones, light ones, very specific about the type of boots we was after but he wants them for cheap cheap, street sale prices! (this guy eh?) He began perusing the South American brand name stores and then switches to Timberland, Nike, Columbia, etc... Carter was really practicing his Spanish (on Duolingo) as of late and was much better by this point so he had learned how to ask "Hello, which is your biggest boot size?" We found out the hard way when we got to Bolivia that they spoke next to no English.
After hitting a few stores for boots we started noticing a theme everytime he asked. The store rep would say "Cuarenta Cinco" (45) and Carter would cringe and say "ahhh Estoy Cuarenta Ocho" (48) and they would erupt into laugher and say "Ooooh hahaha Noooooo muy grande (very big)!! Muy Grande! No Cuarenta Ocho en todas Santa Cruz!!!" (no 48 in all Santa Cruz.)
So out of the mall we went and into the movie theatre we go (another rarity treat we give ourselves from time to time). The only movie playing in English was Jurassic Park in 3D and it was $24USD per person! That’s 3/4 of our daily budget... to watch dinosaurs. So boots were a no go and movie was a no go... we did the next best thing and headed to eat!
We ended up loving this little food stand that was a block away from our hostel; it had everything from hot dogs, to tacos, burritos and hamburgers. The best thing that ever happened at this stand, minus the food, was during one visit (yes, we went several times) Carter and I were standing in line choosing what to have and a little boy and his dad walked past us, the little boy without any hesitation yelled "OH! YUM! YO QUERIO TAAACO!" while rubbing his little pot belly stomach. We bursted into laughter because it was the classic "yo querio Taco Bell" line that we knew all too well from the little Chihuahua drilling it into our heads during the Taco Bell commercials when we were younger. Every single time either of us really wanted something after this hilarious experience, we would proclaim "OH! YO QUERIO yaddayadda!!!!" and rub our bellies!
After a couple fairly boring and unexciting days in Santa Cruz, we flew into Sucre. Usually, we travel slow, cheap and overland but this time, we heard the bus was an awful experience that you shouldn’t put yourself through: an old rusty bus, bumping through the eastern Andean Mountains on an unpaved windy road, for AT least 15-16 hours for $30USD. Or, if we splurged, which we rarely do, for $66CAD, we could catch a 1 hour domestic flight straight into Sucre. Done deal, no questions asked (actually...cheap Carter asked a few more questions about the bus ride, but I gave him the "HELL NO" look and we went back to our room to book the quick flight!)
As soon as we got off the plane, we walked down the stairs, along the tarmac to the airport entrance and it immediately hit us! ***dizziness & short of breath*** Sucre is 2,400m higher than Santa Cruz, straight off the plane we were reminded that altitude will play a big factor throughout our travels in South America. We were winded!
Then we were dropped off in the middle of a random intersection by a local bus from the airport (classic scenario) and we were pointed in a general direction to the main square by the driver, who spoke quickly in Spanish, as he sped off. We walked for 10 minutes before asking a group of teenagers who were all on their phones (phones with data = google maps, we hoped.) One boy completely took us under his wing and ended up walking us the entire way to our hostel which was another 15-20 minutes of walking. From being in places like India and Egypt, our minds quickly went to the classic scam scenarios: CLEARLY he’s going to go out of his way for us...and then ask for a ridiculously big tip and we’re going to get into a fight because of it. So we kept our distance at first while following slowly behind him. When we ended up safely in front of Casa Blanca Hostel, we offered him a small token for his good deed and he shook his head and hands saying "no no!" and then gave us a hug and took off. It was probably one of a handful of times a local went that far above and beyond and was genuinely very helpful without expecting something in return. This experience really lifted our spirits for what Sucre, and Bolivia in general, had in store for us.
In the morning we went exploring. Sucre was a complete 180 from Santa Cruz. It was SO beautiful; it had colonial architecture, and was a little more touristic. It’s known as Bolivia’s white city because all of the historic colonial buildings that were, quite obviously, all painted white. It had a lovely square, with locals selling peanuts, popcorn, balloons and corn kernels to feed the pigeons. People were lazing around, people watching, playing games, soaking in the sun or sleeping. It had cute little cafes and restaurants scattered around the plaza and every street we turned down were more beautiful than the last.
*Oh ya, the city is also home to the famous zebra crossings, where volunteers dressed as zebras will help direct traffic and help children and elderly cross the road safely! They were so fun to watch because if they weren't busy doing their road duty, they were always dancing, singing and joking around!
Then we came across the infamous Sombrero Factory... where Carter got his Instagram famous $18USD 100% wool sombrero!
The next morning as we were having breakfast at our hostel, we noticed a lot of people sitting with a local Bolivian with a notebook. So, Carter inquired. Apparently Sucre is famously known for being the best city in all of South America to learn Spanish! So everyone at our hostel was getting private one-on-one lessons for a whopping $5usd/ hour. Sign us up!!
All we heard before travelling to South America is that you NEED to learn Spanish as it would enhance our experience and help a lot if we knew the basics. And so far, it’s been proved true. There is very little English here - even hostels and hotels owners who are constantly surrounded by foreigners and tourists, hardly know a few English words. So, if we were in the best place to learn... when in Sucre!
We had our first lesson that afternoon with Marvin, a Bolivian university student who works at the non profit Condor Cafe teaching Spanish and French to tourists. We started with demonstrative adjectives and regular verbs. It was like we were in grade 6 French class again conjugating I, you, we, and they in Spanish. My head hurt in the first 15 minutes. Mind you... I wasn’t really catching onto the language as well or as quickly as Carter was. There was one moment with a waitress when I knew I wanted a cheese empanada...which is a super easy sentence of "yo quiero empanada de queso por favor". I KNEW what I needed to say... yet when it came time I just froze for 5 seconds and quickly blurted out “CHEESE”. Carter had a great laugh and we have been screaming "CHEESE" ever since. My mind just goes blank when I need to formulate a sentence in real life situations! But put me behind my mobile app Duolingo (a language-learning app we have been using up until these real lessons) - I am a Spanish weapon.
Marvin was great, we ended up doing 2 hours a day with him for the next 3 days. We learned verbs, numbers, dates, common phrases and a bit more. There is still a LOT of learning to do but at least we know the bare basics now to hopefully get by. HOWEVER, we only know the bare basics of the “present tense” - we can’t talk about the past or the future because we never got to those verbs (which happens more than you would think!!)
These are also the two little cuties who were playing around every day in Condor Cafe that I would practice my basic, basic Spanish with:
After almost a week in Sucre, learning Spanish, eating great food, drinking great coffee and doing our Spanish homework, we decided it was time to move on.
We bussed to Potosí, which was half way between Sucre and where we wanted to go next, Uyuni (for the famous salt flats of Bolivia). Potosi, however, was very well known for its own reason - it is the highest settlement in Bolivia, sitting at 4,060M and it’s home to the silver mines which made Potosí once the richest city in the world (in the 16th century, unfortunately, now it’s the poorest city in Bolivia.)
Many tourists come to Potosí to do the salt mining tour; it takes you into the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), to see how it’s been mined for the past couple hundred years, and to meet some of the current miners hoping to find silver and other useful metals. Since the beginning of the mountain being mined, it’s estimated that five to eight million people have died. Currently, there is little to no silver left in the mountain but many men and, very unfortunately, children still go into the mines every day in hopes of finding some. We decided to forego the tours, as it’s a bit exploited and for me, quite sad to see the local men, women & children in these unsafe and hazardous working conditions. Tourists who do go on the tours are encouraged to bring gifts of dynamite, Coca Cola, or coca leaves to the miners. We opted to explore the city itself which was interesting enough because you can see the remains of what once was of the Spanish architecture, where silver statues once stood tall...
Since we also just went up another 2,000M, we were really feeling the elevation. So after only an hour or so of walking around, after the sun set and it got really cold, we retreated to our room for some Netflix and acclimatization time. That night we even had some trouble sleeping due to headaches and restlessness again, more side effects of the altitude.
In the morning, we boarded another bus to Uyuni, the desert town that boarders the worlds largest salt flats.
Below is a CBW APPROVED TRAVEL TRIP: always, ALWAYS, always bring SNACKS and WATER on buses/trains in third world countries because you never, ever know what is in store for the ride ahead! If you've been reading our other blogs you will know that some trips can take 2,3,4,5 times as long as initially thought, typically only stopping once for snacks or bathroom breaks. Here I am thoroughly enjoying an empanada con carne:
When we arrived, Uyuni immediately reminded us of the town that borders Wadi Rum in Jordan. It had wide, large, straight roads, it was dusty and very local looking. It's only purpose was for the Salt Flats tourism. Uyuni was definitely more built up than we expected but we still got a very old abandoned desert-western vibe from it.
We checked into our hotel and immediately went tour company hopping to do our research. We were interested in doing a 2nights/3 day tour into the Salar de Uyuni (the Bolivian and proper name of Salt Flats.)
We ended up going with Salty Desert Adventures. It was $50/pp more to have an English guide so we opted for a Spanish guide, after inquiring who else was in our group and being told there were Spanish and English speaking people in it, so we would have a translator in theory. We booked to leave the next day at 10am.
We showed up to the offices, left our big bags and were shown to our land cruiser 4x4. Next, we met our Spanish speaking guide Antonio and the rest of our group: two Polish, and another Canadian. None of which spoke a lick of Spanish. They were told WE were the ones who knew Spanish!! OOPS!! This will be a difficult 3 days with guessing what Antonio is saying... and the group was counting on us to do the translating!
The first stop on the tour wasn't too far out to Uyuni proper; it was the Train Cemetery. What was supposed to be a booming railway, ended in a graveyard of trains. It was the product of Potosi mountain running out of silver and neighbouring countries not supporting the railway that was being built in the 19th century to run through their countries. Now, due to the harsh salt winds, there are trains upon trains rusting away that have become oddly beautiful in the flat landscape of Uyuni.
The second stop of the tour was what we all came for: the Salt Flats. We were absolutely blown away as soon as our Jeep rolled it's wheels onto the salt. We drove for 2 hours into the salt desert and came upon a building made completely of salt for lunch!
We took this very first opportunity to take some pictures, not knowing when we'd be out of the salt desert:
Little did we know, after lunch, we drove another hour into the middle of the salt flats where we were completely alone and as far as you can see was a sea of white salt against the cloudless bright blue sky. It was brilliant!! This was the best stop: we spent an hour or so here taking photos. Then Antonio stepped in with a Godzilla toy and changed the photo game: we were being introduced to the salt flat perspective photos... that are hilarious. See for yourself:
After the perspective photo shoot stop, we came to Isla Incahuasi (Cactus Island). It was a random island in the middle of the Salt Flats that was home to GIANT cacti and really interesting fossils and coral. It looked like we were on another planet. From what we could make of the broken English, mostly Spanish, explanation that Antonio was trying to get across to us, is that this was a product of an ancient volcano that was submerged by the ocean 40,000 years ago.... we think.
And then the magic happened. Sunset fell over the Salt Flats and the landscape changed entirely around us in real time. It was breathtaking and mind blowing all in the same instant. The entire landscape went from white and blue to every shade of cotton candy sunset you have ever seen. On top of that, the salt melted enough to make giant reflective puddles to illuminate the sky even more. Forgive me if I say this a lot in these blogs, but this was definitely one of the most amazing experiences we have had so far!
That night, we slept in the world's only salt hotel! For how freezing it was outside, our room and bed made entirely of SALT was surprisingly cozy, warm and toasty!
The next day we had a long drive to the opposite end of the Salt Flats. During our day we visited the Laguna Colorado, the Red Lagoon. This laguna was red due to the plankton that lived in it's waters. It was pretty spectacular to see; it felt like we were on Mars.
Laguna Verde was next. The (you guessed it) Green Lagoon was created by the copper oxide in the water. Although, with this lagoon if there was no wind to help stir up the minerals, there would be no green colour. Also, sunlight helps bring out the green colouring so in the picture below, you can see it was super overcast and it wasn't all that colourful but still amazing!
Side note: this was our amazing group. Antonio, our guide, is front and centre. He was the absolutely best for putting up with 5 non-Spanish speaking tourists who continually and consistently would ask him questions even though we knew getting both the question and answers across would be hard!
We also visited, what I call, the Blue Lagoon but I don't know if it's officially been named that. This was our first exposure to FLAMINGOS! They are funny little creatures.
Here are a few more photos from the day that weren't "schedule stops" but are definitely worth an honourable mention!
That night we enjoyed some cheap wine and food with our new friends! We were celebrating engagements - of ours in February and the Poland couple got engaged on THAT trip, only a few days before meeting us in Uyuni!
The next morning, we had to get up very early to drop the Poles and Kelvin at the Chile border and make it back to Uyuni before nightfall for us.
The first stop was the Geysers of the Morning Sun.
The second stop was at the Polques Hot Springs which we opted out of bathing in but still took our time to take in the beauty of it!
The third stop was at the Stone Tree but it was so completely overrated that we didn't even take a picture of it. At this point in our travels, we were pretty tired of people making tourists stops out of rock formations that may or may not look like something. To add to the annoyance, there were people climbing all over the rocks that were clearly marked "do not climb" because of the damage humans are doing to the natural formations and landscape.
The fourth and final stop as a group was at the Republica de Chile border, as Vana White is so graciously showing you below:
We stood in line with the three of them as they waited for their passports to be stamped out of Bolivia (and okay, we finished a celebratory bottle of wine with the cork pushed into the bottle like the classy backpackers we are.)
After they got their visas and were on their way into Chile, so were we. Just Carter, Antonio and I on the open salt road back to Uyuni. I slept. Carter talked. Antonio pretended he understood Carter's broken Spanglish.
We stopped in a very small village for lunch... not much to report back on that other than this little, cute, business woman trying to get a couple Bolivianos ($) out of me for using the washroom. Oh ya, and llamas humping in the distance fields.
Our final destination of Bolivia, it's capital and THE HIGHEST CAPITAL CITY IN THE WORLD, sitting at a whooping 3,650 metres above sea level! Not only are you already SO high and most likely dealing with the symptoms of altitude sickness BUT to make matters worse, this is one of the hilliest and steepest cities we have visited thus far, so you are constantly climbing inclines and running out of breath! We took a calculated approach when we wanted to go out to eat or to a certain store because we knew if we took the google map/straight forward route, it could mean steep hill or stair climbing the entire way.
The city is filled with a very broad range of Bolivian locals, all very friendly and welcoming. It sits low in a valley on top of the mountain range which leads to some of the most beautiful views when you get to a vantage point. Probably the coolest thing is their metro system, its a system of nearly 6 or 7 gondolas that travel above the city much like heading up a ski lift, only to reach another part of town. Very unique and such a new and exciting way to see the surrounding views. For Carter, this was one of his favourite cities with the mountains in close proximity, it meant unlimited outdoor activities very close by.
When we arrived at our hostel we were greeted by the nicest man who gave us plenty of recommendations about the surrounding area. We laughed when he gave us one of those old school hot water pouches with the room key, we later found out why... it was not only useful but essential to our survival. The nights were freezing and the walls in most areas of the hostel were very poorly insulated. We slept in layers, layers and more layers of blankets. However, the morning sunshine was always there to thaw us out and we enjoyed the days outdoors exploring different areas of the city.
La Paz was also any shoppers' dream, with all of the textiles, souvenirs, trinkets, etc etc etc galore!
It has a little something for everyone, even those who are into black magic and voodoo can visit the Witch Market and grab a llama fetus for their spells; a weird signature sighting in this area of town.
After a few days of roaming La Paz and riding it's Metro Teleferico system over the city, we decided to do our first extreme adventure in Bolivia. Mountain biking the most dangerous road in the world! We did some research and ended up going on a tour with Xtreme Downhill Adventures. They provide you with the transportation, bike gear and food along the way.
When heading from La Paz to the location where the bike adventure typically begins, it began to snow as we got higher over the mountain pass. It was clearly a pretty wet day in the city which always means snow in higher elevations. At about 4,500m we battled a bit of snow (snow we wouldn't even blink at in Canada, but keep in mind we are in a van from the mid-80's, packed with 15 people and cruising on mountain side roads with no snow plows)...so we took it slow. Eventually we hit a point where the snow had stopped and it was just rain, so out we got to begin the ride down the mountain. We were dressed in proper gear; outer layers of a jacket and pants, helmet, and gloves, all provided by the tour company. And thank god we had all of this plus the clothes we brought because it was 0°Celsius and wet. My fingers were sopping wet and frozen in the first 5 km.
The initial 5km was along the same (new) highway we had just drove on, so trucks, buses and cars were all using the road as we weaved in and out of slow trucks when the coast was clear. I am closely following our guides hand signals and going slowly to get a feel for the bike and the road... while I can tell Carter is getting quite comfortable because he is already flying ahead of the pack!
After around 5km on the new highway we safely get to the true beginning of "The Most Deadly Road On Earth"; this is the old original road that WAS used to get over the mountain pass before the new highway was built. Local buses, trucks, and other vehicles used it to get to and from the villages on the other side of the mountain. Unfortunately over the years many had gone over the edge of the roadside cliffs, causing many deaths due to it's terrible condition and poor infrastructure. So, with all that in mind, lets do this thang! The road is over 30km of downhill riding which ultimately ends in village in the valley which drops in elevation 2,500m.
Biking in the pouring rain and fog, we take off down the narrow road as fast as you're comfortable with (while also still keeping eyes on our guide.) On this dirt road roughly the size of 1 Hummer Truck wide, we rode over pot holes, rode through and under waterfalls, incredible rain forest views, passed by grave stones; it was all very wild to see and take in while trying not to fly over and become a gravestone yourself. Thankfully, the further we got down the mountain, the warmer the temperature got which was delightful after such a freezing morning.
We stopped a few times for photo opportunities and some snacks, which were VERY welcomed breaks for me. My hands we tingling and buzzing from the constant shaking and bumps of the bike. I was COVERED head to toe in mud and I used these breaks to clean the dirt from my sunglasses and remove mud from my eyes. Carter on the other hand, was a happy pig in shit, or whatever that saying is! He was absolutely drenched in mud; I could barely make out what was facial hair or mud lobs but he never even made an attempt to clean himself up on these breaks - he would just woof down the snacks and get back on the bike.
Below are some pictures of the incredible journey:
After experiencing this adrenaline rush, we would absolutely recommend this to other travelers because of course, we lived to tell the story! Below covered in mud after taking off our helmets at the bottom...completely soaked to the bone!
Although the wild ride was over...the adventure didn't stop at the bottom of the hill...
While we were biking down the most deadly road in the world, it continued to rain, sleet and snow all day. This meant, while we were zooming toward the bottom of the mountain toward the warmer climate; at the top of the high mountain overpass at 4,500m, it was snowing the entire day. As the saying goes, what goes down, must go back up! (Right?!)
We had a nice late lunch in a village at the bottom of the mountain, with opportunity to shower and change into extra clothes... if you had extra clothes. With travelling so light, we didn't have any extra warm clothes to bring; we were wearing it! So, we forewent the showers, I ate lunch in my wet clothes and hoped to be dry by the time I got back to La Paz and could take a nice hot shower at our hostel. And Carter changed into his dry bathing suit that he brought and remained in his soaked tank top. Again, I want to reiterate how SOPPING WET we were! Carer wore a wool sweater biking and it weighed about 30LBS afterwards; so there was no hope for him to be able to put his warm clothes on again that day.
We hit the road back toward La Paz around 4pm, we were said to arrive around 8pm. As we made our way back we began to see the weather change for the worst, cars coming in the other direction were snow covered and finally we hit a huge back log of traffic (keep in mind the new highway road we're on is only two lanes wide). We sat in traffic for roughly 2 hours before our guide came back to the car to inform us "Police have shut down the road, we need to stay here until it opens again" We were all thinking, 'well that sucks but what can you do. Oh well!' We made the best of it because we were hanging out with our great tour group! We were a part of a group with people from all over the world, so we were enjoying ourselves and not too concerned with time. There was a Colombian couple, a solo Colombian traveler, a Dutch traveler, and a British traveler. We had a great time chatting about how people had met, how people had fell in love, very fun a lot of laughs.
About 2 hours later we find out that the road will not open tonight, and we need to stay in the van exactly where we were situated...for the night...Oooookay. I am in still very wet clothes and Carter is in his bathing suit and a tank top. So, that's pretty friggin' awful news. Cars are lined up as far as we can see in both directions and its raining and we're on the side of a mountain so we admit defeat; there is seriously nothing we can do. Our guide goes out and thankfully comes back with some blankets and take away containers of rice and a fried egg. He said he knows one of the local ladies from working in the tour company for so long; she was nice enough to make us some food and offer the few blankets she had. He was a VERY nice guy, we are super thankful for his efforts throughout this scenario.
Around 10pm (now 6 hours of sitting in this van), our guide comes back with some more exciting info for the group (a roller coaster of emotions thus far) - police have opened the road, however, you are to take it at your own risk. Our guide breaks down the two options for us and we take a group vote: either we stay where we are and sleep in the van while in moderate temperature climate and get stuck in butt-loads of traffic in the morning when the road reopens fully OR we venture into the unknown and if we get stuck there's potential it could be at 4,000m, where it's below zero and a snowstorm. HMMMMM... like I said, we had a great group, and our whole van votes for "LETS GO!!!" So we race along side all the vehicles trying to get up the mountain toward the peak, in order to head down the other side back to the city of La Paz. It literally felt like a race when everyone was running back to their cars, starting them up and peeling out once they heard the news of the opening of the road.
After 45 mins of somewhat smooth sailing up the mountain, we begin to see why the road was closed to begin with. The snow on the road is piling higher and higher and we're beginning to pass smaller cars who are stuck with their tires spinning on ice. We battle through some high traffic areas where locals are out pushing cars and getting out of the icy patches. Eventually we are stuck again and we are unable to move; the main highway road ahead is far too jammed with cars and we can't get by. Our guide heads out to find out what lies ahead, all the while we are on 7th, almost 8th hour, of sitting in the van and STILL wearing our waterlogged clothing. Our guide comes back and has some MORE information for us...we are about 10km from the peak mountain pass on the main highway road, however, the road ahead is just too congested for us to pass... in both directions. Our new option, he tells us, is to cut off of the main highway road and take the old road (which is part of death road, just higher up). There are vehicles taking that road, however, it is a much worse road because it's much more narrow with less traffic on it, so more snow and ice has accumulated, there are no guard rails, and there is no coming back if we go. At this point its 1AM and the group is still hopeful but getting restless, so again we vote...LETS GO!
So, we break off the main highway road and descend into a valley with a tiny road ahead of us that we can see in our van's headlights as we all stare ahead at the road. What we see is not good. It's a winding snake of a road that goes up a very steep section of the valley with over 12 switch back turns; it looks super sketchy to say the least. We are optimistic as the road condition doesn't seem so bad (as long as you don't look out the right side windows of the van, over the edge of the cliff). At this point, as dramatic as it sounds, we were really putting our lives in the hands of our driver. Oddly enough though, we were all very confident in his ability (another CBWTRAVELS travel lesson is "trust the system" - it always seems to work out.)
We passed by many local cars and cargo trucks that were stuck, some looked so old and rusted, that they wouldn't get up this road on a summer day. It was quite amusing to watch, however, frustrating because they were usually stuck in front of us, blocking us from moving past. When we began to see more congestion towards steeper sections, the game changed for us all. Vans ahead were much more SOL than we had seen thus far, deep in ice holes, spinning tires and sliding sideways. Our driver and two guides leapt back into action and were out in the freezing cold at 4,500m helping other vehicle owners break ice on the road... in front of their cars/vans etc. There had to be easily 15 locals and a handful of other tour guides and drivers on the road around us breaking ice...just to get a little further up the road. After witnessing this debacle taking place for hours into the night, Carter decided he was unable to sit around and watch anymore - he needed to help. He felt terrible for the guys out there working their asses off in the cold, in order to get us through, and ultimately, home. The problem was that EVERYTHING he had was still sopping wet. He borrowed socks from the Dutch girl in our van, kept his bathing suit bottoms on, put on his wet shoes, wore the British girl's sweatshirt and went out to help. We had an agreement he could only stay out there for a few minutes at a time.
Carter can describe the rest from here:
So I head out and immediately grab the tire iron from the old local man working his butt off, who had come to help from another stuck vehicle behind us, and began breaking ice with the others. They laughed when they saw me with my bathing suit and asked a few times in Spanish where I was from (I told them I was Canadian, and was not affected by the cold). After telling them, they kept thanking me for the help which made it all worth it. After about 20 minutes we were able to push 3 cars up this particularly icy slope and get them out of the way so we could try our van next. This was now a big switch back turn that went up pretty steep and 90 degrees back to the left. Our driver got back in the car to take a run at this turn, me and the two guides jumped on the back of the van and held onto the roof rack...the goal was to shoot at it full speed and we would jump up and down to give the van some more traction on the ice. We are on the back, flying and now freezing...first try we get around the corner! I can hear the group inside the van cheering hahah.
