Tag Archives: intrepid travel

The Galapagos Islands – JUST WOW!!!!!

The Galapagos Islands are ancient islands formed through volcanic activity, off the west coast of Ecuador. They were discovered by a man from Panama, named Tomás de Berlanga in 1535. The islands were claimed by Ecuador in 1832. In 1835 Charles Darwin visited the region in order to explore the islands and research the geology, botany and zoology, in order to find evidence supporting his theory of evolution. Despite Darwin having not spent a great deal of time on the islands, his name has since been tightly coupled with any references to the Galapagos.

The Galapagos Islands are particularly special because there is an incredible biodiversity, and they have been well protected from human influence and damage. It is on the islands that you can see a wide variety of land and sea creatures that are not seen elsewhere in the world.

Despite being a volcanic region, there are currently only two islands with active volcanoes: Isabella and Fernandina. Unsurprisingly, we did not visit either of these two islands.

Galapagos Islands Tour

Group photo of family and friendsIn July 2016 I ticked off bucket list item number 2, which was to take my mum to see the Galapagos Islands, something that was a life long dream for her. For ten days we toured together with family, friends and strangers on the Intrepid Travel Tour: Complete Galapagos (Daphne). The tour was all on a boat called the Daphne and our guide Wilo had recently been awarded “Best Guide in South America” by Intrepid. The crew were brilliant: Luis was a great Captain who got us everywhere safely; Benny and Herman took us everywhere in the zodiacs; Luis was a fantastic barman/waiter; Eric and Segundo prepared delicious meals for us daily; and Carlos kept the boats running.

There are a few reasons why I regularly tour with Intrepid, one of which is their commitment to supporting the community. Their stand on community support is in the case of the Galapagos backed up by legal requirements. Anyone who works as a guide or in any other capacity in the Galapagos Islands MUST be a resident of the Galapagos. This ensures the economic support of the islands, by providing income and jobs. It also means that you  typically encounter people that have a vast amount of knowledge and passion for their home.

When to visit

I am sure the Galapagos Islands are amazing to visit at any time of the year. Despite the cold currents and high winds, July was a great time to visit as we were able to see many of the birds nesting. In some cases, July is the only time of year when certain birds are seen on land. For the bird lovers in my group, this was a dream come true.

Isla Baltra

As the plane descended to land on Isla Baltra I can say I have never experienced such an intense buzz of anticipation emanating from all the passengers in the plane. We were all so curious to see what awaited us!

Baltra is an arid island, and for us, was only the point of arrival and departure. Within an hour of landing we headed across to Isla Santa Cruz by ferry.

Isla Santa Cruz

Giant Land TortoiseSanta Cruz is one of the few inhabited islands, with a population of approximately 23,000 people.

The main visit on Isla Santa Cruz was to a private farm where Giant Tortoises can be found after wandering into the highlands from the National Park. The land has been cleared, making it easy for the tortoises to find a greater variety and quantity of food.

The tortoises typically eat large quantities in the cold season, then travel to the lowlands to lay eggs.

A large old male can weigh up to 250kilograms. Tortoises never stop growing, though over time their growth rate simply slows down.

To see Giant Tortoises, Santa Cruz is the best island to visit.

Floreana

Floreana is another inhabited island, with a population of just 120. We visited an uninhabited portion of the island.

Group Photo at Post office BayOur first stop was to Post Office Bay.  Post Office Bay has a large barrel containing mail (letters and postcards), traditionally sailors would stop by here to collect the post to deliver mail to other islands they were heading to. Now tourists leave postcards there, so that other tourists may hand deliver them if the destination is near their home. It’s a really fun idea!

From there we walked to a lava tunnel where we did a short exploration in the dark and even swam to the end. The idea of hiking and swimming in a lava tunnel is so cool! But realistically, the one we visited was just like many caves I have visited.

Back on the beach, we went for our first snorkel in the Galapagos. We had the brilliant fortune of being able to see a large number of Sea Turtles in a range of sizes. We also saw some stingrays and fish.

The Sea Turtles were however, the highlight for me. They are such beautiful creatures, moving so gracefully through the water. I was also very impressed that they did not pay much attention to us and happily went about their business of eating, breathing and swimming as we watched in awe.

Devil’s Crown

Just off the coast of Floreana Island is a volcanic crater with a coral reef in the centre referred to as Devil’s Crown, and one of the best snorkelling sites in the Galapagos.

Dropping into the chilly water was rewarded with fantastic visibility and an abundance of sea life. We saw a huge variety of fish, not to mention a shark, eagle ray and marble ray.

Punta Cormorant

Sally Lightfoot CrabWe finished our visit to Floreana with an afternoon walk across the island from one side to the other at a place referred to as Punta Cormorant.

Through the centre we were able to observe flamingos eating in the lagoon.

