Round-the-World Honeymoon Pt. 10: Lima (25-27 June)

24 August 2015

From Cuzco, we flew to Lima, where we mostly did one thing: Eat! The Peruvian cuisine is excellent, and there is no shortage of amazing restaurants in Lima. Most of them are not in downtown Lima, but rather in and around Miraflores, which is where we stayed. Here are just a few of the places we went to:

Maido: Maido specializes in Peruvian / Nikkei fusion, which means essentially that you can get fish in various forms from ceviche via sushi to fried fish on “sanguchito” (literally, small sandwich). Everything we had was amazing.

Amaz: Amaz serves food that is inspired by fare from the Amazon. The flavors are fruity / tropical, and  we had delicacies like ceviche cooked in bamboo, fish with chorizo and snake fruit, and palm heart salad. For desert we had the “chocolate jungle”, which was served in a cocoa bean shell (?) and indeed looked like a little jungle. Delicious!

Chez Wong: A unique place, owner/chef Javier Wong Chong (Peruvian with Chinese roots) originally started this restaurant in his garage, and it looks like it still IS in his garage. He only makes ceviche from soles, and there is no menu, he just makes whatever he likes that day. He also stands behind a little counter in the corner of the room where all the guests sit (on maybe 10 tables). The ceviche has been called the best in the world, and it definitely is mouth-wateringly good.

Other than eating, we did not do much. We explored downtown one day, and watched the changing of the guards at the presidential palace, but other than that there wasn’t really that much to see.

Lima was the last stop on the South American continent, our next stop was almost half way around the world, in Tokyo.

Round-the-World Honeymoon Pt.9: Cuzco and Machu Picchu (20-24 June)

From Puno, we took the last segment of our Bolivia Hop bus ticket to go up to Cuzco – this was an all-day bus trip with some nice scenery on the way. Arriving in Cuzco, we were pleasantly surprised: While the town is the hop-off point for many international tourists who want to see Machu Picchu, the town itself is very nice too. It used to be the Inca capital, and while today the historic center is dominated by Spanish colonial palaces and churches, many of them are actually built on Inca foundations – you can oft can see the Spanish adobe bricks sitting on top of the Inca rocks in the outside walls of colonial buildings.

Another great thing about Cuzco was the food. Of course, many restaurants are somewhat touristy, but the food was still so delicious and fresh in all of the restaurants we went to – even in some small holes in the wall where we were the only guests! Peruvians simply must know how to cook – no wonder Peruvian cuisine has become such a dominant force on the continent. We got to try some traditional Peruvian dishes as well, including alpaca meat (which was delicious).

On 21 June, we left for a two-day tour of the Inca sights in the nearby sacred valley and Machu Picchu. The sacred valley runs east-west and therefore is aligned with the Milky Way, which made it sacred for the Inca civilization who put great importance on astronomy. The Inca sites in the valley have mostly been destroyed by the Spanish and you can mostly see the foundations made out of humongous rocks. The Inca were slightly crazy in how they built cities – a lot of the time on the tops of steep mountains, using rocks of hundred tons of more that they moved to the construction site from many kilometers away over mountains and through valleys – all without having any advanced technology, they didn’t even know the wheel!

After a short night in Aguas Calientes, the small town / tourist trap which is at the foot of Machu Picchu mountain, we went up to Machu Picchu before sunrise. The site Machu Picchu was not known to the Spanish, since it had been abandoned for unknown reasons, and was only rediscovered in 1911. Therefore, in contrast to the other Inca sites, this one is in great condition. No gold or silver was found in the town, but the houses, temples and terraces are still in great condition. Especially considering that Machu Picchu was a small town compared to for example Cuzco, the engineering capabilities of the Inca are really impressive. The fact that they built these massive sites on the tops of steep mountains is just mind-boggling.

Visiting Machu Picchu was really an amazing experience. Even though there are of course quite a few other tourists around, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as we had feared. Especially in the morning, when the thick clouds of the night were still wafting through the mountains and the big tour groups had not arrived yet, the place really had a mystical feel to it. I won’t describe all the sights in Machu Picchu – there are books who do a better job of that, and I will include some pictures instead. In addition to the main site of Machu Picchu, we also climbed the neighboring mountain Huayna Picchu, which towers 360m over Machu Picchu. Going up was a steep and strenuous one-hour hike/climb, but the views from up top were great (not for those who are afraid of heights though since there are steep cliffs in all directions). The crazy Incas even built temples and houses on top of this mountain! After about seven hours of exploring Machu Picchu, we went back to Aguas Calientes, and then via train back to Cuzco for a couple more days.

