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We couldn’t help but to extend our days in Salento. It is like summer camp for adults. At the beginning of our stay, we had reserved only three nights, and then we added a few more, and then a few more, and before we knew it, we’d been there for more than a week. It is the perfect place to slow down and relax. If it weren’t for the flight we’d booked from Cali to the northern coast of Colombia, we may have stayed forever.

Hiking, coffee fincas, mystical clouds swirling around the green hills, great meals with great people, hammocks, games of tejo, delicious trucha con patacones, rainy days, campfires, fireflies, card games, movie nights & popcorn, humming birds, wax palms, hot springs…what is more to love?

We were lucky to catch this view of the Cocora Valley from the mirador in Salento, as clear days are few and far between.

We don’t normally advertise the places we stay on our blog, but La Serrana Eco Farm & Hostel was a big part of the reason that we chose to slow down our travel pace and just soak it all in. It is about a 20 minute walk from the town center and provide peace and serenity, especially on foggy mornings like this. We truly enjoyed our quiet walks through the country side.  To be clear, La Serrana offered us nothing to mention their name, we just loved the place.

Hiking through el Valle de Cocora is likely Salento’s biggest tourist activity. These towering wax palm trees cover the valley floor and are stunningly beautiful.

After hours hiking, we stopped at a humming bird sanctuary, which was really more of a rustic lodge run by an elderly couple. Who said humming birds can’t be captured mid-wing flap? One Croatian traveler hiking the trail with us said it couldn’t be done without a tripod and special camera. Mike begged to differ and got this shot in just a matter of minutes.

Divine chocolate caliente con queso served at the humming bird sanctuary.

As we descended back down the trail and out of the fog, we found ourselves once again surrounded by wax palms reaching towards the sky.

Have you ever had avacado flan? We hadn’t either before the incredible 8-course tasting menu prepared for us by Chef Michael Neff, a fellow guest at our hostel in Salento. Communal meals in the dinning hall added to the summer camp feel.

Hot springs Colombian style: pumping music, back flips, party time. Not exactly the relaxing day that we had envisioned for ourselves, but enjoyable nonetheless.

This chicken bus to the termales in Santa Rosa de Cabal made our day! Riding this bus turned out to be better than the hot springs themselves. The salsa music was blaring, and the driver slowed down to holler at every señorita in town.

The weather in Salento seemed to rotate between rain and shine. We took advantage of the sun one day to hike down to a nearby coffee finca. With views like this all around, you can imagine why we chose to stay for a while.

We took a tour of Don Elias’s coffee finca not far from our hostel. When these arabica beans are bright red, they are ripe and ready to pick.

Don Elias and his family run a very small operation.  This peeler is the only one they use to remove the skins from all of their beans. Our tour guide, Juan, walked us through the entire process from planting the crop to brewing a cup. It was some of the best coffee we have ever tasted.

One last look at our misty retreat, La Serrana, and the loyal house dog, Pablo.

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The word Iguazu simply means “great waters.” Ask any traveler about Iguazu Falls and they will tell you one of two things: “Oh my God, I want to go there so bad. I’ve heard it’s amazing!” or “Oh my God, I’ve been there. Trust me, it’s amazing!” Two weeks ago, we moved from the former to the latter, and amazing is an understatement.

Iguazu Falls

In spite of a bit of Trouble at the Border and a very long journey, our time in Puerto Iguazu was well worth every ounce of effort. While in Bariloche a few weeks earlier, we had heard some horror stories about the hostels of Iguazu being overrun by bed bugs, and our online research confirmed these reports. Luckily, our friend Adam was traveling with us, and as a group of three, renting a house was just slightly more expensive than a hostel. Aside from being bed bud free, the best part of the house was having an awesome patio equipped with, you guessed it, a massive parrilla. We were only there three nights, but still managed to fit in two evenings of grilling.

Parrilla

But asados aside, what we really want to share with all of you is Iguazu Falls! We told ourselves early on in the trip that we wanted to avoid the phrase “words just can’t describe it” when sharing our experiences on this blog, but in this particular instance, words are just about the most inadequate thing out there to describe these waterfalls. We’ll try our best, but be sure to take a close look at the photos and video to grasp as much as you can. A good portion of our time in the national park was spent just standing and starring and listening. We happened to visit during a time of year when the water was flowing particularly strong; so strong that some of the trails and San Martin Island were closed to visitors. The positive side of the high water level was the incredible sound. We could hear the roar in the distance long before we ever laid eyes on the falls. Check out our video of the falls here or click on the image below to witness nature in all its force and splendor.

Iguazu Video

The greater Iguazu Falls area sits on the meeting point of three countries: Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The Iguazu River (which forms the waterfalls) serves as the border between Argentina and Brazil before coming to a confluence with the Parana River and Paraguay just a few kilometers after the falls. What a sight it must have been for the explorers who stumbled upon the 275 waterfalls that make up Iguazu while crossing the jungle in 1542. Today, visitors to the falls have the option of exploring the park from both Argentina and Brazil; however, due to the cost and process involved with getting a tourist visa for Brazil, we chose to stay on the Argentine side and spent two days in a blur of awe, joy and, well, water. Our days were spent wandering between the upper and lower falls, the well-known Garganta del Diablo, and even included a boat tour.

La Garganta del Diablo

La Garganta del Diablo, or “The Devil’s Throat,” is said to be the most famous and spectacular section of Iguazu Falls. The half kilometer walkway out to it really builds the excitement. It is a raised platform that winds its way over the mud brown river; as you approach, a soft sound in the distance grows increasingly stronger. The Devil’s Throat is the beginning of the falls, where the river makes a horseshoe shape and takes its very first drop. The speed and force with which the water pumps over the edge is simply amazing. It looked like hot chocolate being fired out of 10,000 fire-hoses at the same time. While not nearly as cool as the falls, the excitement of the crowd was also quite a sight to see; so many cameras snapping away and so many people shouting “over here, did you see that, this is crazy!” The truth is we wish we had the viewing platform to ourselves and some peace and quiet to absorb the amazing sight, but crowds are an unavoidable part of the experience.

Gargantas del Diablo

Upper Falls

Despite the beauty of Garganta del Diablo, we were more impressed by the panoramic views from the upper falls walkway. The viewing platforms allow you to stand right on the edge of the falls and fully comprehend their enormity. Since the upper falls are more spread out from one another, mist does not obstruct the views as it does at Garganta del Diablo. On our second day visiting the park, the skies were completely cloudless and there was even a double rainbow, all the way. What did it mean? We still don’t know.

Upper Iguazu Falls

Lower Falls

The lower falls walkway provides an entirely different perspective of the waterfalls. Viewing platforms that are positioned almost completely underneath sections of the waterfalls allow you to feel the force. After seeing other people exiting the walkway completely drenched and with ruined cameras and cell phones in hand, we decided to bring garbage bags with us the second day, and stowed our backpacks away before walking out underneath the spray of the falls. It really gets your heart rate going to have water rushing at thousands of cubic feet per second right in front of your face.

Lower Iguazu Falls

Boat Tour

No visit to Iguazu Falls is complete without a boat tour. Although the trip costs as much as the entrance fee to the park (maybe the most expensive 12 minutes of our life), it is totally worth it! They deck you out with a thick life jacket and dry bag for your belongings before boarding the boat, and then the action starts.  The powerful motorboats take you nearly to the base of the falls. Had we gone just a few feet closer, the boat would probably have been pushed under water. It was a real thrill, and we left completely drenched.

Iguazu Falls Boat Ride

A topic that comes up a lot as we travel is how much of our own country we have yet to see, and we were reminded of that many times when we spoke to Argentines who raved about the beauty of Iguazu only to end their statement by saying, “I’ve heard; I haven’t actually been there.” So we want to end this post by encouraging people to get out there and explore something close to home. If you want to see the world, enjoying what is right in front of you is a great place to start.

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Prior to making the journey ourselves, we had heard horror stories about driving over the Andes Mountains. Curvy roads, bad weather conditions, reckless drivers, distracting scenery, lack of guardrails, etc. Luckily, we crossed over from Chile to Argentina during the most prime summer months, thus optimizing our chance of survival. We did, however, see a semi-truck toppled over on its side as we came down the mountains, which wasn’t very reassuring. All and all, the drive from Puerto Montt to Bariloche was spectacular. It was one of those times when we were snapping photos out of the bus window even though we knew the pictures wouldn’t even coming close to capturing the beauty.

Drive to Bariloche

The scenery only continued to get more stunning as we approached the town of Bariloche. Crystal clear lakes sit at the base of rugged mountains, and the waves make it seem like you’re on the seashore. It feels like the entryway to Patagonia, which it is. The sun had set by the time we arrived at the bus terminal, which only primed our anticipation to see more of the landscape in the morning. We made our way to our hostel, several kilometers down the road, and were excited to find it was a cute and cozy log cabin in a wooded neighborhood. We got “that feeling” instantly. A feeling that we rarely get and only at the most special hostels. It’s the feeling that makes you want to extend your stay another day, and then a few more days, and then just one more. Fellow travelers will know what we’re talking about.

Hostal Alaska

For many people, it’s easy to think that a trip around the world is just an extended vacation. We tend to disagree, as living out of a backpack and switching cities all the time isn’t always relaxing and stress-free, but once we got settled in Bariloche, it really did feel like a mountain getaway. On our first full day we decided to take it easy. We walked to the nearby Playa Bonita for a view of Lake Nahuel, ate a few empanadas for lunch, and bought supplies for the evening’s main event…asado. In the simplest of terms, an asado is a barbecue, but in actuality, it is much more than that. In Argentina, asados are a national pass-time. The fair extends far beyond the typical hamburgers, hotdogs, and bratwurst of an American barbecue. A few basic ingredients are needed for a proper asado:

  1. Parrilla (grill)
  2. Carbon de leña (charcoal – not Kingsford, but big chunks of charred wood)
  3. Carne (copious amounts of meat, featuring as many cuts and animals as possible)
  4. Provoleta (thick slices of provolone, melted in a pan on the grill)
  5. Vino Tinto (Argentine wine, preferably Malbec)

Since it was just the two of us, we went with a “small” asado. Just a kilo of beef, two chicken legs, blood sausage, provoleta and aji stuffed with Roquefort cheese. The magic touch was coarse salt that we brought with us from a salt mine in San Pedro de Atacama and ground by hand using a mortar and pestle.

Parrilla

Thanks to Mike’s asado skills, our protein and iron levels were way up and we were ready for some big hikes the next couple of days. It was difficult to choose where to visit first because Bariloche is so full of options for outdoors enthusiasts. We decided on the Llao Llao peninsula (pronounced zshao zshao by Argentines) for day #1 of hiking. The clouds rolled in and out and the rain came and went as we walked through the forest, to various viewpoints, and huffed our way up Cerro Llao Llao. Our best estimate is that we walked 10 kilometers, and we even picked up a pair of dog friends around kilometer 8 who hiked along with us for a while.

Parque Llao Llao

On our next day of hiking, we got a little more ballsy and aimed to climb a mountain called Cerro Cathedral. Having both recently finished the book Born to Run (we highly recommend it to fellow runners!) we were feeling an extra bounce in our step and started jogging the trail. Other hikers must have thought we were insane, watching us run along the rugged trail in our Chacos sandals, especially when we got to the top where it was snowing. We summited in half the time the trail signs predicted. At the top sat a cool little stone cabin next to a lake with stunning views of the surrounding peaks. After a rest with tuna sandwiches and chocolate, we began our descent. 23 kilometers later we were back at our comfy hostel resting our feet and drinking wine.

Cerro Cathedral Hike

While the hiking and hostel could have kept us lingering around in Bariloche for weeks, we booked tickets on an overnight bus to Buenos Aires. Christmas was just around the corner, and we had promised family we would be there for the holidays. But don’t worry, Bariloche, we’ll be back one day!

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“What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?” -Traveler

“You would have to ask God to know, because I have no control over it.” –Javi, Hostel Owner

We overheard this brief conversation the other day, and we loved Javi’s response. We hear travelers complaining all the time about wind and rain, about it being too hot or too cold, about the sweltering sun and the fog that just won’t lift. But in the end, Javi hit the nail right on the head; no one can control the weather. We were reminded of this when we visited Chiloé, an island in southern Chile, last week. We had high hopes of camping for a few nights and enjoying the ocean. But, it rained and rained and just wouldn’t stop raining. It rained so much and the wind was so relentless that our tent soaked through. Leaving us cold and wet. So what to do?

We made a plan. We learned the mantra “we’ll make a plan” while traveling with our friends in Australia, and it has become a common saying for us over the past few months. When something isn’t going our way, it is useful to vocalize the decision that we’re not going to sit around moping; we’ll figure something out one way or the other! In the case of Chiloé, the weather forced us to change our plans. We ended up spending our second night in an awesome little cabin instead of our tent. Rather than hike, we read our books, wrote a few blog posts, and played cards all day.

Chiloe National Park cabins

While God controls the weather, people control the bus schedules. Unfortunately, like God, those people don’t always give you what you hope for. In a perfect world, we would have spent three nights at the national park in Chiloé, but in order to make our bus connection over the border into Argentina, we had to spend our last night in Castro instead. The benefit of staying flexible with your traveling plans is that you often encounter unexpected things, like the incredible food scene in Castro. While trying to escape the rain (again) we ducked into a small restaurant, which ended up being a really fun lunch spot. We didn’t recognize the names of the daily specials, but decided to give them a try anyway. As a result, we accidentally ordered a hot seaweed salad and ceviche intestines, both of which turned out to be surprisingly delicious.

One of Chiloé’s most well-known features are palafitos (colorful shingled houses on stilts). There are clusters of palafitos all over Castro, and we spent the majority of one day exploring them. While many are old and sagging slowly into the water, it is obvious that tourism has sparked gentrification and restoration of these old buildings. For better or worse, they are a cool architectural piece of Chiloé.

Palafitos Castro

After our culinary and architectural explorations of Castro, we tried to find the most affordable place we could to stay for the night. We were looking forward to a good rest considering the long bus ride ahead of us to Argentina the next day. We did end up finding a place that suited our needs. It was simple, but the price was right. No sooner had we paid the bill, than we looked out the window  to discover that it was right next door to the local prison. Our bedroom wall doubled as the exterior fence. Awesome, huh?

Castro Prison Hotel

Our visit to Chiloé reminded us of that old saying “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” While we can’t control the weather, or bus schedules, or where inmates are kept in a city, we can control how much fun we have despite the circumstances!

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As our bus drove through flat, endless desert for hours upon hours, we were both thinking to ourselves (but not telling each other) “why did we choose to go to San Pedro? This place is in the middle of nowhere.” The night before, we had boarded the bus in Santiago, and 18 hours later, we were only three quarters of the way there. Don’t get us wrong, the desert is a beautiful place, but after that many hours with only views of sand, rocks and an occasional trash dump, we both had a bad feeling that we were about to be disappointed. When our bus finally pulled in to San Pedro de Atacama, we were relieved, to say the least. After stretching our legs, we admitted to one another the feelings we were having on the bus. It only took a few minutes to realize that San Pedro is one dusty and isolated little town, but somehow from that very moment it captivated us.

San Pedro de Atacama

We spent a week in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world, using San Pedro de Atacama as our home base. Despite the apprehensions we had on the bus ride, we were not disappointed in the end. We were actually quite impressed by all the hidden gems to be found in this desolate place. We are not usually keen on taking organized tours, but San Pedro is a place where you have to go on tours if you want to see it all. The sights are spread over large distances, the roads are not marked making it unwise to rent a car, and the sun is so strong that biking would require more water than you could carry. In four days, we went on twice as many guided tours as we had in the previous 11 months of traveling. Much to our surprise, the tours ended up being really great.

Day 1 – Lagunas Altiplánicas, Laguna Chaxa  & Valle de la Luna

For being the driest desert in the world, there sure is a lot of water in the Atacama. When we first arrived in San Pedro, we wondered how people manage to survive in this inhospitable place. It is such an extreme climate, in fact, that NASA has had an interest in this region for decades because the lack of life makes it almost like another planet. In the early ‘90s it was a test-site for the Mars Rover. The answer to how life is sustained here is underground water sources and snow melt which results in scattered lagoons. Our first tour took us to several of these lagoons, some sitting at elevations over 12,000 feet and others in the salt flat serving feeding grounds for pink flamencos. We even were lucky to catch a glimpse of some vicuñas (an indigenous species of the camel-family) grazing along the edge of a lagoon.

Lagoons near San Pedro de Atacama

Valle de la Luna (or Moon Valley) is the most visited area in the Atacama Desert. Located just 8km from San Pedro, the drive is short, but it really does feel like leaving Earth all together. The valley is composed of great sand dunes, wind carved stones, and vast mountains of crystallized salt.

Valle de la Luna

For centuries before becoming a national reserve, the valley was the site of prosperous salt mines. The salt is so abundant here, that you can literally break off a chunk of pure salt with just your fingers, and if you are quiet, you can hear the walls of the mountains cracking as salt expands under the heat of the desert sun.

Salt Mines in Valle de la Luna

Day 2 – Laguna Cejar, Ojos del Salar & Laguna Tebenquiche

As kids we both remembered learning about the Dead Sea and how it’s so salty that you can float on the surface with no effort. In the Atacama Desert you can do just that in Laguna Cejar. This lagoon is seven times more saline that the ocean, which allows you to roll around on your stomach, back and side with ease. After visiting Cejar Lagoon, our tour also took us to a few other incredible lagoons that pop-up out of nowhere in the middle of the desert. Possibly the most impressive was a very large, yet very shallow, salt lagoon that we could walk across, called Laguna Tebenquiche. The entire bottom of the lagoon is covered with a thick layer of glistening salt crystals. The water was so saturated that when it dried on our skin, we looked like we had just jumped in a huge tub of flour.

Salt Lagoons near San Pedro

Day 3 – Geisers del Taito

Even for non-morning people like Mike, waking up at 7am isn’t too bad. Even rising in the 5s or 6s every now and again is acceptable. But waking up before 4am? Forget about it! Well, we bit the bullet one morning and set our alarms for 3:30am in order to take a tour to Geisers del Taito. In terms of elevation, they are the highest geysers in the world, sitting at over 13,000 feet, and are truly spectacular. When our bus arrived at the geysers just before sunrise, it was freezing (literally) and was one of those times when we wished we owned real shoes instead of only sandals. Gradually, the temperatures rose with the sun, and we even got to take a swim in a natural hot spring formed by the geyser run-off.

Geisers del Taito

Our week in San Pedro de Atacama was well worth the 24-hour trip up north from Santiago (although we were still a little irked when people talked about how their flight took only 2 hours). Consecutive days of touring around the desert and exploring the town of San Pedro were exhausting, and we were always thankful to have an oasis-like hostel to retreat back to in the evenings. Its front entrance was unassuming, similar to the riad where we stayed in Marrakech, but opened into courtyard full of trees and hammocks.

Hostal Candalaria

If you are visiting Chile and debating whether or not to visit San Pedro de Atacama, we strongly encourage you to make your way up north, by bus or plane.

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The weather looked pretty dismal as our flight touched down in Christchurch. We walked out of the airport into a freezing torrential downpour and realized pretty quickly that our first stop needed to be a shoe store. Sandals don’t quite cut it during early spring in New Zealand.

Our first stop wasn’t actually a shoe store because we had to pick up our rental car first. They say that driving a car is like riding a bike; once you learn how to do it, you’ll never forget. Whoever “they” are, they obviously have never gone nine months without sitting behind the wheel and then rented a car in a place where you drive on the left side of the road. After accidentally hitting the windshield wipers instead of the blinker about 100 times and continually repeating “stay to the left, stay to the left” every time we made a turn, we successfully navigated our way to Kmart without causing a single accident and were able to procure our much needed shoes. We know that it isn’t well known for having the best shoes around, but our plan to camp and road trip around New Zealand for the next month meant that we needed to purchase quite a few things. Kmart is the perfect place to gear-up when you need cheap stuff that doesn’t have to last too long. In less than an hour, we had everything we needed to hit the road in the morning.

When we woke up the next morning, the clouds had cleared and the sun was shining for our long drive south to Dunedin. You’d think we’d never seen mountains before with the way we were ogling over the Southern Alps and taking a million photos from the moving car. While we loved living in Colorado, we always said that if there was a place with mountains like the Rockies and a turquoise blue sea, it would be heaven on earth. New Zealand must be that place. You can nearly see skiers coming down the white-capped mountains while you’re standing on the beach with a view of the endless blue ocean. We started discussing our plans to move here only two days into our visit.

To break up the nearly 400km drive from Christchurch to Dunedin, we made several stops along the way. The first was for a “Driver Reviver.” We think this is the coolest thing ever; free coffee at a rest stop and with a clever name to top it off. The next stop was a picnic lunch along the Rakaia River with gorgeous views of the snow-capped mountains, and just before the longest bridge in New Zealand (yes, that’s right, our atlas told us so). Following lunch and a few hundred more kilometers, we broke off the highway at a town called Oamaru. It reminded us of Leadville, Colorado, but on the water. Just up the road is another quaint sea village called Moeraki, where the ancient Moeraki Boulders are located (basically, round orb-like stones on the beach where tourists take pictures).

By the time we made it to Dunedin the day was almost over, so we pulled into a holiday park where we set up camp. Holiday parks in New Zealand are similar to KOA Campgrounds in the US; mostly electrical RV sites with some space for tents (only crazy people like us stay in tents this time of year) and tons of facilities like kitchens, showers, hot tubs and computer rooms. Despite it being a more commercial camping experience than we’re accustomed to, we were stoked to be sleeping in a tent after a summer without any camping. At about 2am we realized what a terrible mistake we’d made. It was freezing cold and our 55˚F sleeping bags weren’t providing much comfort. Thankfully the rental company had upgraded us to a Subaru wagon, so we changed our plans a bit and have been sleeping in the back of the car instead of the tent.

We set out in the morning to explore the Otago Peninsula. It was a gorgeous drive along the main road that winds along the north coast all the way to the tip where there are stunning cliffs and an albatross center. On the way back we took dirt roads that led us to inlets and viewpoints where we saw no other cars. There are sheep farms everywhere, and being the time of year that it is, their coats are thick and almost ready to be sheered.

Our final day in Dunedin was spent exploring more of the country side. One of the greatest things about New Zealand is that you never have to drive far to get out of the city and into nature. The transition from buildings to open spaces happens quite quickly. Our first stop was a short hike down to some cool cliffs known as Tunnel Beach. We pulled into the trailhead parking lot only to find a sign posted which read “Closed for Lambing.” Many trails that we had encountered the day before had similar signs posted making it difficult to find a nice trail. Now don’t share this next part with anyone, but we did something naughty…we ignored the sign, climbed the fence, and hiked the trail anyway. Nothing like a little excitement to get the day started. For the record, we did not encounter any sheep or lambs along the way. What we did see was more majestic New Zealand landscape.

Having a car for the next few weeks is an exciting prospect. For months now, we have been relying on public transit to make our way around the world, but in New Zealand we will come and go as we please.  We don’t have a guidebook, but we did buy an awesome road atlas, so our days are sure to be filled with countless scenic lookouts and quirky informational plaques. Here’s to the open road!

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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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Hong Kong is one of those places that will increase your heart rate within minutes of arriving. It is a bustling city with skyscrapers, neon lights and crowds of people at every turn; it even holds the record for the most densely populated place on earth. One of its neighborhoods, Mongkok, houses more than 130,000 people in one square kilometer! What many people don’t realize is that Hong Kong is more than a city; the region also boasts hundreds of islands and large expanses of sparsely populated coastal jungles.

The Hong Kong skyline lit up during the nightly light show. Image: hksalad.com

Not only are Hong Kong’s diverse landscapes intriguing, but its socio-political situation also leaves you wanting to learn more. Long held by the British and returned to Chinese control in 1997, the city is still in its infancy as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Its western style is prevalent, while its Chinese roots are unavoidable. During our week visit, we often found ourselves teetering between two different continents. Although technically part of China, Hong Kong feels like its own small country. It has its own immigration and customs controls, currency and flag. At the moment, only Hong Kong and Macau are designated as SARs in China, but the model is seen as a possible solution for future reunification of contested islands, such as Taiwan.

Hong Kong’s mainland neighbor, Shenzhen, provides an interesting parallel to Hong Kong. Shenzhen was China’s first experiment with Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which are pockets of “capitalism,” for lack of a better word, within this Communist country. In just under 60 years, Shenzhen went from a small fishing town to a bustling, skyscraper-laden mega-city of over 10 million in the greater metro area. We stopped in Shenzhen for a few days before entering Hong Kong; it was an interesting place to visit to gain a brief education on how Deng Xiaoping’s policies reformed China and how Shenzhen shaped the future of the nation’s SEZs.

View from the St. Regis Hotel in the Kingkey 100, Shenzhen’s tallest building at 441.8 metres. It is currently the world’s 10th tallest building!

Politics aside, Hong Kong is a playground for travelers from all walks of life (although budget backpackers be warned, it is not a cheap destination). Both the cuisine and shopping run the gamut from the finest international establishments to the most budget options around. As long as you can handle the heat and humidity, outdoors enthusiasts could spend weeks in Hong Kong jumping from island to island.

Random fact: Hong Kong is composed of 263 islands.

We made our home base on Hong Kong Island in the area known as Causeway Bay. Although one of the more expensive hostels we’ve stayed at thus far, the view from our room on the 14th floor could not be beat! The building boarders Victoria Park, one of the largest green spaces on Hong Kong Island, and the views spanned all the way across the harbor to Kowloon, the mainland part of Hong Kong.

Looking out on Victoria Park from Parkview Hostel.

Since many HongKongese work in Causeway Bay, it is home to some of the best and most affordable local lunch spots in town. You can eat until your stomach is bursting at one of Hong Kong’s famous dim sum restaurants, or choose from a variety places that serve up everything from Cantonese cuisine to hot Szechuan dishes. The prosperity of the city has made it a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world. If there is a particular type of cuisine that you are looking for, it can certainly be found in Hong Kong.

Shrimp wonton noodle soup can be found from most hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Causeway Bay. A tasty and cheap meal for only 20-25HKD.

Get our dim sum on with some BBQ pork buns.

Before arriving in Hong Kong, one of our friends suggested that we absolutely not miss the Peak Tram. He was spot on with this recommendation. The tram itself feels like riding a roller coaster up the side of a mountain, and once at the top, the views of Hong Kong are incredible. We quickly skipped through the horde of tourists at the top and headed straight towards the network of trails that meander through the hills. The canopy of trees and ferns are not only beautiful, but help to lower the temperature which is a welcomed change from the heat beating down on the concrete jungle below.

View from the top of the Peak Tram. It must be breathtaking on a perfectly clear day.

We like to think of ourselves as smart and seasoned travelers, but from time to time, we do fall into a tourist trap. Although it pains us to admit it, one such incidence happened in Hong Kong. We had heard about a Big Buddha on the island of Lantau, and having not been in Asia for more than a few weeks, it sounded pretty cool. So, we hopped on the metro, and then a bus, and after about two hours, we had arrived. To our disappointment, said “Big Buddha” was situated in the middle of a fake village, all of which had only been built in the 1990s. The town even included a 7-11; Slurpee while you see the Buddha, anyone? To make matters worse, the statue (albeit big) was nearly completely hidden by a thick mist. We will include a photo for you all to see; this way we won’t feel like our trek to Lantau was a complete waste of an afternoon.

The Big-But-Hard-to-See-Buddha

No visit to Hong Kong is complete without a little beach time. After all, how can you visit an archipelago of islands in the South China Sea without getting a little R&R? To get away from the city, we took a ferry to the Island of Cheung Chau. Mainly a fishing harbor, the island also offers some fantastic beaches and hiking. Our time at the beach was, well, time at the beach…plenty of sun, sand, and cold beer.

Putting in our time at the beach on Cheung Chau.

In the afternoon, we set out for a hike around the exterior of the island. The views were great and the ocean breeze was so refreshing after baking in the sun.

Walking along Cheung Chau’s Mini Great Wall.

We hadn’t expected too much excitement, just a leisurely hike, but all that changed when found ourselves face to face with a four foot Chinese Cobra. The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds, as the snake made a wise choice and quickly fled up the mountain, but just seeing a snake like that is enough for a hefty shot of adrenaline.

Taking our own photo wasn’t a high priority at the time, so we borrowed this one. Image: http://www.flickr.com (robferblue)

Exotic yet familiar, Hong Kong is truly one of those places that you have to see to believe. It has so many moving parts, but somehow everything still seems to gel. If the travel bug inside of you is yearning for the excitement that the Far East offers, but you are a little unsure about taking the plunge, Hong Kong is the place for you.

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From the early days of planning our RTW trip, we knew that we wanted to visit Istanbul, however we didn’t know much about other destinations in Turkey. After reading an article in the New York Times, we became very interested in a region called Cappadocia.

Spring blooms in Cappadocia

While we were able to find tons of info on organized tours of Cappadocia, there was not much out there for the independent traveler. What we could find about exploring on your own suggested that the only feasible option was to rent a car. Tours are not our style, and renting a car was out of our budget; what were we to do? We caught a break when Amy’s mom sent us a link to a fantastic blog named Captivating Cappadocia. We contacted the author, and he kindly provided useful suggestions about a car-less approach to Cappadocia. Thanks Duke! Based on his advice, we decided to stay in Göreme, which proved the perfect home base for exploring the region.

Since we found it a bit difficult to plan our trip within a short time frame and on a budget, we have outlined our 4-day itinerary below so that other backpackers may use it as a reference. Keep in mind that this is one of a million different possibilities, and nearly everything can be planned after you arrive, so don’t worry!

Taking in the spectacular view from the Göreme Panorama

Before You Leave

Lodging: Do some research online before you leave and narrow it down to 2-3 places that fit your needs. Then negotiate via email for the best deal. We found that many hotels are willing to lower their rates in exchange for cash payment or multiple night stays. Also, we suggest staying in a “cave hotel” because it is fun and unique to Cappadocia; although more expensive than a hostel, it is still doable on a budget.

Our cave room!

Bus ticket: While a bus is not the fastest method of transportation, overnight buses are the most affordable way to get from Istanbul to Cappadocia. A ticket runs about 50-60TL and may be purchased from almost every travel agency in Istanbul. You should try to reserve a few days in advance as buses often fill up.

Day 1

Most overnight buses arrive in Göreme between 7:00-10:00am. Go drop off your stuff, grab a quick breakfast, and head straight to the Göreme Open Air Museum. It’s a short 1km walk from the town center and will quickly have you enchanted by the ancient cave dwellings and well-preserved rock churches.

The Göreme Open Air Museum is an ancient Christian city that consists of multiple churches, chapels and cave dwellings.

Amazingly well-preserved frescos in the Elmalı (Apple) Church

The Chapel of St. Barbara – a columned rock church

After exploring the museum, head back into town for lunch (there are tons of delicious and affordable places to choose from). Then, hike north to Çavusin. Here you will find dwellings that have been carved into the cliffs which are open to explore on your own for free.

We could have spent all afternoon exploring the caves of Çavusin.

On your way back to Göreme, detour off of the main road through Love Valley. The rock formations in this valley were some of our absolute favorites!

Pyramid-shaped fairy chimneys in Love Valley

“Fill-in-the-blank”-shaped fairy chimneys in Love Valley

As you come to the end of the Love Valley, you will arrive at the Göreme Panorama where you can catch great 360 views of the surrounding area.

Göreme Panorama – we cannot imagine what people back in the day thought when they first arrived to this incredible place.

Finish your day of hiking with a short trek back to Göreme through the fairy chimneys which sit just below the panorama.

Mike exploring one of the many fairy chimneys near Göreme

Based on this itinerary, we estimate that your legs will do about 13km of walking. So wear good shoes, and bring plenty of water. If that distance seems a bit too intense, there are plenty of bicycles, ATVs and motorbikes for rent in the area.

Day 2

Eat a big breakfast and pack some snacks before setting off on another day of hiking. This time in the Rose and Red valleys, which sit to the north-east of Göreme. Here you will find spectacularly colored rocks, high cliffs walls, and of course, more dwellings and churches carved into the tufta stone.

Pigeon coops carved into the rock cliffs of the Rose Valley

If the snacks you brought along aren’t enough, you will undoubtedly stumble upon some small outdoor cafes set up along the trail by entrepreneurial Turks.

Beautiful place for a cafe, huh?

After hiking, return to Göreme for a late lunch; then, rest with a nap in your cave hotel. When you feel rejuvenated, head to the mini-market and grab some beer or wine to enjoy while scoping the view from Sunset Hill. This viewpoint is located just a few minutes from the center of town and offers fantastic views of Göreme and the nearby valleys.

Day 3

Spend your morning exploring one of the many underground cities of Cappadocia. We suggest the town of Kaymaklı. To get there, take the bus to Nevşehir, which departs every half hour from the Göreme bus station. After arriving in Nevşehir, hop on a dolmus (mini-bus) direct to Kaymaklı. There are tour guides available, but we suggest just reading about the city before you visit and navigating the tunnels on your own. You’ll be able to explore at your own pace this way. Don’t worry, you won’t get lost and stuck inside like the Turkish guides may claim after you decline their services.

Mike ducking through a tiny passageway.

Bring a headlamp and/or flashlight with you – it will allow you to navigate through the ultra-secret parts of the underground city!

Those with claustrophobia or breathing conditions should be advised that the underground city contains many small passage ways and is quite dusty.

Visiting Kaymaklı should only take a half-day. After lunch you have more time for…you guessed it, more hiking! The Pigeon valley hike is about 4km and runs between Göreme and the nearby town of Uçhisar. It is a great way to spend the afternoon after being confined to the small spaces of the underground city.

The mushroom top cliffs of the Pigeon Valley

Day 4

After three days of hiking, we felt deserving of some relaxation. Sleep in and have a late breakfast. Most hotels will allow you to store your luggage while you enjoy your last day in Göreme. We suggest spending some time at a tea house and chatting with the owner or planning your next travel move, and then ending your visit with one final hike through the Zemi Valley.

More interestingly shaped fairy chimneys

Taking one last hike in Cappadocia through the Zemi Valley

If you are too beat to even think about hiking, there is a Hamam (Turkish bath) located right by the bus station where you can enjoy a spa day before taking another night bus out of Göreme.

This 4-day budget itinerary is definitely centered on hiking the valleys because we love hiking, hiking is free, and hiking is the best way to appreciate the natural beauty of Cappadocia. However, if your budget is a bit more flexible, the same basic plan could be modified to include an all-day tour (90-140TL) and/or hot-air balloon ride (300-450TL). Both activities come highly recommended by many people in the area. The good news is that pretty much whatever you do in Cappadocia, you are sure to have a good time.

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In our last post, Dalmatian Coast: Part I, we mentioned how we booked our Dubrovnik accommodations without much forethought at 4:00am on the day we were arriving. Before sharing the many pleasant parts of our visit to Dubrovnik, we will finish telling you the story of our hostel from hell. We hope that you find it amusing and that it will help prevent others from making the same mistakes we did.

After staying up until the wee hours of the morning, we were in no hurry to leave Split and get on the road to Dubrovnik, but had to keep moving. We didn’t know the check-out time of our current apartment. We hadn’t packed. We didn’t know when the bus was leaving. But, thankfully we did know where we would be staying that night in Dubrovnik. Or so we thought…

The bus ride from Split to Dubrovnik was absolutely gorgeous. It drove right along the coast which provided incredible views of rocky cliffs slipping into the Adriatic Sea. After four hours, we had arrived in Dubrovnik. Once we found the address of the hostel where we had booked a room, we looked at each other with a “is this really it?” sentiment. There was no sign, the yard was cluttered with debris, a half dead bird was twitching on the porch, and children’s toys were scattered about. There was no doorbell or buzzer to be found. We proceeded to knock on each of the house’s three doors. Finally, a lady answered. She showed us around, and within seconds we realized the awful mistake we had made.

The place was filthy and in terrible condition: stained sheets, chipped paint, a broken window, busted handles, rusted fan, mold and cobwebs. They were the most uninviting accommodations we have ever seen. After a little discussion, we decided to inform the lady that we would only be staying one night (since we were already locked in due to our online pre-booking) and cancelling the other two nights of our reservation. She blew up! She was yelling at us and threatening to call the police, demanding that we hand over our passports. Yeah right! We kept our cool and explained that our reservation email specified that we could cancel if we paid for the first night. Eventually we smoothed things over, paid for one night, and decided to tough-it-out. In hindsight, we don’t know what we were thinking; we should have hightailed it right out of there.

Attempting to distract our minds from this hellish inferno of hostel, we sat down to catch up on email, book a new room, and do some research about our up-and-coming trip to Turkey. Suddenly, Mike spotted a bed-bug crawling on one of the mattresses; then, Amy moved our camera bag and found another. Before we knew it, we had found a third. That was all it took; at 11:00pm we called the owner of our recently booked (and positively reviewed!) guesthouse and asked if we could check in immediately. This is where our luck turned around.

Nikkolina, the owner of our new guesthouse, was truly an angel. She could hear the distress in Amy’s voice, and despite her guesthouse being full, offered to meet us right away. Amy was nearly having a panic attack as we walked out of the place we now refer to simply as “Hell.” We basically ran across town, packs and all, through the drawbridge and into Old Town Dubrovnik.

When we arrived, Nikkolina showed us to an extra room where we could stay even though it was not typically used by guests. Although just a simple, cozy and clean guesthouse, this place looked like a 5 star hotel to us! It was after midnight by this point, and we knew there was still one more thing we had to do before falling asleep: a bed-bug inspection. Mike’s work history in hotel housekeeping came in handy. We whipped out our headlamp and flashlight (putting them to use for the first time) and went through every single item in our backpacks in painstaking detail. We found one hitchhiker, put him to death, and continued inspecting the rest of our gear. An hour later, we were done and confident we had conquered the situation. Still, falling asleep proved difficult; after some assistance from sleeping pills, however, we were finally able to get a relatively good night’s sleep.

What did we learn from this experience?

  • Don’t wait until the day of arrival to book a guesthouse (especially if you’ve stayed out until the early morning).
  • Don’t book an accommodation that doesn’t have any reviews online.
  • If a place looks and/or feels wrong, leave immediately (dying birds cannot be a good omen).
  • When in doubt, only book one night. It’s better to have to switch hotels because they are fully booked than to be stuck somewhere horrible.

You’re probably thinking right now, duh Mike & Amy, this is all common sense stuff. And, you’re right, it is. We like to consider ourselves relatively well traveled people, but the excitement of our RTW trip got the best of us. Yes, it could have been worse, but it felt like the pits at the time. It all worked out in the end, and we will share our amazingly positive experiences in Dubrovnik in the final chapter of this series – Dalmatian Coast: Part III.

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