Across the island was a beautiful beach where we were able to observe the brightly coloured sally lightfoot crabs scampering over the rocks. We also watched the pelicans and blue footed boobies diving into the water to feed off fish.

Espanola

Española was the first uninhabited island we visited. An island where we made two stops.

Punta Suarez

Punta Suarez was our landing point on the island for a nature stroll. Instantly upon landing we were surprised to see hundreds of Marine Iguanas chilling out, soaking up the sun on the black rocks and warm sand. The Marine Iguanas eat red and green algae that grows on the rocks under the water, through their diet their skin has acquired a red colour and sometimes you can also see the green colour.

Marine Iguana

The Iguanas on Española are so abundant, it makes it challenging to walk, as every few steps you almost tread on one who has blended into the environment so well and is laying to perfectly still.

In addition to the Igaunas, we saw Lava Lizards, Frigate Birds, Nazca (Masked) Boobies and Albatross’.

The Nazca Boobie, was previously known as the Masked Boobie. In 2001 the name was changed to Nazca Boobie after the name of the tectonic plate on which the Galapagos Islands can be found.

Gardner Bay

We spent a lazy afternoon soaking up the sunshine and hanging out with the Sea Lions and Pelicans on the beach of Gardners Bay.

On the way back to the boat, Wilo, Andrea and I took one last dive to check out a sleeping Galapagos Shark on the reef.

As the sun began to drop and we motored our way to the next island, we were incredibly lucky to get an escort. A pod of bottlenose dolphins, jumped, swam and spiralled in the bow wave of the boat for about 15 minutes as we shrieked in delight.

San Cristobal

Mid way through our tour we made a visit to the inhabited island of San Cristobal. The population of San Cristobal is around 8000.

It was here that we said goodbye to some of our tour buddies and said hello to some new ones.

Kicker Rock

Kicker RockPrior to arriving at San Cristobal we had a 6am snorkel at Kicker Rock. Kicker Rock looks like an island with a hill, but to one side it appears to have split. It was through this split in the rocks that we snorkelled in search of sharks.

Everyone was an incredibly good sport about getting into the icy waters at 6am. Unfortunately our early morning diligence was not rewarded with good visibility. Close to the rocks you could see some nice coral, fish and algae. But through the center of the chasm all you could see was blue. At one stage through this blue a galapagos shark was spotted heading straight for my aunt and I. Hearing our tiny shrieks of surprise, the shark disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

Island Adventures

On land, we said our goodbyes and gave hugs, before enjoying a spot of souvenir shopping as well as coffee and wifi connections.

Having recruited our new tour members, we enjoyed a brief land excursion starting with a visit to the Interpretation Centre.

The Interpretation Centre provided some geological facts about the islands and their formation. It also covered the history of the islands, and other information regarding its inhabitants, lifestyle, geology, botany and zoology. We continued through the visitor centre up to the viewpoint and statue of Charles Darwin, which was great for some photos.

From downtown San Cristobal we headed into the highlands to see another farm for Giant Tortoises, so that our new tour buddies would have an opportunity to see them.

We finished the day with a visit to Lake Junco which is at the peak of the island. This gave us a great panoramic view of the island as a whole, as well as the crater lakes nearby.

Isla Santa Fe

Yellow Land IguanaExploring the uninhabited island of Santa Fe was indeed a treat as it was the first chance we had to see the Yellow Land Iguanas. Much like the Marine Iguanas, these guys were super chilled out, and only occasionally opened their eyes to check where you were in relation to them. I was impressed too, by the bright yellow in their skin, perhaps coming from their diet of Prickly Pear Cactus.

During our walk we also saw Sea Lions, and a variety of different birds.

Snorkelling

With our new tour buddies we dropped into the ocean once more. At this site we again saw a huge variety of sea life. The notable fish I saw included a Scorpion Fish, Mexican Hawkfish, Blue-Eyed Damselfish and Cornet Fish. We also got the opportunity to swim with playful Sea Lions and a lethargic (thankfully) White Tipped Reef Shark.

Plaza Sur

Blue Footed BoobieThe Plazas Islands are a pair of Islands: Plaza Sur and Plaza Norte.

Plaza Norte is heavily protected and no one is allowed to visit. Plaza Sur is however a great spot to go for a walk along the island trails to see both Land and Marine Iguanas, Sea Lions, Tropical Birds, Swallow Tailed Gulls, Red Billed Tropic Birds and Blue Footed Boobies.

Genovesa

Genovesa is another uninhabited island where we took some opportunities to snorkel and walk.

Snorkelling

This was the place I was most excited about as it provided the opportunity to swim with Hammerhead Sharks! Unfortunately, the visibility wasn’t fantastic and I got only the tiniest snippet of video footage and no photographs before my GoPro went flat, but I was lucky enough to see five or six of these majestic, not to mention HUGE creatures! I was bouncing off the walls with excitement!