Another highlight that we got to experience in Cuzco was the Inti Raymi festival, which was going on all of the days we were there and peaked in a celebration in the Inca site of Sacsaywaman on a hill overlooking the city. Inti Raymi is the Inca celebration of the new year, which coincides with the summer solstice. The celebration was banned by the Spanish as pagan and anti-catholic, and only resurrected in 1944 to celebrate the Peruvian / Quechua heritage. Today, it is a huge spectacle with thousands of costumed people dancing and parading in the streets for days, and one of the biggest festivals in South America. In addition to witnessing the parties in the streets, we also had bought tickets to the main ceremony in Sacsaywaman. This celebration recreates the Inca new year ceremony, including the different tribes coming to pay their tribute to the Inca (which means “king”, the civilization should rather be called Quechua civilization), as well as sacrifices of various goods including a llama, whose heart is then ripped out to read the omens for the new year. We read before that they no longer use a real llama for this offering, but they certainly did a good job at making it look real! Also, the whole ceremony including dances and songs by probably a thousand or so costumed performers in front of the background of the Inca sight were very impressive, so we were glad we got to see this! And while the tickets for the seats, mostly occupied by tourists, were quite expensive, there were also heaps of locals who flocked to the hills around the square to watch the ceremony.

We left Cuzco on 25 June to go to Lima.

Some pictures follow.

Round-the-World Honeymoon Pt.8: La Paz and Lake Titicaca (15-19 June)

From Uyuni, we took a flight to La Paz, where we spent about one day only. Since we had some concerns around safety, and the city didn’t seem to offer very much in terms of sights, we didn’t do much there, except for walking around through the city center along the main axis, the Prado, for a bit. The one highlight was finding a German bakery – apparently Bolivia has quite a sizable population of German heritage.

The next day, we left via bus for Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We had booked a bus ticket with Bolivia Hop, which operates a hop-on/hop-off bus service all the way through to Cusco in Peru, and in contrast to many Bolivian operators they cater to tourists and are extremely professional and service oriented.

Copacabana is a tiny, relatively touristy town. It has the only public beach in landlocked Bolivia, but since it was obviously winter and quite cold, nobody was using the hundreds of small swan-shaped pedal boats that you could rent there. We stayed at Hostal Las Olas, which is definitely the most unique hostel I have ever seen. The rooms are in little huts with different shapes – there is a snail, a tower, etc., all beautifully painted in a terraced garden that even had some grazing llamas. Our room was called the turtle, and was a round two-story building, with a huge round bed at the center of the lower floor, and a small wood oven that we were able to use to heat the room. We were also able to find some really good breakfast food (eggs!) and coffee in Copacabana, at the little cafe “El Condor and the Eagle” – run by an Irish-Bolivian couple. Otherwise, we mostly relaxed for the one day we were there, since there was not that much to do.

The next day, before leaving by bus for Peru, we did a quick boat tour to Isla Del Sol, the biggest island on Lake Titicaca. The Incas believed that this was were the sun was born, and we visit see a small Insa temple on the island as well. Unfortunately, we had very little time on the island since we needed to catch our bus to Peru.

After crossing the border, which was hassle-free but took about an hour since very one on the bus had to clear immigration before we could continue, we continued to the town of Puno on the Peruvian shore of Lake Titicaca, where we had a hotel for one night. Puno is quite a big town, no comparison with Copacabana, but doesn’t offer much in terms of sights, so some people we spoke with on the bus had said there was nothing to do. However, we did enjoy walking around town and getting some food that was definitely much better than most things we had eaten in Bolivia.

The next morning, we left for the floating island of Uros Khantati, where we were going to spend one night. Uros Khantati is part of Las Uros, a “village” on Lake Titicaca made up entirely of floating islands constructed from the Totora reeds that grow on the lake. When exactly the Uros inhabitants decided to live on the lake is unclear (there are no written records), but oral transmission has it that they fled either the Incas or the Spanish conquistadors. Initially, they just lived on reed boats with houses on them, but eventually started building larger platforms like the one we stayed on, which was probably about 30 by 30 meters, with roughly ten small houses on it. The hosts, Cristina and Victor, have been running this home stay for some years now and were the first to offer accommodation on one of these islands to foreigners.

We didn’t just stay on the island, however: Victor also took us (and a few other tourists who were also spending the night) out on the reed boat to demonstrate fishing and reed cutting techniques (both to use the reed for construction, and to get to the edible root, also called “Titicaca Banana”), and Cristina showed us traditional attire which we were also able to try on and take pictures in. All in all, it was a great experience – of course still catering to tourists, but much less of a tourist trap than the short tours of Las Uros than you can book via a tour agency. Plus, our hosts were both friendly and entrepreneurial, which should be supported!

We left Uros Khantati the next day and spent another day in Puno before continuing to Cuzco.

Some pictures follow.

Round-the-World Honeymoon Pt.7: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (12-14 June)

One of the bigger and more adventurous plans on our honeymoon was the tour from San Pedro in Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia, through the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt desert in the world. There are many tour operators who offer this three-day tour, with nearly identical itineraries, but none of the operators has a perfect safety record unfortunately. There have been quite a few incidents with drunk drivers and accidents, so we did a lot of research to find the one that seemed safest. We settled for the company Estrella del Sur, for a variety of reasons: they have very few bad reviews, they have seat belts in all seats of the car (Bolivian law requires them only in the front seats), and they were willing to give us a guarantee – we paid only half in San Pedro and the other half at the end of the trip if we were happy with everything. They also let us review the customer feedback for our driver, Valerio, before we left, which gave us additional confidence.

