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Archive for the ‘Beaches’ Category

After nearly four months in South America, our time here is drawing to an end. We chose to spend our final weeks enjoying Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. We booked a flight from Cali to Santa Marta with the aim of exploring Tayrona National Park.

Unfortunately for us, our flight that was supposed to arrive up north just after 9pm was three hours delayed. For most people that travel regularly in the US, a three hour delay is fairly routine, annoying yes, but not a big deal. Apparently, this is not the case in Colombia. The flight delay turned into quite an ordeal. First, the captain came out to the gate to personally announce the delay and explain the reason; a flight attendant had fallen ill and could not make the return flight. The crowd exploded in an angry roar; from that point on, it was impossible to hear any of the announcements being made about the delay. Can you imagine an airline providing a reason for a delay other than “technical issues”?! Every time an airline official tried to take the microphone, the complaints from the crowd got louder. Then, our luck changed. Our delayed flight turned into some free food. To try and calm things down, the airline decided to give out sandwiches and juice. After 14 months of traveling, we will take any free meal we can get!

When we finally did arrive in Santa Marta, it was after midnight and there were only a few taxis still lingering around at the airport, so we had to share with a stranger. The driver told us, “no problem, I just need to drop this guy off in a neighborhood nearby.” What he didn’t tell us until we were already on the road was that the neighborhood is the ghetto of Santa Marta. As we drove further into the barrio, the driver slowed down to ask some rough looking guys for directions. This is when we both thought, “Great, almost done with Colombia and now we are going to get robbed in the classic taxi scam that we have heard so much about.” But oh, ye of little faith, we were wrong and thirty minutes later were finally safe and sound at our hostel and ready for some sleep.

The next day was spent gearing up for our Tayrona camping trip. Canned tuna, fruits & vegetables, 18 liters of water, bug spray and a bottle of rum all made the shopping list. It wasn’t until we got back to the hostel and started packing up that we learned some dreadful news: bringing alcoholic beverages into Tayrona National Park is prohibited…nooooooo! But being the optimists that we are, we decided that there are worse things in life than being in the Caribbean with a bottle of rum that needs to be consumed in an expedient fashion. The next morning, we fought through some mental fog and made our way by bus to Tayrona National Park.

Tayrona National Park

Getting into the park itself proved to be a bit of a process. First, they search your bags for plastic and styrofoam, neither of which are allowed inside. Next, you go through a police check point where you get questioned and searched again, this time for drugs, weapons and alcohol. Once you’ve made it through both of these steps, then they let you fork over the 38,000 Pesos for the entrance ticket; a colorful wrist band gets slapped around your hand and off you go to hike to the beach. The walk itself was beautiful; it cuts through the dense jungle, in and out of coconut groves, up to viewpoints of the ocean and finally onto the sandy white beach, however, it was a very sweaty and exhausting journey and we were glad to find a place to camp at the end of the trail.

Camping Tayrona

When we departed Santa Marta for Tayrona, we didn’t know how long we would stay, but the tranquil beaches and awesome camping spot made us want to hang around a little longer. There isn’t much more to do in Tayrona other than lounge on the beach and hike, and that was plenty enough for us. Both are right up our alley. Part of the beauty of Tayrona is that each beach is its own cove, all of which are strung together by footpaths through the jungle. Every day we explored a new spot.

Beaches of Tayrona

While many campers choose to set-up  near the beaches, we opted for something less crowded, more laid back, and a lot more affordable. We found a campsite nestled in the jungle about 10 minutes walking from the sea. Being away from the water meant longer hikes every day to the beaches and archeological sites in the park, but we didn’t mind one bit. Even at that distance from the water, Tayrona is so remote that we could still hear the crashing waves from our tent at night, and during our daily treks we crossed paths with some of the craziest ants we have ever seen! Countless ant super-highways were strewn about the jungle.

Hiking in Tayrona

Eventually our food and water ran out, and while we would have liked to stay longer, we decided to hit the road and head west towards Cartagena and Playa Blanca, another rustic beachfront locale. With our days in Colombia numbered, we think back frequently on a slogan we heard when we first arrived in Bogota: “Colombia – the greatest risk is that you won’t want to leave.”

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Poor Lima gets used, abused and taken out with the trash. Travelers stop through the city for one or two days on their way to and from Cusco, the entry point to Machu Picchu, and don’t give it the time of day. When we told others that we were visiting Lima for a week, the responses were along the lines of “A whole week, and you’re not going to Machu Picchu? You might want to re-think your itinerary. That is way too much time in Lima.” We are writing this blog post on our last of seven days in Lima, and can now say that we wish we had more time. Why do we love this city? It boils down to nothing more than the diversity of its neighborhoods, the fresh food and the stunning coastline.

Lima, Peru

Lima is a massive metropolitan area that is home to over 8 million Peruvians. The city itself is actually an amalgamation of 30 distinct barrios, or neighborhoods. Most tourists will only visit the Central Historic district, which includes the Plaza del Toros and many important government buildings and cathedrals, and Miraflores, the sea-front neighborhood that boasts pristine parks, high-rise condos and fancy restaurants. While these are indeed two must-see areas, it would be a shame to miss out on Lima’s other barrios. Granted, we were not able to see them all, which is why we wish we had more time here, but we were able to give Lima pretty good run.

