Driving the Transfagarasan Highway of the Transylvanian Alps

Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear called this “The best road in the world” and you can see why.  Looking from above it looks like a child’s perfect Scalextric set as it impossibly winds up over the Transylvanian Alps and leaves you marvelling at the effort and engineering skill that have been put into making it.  Great fun to drive and a must if driving your way from Transylvania to Bucharest

PR3 hike from Ermelo to Figas de Ermelo

If you’re staying around the Duoro, or maybe Porto, I’d really recommend this 5 hour roundtrip hike from the beautiful mountain town of Ermelo to the waterfalls in the heart of the Alvao National Park.  Clearly signposted all the way, you’ll get some great views over the nearby mountains, walk through some of the gorgeous forest and reward yourself at the top with a swim in the natural pools and waterfalls.  Best of all, you’ll have it largely to yourself as, from what I saw, there are only see a few people along the way

Overall a great hike for a break away from the various wine tours!

6 months trip of a lifetime around Latin America

My girlfriend and I went on a 6month trip around Latin America (excluding Brazil).  Started in the far South in the Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and, broadly, made our way up the west coast to the Yucatan Peninsular of Mexico.  Best large scale trip I’ve done, and wanted to share the overall itinerary and tips here to hopefully help those who are considering something similar

A few high level points:

  • Other than the flights there and the first hotel, there were only three things we booked in advance: the Inca Trail (which we knew we needed to for permits); plus for Patagonia a trip through Torres del Paine National Park and a ferry through the fjords (as we were going at peak season and only a couple of weeks after we landed).  Everything else, we booked when in Latin America and, in our opinion, that is the best way to do it – gives you the freedom to relax in the places you find that you love and be super flexible to do what you want to do
  • Total costs – my girlfriend and I went in our 30s, with no kids and on sabbaticals from work.  We’re not poor, but certainly not mega wealthy.  We didn’t stay in super expensive hotels (other than for the occasional splurge), flew economy and used a bit of common sense for timings of certain expensive items, but never held back on doing the things we wanted to do.  Some examples of big ticket items: US$5k for a week diving in the remote Wolf & Darwin Islands in the Galapagos; US$1.2k for 4 days in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia; US$800 for a helicopter trip to see the El Mirador Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan jungle; US$700 for the Inca Trail.  Total cost of the whole trip was US$34k each.  This included all flights, transport, hotels, activities, food, drink, guides, screwing things up, credit card fees – the lot.  Expensive, but so are most Experiences of a Lifetime
  • It’s not about trying to “do everything” – in a place as large as Latin America, you couldn’t even if you tried – so don’t think of things as a big tick box exercise.  Brazil, for example, we knew we couldn’t do justice whilst also trying to enjoy all the other amazing places we’d heard of, so left it for next time
  • In the similar vain, make sure you give yourself big chunks of time to chill out.  Not only to recharge the batteries, but also because most places are enjoyed when you spend time to soak up the feel for the place.  There were some places . . . like Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Isla Mujeres in Mexico, Bocas del Toro in Panama . . . where I could have spent weeks there just because the general vibe of the place was so wonderful
  • Safety – we weren’t robbed, but many people do either having a bag stolen or, unpleasantly, get robbed face to face.  Other than a couple of cities, we generally felt super safe the places we went and tried to just apply common sense to reduce our risks
  • Learn a bit of Spanish before you go – the app DuoLingo was great for getting us to a basic level that made a lot of difference.  But also don’t be afraid to pull out google for simultaneous conversation translations to really be able to have a conversation with someone – some long trips became some of our highlights just from being able to properly talk with the driver / locals.  I particularly remember a long taxi ride in Colombia where we went back and forward for 2 hours with the driver on everything from his home town to politics to football to his favourite movies to his family problems- never could have done that without Spanish or google.  In a similar vein, and using the right level of common sense, don’t turn down an invite for drinks / dinner / house visit with locals.  There are some truly unforgettable natural and cultural spots to see, but similarly an evening with a local family will be something likely to be just as unforgettable
  • Whenever checking out a place or must-do-site, its easy to get templed / churched / ancient site / beached out.  Always do a very basic bit of research to see if there is a more out of the ordinary way to experience it – by bike / drinking tour / kayaking / helicopter / whatever.  Thats what we tried to do, and I hope it reflected in some of the cool stuff listed below

Itinerary for 10 wonderful days in Guatemala

We were blown away by our 10 days in Guatemala.  Two of the most idyllic and beautiful places you can imagine with Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey; a gorgeously preserved insight into former Spanish colonial times in the Old Town of Antigua; world-class ancient ruins with the #1 Mayan site of Tikal and the adventure into the jungle to see the mystic El Mirador; gorgeous jungles and mountains across the country; and all done so with the wonderful Guatemalan people

Really rated Guatemala and I’d place it as my favourite country for travelling in Central America