The choice turned out to be great – Valerio was a great and safe driver, and a great guide providing a lot of explanations as well (in Spanish only, but we were able to understand most things, and were we didn’t, we could ask one of our fellow travelers who were native Spanish speakers).

The tour was organized as follows: after being picked up at the hostel in the morning, a mini bus took our small tour group of six people (a older Chilean guy, a Spaniard of roughly our age who had been working in Santiago for a couple of years, and two French girls on exchange year for their studies in Chile, and the two of us) to the Bolivian border. The Chilean border post is actually in the town of San Pedro, 45 minutes drive from the border, and at the border itself there is only a small shack for the Bolivian immigration officers. At the border, we met our Bolivian driver Valerio and changed cars into the Toyota Landcruiser that would be our vehicle for the next two and a half days. With driver and six people in the car, there was little space for luggage, so that went on the roof.

On the first day, we drove through the Avaroa national park. Like on the Chilean side, the landscape here is extremely dry, and even higher – some of the stops on the first day were up to 4900m high. At least, in contrast to our hike up Kilimanjaro a year and a half ago, this time we didn’t get altitude sickness (in contrast to some of our fellow travelers) – we were taking Acetazolamide (Diamox) for prevention and drank a lot of water (3-4 liters per person each day) which helped. In the national park, we visited various lagoons, including the crimson red Laguna Colorada, a geyser (not spraying as high as the one in Iceland, but constantly blowing steam and bubbling up mud) and also some thermal springs – in the cold desert it was really nice to sit in the 40 degree hot water!

The night we spent in a very basic hostel in the national park, with all six of us sleeping in one room. The night sky was again amazing so we took some more photos, even though it was freezing cold.

The next day, we left the park and went further north in the direction of the Salar. Along the way, we saw some interesting rock formations, including the “stone tree” (which isn’t a petrified tree, but just a rock with the shape of a tree) and some active volcanoes that we could see the smoke come out from (from a safe distance, of course). We also visited some more lagoons, including one with a lot of flamingoes. We also saw some more desert wildlife, including a desert fox, a viscacha (a rabbit-like animal with a long tail), some llamas and lots of vicuñas (look like llamas, but are always brown and have less fur).

This night, we spent in a nicer place in our own room: a salt hotel. Many houses around the Salar are built out of salt, with bricks basically cut out of the hard salt layers of the Salar, and a salt/water mixture used as mortar. This obviously makes a lot of sense here, since these resources are so readily available! The room was definitely much nicer than the dorm the night before, but still very cold during the night (even though we were now only at about 3600m elevation).

The next morning, we got up before sunrise, packed our things and drove out into the Salar. The Salar is really a surreal place. Completely flat, the ground hard as rock and white from the salt. It is extremely hard to judge distances or directions in this environment (which is why you can take funny perspective photos there, see below). We waited for the sun to rise (it was freezing, even though we were wearing all our layers), which was really extremely pretty, and then had breakfast in the middle of the Salar. Afterwards, we went to the cactus “island”. The island looks like an island in the middle of the salt, but there is no water to actually make it an island. It is covered in huge cacti, some of which are 5m or taller. We climbed up on top of the island’s central “hill”, and looking out over the Salar it really looked more like an ocean than the solid ground it is. After the island we drove some more though the Salar and took some pictures, and had lunch in a small village just outside of the Salar.

In the early afternoon, our tour ended in the town of Uyuni with a visit to the train cemetery, where Bolivia’s first steam engines were left to rust – a quite eerie sight. The town of Uyuni itself is much bigger than San Pedro, it has around 25000 inhabitants, but it’s definitely not a very nice town. The only thing we really enjoyed was the nice hotel we had booked, La Petite Porte, which had an actually working heating system (“guaranteed twenty degrees in the room”) and also was generally a very nice hotel.

From Uyuni, we continued on via La Paz to Lake Titicaca.

Some pictures follow.

Round-the-World Honeymoon Pt.6: Chile (8-12 June)