After more than a year of traveling abroad, we can say with a pretty high level of confidence that the best way to see a city is not on an open-top, double-decker, tourist bus. The best way to really get a feel for the pulse of a city is to walk. The staff at our hostel thought we were crazy when we told them that we walked the entire coast from Miraflores to Chorrillos one day. What really threw them for a loop was when we finish the story, and they learned that we walked all the way back as well. As we made our way south along the coast, we witnessed the transformation from well-polished Miraflores to bohemian Barranco to Chorrillos, home to pescadores and the where locals go to have a day at the beach.

Coast of Lima

We normally don’t plan to set off on these epic treks; we just end up in a sort of Forrest Gump type mindset. We walk around one neighborhood, sit on a bench, then walk some more, grab a snack or drink, and we just keep on walking until we feel tired and turn around. That is exactly what happened when we ended up exploring more of Lima’s coastal neighborhoods on another day. We journey all the way from San Miguel to San Isidro on another day. This section of the coastline was a different experience altogether; it has some rougher areas and has yet to become a tourist hotspot, which may change once the ongoing land reclamation and greening project is complete.

Lima Coast from San Miguel to San Isidro

By the end of our week in Lima, we had seen the barrios of Pueblo Libre, San Miguel, Jesús María, Magdelena, San Isidro, Lima, Miraflores, Barranco and Chorrillos all on foot. If there is one item that we both wish we would have brought on this trip, it’s a pedometer. Fortunately, there is MapMyRun. While it is not an exact measurement, our best guess is that we walked about 44km in total while exploring Lima.

Lima

By far, the biggest tourism sector in Peru revolves around its ancient Incan ruins, but what many people don’t realize is that the country was home to various different civilizations which pre-date the Incan empire and lasted for greater periods of time. The Inca were great consolidators. They took many smaller civilizations and united them into one society; however, their reign that lasted for less than 70 years. A couple of our days in Lima were dedicated to learning more about ancient Peru and its pre-Incan inhabitants.

As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, most tourists fly into Lima and head to Cusco as soon as possible; little do they know that the ruins of Pachacamac are at their fingertips, and can be reached by bus in less than an hour from the city center of Lima. We will admit that to fully enjoy this enormous temple complex, it takes a bit of imagination because nearly all of the buildings, roads, temples and shrines were covered by hundreds of years’ worth of desert sand are still being excavated and restored, but the sheer size of the site and its location next to the ocean make for a fun few hours of exploring.  The first buildings in the area were constructed around 200 CE, (about 1,200 years before the Incan Empire) and beginning in 800 CE the great Wari civilization that controlled much of Peru for almost 500 years expanded the temple complex into a major pilgrimage site for worship of Pacha Kamaq, the god who they revered as the creator Earth.

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Within the city of Lima, visiting the Archeological Museum in Pueblo Libre is another great way to learn about the country’s ancient people. The museum walks you chronologically through the various civilizations that inhabited the area, from the first humans to reach the Americas, all the way to the nation’s independence from Spain. It took us a few hours to see all of the exhibits, and we found the museum to be well worthwhile. Tickets run about 10 Soles ($4 USD), but entrance is free on Thursdays.

While we would have loved to spend more time visiting other parts of Peru, we were thrilled to spend an entire week in Lima. The city is such a great place to visit. The people are friendly, the food is fantastic (especially the ceviche!), the architecture and history are there, and with all the improvements being made along the coast, we can see it becoming one of South America’s top tourist destinations in the coming years. Our suggestion: if you’re passing through Lima, ignore the naysayers and stay for a few extra days.

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Surprisingly, the title of this post is not a reference to food, although Pan de Azucar may be the sweetest national park in Chile. After the packed days of touring in San Pedro de Atacama, we were eager to enjoy more of northern Chile at a slower pace. Mike knew just the spot. Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar is one of Chile’s best kept secrets. Probably more than 9 out of 10 tourists will blow right by this place on their way up to San Pedro and not even realize what they have missed.

Located just 30 minutes away from the dusty town of Chañaral, Pan de Azucar consists of rocky, desertous mountains, which run right into the Pacific Ocean. The result is a truly pristine and picturesque coastline.

Pan de Azucar

The national park is also home to some of the most stunningly beautiful and relaxing campsites that we have ever seen. Plenty of other parks in the world offer sites near the water, but few offer such a unique experience. Our site was simply AWESOME. Deserted beach, blue skies, island view, sunsets, sound of crashing ways, charcoal grill…Take a look for yourself!

Pan de Azucar Camping

We spent our days in Pan de Azucar doing what we do best, hiking and chilling. To get a feel for the area, we spent our first day strolling for hours along the coast until came to a nice rocky outcropping where we stopped for a bit of afternoon reading in the sun. Reading has been an unexpected pleasure on this trip. At home we enjoy reading and read novels every now and again, but were never “big readers.” 2012 may have officially been the year of the dragon, but for us it was the year of the book. We have read over 20 books each this year! Amy even took down a 941 pager.

Pan de Azucar

That night we enjoyed some wine and conversation with a French couple that we met while setting up camp the night before. As the night drew to a close, and they headed back to their site down the road, we took the rain-fly off of our tent and settled down to gaze at the stars above. The clear skies and lack of any major cities make northern Chile one of the best places out there for viewing the heavens. We got lucky that night as were able to catch four shooting stars before eventually falling asleep.