The other highlight of snorkelling here was to see a huge school a Manta Ray swimming directly below me. It was amazing to see them swimming as such a tight cluster.

In addition to the Hammerheads and Mantas, we saw a large range of fish species including Parrot Fish and Angelfish.

Walking

Red Footed BoobieWe made two land trips, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

In the morning we landed on the beach and wandered along the rocks to see Red Footed Boobies, Frigate Birds, Swallow Tailed Gulls and Nazca Boobies.

Our afternoon walk started with a steep ascent up the Prince Phillip Steps. Named after the prince who stumbled down them in 1972. Up on the clifftops we found the nesting grounds for a variety of the bird species’.  We saw the Swallow Tailed Gulls, Red Footed and Nazca Boobies with their chicks.

Short Eared OwlWe were also incredibly lucky to spot the Short Eared Owl (seven of them in fact, when spotting even just one is a rarity). The Short-Eared Owls are quite evil creatures, to hunt they don’t swoop down on their prey. Rather they hide in the burrows of their prey, awaiting their arrival before attacking them as they enter their home. It seems rather evil to me, but clearly it is effective as the birds haven’t starved into extinction.

Santiago Island

Sullivans Bay on Santiago Island was the place that I considered most fascinating in terms of the landscape. The entire landscape that we explored was 140 year old, cooled black lava.

Cooled Lava Flows on Santiago Island

What I found so fascinating were the patterns in the lava, the lava flow visibly change direction at some points. Some sections had tight ripples, other loose ripples and other sections were flat and smooth.

Over time, the layers of lava have occasionally split and cracked, enabling you to see the layers in the dried lava, with it’s various degrees of density and colour. Unsurprisingly, there was no animal life to be found here.

An afternoon snorkel around the islands’ coast was also fascinating, seeing the rippled lava under the water. It was here that we saw a beautiful juvenile turtle enjoying lunch, a variety of fish and for the first and last time, a Tiger Eel.

Bainbridge Rocks

Bainbridge RocksIn our travels from one island to the next, we passed by Bainbridge Rocks. A volcanic crater with a lagoon in the middle. The lagoon is often home to flamingoes, but on this occasion we weren’t lucky enough to see any.

Despite missing the flamingoes, I personally found the island/crater to be simply stunning and was not in the least bit disappointed at the lack of flamingoes!

Rabida Island

Our visit to the uninhabited Rabida Island was our last island visit. We enjoyed a walk and a snorkel.

Walking around Rabida

On first seeing Rabida Island, I feel we were all surprised at how red it was. The earth was a deep ochre colour everywhere you looked. The red looked magnificent set against the silver coloured, bare, incense trees and the lush green prickly pear cactus’.

Snorkelling along Rabida’s Coast

Rabida IslandOur last snorkelling trip of the Galapagos Adventure was around the coastline of Rabida from one bay to another. As usual we saw a large variety of fish, some Sea Turtles and Starfish.

We were also on the lookout for more sharks, at least I was. I was not disappointed, and in fact was a little put out by the large number of sharks we came across. To start with I enjoyed swimming a few metres above a large a wonderfully graceful Galapagos shark. Soon he crossed paths with two others. As I continued on, another two were not simply swimming along the bottom, but headed upwards towards me. While I am sure we would not have been snorkelling if these sharks posed a threat, having a two metre shark swimming in your direction is not a comforting feeling.

I continued on and soon the number of sharks increased to about seven, mostly staying low in the water, until one swam past me at chest height, in the two metre gap between me and the rocks. This was incredibly exciting, but at the same time, I felt I had had my fill of sharks for the day and I climbed aboard one the zodiacs to get a birds eye view of the shark ‘infested’ waters while soaking up some warmth from the sun.

Santa Cruz

We finished our tour back where we started, on the Island of Santa Cruz. Before packing and disembarking, we had one last boat trip on the zodiacs into Black Turtle Cove.

It was a very relaxing way to start the day, so serene between the mangroves, with the serenity of sunrise and the perfectly still water.

Looking through the waters surface amongst the red and black mangroves we managed to see baby Black Tip Sharks, Eagle Ray, baby Puffer Fish and Sea Turtles.

It was with this last picture in our minds that we packed up, hugged the crew and headed back to civilization.

What an amazing adventure, the words simply don’t describe how awesome this experience was!!

Galapagos Islands

Flickr Album Gallery Powered By: Weblizar
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterest

Tangier & Marrakech, Morocco

By the time I got to Tangier and the Marrakech, I was starting to feel like most Moroccan towns were the same. They have their Kasbah and Medina, pretty mosques, interesting markets and so on. Despite this feeling I did best to keep my eyes open to interesting experiences..