Going back in time for a week in Cuba

Cuba really does feel like going back in time . . . or like you’re in a parallel universe as the country went off on a tangent to the rest of the world.  Havana for sure has glimpses of this – the vibe is of a historic Old Town that generates thoughts of what it must have been like back in the days of Spanish colonial pomp, Caribbean pirates and vast trade running through to create such fine architectural buildings and general buzz – but it is when you start to leave the capital that you feel this more slightly . . . odd . . . feeling about the place.  As you drive through the vast swathes of untouched tropical Cuban countryside you’ll see the pace of life drop significantly and small towns that feel more like small town America of the 1950s – a single main street with shops, each complete with a long porch for people to watch the world go by and an even longer queue outside of people there to buy whatever they are trying to buy.  As you go a bit further out you will see evidence of the centralised planning with large complexes of apartment blocks or hotel grounds with practically no one there.  And, in amongst all of it, the Cuban people who are as friendly as they are proud of their country

All this really is slightly odd – but it is also the key ingredient that makes Cuba such a unique experience

The itinerary I’ve listed here is more for the west of Cuba and the one we enjoyed.  Your other option of course is to head south from Havana to the colonial landscape of Trinidad and then dive in Bahia de Cochinos, both of which we’ve heard great things about.  The below itinerary though gets you more off the beaten tourist track and this was in particular something that we enjoyed so much about Cuba – a glimpse into that strange tangent the country has taken

Hiking and zip-lining in the Colca Canyon

Visiting the Colca Canyon is a great 3/4 day trip from Arequipa – you’ll see some stunning scenery as the canyon is the second deepest in the world (twice the depth of the Grand Canyon) with majestic condors flying overhead, see plenty of traces of the old Inca construction along the valley; and end it with some adrenaline pumping zip-lining

If you’re going to hike one trek in Peru, it will very likely be the Inca trail, which is indeed stunning (see Hiking the 4 days Inca Trail for more details).  But the Colca Canyon trip is one that will cost a fraction of that, be far less busy and allow you to go at your own pace.  I really rated it

Hiking the 4 day / 3 night Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is a 43km hike that snakes its way majestically through a combination of stunning Andes mountains, Peruvian countryside, near perfectly maintained Inca ruins, thick cloud forest mists and ending at the Sun Gate, the mountain entrance to the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.  It is one of those rare travel experiences that really lives up to the hype

As you can see in the tips below, there are a few things to consider before heading off on the trail, in particular your level of fitness, the cost and going at the right time of year.  It can also get a little busy at times, but this is all relative – 200 hikers per day spread over the 43km rarely feels crowded compared to Machu Picchu and the various Inca sites in the Sacred Valley.  If you have the time, the money and the stamina, you’ve got to do it.  The combination of the mystery of the Inca ruins, the truly breathtaking mountain scenery and its world fame makes this one of the must do travel experiences in South America and, in my opinion, the world

3 weeks in Colombia

Luscious green mountains hiding little coffee village gems, treks deep into the jungle to see lost cities, a world-class old colonial town that lets you lose yourself in dreams of pirates and discovery, and a country that has recently / hopefully put a recent history of blood-bloodcurdling violence behind it.  Colombia, cracking country to visit

Due to the spread out nature of many of Colombia’s highlights and the slow travel between each, you really need 2-3 weeks to do the place justice and I’ve listed out below which is a great itinerary for 3 weeks

The must see highlights (with links to their individual travel entries) are Hiking the Lost City Trek, Soaking up the Cartagena Old Town and Walking the Valley de Cocora and soaking up Salento.  Also cool are hanging out in Tayrona National Park and spending a Couple of days in Medellin riding the cable cars are also cool.  Further down the list of classic highlights are Bogota (see Cycle trip around Bogota), which makes sense to visit as you’ll likely fly into there (and its the same distance to the Valley de Cocora as it is from Medellin), and if you have a spare day check out the Guatape Lakes outside of Medellin

Scuba diving at Wolf and Darwin Islands in the Galapagos

8 days / 7 nights on one of the liveaboard dive boats sailing around the Galapagos Islands was an experience I’ll never forget. Whilst visiting the nesting sites of the Frigate Birds, Marine Iguanas and Blue Footed Boobies was super cool, it was the trip up to Darwin and Wolf Islands (to the north of the main Galapagos Islands) that was the highlight. The sheer number of Hammerhead Sharks we saw was mind-boggling, along with Manta Rays, Devil Rays, Sea Lions and Turtles. To add to the experience, spending time next to the sheer cliffs of these dramatic and isolated islands makes for a true feeling of adventure

Yes its expensive, but so are most trips of a lifetime

A week for the best of mainland Ecuador

This below 9 day itinerary is a good combination of some of the best things about mainland Ecuador – the old town of Quito; stepping back in time to a Lord of the Rings-style adventure around the Quliatoa Loop; a major challenge in summiting Cotopaxi; and getting to meet a range of local people along the way

 

Obviously, for many people Ecuador is all about the Galapagos Islands (see Island hoping through the main Galapagos Islands and Scuba diving at Wolf and Darwin Islands in the Galapagos for tips on these wonderful experiences).  But it also has some world-class experiences to be found on the mainland