We were up early the next morning for an all day hike. Pan de Azucar doesn’t have as many sights as San Pedro, but it does have “el Mirador,” meaning the lookout/viewpoint. We spent six hours hiking to el mirador and beyond, stopping for lunch at the top and even catching the sight of a guanaco, a relative of the vicuña that we saw in San Pedro. Just one picture looking down on the park from above does a pretty good job of demonstrating just how beautiful the place is, and if you really consider that pictures rarely ever capture a moment, you might be able to imagine what it was like up there.

Pan de Azucar Mirador

If we hadn’t pre-booked bus tickets back down south, we may have stayed in Pan de Azucar for weeks. It is definitely a place we will visit in the future. After packing up camp on our last morning in the park, we walked out to the road and hitchhiked back into Chañaral, catching lucky car #7. Riding out of the park with the views of the rocky mountains plunging into the sea was a perfect end to our time in Pan de Azucar.

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We arrived in Chile on November 12th and spent the first few days hanging out and recharging our batteries while we waited for Amy’s dad, Dave (a.k.a. Big Dave; named not for his physical stature, but because of his magnanimous personality), to arrive from the U.S. Those first few days in Chile before Big Dave landed, we honestly didn’t do a whole lot; we mostly just walked around town and visited with friends who Mike studied abroad with in 2005. And then Dave arrived!

While we’re sure he would have been perfectly capable of finding his way from the airport in Santiago to Viña del Mar (a two hour bus journey), we worried like parents and promised to go pick him up. But alas, we were late. When we found Dave, he was wandering around looking a bit lost and wondering where we were. In our defense, his flight did land an hour early.

Once back in Viña, we settled into our apartment and made a rough plan for how we wanted to spend the next week. One of the nice things about visiting this region of Chile is that you get three very different cities all in one place. Steeped in history and art, the bustling port of Valparaíso is often described as the cultural heart of Chile. Its neighbor, Viña del Mar is a more suburban coastal city filled with numerous parks, plazas, and gardens. And just a bit further up the coast lie the smaller resort towns of Reñaca & Concón, with their sandy beaches, high-rise hotels, and seafood restaurants.

Being that the apartment we rented was centrally located in Viña, we decided to begin our exploration there. First up was a local market known as a “feria.” Most cities in Chile have some sort of mercado central that operates daily, but they also have rotating markets that take place several days a week in various locations around town. We visited the Sunday Gomez Careño feria in the hills above Viña del Mar. Big Dave loves to cook and is damn good at it too, so we went all out stocking up on produce for our kitchen and fixings for a Thanksgiving feast. The place was absolutely packed with locals buying veggies and fruit. This isn’t the type of market where you buy individual pieces of produce; you buy things by the kilo! Fortunately, Chile’s diverse climate makes it an ideal place for growing many different crops, so the prices can be unbelievably cheap. A whole kilo of kiwis, for instance, will run you less than $1 USD.

We devoted the next two days to seeing as much of Viña as we could. Covering most of the city on foot or by micro (small bus), we definitely hit the main tourist attractions like the Museo Fonck & Flower Clock, but also visited the house where Mike lived during his study abroad and some of the places where he hung out. We walked the coast along Cerro Castillo and Avenida Peru, and we even stopped for completos along the way (a completo is the Chilean style of a hotdog). Dave was particularly excited about trying one at that the restaurant we visited, because it was featured on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Eating a completo is a major undertaking: a foot-long hotdog, topped with copious amounts of diced tomatoes, a hearty smearing of mashed avocado, and at least a half cup of mayonnaise. Amy tried them twice, and said that was enough.

After a couple of days of walking around and sightseeing, we were ready to relax and enjoy Thanksgiving. This year it fell on Amy’s birthday, which was part of the reason why Dave came to visit when he did. There was no way that the three of us could stomach a whole turkey, but we did cook up a pretty good feast including roasted chicken, artichokes, garlic mashed potatoes, asparagus and a surprise birthday cake from Mike. We can now confirm that Thanksgiving tiredness is not because of the tryptophan in turkey, it is from eating way too much.

One morning we set off to explore Valparaíso, and it turned into an all-day endeavor. The metro, which coincidentally opened on the last day of Mike’s study abroad program, is now fully operational, making it easy to commute between the two cities. Valpo’s most noticeable and beloved feature are the hills of jumbled, colorful, tin houses. You can easily get lost wandering through the winding streets and admiring the buildings and unique graffiti. We made our way into the hills to visit the home of Pablo Neruda, a renowned Chilean poet and national icon. He named his house in Valparaíso “La Sebastiana.” The funky architecture and décor made us long for a home of our own that reflects our personalities in the same way that La Sebastiana does Neruda. After that, we walked through the Open Air Museum which is a “typical neighborhood” of Valparaíso. The path led us down to the base of the hills where we ate at the Casino Social J. Cruz. This famous restaurant serves only one dish called chorrillana; another classic Chilean specialty that is just about as healthy as a completo. Chorrillana starts with a heap of French fries, topped with sauteed onions, fried egg, and beef.  While it is impossible to prove, local legend has it that J. Cruz was the birthplace of this tasty treat. After such a gut bomb of a meal, hiking back up another hill would have been too hard, so we took the ascensor up to Cerro Concepción. Before heading back to Viña, we stopped at the brightly colored Café Brighton for an afternoon coffee and incredible views of Valparaíso and its port.

On the morning of our visit to Valpo, we stopped for a brief look at the central market. As we mentioned before, Dave loves to cook. So missing the market was simply not an option. Located just two blocks from the shore, one would expect the market to be filled with fish and seafood, but it wasn’t. In Valpo, there is a separate market for that, so we assured Dave that the next day we would go see “El Tunel.” As promised, the next morning we set-off down la Avenida de España to the fish market that sits right on the border between Viña and Valpo, near the Diego Portales Metro station. Before going into the market itself, we ate an early lunch of fried fish. The market is named El Tunel because it is exactly that, seafood stalls lined up one after another in a narrow, tunnel-like, corridor. When we visited Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan, we thought we had seen every kind of seafood imaginable, but El Tunel still had a surprise in store: the larges barnacles we have ever seen! These things were about the size of a Coca-Cola can and you could see the crabs living inside. After checking out the day’s catch, we headed out back to watch the fishermen feed scraps to hoards of sea lions, pelicans, and a menagerie of other sea birds. It was hilarious watching them swim/fly in mass back and forth between the two piers as fishermen dumped huge buckets of fish guts into the sea.

By this point in Big Dave’s trip to Chile, we had tackled Valparaíso, Viña del Mar and Thanksgiving, but what still remained was the beach town of Concón. We hopped a micro and headed out one day, not knowing exactly where we were going, except with the goal of finding seafood empanadas. If there is one thing that Concón is known for its food, and more specifically, empanadas and seafood. The bus ride was beautiful with amazing views of the ocean and sand dunes. After nearly a week in Chile, Amy’s dad was a pro at riding the local buses and dealing with the masses of people and confusing tariff system. When we arrived in Concón, we tracked down a delicious empanada restaurant and stuffed our bellies. The beach is much more low key than those in Viña and Reñaca, which was a nice change of pace.

Well, that nearly wraps up our time in the Viña-Valpo area. You may not think that the name of this blog is very accurate – did they really chill at all during Big Dave’s visit? In between the sightseeing, we actually did. Our apartment was an oasis of calm, and it was such a treat to unpack and relax together for a week and a half. We had a blast hanging out with Amy’s dad and were sad to say goodbye when he flew out yesterday.

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A funny thing happens when you leave everything behind and take off around the globe. Regardless of how much money you save before leaving, when you pack up all your belongings into boxes and put them in storage (or leave them at your parent’s house like we did. Thanks again guys!) you essentially become homeless, for lack of a better word, and when push comes to shove will sleep wherever you have to; park benches, beaches, bus terminals and random couches have served us well. We ended our last post by saying that we woke up refreshed and ready to go after the night in Franz Josef. Truth be told, the evening soak in the spa wasn’t the only reason we woke up feeling good. We had intended to spend the night sleeping in the back of our Subaru because it was too cold for the tent, but the mountains surrounding the glaciers made the temperatures too chilling for even that to be feasible. The holiday park office was closed for the night meaning no possibility of upgrading to a cabin, so we sorted out our options and went with plan c: sleeping in the TV lounge. The little boy watching cartoons was less than pleased about us interrupting his late-night private screening of Looney Toons and quickly exited with a scowl. A soft sofa in a heated room beats a cold stiff car any day, and in a matter of minutes we fell fast asleep. We slept so well that our alarm clock didn’t wake us; the holiday park manager did. He was there bright and early, “goo’day ladies and gentlemen. It’s time to get up now. Let’s go. Guests will be waking soon, and this isn’t a sleeping room as I’m sure you’re well aware.” He was actually quite jovial about the whole thing, but we couldn’t help but feel a bit like bums being brushed from the sidewalk. In our defense, we had paid for a campsite (making us guests too) and the TV room didn’t have any closing hours posted. Anyway, we got a good night’s sleep in a safe cozy place and after some breakfast and coffee were ready to hit the highway and get our road trip back underway.

The west coast of New Zealand’s south island is the most remote place in the entire country. The crowds that cluster around the famous glaciers dissipate as you move north along the coast. Tall mountains, thick forests and rocky coasts made development of this region quite difficult. The towns are all very small and are few and far between, but like most of the island, the landscape is astonishing. We spent the morning hiking near Okarito Lagoon.

The nature reserves in this area are home to the endangered Kiwi bird from which New Zealanders get their nickname. Millennia ago, when the islands split from the ancient continent of ‘Gondwana’ land mammals and other predators had not yet evolved in the region making it a paradise for an endless array of bird species. Over time many of these birds, like the Kiwi, developed strange appearances and lost their ability to fly and became ground dwellers, but the arrival of humans and introduction of non-native species by European settlers has taken a devastating toll on many of these birds. On a lighter note, the Kiwis aren’t the only strange inhabitants of the area; isolation seems to have resulted in some very peculiar human residents as well. It is a bit tough to explain, but the citizens of the west coast definitely dance to the beat of their own drum. Something along the lines of the Beverly Hillbillies meets Jerry Springer show.

After our brief jaunt along the west coast, we made our way to the northwest coast of the south island to New Zealand’s smallest national park, Abel Tasman. Although small, it certainly stands up to its competition. It is home to one of the country’s Great Walks, called the Coast Track, which is a 51km long trail that runs along the edge of the national park with incredible ocean views. We spent a few days camping on the beach and going on day walks along the Coast Track. The orange/red sand beaches, thick forests of fern trees and warmer rain-less weather made us think this is the place to be in New Zealand.