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tangier

Tangier is on the north coast of Morocco. From certain points you can see where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea, and you can see the Strait of Gibraltar. While these are three separate ‘bodies’ of water, I honestly think if you get to the top of Morocco, you have seen all three!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you make it to the kasbah and then ignore the wharf developments,  you get a decent view across the water to Spain. Many people travel from Spain to Morocco or vice versa via the ferries which operate reasonably frequently. I was surprised by how small the distance is between Spain and Morocco! So it is certainly an option I would recommend taking!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWithin the kasbah walls is a super cute cafe called Salon Bleu, being several stories high and having rooftop sofas, it is a brilliant spot to stop for a cuppa and slice of cake and just take in the view of the city and the water.

Our visit to Tangier was only a short one, as we only went there in order to catch an overnight train to Marrakech. So after a half day wandering the streets we were off again to the final destination of the North Morocco Adventure.

Check out all my photos on Tangier on Flickr

Marrakech

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile the town of Chefchaouen is predominantly blue, the city of Marrakech is all red, well red-brown. Supposedly it has earned the nickname the “red city”. The reason for the colour, according to our tour guide, is that the people who settled in the area and built it up as a city came from the desert, the Berbers. As a desert people they created Marrakech to be the colour of the desert so it wouldn’t hurt their eyes. My guess is that it would have been more about what resources they had access to, but everyone likes to hear random stories right?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarrakech is a very busy and very popular city and was  a bit like all the other cities on steroids. More noise, more colour, more smells and more aggressive touts. The thing that I saw more of, that thoroughly appalled me, was more animal cruelty. Walking through the main square Jemaa El-Fna were many horse and carts, snake charmers and monkeys with metal collars being pulled around by chains who were clearly terrified, hurt and angered by being yanked around by men. This was painful to see, so honestly I walked straight through the square quickly so I didn’t have to witness the cruelty going on. During the day the square isn’t overly exciting, but I heard that I really comes to life at night time and is a great place to eat. With only one day in Marrakech, this wasn’t something I personally experienced.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I can’t say I saw a great deal of Marrakech, but I generally enjoyed what I saw. I wandered through the medina and souks. Checked out all the colourful things for sale. Some friends tried their hand at bargaining for jewellery. Navigating the narrow alleyways remains fun, you never know what interesting things, sights, smells or street art you will see in your adventures. The Marrakech Museum was worth a visit, the building itself is gorgeous and a rabbit warren of fascinating rooms. Also while it is on the pricey side, the Majorelle Gardens were quite spectacular. I would have liked to visit the palace and the mosque but as I said I had very limited time in Marrakech.

Our tour ended with a visit to a dinner and belly dancing show in some random street in the medina. Which was a fabulous way to end the tour and to say “goodbye and thanks for the fun times” to all the members of the group.

Check out all my Marrakech photos on Flickr

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterest

Chefchaouen, Morocco

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChefchaouen is by far my favourite place in Morocco. It is in the Rif Mountains in the north of Morocco. Our guide told us it was built in 1511 by Berbers, Arabs and Jews. I was told by a random on a bus that the town name means “look at the two peaks”, though I am not confident of this. The name does however relate to the two peaks which some say are shaped like two horns; and I do believe the peaks behind the town are important in the town’s history. In the event of invasion, fires were lit atop mountain peaks to provide signals to nearby towns as a warning.

Chefchaouen is also sometimes referred to as Happy Valley, as there is a large amount of Marijuana grown in the area. I have heard that it is also fairly readily available in town, and is more commonly referred to as kif. For this reason, it is apparently quite a popular place for backpackers to visit, though I must say this certainly wasn’t on my list of things to do.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADespite other reasons for it being known t the travelling community, Chefchaouen is primarily known for being the blue city (in case you are wondering, no I do not know why everything is painted blue). A huge number of the buildings in the city are painted/whitewashed in various shades of blue, and sometimes purple. Often the tops of building here left as orange, but the walls, doorways and window frames were often beautiful combinations of different shades of blue. Despite my day of arrival being grey, glum and rainy, I throughly enjoyed exploring the narrow alleyways of the city. The following day and explored the same narrow alleyways and more and enjoyed it just as much the second time around. It is a gorgeous place to explore!!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn stark contrast to all various shades of blue, the Kasbah in the town center is completely orange. It costs very little to go in and see, but it is also not overly worth it. Nevertheless I found it interesting.

Things to see and do in Chefchaouen include exploring at random, visiting the kasbah, exploring beyond the city wall or enjoying the view from the city wall, and hiking in the mountains (I didn’t go hiking myself).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA word of warning, as with any place in Morocco and in fact many other countries. You will be hassled on the streets to look in stores, to buy products and to eat at specific restaurants. I found this a standard annoyance throughout Morocco, so Chefchaouen was no better or worse. What did bother me however, was the children. They would come up to you and essentially demand money. In one case we were asked by a girl if we had a pen, we produced a pen and she took off with it, we had thought she wanted to write something to show us. There was another case where someone on the tour had an ice cream taken from her hand by a child. Also it was here that boys yelled racist comments and threw stones at a member of our group.