Well, this became the challenge for the next 8 switch back corners. (***Britters here - I just wanted to mention that the little agreement of only staying out for a couple minutes at a time was completely lost on Carter; he didn't come back in the van for another 45 minutes after initially leaving!! I thought he was frostbit to death!!!) So the process continued...we would wait until the vehicles in front of us took a run at the next turn and made it up, if it didn't, we would help push it up. Then we would again get on the back of our van and begin rocking as the driver hit the gas, inside the group was rocking back and forth as well to maximize the traction, it was really quite hilarious... because each corner we rounded, the team erupted with cheer. As did the 3 of us on the back of the van!
Eventually we would hit snags and be stuck for sometimes an hour before we were able to try another corner, moving cars in front or even sometimes pulled over waiting while a 18 wheeler truck navigated its way DOWN this road, just squeaking by our van with only inches of it going off the cliff. This was by far the most unbelievable technical driving I had ever seen, even though there was an incredible amount of luck involved. On one of our turns we were most excited to get up and around, we actually stopped 4 times trying to drive up it, I was beginning to think this was literally the end of the road for us. We would get half way up the big turn, the van would stop while the tires were spinning aggressively, and start siding backward toward the cliff edge, only stopping short because the two guides and I were holding the van by the racks and helping direct it to safety. I could have skated on this road with the amount of ice, we were typically sliding or hanging on.
Eventually around 4-5am the team ran out of hope; the line of vehicles in front of us was too solid to get around and the conditions of the road ahead were too bad to help move vehicles in front. We decided, we'll try and sleep only to begin again when the sun comes up and hopefully melts some of the ice. 12 hours in the van so far.
8am rolls around FINALLY. Most of the night we all "slept" sitting up with a draft coming through the windows and doors because this van was ancient. Not to mention Britt and the British girl had acute food poisoning from our lunch spot; the British girl opened the sliding door in the middle of the night 3 or 4 times to have a nice vomit. Britt... well, for those who know her... know the situation was NOT good in that tightly spaced van. It's a good thing there was a windy draft, now that I am thinking of it! The night was a grind to say the very least.
No sooner than the sun rising over the mountain did the whole process begin again, with everyone out pushing cars, breaking ice, all the while cars flying full speed at corners to try to get up and around the hair pin turns. Deja vu, only with sunlight which made it more enjoyable. We helped others that were stuck in older trucks and buses and laughed with locals as they slipped, feel down, and crawled their way to their vehicles. It was most definitely the laugher and smiles of everyone else in this situation, that helped us stay positive, in such a tough situation. By 2 pm that day, we finally connected back up with the new highway at the mountain peak, the road was finally cleared enough to drive with light traffic safely back to La Paz. Aside from two of the Colombians missing their flight that was set for 10am that morning out of the city, all was well and everyone was still in such great spirits!
After one of the most exhilarating, exhausting, challenging and freezing nights of our lives, we were in great spirits on the way down towards the city. To see the Bolivian people come together the way they did, immediately mobilizing when the roads were a complete disaster, to help one another, for the greater cause. It was amazing to experience. Old Bolivian men and women were out at 2am with wrenches beating the road with all their strength in order to help move strangers' cars. People were laughing and joking in Spanish, joking with me as we pushed cars as hard as we could up the icy turns. A time or two I even got in vans packed with locals and began rocking away in order to try getting up the turn with me (more weight) in the van. It was a fine display of teamwork, one that could have been a very negative/terrible experience back home in North America. The Bolivians had each others' backs and it was amazing to be a part of! Long story short, we made it!
Below is this picture I took of Britt at sunrise, she's laying back sleeping on the British girls legs, who are also wrapped tightly in a blanket. We were working as a team as well.
The pictures below that are some of the roads in daylight, you can see how icy/narrow/dodgy the roads are and the long winding roads with line ups of cars and trucks. Also gives you a look at what Carter would have been doing all night on the side of the van.
Although an absolutely crazy and sometimes frightful experience, it had a happy ending! The group was in great spirits, they were all really lovely people. To top it off, our new Colombian pal Andres (below), experienced his first time peeing in the snow! We told him he had to try and write his name and he said it was a success! (see in the distance all the cars/trucks/buses lined up still stuck on the road)
(Brittany writing) SO! If biking and camping out on the most dangerous road in the world wasn't enough...
Carter some how talked me into attempting to summit a 6,000M mountain, Huayna Potosi as our next adventure...oh yeah, and only 4 days after our Death Road experience.
Because the nature of the tough climb, and the risk involved, we decided to spend a bit more money and went with the most reputable company in La Paz, Climbing South America. We knew this would be a tough attempt since neither Carter and I had hiking boots. AH-HA, I was still rocking my trusty Nikes throughout our adventures and Carter still couldn't find any boots his size in South America. So when the company equipped us with our climbing gear, helmets, crampons and ice picks... we were also given our hard mountaineering boots (which were essentially ski boots) that are typically used for the higher/snowy regions of the climb where you need insulated boots for much colder climate. These were the hard shell boots we used from base camp, for the next three days! Other climbers were in their flexible hiking boots until they hit the snow, but we unfortunately had to lug our backpacks up in ski boots for 3 days (see photos below). OOPS.
We were a group of 2 Canadians, 2 Dutch, 2 Germans and an American. Each group of 2 had their own Bolivian guide. One of the four guides spoke English very well... hilariously enough for us, ours was not that guide! However, he was a funny, hardworking guy who spoke slowly enough for us to understand, and motivated to get us to the top!
We arrived at Base Camp (4,700m) by van which is where we got settled for a lunch and then we hiked up to the glacier to practice our ice pick climbing and crampon skills by scaling a glacier wall.
Below is a picture of our entire group, guides included:
After the ice wall fun, we hiked back down to base camp, had an early dinner, slept for the night. Sleeping at Base camp we felt the affects of the altitude slightly, but were able to sleep fine. The next morning we got up and started toward High Camp, which was a 4-5 hour climb that day, bringing us to 5,150m.
Getting my crampons strapped on for the snowy/icy parts:
Above is almost to high camp, it's the final check point for climbers where you sign in your name, country and passport number...juuuuuuuust incase.
We reached High Camp, making a gain of elevation of 450M from Base Camp only...but boy, were those 450M tough with the ski boots, crampons, layers and heat of the sun. We were now sitting at 5,150M.
Below is us arriving at high camp, if you look at the highest peak in the photo, that is Huayna Potosi Peak, we will make the summit attempt there at midnight.
Our main objective here was to acclimatize, so we picked out a nice spot on the rock and warmed up in the sun's rays! Not entirely sure how we would be feeling up here, we were VERY happy with the way we were feeling. We were smooth sailing, no altitude sickness, no signs as of yet. Just kick back and enjoy the incredible views.
From so high in the mountain, we also had a pretty spectacular vantage point during sunset:
After dinner and about 7 litres of coca leaf tea (which helps with symptoms of altitude sickness...we literally drank it the entire time at high camp). This is the leaf they use to create cocaine...so we felt a little weird drinking so much of it, but again "TRUST THE SYSTEM"!!
So, we went to bed at 6pm for a quick nap, to wake up at midnight and begin the summit attempt.
The American, Roy, was in real rough shape as we were waking up to leave high camp. He was drive heaving, felt nauseous and sick, the altitude was clearly getting to him. But he ensure everyone he didn't come all this way for nothing, so he got ready first and headed out 30 minutes before the rest of us left as he would be going really slowly up the mountain. The rest of the crew left around 12:30am, and we headed out 15 minutes after with our guide.
The 3 of us (Antonio, Carter and I) were all tied together with a line, in case one of us fell; the weight of the others would hold the climber from falling down the mountain side. And trust me... there were times that that little line was a HUGE piece of mind. And times we had to tell ourselves, not to look down.
With all of the layers we were wearing, the ski boots, crampons, back packs, the tiredness, and altitude... our legs and bodies felt like 300LBS. It was like lifting a large wood log every time you took a step, and each step was a challenge to take. And this was just on the gradual incline in the first 2-3 hours.
Then we came to our first technical portion and had to essentially rock climb up a short wall, using our ice picks and front of our crampons. I usually got pulled up by our guide, as he kept the slack on our rope really tight during this time. We were completely winded after that climb and when we came to the top of that wall, we could see everyone else from our group was too. We had caught up to the other 3 groups and saw them all resting, sitting in the snow, eating chocolate bars for energy and drinking cold coca tea to help with the altitude sickness. After a short rest (our guide never let us sit for too long, he kept us moving along despite some slight complaining) it was onward and upward!
The last push was the absolute hardest; at the highest altitude, we hit the most technical climbing, at the point of most exhaustion - there was about 15 steep, steep cut backs up the side of the mountain, where you got to the switch back, had to step over the rope and start back the opposite way. The turns were SO steep, that I actually turned and sat on the ledge like a chair for a quick rest. There were a few sections where you needed to engage your icepicks, hang on tight to the safety rope, and never look down. Because if we slipped up and went down, it was likely the end of your climb. Throughout the last 2 hours of the summit attempt we passed everyone in our group and ended up reaching the summit first!! This moment was the most proud of each other we've ever been during this trip! Reaching the summit wasn't easy but we worked together to remember to focus on our breathing and maximize oxygen intake, we work hard and it was all worth it. We reached 6,088M JUST in time for sunrise!!
As we got to the very top, it was only the size of a parking space and dropped right down...I mean STRAIGHT down behind us on the North face of the mountain. It was almost sickening how steep it was behind us. We had the moon in the back over La Paz, and the sunrise in front of us.
It was the most beautiful sunrise we ever did see! It was completely, totally, worth the absolute grind up to witness what we saw!! For reference, the highest mountain in North America is Denali in Alaska. Denali sits at 6,190m... only 102m (length of a soccer field) higher than the peak we reached!
For those now wondering...Mount Everest is 8,848 m. And no, we will not be summiting it (at least I won't be, I can't speak for the mountain man).
After 20 minutes of catching our breath and enjoying our accomplishment, our guide turned us around back down the mountain. He informed us if we waited too long and the sun would be strong enough to create avalanches putting us at higher risk. Right before we collected ourselves to begin the long trip down, out of nowhere, ROY shows up (our American buddy) he made it! We thought for sure he was a goner when we saw the shape he was in at high camp, however, he did it and got the picture that will last forever.
The way down was long, hot, and almost as bad as the way up... especially for Carter who was baking in the hot sun and having layering issues haha! It was SO hot.
Above was taken on our way back toward La Paz, this is the base of Huayna Potosi, from this perspective it looks quite evil and daunting.
Overall it was probably the hardest thing we've ever done together. We are so proud of one another and the whole group we went out with who made it. We were able to grab some much needed beers back in the city and talk about our experiences. SO FUN!
Also, below is all the food we (deservingly) grubbed after the crazy adventure:
On the left was some of our favourite Bolivian dishes from a fast-food type chain. The soup is Sopa de Mani (Peanut Soup) and the plate is Silpancho. It consists of a base layer of rice, usually white, followed by a layer of boiled and sliced potatoes. Next, a thin layer of meat is laid on top, followed by a layer of chopped tomato and onion.
On the right is a Llama flank steak! A South American delicacy. It tasted like liver; it was quite good... (for those of you who actually like liver).
One of our last days in Bolivia ended with a surprise bonus; a cultural parade that started at 8am all the way to night fall and a street party!
Overall, Bolivia is one of our favourite countries we've ever travelled. The people are warm, friendly and welcoming. To truly enjoy your time, its best to learn enough Spanish to converse and ask the questions you'd like to locals. We did so many incredible things and yet we have so much more to do when we return one day. I can say for sure, we will visit again and have a full schedule to things to do.
Amamos bolivia!! Adios!!
Damn, it's SO hot and humid here. We flew into San Jose via Newark with more than 4 hours worth of delays. Even though we flew into Costa Rica at midnight, we were still met with that rainforest humidity and heat...boom to DA FACE! We got a taxi because public buses weren’t running at 2am ($$$ mucho dinero) to our hostel in colonial downtown San Jose. Also, our only option was booking a dorm room because accommodations, we have already learnt, are SO expensive here! Going from a $3 private, beautiful, comfortable and clean hotel room with breakfast included in Vietnam... to a $13 bed in a 6-bed dorm with nothing more included than that. We quickly realized we’d have to be super creative and frugal if we were going to stick to our $35/day budget here!
When we woke up, we explored the hostel itself which was a part of the Selina Hostel chain. It was beautiful! The decor was screaming my name, it was so trendy, Instagrammy and eclectic. I couldn’t get enough.
Selina is also where we coined our nickname "The Dorm Parents" because there was a girl in our dorm room who was clearly there to party, who came in one night at 4am, didn't come home the second night... BUT when we did see her, as she was getting ready to go out and we were half way through a Netflix movie, she asked us if it's okay that she'll be coming home late LOL... We have officially become too old for hostel dorm rooms.
We then went to explore San Jose but because it was Sunday, literally everything was closed except for the main drag of Central Avenue. So, to that street we went! It was a nice long pedestrian street lined with clothing stores, local restaurants (which are called sodas), bakeries, Taco Bell, and surprisingly, a Starbucks and a McDonald’s on every block!
We soon realized that rainy season is a real thing down here, and it will rain... no POUR, everyday for a least 5 hours. So not only do we have to be creatively frugal, we also need to be strategic with our sightseeing regiment.
From San Jose we bussed to Dominical. Dominical was a cool beach-side spot. We got in late and the only restaurant open was one called Fuego. It was a beautifully structured and lux-looking tree fort. It was a brewery and had Kombucha on tap - there was something here for both Carter and I! (BELOW: These next two aren't our images but you need to see how cool this place is:)
It was a travel day and travel days we usually go over budget, so we decided to splurge and get a much deserved beer and meal for each of us. It was DELICIOUS and I don’t regret a single dollar of the $40 meal we had!! Even though the meal alone was over my daily budget for that day. Just as we were finishing, the daily down pour came rolling in, in a thunderous way. We asked for a garbage bag, threw both of our backpacks in, and walked home down the rainforest road in a torrential downpour. You would think this would be rain on our parade (pun, totally intended) but it added such authenticity and was such a fun experience to completely embrace the downpour, complete with jumping in puddles and taking our time to reach the hostel.
We were staying at a super rustic hostel - literally an open concept tree fort meant for 40 people but we were the only ones staying there. We got under our mosquito net, fought off the few buggers that we’re already in there and went to bed with the rain musically coming down on the old rugged corrugated steel roof.
Even though we had a surprisingly restful and bug-less sleep, we moved to Cool Vibes Hostel next door. Where there were actual walls and doors... and people.
We visited the beach and got one solid hour of beach-bumming it until the daily rain came. We retreated back to the hostel where we met a nice couple from Canada. We ended up playing games and enjoying a few drinks with them all night.
The next day, we bussed to Uvita, the town right outside Bellina Marine National Park. We stayed in the Black Sheep Air BnB, a super local, although kind of weird experience. We stayed way out of the town's centre, a 25 minute walk down a long, long dirt path road. We passed chickens, cows, horses, dogs, cocoa bean trees, farms, and local huts on the way to our accommodations with our huge bags on our back, our day packs on our front and sweltering in the 30+ degree heat. One of the MANY disgustingly sweaty long walks on foot on the pacific coastline.
When we finally came up to the property, the family was cooking their dinner outside on a portable grill; their 3 year old son was chasing a spider across the dirt "lawn" and the father was repairing his glass bong... Yikes. Our place was a separate structure to their house, split in two for two rooms that they rent out. After the initial shock wore off, it ended up being a very pleasant experience. The dad was very friendly and we sat outside talking to him for a while; the son was super cute so I, of course, played with him as best I could with the language barrier.
After we got settled and got to know our host family a bit, we left for the marine national park. It was absolutely stunning. The beach made a natural whales tail, with no coincidence that this is Costa Rica’s best place for whale sightings during their migration. Unfortunately, we were a couple weeks shy of it starting in July.
BUT!!! Although we didn’t see a whale... we saw our first sloth! And man, are these things hilarious!!This one below fell asleep reaching for whatever it was reaching for and never moved again...so entertaining haha!
We walked out to the tip of the whale's tale and went for a swim. It's called the Whale's Tail because as you can see from the picture below, the ocean crashes into itself from each side during high tide; during low tide, there is a perfectly sandy beach that allows you to walk all the way down to the end of the tail where the land (beach and rocks) spans out on both sides to look like the end of a whale's tail.
After coming back, we dropped our towels to stay awhile on this practically secluded beach; the national park was massive and surprisingly empty. We picked coconuts that had freshly fallen off a palm tree and Carter worked, and worked, and worked, to open the coconut with two little rocks (kind of looking like an overside ape discovering tools for the first time.)
To my surprise he broke two open and we enjoyed fresh coconut water and ate some delicious coconut! Roughly 5 minutes later a park ranger came walking by and offered us his machete to open our other coconuts...that could have come in handy, eh?!
The next day, we had a bit of a grind getting to the remote area of Drake Bay. We missed the first bus to Palmar, waited 3 hours, caught the next bus to Palmar, then boarded another bus to Seirpe and finally caught the last water taxi to Drake Bay. The boat ride was ridiculous! We saw a massive crocodile before taking off at the shoreline - apparently the river was filled with them, which we confirmed along the way, plenty were laying out on the banks..definitely somewhere you wouldn't catch us swimming. We cruised along the massive river amongst all the mangroves but when we came to the mouth where the river met the sea, the boat had to dodge, maneuver and OUTRUN the massive breaking waves rolling in! It was a calculated operation by the captain, we're glad he likely does that trip a few times a day. It was an adrenaline junkies dream and well worth the very steep $15/pp ticket to get there!
We stayed in Drake Bay for 5 nights at JadeMar Huts. A peaceful rustic cabin in the rainforest where we had local macaws visit us daily. Our balcony looked over the the beautiful eco-lush bay surrounded by Costa Rica’s biggest national park. It truly is a place that you go if you want to completely unplug and relax. At night, we hung out by one single candle-stick's light. That could also be one of the factors of how Carter didn't realize quickly enough that he had a cockroach crawl across his head onto his face one night!!! Despite this cockroach we had an incredible stay, we would get grocers from the local mercado, practiced our Spanish and made fresh pour over coffee every morning on our porch.
In between torrential thunderstorms that came every single day at 2pm, we explored the little village and made our way from dive centre to dive centre. We found the best to be Drake Drivers and approached them with a ThriftyVisuals offer. Carter was able to strike a deal with the owner and we got to do 2 dives and a tour of Corcovado National Park for half price!
The next morning we prayed for good weather and went on a day hike into Corcovado National Park, the largest park in Costa Rica and "the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity" says National Geographic.
We saw all four types of monkeys that inhabit the park (spider, squirrel, howler and white faced), raccoon things, macaws, boa constrictor, so many birds and more...(*I think we've lost our photos of this day some how!?! But take our word for it, it was amazing to see so much wildlife!)
We were so lucky as this was the first day since we've been in Costa Rica that it didn't rain until 5pm! So we were back in the comfort of our cabin when the rain came down.
The day after that we went on our diving trip to Canos Island. Because it’s rainy season and we just had a really heavy rain fall right up to 6am that morning, the water was a bit more stirred up than it usually would be and created less visibility but it was still amazing!
We swam with multiple white tipped reef sharks; Carter getting a bit too close, swimming right above them as they hovered on the floor of the sea to get better GoPro footage! There were also massive lobsters and a variety of huge schools of fish (the most we have ever seen in one place before.)
It would have been a nice relaxing dive... We got to go down on a line (which was a first for Carter and I - and I loved it because it gave me the control I needed to make sure I equalize properly). The max depth of the sand was 20m, so we didn’t have to worry about depth gauging, we just skimmed the surface of the floor BUT... the other divers were maniacs! One guy couldn’t keep his depth controlled and he was up 10m, down touching the ocean's floor, up again, down again. He was making us dizzy. His girlfriend was always running into me - mostly coming down on top of me from above, or swimming in front of me flipping her flipper right into my face, almost knocking off my mask and regulator.
There was another man, who’s wife tried to come down but went back into the boat, who had a GoPro and was more concerned with getting a good shot than staying a respectful distance away from other divers (mainly me). Instead of focusing and taking in the incredible sea life... I was watching out for the crazy out of control divers around me! We surfaced and as soon as Carter and I came up we just started to laugh and say WTF was that?! I mean, we are BEGINNER divers and we looked like dive masters compared to these people who said they’ve had their certificate for over 10 years. Less flappy, more floaty people!!
Our second dive was better managed... this dive we saw sharks again but we also got to see different types of sting and manta rays. We came across a garden of multiples of them all resting just beneath the sand so all you could see was their mean looking eyes. It was incredible! The sharks were also absolutely amazing, we got close enough to really get a great look at their eyes. They can also stop on a dime - like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
We were then dropped off at a deserted beach for lunch and then brought back to Drake Bay...again, just in time for the rain to come down.
After our 5 nights in Drake Bay, we made our way by...boat, bus, more busses and then by foot to Panama!
Our first stop was all the way from the Pacific side of Panama to the Caribbean Sea to Bocas Del Toro, we stayed on Bastimentos Island which was very, very small, and very authentico.
So much so that there was practically zero things to do (especially in the rainy season). One of the better and only accessible beaches on the island was a 30 minute hike away across the island but because of it being wet season, I lost a flipflop to the cause of trying to get there. It started to thunder and lightening also, so we turned back and admitted defeat. Sh*t happens! This is how sunny it was when we started our journey:
The next day in the morning, we did the only other thing left to do on the island and went for another (more successful) hike to a coffee farm "Up In the Hill". It was a nice wooden home on the hill of the island; a bit over grown with exotic plants, trees, fruit bushels, and of course, coffee plants. We had a very nice time up there enjoying our morning coffee!
After two nights, we moved to the more populated (and popular) Colon Island for our last night. We drank, ate and enjoyed everything this little island town had to offer:
And then we leaped over to Panama City to catch a flight... Adios amigos!
Although we read horror stories about delays and conditions of the boat, we decided to take our chances and buy ferry tickets from Jordan directly to Egypt. This means we bypass Israel completely, not having to worry about the implications of having their stamp in our passport and avoiding the headache of crossing three countries all in one day. We also went to get our Egyptian visas in advance in Aqaba and the embassy was closed for a holiday... what are the chances! So that essentially forced our hands towards the ferry in which we could get a full visa on arrival. Otherwise, we were only permitted to visit Sinai and would have to pay an exorbitant price for a full visa to get to the rest of Egypt (they make you pay for a letter of sponsorship by a local travel agency-not sure the reasoning behind this).
We got to the port 2 hours before departure and thank goodness we did because it was chaos and so unorganized. We lined up with what seemed like hundreds of Arabic men and were sent away aimlessly twice to pay for our Jordanian departure tax of 10JD ($20 CAD) elsewhere. After two failed attempts at finding the right person to pay, we finally asked a sales rep behind a different counter about the departure tax and he got his boss. The boss told us to follow him. He went right in to where we were originally denied twice in attempt to pay the tax and stamped the sales rep's forehead in front of us (aggressively but jokingly, we think) to tell him to get back to work! So, quickly we had our departure ticket stamped and once we were handed the receipts, 50 Jordanian men rammed the window like it was a Black Friday sale for electronics.
When we got to immigrations, no officers were working at any of the 15 empty tills... so we waited and waited... and waited. Until one officer sort of, kind of, maybe, slightly walked by behind the glass and I ran up with our passports and asked if he could help us. Again, Carter and I got our stamps and the 50 Jordanian men rammed the windows behind us once again. We then lined up in the third line, where our departure receipts were being scanned (there was probably 20 men before us) and you heard the machine scan and then make an “accepted” ring tone. The worker then goes to scan mine and nothing... the machine broke and chaos irrupted again. After 5 failed attempts and 30 mins, it was back up and working and we finally got onto the ferry. The ferry took off at 11:30pm (only a 30 min delay so we were happy).
Aside from myself and three local women, the rest of the boat were men. You could feel the testosterone in the room - there were 3 yelling matches, 1 physical altercation and lot of pushing and shoving to get their tea - all simultaneously going on. We were sent to the immigration booth on board and handed in our passports (I thought this was kind of a neat idea to save time at the actual border but of course, you read in our last blog how it was not totally sunshine and rainbows). In total, the ferry ride was 2.5 hours across and down the Red Sea to Nuweiba, Egypt.
The next day we just completely chilled. Our only goal in Egypt is to slow down; relax, enjoy and catch up on things like blogs, videos and everything everyone back at home (hopefully) looks forward to seeing. David’s Camp had a super cool beach front hang out spot that had wifi, sun, surf and shade... everything we could have ever asked for.