We spent three full days in San Pedro in the Atacama desert in Northern Chile. San Pedro is very small, and a bit of a tourist town, but in a completely different way than for example Cartagena: the tourists congregating in San Pedro are all of the backpacker / outdoor adventurer type (90% of people you met were wearing hiking boots). San Pedro is in the middle of the Atacama desert, the most arid desert in the world (5 days of rain per year!) and has many natural sights and outdoor activities within driving distance. It is also close to the Bolivian border and hop-off point for tours of the Salar de Uyuni. With its location in the desert and an elevation of roughly 2500m above sea level, it got very cold there at night – so for the first time on the trip we brought out the multiple layers including down jackets we had managed to squeeze into our carry-on size luggage.
We did multiple tours to the surrounding highlands and lakes in our time there. On one day, we went to the Laguna Cejar. This lagoon, in the middle of the Salar (=salt flats) de Atacama is so salty that you can float. Going into the water was quite an interesting experience – not just because of the floating but also because of the temperature. In the day time the sun is quite strong so it wasn’t too cold outside the water (maybe around 20 degrees, but feeling warmer in the sun). The water, however, was definitely quite chilly. What we realized after a while though, was that once you held still and let your body sink down a little more, the water about 20cm below the surface was actually much warmer! At first we were quite puzzled by this, since it seemed inconsistent with basic physics. However, then we figured that in the extremely dry air the water on the surface must just constantly be evaporating and cooling down the top layer of the water.
Another day, we did a long tour to the altiplanic lagoons and the pieras rojas (red rocks). Many of these lagoons were at least partly frozen over, since at more than 4000m it was very cold. It his hard to describe the beauty of these lagoons, with the hills, mountains and volcanoes around reflecting in the still water, or flamingoes walking awkwardly through the lagoon, so I will share some pictures to give a better impression.
The last activity that we did was stargazing. With the dry, cloudless air, and absence of light pollution, the Atacama desert is perfect for observing the night skies. The Milky Way is visible even from the streets of San Pedro, and much better once you go out of town. In fact, the biggest astronomical observatories of the world are located in the highlands close to San Pedro due to the great climate conditions and high altitude. The stargazing tour we did was amazing. We were taken by bus to a small place outside of town at around 9pm when the sun had set for a while. Out there, our group of maybe 20 people was first given an short introductory talk to what was visible in the sky (lots of oohs and wash during the talk since there were so many shooting stars), and then we were shown to a group of telescopes with which various things could be looked at: Jupiter, with four of its moons very visible in the telescope, Saturn, with the rings clearly visible, and many other things including star clusters, nebulae, etc. Those of us who had brought good digital cameras were also given a brief introduction of how to take good pictures of the sky, and we did capture some good ones I will share. It was really amazing – I have definitely never had such a good view of the night sky before.
Our last day in San Pedro we spent mostly getting organized for our your across the border to Bolivia and into the Salar de Uyuni – more details on that in my next post.
Some pictures follow.

Round-the-World Honeymoon Pt.5: Buenos Aires (5-8 Jun)

After a red-eye overnight flight from Bogotá to Santiago de Chile and a connecting flight to Buenos Aires, we were quite exhausted when we arrived there in the early afternoon. At least, thanks to hotel loyalty points accumulated on too many work trips, we were able to stay at a very nice hotel right in the center of town. In the evening, we did still explore the area around the hotel somewhat, including the beautiful former harbor area (now residential) of Puerto Madero, but we didn’t make it all the way to Argentinian dinner time – which is typically around 10pm!

The next day, after a relaxing long night of sleep, we walked through the the city to explore the different areas. Besides Microcentro, which is the are where our hotel was located as well as many shopping streets, on this first day we also went to La City as well as Recoleta. La City is centered around Plaza de Mayo, which houses many important buildings, including the “Pink House”, seat of the president, as well as the cathedral, former seat of current pope Francis. The “Pink House” we could even visit from the inside, since it was the weekend, which was nice. Also around the plaza, there are many nice old and grand buildings, so it was very pleasant to explore the city.

In Recoleta, we went to see the very impressive old cemetery. Beyond the tomb of Eva “Evita” Peron, the cemetery features some other important Argentinians, but is mostly an attraction for the large number of very impressive old tombs and mausoleums.

In the evening, we went for dinner and drinks in Palermo. First, we had some Argentinian meat at Don Julio. This country being one of the world’s best sources for beef, we had high expectations, and we’re not disappointed: the steak and the chorizo were definitely both excellent. Afterwards, we had cocktails at the cocktail club “Verne” – which was unfortunately really full so we didn’t get a table for the whole time we were there.

On Sunday, we went to La Boca and San Telmo. La Boca is a very rough, blue-collar neighborhood, and famous for its colorfully painted houses by the riverside. Originally, this colored paint used to be leftover paint from ships that the residents used to paint their houses. Today, however, it is evidently more for the tourists. We had read this on the internet before coming, but still wanted to see for ourselves. Unfortunately, it is true – the few streets along the river are full of cheap tourist crap and restaurants, and hundreds of touts trying to sell you things. We escaped as fast as we could.

Instead, we went to San Telmo, which was very nice – there are many antique stores there, and on Sundays, there is also a huge outdoor flea market on the streets – partly with cheap souvenirs, but partly also interesting second hand and antique goods. I was most intrigued by a stall with old, working gramophones that the seller was demonstrating – quite amazing how without any electric power these things still produce quite a bit of volume! After the market, we went to Costanera Sur to look for street food. Costanera Sur is a boardwalk behind the coastal ecological reserve, and clearly the weekend destination mostly for Buenos Aires residents – hardly a tourist in sight. Instead, there was one food stall next to the other, and we got to try some amazing things like Choripan – basically chorizo sausage on bread. (In terms of street food, it didn’t beat Arepa con Queso though).

On the way back to the hotel, we still went to Cafe Tortoni. The cafe is definitely a tourist attraction, but still worth a visit – it opened in 1856, and not just its age is impressive, but also the interior decoration. It is definitely a very grand cafe, with beautiful wood paneled walls and stained glass windows on the ceiling. The coffee was not the best I ever had, but that was maybe not that surprising.

A few more interesting points about Buenos Aires: firstly, about money. In contrast to most other countries, exchanging or withdrawing money, or paying by credit card, will not get you the most for your money. The reason is that while the Argentinean peso has a fixed exchange rate to the dollar (when we came, about 9 pesos to the dollar), due to exchange controls most Argentinians cannot legally exchange their pesos for dollars. Due to rampant inflation (about 20-25%), however, many of them do want to convert their pesos to hard currency. This has led to the emergence of a “blue” market of – illegal, but tolerated – exchange offices, where a dollar will buy you more than 12 dollars. Even just paying in USD cash rather than pesos at a restaurants will many times give you a better rate than the official one.

Secondly, the influence of Italian immigrants – most notable in the existence of a large number of ice cream parlors in the city, many of which are very good. Another effect seems to be the color of the Argentinean Spanish – it also sounds like people are speaking Italian, but they happen to use Spanish words.

Lastly, one point about safety: especially in contrast to Bogotá, Buenos Aires seemed much safer, especially with respect to violent crime. Pick pocketing seems to be a risk, but that is probably true in most other big cities, but at least we didn’t feel so afraid to potentially get mugged when walking around.

On Monday morning, we left Buenos Aires again for Chile, to fly via Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama.

Some pictures follow.

Round-the-World Honeymoon Pt. 4: Colombia (28 May – 4 Jun)

From Curaçao, we flew via Bogotá to Cartagena on the Colombian Caribbean coast. Cartagena was hot and humid, but definitely worth seeing. The old walled city where we stayed is very well preserved / restored. The narrow streets are lined with houses and mansions from colonial times, typically with a central courtyard in the middle. We did a guided walking tour through the city the first day, which was as great in pointing out some of the more impressive buildings, which were mostly former homes of aristocrats or former convents. Also featured on the tour were some points of interest about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s life and work, whose book “Love in the Time of Cholera” had been one of the reasons for visiting – though not explicitly set in Cartagena, it is heavily inspired by the city. Our guide also recommended another short book by him, again set in Cartagena, which we both read in our time there: “Of Love and Other Demons”.

On our tour and in the next days, we explored not only the old town, but also the adjacent neighborhood of Getsemani. It is still within the historic city walls, but used to be divided from the old town by a bridge. Getsemani was originally the slum, inhabited for example by freed slaves. Today, Getsemani is becoming increasingly gentrified, and it houses the backpacker hostels as well, but is certainly less polished than the old town.

Cartagena seems to be a city that loves to celebrate – every day, there was a stage being set up somewhere, or some kind of dance performance, or simply loud music playing from somewhere. Especially after sunset, when the heat was not as unbearable anymore, the streets were busy with people. While this was not high season for foreign tourists, Cartagena is also a favorite weekend destination for Colombians, and so there is also no shortage of vendors trying to sell touristy trinkets, but also street food, including my new favorite “Arepa con Queso” – A fried corn pocket, filled with cheese.

In order to make best use of this party city, we also took some Salsa classes – one had been a wedding present, but we liked it so much that we booked additional classes for all of the days we were in town. We also went out to dance at Quiebra Canto one night – and as long as there were enough couples on the dance floor, we also dared to try our newly learned steps, which was great fun.

We also had amazing food in Cartagena. Most noteworthy and fancy were the restaurants 1621 (in the courtyard of the Santa Clara hotel, a former convent), as well as Don Juan. Both served really excellent cuisine, highlights included the octopus carpaccio at 1621, and at Don Juan the crab claws, grilled prawns, and octopus with bacon and sour cream.

One additional sight that we visited was the San Felipe fortress just outside of the old town. The biggest Spanish fortress in the new world, it sits on a hill in what used to be swampland. This meant that the defenders of the fortress were aided in their attempts by sickness-carrying mosquitoes. The castle featured a really good audio guide that provided explanations about the layout and the lines of defense of the fortress as well as some important battles that took place here.

On June 2, we flew from Cartagena to Bogotá for a couple of days. Bogotá is mostly a big city, in which we explored the different neighborhoods (La Candelaria, Macarena, Zona G, Zona Rosa, and Usaquen), which have nice restaurants and cafes. Particularly nice was the quaint little Café Usaquen in the neighborhood of the same name. An interesting dining experience was Andrés DC – the smaller downtown outlet of Andrés Carne de Res (since we weren’t in town for the weekend, we couldn’t try the original). Andrés DC is an interesting restaurant / bar / disco hybrid, with a 60-page menu, a roaming band that sings and celebrates at different tables, lots of very unusual decorations, etc. It is very hard to describe this experience, I hope some pictures will help.

We also did some sightseeing, although in comparison to Cartagena there was definitely not as much historic town to be viewed. We went around the historic city center, and visited the museum Santa Clara (a former church, with about a hundred religious paintings across all of the walls) as well as the Botero museum (the most famous artist, who has painted and sculpted exclusively his trademark “voluminous” (i.e., chubby) people, animals, and things). Last but not least, we also visited the gold museum, which is really impressive and showcases a broad range of gold items from Colombia’s pre-colonial times.

We also went up to Monserrate, a mountaintop church overlooking the city. Bogotá is bordered by a steep mountain range on one side. The city itself is already at 2500m elevation, and Monserrate is more than 3000m high. From up there, you therefore have an amazing view over the whole of Bogotá, stretching and sprawling over the hills all the way to the horizon. Going up there was definitely worth a visit.

Some pictures follow.

Round-the-World Honeymoon Pt.3: Curaçao (23-28 May)

28 May 2015

After another stopover in Panama, our next destination was Curaçao. This former Dutch colony was really an amazing spot for our honeymoon. Tropical climate with sunshine every day, but due to the trade winds there is always a breeze which means that it felt much less hot than for example in Cuba. Our hotel, the Scuba Lodge, was also an excellent choice, for many reasons: firstly, it was a very nice hotel, located right next to the ocean, with a nice infinity pool overlooking the water, and an outdoor restaurant with sandy floor. Sencondly, the hotel is located in the Pietermaai district of Willemstad (the “capital” / only city on Curaçao). Described by the receptionist as the “up and coming” neighborhood, there were many nice cafes and restaurants around, but without the resort-y and tourist-y vibe of Mambo Beach. The fact that Pietermaai still has a bunch of houses that are empty and deteriorating only adds to the charm.

The last big advantage of the Scuba Lodge was – as the name implies – the fact that there is a dive shop on site, which was very useful for us since Curaçao also has amazing diving. Curaçao sits on a very steep reef, only a few meters out from shore there is a massive drop. This means that in contrast to all other spots we have dived so far, on Curaçao you typically don’t take a boat out, rather, you drive to a dive site and then simply walk in.

We went diving on three days. Sunday, we went to Marie Pampoen carpile and Boka Simon. Carpile is an interesting dive site since there is a lot of scrap metal wreckage in the water, dumped there a long time ago by island inhabitants when it was not prohibited yet. Over the course of the years, nature has run its course, and today, the wreckage is overgrown with coral and makes for an impressive underwater experience. Monday, we did the “dolphin encounter” at Shipwreck Point. The Dolphins are not wild, they belong to the local acquirium and live in a lagoon that is connected to the ocean (so at least as close to their natural habitat as it gets). Our “encounter” was in the open ocean though, a trainer had brought the Dolphins out and they were swimming in between the divers, eyeing us curiously and plying with the reef. On our last day of diving, Tuesday, we went to Director’s Bay (an extremely beautiful coral reef there) and then Tugboat, which features a wreck of a small tugboat. This last dive was really amazing, firstly we dived to the wreck with an incredible amount of fish that were using it as a hiding place. Thereafter, we went under an abandoned ferry that is moored there and through the pillars of the pier that it is docked through. The lack of light there really made for an enchanted or mystical experience, in the pure blue, with the pillars of the pier looking like some kind of forest.

On our last full day, we did another outdoor activity, and took a kitesurfing refresher course. More than three years after either of us had touched a kite, we definitely had to start with the basics again. Fortunately, Curaçao was an ideal spot for this. Kiting on the coast is quite dangerous here, but our course took place on an inland lagoon, with no other kite surfer in sight. The steady trade winds made for perfect conditions. However, there is only so far you can get in a few hours, so we really thought we would have to find some more time to do this again at some point, hopefully before another three years go by.

Another thing worth mentioning was the food: for one thing we enjoyed being able to eat salad again without fearing food poisoning (didn’t seem advisable in Cuba). Also, the Dutch heritage combined with the Carribean location meant that a lot of things we enjoy are part of the cuisine: fish and seafood, but also nice bread and cheese. 

Overall, we really loved it on Curaçao, and decided that this is one of the few places that we could potentially prioritize coming back to over exploring new places. A few pictures follow.

Round-the-World Honeymoon Pt. 2: Cuba (18-22 May)

After one day in Germany, we left, this time actually on our round-the-world ticket, for the second part of the trip. Owing to how we could best make the routing happen, getting to Cuba from Berlin involved four flight legs and an overnight stay in Panama City, so we only got to Havana in the afternoon of Monday 17 May. Our pickup from the airport to our accommodation was a 1950s Chevrolet – just as you imagine for Cuba, and while there are now some modern, mostly Asian, cars in the streets and there is also a large contingent of Ladas from the years as a Soviet ally, the share of vintage American cars is definitely still quite large.

Eager to move our legs after a day and a half of sitting on airplanes, we used the rest of the day to walk around Old Havana – Habana Vieja – and its four squares. Habana Vieja is full of history and amazing, grand colonial buildings – the city was founded soon after the discovery of the new world in the early 1500s. In post-revolutionary Cuba, many of the buildings fell into disrepair, and some are still literally crumbling or have collapsed. However, over the past couple of decades, the city historian, using tourist funds, has carefully and beautifully restored much of the old town, without completely shutting out ordinary Cuban life. The result makes for an interesting mix of tourists and Cubans going about their daily lives, and of posh hotels in grandiose mansions next to crumbling houses with shuttered windows, that nevertheless are home to Cuban families.