We got peeled out of the paradise that is Abel Tasman because of one of Amy’s big brothers, Aaron. Although not the most logical route, last week we drove straight through back to Christchurch, where we began our New Zealand adventure. Aaron is on his second year working with the U.S. Antarctic Program as a cook at the South Pole station and was being deployed from Christchurch. Naturally, we wanted to stop through town to see him! It was a fun two nights catching up over a couple of beers. He even let us be stowaways in his hotel room, adding to our list of unique places to rest our heads for the night. Although we’ve meet up with quite a few friends during our RTW trip, this was the first time we had seen any family in the past 9 months and it really felt good.

While Aaron was at training sessions, we made a day trip out to the Banks Peninsula, another amazing land formation in this country. The peninsula used to be a volcanic island but attached itself to the mainland after millions of years of erosion (check out a map, it’s pretty interesting). The town of Akaroa is situated on Akaroa Harbor which is the epicenter of the peninsula. From there, fingers jut out creating several bays. We took as many back roads as possible that day, putting ourselves in a few precarious situations on extremely narrow gravel roads. Amy even got chased down by a mama sheep while trying to photograph its two black lambs. Overall, it was one of our favorite scenic drives in New Zealand so far.

After saying farewell to Aaron and wishing him luck in Antarctic captivity for the next four months, we drove north to Kaikoura. While checking into a holiday park for the night, the receptionist asked if we were in town for the horse race. “What horse race?” we said. She informed us that it was the one day of the year when the local horse track got used for the Kaikoura Cup. Having never been to a proper horse race, we jumped on the opportunity. The sun was out, and so was the entire town of Kaikoura. It was a blast. There wasn’t the pomp and circumstance that comes with races like the Kentucky Derby, but the excitement, big hats and celebratory drinking were all there.

Kaikoura is known for its seals, and we definitely got our fix while in town. The day after the horse race we set out to hike around the Kaikoura Peninsula, an 18km endeavor that took a bit longer than we’d anticipated, but was well worth the trip. We would say that as a rule of thumb, when visiting New Zealand, check out every peninsula you can. The views of the snow-capped mountains juxtaposed with the turquoise blue ocean were stunning, not to mention the incredibly adorable fur seals that lounge on the coastal rocks. The next day, on our trip out of town, we stopped at a trail head that was suggested to us by our Kiwi neighbor, Steve, at the holiday park. We took a short walk up to a waterfall and had one of the most marvelous wildlife encounters we’ve ever experienced. There were 14 fur seal pups playing and lounging in the pool of the waterfall. Apparently their moms lead them upstream and leave them for protection while they are out to hunt. The sight of tourists gawking over the seal pups was almost as entertaining to watch (click here to see a video we took of the seals).

We continued to make our way north along the ‘Classic NZ Wine Route’ until we reached Blenheim. The Marlborough region is world renowned for sauvignon blanc production, and Blenheim is the center of the action. We had our eye on a free campsite along the Wairau River, but first took our time wine tasting our way through the area. Neither of us are huge white wine drinkers, but if we had to choose one varietal, sauv blanc would be it. The crisp, grassiness of the NZ brands are beautiful. We, of course, had to stop at the famous Cloudy Bay for some tasting, and we were also happily surprised by a few other wine makers that we’d not heard of: Hans Herzog, Staete Landt & Yealands.

After we hit our 5 winery limit for the day we began to make our way to the campsite. Unfortunately, after about 30km of country roads, we came to a 4WD-only section that our Subaru just wouldn’t have made. While trying to decide on a new game plan, Mike noticed a sign that said ‘Pine Valley Hut.’ A hut? Way out here? We were curious so decided to hike the 40 minute trail in to see what it was all about. Maybe it was all the wine we’d tasted, maybe the sunny weather had gotten to our heads, but what we found was a gem of a place. We knew right away that we had to hike back out to grab our gear. It was such an awesome hut that we decided to stay for two nights. It had been quite a while since we’d gone two entire days without seeing another sole. It was a fun time making fires, swimming in the river, and hiking.

Thus far, our New Zealand road trip has proven to be a real treat. While hitting the highway daily sometimes make us feel a bit like vagabonds, every day away from home makes us realize that we all share one world. After nearly a year since moving out of our apartment, we have become accustomed to calling whatever hostel bed, campsite, hotel room, apartment or couch our home. It is funny how many times we will be tired from a day of exploring and say, “let’s go back home.” We know that one day in the not so distant future we will be heading home for real, but for now we are thrilled to be continuing this once in a lifetime expedition.

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Walking Sydney

Walking across the Sydney Harbor Bridge is one of the must do tourist activities when visiting the city. On our first day there, we set out to do just that. There are a few different ways to experience the bridge. Some fork out over two-hundred dollars to harness-up and climb to the bridge’s highest point. Others pay less to climb one of the towers, and then there are the backpackers like us who go for the free option and simply cross via the walking path.

Looking out over the Opera House and Sydney CBD.

The views from the bridge were great and the price couldn’t be beat. Along the way to the bridge, we ended up discovering that Sydney is a fantastic city for self-guided walking tours. We spent the next three days walking around town and seeing the sights, while trying not to go broke in this insanely expensive city.

Our first day started with a walk through Hyde Park and the Botanic Gardens, which culminated with a view of the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge. We have grown up seeing pictures of the famous Opera House on TV and in magazines, so we had a clear image of it in our heads. Truth be told, it was actually a bit disenchanting to see it in person; sometimes the great sights of the world get so hyped up that when you actually get there, the thrill dies quickly. That being said, the Opera House did provided a spectacular backdrop for our picnic lunch in the nearby park.

Post-lunch pic

Skateboarder in front of the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park

We continued our walk around the harbor and through the bustling Circular Quay where numerous ferries come and go every few minutes. We even came across a street performer playing a didgeridoo like no other didgeridoo player we’ve ever heard. It fit into one of those typical Australian stereotypes, like seeing kangaroos, so we were quite pleased with that.

This guy broke it down on the didgeridoo!

Our second day in Sydney didn’t grace us with blue sunny skies as the first, but nonetheless we took off for a walk through Darling Harbor. It is a hub of activity in the city, with the Convention center, Aquarium, Maritime Museum and tons of walking paths.

View of Sydney’s Darling Harbor

Monorail cruising through Darling Harbor

Last but not least, we hopped a bus towards the ocean on our final day in town. The weather was unpredictable to say the least, but we put on our rain coats and took off for the 6km walk between Coogee Beach and Bondi Beach anyway. The winds were strong and the rain quite cold, but the walk was a lot of fun!

Strong gusts threatened to blow us over the cliffs. Seriously.

On the way from Coogee to Bondi Beach.

Despite our short time in Australia, Sydney is a city we are glad to have visited. It is the perfect place to begin or end your trip in this massive country, and spend a few days walking about.

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This post is about our visit to Western Australia, but the story begins many months ago…

Split, Croatia – April 2012

While riding a ferry to the island of Hvar, we were attempting to take a picture of ourselves when a guy came up to us and asked if we would like him to take our photo. We began to chat and told him about our RTW trip. Upon hearing about our plans to travel to Australia, he quickly replied, “Well, it’s lucky you met me then!” and said nothing further leaving an awkward moment of silence. Does he work for the Travel Channel? Does he want to offer us a book deal? Maybe he’s a local hotel owner with a discount? Curiosity swirled through our heads until he finally chimed in again telling us that his name was Juan and that he and his girlfriend Saskia were on a lengthy road trip around Europe. Despite having only known us for about 30 seconds, he offered to host us at their home in Perth, Australia. We exchanged information, but at that point didn’t think much of it. After all, who would fly to such a remote place to stay with complete strangers?

This is the fateful photo taken on the ferry in Croatia

Fast Forward 6 Months

We landed in Perth at 5am after a red-eye from Kuala Lumpur. Out of it from not sleeping on the flight, we walked out of customs to see Saskia’s smiling face saying “Welcome to Australia!” I guess we are the type of people who fly somewhere to stay with strangers, not complete strangers though, as we did spend one crazy fun night in Split with Juan and Saskia making our friendship about 12 hours old.

After a few hours at dinner in Split, we decided they weren’t axe murderers

As we exited the airport, we saw that they had the car packed up for a proper camping trip and even had a boat in tow. And so began our road trip adventure through Western Australia. Straight away, we headed north from Perth towards Gnaraloo Station, a 12 hour drive that allowed us to see some true Aussie outback. The road we took made its way along the west coast through barren desert, fields of wheat, white sand dunes and rust-red flatlands. Just about now you are probably thinking, did they see kangaroos? YES WE DID. Sadly, the first 20 were all road kill (apparently hitting a kangaroo isn’t at all uncommon when driving in the bush) but eventually we began to see groups of them hopping through the shrubs. We even saw some emus too!

By the time we arrived at Gnaraloo Station, the sun had already set. We unloaded the camp gear, and before we knew it the night was upon us and brilliant stars had filled the sky. Pardon the pun, but the stars of Western Australia are truly out of this world. We have seen our share of clear, starry nights in the Rocky Mountains, but these stars take the cake hands down. Between the drive and the stars, the feeling of remoteness was astonishingly wonderful.

We awoke in the morning to views of the Indian Ocean with humpback whales breaching just off the shore and headed to Gnaraloo Bay for some beach time and fishing. Over the last couple of months in SE Asia, we have become pretty good at beach-time but when it comes to fishing we both fall in the novice category. Juan on the other hand is an avid fisherman and was happy to show us the ropes. Over the next few days we spent countless hours soaking up sun, snorkeling, fishing on the boat and flying a really fun kite (that’s right, kites aren’t only for kids these days). Although Saskia pulled in more fish than the both of us combined, we did land a few good catches. It was the best fishing trip we have ever been on.

Eating fresh seafood is something that we always enjoy, but the experience of catching fish at sea and then cooking them up for dinner is tough to beat. Juan even caught a huge squid that we grilled up on the camp fire.

What time wasn’t spent at the beach was spent telling stories and making jokes while we sat around the fire and looked out over the dunes and sea. For the first time in ages, we didn’t turn on our computer or feel the need to be “connected.” After just four days of camping our new friends felt like people we had known for years.

The end of our camping trip did not, however, mean the end of our visit to WA. Juan and Saskia still had a few things planned. Along the way down to Perth, we made our way to the coastal town of Kalbarri for a night. To get there, we passed some blowholes that shot sea water up through circular holes in the stone creating a whistling noise and huge bursts of water. Then we made our way through Kalbarri National Park which is home to a deep gorge that cuts through the red stone and provides a refuge for lots of annoying flies. Finally, we drove into Kalbarri, a cute little town on the ocean, where Juan and Saskia had booked us an incredible B&B where we stayed the night.

After a delicious breakfast, we drove out for the last section of our road trip back to Perth. Along the way, we stopped at The Pinnacles, an area of land that has interesting rock formations jutting out of the dunes, which actually reminded us a lot of the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia. We even got a little unexpected excitement from a flat tire when we pulled off a road to see Pink Lake. After snapping a few pics of the interesting pink color that is created by beta carotene and fixing the flat, we headed on our way.

Our Western Australia trip came to an end at Juan and Saskia’s place, where we enjoyed a few more laughs and some tasty Jamie Oliver hamburgers. It is amazing how quickly a week can go by when you spend it with great company, exploring new places. The coast of Western Australia is amongst the most isolated places in the entire world, and were it not for that chance encounter on the ferry in Croatia, we probably never would have seen it. Turns out that Juan was absolutely correct; it was very lucky that we met him, because it lead to an unforgettable Australian experience and two new friends for life.

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Our days in SE Asia are numbered, and as they draw to an end we have found ourselves drifting among the islands of the Indo-Pacific. Well, not drifting in the literal sense, more like hopping from island to island without knowing how long we will stay nor where we will go next.

The last two weeks have been spent on two islands that sit in stark contrast to one another, yet have both found a special place in our hearts. Our post today is a tale of two islands: the bustling island-nation of Singapore and the once famous, but now somewhat forgotten, Tioman Island.

The Isle of Singapore

Like so many of our favorite stops on this RTW expedition, we hadn’t initially intended on visiting Singapore. Its reputation amongst young backpackers is that it is far too expensive and really not worth the time. We heard similar complaints about Hong Kong and enjoyed it, so when we found a cheap flight on Tiger Airlines, we opted to make Singapore our launch pad into Indonesia.

After spending months in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao & Thailand, Singapore hit us like a sack of bricks.  “Wait, that’s the price for one beer? I thought that was for a whole pitcher.” The rumors about steep prices couldn’t have been more true, but over the next few days we came to realize that Singapore is definitely worth every cent.

The first thing to catch our eye was the skyline of the city. The architecture is a perfectly woven combination of restored historical buildings, ultra-modern design, multilane highways and small public squares and parks. The city is also immaculately clean; you literally have to seek out rubbish and graffiti. This, however, may be due to the fact that nearly everything is against the law; where else will you find yourself getting fined for not flushing the toilet?

As if in symphony with the city’s complex structural design, the people of Singapore offer a diverse mix of ethnicities, cuisines, religions, cultures and languages. As is the case with most major cities, the first immigrants to Singapore formed smaller communities leaving the modern day city with a Little India, China Town and Arab Street, but the city center is far from segregated. On just one street you can walk by a mosque, temple, shrine, church and synagogue, all while hearing people speak English, Malay, Tamil, Arabic and Cantonese.

After a few days exploring Singapore’s urban sector, we were beginning to feel trapped by the concrete jungle, so we hopped on a bus across the island and headed for, you guessed it, another island. Pulau Ubin is small, sparsely developed and sits between Singapore and Malaysia. It is reachable by a 15 minute ferry and is a popular escape for Singaporeans looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Mountain biking, kayaking, camping, fishing, and trekking make Pulau Ubin the best bet for outdoor enthusiasts visiting Singapore.

Exhausted and with sore butts, we returned to the city after a day of biking and headed to Brewerkz, our favorite watering hole in Singapore. Any beer loving person who has spent some time in Asia will tell you that stumbling across a micro-brewery is like finding an oasis in the dessert. We figured if we were going to drop some coin on beer in Singapore, better to spend it on these delicious craft brews instead of the same old watery Chang, Tiger, and Beer Lao that is found throughout the region.

As we said earlier, Singapore was supposed to be our gateway to Indonesia, but the ferry situation turned out to be more costly, time consuming and complicated than we originally anticipated. We had been hoping to do some more SCUBA diving anyway, so we decided to look into some other options…

Tioman Island – A Lesser Known Paradise

One night in Singapore, we sat at our hostel pouring over information about the best dive sites in Malaysia. The good news? There didn’t seem to be a shortage. The gold medal goes to the world-renowned Sipadan, however, due to its distant location on Borneo and the fact that diving there requires months of advanced booking, we decided on another option.

Tioman Island was made famous by the movie South Pacific and in the 1970s was included in Time Magazine as one of the world’s most beautiful islands, but in recent decades has lost much of its luster.   It was a place we’d never heard of before, but we were intrigued by the beautiful pictures of its coral reefs and seemingly easy commute from Singapore. Without giving ourselves time to think twice, we booked our tickets and were setting off to Tioman just 24 hours later.

To make a long story short, we fell in love with Tioman, spent many more days there than we intended, and could not stop SCUBA diving. Two dives turned into four, four into six, and six into nine. There are many reasons to love Tioman. First, the entire island is surrounded by a marine park with crystal clear water that gently fades into a spectrum of turquoise blue that can only be found in a true tropical paradise; perfect for diving and snorkeling. Our adventures at sea offered us glimpses of Hawksbill Turtles, Reef Sharks, Barracuda, and a seemingly endless abundance of marine life.

What’s more, the entire island is duty-free! What does that mean exactly? Tioman is one of the few places in Malaysia where you can find cheap booze and cheap tobacco, in a country that otherwise imposes a very hefty tax on these items. Shhhhhhh….don’t tell the wild party kids that have managed to ruin so many of SE Asia’s most beautiful places. Despite the duty-free aspect of Tioman, it still does not attract hoards of party-ready backpackers, but rather offers a bar scene that is a very chilled out, one where tourists and locals mingle and chat under a star-filled sky.