The next morning we woke up with the sunrise to catch the bus to Egypt’s hippy dive town of Dahab. We arrived at Full Moon Hotel and were so very pleasantly surprised. First off, the hotel itself was beautiful and so clean! Honestly, a rarity for us at our budget. The co-owner came out and offered us Egyptian tea and a snack, toured us around and we had a nice introductory chat about Dahab on the rooftop terrace. Our room was ready immediately even though we arrived super early and we got a nap in before exploring the beach town that afternoon. The town was interesting - it was an entire pedestrian strip that was geared toward tourists but because of the Arab Spring revolution that erupted in Egypt in 2011, tourism took a hard downturn and it left Dahab almost ghost-townish. It was only until later that night, that stores and restaurants really opened and the town became fairly lively. We got a coffee (a real coffee - hallelujah, also a rarity) at the coolest eclectic cafe right on the water called Why Not:
The owner was telling us that after the war, tourism (of course) dropped dramatically and because of this, everyone who was living in Dahab at the time, essentially locked up their store fronts and left because they could not survive without the money from tourism. Now, there are no real locals - just people who came from the bigger cities to run the few tourism businesses the are left. We also learned that Dahab was world famous for its scuba diving; it’s cheaper then Koh Tao which we were under the impression that Thailand was the cheapest in the world. Sinai also has 2/5 of the world's top dive sites! So naturally this fired up Carter to explore all the dive shops in town and compare prices.
We had an amazing falafel sandwich which is made differently than the ones in Jordan; instead of being made primarily out of chickpeas, it’s made from fava beans. It was delicious!!! We also had a great dinner at King Chicken - Swiss Chalet couldn't even compete with it. The only down side to King Chicken is that it had "resident" street cats, who would stare into the depths of your soul for your scrap chicken meat - one even jumped up onto the table!! The owner would occasionally run out with a broom and shoo them away; dinner & entertainment.
In the afternoon we shared a taxi to 3 Pools, a snorkelling hot spot. It was beautiful! Unfortunately, we got there only an hour before sunset and had such a short time to explore under the water. The Red Sea was such an unexpected mind-blower. The liveliness of the coral reef, the hundreds of different species of fish, we weren’t anticipating it at all. You casually see beautiful lion fish, be careful though they're deadly to the touch!!
Luckily (for us budget travellers), due to the downturn of tourism a lot of Egypt’s resorts are cheaper than normal. Carter still had some left over Marriott points and so we booked ourselves in at Sharm El Shiek's Marriott beach resort for two nights for FREE! So we made our way the 1.5 hour bus ride south to Sharm.
Note: we are loving Egypt so far! Already by day two, it’s exceeded our expectations (mainly because we didn’t have any major plans aside from visiting the pyramids). The local bus was the cleanest bus we have been on thus far of our travels, it left on time, it arrived on time. Everything we have grown NOT to expect in developing countries.
We arrived to Sharm to find it was a major resort destination. Huge resort chains lined the streets and we were dropped off at our Marriott to 5- star service. Again, we were brought right to our rooms even though we arrived early. We dropped our bags and ran out immediately to the beach and pool and ordered our pina colada and local brew. Backpackers turned luxe living baby, legit soaking up every minute.
After the beach, since we can’t actually afford the Marriott luxe life, we went grocery shopping across the street to avoid the expensive restaurants ($$$). We ate on the cheap (and in secrecy) in our room. We took full advantage of all the perks the Marriott has to offer - unreal wifi, desk space and an area to do videos, free tea, you name it - we’re taking advantage of it!
Side note: one of our cheap meals in Sharm was of course at McDonalds. This ended up being deemed "the best Big Mac in the WORLD" by Carter & his personal mission to find it.
After all of his research and walk-in inquiries to ALL the dive shops in Dahab, Carter has now decided he’s committed to doing his PADI Open Water at Sea Dancers Dive Center. So after our time at Marriott, we made our way back to Dahab to try our luck at scuba diving. I had major issues when I tried to scuba dive in Mexico as a teenager, so this was an activity I had written off, but the guys convinced me to try the discovery dive course to see if I could overcome them.
Our instructor was an Egyptian named Khaled. I truly think we lucked out with him; he was absolutely amazing. Such a great read on character, laid back enough but also super trained (and professional) at his job. We started with getting into the water first, mainly as a “discovery” dive, to see if my ears and I could handle equalization pressure. Khaled briefed us on the equipment, important hand signals to be able to communicate underwater, and our first few skills we must learn before submerging.
Then we suited up. This took a whole 45 minutes - the work it takes to get into a wetsuit & scuba gear is no joke!!! No kidding you have to be fit to dive... I worked up a sweat just squeezing my body into this damn thing. The whole process includes: securing your BCD to your air tank, checking your vest, the quality of air and air pressure of your tank, attaching the hoses where they need to be on said vest, getting into your wet suit, putting your boots on, putting on your weight belt and then buddy system'ing into your “kit” which is the BCD vest attached to your tank. Once you’re in all of this equipment you check your buddy for all safety and properly working/functioning parts using the acronym “Bruce Willis Ruins All Films”, you spit in your goggles, pick up your flippers and walk down the boardwalk to the beach entry site wearing a crazy amount of weight in the scorching hot sun.
Getting into the water is the best, most refreshing feeling. The first time (the first three for me really) it was such an odd sensation - I hadn’t worn a full wetsuit with boots included, really ever - so stepping into the 23 degree water felt like nothing. From sight, you know your stepping into the sea but between the warm water temperature and the suit, you just feel the wetness entering and surrounding your skin, nothing else. Once you are fully submerged, you can start to feel the water being cooler and rushing in, making its way through the entirety of your suit. It’s an amazing sensation. Once in the water, you inflate your BCD so you float (like wearing a life jacket) and buddy up to put on your mask and fins.
We practiced our skills... we ended up going to 8.9 metres for 28 minutes. My ears survived! Trying to get down on my own, rookie at buoyancy control and having no dive computer to gage my depth, I ran into equalization problems and was going up and down like a roller coaster which is very bad for divers. Khaled brought me up to the surface, made me equalize before even submerging, grabbed onto my BCD and took me down metre by metre, stopping and signalling me to equalize every step of the way. Before I knew it we were cruising at 9 metres!
Our first dive was super easy, relaxed and was essentially just to get comfortable with breathing and the proper use of our equipment. However, there are HUGE perks to getting certified somewhere exotic like the Red Sea. The coral life is SO rich and on our very first dive we saw an octopus!!!!! I thought I would be more scared of it but it’s an amazing thing to see these creatures in their natural habit, most of them are so calm and docile that you can’t help but to feel at ease and connected to them as your floating on by.
Our second day we went through our “homework” and was briefed on our second confined dive and skills that we’d be doing in the water. We got suited up and headed in. We learned how to clear our masks - which is probably the worst skill ever to do as the Red Sea is 1.4x more salty than any other ocean/sea (minus the Dead Sea, of course) so your eyes sting like mad. This is how I reacted when Khaled said we'd be doing more open mask drills for the next two days of the course:
For one of our dives, we went cruising the opposite way out from the dive centre and there was a whole under water obstacle course for beginner divers! We had to swim through hoops to practice our buoyancy, there were statues of horses and elephants as artificial coral reefs, and then we saw the most glorious absolutely beautifully massive wild sea turtle!!! It was munching on bottom sea grass before it gracefully glided up toward the surface for some air. It was my scuba diving dreams coming true!! On day two! Dead. Bye. I have dived and gone to heaven.
We ascended shortly after that as Carter is officially known as an AIR HOG and uses double the amount of air as I do (more of that to come). We watched chapter 4&5 videos and headed for our daily monster falafel sandwich at Yum Yum, our favourite joint in Dahab.
**OKAY I'm twice the size of you BRITT**
Our third day was a fairly easy - there were a lot of skills to learn but now we were comfortable in our gear, our abilities and in the water. This dive we saw a Napoleon fish, 2-3 metres long and THICK! It was the biggest fish we had ever seen!!! It swam above us and I swear it casted a shadow over us and the area of sea we were in. We wrote our final exam that day and decided to wait until the next morning to do our final open water dive. Khaled wanted to take us to a beautiful local dive spot “islands” as our final dive.
The next morning we got to Sea Dancers at 9am, packed our gear into our boxes and were driven to the islands. It was a beautiful spot even on top of the water. Looking into the sea you could see three or four different shades of blue, the sand bar was also visible from the shore and we were excited to get underneath the surface!
We walked in about 20 feet to the drop, put on our fins and mask and descended down. Immediately I was blown away, it looked as though Disney himself made an underwater amusement park with the most colourful corals and rides. I say rides because to get to the coral garden we had to go through our first cave! We descended down and out to the other side of the coral wall to a whole new set of coral reef and fish. Next, we came on top of a sand bank and saw a blue spotted sting ray skimming the bottom of the water! They are beautiful and so whimsical! The corals here were amazing.... we ended the dive up going up and out of another hole/cave and onto the sand bank of the shore. What an amazing way to end our certification!!
We are so incredibly grateful to the amazing staff at Sea Dancers. Steve, the manager who was so knowledgeable and helpful with information and logistics. Khaled, our instructor was the most unreal human; he was hilarious and made the whole using our brains thing fun but also was so attentive and careful to turn my bad scuba experience into a good and successful one. And then there was Ahmed, the silent killer - he was always there at the exact moment you needed him to help pick your tank up, do up straps properly, hang your suit when it was full of water and too heavy, or most importantly, to silently remind me to lay my tank on the floor before Khaled gave me shit for it! The rest of the staff and guests that were hanging out the four days we were there were unbelievably friendly and helpful as well. I can definitely see how people get into scuba diving and make it a way of life. It sucks you in with all it’s charm. We should know, I had to drag Carter out of Dahab and remind him that there’s these things in Egypt called the Great Pyramids that I’ve heard are quite old and pretty impressive to see.
Through Steve, we booked a day diving trip to Ras Mohammad, one of the top five dive spots in the world!!! It was just an hour back down south in Sharm el Sheik so we hulled our gear down to Anthias Dive centre.
We were picked up at 8am at our hotel and boarded Nelli, our diving yacht for the day. Now I can really see why people get sucked into dive life - wow. The full tanks lined the back of a MASSIVE yacht, our equipment was already aboard neatly below the tanks and we were told to go up to the sun deck with a coffee and tea to relax while we got to the first site.
Our first dive site in Ras Mohammad was known as Jack Fish Alley. If I thought Dahab had beautiful coral... holy frig, Ras Mohammad was the Godfather of coral. It was honestly a different planet down there. There were coral walls, coral islands, coral this-and-that everywhere. The hundreds of species of fish munching on, hiding in, and swimming about; there was so many my head was on a constant swivel looking around! Everything down to tiny fluorescent coloured snails all the way to 3m massive corbi fish.
Our second dive was at the famed Shark and Yolanda Reefs. Again, absolutely stunning!! This was the first time Carter and I had ever swam “the blue”; this is when there are absolutely no coral references and you’re just swimming across complete emptiness of blue. It is super trippy and I can one hundred percent see how a diver could get lost, disoriented and panic. There was a brief moment where I swam toward the coral wall to see the crazy looking fish and when I looked back around I couldn’t see our guide nor Carter. Just blue. Your heart definitely starts beating faster in that split second you feel the complete isolation in the epic vastness of the sea. I thought "oh shit... but they’ll find me" and I just kept swimming (like Dory in Finding Nemo) but not even 5 seconds later I see our guide's flipper in the corner of my eye. Apparently I had gone down past our allowed 18m and she was using her flipper to grab my attention. I was below them and that’s why I couldn’t see them. Oops!
Yolanda reef is named after the ship wreck that sank there years ago. Even moreso, known for the cargo they had to throw overboard to avoid sinking - hundreds of toilets and bathtubs. That have now made perfect coral reefs and homes for a variety of species of fish and aquatic life. How funny and cool does that sound?!? We wouldn't know... Carter "the air hog" got too low on air and we never made it to the toilets!
When we emerged, we waited for the boat to turn itself around and boarded to lunch being served. It was delicious and we sun whorshipped on the deck for the next hour. After lunch we had the option to go for a third dive. Carter took it, I sun bathed on the top deck... as we saw beluga dolphins!
After our dive day, we took a bus to Cairo, and again, it was a seemless and enjoyable experience. We got in fairly late around 9:30pm and was plopped right dead smack in the underpass of major highways that go through the city. First thing we learned is that sidewalks weren’t really a thing here - use the road and keep your head on a swivel to look out for cars in either direction. Without knowing it at the time, we had our first dinner at Karaz, a famous fast food restaurant in the city. We ate there several times after as it was delicious and cheap.
Our first morning we got up and headed directly across the street to the Cairo museum. It was a beautiful historic building built in 1902 being the first museum built in all of Egypt. However, not much has changed about the building since the original build, so it is incredibly jam packed with archeological finds. So much so, that it almost looks like an old souvenir shop with sycophants, statues, artifacts just unintentionally shoved places. Many of the objects don’t even have proper identification signs on them and most of the ones that do have it, were for sure written on a type writer back in the 30-60s.
I had the Lonely Planet book on my iPhone (thanks to our Australian friend Helena) and it had an entire section on the museum and the objects within. We tried to follow it for the first 10 minutes but we’re completely overwhelmed with the amount of artifacts that we could barely decipher which artifact LP was actually talking about. We roamed the museum for about an hour and a half; the most interesting portion was King Tutankhamun's exhibit which features his golden death mask, all of his exquisitely royal jewelry, and his sarcophagus. Unfortunately, we weren’t allow to take pictures in this room so you’ll just have to take our word for how spectacular the experience was in seeing these artifacts! We were exceptionally lucky to see King Tut's exhibit too because it's usually on loan to different museums around the world.
Next up was the Mummification Rooms in which we had to pay extra for... but for the biggest mummy preservation in the world, while we were in the mummy-motherland, why the heck not! The rooms were kept at exactly 22 degrees Celsius, with 15-20 mummies encased in thick glass coffins that were also kept at a very specific temperature based on their level of preservation. This was without a doubt the most surreal, mind bending, experience we’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of and witness.
If the mummy had teeth, they were immaculate! The hair was still in tact, their nails and toe nails were identifiable... and they were THOUSANDS of years old!!! Through modern day science they’ve been able to identify what the believe the cause of death was even! The information given about each mummy was ten fold more descriptive and informative than those of the entire museum combined. My head still hurts from trying to take in how outrageously historic these bodies were and how they know so much about them thousands of years later!
There was a little boy in the room who started to cry and Carter and I had a little laugh about how incredibly creepy this would be for a little kid. So the dad took the boy out of the room (as you were supposed to be silent, respectful and not take pictures) and as the mom passed us we said to her “we would be scared too, don’t worry!” And she laughed and responded "oh, he wasn’t scared, he wanted to see more teeth in the mummies but I told him I couldn't do that for him!"
Disclaimer: we took these pictures before we realized you weren't allowed to take any, so were crossing our fingers each day that we're not cursed by a mummy or two!
The next morning we got up really early and made our way to Giza... to the Great Pyramids. We took a taxi and drove for about 30 minutes through city streets and when we were on a high pass of the highway, in the distance we saw our first brief glimpse of the top of the pyramids. The taxi dropped us off right at the main gate and as soon as we paid and went through security (there are security checks everywhere in Egypt), we were immediately at the Sphinx and a short walk from the great pyramid of Khafre. We arrived right at 8am so we were one of the first tourists to arrive (we would be alllllmost alone to take in the craziness of these pyramids, the history, the construction, the theories around them, for just over an hour.)
And then we started toward the Great Pyramid of Khufu and were blown away by the massive size of these stones, the mystery of construction and overall, history and preservation of these structures.
After we walked around one of the corners of the pyramid, we were hit with a wall of tour buses unloading all their passengers who were rushing to the entrance of the pyramid. So just as quickly as we decided to go in, we decided to forfeit the experience because of this. Once the masses arrive, the touts, carriages and camel riders awake as well. As you’re walking along trying to remotely grasp the insane amount of history that took place beneath your very feet, you hear “hello, hello miss. Horse back ride to the Panorama? You know how much?” And you have to say no, la shoukran (no thank you), or just simply ignore. And then again. And again. So much so, that we finally agreed to make our own path away from the pyramids to take all three of them in at once and get away from the nagging. We sat on a dirt road off the regular path where there were no other tourists and only the occasional brave tout would bother us. It was so surreal to see them just standing there so sturdy and massive, a unforgettably peaceful moment together.
We sat here for an hour (also mostly to take a break from the desert heat that hits you like a wall once it hits 10am). We headed back down and out of the “park” around 11am, got some local falafel wraps and Carter took part in the local Egyptian way of getting served...which is just forcing and pushing your way to the front and pushing your order ticket into the chef's hand before anyone else can... it is absolutely hilarious to witness. He was quite successful as most people were just staring at him and he’s tall enough to reach over the chaos much further than the average Arabian man.
We went for a quick visit to Alexandria which is a big city on the Mediterranean Sea. We walked around the city all day, but most importantly, visited Alexandria library which was one of the largest and most important libraries in the Ancient World.
We ended up at such a lovely seafood restaurant looking over Alexandria's harbour... however, these men were some of the "more casual" guests dining at this restaurant. So, you can only imagine how out of place Carter and I felt with our backpacking-hygiene and (what felt like) our ratty clothing.
We took a sleeper train to Luxor and once again, the experience was good. The seats are very roomy. The A/C was on and comfortable. The seats reclined and almost reached a horizontal bed. The only downside is that we were in Egypt and EVERYONE here smokes and usually they’re allowed to smoke anywhere - in hotel rooms, in restaurants, at their office desks - so they’re very lax about the “no smoking” signs. I spent the first hour holding my breath until they really turned on the A/C and cleared out the cabin with “fresher” air.
Our first day in Luxor, we visited the Karnak temples at sunset's golden hour. The restoration and conservation of the entire site was incredibly impressive. The most preserved coloumns and temples we have ever seen. The main hall had 134 columns standing with all the original engravings and paintings that withstood the test of time.
The next day was the Valley of the Kings... and if we thought the paintings and engravings of Karnak were something, it didn’t hold a light to those in every single tomb within the valley that we visited. Unfortunately it was 160 Egyptian pounds to enter and then they were charging 300 for photographs! So, being budget conscious we opted for the memory photos and store in our minds. (***After thought: as I was writing this and did the conversion of 160EP being only $11 I cannot believe how CHEAP we had become that we both full-heartedly agreed that 300EP was too much money to be able to capture the insanity that was Valley of the Kings!!!)
That night we sailed the Nile into the sunset on a traditional falluca sail boat for an hour. It was beautiful! The Nile is SO much more vast than we anticipated and has such a sense of calmness about it, especially at sunset.
The next morning we boarded a bus on our way to another Red Sea beach town of Hurghada.
We were absolutely spoiled in Hurghada courtesy of my mom. We spent two days at the Sunrise Resort with half board (breakfast and dinner buffet included). Thankfully, we met two super sweet Egyptians working at the resort; one at the buffet restaurant and the other at the beach bar. Both, for varying reasons, didn’t care we were only half board and served us an over-accommodating amount of alcohol! This is our friend at the adult-only beach bar:
It was literally the best two days of relaxation we had the whole trip which was a heaven sent as we were getting tired of ALWAYS bargaining, being hassled by taxis and travelling on the cheap. It was the break of crunching numbers and budget hunting that we needed. Also, not to mention the shower and scrub we very much so needed too! This time, we BOTH got to wear robes and slippers and act like royalty, not just the birthday boy.
They even took us to our room in a GOLF CART!!
One night as Carter crushed out the great wifi by FaceTiming with people, I laid in bed using three pillows, in a robe, watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians just because I COULD (and that it was the only English show that was on.)
From Hurghada we made our way back to Cairo for our flight to Morocco... but not before we saw our boy Hayden once more!! He had just arrived in Cairo that day, before he headed to Italy to reunite with his whole family after a year away. It was great to see him again and catch up on both our travel stories from the last time we were together. We compared thoughts, feelings and strange stories over sunset beers on the Nile.
Unfortunately, it was some sort of holiday in Egypt and all the beer stores and bars closed super early and we couldn’t find any more beer. This is probably a good thing since their reunion in Vietnam, a million dong went missing after their night out!
We flew into Amman after a long night's layover in Dubai. Holy cow, the money in that airport! We had to split a little $8US egg sandwich for breakfast so we didn’t starve, only because we couldn’t afford anything else. We arrived at Mansour Hotel, our accommodation in Amman, to the biggest & most bodacious Jordanian man greeting us at the door yelling "WELLLL-COOME TO JORDAAAN!" This, we will soon learn, is the very first thing to come out of Jordanian's mouths as you walk past them on the streets or into their shops. All with the biggest smiles on their faces, so welcoming!
Our room at Mansour wasn’t ready yet, so we went out to get some lunch and we were immediately met with Carter's dream... huge spits of meat. We were FINALLY in the land of shawarma, Carter's heaven on earth. After months of curry, fried rice and noodles he was welcoming Middle Eastern Cuisine with open arms, and mouth! We started lunch off with a small shawarma each...
After a quick fix, we stumbled upon a super busy restaurant, Hashem. Without really knowing what to do or how to order, an unbelievable spread of middle eastern food was brought to our table by another huge Jordanian man: hummus, babaganoush, fresh tomatoes and raw onion with mint, bean dip, falafels, and hot out of the oven pita bread. OMG. I was beside myself (and immediately regretted eating a shawarma, giving me less room in my stomach for this masterpiece of a meal.) We dug in until we were in a literal food coma. What a WELCOME TO JORDAN, am I right?! *I'm drooling writing this*
This restaurant also ended up being one of the most "famous"/ must-try restaurants in Amman, as the King of Jordan has ate there and ever since it has been a hummus/ falafel hot spot. We rolled back to the hotel, got into our room, and fell asleep for the next five hours...food coma + overnight layover = sleepy time. Of course, only to wake up and go get another shawarma for dinner!
We were excited to explore Amman. The city was an endless sea of typical middle eastern buildings and amongst the old downtown, where we were staying, there were ancient Roman ruins.
The downtown streets were lined with costume stores with beautiful traditional Jordanian womens' dresses and capes. Arabic coffee shops and cafes that were packed with men and women smoking deliciously flavored shisha. Mazes of bazaars and fresh food markets intertwined through side streets that seemed to never end.
We had read a lot of great reviews about Rainbow Street which was supposed to be the heart of downtown; a pedestrian friendly street lined with cafes, shops and restaurants that you could spend an entire day at, enjoying a Turkish coffee, people watching, and milling about.
Well... this was a bit underwhelming as a tourist hot spot. This street was a regular wide street with cars whipping up and down, most of the store fronts were closed, there was one famous falafel shop that we stopped at and had a sandwich, and one cafe that had a few people at... annnd that was it. And as we were finding out to be the norm in Jordan, the meal was incredible.
We thought we'd give another "must see" attraction a try and headed to the Roman Theatre for sunset, which was only a 5 minute walk from our hotel. We got there... and it had just closed. Thankfully, one of the guards let us in, saying "only 5 minutes" which gave us enough time to get the gist of it. The amphitheatre was quite impressive. It just sits in the middle of old downtown and so it makes for quite a crazy contrast to see!
It was built in the 2nd century and could seat 6000 people in it's prime. They’ve created a community social scene around it nowadays, where plays and award ceremonies take place. It also has a great view of the hilltop citadel which was beautiful in the sunset.
The next day, we climbed up to the Citadel. We were taken back by the sheer size of the pillars that were still intact. We started to realize the incredibly rich history in Jordan - and we aren't even talking about Petra yet, one of the historical mysteries in the world!
Here are more views of downtown Amman that we stumbled across during our stay:
The Citadel sits on top of the largest hill in the middle of the city, which allows you to see a 360 view of the surrounding Amman area. It was up here overlooking the city when we were stunned by a beautiful moment we were most definitely not expecting. All of a sudden a synchronized prayer bellowed throughout the entire city below, evening Muslim prayer began and echoed in every direction like nothing we've ever heard before. It was a very wild experience we can say we will never forget. After visiting the Citadel, we were inspired to go an hour outside of the city to visit Jerash. This town is known for the Roman city of Gerasa, which is insanely intact (with some reconstruction) for being built in the Neolithic Age (ya... I don't really know what that means either... it's REAL OLD lol) The ruins site itself is said to have been founded by Alexander the Great.
We opted to not pay for a tour guide (one of the downsides of Jordan tourism being so expensive) so the following facts are straight from Wikipedia, please take them with a grain of salt!
The Arch of Hadrian, is the first structure you see and must walk through, to enter the ruins. It was built to honour the visit of Emperor Hadrian in 129AD.
This is the Hippodrome, where the epic battles and games would be held. I couldn't stop thinking about Russell Crowe in the movie Gladiator!