On Tuesday, we further explored the city, taking a hop-on/hop-off bus tour through Centro Habana and Vedado to the western suburbs of Playa and Miramar. We also got off in Vedado, to look at the huge concrete square Plaza de la Revolucion, which sports big murals of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, two heroes of the revolution, as well as the big hotels that in the 1950s were the center of American partying and gambling in Cuba. In the most splendid of the hotels, Hotel Nacional, we had a mojito out in the leafy garden overlooking the water. The most memorable experience that day, however, was the visit to the ice cream parlor “Coppelia”, which was quintessentially communist. The way that this ice cream parlor worked only revealed itself to us gradually: first, we had to get in line. The line had formed around the block, and in the scorching tropical sun people tried to stick to the shady areas, which meant the line was broken up wherever there was no shade. New arrivals would frequently walk past the line asking “¿ultimo?” to see whether they had reached the end, or whether somewhere around the corner in the shade the line would continue. Every 10-15 minutes or so, the line moved when another batch of people was admitted to the parlor. We probably spent an hour and a half in line, but we didn’t really check. When we got to the front and were finally admitted, we realized that there would have been multiple queues, depending on which area of the parlor you wanted to be seated in – we obviously had no idea and just stuck with where we were shown. Entering the parlor, there was a board with the menu and another surprise: there were multiple different dishes (single scoop, multiple scoops, “salad”, …) but only one flavor: vanilla. And while outside, people were standing in line for two hours in the heat, inside there were two waiters for our area with 20 tables, and clearly not in a hurry. So it took a while until we had gotten our ice cream, a mixed plate with five scoops for both of us which to our delight included not only vanilla, but also strawberry. We were stuffed after that much ice cream, but Cubans all around us were eating two, three of these plates each! No idea how they managed that. Then came the time to pay. Cuba has a curious system with two parallel currencies, moneda nacional (CUP) and convertible pesos (CUC). Almost everything you pay as a tourist is charged in CUC, but this ice cream parlor was clearly not a tourist destination, so prices were quoted in CUP (and way below tourist prices). When we got ready to pay and pulled out a 3 CUC bill (which about equals 3 U.S. dollars), the people on the next table got all upset and motioned us to put it away, since it was way too much: for the ten scoops of ice cream we ended up paying only 0.50 CUC!

The next day, we did a day trip to the valley of Viñales. Unfortunately, we did not have planned for enough time in Cuba to stay in cities other than Havana, so the most we could do to see something else of the country was to leave Havana for a day. On the way, we also stopped by in Las Terrazas, which is Cuba’s first eco-resort and also contains the ruins of Cuba’s oldest, no longer operational coffee plantations. Viñales itself is revered for its landscape of huge limestone rocks and cliffs, that formed when underground rivers ate through the rock and caused much of the former highland to collapse, leaving only isolated mountains standing. One of these underground rivers we also got to see, when we visited the Cueva del Indio, a cave system with a river that tourists get ferried through in small boats. We also visited the town of Viñales in the middle of the valley, and much less busy and more relaxed than Havana. We had lunch on the rooftop of a casa particular (the family-run guesthouses in Cuba) in town, and walked around a bit to look at the picturesque town and valley. Before going back to Havana, we also visited a tobacco drying barn, where a local explained and demonstrated how to make cigars from the dried tobacco leaves. Of course, he also offered to sell us cigars, but as both non-smokers and with only cabin luggage, what would we have done with them? So we only gave him a nice tip and left. In the evening, back in Havana, we took an evening stroll along the Malecón, Havana’s famous seaside boardwalk, and then had dinner at Casa Migla, a Cuban-Swedish fusion restaurant. Decorated with Dalarna horses and other Swedish items, this restaurant is testament to the rapid development of Cuba’s culinary scene. For a long time, options for eating out in Cuba were limited, but since family-operated restaurants, called Paladars, were legalized, interesting and good food has become available, at least in Havana.

Thursday was particularly hot, so we took things a bit more slowly and visited two museums in town: the museum of the revolution, inside the former presidential palace, and the city museum next to the Plaza de Armas. The former was especially interesting, even though without knowing all the minutiae of how the revolution unfolded some of the exhibits that showed military movements and the like were hard to understand. The city museum showed various historic artifacts, but half of the museum was closed and the signage of the rest was not very good. However, the building itself, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, former seat of Spanish captains general, was well worth the visit, grand and imposing, centered around a huge courtyard. In the afternoon, we went to the Casa de la Musica, to witness some Cuban music (other than the numerous street musicians) first hand. The experience was definitely interesting, and we can report that Cuban music is alive and kicking – we knew beforehand that this particular Casa de la Musica was edgy, and the band “Kategoria 5″‘s take on Cuban music that included electronic elements and some mixture of singing and rapping was definitely a case in point. In the evening, we had dinner in another excellent restaurant in the old town, Doña Eutima.

On Friday, we already had to leave Cuba – again via Panama, from where we would depart for our next stop, Curaçao.

Some pictures follow.

Round-the-World Honeymoon Pt. 1: Iceland (10-15 May)

The first stop of the eight-week round-the-world honeymoon was Iceland. It wasn’t really part of the round the world itinerary, since we had to return to Germany after a week for another day before going traveling onward on our round-the-world ticket. We departed to Iceland from Berlin on 10 May. Iceland, at this time of year, was still quite cold, with temperatures dropping to freezing overnight, but the days were already very long – at 10:30pm it would still be daylight.