So I love the city of Chefchaouen, it remains my favourite, but please be wary of the children.

View all my Chefchaouen photos on Fickr

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterest

Meknes and Fes, Morocco

Meknes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe tour made a short stop in Meknes, where we had a local guide tour us around for a few hours. We visited the Heri Es Souani granary which was built in 700 AC. It is built partially underground, and the smart use of high vaults and water flow systems were fantastic in keeping the grain cool. The granary sounding like something that would be boring to visit, but it was actually quite fascinating, not to mention beautiful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter our visit to the granary we walked around the palace I think (we weren’t allowed to go in or take photos, so I am not sure what the walled and guarded area was that we walked past). We continues on to the medina where we ate camel burgers for lunch. For someone who is a chicken when it comes to food, I did eat one and it was surprisingly delicious!

After lunch we had a short wander of the local markets before it was time to continue on to Fes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Check out all my Meknes photos on Flickr.

Fes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Fes we once again hired a local guide to show us around, starting with a visit to the Royal Palace. Well, the front gates of it, which are absolutely stunning! The Royal Palace is found in the newer part of town, from the 14th century. The palace gates were restored in 1968 and are yet another display of intricate and colourful muslim design work. There were so many beautiful colours and patterns. I loved it. There are many palaces around Morocco where the King and his Queen may reside, as the Queen is originally from Fes they often visit this palace. I was also very interested to learn that the Queen of Morocco is a computer engineer!
(If you didn’t already know, I am an IT teacher with a focus on getting more women interested and involved in Computer Science – I am always excited about women in IT especially someone in an influential role such as a position of royalty, it’s a great example to provide girls!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter visiting the palace gates and having some car trouble we headed up a hill for a view of the city and the medina. We made a short stop at a ceramics factory learning about the ceramics that are made and how the mosaics are created, before heading into the rabbit warren that is the medina. So many winding alleyways all filled with little stalls selling candies, bread, meats, olives, clothing, jewellery and more. It is a real feast for the senses!! (I might add that this isn’t always a good thing!)

Through the medina and out the back we headed to the leather tanneries, much to my disappointment they were undergoing renovation and we weren’t able to see the huge vats of dye’s used to colour the leather hides. We spent the remainder of our time in Fes relaxing and drinking Nos Nos. (The local brew of coffee is crazy strong, but they have a variation of it which is half coffee half milk, called Nos Nos.)

Check out all my Fes photos on Flickr.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterest

Rabat, Moulay Idriss & Volubilis, Morocco

The North Morocco Adventure tour is actually pretty full on, particularly for the first few days. On our first full day we visited travelled from Casablanca to Rabat, spent a few hours in Rabat then travelled on to Moulay Idriss where we toured the city and spent the night. The following morning out first destination was Volubilis.

Rabat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARabat is the capital city of Morocco, despite it not being the most well-known for tourism. In our two hours in Rabat, we were given a map marking out a loop of the city to hit three major sites: The Medina, Kasbah and Mosque. While two hours was not actually enough time to make the loop and we had to rush back without really seeing the mosque. The sites were definitely interesting to see.

Check out all my Rabat photos on Flickr.

Moulay Idriss

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMoulay Idriss is a super cute hilltop town overlooking the ancient city of Volubilis. We had a local guide tour us around and tell us about the history of the town as well as some things about the Moroccan culture. The town had so many wonderful narrow, winding alley ways. I wouldn’t have had a hope of finding my own way around the place! After an hour or so walking we found ourselves on the hill opposite the majority of the city, to see the most amazing sunset. It was a such a stunning sight and fantastic way to end a busy day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn regards to homes and doors there are two interesting things to mention. Firstly, it is important that from the outside of ones home you cannot determine the home owners wealth or social status. Secondly, the door to ones home is actually two nested doors. A smaller door within a larger door. Both doors have separate door knockers which make different sounds. The inner, smaller, door is for the family. The outer door is for guests. So if a woman is home alone and hears someone use the door knocker for the larger door, she will not answer. But she may peer through the vent above the door to check who it is. Obviously if someone knocks on the smaller door then she is welcome to invite her family in. I cannot verify if this is truth, but I have been told that the concepts of not displaying wealth and being able to see out but not in, also apply to the way the women dress, with their head and face coverings.

A culture quirk I heard about is in regards to the Hammam. A hammam is a public bath house. Women and men bathe separately. Typically the bath house is open for men from 8am to midday and from midday to 8pm for women. The quirk is that women typically pay 15-20% more to use the hammam than the men. As a woman in favour of gender equality I was surprised and keen to know why. The justification is that women spend longer in the hammam than men because their hair is longer and takes more time to wash, it is also the place where they go to chat and catch up on gossip. This is also the place where a woman’s potential future mother-in-law will check if a woman is suitable for her son.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Check out all my Moulay Idriss photos on Flickr.