Below is the Forum, where all activity of the historic-community would have taken place.
Here we are walking down the cardo, which is lined with these huge pillars the entire mile-length street. It was amazing because you could see long divots and marks cut into the road stone... and we overheard a guide saying it's from the repeated hundreds of chariots passing over them!!! This was thee coolest aspect of Jerash for me personally.
The next day, we had been discussing travel plans for the next leg of Jordan, and it all seemed much more expensive to do than we initially expected. Carter was fired up because he had a free car rental with Enterprise Rent-A-Car because he used to rent vehicles often at his previous job. Well he gets on the phone and dials Enterprise "Jordan Edition" and the conversation goes something like this:
Carter: "Hello my friend, I am from Canada and I would like to rent car"
Jordanian Enterprise Employee: "Ok my friend, this no problem, where do you go and when"
Carter: "I want to drive to Dana Reserve and back, we will have the car for 2 days"
Jordanian Enterprise Employee: "Ok no problem, this is most beautiful, tomorrow you come and pay in the morning"
Carter: "Great, the thing is though I have a free car rental with my Emerald points!" (Carter with a happy, smiling, stupid white person face)
Jordanian Enterprise Employee: "You say car for free?"
Carter: "Yes, I have a free 1 day rental with my points. I would like to use them to rent the car for 1 day for free?"
Jordanian Enterprise Employee: "...ahhhhahah my friend, you are in Jordan, nothing for free! Whatever happen in your country, not work here"
After exhausting all options over breakfast with an awesome Aussie couple, we decided...why don't we band together to rent (and actually pay for) a car! We worked out the details that evening (over a couple of beers, thanks Helena) and set out to the car rental that morning.
Since you are always hearing from us, we've asked Helena & Gabe to write about our road trip to the Dead Sea and Dana Biosphere Reserve!
We first met Brittany and Carter in Jordan in what can only be described as the Ritz Carlton of Amman - Mansour Hostel. We were sitting on the vintage couches intrigued with our plates of grey boiled eggs, a wedge of laughing cow, maybe a container or two of aeroplane jam and amazingly fresh pita.
Carter sitting with his hat backwards continuously rattling off about their ‘free car for the day’, we thought maybe these guys can be our friends. Who doesn’t like a road trip when someone else pays for the car!? It wasn’t long before the pair realised that Western rules don’t apply in Jordan (not totally surprising) and it was gonna cost them the big bucks. As a group of 4 backpackers on a tight budget, we thought "let's spread the cost!" And with that we were on the hunt for a new rental company.
We came to find Fox Car Rental. Us (Gabe and Helena) being Aussies, we thought it best we not try to drive or we’d end up on the wrong side of the road. However, Carter has no chance of hiring a car as he traded his license for a sleeping bag in Nepal (I think it was a tad nippy up on the Annapurna trail). So we turned to Britters to supply the license, she pulls it out in the rental office to discover it was expired! So finally, they all turn to me (Helena), I whip out my license and before you know it we are jumping in the car!
I wacked on my seeing eye goggles and off we went 60km on the freeway in the middle of two lines (keeping it safe) as much as Gabe begs to differ. Carter directed us down a sleek back road with no traffic and we were cruising. Our first stop was Madaba, a small town just south of Amman. We’d been there the day before and sussed out the lay of the land. So naturally we took Brittany and Carter to our favourite place... The Church of Nativity where on the ground there was a vintage mosaic map of Jordan. Unfortunately, it was Saturday and a service was on so they just got to see the photo we took the previous day and a priest talking in Arabic.
Next we hit up the local markets to get some groceries for lunch. Oh my god was it cheap; for four of us, we spent $4 CA and we got a few local mates as well!
Next was figuring out how we get to the Dead Sea. We’d heard about some of Brittany and Carter's experiences with information stations that had not been too successful but we were sure this time would be different.
Our first attempt was with a lady who could barely string an English sentence together, no dice. We stroll across the road to a new white building, labelled ‘Tourist Information Centre’, up several flights of stairs to find a guy who told us the Dead Sea was 30km away and pointed to a wall and said “head that way” in an ambiguous tone.
By this stage of driving, we decide it's best that Carter takes the wheel and if we get pulled over, play the confused tourist card. Before we knew it, we were approaching a police check point, a man in military uniform starts waving his arms out. Carter slows the car as his heart rate rises, the man walks right up to the window and at the top of his lungs booms out ‘HELLLOOO! WELCOME TO JORDAN!’ and waves us through. This soon becomes the norm at every police check of the road trip, and our favourite saying.
As we start to head along the coastline of the Dead Sea, we start to see the resorts, all charging at least $30 to access the water from their private beaches. Being the frugal backpackers we are, we decide to look for some free access, which we soon discover means pulling over on the side of the highway and heading across the rocky shoreline to find a spot to have a dip.
Entering the Dead Sea was everything we could of imagined and more, the buoyancy, the view, the sting in your eyes, it was amazing! On our trip back to the car we were all laughing at the suckers who paid to enter through resorts.. soon we discover who the real suckers were.
We headed to what we had read to be some of the most beautiful hot springs in Jordan. Only 20 minutes up the road and the salt had begun to crystallise all over us and sting in places that really hurt! But it was ok, we had arrived at the hot springs! We pulled up to the hot springs to realise that it is going to cost us $50 each for half an hour! This brilliant idea was quickly ruled out to save our back pockets, so instead, out the front of the hot springs we get our bottled water out and start showering, much to the amusement of a giant busload of rich tourists (who could afford the hot springs).
Although the bottle shower helped it was by no means a shower, so we were soon on the way to our accomodation in Dana. Three hours later we arrived at our lush resort in Dana Reserve, where we were sharing a 4-single bed room. The owner in broken English strongly encouraged us to have the buffet dinner with everyone else, only a small $20 each, but us again being tight backpackers, we decided we could make it on our own.
After 4 long showers to de-saltify ourselves we headed into the small town of Al-Qadisiya on the top of the hill. There we found 2 full chickens roasting. We got one chicken, 2 souvlaki’s, 2 containers of chips and that was just for Carter. We were soon on the edge of a cliff over looking the little village we were staying in having a massive feast, keeping a close eye on our wild dog friends, slowly closing in...
The next morning we were looking at what walk suited us best through the Dana Reserve, as we were on a time limit. The people in the accomodation weren’t too inclined to help as they were all guides wanting us to pay them a pretty penny for a stroll in the park.
We decided it was best to walk out on a trail that leads to the next town, but turn around about 3 hours in so we would be back in time to drop the car off that night in Amman. So we set off down a very steep hill, thinking not much of it, occasionally laughing about how steep it was going to be on the way back up as we slid down. We walk into this beautiful valley, dry as a bone but somehow flowers popping up all over the place, we walk along the trail for about an hour before we decide to go trail blazing along the river bed, thinking we might be able to make it a circuit trip.
It wasn’t long till Carter had us scrambling up a cliff to get a photo at the highest point... it wasn’t long till we realised every high point we reached there was another just above it. We’d started to hit peak sunburn point and the sweat to sun screen ration was not helping anyone.
We’d soon find a nice big shady tree to stop and have a snack at; the traditional hummus and bread. Satisfied, we moved on through the winding path to continue our journey. Getting excited as the the canyons around us were getting higher. Decided that the cliff was too steep to go up (despite Carter's protests) we headed back to a bit we could climb.
What then proceeded was a 100% sun and a hectic 2 hour up hill climb (for Gabe and I; Brittany and Carter didn’t break a sweat. Nepal had trained them well) back into town.
Back at Dana Inn we all jumped into the car and started to head off up the Kings Highway towards Amman. Naturally stopping first for an ice cream; ooh and the fresh pita guys before we left town.
Now we expected a winding drive as we had opted for the scenic route but what we didn’t anticipate was the random, surprise, unmarked speed humps along the highway. They would pop up out of no where and we’d all go flying into the roof and then cross our fingers hopping we hadn’t bottomed out the car.
It was a beautiful drive the terrain changed constantly from green lush fields to arid desert. The first town we passed after two hours of driving was At-Tafilah. The highlight for me was all the dead hanging animals with their head still on and covered in fur (just the heads) the bodies were naked (or so to speak). There were camels, lambs, cows and even chooks!
After cruising through Tafila we were in a hurry to Karak as there were some ruins we wanted to see, and the evening was fast approaching. Now lets all remember that by this point we’d all just had that earlier snacked and ice cream but nothing else. Someones head was going to be eaten if we didn’t find some food soon.
As soon as we got into town we stopped at the first falafel shack and then on to find shawarmas so that everyone was happy again.
In our haste to get food no one had checked the open times of Karak's Castle and next thing we knew, it had closed 5 minutes ago. With full bellies we got back in the car and heading off towards Amman.
On this leg of the trip Carter began to bring the drone out, so we would stop at every mountain on the side of the road, run to the top, Carter sets up the drone, we are all posing for our great photos only to find out that the camera had started to play up! none the less these hills provided us with some of the most amazing views of the terrain in Jordan, an absolute delight for us to see.
Eventually we made it back to Amman, driving through the darkness. we dropped the car off and back to the Ritz Carlton we headed.
The end of our fantastic road trip was upon us with two new friends. The first travel buddies of our trip, they had set the standard high and it was going to be hard to beat.
See you guys in Toronto soon!
The next day the Aussies went to Aqaba, a southern city on the Red Sea, and we had a free day in Amman once again. We finally did what I had wanted to do for the three or four days we were in Amman previously... we went to the mall on the rich-side of town and got me a Starbucks and Carter a Big Mac. So Carter could scratch yet another country off his list of "Big Mac's around the world!"
The next morning we caught the public bus to Wadi Musa, the village essentially created and set up for mass tourism to one of the seven Wonders of the World, Petra.
We arrived to Wadi Musa in the afternoon and booked ourselves into our first dorm we’ve stayed in a while. As we walked into our room, we saw this big friendly beard that we recognized. Gabe and Helena were not only at the same hostel, they were the same room as us! They showed us around town and how to do Wadi Musa on the cheap because the entire city was a tourist trap if you didn't work hard to find the authentic local restaurants and grocery stores at low prices.
April 5th: Carter's birthday!
We woke up early today because it was Carter's 29th birthday and we had reservations at the 5-star Marriott in Wadi Musa, WOOO!!! We wanted to check in as early as they would humanly possibly allow us, so we could absolutely bask in the luxury we were 100 percent not accustomed to. Please note: we booked this on points - that once again Carter had accumulated at his previous job - as there is absolutely no way this was in the budget (even for a birthday!)
We paid an insane 5JD ($10CAD) to get to the Marriott, that was only 5km away, crazy expensive! Of course, the Marriott was perched on the highest hill in Wadi Musa looking over all the lesser-hotels in town. This unfortunately gave the local taxi drivers a pitiful reason to charge so much for a quick 5 minute lift "my friend, this place is on top of big big hill, I use much gas for this drive to go up hill"
We arrived and were welcomed into the Marriott's beautiful lobby at 9:00am (yes - we were desperate to soak up every single second in this hotel that we were legally allowed to as paying customers). We were treated to a Turkish coffee and were told our room was not ready yet (duh, has anyone ever checked in that early to a hotel?!) but that we could enjoy ourselves in the lobby lounge until it was ready. Not only did we enjoy the Turkish coffee but we also moved onto the three different teas that we complimentary in the lobby as well! We made sure we stuck with our motto "if its free, it's for me"
After an hour or so, we were escorted to our room. The room was a REAL treat for us... it even came equipped with a robe and pair of slippers for the birthday boy which he did NOT take off the entire duration of our stay.
That night, we were treated to a deliciously filling meal and celebratory birthday drinks courtesy of our amazing, thoughtful and very loving friends, James and Clare, as a birthday gift to Carter. We enjoyed the dinner so much, we forgot to take a photo BEFORE devouring it! Oops!
It was one of the fanciest dinners we have had on our trip to date... and Carter wore his birthday slippers to the occasion.
The next morning, we woke up at 5:00am to be at Petra by 6:00am, the time the gates opened. Our entrance was "free" because we had purchased a Jordan Pass which we recommend everyone doing if they plan on ever visiting Jordan for more than three days.
PSA: a Jordan Pass is available to anyone planning on staying in Jordan for more than three days (to encourage tourists to not just do day trips in to Petra from surrounding countries.) It has to be purchased before entering the country and costs $99USD BUT it includes your visa ($75) and major attractions entrance fees. The visa and Petra entry fee ($50) alone make this purchase well worth it.
When we entered, we were one of a handful of other visitors and we again cannot recommend this enough!! To walk along the canyons of Petra in complete silence is unheard of, and even more so, to be completely alone, looking up at the Treasury or Monastery in awe, is well worth the early wake up.
The city itself is accessed through a 1.5km stretch of gorge called The Siq. It's like walking back through time, as you can easily imagine having a powerful river flowing through these crevasses long ago... and then to have it transformed into an ancient entrance to a hidden mountain city. Craziness.
After 15 minutes of walking through the narrow, curvy sliver in the rock, it opens up to the jaw-dropping Al-Khazneh (also known as The Treasury) that stands at a staggering 128feet high and 82feet wide. This masterfully-crafted, head scratching, work of art was carved out of a sandstone wall.
It was beautiful!!! But we didn't spend too much time admiring it as we knew we wanted to get up to the Monastery before more tourists came in. Right in front of the Treasury is where the local Bedouins set up their shops, and hang out with their camels for tourists to take photos with in front of the Treasury. This space was filling up quicker than we anticipated, so we took off for the hike up to the Monastery.
Petra is an ancient civilization that is still a mystery of who inhabited it and how it was built. Here are some of the sights throughout the Rose City:
It took another 20-30 minutes for us to reach the Monastery. The Ad Deir (Arabic term for monastery) is the second most popular structure within Petra and for good reason. It stands at a whooping 50 meters high and 45 meters across. We were glad we started out so early in the morning because one, it was only us and the Monastery for at least 30 minutes and two, it was getting freaking hot out! At least we did the climb in the fresh morning air.
By 10:00am, the camera's battery was dead and we were both sweaty, thirsty and ready to head back. As we hiked down and out of Petra, we were SO incredibly proud that we woke up early enough to avoid the hoards and hoards of people that now inhabited Petra. There were hundreds of people milling about at the Treasury; sitting on it's front steps so you could not get a picture of the famous building without 75 randoms in your frame. There were girls in flowing dresses and floppy brimmed hats, with their PHOTOGRAPHERS and lighting boards, taking photo after photo for Instagram; Chinese tourist with selfie sticks paying outrageous amounts of money to sit on a camel (and not even move); and Bedouin hustlers trying to sell you overpriced souvenirs. Good riddance Petra, we out. If you need us, WE POOL SIDE CHILLEN AT DA MARRIOTT BABY!
We escaped to the quiet and serene landscape of the pool LOL. We didn’t leave until 5:00pm that night! Unfortunately, after the highest of highs, we had to return to the lowest of lows and checked ourselves back in to the Valentine Inn hostel where we spent the night in a 14 person dorm room...*sigh*
The next day we shared a cab with two nice travellers from Croatia and Germany to the land of Wadi Rum. The great desert that Lawerence of Arabia and the Martian were filmed. We got dropped off at the visitors center, met back up with the mates Helena & Gabe, and shortly after, our tour guide Majed came to pick us up. We enjoyed tea at his home before his cousin picked us up in the open air jeep for the day tour of Wadi Rum.
We visited the Lawerence Springs:
We climbed a great big red sand dune which was a first experience for us! Carter and Gabe tried to sand board down it with a broken board but in the end, it didn't work but the views were amazing:
So we all ended up running down the massive dune, and spent the rest of the day getting red sand out of...everywhere:
The next attraction was a massive canyon, that you had to scale along a narrow walkway through but it was a dead end. Carter climbed up to see if there was anything beyond where we were stuck... but there wasn't. We're still perplexed of why this is an attraction that guides would take a tourist to?!
We realized it was because during our brief walk, our guide could fit in a quick nap. We legit woke him up and he took us for a lunch break. Our guide was hilarious; he did a great impression of all the nationalities he’s hosted for the last 25 years. He didn’t know how to “speak” Canadian so we taught him to say "eh" after his sentences and to refer to Canada as the Great White North. The rest of the day he would say stuff like "This sun is so god damn hot...EH!" Yelling EH, and laughing hysterically afterward. We hope he drops it on some Canadians in the future.
After lunch we saw a mushroom rock...
We then went to another canyon where you could climb to the top of a massive natural bridge:
And then ended the day at our very own sunset point. This was the best experience, to watch the red hot day's sun turn into a glowing hue over Wadi Rum's super unique landscape. After the sun went down, the American with us yelled "Wow! What a show!" and started a solo slow clap. His genuine sincerity is what made Carter and I decide to adopt this hilarious reaction to sunsets and continue to say if after any "show" to date.
After sunset, we drove in the dark desert (which was an awesome experience in itself) to the Bedouin camp we had booked with Majed. The camp was tucked away between two huge rock formations and had only a few traditional Bedouin tents to sleep in. It was beautiful.
A traditional Bedouin dinner was prepared for us; cooked by the sun's heat in a barrel buried in the sand. Majed dug up the barrel top, brushed the remaining sand off the lid and pulled out the entire dinner! Fall off the bone chicken, roasted tomatoes, onion and potatoes. Accompanied by kitchen prepared green salad, rice and of course, pita bread. After dinner we had tea and enjoyed conversation with other people staying at the camp. Bedouin tents are very “family” oriented and cozy, the atmosphere encourages conversations over traditional sage tea.
Finally, a sleep with dead silence! No coughing or horking, no hostel banter, no horns, no dogs, no roosters. Silence. That night, we both slept like the rocks that surrounded us. So deep that we actually all woke up kind of groggy! But as we left the serene comfort of our tents, fresh breakfast was being served. Hummus, cheese spread, yoghurt and fig jam, the overdone boiled eggs and yep, you guessed it, pita bread.
After that, Majed personally drove us back into the village to a cab that was waiting to take us to Aqaba.
The thing with Jordan is that the tourism is catered and geared towards those without budget; hiring a driver, renting a car for the entire duration of their trip, taxi'ing down the entire country, and staying at Hilton resorts. Jordan hasn’t quite figured out how to cater to budget travellers and budget travelers haven’t quite figured out how to travel Jordan on a shoestring. It’s really quite difficult, you have to team up for power is numbers, like we did a few instances with the Australians, German and Croatian. However, the beauty is you're meeting new friends around the globe.
Exhibit A of Jordan being too expensive (the most expensive country we've been to thus far) is having to give Couchsurfing a try for our first time. Couchsurfing is a method of free accommodation for travellers; they use a website to pick a host who is willing to let travellers quite literally sleep on their couch (or extra bed, if they have one). In exchange may be cooking your host a meal, hanging out with them, having good conversation, or just simply, they are travellers themselves so they are paying it forward.
Once again, our saviours, Helena and Gabe arrived in Aqaba a day or two ahead of us and were nice enough to ask their Couchsurfing host, Andrew, if we could come crash as well. Andrew was nice enough to say yes and we arrived in Aqaba that day. Andrew was an nice English bloke who was teaching at an international school.
We spent two days in Aqaba milling about and decided it was time to make our way to our next destination of Egypt. We did some research of how to get there: through Israel or via the Red Sea. To avoid any conflicts of having an Israeli stamp in our passports, we decided to ferry across the Red Sea to Egypt.
Our ferry took off at 11pm that night. As we waited for our ferry, we decided to go to South Beach and snorkel the Red Sea and we were blown away!! The state of the coral and array of sea life was absolutely incredible.
Exhibit B of Jordan being too expensive; we hitchhiked to the ferry terminal because we were saving our last remaining JD for a drink on the ferry. The ferry was scheduled to arrive in Egypt at 2:00am - scheduling that we found very, very odd (and maybe slightly illegal or else why would they choose these times??) The ferry was ALL Arabic men... and Carter and I. Oh, and after spending some time on the ferry we found out that there was one other tourist, an old, very very lost soul.
When the ferry docked, Carter and I lined up to receive our Egyptian entry stamps and the guard asked us where the other white person was..?? What!? just because we were caucasian, and he was caucasian, we were assumed to know him?? Carter and I joked to each other. Coincidentally, we did know where he was sitting, so I went to retrieve him and brought him to the guard. We were then all escorted together off the boat and to border security. They scanned our bags, looked at our passports and sent us into an office to buy our visas. Thankfully, I read up on the visa process (byproduct of being deported = major border crossing anxiety) and knew that because we were landing in Sinai, Egypt - we had to pay for a different visa that allowed us to exit Sinai to Cairo and the rest of the country. Carter and I were armed with the right amount of USD to pay for said visas, knew where we were staying that night, and where else we would travel in Egypt. Which altogether, made this boarding crossing process quite simple and easy.
Our lost soul friend from the UK who we will guess was 70, however, was having a rough go at this particular time in this life. The man has long grey hair, with a few dreads intertwined, a Thailand t-shirt, at fishnet vest with various pins attached to it, ripped pants, weathered leather flip flops with even more weathered feet. In our very brief convo he told us the following...
- He was British, but hadn't been back in 15 years
- He was coming from Cambodia, where he's lived for the last 8 years
- "Someone" booked him a flight to 'Amman'... He wanted to fly to 'Oman'
- He got to Amman, realized he wasn't in Oman and still wanted to fly to Oman
- He found out flights to Oman were expensive from Amman, so he took a bus to Aqaba, to go to Egypt on this ferry, to get to Egypt, to fly from Cairo!
- Now that he was going to be in Egypt, maybe he would stay, maybe he would go to Cairo to fly, maybe not.
- He doesn't know where he's staying once he arrives in Egypt that night
- He has no money on him, or know the currency
...The Egyptian officers are just shaking their heads, informing us we need to wait for him at each station, and finally just brush him through customs into their country! But... only on the condition that we (yes - CARTER AND I) take him with us to the hostel we're staying at and pay for his cab to ensure he gets there safely! What the ! Haha we could only laugh at what a strange series of events had taken place.
We held up our end of the deal and got him there safely at 3:00 in the morning. The next day we ran into our British buddy, he informed us he would likely stay there for a week..."it's nice here, and it's cheap...thanks". We wished him all the best and left the hostel with our confidence restored, I mean, if that dude can do this travelling thing...literally anyone can :)
Getting to Nepal was downright the worst transportation we’ve been on and had to endure on our entire trip... and I truly mean endure. It was an absolute mental and physical grind the entire way.
First off, not one single person in Varanasi could give us a straight answer, or the same answer, to our very important question of “how do we get to Nepal from here?" Everyone had a different opinion, a different method and altogether different information to give. Travel agents, bus stations and hostel managers - not one person seemed to know the exact/ proper route to Nepal.
We ended up meeting a girl in a hostel lobby who had just returned from the main bus station which was 45 minutes away; she said she had just bought a direct private bus from Varanasi to Kathmandu but it runs only every other day at 7pm. So we kept this in mind as we continued to ask and gather intel on this mysterious transportation route. After much debate on whether going comfort versus budget-friendly, we ended up wanting to go the comfort method. We decided the private direct bus that goes directly to Kathmandu that leaves every other day at 7pm from the main bus station would be our best bet. We had to make it to the bus station an hour before departures so we took our "expensive" tuk-tuk ride 45 mins to the bus station at 5:30pm only to arrive to hear that the bus wasn’t running that day (March 7th) and the next bus was at 10am on the 9th. What the hell kind of system is this! The girl we talked to at the hostel had JUST come from this same bus station!! So dreadfully, we were told our only option is the public bus which goes somewhat close to the border and we’d have to cross the border by foot to arrange another bus on the Nepal side. However, one positive was that there was an A/C bus leaving at 7:30pm. So we grabbed dinner and boarded the “A/C tourist” bus which based on our experience, was never as advertised. Of course, it was not. The two seats only managed to fit Carter's full bottom and one-half of mine, the bus driver was a lunatic (again, not surprising) and we had to spend 10 hours overnight this way. We were in grind mode and we knew this would be a difficult journey so we traveled through the night sitting upright and tried our best to keep positive...eventually at 5am we arrive at the town neighbouring the Nepal boarder. The bus driver and other random Indian people who seemed to have nothing else going on at 5am, took it upon themselves to guide us and the 3 other backpackers to where we needed to go. To stamp us out of India in the immigration offiice and continue onto Nepal. With some guidance we took our first, and last, cycle-rickshaw across the boarder into Nepal.