Furthermore, the entire island is layered with jungle that covers the land from shore to mountaintop making it virtually inaccessible by vehicle. So what’s so great about thick jungle? It’s ideal for island trekking (assuming you’ve applied a thick layer of DEET) with plenty of chance to see wildlife, ranging from monitor lizards to monkeys to the world’s largest flower.

Last but not least, the entire island offers fantastic food. OK, not the entire island, but there is an amazing BBQ seafood restaurant in Tekek village that serves up fresh snapper, prawns, marlin, barracuda, lobster and so much more, all for a ridiculously cheap price. You may be thinking “fresh fish from a marine reserve?” Don’t worry, everything they serve was caught well outside the boundaries of the Tioman Marine Park; we’re certain of this because we saw the island’s lead marine biologist and conservation team eating there every night.

While relatively close together, Singapore and Tioman are worlds apart. Singapore offers all of the luxuries of an international hub, but comes along with traffic, high prices and over development. Tioman can leave you feeling a bit isolated, with nothing more than small villages speckled along its coasts, but provides a genuine island experience. Is one better than the other? We don’t think so; they’re just two different islands on this planet we all call home.

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Rastafarthais

What, you may be wondering, is the meaning of Rastafarthai? It’s quite simple actually, Rastafarai + Thai person = Rastafarthai. We started using this word to describe some of the locals who work on Railay Beach in Thailand, which we visited a few weeks back. And thanks to Google, we now speculate that we may in fact be the original coiners of this well suited term. Although we did not take any photos of said Rastafarthais, we did manage to pull one off the interweb. It was probably taken by some backpacker who pointed their camera way too close to the rasta’s face and then walked away, like we saw so many tourists do. I mean, how would you like it if someone walked into your office, took your picture, and then turned around and left without saying one word to you? #awkward. Anyway, without further ado, here is a visual of a real-life Rastafarthai.

We aren’t sure how dreadlocks and reggae made their way from the Caribbean to SE Asia, but think it’s worth mentioning since many of the activities on Railay are not exactly traditional Thai customs. Most are quite “hippy” really (i.e. tightrope walking, fire dancing, Connect Four, rock climbing, joint smoking, guitar playing…you get the picture). Sure, we’re taking some liberties here by drawing a parallel between rastas and hippies, but it’s not too far off really, is it?

Railay Beach is an interesting place. A drop dead gorgeous place. A relaxing place. An island paradise (that isn’t technically an island). A place with no cars, only footpaths and boats for transportation. A place where wealthy tourists staying at 5-star hotels mingle with backpackers sleeping in $3/night huts. And of course, there are the Rastafarthai who are a strange breed in this predominately Muslim region of southern Thailand.

While the ocean view from our bungalow and delicious food at “Mom’s Kitchen” made the thought of staying for weeks tempting, we decided to relocate to nearby Koh Lanta; while not as abundant as in Railay, the Rastafarthai culture seems to be gaining ground on Lanta as well.

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When most people think of world class SCUBA diving, places like the Caribbean, Indonesia, the Maldives or Australia come to mind. Vietnam doesn’t make many top 10 or even top 100 lists; however, we heard that Nha Trang offers the best diving in the country, so we set our course for this coastal city in central Vietnam.

Nha Trang Beach

When we arrived in Nha Trang, we set up our home base in a small hotel just a block from the beach with dive shops all around. Becoming certified SCUBA divers was one of our many goals for this trip, as we both love outdoor sports and the ocean.  After some searching, we found a shop we liked and decided to take the plunge. We signed up for a three-day, six-dive, SSI Open Water Diver certification course. It was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding activities of our RTW trip thus far!

Heading out for our first day of diving

Most of the diving in the area takes place in the Mun Island Marine Park, which consists of more than a dozen different dive sites.  The water in this area ranges quite a bit in depth making it an ideal place for new divers to learn underwater skills and become comfortable exploring the reef.  Much of our first day was spent in shallower water (5-10 meters), where we learned the fundamentals before heading out on some “discovery dives” with our instructor, Kim.

Just need some fins and we’re ready to dive

While Nha Trang isn’t the Great Barrier Reef or Blue Hole, the marine life was still impressive.  The good visibility combined with the diverse aquatic creates  made it an amazing dive location.

Nudibranch

 

Scorpion fish

Blue sea star

School of recently hatched catfish – they moved like a swarm of bees.

Our next two days of diving included additional underwater skills training and diving at deeper depths (up to 18 meters). We even got to explore a few small caves!

Working on our buoyancy

While the majority of our time in Nha Trang was dedicated to diving, we were able to enjoy the beach and town as well. The seafood was fresh and delicious, we enjoyed some tasty pale and golden ales from a local microbrewery, and walked the 6km stretch of beach from end to end.

View of Nha Trang from the 28th floor of the Sheridan Hotel

We had a blast getting SCUBA certified and hanging out in Nha Trang for five days. It is the perfect place to relax on the beach or head out on the water for snorkeling, diving, parasailing or just cruising around. Oddly enough, it was a bit of a downer to complete our SSI course because we wanted to keep diving, but we had to keep moving south on our road to Ho Chi Minh City. We are counting the days until we can put our new SCUBA skills to use again and can’t wait to explore the seas of SE Asia and Oceania.

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