Volubilis

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVolubilis is a 3rd century Roman city on a small hill opposite Moulay Idriss. The site is partly excavated and provides a good insight into the lives of people of the time. It also provides a fantastic showcase of mosaic tile work within the buildings. Considering the good condition they are in, I wonder if they are really the original ones restored; or if the Moroccans view restoration differently to me (I have been to some places in the past where recreating something in the same design as the original is considered to be restoration). Either way, the site is quite small but certainly charming to visit, particularly if you are already in the area.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Check out all my Volubilis photos on Flickr.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterest

North Morocco Adventure

Sunset over Moulay Idriss
Sunset over Moulay Idriss

Morocco (in North Africa) is a muslim country, one that has a bit of a reputation for a negative attitude towards women and some general harassment. The majority of people I have spoken to about Morocco thought it was beautiful, but cut their trip short because they were sick of being hassled.

Not one to be scared off visiting beautiful sights and in the hope that I can report more positive things about the people, I booked myself a place on another Intrepid Tour: North Morocco Adventure. So for 9 days, I will be exploring Northern Morocco with a great group of likeminded travellers and a knowledgeable guide.

Stay tuned for stories and pictures of the amazing country!!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterest

Tulum & Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

For the last part of the tour we crossed the border back into Mexico. We followed the coastline and made two stops: Tulum and Playa Del Carmen.

Tulum

Tulum is famous for the Mayan Ruins that are perched on a cliff top overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The day we planned to visit the site, we awoke to a downpour, which we waited out. With clear skies we headed to the site and started exploring. Firstly the site was much smaller than expected. Secondly the view of the ruins against the sea and sand was a little disappointing due to the major seaweed issue that has been plaguing the beaches on the Caribbean Sea. Despite this, it was really pretty.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy the time we were half way into our visit, the skies darkened and we watched the wall of rain and lightning approach is rapidly from over the ocean. We did a runner under our raincoats through the remainder of the site and returned to our hotel soaked through all layers of clothing.

The site opens at 8am and it is advisable to go as early as possible to avoid the heat and the crowds, though neither were an issue for us. The entry cost was 64pesos and considering the size of the site, that price is more than fair. You should allow a minimum of one hour to visit the site If you want to spend longer, maybe take some picnic food and relax under one of the trees to simply absorb the environment around you. It really is quite a nice site to visit.

P1060555The other activity we did in the city of Tulum was to take a taxi out to some local cenotes. We started with a trip to Gran Cenote. The entry cost was 150pesos and the site was quite commercialised, with a cafe, showers, toilets, as well as lockers, life jackets, diving and snorkelling gear for hire.

To keep the water clean you shower before descending the stairs to the walkways above the water. Even though the cenote is quite open at the top, descending into it makes it feel much more exotic and interesting. The walkways had ladders at various points to provide access to the water. The water was crystal clear and there were many areas you could swim, follow the walls of the sink hole, swim through caves and even swim with turtles. Even though I didn’t like how commercialised the site was, it certainly was very pretty and had variety of things to see.

P1060588The next cenotes we visited were Crystal Cenote and Escondido Cenote. The entry cost was 120pesos but was a combined ticket for entry to both (on opposite sides of the highway). Both Crystal and Escondido were less commercialised. There were very rudimentary drop toi
lets on site and a few timber benches to sit on, but that was the extent of the development. They felt much less like cenotes and more like small lakes, but were nonetheless beautiful.P1060567

Playa Del Carmen


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPlaya Del Carmen is roughly an hour up the coast from Tulum, in the direction of Cancun. It is a very popular tourist destination. The main street, 5th avenue is full of shops, restaurants and bars. A great spot for cheap souvenirs. The beach runs parallel to 5th avenue, but is one block down. The beach, like in Tulum, is plagued with seaweed. So unfortunately there is no beautiful white beaches and crystal clear water .

Something interesting and helpful to understand about Playa Del Carmen is the street naming system. Avenues run parallel to the beach and go up in fives eg. Avenida 5, Avenida 10 etc. Streets run perpendicular and go up in twos eg. Calle 2, Calle 4.

IMG_6166With no set plans and some days to spare a few of us booked an apartment with a pool, using airbnb. So we spent a few days pottering around the local area and chilling out by the pool.

I’m sure there is loads more to see and do in the Playa Del Carmen area but after touring Mexico, Guatemala and Belize for close to a month, a few days off in a sunny location is exactly what we needed.

Check out all my photos on Flickr

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterest

Belize

San Ignacio

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASan Ignacio was our first of two stops in Belize. Interestingly Belize is the only english speaking country in Central America, and despite being told it would be quite different to the other countries, I didn’t believe it until I experienced it myself.