Again, a very friendly and easy process to get our visa-on-arrival at Nepal immigration. Immediately after customs and our arrival by foot to the bus station, like everywhere else in the world, the bus station hustle began. “Sir, where you going? Pokhara - here! Pokhara - here!” “Sir, Kathmandu, this bus. In. Yes. Kathmandu. Come!” "Sir, how much you pay?" "Sir, best bus in Nepal...Pokhara yes!" In the same way the allies do not negotiate with terrorists, we do not negotiate with bus station hustlers! We continued to walk, ignoring men following us to get us into their buses. This one insistent man keep following us promising us this one bus was the only bus going to Kathmandu. The bus he was pointing to, I find it hard to even call it a motor vehicle... it must have been manufactured in the 70s and has not received one repair or scheduled maintenance since. It’s a local city (mini) bus. Open dusty windows. Small Asian sized seating, absolutely no knee room, even for me! Again, based on our past experience, we KNOW it will be jam packed to the brim with locals getting on and off (every few kilometres) for the entire duration of the journey.
At this time, we see the horror of our future - Google maps read that it would be 6 hours from the border to Kathmandu on this bus. Nuh-uh. Nope, not after a 10 hour overnighter. So we shoo him away and continue to walk towards the bus station where we were looking for a more reliable/comfortable looking bus...because there are at least 6 in the bus station that look like beautiful tour buses. Then we hear “mister! I don’t lie. This only bus to Kathmandu!!” It’s the same guy hanging out of the door of this awfully dreaded bus slowly creeping beside us. We are still not sold in the slightest, told him no until he turned around and parked it again. Just up ahead was a police check so we decided to ask the cop if there were other buses going to Kathmandu at ANY time that day (because we were damn hell bent on NOT getting on this bus we had seen with this sassy crook). He gets on the phone and says “yes, there is only one bus going to Kathmandu today, the rest are going to Pokhara...wait here it will come by soon” So we sit and wait patiently with the officer, big smiles on our faces awaiting the bus he's referring to. When all of a sudden the dreadful mini bus comes rolling down the street, with the same Nepali man hanging out the side door, a stack of money in his hand and a shit eating grin on his face. "Ahh here is the bus my friends" the officer says. Good God Almighty. At this point we had no choice to admit defeat and pay this man to board his sh*t box on wheels...
We board the bus and it instantly gets worse. The annoying man tells only 10 minutes into the trip that it's not going to be 6 hours, with the mountain roads, traffic and construction, it will be 10 hours to Kathmandu!!!! UGH. Here we are 5 kms from the border and we have already stopped TEN times to try and pick up locals until they deem the bus sufficiently full to carry on the trip (this is very common with the local busses, they hang out the doors and yell the final destination as they pass through crowds of people in hopes someone will board...AND IT ALWAYS WORKS) This. Is. Going. To. Be. Awful.
Fast forward 1 hour, the bus is jammed packed entirely of Nepali locals, and Carter and I. For whatever reason, the man won’t put our bags on the roof, so now locals are just sitting in the aisle with our bags, and they're getting stomped on, or sat on, by everyone squeezing in. Carter and I are squished up against a window and his poor legs are basically in the splits because he can’t fit his knees in between the seat in front of him. Locals were sitting on the floors in the aisle, standing in the aisle, beside the bus drivers bench, hanging out the door, and sitting on each others laps....FOR HOURS. This bus was at maximum capacity, 20 people ago. We were in mental agony.
Fast forward another 4 hours, we stopped for lunch as these busses always do, so we assume this must be half way. We inquired, to double check and now the annoying man is saying still 11 hours!!! We weren’t even a quarter of the way there. OMG. So we get back onto the “bus” and I start a new show 'The Sinner' that I had previously downloaded onto my Netflix app (thank friggin' goodness.) I am completely checked out and trying to take my mind off of this reality. Carter is beside himself rattled with unfortunately no Netflix show to preoccupy him. Even though Carter didn't want to watch The Sinner with me... the entire row of Nepali males behind me did. There were some race scenes in each episode and I could feel the intensity of the men's eyes watching my screen from behind me, so we were all entertained for a little while!
As the journey goes on, we find ourselves on mountain side cliffs with no guard rails in most spots, overlooking a 100 meter drop into a massive rushing river, and overtaking trucks around corners while other vehicles are coming head on. There was definitely a few moments where we thought that at any moment this bus could tumble over the edge, ending this nightmare... which actually didn't seem like such a bad thing at the time!
Two hours later, the bus is in dead stopped traffic on the a cliff side with other busses, trucks and cars lined up as far as we can see. HOW? We are in the middle of nowhere! Well, the bus driver turned off the engine, and we sat there for 1 hour. Seriously, see the picture below.
Long story short we arrived in Kathmandu from the Indian border after a 16-hour journey on this mini bus. I crushed the entire season of 'The Sinner' and had plenty of time to talk Carter out of the deep dark hole he put himself in. Even though we were really pissed at the annoying guy and even more mad at the sheer amount of time this ride took, we discussed that our anger turned into empathy somewhere along the way. We felt so bad for the other people on this bus. Here we are, completely rattled at the fact that we have to take this bus...one time in our lives, while crammed into a tiny seat. While local people surrounding us take this bus all the time out of necessity; almost half of them are standing or sitting on the hard floor, and some have newborn babies or young children accompanying them. It was a very eye opening experience for us.
When we finally arrived in Kathmandu, Carter had some new Nepalese friends through a lacrosse connection who met us in Thamel (the tourist neighbourhood in Kathmandu). They had pre-arranged a guesthouse for us. It was quite nice coming into a city, especially after the ordeal getting there, and having accommodations taken care of and friendly faces waiting for us.
The next day we explored the Thamel neighbourhood. Thamel is an amazing maze of pedestrian streets with shops upon shops dedicated to handcrafts made my local tribes, trekking stores and delicious looking restaurants. It was such a complete change from India! There were Buddhist flags lining the streets over top of us; it looked quite magical, just as you would probably imagine Nepal to look like.
The next day, the lacrosse guys picked us up at our guesthouse and showed us around some sights before Carter put on his lacrosse clinic that afternoon. We visited the neighbourhood of Paten, which was so beautifully historical, the Golden Temple, the main square and the living love goddess temple. We also had local egg bahra at a hidden treasure hole in the wall. Carter tried the locally made rice whisky here and he said it’s the best homemade alcohol he’s had on our trip so far (he's had a lot to compare it too!)
The lacrosse clinic had 10-15 Nepali men in attendance; most were just learning the game but had a very big passion for the sport. Carter started teaching them the basics, moreso so they will know how to teach others once the lacrosse organization gets up and running in Kathmandu. Carter started the clinic with how to hold the stick properly when passing and catching and then he went onto passing the ball, line drills and practice tips they can use for their own team practices and training. It was so amazing to see an entire group of men and friends who were so passionate about such a foreign game. They are determined to bring the game of lacrosse to Nepal and start the league across the country. It was especially special to watch the villagers come in, gazing curiously over at us, and the kids running full speed into our clinic and immediately picking up the sticks to be taught. And even MORE amazing was to watch the men, whom Carter had JUST taught, teach these kids... and then these kids teaching kids who showed up after them. Some of the kids were absolute naturals at it as well! Some just used the ball to practice their cricket throw - but all in all, it was such a successful and heart warming afternoon.
After the clinic, we all shared some chai (chee-ya) and talked more about the history and logistics of the game. Shortly after that, we split ways and a couple of the guys offered to take us to the Monkey Temple. This temple is infamous to watch the sunset because it sits above the Kathmandu Valley. This temple was gorgeous, not so much the actual building itself but the entire hill it sat upon was completely covered in prayer flags, new and old. Colourful and sun-bleached flags ran from the top of the temple, to trees, down walkways - it was incredible. The entire temple itself was surrounded by prayer wheels so Carter and I walked left to right spinning each one by hand for good luck.
Our final day in Kathmandu was solely focused toward getting gear and getting equipped for our Himalayan trek! We were embarking on a 10-12 day trek to Poon Hill & Annapurna Basecamp, 4130 metres above sea level. I already had my fake down jacket from Vietnam but Carter needed to source out a “North Fake” jacket as they call them here. Since Thamel was entirely based around trekking tourism, the price hunting was fun and easy to do. The haggling and joking with shop owners even more so. At the end of the day we purchased: two fleece sweaters, one down jacket, one customized patch that Carter designed to go on said jacket, 4 pairs of thermal socks, two gloves and a bottle of Nepal’s signature whiskey.
Below is Carter and his Nepali bestie. He spent an entire 3 days in this guy's embroidery shop. 3 WHOLE DAYS. I had to drag him out by his ears (practically) to let this poor guy get to work on the custom patches Carter and he created.
The next morning we packed as little as we could survive with on the mountain into my bag and left everything else behind in Kathmandu as we set off for Pokhara; the starting point for all treks Annapurna. The bus was much more enjoyable this time around; we fit into the seats, it was actually a direct bus that never stopped to pick up locals, and only one person was puking out the window. We’d call that a successful trip! We got into Pokhara 7 hours later (exactly what we were told at the beginning of the trip, again, a rarity success!)
Pokhara is beautiful, the city center surrounds a grand lake. So all of the shops, restaurants, hotels and bars are either lakeside/view or only a couple moments walk to it. This town is even more so set up for tourism, so the shops and restaurants, although are much more expensive, are great in quality and diversity/selection. We indulged in some adult beverages (I needed some liquid courage to go into the first day of trekking to be quite honest) and had the best pizza we’ve had on the trip thus far at Godfather's Pizzeria. If you haven’t noticed a trend in our blogs, I’ll just call him outright right now: Carter has a pizza problem. He’s addicted. Every time we get into a bigger city he Googles the closest Pizza Hut because "who knows when we may find good pizza again”... even though in every city he manages to find it.
Other than hopefully the proper gear we picked up the day before, we were pretty unprepared, if I am being completely honest. We’re going on a 10 day trek in the Himalayas, independently, and we don’t even own a map?!? Our saving grace right now is that our lacrosse friend, Ananta, has set us up with a guide who is trekking with a solo lady from Scotland, who happens to be doing the same route as us up until Poon Hill (which is only the first three days of ten). We’re relying on him to get us to where we need to go and pick his brain for what we need to do for the last seven days of our trek. We have our gear, our altitude sickness meds, tiger balm for sore muscles, our Annapurna Conservation and trekking permits and a guide "kinda".
We should be set... but we’ve both lost weight. Carter an astonishing 30lbs!! Our muscles are basically gone and our legs are noodles, how are we going to accomplish this?!
From Pokhara, we jeep to the entry point of the sanctuary, Galapule. We registered at two separate checkpoints, get entered into the system as “active trekkers” and start the first couple hours of hiking. We’re dressed for Basecamp temps, so our first few moments in the sun we are already de-layering and sweating. We should be in shorts and t-shirts but we’re in trekking pants, undershirt, and fleece. Better to be over prepared than underprepared! (Minus having to lug it all up the mountain, whatever, it’ll probably hopefully come in handy later on.)
This portion of the hike just follows a very rough road, where the occasional Jeep or 4x4 would pass us carrying locals, other lazier trekkers or supplies. It was an ascent most of the way but it was a great warm up start to our 10 days of inclination. About 2 hours in we stopped for lunch and it was in the most surreal village - it was as though we had stepped back hundreds of years. As we ate lunch, we watched a husband and wife use two bulls to cultivate their terraced farm land, the homes were traditionally made with stone and had slate rocks as the shingles and everything else was made of wood. On top of it all, we were in the deep valley looking up at a mountain side of farm terraces all the way up to the top.
Our “guide”, Rajan, said this is a tribal area and the indigenous people here have been settled here for thousands of years, hence why so much of the land and mountain side is already cultivated. We then got up from lunch, I could already feel that my legs had stiffened, and we continued on for another hour or so until our destination for the night, Tikhedhunga. Already, I know this: we have to get better at drinking water (we barely got through one litre for the both of us), Carter needs to walk slower or shorten his steps or else I am going to die trying to keep up with him, we will need to stretch every night BUT I really think we can do this trek without too many aches and mental anguish.
We stayed at Laxmi Guesthouse, the room was only 500NRP ($6CAD) for the both of us. A very, very basic double bed... and that’s it. We have to pay 150NPR for a hot water shower, pay for wifi (which we didn't, as we wanted to go off the grid), pay for really anything else we would need or want and it will only get more expensive as we move higher up the mountain. As soon as we settled in, Carter had to hang everything he was wearing that day because it was soaked in sweat. This will be an issue all the way up the mountain... at least it's warm enough down here to actually dry. He may be putting on icicles as we move higher and it's too cold to dry out.
This village was such a nice, relaxing and peaceful place; from our balcony you could hear the river rushing, someone in the village was playing Nepalese music, and kids were laughing far off in the distance. This was only the first night but it’s set our expectations high for what’s remaining. We have decided that each night we get to our final destination, we would take a shot of whiskey as a congratulatory present to ourselves. And then to our surprise, Rajan invited us to come along with them to the near by waterfall to take a refreshing swim! Of course Carter jumped in like the polar bear he is and I used the waterfall pool like a recovery ice bath for my legs.
Our first night, we enjoyed a great chat with Rajan and Helena, the Scottish lady, who told us she was an author who is living in Nepal as inspiration for her next book. *After we finished the hike and connected back with the internet, Google also told us that she's won many awards for her book "The Big House" and is published by the same publisher as JK Rowling!* After dinner and our chat, we headed to our room, took an extra blanket to layer our bed with, rolled out our -20 sleeping bags and fell fast asleep! Here's a view of our luxurious mountain accommodations **note the bedside whiskey bottle**:
Waking up at 7am to hot porridge and masala chai tea in the valley was amazing... but then BAM! 3500 steps right off the bat to start off our day's trek. Struggling up these steps, we passed little villages, suspension bridges, and goats along the way. Ullier is the town at the very top of this hill, so we stopped for a Snickers break (our chocolate bar of choice for the trek - we ate so many, Snickers should probably contact us for a sponsorship deal) and a Coke to keep our energy levels up. Also, this was the first glimpse of snow covered Annapurna 1 peak. It was breathtaking! And also completely overwhelming because we could see how much further we still needed to go!
After our snack stop, there were another 2000 steps no one told us about! We stopped for lunch at the very top (and thankfully, the end) of the steep steps. Here, we enjoyed another plate of vegetable fried rice which is basically the only thing we can afford in the mountains as the prices go up and up with the elevation. Ullier is the last mountain town that motorized vehicle can reach; after that, everything brought up is on the backs of porters or mules and that's why the prices for everything dramatically increases the higher you go (understandably). After our lunch break, we finally bought a map, since the next day we’d be leaving our friend Rajan, who has been an amazing “complimentary” guide thus far.
Again, up we go, but these stairs zig zagged through towns and had plateaus that helped our calves' cause. Today was CLEARLY an ascent day; straight stairs... up hill... grind. The elevation we were now at is above 2000M, and with your bag on your back, you definitely move slower than normal. But then you are consistently seeing porters who are carrying all the bags for 2 or 3 trekkers each, that weigh anywhere from 20-30kilos each bag, and they put your little dinky 14 kilo bag to shame. It makes you toughen up a bit. And by "you", I mean Carter because he was my mule, I can confidently say I would have doubled over by now if I had to carry the bag he was lugging up the mountain.
This is Carter trying to carry a porter's load - this weighed 60kilos. If you can't already tell by the strain in his neck and how red his face is... it's fricking difficult. And these guys are doing it in flip flops and stopping for cigarette breaks frequently along the way. It's a sight to see, and even then its hard to believe.
We walked for another two hours before reaching a tea break but this stretch of our hike was so beautiful. We walked through deep forest of the sanctuary; the natural waterfalls that turned into the most crystal clear cold mountain water streams; the moss covered trees and the blooming rola ghuna flowers that were varying from hot to light pink. It was like scenes out of a Disney amusement park but it was just one tiny beautiful speck of the Himalayas.
From our last stop, we were pretty tired from the intense non-stop incline all day but powered through to Gorephani for the last hour and a half. In total, we trekked uphill for 8 hours with only 4 scheduled stops. We checked into Peace & Excellent View Guesthouse and it was incredible! As soon as you stepped inside there was a big fire going that people were gathered around looking at their pictures from the day, playing cards and drinking chia. The worker who showed us to our room started the rate from a 700NPR double room with attached bath - in which we asked for less because we were on a budget. He got excited at the fact we were on such a budget that we were doing the trek without a guide , so he showed us another room for 300NPR which was quite cozy and had the biggest warm-looking duvets at the end of the bed. We settled in, enjoying the warmth of the sun coming through the windows, and then 15 minutes later the same man came back to say “you know, it’s not so busy I give you best room for 300!” We had a free hot shower and free charging outlets - a rarity in the mountains! Even our first stop was charging 150NPR for each luxury. This place had a very nice homey feel, including the delicious homemade dinner we received. Carter and I spent the entire night on the bench by the fire, talking with other trekkers and drinking some well earned beers. I don’t think we even lifted a butt cheek.
This experience, even though it’s the first full day of hiking, will be incredible. More than I ever thought possible or anticipated. I wasn’t negative going into the trek but I definitely had my trepidation’s about it - will I be sore, are we going to be warm enough, can we shower, will we get lost, should we have a guide? Are we crazy? But even after the first night, I feel completely comfortable that we will be just fine, and moreover, we will throughly enjoy ourselves and the new experiences and sights the daily treks bring us. Rajan was very nice and informative. He’s been trekking as a porter and then guide since he was 15! He is now 24 and has 8 years of experience under his belt! He was in the mountains during the 2015 earthquake and he first hand saw the devastation that overtook the village he was stranded in. Children were orphaned, families were robbed of their livelihood and homes were destroyed. He was guiding three British girls and together they’ve started a fund and organization that has an office in Toronto so he was very enthusiastic when he found out I was a professional fundraiser.. from Toronto. I am excited to get home and visit the office to really learn how I can help. The mountains themselves are magical - every new peak takes your breath away. I can’t imagine the monstrosities these ranges are but I guess we’ll find out at Annapurna Basecamp (ABC) as we look up to the tenth highest mountain in the world!
Last night’s sleep was an absolute dream!! Not only were we tired from the ten thousand steps we took the day before, we were warmed by the lodges fire all night AND used our sleeping bags and the huge blankets provided to us for the warmest cloud-like sleep ever. We woke up at 4:45am to climb Poon Hill for sunrise. On a clear day, you can see the entire mountain range with over 7-9 different peaks. We layered up in everything we brought to bare the midnight temps at 3200metres. Again, up we went. It was an hour of straight stairs. The top was a land platform and we could faintly see the mountain peaks in the distance as the sun came up behind them.
It was fairly cloudy so unfortunately not every peak of the range were visible. However, for Carter and I who have never been around mountains like this, even seeing the 4-5 that were visible, was completely amazing. The clouds move fairly quickly over the peaks and ridges so every few minutes the scene would change; another unique and beneficial experience to mountaineering. We enjoyed a hot tea (for a crazy 170 rupees!) and waiting until the sun fully shone through. The sight kind of left me speechless and still has. I don’t really know how to explain how amazing and magically mysterious mountains are. We could stare at them all day, the sight of the same mountain range will never get old. We stayed up on Poon Hill for an hour before we decided we better head back down for breakfast and get on our days' trek.
We were heading to Tadapani which is 5 hours away. We had a big egg breakfast and went up to pack... but before we actually started packing, we snuggled in the huge blanket for the last time for a few extra minutes. Rajan left without us as Helena, the older Scottish lady he was guiding, was going much more slowly these days. So we sat by the fire while we warmed up before leaving for the day. We were probably 45 minutes behind them but we caught up with them fairly quickly. It didn’t take long before we could see how slow she was really moving today (we can’t blame her the trek is TOUGH and she’s an inactive 60 year old - she’s actually rocking it). So we went on ahead of them. Today was a really great day; the first hour was a steep incline a mixture of stairs and natural roots. The next 2.5 hours was downhill - which is the worst for me - and it was mostly dirt path and roots with strategically placed rocks. It was a fairly easy day in terms of hiking and body-tiredness.
We had lunch in Barithani, where the price of Coke went up from 150NPR to 250NPR and the vegetable fried rice went up from 320NPR to 400NPR! From there we had another hour downhill and a very steep climb for 45 minutes before we reached our final destination of Tadapani at 2:30pm. Altogether it took us the 5 hours it was supposed to. We forgot to ask where Rajan had booked that night so we wandered around asking for his name with no luck. We ended up staying at Supper Viewtop Lodge (yes, Supper with two ps) and got a panoramic room of windows with views of the mountains. It was magnificent; laying in bed you’re entire view was the Annapurna range. And all for a whopping 300 rupees! The man at the lodge whispered to me “how much you pay last night... ok is good, you pay same tonight” when I told him 300.
Side note: It's only day three and I am ALREADY running out of adjectives to describe the views and sights we are experiencing! So, please bare with my "amazings", "fabulous", and "breath takings" - there is just not enough words in the English language to describe the Himalayas!
The two windows in the back were our room; those windows were at the end of the room and we also had an entire wall of windows looking over Fishtail Mountain (the peak you can visibly see in this photo)
Around 3:30pm, we saw Rajan and Helena come into the village and we called down from our room window to make plans to meet for tea. We met Rajan at his lodge and he helped us map out the rest of our journey. He gave us recommendations for the better teahouses along the way since he's been climbing Annapurna for the last 8 years and has always sourced out the best ones in the village based on little perks they had (good views, best coffee, hot water)
As we were finishing up our tea at Rajan's teahouse, a man from OUR guesthouse came over to tell us it’s dinner time and we should come back to order (LOL) I am not sure how he found us but he was ensuring that we ate at his place and not theirs. This is very common and expected in the mountains because the room rates are SO low, they make their money off their guests eating dinner and breakfast there as well. It was quite funny. So we went back to our place, that also had a fire by wood going, and ordered some soups. This is the last fire we would see for the remainder of the trek, even though it will be getting significantly colder. We learned that this is because the sanctuary is so protected, it's prohibited to cut down trees for fire wood. We also met a very nice bloke from the UK who has been traveling to Nepal for mountain treks for over 30 years and we had a great conversation with him and shared travel stories. Just as we were finishing dinner, a storm rolled in and we got tucked into our sleeping bags and watched the thunder and lighting in the peaks of the mountains before falling asleep.
In the morning we were woken up by Chinese tourists yelling and laughing at sunrise taking peace sign and namaste photo after photo with the breathtaking clear views of the mountains. From our beds, and the comfort and warmth of our sleeping bags, we could see Annapurna South, Machapuchare Mountain (nicknamed Fishtail Mountain) and Annapurna 1 in the distance - it was right out of a green screen movie set.
We had a great slow lazy morning where we took pictures of the sun coming up and shining light on the mountain tops for an hour. We enjoyed a hot cup of organic coffee and then finally our breakfast. We chatted with a very nice guy from Hong Kong who was travelling on his own, and the British man some more before packing up and heading to Chhomrong... but not before we got in on the fun the Chinese tourists were having with their photo shoot!
We left at 9:30am. Getting to Chommrong should take us about 4 hours of downhill and 'Nepali flat' they call it. Now that we’ve trekked this route we learned what Nepali flat really means...up & down, up & down and is never actually flat. The first portion was all down hill, dirt path and no stairs, zigzagging through hillside terraces as we descended down into a mountain pass/valley. However beautiful, it freaking hurts the toes - jamming into the front of our runners.
There are "informative" signs along the trail and we've been using them religiously since we left Rajan. Which should tell you how little we actually knew about the trek... we were relying on the jam-packed informational map below:
After two hours of downhill we finally came to a big river and suspension bridge. We climbed down to the rushing river, for a Snickers break and basked in the sun's heat while slipping our feet into the glacier water to rejuvenate them for the rest of the hike.
From there it was up hill in the midday's hot sun so we stripped down and pushed through the next stair climb. The rest of the way was pleasant, Nepali flat trail, through farmers' field terraces as they were working away and little villages. We got to Chhromrong at 2:45pm. It was a nice easy relaxed day of trekking where we stopped a lot to take in the scenery and experience the nature around us. We stayed at Panoramic Point Hotel and bargained down the price from 400 to 200 rupees because our “friend” Rajan recommended this place to us. Hopefully this works in our favour every time. Tonight will be all about body recovery - hot shower, stretch, tiger bomb massage and rest. We ended up meeting Ting, who was a solo female trekker from Tiwan, who we kept running into and staying at the same lodges as us the past couple days. We talked with her all night and learned about the volatile history between Tiwan and China. Ting was one of our favourite travellers we met thus far, such a nice girl. She has inspired us to one day visit her in Taiwan!
All of us had our first dhal bhat dinner which was delicious and unlimited, so Carter and I had second and third helpings. The Nepali have a saying “dhal bhat, power 24 hour” and the guides eat it for lunch and dinner every single day. It consists of dhal (lentil soup) and bhat (rice), sautéed spinach, pickled spices, and fried potatoes. I loved each and every portion of it. After dinner we talked routes with Ting's guide who was very friendly and helpful and then quickly got ready for bed (read: dhal bhat food coma).