We arrived in Reykjavik in the middle of the night, and went to bed right away. The first full day in Iceland we spent mostly relaxing from the stress of the previous week, which had been filled with last-minute wedding prep (mostly our hugely ambitious DIY plans), and so it was really nice to just stroll around Reykjavik without too much time pressure. We started the day with an Icelandic breakfast at Café Loki, which was located close to our guesthouse – rye bread and different types of fish: herring, mashed fish, dried fish and the Icelandic specialty: fermented shark. The waitress explained that most people take these shark pieces with Brennivin, an Icelandic spirit, to wash down the aftertaste, so that’s what we also did (for breakfast!). We also walked through Reykjavik’s city center, and looked at the humongous concrete Hallgrims church, the harbor, city hall, and enjoyed the sun between the colorful Nordic houses.

Starting Tuesday, we had a rental car. We first used it to drive up north to the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Outside of Reykjavik, Iceland quickly becomes very sparsely populated, but provides amazing sceneries between lava rock fields, glacier-covered peaks, and fjords. The peninsula itself was very beautiful, with picturesque small villages and fjords. On the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped at the Lagfellslaug baths in Mosfellsbær – our first of multiple bath visits. Iceland is of course equipped with lots of geothermal energy – a curse in the case of volcano eruptions such as Eyafjallajökull, but a blessing for the hot springs that power 90% of Icelands hot baths, in which you can sit in various “hot pots” – small pools of temperatures between 38 and 44 centigrade, which was amazingly relaxing in the cold Icelandic climate.

On Wednesday, we undertook an even further expedition: we drove along the southern section of the ring road, which circles all of Iceland, to Jökullsárlón, which meant more than four hours driving time each way, but it was definitely worth it. Jökullsárlón is a lagoon just off the coast, in which the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier dissolves into icebergs, which gradually melt and float down a short river to the sea. The lagoon is quite big, 18 square kilometers, and the scene is stunning: thousands of icebergs of various sizes, in colors from white to transparent blue, floating silently in the water. The drive there and back was also well worth it, through different types of Icelandic landscape and passing tiny towns, most of which had about two or three houses, sometimes a small church. Even though of course quite different in climate, the barren land and sparse population made me think of our long drive through Namibia. Back in Reykjavik, we went for a quick hot bath at Laugardalslaug, Reykjavik’s biggest bath, which we didn’t like as much as the one in Mosfellsbær, and then went for an excellent dinner at the small restaurant Resto in downtown Reykjavik.

For the next day, we had planned one of the highlights of the Iceland trip: diving the Silfra fissure. Since that is located in Þingvellir, which was the seat of Iceland’s first parliament in 930 AD, and our dive didn’t start until the afternoon, we also took some time in the morning for the Þingvellir and the two other “golden circle” sights which are nearby, namely the Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir, the hot spring which has lent its name to all geysers worldwide. Geysir itself erupts only very infrequently, hurling water up to 80 meters in the air, and while we were there, we didn’t get that lucky. Thankfully a somewhat smaller fountain, Strokkur, just a few meters next to Geysir, spits hot water up to 30 meters every few minutes. At around 1pm, we arrived at Þingvellir for our dive. The Silfra fissure is a unique dive site, and its main draw is not, as in many other places, the fauna. In fact, the opposite is true: we didn’t see a single fish. The reason is that the water in the fissure is Glacier water, which is seeping through lava rocks for years before it arrives in the crack. By then, it has been thoroughly filtered and purified, meaning amazing visibility when diving. It also, however, has almost no nutrients, which explains the lack of fish. Additionally, Silfra was created by the forces that push the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates apart – the fissure essentially separates the two plates, meaning in some narrow bits you can touch both plates at once. The dive itself was amazing. This being Iceland and glacier water at four centigrade, we needed to dive in dry suits with multiple layers of warming undergarments underneath (and carrying many kilos of additional equipment and weight, which made the walk to and from the water quite an ordeal). The crystal clear water and the serenity of floating weightlessly in between the rocks more than made up for it – this was a special experience which can’t be had anywhere else in the world.

Friday was our last day in Iceland. In the morning, we visited the museum “Reykjavik 871+/-2”, which recounts the history of the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century and is centered around the remains of a dwelling from that area that was dug up. On our way to the airport, we went for one last dip in a hot pool, namely the famous blue lagoon. The lagoon is filled with geothermally heated sea water, which is full of silica which is deposited on the rocks enclosing the lagoon, covering them with a solid white layer. The lagoon also sports steam baths and a sauna, and is clearly one of the main tourist drags – even though we were in Iceland outside the peak season, the lagoon was still packed with tourists when we arrived (in contrast to the other baths we had visited, which had mainly Icelandic guests). Thankfully, we had come quite late in the day, and shortly after our arrival many of the tourists that probably had come from Reykjavik on organized bus tours left, so that we had one last relaxing bath before flying back to Germany overnight.

© 2012 – 2018 JF Goetzmann — Impress