The town of San Ignacio was a very small, sleepy, Rastafarian town.  The mix of races is predominant, and it has a much more caribbean feel than any of the previous places we visited.

While the town didn’t have a whole lot to offer, it was a gateway to a number of outdoor activities. There were loads of options, but we did two days of caving in one form or another. The tours we booked were through Maya Tours and I was impressed with their service and professionalism.

A.T.M Cave

The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave is a bit over an hour drive from San Ignacio in the Tapir Mountain Reserve. To access the cave is a 45 minute hike through the jungle and with three river crossings. The water thankfully, isn’t too cold.

P1060203The cave entrance is a pool of crystal clear, turquoise water. At this point you double check your helmet is done up, turn on your light and swim into the cave.

Throughout the cave the water varies between ankle deep and swimming depth. There are many amazing caverns, rock formations, stalagmites, stalactites and crystallisations to be seen. The cave itself is absolutely stunning and worth the visit. In the depths of the cave there is a ladder, which you climb to gain access to a large dry chamber which was used by the Mayans to perform rituals and sacrifices.

In the dry chamber are many broken pots, but more interestingly many calcified skulls and skeletons. The most famous is the full skeleton of a young adolescent boy, which is referred to as “The Crystal Maiden” (it was initially though to be the skeleton of a female).

Due to accidents in the past cameras have been  banned from the caves, so unfortunately I have no photos to share.

Cave Tubing

P1060241Cave Tubing is another fantastic way to spend time in sunny hot Belize. Access to the entry point is roughly a 45 minute walk through the jungle carrying your tube and life vest. At the entry point is a ladder down to the water level.

After a quick swim, everyone jumps in their tube and paddles into the caves to start exploring the cave system by water. The only down side was that there wasn’t much water flow, so we spent a great deal of time paddling ourselves down the river.

P1060310As you paddle you enter and exit caves. Through the various caves you can see bats, stalactites and waterfalls. There are a few short stretches where the water is shallower than at other points. This is where you get to lay back, relax and ride the water flow.

The time spent in the water would have been roughly two hours. While our arms may have been a little tired from paddling at the end of the trip, it was otherwise a very relaxing and pleasant experience.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACaye Caulker

Caye Caulker is a Belizean Island off the easter coast of Belize in the Caribbean Sea. The island is 8.2km long and 2km wide at it’s widest point. It is made of limestone coral, and the ground everywhere is a powdery white.

Against the white ground and sand, the water appears as a stunning turquoise colour. Caye Caulker is a hub for tourists wanting to chill out, relax, snorkel and dive. It also seems to be a hub for people who want to party.

We had two full days on the island, the second day was spent simply relaxing and soaking up the atmosphere, wandering the island and enjoying the food and drink.

The first day we spent on the island, we did a full day sailing and snorkelling tour which was absolutely FANTASTIC!! We sailed out to the reef and had the good luck of being visited by a pod of dolphins along the way.

The first reef we went to, we all put on our snorkelling equipment and explored at our own pace. We saw some beautiful live coral and loads of varieties of colourful fish.

P1060406Arriving at our second reef stop, a school of nurse sharks swam up to the boat expecting to be fed. We did not feed them, but being a tourist destination this is a major issue caused by tourists wanting to see animals in the wild. They feed them and the animals become conditioned to expect food when a boat arrives in their area, it changes their natural behaviours.

After a short while the sharks realised we wouldn’t be giving them food, as they dissipated, we geared up and jumped on in. We were split into two groups and had guided snorkelling sessions. The guide took the opportunity to tell us the various types of fish and coral that we could see, we were shown the sleeping sharks and also a moray eel.

P1060485After ‘swimming with sharks’ we enjoyed a tasty lunch on the boat deck before heading to the third reef stop. This was a much shallower section of reef but by far my favourite simply for the fact that we had the opportunity to observe sea turtles. It was just amazing to see these creatures in their habitat!

We spent the remainder of the day slowly sailing back to Caye Caulker, enjoying the sun and indulging in some of the local rum punch!

Check out the pics on Flickr!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterest

Rio Dulce, Flores & Tikal

Rio Dulce

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARio Dulce, meaning Sweet River,  is a river in Guatemala. We stayed at a hotel called Tortugal which we accessed by boat. We stayed in bungalows that were on stilts above the river and it was just amazing. A great spot to relax, sunbathe, swim and enjoy happy hour cocktails.

A worthwhile activity to do from Rio Dulce is to visit the hot springs. I think they are called Finca El Paraiso and can be found near the small town of El Estor. From the car park it is a short ten minute hike in.  The river is ‘cold’ water, by that I mean it is called cold water but is actually quite warm by the standards of a Tasmanian. The water from the waterfall however is hot, and I genuinely mean hot, close to boiling. It’s absolutely awesome to swim around and then be massaged by the falling hot water from the waterfall.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Flores

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur visit to Flores was an overnight stop on the way to Tikal. We arrived in the evening and left at 5am. We stayed in a lakeside resort with a gorgeous view. For dinner we wandered over to the town which was on another little island, we saw a beautiful sunset, some super cute little buildings and enjoyed happy hour at a roof top bar.