The view from Panasonic Point (and me pointing to our room):
We had a nice sleep in today because it was so quiet in our hotel; only us and Ting were staying at Panasonic Point Lodge. We woke up again to beautiful views from our window of Annapurna South and fishtail mountain, without even leaving our beds. We also decided we were going to take an easy approach at ABC and take two nights to get up to the Basecamp as oppose to the one that Ting was following with her guide. We only had a 5 hour trek today to Dovan which sits at 2600metres.
We ended up having some cell service on Carter's phone which has a SIM card so we sent our first “we are still alive” text's and FaceTimed Jen (Carter's sister) and James (our good friend) to try and show them the mountains.
We had our breakfast, packed and made our way to the famous and very old 'German bakery' on the other side of the village that serves a great cup of coffee (which is a rarity among the instant coffee we have been drinking). We enjoyed an americano on the porch of the bakery, roasting in the morning's sun before we were off for the days trek at 9:30am.
Chhomrong and the following villages were so quaint and quintessential it was SO beautiful. As we approached Bamboo, our lunch spot, about 4 hours after we left, it began to hail and rain. It was a wet hike the last hour to Dovan, our final resting place for the evening. To help my running shoes slipperiness, Carter cut down and whittled a bamboo shoot and I used it as a hiking stick.
We arrived in Dovan at Tip-Top Hotel and Lodge at 2:30pm in the rain. We bargained down our accommodation price to 300NPR and settled in, got a hot drink and started our “chores”; me, writing this entry, and Carter sewing on patches to his backpack. Apparently we had the Philippines flag upside down and the red on top means war, so a man called us out on it and he’s now resewing it on properly. Note to self: check the position of the flag before sewing!
There’s a nice older couple lodging beside us who are from Burlington, Ontario and we swear a dog has been following us all through the mountains from day 2!
So many of the porters are doing this trek in flip flops; we’ve heard it’s snowing up at abc and I am worried about my running shoes but knowing that they’re doing it in sandals gives me faith I can get away without the proper footwear as well. A lot of the terrain, smells and foliage remind us of Muskoka and/or walking the Bruce trails back at home, it’s a nice reminder and help for any home sickness I may have.
Dovan to Deurali - the last stop before making it to ABC. Deurali sits at 3200M, so if we were to take altitude sickness pills, it would be here that we should have started. However, we were trying to go without because there are some side affects of the medication we didn't want to deal with.
The trek today was quite "lax"; it was only a push of 500M and took a short 3 hours. We reached Deurali quite early because of this and had the opportunity to thaw out all afternoon and dry all of our clothing completely.
As we were having lunch, we witnessed our first avalanche way in the distance. We heard a huge crack, quickly looked up and very close to the peak of the mountain opposite of us, saw snow rapidly falling down the mountain side. Luckily, they were all happening so high above us that none of the snow ever made it even close to any of the villages. By the end of the day, we saw three separate avalanches which was pretty surreal! This also was a clear giveaway that getting to MBC and ABC may be a bit more challenging than we were expecting. Many trekkers coming back from basecamp were telling us that it had snowed 2 feet over night, the conditions of the trail was awful, etc etc. The owners of the hotel were also warning us about which trail to take up; they urged us to ask guides along the way if we should cross the river or continue on the path on this side of trail because it was more succeptable to avalanches. Sorry mothers... we're glad we didn't have access to the internet so you are both just learning about this now.
Deurali to ABC; the final stretch. This stretch was only to take 4 hours - 2 hours to Machhapuchre Basecamp (MBC) and another 2 to ABC. I consciously took this day super slow to give my body time to acclimatize as much as possible and as slowly as possible, as we were trying to do this trek without taking our altitude sickness pills. We started early in the morning, just after 7am and layered on everything we brought for the cold. Without the sun, the valley was frigid with wind blowing through and snow on the ground. Between the running nose, snot rockets, and taking in the breathtaking scenery, we stopped a lot. However, leaving early and while it was still cold made it less likely to run into avalanche issues, as the peaks wouldn't be warmed enough yet for the snow to melt and slide. Since you're reading this... you know we made it across to the other side of the valley safely.
Finally around 8:30am the sun came through and over top of the mountain into the valley and we started to dethaw. We approached MBC, the first of the two base camps, around 9am. We ran into our friend Ting from Taiwan who was on her way down. We were told by Rajan to stay at MBC for an extra long lunch or break to ensure we were listening to our bodies and how we were reacting to the altitude. MBC sits at 3900 metres. So that’s exactly what we did, we took a seat in the sun, ordered natures altitude medicine of ginger tea and garlic soup and waited on our body’s to give us the thumbs up or down before moving onto ABC.
After two hours neither of us were feeling any negative effects of the altitude so we decided to go on to our final destination, Annapurna Base Camp at 4130metres. This walk was incredibly surreal - walking through snow covered valley as 9 peaks towered above us. Everywhere we looked and turned there was a massive mountain. It was incredible and a sight/feeling/ experience neither of us have ever had in our lifetime.
Although beautiful, this walk was a biatch. Because the sun had been doing its job warming us... it was also warming the snow and ground beneath us making the trail extremely slippery and wet for a girl in runners. Also because of the elevation, every step up seemed like 5 extremely steep steps and I had to stop many more times than normal to catch my breath. The last hour was the worst because you could see ABC in the distance and it seemed like eternity before reaching it. After two hours, we finally walked up to the “Namaste, welcome to ABC” sign!! It was magic, relief and the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment all at once.
Wow. Waking up at ABC for sunrise... wow. Is all I can get out. We emerged, hesitantly, from the warmth of our sleeping bags and 2 blankets on top of us to go outside for sunrise. We didn’t even have to get changed because we were both already wearing our fleeces and down jackets. We headed to the temple on top of base camp, where hundreds of prayer flags are flapping in the wind, to be surrounded by Annapurna mountain range every where we turned. The sun coming up over fishtail mountain was shining an orange hue of light on the other mountain tops. It was right out of a painting, like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
We decided to go in early and beat the rush for breakfast and wait for the sun to be fully out before taking more pictures. We went into the warm dining hall, had a hot cup of tea and omelette sandwich and by the time we headed back out to the temple the sun was jussssst reaching the peak of the mountains to fill the valley with sun. This is also when the helicopters started coming in, one every 15 minutes, dropping off rich tourists, others to pick up people from Basecamp, and also to take tourists heli skiing. It was absolutely incredible to see how nimble the helicopters flew through the air and so close to the edges of the mountains.
When we started our descent it was still cold enough we could walk across the snow without falling in - this was one of the best experiences because we went off the main trail and walked by ourselves in the middle of the Annapurna valley with mountains towering over us on either side, the sun warming our faces and the helis flying over top of us.
By the time we got to MBC, the valley and the snow had heated up enough that we had to stick to the main trails again. Everything became slush and muck on the trails from the heat and foot traffic going to and from basecamps. Everyone had on clamp ons, spikes, or proper hiking boots... I had on my Nike frees and a hand made bamboo walking stick; the fact I did this entire trek in *unideal* shoe wear without getting soaked shoes and freezing feet, is something to be proud of!
It should have taken us 2 hours or less to get down to the next village of Duerali but we were stopping so much to watch the heli skiers come down the mountain or taking in the scenes, that it took us 3 hours. So after that, our camera was dead and we really started to make up our time getting down the mountain. Going down for us was much worse than going uphill, our knees couldn’t take the constant impact but nonetheless our goal was to make it to Chhomrong, the town that took us 3 days from ABC, while going up the mountain.
Fast forward to hour 8 of going down and I was in the most amount of pain EVER. My toes were squashed, my thighs were on fire, my knees about to give out. I was ready to give up and stop at the town before Chhomrong. God bless Carter's sweet, positive soul... he kept saying "you got this girl, keep going, you can do it". Finally, I snapped from the pain and "jokingly" said to Carter "I don't need your f*#$*ing cheerleading anymore! I need a Snickers and to get down this damn mountain!"
THANKFULLY we ran into a father and son duo and we ended up stopping and chatting with them for a decent amount of time - time enough to allow my legs to recover a bit and continue onto Chhromrong. Captain Carter, as I unaffectionately was calling him, wouldn't let us stop longer than 15 minutes in order to get to Chhromrong before sun down. We made it to our goal, and ultimately, I truly was happy he pushed to get me there. It also meant that the next morning we didn't have to go an hour down into a valley and another hour up stairs first thing in the morning.
We had a good “sleep in” that was much needed and deserved. We rolled out of bed at 8am and slowly packed our bags, eager to get to the German bakery and slurp down some americanos and freshly baked goods. As we walked up the last of the grueling steps of Chhomrong we ran into 3 Nepalis taking a break and asked the best way to get back to Pokhara if we were skipping the hot springs in Jinhu. One of the guys was Amrite, a guide who we had saw at ABC. The group he was guiding to ABC were too tired and decided to take a helicopter back to Pokhara for a whopping $450USD per person...WHAT!? What a casual decision, no big deal!! A 15 minute ride through the mountain range for $450USD - I wish that was in our budget! I could have used it yesterday.
Amrite took us under his wing and we were off to Sinwa together. But not before Carter stopped at the hotel we stayed at the first time in Chhromrong to collect his $0.50 socks he forgot the first time round. Amrite was only 22 years old and FAST like a mountain goat. It was hard to keep up with Carter's long legs, especially after how sore I was from the 10 hour climb down yesterday, but Amrite's speed up and down the mountain was exhausting. The weather didn't make this portion of the trek any easier either; it was all sun and no breeze so Carter and I sweat like pigs.
Amrite was a very nice guy though, he taught us even more information about Nepal, their government and the British Gurkhas and his own life. We took a break at a river crossing and in typical Carter fashion, jumped right in and went swimming. Once he saw Carter dive right in, Amrite took off his shoes and enjoyed the cold rejuvenating water on his feet. This is probably something he wouldn’t have done or enjoyed if he was with his real tour group, it was a nice experience for all of us to share!
After that we ran up one side of the mountain (almost quite literally) and took a lunch break at New Bridge, a small village on the side of the mountain. Here is one of the more interesting porter loads we saw while trekking:
Unfortunately it was here that we learned of a tourist's body being found not too far from where we were having lunch at the bottom of the river's edge. He was apparently an older gentleman, so it could have been exhaustion, dehydration or just an accidental misstep. Whatever the cause, we could definitely understand how something like that could happen based on how tired our bodies were and the fact that we didn't know the terrain all that well. This trek has been such a fun and exciting experience for us that it didn't really strike us as a dangerous adventure. After hearing this news, you sit and consider the risk involved and absolutely understand how something like that could happen. Very unfortunate.
We continued on through cute villages and farm terraces until we made it to Siwua and waited for the bus that heads to the bottom of the mountain. Right next to the “bus station” (aka the side of a dirt road) was a farm of baby goats - we went to play with them, they were SO small and cute but so freaking loud when they baaaaaaaa-ed.
Around 3pm we boarded the local bus that was blasting Nepali music videos (almost like Bollywood) and bounced and crashed around down the awfully bad constructed mountain road. The bus driver had extreme skills - there were times I would look down out of my window and just see what was at the bottom of the cliff, not even the edge of the road so we were teetering on the roads edge and the only thing between us and certain death was the “Nepali luck” of the driver, says Amrite. It took us about 4 hours between stopping for locals to get in and out, snail pacing through small towns and villages, and waiting to pass construction, to get to Pokhara. Once back in the city we went back to Trekkers Inn hotel to collect the bag we left behind and were too tired to source out a cheaper place so we ended up staying there again, in a cheaper room. We had the longest and hottest showers and finally had a incredible scrub to get clean from the mountains, then headed to feast - we ate SO much at an amazing place called Laxman, such great Greek salad, pizza and butter chicken.
After that, we caught up on some much needed wifi time and went to bed to wake up early the next day for the bus back to Kathmandu.
WE DID IT!
After this experience, we decided that instead of being those crazy adventurers wanting to tackle the "World's 7 Tallest Summits", we decided, why don't we just be those adventurers who make it to the "World's 7 Tallest Basecamps"!!!
We decided to celebrate Holi in Pushkar. Pushkar is known for it's "less traditional, more partying" celebration of Holi. Thousands of tourists, both Westerns and Indians, visit Pushkar to enjoy the days leading up to, and the day of Holi festivities.
Getting to Pushkar was a grind but once we were set up at our hotel, we went to explore Pushkar. We found that it was actually very charming in the town's center - compacted shops varying from tour agencies, clothing, and so much hippy-related merch. Pushkar is definitely where the “free spirited” travellers go; there were people hoolahoopong, twirling what looked like empty pillow cushions on their finger as they walked down the street, dread locks everywhere, and people walking along the streets in bare feet. If there is ONE thing I would never even dream of doing in India it is to walk around bare foot due to the cow poo and pee, the garbage, the glass, the paan, the spit, an the list goes on and on. We arrived at a super busy section of the street and realized it was because there were 2-3 falafel food stands that were jam packed. So ya, of course we got in line and tried out what all the hype was about! And the people were not wrong! These falafel wraps were one of the best lunches we’ve had in India (and quite possibly our entire trip). They filled it with sautéed peppers, onions and mushroom, falafel, avocado, fries, zucchini or eggplant if you wanted, and SO much garlic sauce! I am drooling onto the key board as I write this. The best part, they were so cheap... $0.75 cheap! Needless to say we went all out and had our lunch, dinner and the next lunch and dinner there! Don't fix what isn't broken!
We used our first full day in Pushkar to prep for the Holi festival; we bought coconut oil to cover our skin with so the colors didn’t stain too much, white tops to make the colours pop, a head scarf to protect our hair and cheap sunglasses to protect our eyes while we are getting colour blasted.
That night Holi festivities were already starting. Families painted the section of road outside their homes with brightly colored Holi powder, and had a street party with live music and dancing.
Every year on the eve of Holi a fire is lit to signify Holika Dahan! The fire represents the Hindu mythological event of the burning of Holika, the god of evil. Days leading up to the torch, devotees stack a heaping pile of wood, spice roots, flowers, coconut, wheats and balls of cow dung. Once the stack is engulfed in flames devotees leap into action, reaching into the fire to remove burning balls of cow dung. They quickly turn with the trays of scalding fire and use it to guide their way through the rowdy crowd in order to get the burning embers to their homes as soon as possible. The smoke is believed to bring good energy and have Ayurvedic properties, resulting in better health during the weather transitional period into spring. These photos are a few moments of this jaw-dropping chaotic ritual which took place in the small city square of Pushkar in a matter of five minutes. The locals spent all day contributing to the stack, and once the ceremonious fireworks went off, it was torched and the flames reached the three-story rooftops in the square. I was probably standing 15 feet away and as soon as it lit, everyone closer pushed back and the temperature rose an additional 20 degrees at least. Carter was closer to the action to try and get some of the tradition on film and by the time he got back to me he was sweating from the flames.
March 2nd was Holi and the celebrations start as early as 8:00 in the morning and last until 4-4:30 in the afternoon. Carter and I woke up fairly early and eagerly got ready to get out there. It felt like waking up on Christmas morning and needing to get downstairs to see the tree as soon as humanly possible.
We doused ourselves in coconut oil where our skin would be exposed, put on our old clothes that we were most definitely okay to throw out afterwards, put on our protective hair turbans, and sunglasses and headed out of the hotel. We stood at the top of our steps in preparation and thank goodness we took that extra moment because it allowed us to see a group of kids on a rooftop ready to bombard us. We thought "what the heck" and walked knowingly right into their trap to get our Holi festivities started! We got suckered from above, when I re-opened my eyes, pink and blue were all over us, the kids were in hysterics above and we were ready to take on the day!
We turned the corner onto one of the main streets and it was complete chaos already at nine in the morning! The road was already covered in varying bright colours, kids running up and down the streets yelling and laughing, men dancing, shops playing loud techno music, and SO many people ready to smear powder on our face. Groups of guys were coming out of no where and hugging us, putting the colour on our cheeks, sprinkling it on top of our heads or just bombing it into our faces or at our bodies. There was absolutely no order, no rhyme nor reason but that's the spirit of Holi! Our goal was to get deep into the main square of town where the massive crowds were and where it was obviously the most vibrant. People covered head to toe in colour, people hanging off of buildings, dancing on rooftops, people wearing masks, people on others' shoulders... it was complete and utter chaos. To our surprise we were making our way through the crowd when not even 5 minutes in, Carter was stopped by a wild group of Indian guys who proceeded to rip his brand new white shirt off his back, throw it over what looked like a clothes line in the centre of town and smeared the rainbow of colours all down his bare chest and stomach! We died laughing at what we thought was pure insanity and oddness of it but when we looked around, we started to notice that no other men had shirts on...and if they did, there were groups of guys who made it their duty to rip their shirts off. It was hysterical. Many females opt out of Holi colour throwing because it get can rather rowdy, as you can see below. As a female, I felt safe enough with Carter close by my side. Everyone was just so positive and excited to party, throw colours, ask for selfies with us and include westerners in this unbelivable celebration.
The day was the most unreal, exciting, hilariously amazing experience. This was the one day we planned our entire year's trip around and we are so incredibly glad we did!
What wasn't such an amazing time was trying to get clean afterwards... it took us a full four days to rid ourselves of the fluorescent pink colour on our skin!
Agra & The Taj Mahal.
On the train from Pushkar to Agra, we made friends with this lovely family heading back home to Agra. Below is Kalf Khan and he stole our hearts. His dad was a tour operator and offered such great advice on how best to see the Taj Mahal and other sites in Agra; we listened to Kalf's English and taught him some new words, but we mostly took selfies and oh'd and aw'd at all the hilarious photos he was showing us on his dad's phone of him modeling like a Bollywood star!
We got into Agra late, so the Khan family was nice enough to drive us to a hotel they recommended that was clean, cheap and right near the front gates of the Taj. But not before Mrs. Khan asked us three times to come to their house for dinner and tea. If we weren't so exhausted and knowing we had to make it to the Taj for it's 6:00am opening time, we would have taken her up on her offer as they were such a genuinely kind family. Mr. Khan gave us his card in case we needed another ride while in Agra and I had make a joke that we would hire his car for the day if his son Kalf Khan could come with us.
The next day, we woke up at 5:30am to make our way to the gates of the Taj Mahal. We heard several times, on top of Mr. Khan's advice, that you should get there 30 minutes before the gate opens to try and get a glimpse of the World Wonder before there are hoards of people. Unfortunately, we were visiting the Sunday of Holi which is a popular public holiday in India, so we were met with almost 200-300 people in line already. This line was complete insanity; men and women were split up so Carter and I followed our own queues. My line was mostly Indian women who pushed and shoved and pushed some more, and Western women who were complaining and pushing back, and I just sat in the middle being tousled back and forth like a helpless buoy in the ocean's storm.
When we finally got through the gates, the first glimpse of the Taj was indescribable. The light glow of the marble tile in the rising sun looks like the Taj is a floating painted picture in the sky. It was absolutely breathtaking. The fact that we have all seen the Taj Mahal in photos, movies, recreated in paintings, and much more does not take away from the experience of seeing it for the first time whatsoever. The sight, beauty and magnitude of this perfectly symmetrical building will most definitely take your breath away!
However beautiful, it was impossible to get a photo without a thousand tourists in the background but this didn't take away from the experience either. The palace is absolutely exquisite, bigger than you could ever imagine, and yet so peaceful and serene at the same time.
After our visit, Mr. Khan's driver showed up at our hotel and who comes out around the corner, KALF KHAN. Mr. Khan actually sent his 6-year old son to hang out with us all day! He took us around to the different temples, forts, artisan shops...we told him we loved samosas and wanted to try the best in the city, so he took us to a number of places that day, all local food and so incredible - marble tiling all done by hand, carpet-weaving and a precious jewel shop. All the while, I was just listening to Kalf speak in his cute little Indian-accented broken English voice and making him say words that made us laugh. He was the happiest little boy.
After visiting the shops and almost buying a beautiful rug, we were taken to a park across the river from the Taj Mahal to watch the marble glow change from a brilliant white to a glowing orange in the sunset. All the little ants you see around the Taj are of course people; it just gives you a better perspective on how enormous the palace actually is.
We played tag with Kalf, built an Inukshuk together with the loose rocks and even picked a few apples. As we were sitting in the park, watching the sunset over the Taj, it turned golden and was the most incredible thing to sit and watch. Kalf turns to Carter and says "curd?!"..."some curd??" Curd is an Indian yoghurt, mainly used for snacks and desserts. Calf said it a few times and was essentially making it clear he was hungry, bored and wanted to leave for some curd. It truly was an unforgettable moment for us, here we are sitting still and silent watching this remarkable transformation of the Taj with little Kalf sitting next to us and of course a 6-year old boy with a TON of energy would not truly understand the significance of this sunset from our perspective. Carter laughed and almost as if it were our son...he said, "I will take him...you stay and watch" So they went off running again to try to distract little Kalf of his hunger by playing tag and I got to sit peacefully watching the sun fully set. During our time in the park, many people asked if we wanted them to take a photo of the 3 of us together, and Carter and I were wondering why we kept getting asked that. Finally, a nice couple came up to us and asked "is he your adopted son, you are such a cute family" and that's when it hit us - people thought Kalf was our son! The funny part is...I DO really wish he was our son! He was our absolutely favourite. Every now and again we find ourselves quoting Kalf and the cute things he said in his Indian accent like "goo-ooot" for goat and singing "I love my India!" He seriously made a lasting impact on us without us realising it at the time. Just as we got back to the car, Kalf's mom had called to say she missed him and it was dinner time, so we hugged Kalf good-bye and left the Khan family. They made our time in Agra SO much sweeter!
The Holiest of Holy, Varanasi.
Varanasi…this may be slightly graphic.
Varanasi is likely the most wild city we will ever visit, it stimulates every sense at the same time and then proceeds to blow your mind. A maze of streets crowded with cows, bulls, tuks-tuks, blinding dust storms, begging pilgrims, spiritual leaders, Hindu worshipers, tourists, vendors and so much more. There are moments where you feel like the only way to regain your sanity is to head back to your hostel bed to relax the body and mind for a short period of time. Rejuvenated, you feel the need to spend as much time as possible exploring the extremely narrow/hectic streets or head down to the Ganges Riverfront to walk past each Ghat (a flight of steps leading down to a river) where you find religious ceremonies temple side and in some parts of Varanasi, burning Ghats.
Burning Ghats are essentially areas along the Ganges River where they cremate the deceased in designated pyres. 24/7 heaping stacks of wood engulfed in flames burn human bodies in plain view beside the river. Coming from western society where death is very concealed and private, this funeral ceremony was obviously difficult to witness, let alone comprehend. It isn’t until you’re walking down Main Street in Varanasi and see a dead body being hoisted on the shoulders of a hustling crowd in a type of funeral concession that you can really wrap your head around the fact that these burning heaps of wood with the dead inside are in fact funeral ceremonies. “The Hindu believe that if a deceased’s ashes are burned close to and laid in the Ganges at Varanasi, their soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth. In a culture that believes in reincarnation, this concept called moksha is profound. The holier the place, the better the chances you achieve moksha and avoid returning to Earth as an animal or insect in your next life.” Once the burning ceremony concludes and only ashes remain, they use a rake to sift through the ashes for jewellery. Jewellery is collected and given to the family, and finally they heave the ash into the Ganga river in hope to attain Moksha.
With that said, these ceremonies are only a fraction of what takes place along the Ganges River each day, which contribute to a severe pollution issue in this “sacred” body of water. Here is some insight into the problem in Varanasi or the Ganga as a whole “The Ganges flows for 2,500 kilometres from the Himalayas through four states where 400 million Indians live through to the east coast where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. As it passes through 100 towns and cities, it absorbs all their human and industrial waste. Experts estimate that more than 3000 MILLION litres of untreated sewage from these towns along the Ganges are pumped into the river every day. By the time it reaches Varanasi, whose untreated sewage (or most of it) is also pumped into the waters, it becomes a sewer and the sixth most polluted river in the world” And we complain about Lake Ontario! Probably the most shocking of all after understanding the incomprehensible amount of pollution in this river, is waking up early to watch the local Hindu people practice their everyday ritual, to bathe and cleanse in this holy water. Families gear down into their underwear on the slimy green waters edge where the steps of the Ghats meet the contaminated water, to rinse off and begin a new day. Children laugh, play, swim and splash. Moms dunk new born babies, some do laundry, and some folk even go as far as brushing their teeth or giving the dentures a scrubbing. These are all sights that we witnessed first hand over a brief 15 min walk down the riverside. Probably the most difficult to comprehend is that this type of activity has taken place EVERY day for the last five thousand years. So you can begin to understand why spending time in Varanasi is most well spent simply just wondering around, witnessing and truly embracing this cultural and religious phenomenon.
We took a paddle boat cruise one morning with a local to see the morning rituals from a different perspective. The sounds of the temples playing songs from the Ghats, the men in the water who swim out and scream “GANGA” in order to show their love and devotion to this body of water, the smiling and laughter by the shore. It is honestly an extraordinary experience that we are unable to compare with anything else, at this point of our travels.
We took this photo below randomly, just to capture some of the morning chores at the shore of the Ganges. It was only until we looked at this photo on the computer that we realized what this elderly man is actually doing...
When people ask us about culture shock, I would say that Varanasi would be the pinnacle. It is without a doubt the most interesting place we’ve ever been, which is why we continue to LOVE India and it’s extreme complexity.
After Mumbai, we entered into the ever-popular state of Rajasthan. This is the largest state in all of India, and fittingly, the most popular with travellers.
Our first stop: Udaipur, "The White City". The city of lakes. The most romantic city in India. Whatever or however you know Udaipur as, we were there! Being that Udaipur was the first city we were visiting in Rajasthan we were still expecting the chaos, tout traffic and hasslers to be ten fold from what we’ve experienced thus far. Of course, in true India fashion, we were proved wrong and the train station we rolled up to was absolutely gorgeous. The walls were beautifully tiled and painted into colourful murals. The ground looked like marble, although I am sure it wasn't. If the train station was this beautiful, I couldn't wait to see what the "most romantic city in all of India" had in store for us!
When we got outside of the train station, the hecticness was pretty subdued. We dodged and NO’ed away the frantic, pushy, annoying touts and sought out a relaxed driver in the corner of the parking lot who seemed to be taking it easy that morning. We also had just met a nice guy on the train right before we got off who was originally from Udaipur, so we knew the tuk-tuk should only cost 100 Indian Rupee (INR) to where we needed to go. Finally, we had some local bargaining knowledge! We negotiated our price from 250 to 150INR (he laughed and said "100, impossible!!!" when we suggested it.) We agreed upon the 150INR and jumped in... because sometimes you have to step back and remind yourself that everyone is just trying to make a living and you're haggling over a difference of a few Canadian cents.
Our ride wasn’t too long into the city’s heart. We drove from open streets, to smaller and narrower lane ways that snaked through beautifully painted homes, light pastel coloured cafes, shops with sparkling saris and jackets, silver and jems shining off the morning sun. We were in awe. This is my dream city, in my dream country, was I dreaming??? However, there were a few things that brought me back to reality. The unrelenting blaring honks, the insanity of traffic, the holy cows roaming the streets and causing most of the congestion, the motorbikes revving, the temple prayers roaring on loud speakers, the old men yelling at who knows what, and the random smells of "we'd rather not know". India can be everything and nothing all at once. It can be breathtakingly beautiful... and breath holding-ly gross. It’s just a endless juxtaposition. And we are only just beginning to experience and understand the "real" India that people so often talk and write about loving and hating it simultaneously. As we were sitting in the tuk-tuk waiting to turn onto our hostel's street, a massive bull beside us tried to mount a cow in the middle of the road. The cow was NOT having it. She ran FULL speed for 50 metres in tight traffic, bashing and banging through the hectic busy street, knocking down motorbikes and their riders, and making school girls run and jump out of the way before getting hit! It was absolute natural madness and anything in that cow's way was a goner. "Haha is okay, just India" our driver said as he laughed this absurd moment off. It was so hilarious and mind boggling to us! Especially since no one was injured, people just picked up themselves and their motorbikes, readjusted rearview mirrors that were hit, and went along their merry way like that 30 seconds of 'running of the bulls' never happened. Even though everyone else was our it very quickly, Carter and I continued to laugh about it all day long.
We spent our first day exploring Udaipur on foot. The city was split into two parts by Lake Pichola which housed the beautiful Lake Palace. We took advantage of all the rooftop restaurants, so we could look longingly at places we couldn't afford through out the city... We ate lunch at a restaurant right in the middle of the city center and took in a 360degree view from the top. You may also recognize some of the below pictures from James Bond's Octopussy film!
We toured through the narrow streets, looked in and out of shops, and visited the famed Jain Temple.
We ended the day with a tour of the beautifully impressive City Palace right in time for sunset. We opted to not hire a guide, as per our budget restraints, and we've gotten quite good at using our imagination for what things were, who built them, how old that "thing" is, etc. Except this time, I was standing in this ornately decorated room, with little coloured tile mural designs, and I commented on how gorgeous it was and wondered if it was a dressing room or something of the sorts for the heiress of the dynasty. A tour guide who happened to be close, overheard and responded "ah yes... very beautiful. The royal shitter" and cracked up laughing. That's when I stopped trying to guess what things were and just stuck to reading the information signs that were placed there on purpose!
And after a wonderfully perfect first day exploring the most perfect little city... I woke up at 4:00am to Carter violently puking in the bathroom... and then it hit me a few hours after. AGAIN - the ups and downs, beauty and ugliness that India can provide you all in a day's work! From this point, we have been sharing every food dish (our motto before each questionable-looking meal was honestly, "if we go down, we go down together"... and that's exactly what happened.) Thankfully we were able to share the most romantic times in the most romantic city! It took us a few days to truly bounce back and get over our case of Delhi belly. We still don’t know what caused it but we were both completely turned off of butter naan and curry (which was devastating because we were LOVING all things naan and curry.) Although it sucked being sick, no trip to India is complete without an "episode" of Delhi belly! So this contributed to an even more fuller, whole, experience of our trip through India.
After a couple days of laying low, eating our weight in plain bread and bananas, it was February 14, Valentines Day and we were determined to do something special. We walked along the lake, did some shopping (Vacation Carter out in full force), and had a nice chill dinner on another beautiful rooftop. It was nice to see red and white balloons all around the rooftop restaurants and we were even treated to more fireworks! This is more of the romantic experience we were hoping for in Udaipur...
We took our first bus from Udaipur to Jodhpur, the city of blue. The bus was a sleeper AC bus. We hadn’t heard much about Indian buses but we were expecting the the worst. We bought our tickets at a tourist travel agent in the city, who gave us only a handwritten ticket and told us to arrive at a side-street shop an hour before the bus was supposed to leave. Already sketched out, we arrived to this desk in a hole in the wall. A guy looks at our piece of written hand paper and then waved us to sit down. There were only one other backpacking couple and they said they were going in the opposite direction of us. Now I am really nervous that we’ve been scammed. Where are all the people getting on our bus?! Then another man comes and asks to see our ticket, this time we’re assured it’ll be only 10 minutes before it comes. The most unappealing looking buses started pulling up (aka just stopping on the side of the busy street as piles of people squeezed in and out of the bus door before it sped off again). A gift to my eyes, a semi-regular looking bus rolled up and the man came and ushered us to it “your bus, on on on!” When we got on, it was quite clean and like no other transit we’d seen before. We had booked an upper double sleeper and we were pleasantly surprised at how cozy this “coffin” was (mind you I intentionally didn’t look too hard at the seat cleanliness before quickly throwing our own sheet over the entire thing.) Carter and I comfortably fit in these two bunks, so we closed the curtains on both sides of us, including a glass door to completely seal out the rest of the bus and settled in. It was the most accommodating and comfortable sleeping arrangement we’ve had in transit ever before. Unfortunately that was short lived; the bus was rockier and bumpier than we’ve ever experienced before too. So sleeping was next to impossible as we were getting bounced around, back and forth, and the too-often occasional slamming of the brakes that rocked us forward and back again resulting in us hitting our heads. But! Such is life as a backpacker, we have to deal with the cheapest form of transportation in order to get to where we want to go!
We arrived at the side of the road, in which the bus driver promised was Jodhpur, at 5:00am. And of course, there was a group of tuk-tuks waiting for us. One wanted to charge us 500INR because “the sun wasn’t up yet”. We bargained our way down to 150 because we just laughed and walked away...”okay fine.. 300!”... and we walked...”miss! 250 - what’s your best price!?”... and we walked... “ok, 150. No problem. Come. Come!” What we later learned is that tuk-tuks and bus drivers have a real shady business together in some areas of India; the bus drivers will drop tourists off just outside of the city limits so they are at the mercy of the local tuk-tuks that are ready and waiting there to charge whatever price they want. The bus drivers get a cut of whatever the tuk-tuks make that day. There are also some hotels in on this deal and if the tuk-tuk drivers find tourists without any accomodation and bring them to book a room, they also get a cut. It all happens so seamlessly that as a tourist, you really are just a helpless pawn most of the time, the unfortunate reality of backpacking amongst local transit.
What we drove past getting into the city was complete filth. Garbage upon garbage. Dogs laying on top of cars. Cows eating old organics (I think... it could have been poop). Then we approached a beautiful clock tower and townsquare, that was completely vacant, quiet and calm... I know I am painting what you assume would become a pretty picture. But it’s not. This is where it became even worse. Urine stench. Torn garbage bags with their contents strewn across the ground. Sickly dogs. Cow dung piles. Where the heck is the India we were falling in love with?! After we passed through the market square we started to pass blue building after blue building. The colours of paint used for houses and doors were magnificent, even in dawns' blackness. Just as quick as we saw the garbage and hated every moment of the stench, it all drifted away and the beauty of the city (and country) came to life again.
Most of the streets were too narrow or steep for a tuk-tuk to get through. We got dropped off in a random intersection and was told that the tuk-tuk couldn’t bring us up to the hotel we wanted to go to, so we went off on foot to try and find this little guesthouse in a Google maps nightmare. We climbed these rock steps and steep paths to only then realize the entire city was at the foot of the gigantic Mehrangarh Fort atop a huge natural boulder that jutted up in the center of the city.
Long story short, we got lost. After THREE hours of wandering the city with our big backpacks on, checking guesthouse after guesthouse, we finally ended up at Haveli heritage guesthouse right in front of this gorgeously constructed 1700 stepwell. Unknown to us before arriving, we were coming to Jodhpur during the world Sihk music festival where thousands of visitors (Indians and foreigners) attend in the fort. This was the reason the entire city’s accommodations were booked out.
We were completely drained so we locked ourselves into the room and went for a well deserved nap. Our first move when we woke up was to go inspect this stepwell more closely.
We then went in search of the clock tower and market square (the same one we passed that morning on the tuk-tuk). When we got there we immediately knew why it was so garbage filled. It was completely crammed with the hustle and bustle of the entire city. It was the mecca hub of shopping, food, hanging out, drinking tea, anything and everything seemed to be conducted here. It was complete chaos - more so than we’ve ever experienced. The smells and sights were one thing to try and take in but the sounds are what could have drove us mental. SO much honking and not normal “toot toot” but “buuurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp” heavy, low truck horns, high squeaky make your brain shake horns, people yelling, people trying to sell you anything, people telling you to move or just driving right at you slowly until you got out of the way. You didn’t even know where to stand to get out of people’s way or where you even wanted to go because everywhere you turned was the same chaos. It was an amazing experience and some of the best people watching on earth, after a while however the noise began to turn into ringing ears and a headache.
We sought out the famous samosa shop outside the square. Again, complete and utter insanity. Over 100 people loitering out front into the road, either eating samosas or asking us for money for samosas. I tossed the man working (at an alarming rate) behind the counter 50 rupees and just took whatever was given to us - turns out it was four samosas hot out of the boiling oil vat, he knew exactly what we were there for. It was so disgustingly dusty and busy inside and out of the shop that we didn’t sit on the ground and enjoy it like what felt like the rest of the city was doing, we took our bag of samosas and beelined it to the sanctuary of our stepwell. This turned out to be our go-to lunch location while in Jodhpur as it was a peaceful safe haven from the rest of the city.
The last place we were in love with was an omelette cart just outside the clock tower market; the place is famously known for making Masala Cheese Omelettes for over 20 years. One fond memory from this place is when the two of us were enjoying our egg sandwiches while squatting down on upside down milk carton chairs when suddenly an abnormally large cow standing in the road decided to empty it's full bladder only 2 meters from us. It sprayed everywhere around us... including Carter's legs! The omelette maker heard our commotion and turned and said "my friend, this very good luck for you!" ...Carter replied "I already had enough very good luck in Vietnam my friend!" We learned that there is real benefits to cow urine; some Indians use it for medicinal purposes which they refer to as gomutra, other smear it on their foreheads for good luck and positive energy, others use it for religious purposes.
For the next few days, we lazily explored Jodhpur. Here are some of the sights we saw and visited during our time there:
Only six hours from the Pakistan boarder is the western desert city of Jaisalmer. It is home to the only "living" fort in India. This means that the original fort built 800-years ago is still an active metropolis today. Jaisalmer is also known as the golden city and rightfully so. All the buildings are made of sand stone and are golden yellow in colour. Walking into the fort is right out of what we could only assume the medieval times would feel like. The huge wooden gates are left open to a cobblestone entry way which you can't help but picture massive elephants, horses and the sorts walking through in its glory days of the kings. After a bit of a hike in, using the long entry road you come to the town's square. Off every corner of the square are little golden laneways that look like they lead to Game of Throne villages. We stayed at Deep Mahal Hotel; it ended up being a scam with extremely pushy owners but nonetheless it was the cheapest we’ve paid for a room yet (800rupees). Not only that, the inside wall of our room was the side of the ancient Jain temple over 300 years old!
The first night we were there we were invited to attend a traditional Indian wedding. We were warmly welcomed into the baraat (where the groom's family dances down the street bringing him to the reception hall). We had a ton of fun!! Carter got right into the festivities and was Bollywood dancing up a storm! The men were hilarious; so enthusiastically dancing their butts off. The women were gorgeously draped in traditional and fancy saris and encouraged me to dance, teaching me the proper dance moves for each song. The groom rode a white horse in a bejewelled dress coat and followed behind the precession. After 2 hours of dancing down a 2 kilometre stretch of street, we finally got to the reception tent and we were again invited in to join, eat and celebrate with 400 hundred of their closest friends and family (and this was considered a small wedding for Indian standards!) The tent was massive and food stations lined the entire place. Heaven. We sat and enjoyed the locally made food, watched the ceremony and left back for our hotel. What a great night!
We spent the next few days roaming around the fort and exploring all the nooks and crannies. We shopped for scarves and found our favourite local samosa shop (that we probably had 32 samosas at by the time we left Jaisalmer). The street food here was to die for. But the best part about the fort was that no cars were allowed so it was SO much quieter than what we just came from. It was a little escape from India within India.
We decided to book a 2 night/3 day camel safari in Thar Desert with Thar Desert Tours. We were driven two hours out towards barren land; past military posts and the location they test nuclear bombs and all of a sudden the Jeep turned off the road and towards a big tree - here were saw 3 camels and Sumar, our guide, appear. Carter helped unload the Jeep and suit up the camels with all the supplies. Then Sumar helped us onto the camels and we were off! Just like that! Our first camel ride in the Thar desert.
The camel getting up was quite bumpy - they go from lying down, to their back knees, to their front knees, to straight back legs to fully standing - it feels like you’re on a teetetter-totter that you have to hold on to for dear life. Sumar walked his camel and led us for 30 minutes while we got more secluded and then he let Carter ride his camel, Johnny, all by himself. So Carter led the way because as we soon learned his camel was quite the stubborn arse, he earned the nickname Johnny Drama from us. After an hour of walking, Sumar got on his camel and led us into the “deep desert” which wasn’t so much deep as it was just a very secluded peaceful flat land. After a few hours of riding before sunset, we could really feel the leg strain and began to laugh about how we didn't realize riding a camel would be so damn hard! Carter had his shorts ride up the entire time and his pasty white thighs turned into a more desert red!
Our first night in the desert was amazing; we hunkered down between two dunes and Sumar started a fire right away for some chai. Carter and I took my camel, Alex (the nice one of the trio), out for a sunset walk. After tea, Sumar started cooking our dinner; a version of curried vegetables, rice, and freshly handmade chapati bread. We had great conversation all night long about life in the desert and arranged marriages (he admitted he didn’t like his arranged wife at all but does love his daughters very much), education and Indian government and tourism. We truly learned a lot from him, he was a really sweet hardworking man. When we finally went to bed around 10pm, we simply laid the mattresses out on the sand, used the incline of the dune as a pillow and got under one blanket. We woke up in the middle of the night to see the three camels silhouettes in the light of the night's stars. It was cold but the fresh cool air was a welcomed thing after the dust and chaos of the rest of India. My favourite part was the complete silence of the desert, it was almost hard to believe we were in the same country as earlier that day.
We woke up to the sunrising over the dunes, had the best banana porridge made by Sumar, and were off before the heat became too intense. It wasn’t long before we stopped for a tea break under the shade and let the middays heat pass.
While having a relaxing tea break under one of the only trees in the area, a local goat herder walked out from behind a dune. He was out for his daily walk which involved him following around the grazing goats. He and Sumar got talking, and so, we invited him to join us for tea and snacks. With Sumar’s help, we had a great conversation with him about his life in the desert and how he makes a living off his goats. We would ask Sumar questions in English, which he would translate to Hindi and translate back what the goat sheppard would respond in with. He revealed that he has been tending to his family's herd of goats for almost 40 years, and was proud of the goat cheese they produced, although it doesn’t warrant much income. After we were done enjoying our tea, I drifted off into a snooze in the shade. As usual, Carter was still in deep conversation with our new friend.
Suddenly, I am rudely awoken by what sounds like a circus show. I open my eyes to Sumar and Carter shouting and running around waving their arms in the air. There are a few goats still kicking around but the sheppard is gone. I look around and there are at least ten wild camels surrounding our camp closing in on our three Camels. FUN FACTS; camels are very territorial. We had an earlier talk with Sumar where he told us that in this time of the year, all the camels in the desert are male and all the females live in the stables for mating. Camels also have a very strange way of showing mating calls and aggression, first they begin making this disgusting wet gurgling noise and hang their giant tongues out of the side of their mouth; it sounds like an outboard boat motor starting up in the mud. Then the weirdest part happens. They spread their back legs, and whip there tails from their backs down in between their legs while simultaneously peeing and pooping in order to launch the excrements at their opponent. Never knew they behaved like such a**holes...did you?
So here we are surrounded by thirteen nine-foot camels, horny, angry and all flinging shit at each other! I am closest to the big tree and relatively safe from the action. Carter is trying (like a crazy person) to scare away the wild camels and is literally caught in the crossfire of the camel's "spray". Johnny Drama and another big camel are circling each other and flinging a mile a minute, eventuality they stop after a little scuffle and the crazy wild camels get chased away. The dust finally settles and when it does...Johnny Drama is in a fit of rage, Carter has him by the rope, Sumar’s camel is an angel and just stood there eating a thorny bush during the whole debacle and my camel, Alex, is NOWHERE to be found. Sumar goes sprinting off into the distance over a sand dune, Carter passes me Johnny’s rope and heads up the closest tall dune to try and spot Alex. Carter comes back and tells me he can’t see Alex or Sumar anywhere but the wild camels are lingering in the distance. About 30 minutes later Sumar came back, soaked in sweat but had my camel in tow. He ended up having to trace Alex’s tracks through the sand - he ran for 10 minutes straight before finding him. In the meantime, Carter rinsed off poop on him with a water bottle once again.
The next night's stay was a little less impressive than the first. We were at a more popular sand dune so there were other groups of tourists yelling and Indians who were utilizing the same dunes. We tried to get some photos with the camels but they weren’t cooperating, especially Johnny Drama. Carter was doing his best to try and control Johnny in the right direction but he would literally just stand still or run away from Sumar, it was hilarious.
We had another great meal with Sumar and headed to sleep a bit earlier tonight. Due to the climate being warmer in this location, there were so many beetles crawling around so we slept on raised cots (thank goodness). We woke up early to head back to our pick up spot. Since Sumar trusted us on, and with, the camels now we all took charge of riding our own and even had races. We passed through a village in which the kids went crazy for us - pulling off my sunglasses to wear, painting my nails and offering us tea.
We got picked up and said our sad good bye to Sumar, the greatest desert guide there ever was. We gave Sumar a nice tip because he really was a hard working man who talked a lot about how much he appreciated us as guests. We enjoyed camping with him and we would always pitch in and help...cutting up the veggies and doing the dishes after meals. He told us we were the first group to ever do the dishes after eating and that it made his time much more enjoyable because he could relax too (even though he was always finding ways to keep busy.) We told him "where we are from the cook doesn't clean" he said he wants to come to Canada for that reason! Carter had a utility knife equipped with a fork/spoon, Sumar was very impressed with the tool as he used a very old little knife for preparing food. Upon departure we gave him the utility knife as we know he would be much better off with it. He was a great man and we will always remember him.
Back in the city we were very thankful our camping trip was over because that night around sunset there was an incredible sandstorm that came blowing across the desert. We watched from a rooftop patio as it came from kilometres away in the desert, thrashing closer and closer to us! When it arrived the entire city was dark brown, you couldn't see more than a few buildings away and you could feel the sand in your mouth and eyes...like something out of a movie. Lasting only 10 minutes it was another great experience in Rajasthan.
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and by far the biggest city we've visited in the state. Unfortunately, after being blown away by the previous three cities because each had something so unique to offer, Jaipur was... underwhelming for us. The city wasn’t overly impressive itself ; it was large and spread out making it less ideal for tourists on a budget who didn’t want to be continually ripped off by tuk-tuk drivers ("hello sir want to ride in my Ferrari" was a popular pick-up line) or hire a private driver for the day. It did, however, have many malls which we frequented during our stay there. Sometimes we like to take advantage of a big cities offerings, so we saw Black Panther here... great flick!
Jaipur is known for it's Pink City. We heard nothing but amazing things about Jaipur and it's beauty. But to be honest, we didn't really see it that way. I think because it's in close proximity to New Delhi, tourists who go to New Delhi and Agra can stop into Jaipur for a quick taste of Rajasthan to see the Pink City. It would have likely been nicer if the pink city wasn't under construction, but it still didn't have that unique feel of the other cities we loved in the state. The different alleyways and streets were all themed bazaars; ladies fashion, men's fashion, automotive, tourist knick-knacks, local shopping, food, etc. We spent the days walking around and exploring, visited the Amer Fort but due to ridiculously high "foreigner price" we opted out of going into the main portion. We ate at an amazing restaurant called Nibs near our hotel, and had our first Indian McDonald's...an aloo (potato) burger and a paneer (cottage cheese) Big Mac. Hawa Mahal (the Wind Palace) was the most impressive thing Jaipur has to offer and even that was smaller than we anticipated.
Jaipur was a nice experience for us but in a different way than the last three cities. Being a larger city, it had malls, movie theatres and great restaurants offering every type of cuisine. Jaipur for us was a really relaxing & recharging station. We took advantage of the things missing in our lives while on the India backpackers' course, which meant going to the movies, eating dinner off of plates using cutlery and the luxury of using a western toilet with toilet paper!! Ahhhh...the simple things. It was nice to re-group and feel almost slightly as though we were living a structured life!
“India is beyond statement, for anything you say, the opposite is also true. It's rich and poor, spiritual and material, cruel and kind, angry but peaceful, ugly and beautiful, and smart but stupid. It's all the extremes. India defies understanding.”
― Sarah Macdonald, Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure
I read this book while in Sri Lanka, unconsciously but inevitably preparing for a month+ in India. The all being India, that I have for some reason always been drawn to. I've read fiction and non-fiction books about it, watched Hollywood movies, documentaries... but nothing really prepares you for experiencing India first hand. Out of it all, the quote above is the truest of truths when trying to explain India and all its magic.
Fort Kochi, Kerala.
We flew into Kochi, Kerala in the south of India. Although we tried to go into this portion of the trip with open minds and to not succumb to others' prejudices and opinions, we continually heard, and could not escape, the belief that India was an assault on every sense, and even more emphasized at airports/ train & bus stations. We (more so I) had been mentally preparing the entire flight. Carter seemed pretty relaxed, especially since the beer on Sri Lankan Airlines is FREE, so naturally, he took advantage of this perk (x4) on the 45 minute flight. We got off the plane and entered the Cochin airport and it was immaculate. Shiny marble floors, gorgeous statues, a sense of calmness and no lines at immigration. We walked over to the e-visa section and an officer waved us in where there were plush arm chair seats for us to sit in as they granted us our visas, no questions and hassle free. The first pocket of anxious butterflies left my stomach (we joke that we are still suffering from PTSD at customs everywhere we go since being deported from Vietnam). Then onto baggage claim, again a very quiet and peaceful experience; our bags had already dropped and were just getting to us as we walked up. Literally couldn’t have been more perfect. Another wave of relief. Now onto the real test... exiting this heaven of an airport to get to Fort Kochi, our first Indian destination. This is the part we were mentally prepared and geared up for - having to swim through a crowd while shaking our heads no to all the touts and tuk-tuk drivers trying to grab at us, stalk us until we gave in to take their tuk-tuk offer at an exorbitant price as if we don’t know any better. Not to mention, dealing with this sea of bodies all the while being slammed with 45 degree weather. Ok, Here we go...
We walked out, yes it was hot, but there also was a faint cool breeze that was refreshing. There was no one outside; only locals awaiting their guests or friends or family members who were arriving as well. Did we book a flight to the wrong country??? We walked over to the help desk and asked for the cheapest way to get to Fort Kochi and they pointed us to an orange bus that left in 15 minutes and only for .50 CAD cents. Again, absolute perfection. The bus was air conditioned, not crammed, we got a seat in an orderly fashion and left for our destination... what was everyone making such a big deal about??
For the hour it took us to get to Fort Kochi on the bus, there was not one single break of city. This is where we started to slightly see the density and what India may be like in the coming month. We were in the state of Kerala, it has 26 million people, and this was only a sliver on the southern coast of India. Although it was city after city we were passing, it wasn’t as chaotic as we were expecting...AT ALL. We were very pleasantly surprised by this first impression.
Fort Kochi is a small island off of Cochin (okay not small - nothing is small in India) but it only has a population of just over 600,000. It has a very big British and Portuguese influence and because of this it is your atypical experience of India but it is a GREAT introduction to ease in to their culture, language and food... oh sweet baby Santa Claus, the food. Carter and I INDULGED on our first meal (or seven).
We took Fort Kochi by foot the next day. We started with Jew Town. There is only four true Jewish people left - Sarah, who is over 90 years old, who sits in her home and crochets everything from yammachas to wall tapestries to you name it. One other woman runs tourist tours through the oldest synagogue in town, which is also the oldest in India. And the other two are her daughters who help with Jew Town's tourism needs. Jew Town is a livley little neighbourhood on the water with tonnes of different shops and cafes.
At the end of the day, we found ourselves at the main beach just in time for the fishermen to arrive back from sea and weigh all their fish before sunset. Fisherman came in with boats and boats of king fish and squid. So many squid. They were de-inking them before weighing them and that was super interesting to see so much black liquid come out from them. If the inevitable threat of "Delhi-belly" didn't encourage me enough to eat vegetarian while in India, this certainly did.
The beach was also lined with Chinese fishing nets; a gift from the Chinese hundreds of years ago which is a technique still used today. After sundown, these huge nets are submerged into the water and a big light is shone into the water to attraction prawns, squid and fish. The sides of the net are then slowly brought up, leaving the middle of the net still submerged under the water and eventually, the fish are trapped inside.
The beach was disgusting. I am not going to sugar coat how gloriously beautiful India is. It has every type of garbage you could think of. It was like the land of misfit toys from Rudolph but the sunset was gorgeous. A fiery red sun, nothing like we’ve ever seen before (again - probably attributed to the smog and pollution and dirtiness of India). Nonetheless, the locals on the beach came down to enjoy, splashed around the the water, played footy, kids running around, and couples having ice cream. It was really an enjoyable experience if you could see past the garbage. This may have been our first look into the way India can be two complete extremes simultaneously. It's one big giant juxtaposition of itself.
Disclaimer: we frigged up and lost all of our photos from Fort Kochi. We haven't pointed fingers at who done it... but it may or may not have been me, maybe probably. Opps. So unfortunately, we only have a couple cell phones pictures & google images to use for this portion of the blog.
In the few days we roamed around Fort Kochi, we also decided to book the infamous backwater houseboat tour. The Backwaters of Kerala are known as the "Venice of the East", for the windy tranquil canals and lakes that take you away from the hustle of Indian cities into the best form of relaxing nature.
We used Mr Wilson's tour services. What a great name and even better man. He booked us on a house boat outside of Alleppey (Alleppey is a town that is most famous for its backwater tours and is now overrun by canoes/ferries/house boats). Mr. Wilson said if we saw more than 3 boats where he was sending us that we would get our money back. We took those chances. We were driven to a small village and there was a beautiful house boat waiting for us.
Before boarding the boat, Carter got a bottle of coconut alcohol since the local men were raving about it (equivalent to the rice whiskey he and Hayden so thoroughly enjoyed during our time in Vietnam and Laos). We then boarded the boat and were punted (no motors moving the boat, they use long bamboo branches to push off the bottom of the river ways) down the backwaters. Yes, an entire houseboat being pushed around delicately; it’s the authentic and traditional way Indians got around in history. It also makes for a more quiet and serene trip.
We were paddled out to an open lake, and then docked to visit a beach. The beach was very nice and the water was so refreshing but it was a quick lived visit. Carter helped the local fishermen push their boat back out of the ocean and we returned to the houseboat.
When we got back, the on-board chef served us a home cooked delicious Indian meal. Again, new food we hadn’t tried before, or even knew existed, that we absolutely devoured. This time we didn’t catch the names but our favourite was a cabbage fried side dish that had some heat to it. After lunch, the captain turned the boat around and went through the entire canal to the opposite side which opened up to a beautiful lake. The captain set the anchor and Carter and I had some quality time on the sun deck. This was the most memorable part of the entire backwaters trip.
That day, the captain kept saying it was our most very lucky day because there was a ceremony happening that weekend that only happens once every few years. So he suggested we visit the small town and attend the ceremony. We docked at a guest home where we would be staying overnight and are driven down a bumpy road to the temple. When we pull up there are 5 HUGE beautifully decorated (but not too much ie. abusive) Asian Long-tusked elephants. They were magnificent! Like nothing I have ever seen before. Their ivory tusks were enormous! There were drummers and trumpet-like instruments being played and they were SO talented. We took off our shoes to show respect and went into the temple grounds with the rest of the locals. We stayed and enjoyed the ceremony for a couple of hours (even though we didn't really know what was going on and the fact that I basically stared at the elephants the entire time). We're not sure how long it went on but we started to get hungry again, so we left the ceremony excited for what the chef had prepared for dinner.
As we were having dinner and enjoying some King Fishers (Indian beer), "Safari Britters" came out and I realized it was a blood moon shining over us. Not only that, fireworks started up all around us as we were taking pictures of the moon. It really was our most very lucky day! We felt so grateful and fortunate to be able to be in that part of the world, at that exact moment, to take in all India had to offer us.
Our first Indian train ride was headed to Amma's Ashram in Vallikry. We were a bit nervous to board (again due to all the horror stories we’ve heard). We boarded the general cabin (purely local people) and started the 3 hour journey south. Not long after we began within the next few stops, 4 local boys got on who were immediately so friendly and had absolutely no sense of personal space. The one guy jumped right between Carter and I (literally jumped on us before we shimmied over to make room) and started asking us a bajillion questions. I, on the other side of me, had a little 5 year old admirer, that I was quite smitten with as well. His mom would help him translate his answers into English. Before I knew it, there were 6-7 other kids around wanting to talk in English with us as well. We learned that they were all related and hilariously took up the entire cabin of the train. As this was happening Carter took out the camera to capture all the kids, immediately after seeing it the teenagers sitting beside us were asking if he was a photographer and if he could put their SIM card into his camera so they could have professional photos of them taken on the train (this is literally how fast things happen in India) For the next 30 minutes, they each got a single portrait of themselves - smiling, not smiling, mean mugging, arms crossed, arms unfolded, sunglasses on, sunglasses off, with buddy #1-4, inside the train, outside the train, standing, sitting, group photo, only 2, another 2 of them, another group photo... they wanted the photos for Facebook to find girlfriends. Our memory card was full of photos of them, so finally Carter had to say "ok ok, I think we've got enough profile pics to find you all some girlfriends!" They were hilarious and made this train ride so incredibly enjoyable.
*While reading Holy Cow, there was a chapter on Amma's Ashram. Amma is the Divine Mother, I called her the Mother Hugger, as she was famously known for her unique darshans of a warm mother's embrace. Instead of the regular darshan (a blessing from a deity) she would hug her disciples in order to truly hear their wishes/prayers/questions and bless them with what they were hoping to find from visiting her in the first place. While reading this chapter, I didn't think much of it as the whole book had to do with the pros/cons/weird and whacky of many different religions... it was only until I randomly asked a lady sitting beside me at the Sri Lankan airport where she was going in India and she responded "I am going to live with Amma. She is the Mother Divine and is in town for the next two weeks." We took this as a sign of fate... when in India do as the spiritual seekers do!
An ashram is a place of communal living established around the philosophies of the chosen guru. We arrived at the ashram and signed into the international building, we handed in our passports and were given a key and a full sheet of rules. No smoking. No drinking. No drugs. No display of affection. No photography. No shoulders. No legs. No tight fitting clothing. Sooo... what can you do here??
We got settled into our very basic room lined with photos of Amma and then went to get our token to receive darshan (blessing in form of a motherly embrace)... only to hear it was going to be a 3 hour wait. Okay, so we went to get lunch. One perk of staying at the ashram is that for essentially nothing, you get a room and have 3 free meals a day at a whopping 250 rupees ($5). However the meals were like pigs troughs- the rice and curries were in huge vats- so much so we referred to upcoming meals as "slop" from there on out (ex. after we see the mother hugger do you want to grab some slop?) But it was good enough, "edible" and free, so we weren't complaining.
The vibe was definitely very ("very very very" -Carter) weird. It was a public darshan day so disciples, devotees and fans of Amma could come get her blessing for free and it was open to the public. So Carter and I waited in the queue for another 2 hours, moving seat by seat closer and closer to the stage and the Mother Hugger herself. If we had prepared whatsoever, we noticed people bringing her pieces of paper with their wishes and questions they sought to be answered. People were balling. People were smiling hugely. People were all over the place with their emotions after leaving the embrace of Amma. Including Carter. A few words to describe the look on Carter's face during this whole musical chairs charade, would be: confused, awe, disturbed, nervous...all of a sudden he's up next. We were told to go on our knees and inched our way (and were pushed) to the lap of Amma. As she was hugging someone from the left queue, we were getting ready in the right. As soon as one person left, Carter was pushed, tugged and smushed into Mamma Amma's arms/pit. Your forehead is placed on her right shoulder and she holds you for 30 seconds. She held Carter's head, whispered something into his ear in Hindi, and he was pulled up. Next was my turn. As I was set in place by Amma's helpers, an India woman was in Amma's embrace. As she got up, she was crying and talking to Amma as my head is shoved in Amma's left arm. So, Amma is soothing this Indian lady who’s now becoming reaaaally emotional, asking her tough life questions (I can only imagine as it was all in Hindi.) All the while I am still kneeling, head sideways in the mother’s half(ish) embrace. She pat my head a few times, I guess to let me know she's aware I am laying there patiently smelling her armpit. Anytime you’re ready Amma! Suddenly I was pulled over to her right shoulder and the full embracing commences, I am officially being hugged by Amma, the mother hugger! I mean, she’s hugged millions of people around the world so it was a great, warm, soulful embrace. She pulled me back, looked into my eyes (read: soul), said hibberybibberygibberish into my ear... which I can only assume would have been crucial advice from the divine mother herself for a lifetime of health, happiness, success and love...if only I understood Hindi. She placed three things in my hand: a paper bag, a candy, and a heart chocolate. Carter didn’t get anything LOL, so I believe during our extended hug, we truly bonded. Even though I couldn't tell you how many people had actually touched the chocolate heart she gave me, or why it was so melted in my dirty hand...I ate it. I was feeling spiritual as s*** and would ingest anything Amma gave me!
Lifted, gifted and #blessed, we roamed around the ashram a bit more. We signed up for a yoga class the next morning and looked at Amma's schedule for that night. After darshan she would be leading meditation and satsang. We wanted to see what would unfold.
We went back to our room and made our bed with the linens we were given, and laid down..... underneath the cool fan.... and didn’t get up again until 10pm. Meditation was over. Dinner was over. Satsang was over. Oops! Maybe we were so exhausted by the love and blessing we got from Amma or maybe we just weren’t cut out for the wild ashram life. But we got up, and ventured into the slop hall to find the bottom of the barrel slop. We ate with our hands and went back to our rooms as everyone needed to be in their rooms by 11pm, another one of Amma's rules.
The next morning we got up at 6am and attended our yoga class. It was the most spiritual class we’ve ever been to, led by an Indian women with the most soothing voice and best r-roll ever. Our mantra for the class was “remember the core of silence is where you hear god's own voice”. It was an hour and a half class and was completely relaxing. We went to get breakfast and it wasn't until this moment when we found out this whole time there was an Indian dining hall... and a Western dining hall. This entire time and we had been eating the "slop". So for breakfast, we went all in and got egg sandwiches, banana bread, orange juice and coffee. Must have been the luck of the dirty chocolate heart!
After breakfast Carter wanted, needed and demanded to get out of this culty/prison-ish vibe place and I was more than ready as well.
Our next move was to Goa. It was a long distance away, after doing some research we found out all sleeper trains were booked. We soon found out that all sleeper classes in India book out a week or two in advance, for every train at every class. So we bought a general ticket for the 15 hour journey to Goa...
Indian Overnight Train
As we quickly learned, you have to purchase Indian train tickets well in advance if you want any sort of decent seating. However, this was our first sleeper train experience and we didn't know any better. By a miracle we were able to get the general class tickets and had to do so in a rush as it was set to depart 10 minutes after we arrived at the station. Catching this train meant we wouldn’t have to hang around a station for 7 hours to board the next train heading to Goa at 9PM. Knowing we were very pressed for time we had to boogie once at the platform, but we have been in this situation before and know it's critical to stock pile on water and snacks before a long trip because you literally never know when you'll get to stop again. SO, we decided to split up...Carter went to ensure the train at the platform is ours and when it actually leaves and I ran into the cafe and order whatever the heck will get us through the night, when of course, the train horn blows. That’s fine we think, it’ll sit and wait for final passengers to board for at least 5 more minutes. I quickly browse the menu, ask the difference between an aloo and whatever ingredient I didn't understand, put in my order and take out my rupee to pay. Carter who is about 10 meters outside the store standing by the train says “okay, come on Britt. The guy I asked with the official looking uniform said it leaves NOW and he's has boarded the train”. I am sitting there like yaaaaa don’t worrrrrrrry about it, we're good. Then the cashier says it’s 200 rupees and I give her a 500 bill because that’s all I have, when all of a sudden I hear the horn blow three times. Oh shoot. The woman looks at the money, asks “do you not have a 200 bill?” because they never want to give out their smaller notes for some reason - CLASSIC India. "NO IT'S ALL I HAVE & THE TRAIN IS ABOUT TO LEAVE". Now the lady, who is moving at a sloth's pace, has our last 500 rupees so I cannot leave without getting my 300 rupee back. I hear Carter yell again because the train jerks forward "BRITT FORGET THE FOOD THIS THINGS MOVING!". Now the lady is REcounting our 300 rupees to give back to me. My head is on a swivel looking at the money, looking at the train thats slowly rolling, looking at the lady slowly count money, watching the train rolling faster. I grab our last rupees from her, grab our water (crucial) and a random bag of chips and dash out of the cafe without half of our order! As I am running towards the moving train, Carter who has watched 4 or 5 wagons roll by is back peddling yelling "come on girl!" (keep in mind we both have our massive backpacks on our backs and our day packs on our fronts.) As I get out of the store I realize the caboose we are chasing is the 2nd last one on the entire train. I thought we would have multiple carts to choose from, so now I have to run faster to catch it or else we were completely missing it! I hear another by-stander Indian lady yell “girl! You bettah run!!” Carter jumped onto the second wagon from the end thats now moving at a fast pace jog, and although he was reaching out with his hand, he was taking up the entire doorway with his body and massive bags. I only have one hand to grab ahold of the railing because the other is carrying two waters, a bag of chips and our only money. In the last carts' doorway was a little Indian man just casually watching this thriller of “will she make the train” unfold. I ran towards the small man and jump from the platform, thank goodness I am sure this man has experience in this, because in a split second I feel both hands firmly grasp my arms and huck me inside the cart. I am in! I’ve made it on the train. I walk into the cart and turn to go through the cart doors into Carter's wagon...dead end. It doesn’t allow you to pass through into his cart. I turned around to see two Indian men smiling and wobbling their heads at me. The man who helped me in said “handicap only but you sit here, next station move”. I quickly explained "Oh I am so sorry, I didn’t see the sign for handicap only! My boyfriend is in the next cart over so I will change at the next station!". They both laughed out loud “Uh-Oh, next cart is big problem for your boyfriend. Next cart is ladies only cart. Big fine. Big fine. Big problem. Next station, he come here. Is okay.” In the next 10 minutes, I knew their names, where they were from, what they did for a job, saw pictures of their wives and children and recent marriage, and they knew my name, where I was from, my age, what the exchange rate between Canada and India was, how cold Canada was, and my occupation. You have to love indian curiosity. (**I turned around after jumping onto the ladies only cart to find 20 women all staring at me, no smiling or head wobbling. I just apologized and sat hanging out the side of the train until the next station as there were no more seats - Carter)
The train didn’t stop for another hour and a half as we were on the express route, so these men and I become friends in that time. When it finally did stop, Carter and I got out to laugh about how he ended up in ladies only and I in handicap. We then found our proper seats in general second class cart with the rest of the locals.
Indian trains are like nothing we’ve ever seen or experienced before. The chaos, the culture's unwritten rules and etiquette we were very much unaware of; the dirt, the bugs, the throwing of garbage out the window, the fire pits lining the railway, the squatter hole toilet that you can see the ground flash past you as the train speeds away; the stares, the smiles, the head wobbles. Riding the train in India is a whole cultural experience on its own. Let alone our first overnight train trip being 15 hours in the general section. The train tiers range from 1st Class, 2nd Class A/C, 3rd Class A/C, 3rd Class Open, 2nd Class Open, General. Usually, tourists tend to stick to A/C Tier 2 - assigned seating, more foreigners, blankets and pillows, etc. But no, not us! The back of the train is chaos. So Carter and I grab the only two seats open and prepare for a long journey. And it is HOT. Sweating. Baking. Sticky. The train makes our first stop, and the two men from the handicap cart come and find us in the window. They wave and stand there wobbling their heads. The next stop, they come back again to say hi. Now we realize we’ve made train-friends and they’ll continue to visit us throughout the trip.
We hit a big stop and many people got off the train so Carter and I took advantage and headed for the empty benches. We laid our bags flat across the benches, we laid down using the bags as hard pillows and take over the entire thing meant for four people. The Indian way. Except, we’re not Indian. And people want to look at us, talk to us, wave at us, question us, take pictures with us. So we only got an hour of comfort before the first person asked to sit with us. From there on, we were hosting new locals every stop. It was a great experience but now we were on the 8th hour, getting late, and were exhausted. And just as soon as we thought the socializing was over and we could lay back down to catch some sleep, our friends from the handicap cart move into ours and a whole new set of locals hop on the train. But now because our friends knew all about us and could speak Hindi to the other passengers, it was a full out party in our bench area. People staring, looking at our friends, “Canada” we heard several times in the quick sentences, head wobbles, laughs, smiling and nodding their head at us - I just kept smiling back and saying yes in agreeance - even though I had no idea what they were saying or trying to mean. This lasted 3 hours. I finally gave up and laid down anyways, leaving Carter to entertain. Shortly after, people dispersed and found their own places to lay down - mostly these "places" were on the luggage-only shelves right on top of us!! Grown men climbed up on the metal baggage holders and tucked themselves in for the night's journey.
Every so often the train would be going too quickly for it's age and the shape it was in and you would be violently shaken awake. Then we would stop at a station and vendors would walk on and scream “chai, chai, chai, copee, copee, copee!!!” So that would wake you up too. Then someone in the cart would start snoring, and that would wake you up again. And then all hell broke lose as a drunken passer-byer threw his liquor bottle at the train and the men on our train ran for cover to our side of the cart like we were under attack... and we were awake again. Needless to say, it wasn’t a pleasant or relaxing journey but it was a great experience and story to tell. Finally, 3 hours late, we pulled into our station in Goa at 7am. Our friends had set THEIR alarms and got up to ensure we got off at the right stop. Indian hospitality at its finest. We wave and shook hands goodbye and they continued on their route to Mumbai.
Goa is a beach-lovers paradise. Relaxing, chilling, hanging out... whatever verb you want to use for beach bumming it, you can do it here. We stayed in Palelom Beach for a few days and did exactly that. So, instead of writing "we swam, it was fun!... we tanned, it was fun!!... we drank, it was fun!!" We'll just show you a couple pictures of our time on the beach for you to enjoy while it still snows in Canada:
We rolled into Mumbai at 6:30am and before the train even stopped, we had taxi drivers waving at us on the platform to get off the train as it was the last stop. The entire walk down the platform we had “yes sir, where you going!?” “Yes madame, taxi taxi” “sir, where? I take you! Don’t you need ride?” “Sir, where is your hotel? Colbana? Fort? I drive” “good price just for you.. good price, best price!” Welcome to India.
We were tired as this is what Sleeper Class quarters look like (when you don't book enough in advance AGAIN and have to travel as the locals do):
Our “thing” now is to dodge all the hasslers and approach the drivers that aren’t bothering anyone. That’s who we give our business to. So we got a taxi to Fort, in southern Mumbai, where we would be staying. Mumbai is absolutely beautiful. We arrived at golden hour, right after sunrise, and the sun shining through the big hundred year old trees which shone on the old buildings really set the tone for our impression of this city. It was less busy, less chaos, less India than we expected. Streets were fairly big, clean, and had a sense or organization to them. Every turn you took, you also had to stop to admire the architecture of the old mansions and heritage buildings. There was a beautiful mind of sadness to them; if maintained properly through out the decades and decades they’ve been standing they would be ideal and sought after residences but it looked as though they’ve been forgotten and vines and time had taken over.
We explored the area known as Fort; visited CST which is the biggest railway station in all of India and is also an UNESCO heritage site. It is GORGEOUS, both on the inside and out. At night, it’s lit up with multicolour lights and looks like Christmas all year long (you can only imagine how much I loved this building!) We walked down the fashion street which is comprised of 385 fashion and accessory vendors. Vacation Carter went crazy. I had to talk him down from a watch that he just needed to have. We don’t even know what day it is usually, why do we need to know the time?!?
That night we went to the historical AX movie theatre and saw Jumanji. But this was no normal movie experience- we were in the “kiddles“ theatre meant for children. There was about 50 multicolour seats in the auditorium, a play place right outside and the smallest doors to enter we could barely get through. Before the movie began, everyone in the theatre had to stand up for the singing of their national anthem (which we have since found to be the norm in India). I sat beside a 11&12 year old - one of which had seen the movie already and repeatedly kept telling his friend what was about to happen in English, simultaneously ruining it for me. Then there was a 7 year old beside Carter who giggled every time a swear word was said or reference to a male body part (usually 2 mins after the joke was made because he didn’t get it right away). But Carter and I laughed out loud the entire movie, we recommended watching it if you haven’t yet! They also stopped the movie half way through for an intermission and theatre workers came in to take our food and drink order. Strange to us but everyone else wasn't shocked by it. Apparently, Bollywood movies make intermission pauses in the movie; whereas, Hollywood movies don't write them in so the cinema worker just cuts it wherever and whenever we feels like it and unfortunately this break came right before nail-bitter adventure part!
The next morning we got up and decided to head south toward the real touristy area of Colbana. Here was the Gateway to India and Taj palace that towered massively over the sea. Sea of people that is. And most were Indians, we couldn’t move through them without “miss/sir, one selfie please”... but it wasn’t a selfie, it was a pic with them, then they’d call their friend over, and then the entire family would get in. One “picture please” would turn into 7 pictures and 10 minutes worth of smiling.
The Taj Palace was stunningly luxurious, we went in to use the washrooms to live the high life for 15 minutes. We then passed Leopolds, a famed bar and restaurant in the heart of Colbana. From there we met up with Om, one of Carter's friend from University of Hartford who lives in Mumbai.
Our afternoon with Om and his girlfriend was fantastic, they treated us to the most delicious lunch at "The Table" and then we went to another restaurant for more local eats..chat and pans puri. We actually ate and laughed for 5 hours straight. Food coma. Very nice to meet them and very grateful to have friends all over the world! We topped off our afternoon of eating with traditional Indian Paan. Paan is a mix of Betel leave, dried fruit, spices, watermelon seeds (really whatever the creator wants to put in it) used by Indians as a digestive or chewing tobacco of sorts. Wherever you go in India, you will always without a doubt come across men chewing paan. And if you don’t physically see them chewing and spitting it, you most definitely see where they have been because you walk over red stained pavement no matter where you are.
We took one last quick walk of the place at we’ve missed, the cricket stadium, modern art museum and Calbana market. And then we were off for another overnight train.
Mumbai is an absolutely amazing city! Both Carter and I agreed that out of all the cities, of all the countries, we've visited thus far, Mumbai would be a city we could live in. There is SO much diversity because it is such a massive metropolis. A big shout to to Om for taking us under his wing to show us what a beautiful city Mumbai truly is!
Carter Bender & Brittany Wilson left Toronto, Canada to travel the world. Where will they be next? Follow their #cbwtravels blog to find out!