I imagine it would be a nice place to spend a half or full day, but it is otherwise quite a small place.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tikal

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATikal is another Mayan archaeological site, but compared to the others we had visited it was a great deal bigger and felt a bit more raw and natural. Each temple was a short jungle hike away from the next. We only saw about 2% of the park as it is simply enormous. The site is over 400 square kilometres and is in Guatemala, but reasonably close to the border of Belize.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATikal is a more recent name given to the site and it means “Voices of the Spirits”. The jungle in which the site can be found makes all sorts of noises, particularly eerie are the howler monkeys. It was from these noises that it got the name Tikal. Its real name however, is Mutul.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany people believe that the Mayans regularly made sacrifices to the gods, particularly human sacrifice. In later years and in other places human sacrifice became more prominent in the culture, however at the when Tikal was inhabited it was not very common and was only done for very special occasions. An example is when someone wins a particular type of ball game. They person who wins is honoured with being sacrificed to the gods. They are cut below the rib, then green obsidian is used to cut through everything else to make a passage to the heart. Then they reach in and pull out the heart to sacrifice, they burn it as incense and the smoke will rise up and appease the gods.

All the temples we saw were simply stunning, and it’s always such a wonder that they were able to create such large and beautiful structures with none of the tools we have today. They really were very innovative!

In addition to the stunning buildings, the jungle was just gorgeous. We were lucky enough to see spider monkeys, grey foxes and toucans. We briefly heard howler monkeys but only at a distance.

Check out all my photos on Flickr

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterest

Antigua

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAntigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Guatemalan highlands at 1500 metres above sea level. It was founded in the early 16th century. Like Lake Atitlan it is in an earthquake prone region surrounded by volcanos. There was a large scale earthquake in 1773 which destroyed almost the entire city. Much of Antigua was rebuilt, though some of the old monuments remaining.

The city has an Italian/Spanish influence and like so many other towns has such character in the buildings and cobbled streets. It’s just fantastic to wander and explore. I spent quite some time getting lost in the streets and have loads of awesome pictures of the different streets, doorways and ruins.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPacaya Volcano

For US$20 and a national park entrance fee of 50 quetzales, a group of five of us did a half day tour to the Pacaya Volcano. It’s roughly a 1.5 hour bumpy drive from Antigua.

The hike is not overly challenging and is 6 kilometers return. As you might imagine the hike there was uphill and the return was downhill. Despite having a terrible, uninterested guide, the hike was pretty awesome and we were all glad we did it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We thought we would be walking to the crater, but this was not actually the case. We walked to a viewing platform of sorts and then descended a short distance to the base of the 2010 lava flow.

It was interesting to see the lava flow and all the broken chunks of volcanic rock. At the very base there was a small hole in which we were able to roast marshmallows. Despite being quite some distance from the actual craters edge, it was incredible how hot the air coming from the lava flow was.

Coffee Plantation Tour

A group of ten of us booked a private tour to the Azotea Coffee Plantation. The transport cost 30 Quetzales and entrance to the plantation with guided tour was 50 Quetzales, all up the trip was approximately 2.5 hours.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The tour was throughly fascinating and we had a brilliant guide. I learned some very interesting things along the way.

Coffee was discovered accidentally in Ethiopia when a farmers goats ate the beans and then couldn’t sleep and were incredibly energetic. Coffee is rated in terms of quality and production. For quality the top three producers are Ethiopia, Kenya and Guatemala. For production, or quantity, the top three are Brazil, Vietnam and Columbia.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are two main types of coffee, the first is Arabica which is grown in the shade, allowing the coffee to be a better quality, but it doesn’t produce a great quantity as it can only be harvested once a year. The second type is Robusta, which is grown in the sun and can be harvested twice a year, which leads to higher production quantities.

When coffee beans are red they are ready to be picked. This is called a coffee cherry. Each cherry contains 2 beans, though occasionally a cherry will contain just one bean, in which case it is referred to as peaberry coffee. The beans are stripped of their husks to access the bean itself, before being roasted. Beans are typically roasted to medium, medium dark or dark roast. Once roasted they are ready to be ground and prepared to drink.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of the tour we got the opportunity to taste a standard medium dark roast, which was a bit strong for me, and a peaberry coffee which had a more subtle flavour.

The plantation owner from the year 1912 onwards, Alberto Orive Del Pando has been quoted as having said “Coffee should be black as night, strong as passion, sweet as love and hot as hell”. I still like my coffee sweet and white, but I think he did a great job with the plantation as they continue to produce great coffee!

Check out all my Antigua photos on Flickr

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterest