Diving into Bonaire, the B of the ABC Islands

Diving into Bonaire, the B of the ABC Islands

Bonaire is the basically the ugly stepchild of the ABC islands.  If you’re not that familiar with them, the ABC islands are Aruba, Bonaire & Curaçao all of which lie just north of South America on the coast of Venezuela.   You have the party island Aruba, the diving island Bonaire and in middle geographically and both party & diving wise you have Curaçao.

Having been to the A & C of the group we finally decided to see what Bonaire’s famous diving was all about.   Before leaving for Bonaire our thoughts were that it was an island that wasn’t as commercial as the others and maybe had some good diving spots, not much else.  That changed fast.  Boarding the airplane there was person after person wearing diving t-shirts and even a woman wearing her diving BCD.  I was in diving heaven and at the same time a little worried about my wife who is only a part time diver and not very active at that.  Luckily we brought along my diving partner brother and his non diving wife for company.

Our plan was simple.  We rented a house right on the ocean that you could dive from along with a car to drive places.  We also rented all of the extra diving stuff we needed along with 3 tanks a day from Flamingo Diving.  They not only delivered the tanks bright and early every day, they even put them right into the house’s built in dive locker.  We check prices and it was basically the same price as to rent from other places around.   This island, the house, everything is 100% geared around divers.   I have never seen anything like it.

We were ready to go as soon as we got there and it was as easy as gearing up, walking down a ladder to the water and heading out.

The diving right outside the door was incredible.  A gradual cliff wall with beautiful wild life and a very light current.

 

Not only was it easy to dive right out back of the house, but driving up and down the seaside road all you had to do was look for a yellow marker and walk in the water.

We dove Alice in Wonderland, 1000 Steps, the Hilma Hooker, Andrea I & II, the Windsock, Angel City and a bunch of others.   Day after day, 18 dives in 6 days.

The really cool part was that with the new ease of diving, my brother and I only used up very small part of the day diving.  We woke up in the morning, did a dive off of the back porch and an less than an hour later were back hanging out with the wives.  We left usually only for an hour and a half mid day and again late afternoon.  Only about 4 hours a day spent diving and that included travel.

The big question was, what’s to do in the rest of Bonaire.  We had been told by a friend that the nightlife was non existent and you would be in bed by 8pm, though they had not been on the island in 10 years.  We weren’t really sure what they meant by nightlife anyway, if they meant Aruba nightlife then we were all for no nightlife.

What we found was incredible small beach bars dotted all along the coast that were infiltrated by locals and visitors alike.  These were our kind of beach bars.  They weren’t jam packed with tourists and there were plenty of seats.   Day after day we met and talked to very interesting people from all over the world.

These places basically took a plot of land where they would have normally put a house and opened up beach bars and grills.  Many within walking distance of our house.

Late afternoon while the we dove, the women took up residence waterside at the bars, their favorite being the Windsock.  Luckily for us, they saved us seats for the big show every night.

A short drive from the house was the town of Kralendijk which is much easier to pronounce than it looks.  Many of the bars and restaurants were open late and right on the water.

We also found nightlife that was to our liking at a bar called Little Havana.  Local musicians held relaxing jam sessions at night and people danced and drank inside and all the way out into the street.

There was definitely cool stuff to do.  We checked out the salt fields where tens of thousands of flamingos hung out eating brine, the giant salt piers, there were local breweries, tons of great restaurants, got a tour and drank a cactus at the Cadushy distillery where they make a fantastic rum, we hung out and snorkeled at a few of the great beaches and saw the huge crashing walls of surf on the other side of the island.

The beauty of the whole Bonaire island is in the beauty of the island.  Unlike Aruba where it is the churn and burn of tourists, Bonaire has taken huge steps to conserve it’s natural beauty.  There is no giant wall of corporate hotels lining the beach ruining the view.  Cruise ships are few and far between.  There wasn’t one night that we ate in Kralendijk when it had any cruise ship people around to clog up the restaurants.

 

It’s not just the beauty above the water, but the beauty below the water as well.  Many locals have taken to cleaning up any garbage in any and all of their reefs on a daily basis.

You have a whole island that is working along with it’s ecosystem to preserve it.

We rated Bonaire our second favorite of the ABC islands.  Curaçao is barely holding on at number one with Bonaire closing in fast, both are in our top 5 overall Caribbean islands.  Dead last with no chance of moving up the ranks is Aruba.

If you are ever stressed and need to take time to figure out what life is all about then this is definitely the place to go!

Virgin of Candelaria Festival in Puno Peru

Virgin of Candelaria Festival in Puno Peru

For some reason educated guesses seem to be used way too often in our travels.  The use of educated guesses has led on on a few really great adventures, though it also never hurts to have low expectations.

On a recent trip to Peru, visiting Lake Titicaca was a must do.  While searching for a place to stay, many Peruvian options were available and also Copacabana Bolivia was a choice.  The $160 visa for a couple nights in Bolivia nixed Bolivia all together so we took to searching for festivals and happenings around the time of our visit.  The Virgin of Candelaria Festival in Puno Peru kept popping up.  We searched everywhere to find the official dates just to find only seven different websites which had presented us with 7 different dates for the festival.  Not one of them matched, we obviously had to make an educated guess.

If we turned our entire trip plans upside down and started it with Lake Titicaca instead of ending with it, there was a small chance at least according to three of the websites that we could be there for the final day of the festivities. We took the chance.

Puno Peru

In the morning we arrived in town after a long taxi ride from the Juliaca Airport and checked into our hotel along with two other couples that we had made the journey with. At the hotel we were asked where we came from then offered oxygen for our room.  Puno Peru is at 12,500 ft and we had just come from Lima Peru which is just about at sea level. Elevation sickness was an issue.  Everything we did took twice the effort as usual including walking and breathing.

Our original plan had been to walk to town, but after the hard walk just to get to our rooms we all opted for a cab.  As we got to the main part of town there wasn’t one thing that looked anything like the colorfully dressed people dancing all about town like the pictures we saw.  The town was battling with a small amount of drizzel here and there, but nothing that in our opinions would cancel a festival.  We stopped at a local eatery for some lunch and did our best to ask about the festival as none of us are fluent in Spanish.  A head nod yes was the only answer we got.  We were wondering the where, when’s and how’s and we got a head nod.

After lunch we wondered around town perusing the shops and occasionally stopping in a pub.  We were ready to hang it up, we must have been wrong. As we walked out of our last pub for the day and headed towards the local taxi stand someone in our group thought they heard drums.

Virgin of Candelaria Festival

We all looked at each other, turned the opposite direction and headed towards the drums.  As we worked our way towards the drums we started to see people putting on festive hats & crazy colored ribbons.  We we’re pretty sure we had finally found the festival.  Moving along, more and more people were congregating, the music was getting louder and you could just feel there was something in the air.  As we slowly made our way up a steep cobble stone road, people were waving to us and we could see a big congregation of people atop the hill.  It had to be the festival!

And finally atop the hill there is was in it’s full glory.  A giant band dancing in sync left to right and up and down, locals in fancy dresses dancing and spinning all over the place, smiles everywhere you look.  Yet, as we worked our way into the crowd you could just feel something was wrong.

Virgin of Candelaria Festival

After taking a few pictures of the dancing and band I finally knew what was wrong. I saw a bunch of people doing shots of some sort of clear alchohol and drinking 40’s of beer in no way festival like for dancers and band members.  As I leaned to my friend to say “this isn’t the festival, this must be the staging area for the band and dancers….”  an elderly gentleman grabbed Kim & Beth by the hand and dragged them into the dance.   Other people started putting ribbons on our friends from Minnesota.  They offered shots of what seemed to be homemade Pisco and swigs from their 40’s.  Instead of kicking us out, the people of Puno had invited into their group.

Virgin of Candelaria Festival

I don’t know how long we danced and drank, but it was light out when we started and was getting dark by the time the band started heading down the steep hill to the actual festival.  Once again we were grabbed and brought along with the group.

Virgin of Candelaria Festival

Later in town as the band played one of the band member who we hung out with at the staging gave Kim a hug and asked for a picture.

Virgin of Candelaria Festival

If you are ever going to Peru for Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca or any other reason, I would highly recommend stopping in Puno for one of their many festivals.  Not only was the festival a lot of fun, but the friendliness of the people is something that I will always remember.

We still don’t have a clue what the dates of the festival are or if it was the first, last or one of the middle days.

This is how WE did it:

  1. Got a round trip flight from mainland USA to Lima Peru using points
  2. Flew from Lima to Juliaca airport on Lan Airlines
  3. Taxi from Juliaca to Puno on Lake Titicaca. (long ride but inexpensive)
  4. Taxi back to Juliaca was booked at our Hotel
  5. Flight back to Lima back to mainland USA

A Day in Saint-Paul de Vence France

A Day in Saint-Paul de Vence France

Travel Rules, almost every traveler has them.  Our number one travel rule is a rule we came up with very early on in our travels.  We start learning and using words and common phrases in the language of the country we are going to.  It is something for fun we call “bar speak” and we’re fluent in 7 different languages of it.

The most important words are please and thank you.   You would not believe how much more helpful and friendly people are when you use those words in their language.  The only phrase that might be more important is “where is the bathroom?”.

At the end of a long trip that had us visiting 3 different countries that spoke three different languages we were worn out. Our idea for an easy day was short visit to the beautiful medieval town called Saint-Paul de Vence located not to far from Nice, France. All of their little artisan shops would be the perfect place to find a gift for the person who watches our dogs.

It was when we walked into the third shop that I decided that I had already visited about two shops too many.  I told Kim that I was abandoning her to sight see and take a few pictures around the town.  We hadn’t checked our cell service, but I was pretty sure the town wasn’t big enough for us to loose each other.

About half an hour later I peaked in a doorway to see how Kim was coming along with her shopping.  The store owners, an older couple, were handing Kim item after item and Kim was politely responding “bonjour” each time they handed her something to look at.

It was about the third time she said it I finally figured out what was going on, she thought “bonjour” meant “thank you” in French.  Being the nice husband I am, I made sure not to point out her mistake in front of other people.  For ten minutes I laughed harder and harder every time they handed her something and she said “Hello”.

The Nicoya Blue Zone in Costa Rica

The Nicoya Blue Zone in Costa Rica

Most people find an unstructured world less stressful. You don’t get things wrong very often, you can’t.  Think about it.  When you pull into a parking spot and you car is a couple of inches across the line people get mad at you.  On the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica it’s hard to find a parking line.  All of the little structures people have put in place in life are pretty much non-existent here.

Blue Zones are areas in which there is a noticeable difference in how much longer people live. The Costa Rica Nicoya Peninsula is one of only five in the world.

In 2004 a guy named Dan Buettner partnered with National Geographic and grant money to search for areas in the world were people lived longer than others.  In 2007 three had already been found and in January of that year he started looking at the Nicoya Peninsula.  There are certain things that have been found to be consistent in all of the blue zones.  Most involve lifestyle choices of the people like eating healthy, not smoking, not heavily drinking and so on.

Nicoya offers up it’s own unique differences. For instance the water in Nicoya is rich in calcium which gives its residents stronger bones.  One thing that was glaringly obvious to us was the air.  The air just seemed very clean.  It probably contains lots of oxygen which made it easy for us to walk for hours on end.  Which is why on a recent trip to Costa Rica we planned on visiting the Blue Zone for a day and ended staying for two or as we called it “taking a vacation from a vacation”.

Nicoya Blue Zone Costa Rica

Our goal was simple, head to the bottom coast of the blue zone, maybe have some lunch or an early dinner and see if we noticed anything different.  After all, we were only 30 minutes from one of five blue zones on earth, it would be crazy not to check it out.

The four us us started our journey in the northern Guanacaste region of Costa Rica and headed south through the town of Nicoya. The town of Nicoya is not considered part of the Nicoya peninsula blue zone for some reason, but we try not to judge. For the first part we stayed along eastern Nicoya on Rt. 21. The very scenic oh so crooked road winded through the mountains and small towns but didn’t have all of the overlooking the ocean scenic spots we thought it would have.

It was still a great drive, stopping sporadically taking a picture here and there until we reached a place called Tambor Beach at the very bottom of the peninsula. It was about 3 in the afternoon and with about 3 1/2 hours spent in the car, the girls were ready for some beach and/or beach bar time.   As it turned out the beach bars were up to par, but the beach wasn’t quite the white sand beach the girls were hoping for.

After a quick lunch with fresh fruit drinks mixed with rum we decided to walk the beach.  The beach was a muddy-rocky sand, but our goal was to explore and find out what the deal was with this blue zone rather than lay on the beach.  There were not many rules, but the ones they had were good ones.

Nicoya Blue Zone Costa Rica

Nicoya Blue Zone Costa Rica

While walking the beach you couldn’t help but notice that all of the locals and their children played in the streams leading up to the ocean not in the ocean.

There was a small natural park to walk through along side the beach that has Capuchin monkeys, alligators, parakeets and an amazing collection of other wild birds that I had never seen.  All in all we probably walked about 8 miles from one end of the beach to the other.  The amazing part was that after the walk we felt better than when we started.  It was like they were pumping oxygen into the air like those Vegas Casinos.

Costa Rica Blue Zone

Also along the beach were a few hotels that we stopped in to see about a room for the night.  All of them were booked.  The weird part was that the pool areas and beaches in front of the hotels were desolate.   Either we just weren’t the type of people they were looking for or everyone that was staying at these places was off doing something else.

We got back in the car and headed down the road.  It was about 6:30pm and we were either going to find a place soon or have to suck it up and drive the 4 hours back.

Luckily, not to far down the road we spotted a Montezuma Beach sign and in Montezuma found an opening at Luz de Mono Hotel – an Eco Resort. So cool, this was our first eco resort.

Luz de Mono Hotel Montezuma

We followed the long path up through the jungle to our place, dropped off what little we had and ventured out to the one horse town to try to find sustenance.  Then we proceeded to eat and drink beyond what typical bluezonians eat and drink.  Somehow we found our way back and settled in for a nice peaceful eco-sleep, or so we thought.  All night there were sounds like someone was trying to break in and pounding on the roof.

Our eco bungalow was truly eco.  In the morning we found out it was infested with the iguanas you see below.  They were in every roof gap you could find around the place.  That and the Capuchin monkeys running non stop across the roof trying to get in the door and windows for people food.  Why we brought leftovers back I will never know.

Luz de Mono Hotel – an Eco Resort

I personally would have slept way better if I knew that all the racket was wildlife.

Nicoya Blue Zone Costa Rica

The next morning the girls headed down to the pool for some rest and we headed to check out the snorkeling.  The snorkeling wasn’t very good at all, so we all hung at the pool.

Around noon they booted us out of the hotel so we grabbed some lunch at Chico’s Bar which had great outdoor seating and headed out to find typical Costa Rica adventure.

Chico's Bar Montezuma Costa Rica

We didn’t get very far. A little bit down the road there was a place called Sun Trails Canopy Tours of Montezuma and decided to see what it was all about.  Next thing you know we were doing the typical Costa Rica zip lining, jumping/diving off and swimming in waterfalls sort of thing.

Sun Trails Costa Rica

Nicoya Blue Zone Costa Rica

After that we were ready to head back to our fake reality at our other hotel back in Guanacaste.

What did we learn about the “blue zone”?  Probably only two things, there is less stress from there being less rules and the air just seems way better.

Hiking the Na Pali Coast in Kauai

Hiking the Na Pali Coast in Kauai

Maybe it was because we thought hikers were really cool and we just weren’t, who knows, but we’ve had friend after friend regale us with stories of how they hiked this or hiked that.  We had never hiked, but always wanted to…

It was a beautiful Hawaiian morning on Kauai and we were headed down the Kuhio Highway to do some snorkeling at the lava tubes and maybe check out the Nā Pali Coast that we had heard so much about.  After searching about 20 minutes for a parking spot we saw a bunch of people headed up the Kalalau Trail.  We talked to a few people at the beginning of the trail who had just got back, they said it was amazing and worth it.  We were sold!

A quick run back to the car to return the snorkel gear and grab two more bottles of water and we were off.

Napali Coast Kauai Hawaii Kalalau Trail

Right off the bat it felt like you are going uphill forever, but all along the walk up there a place to stop and check out the amazing scenery overlooking Ke’e Beach.
Finally it leveled out.   To our amazement there were all ages of people walking from 2 years old to in their 80’s.  It wasn’t even close to crowded, but it was more people than we had expected.

Napali Coast Kauai Hawaii

Finally after about a mile and a half of walking on a cliff with the most breathtaking views you can imagine, ahead of us was the beach that we had sought, Hanakäpï`ai Beach.  It was about when we started down the path to the beach that the heard of people started to thin out.  Apparently, after the hard original climb, people didn’t want to walk down to the beach  just to have to walk back up.  I would say that at least 70% of the people had bailed at this point.  Which worked for us.

Napali Coast Kauai Hawaii

Strangely, the people who did walk down didn’t even bother going to the beach.  They stopped, took pictures and headed back up.

Napali Coast Kauai Hawaii

The ocean was calling us to hop in for a swim.  There was a ton of signage warning people of rip currents and rough waters but that wasn’t stopping us.  We are both experienced swimmers, the water was calm, we stayed away from where you could see the rip current, and most importantly we both had to pee.

I would definitely recommend not going in the water unless you have had experience with rip currents.

After the swim we were completely re-energized. We stopped for a minute and ate some of our rations, basically just Keebler chocolate chip cookies, then walked over to a sign which had an arrow pointing back into the jungle that said Hanakäpï`ai Falls 2 Miles.  It was here that only about 2% of the people who had originally started were continuing on.  Most were continuing along the coast and the rest headed to the waterfall. We looked at each other, and just started walking towards the falls, nothing needed to be said.

Na Pali Coast Kalalau Trail

The trail wasn’t very well-marked and was lot tougher to traverse than the first part of the walk.  The even harder part was that by just going inland a little bit, the humidity in the air got so thick you could slice it.  That wasn’t going to stop us.

Na Pali Coast Kalalau Trail Kauai Hawaii

On the way we came across a bamboo forest that was a bit eerie and the noises it made while walking through it where downright weird.  You can listen to it in the video below.

The path kept crossing the Hanakäpï`ai stream and several times it was tough finding where the path started again on the other side.   The fact that we had only seen two groups of people and that was at the beginning part of the walk had us worrying we had taken the wrong path somewhere.  That was until the one time we looked up while crossing and just knew we were going the right way.

Napali Coast Hanakäpï`ai Falls Kalalau Trail

Finally!  We had made it to the Hanakäpï`ai Waterfall.

It was vacant.  We decided to jump in and swim up to the falls, after all it felt like it was 100 degrees out and we didn’t walk all that way to look at it.  The water was freezing cold and felt fantastic all at the same time.  It was tough making our way over to the falls, after a four mile walk our legs were like jelly.

We managed to get a picture directly under the falls, but couldn’t stay there for long, the current was too strong.

Napali Coast Hanakäpï`ai Falls Kalalau Trail

A few groups of people showed up as we were swimming and they proceeded to jump right in also.  After a while we worked our way out, sat on the rocks and devoured the rest of our rations, the chocolate chip cookies.  There was only one 20 ounce bottle of water for two of us the rest of the four mile walk back, we would have to conserve.

We started back down the trails following our bread crumb memories in hopes to make the trip a bit faster going back.  Turning back, we stole one final glimpse of the falls and kept moving.

About 3/4’s of the way back our water ran out after walking back up from the beach.   It was going to be tough sledding from here.

Napali Coast Kalalau Trail

That last waterless mile and a half was tough but we had made it.  I was four miles up to the falls and four miles back, we hit the water fountain at the entrance so hard you’d swear we just got back from being stranded in a desert for 3 days.

Napali Coast Kauai Hawaii Kalalau Trail

Later that night while sitting at the bar we were talking to a couple who had just got back from “Hiking” the Nā Pali Coast the day before.  They told us they had hiked the Kalalau Trail 2 miles all the way down to Hanakäpï`ai Beach.  That’s when it hit us that walking is hiking or hiking is walking, whatever, and holy crap we had been hiking everywhere this whole time, we’re part of the cool group!

This is how WE did it:

  1. Got a flight from mainland USA to Kauai
  2. Rented a car & drove to Marriott Courtyard Kaua’i at Coconut Beach on points
  3. Drove down Kuhio Highway to Rt. 560 (same road different name) just kept driving until there was no more road.
  4. Hiked the coast

We stayed at the Marriott Courtyard Kaua’i at Coconut Beach because it was not at the tourist section of Kauai.  It was also way fewer points.  There weren’t many people there and it had a pool & hot tub and was right on the beach. We were actually quite surprised how nice it was.

 

What to do in and Around Lisbon Portugal

What to do in and Around Lisbon Portugal

Lisbon Portugal isn’t really on anybody’s “must visit” list that we know of, but it should be.  Recently we had a few extra vacation days and a few airline miles that were burning a hole in our pocket.  We did our usual, scan of the Delta Airlines website to see what the deals were.  Up popped a great deal to Lisbon, Portugal.  I turned to my wife and asked “What the hell is there to do in Lisbon?”  After a few searches, we found beaches, wineries and a bunch more stuff close by.  The city looked cool enough and they had a Marriott, for which we had extra hotel points.  So why not Lisbon?  Boom, we booked the trip.

After a little more searching we found the Praia D’El Rey Marriott Golf & Beach Resort not too far to the north of Lisbon that was on a beach.  They had a big special for the same week in August that we were going to be there, so now the worst thing that could happen was this would end up a beach vacation.

We got in to Lisbon early afternoon, rented a car and were off to our hotel.

Portugal Beach

We arrived at the hotel and by the time we got all settled, it was late afternoon and with just a few hours of sun left we headed down to the beach checked it out then passed out on a towel.  When we woke up an hour later it was cold, especially for August.  We learned quickly that along the beach in Portugal the temperatures change real fast.  That night we were greeted with an incredible sunset.

Sunset Marriott Praia Del Rey

Sitting at the hotel bar that night we asked what the best things to see in the area were.  The consensus between the bartenders and our new-found Portuguese friends was Peniche Beach and the historic town of Obidos.

So day two we thought we were traveling to what everyone called Peniche beach, it was more of a fishing village.  We spent 8 hours there but not much time at the beach.   Peniche is a peninsula with a scenic road that you can drive all the way around along the cliffs.  You can stop almost anywhere along the road, get out and hike the sea cliffs, the views are amazing.  Hundreds of fisherman are all over, most likely in their favorite fishing spots, casting off the cliff walls into the crystal clear water and hauling fish up 100 feet.

Peniche Portugal

When your done with hiking or just need a break, the town in the center of the peninsula has all kinds of restaurants serving up fresh seafood and more.   There is also the Praçaforte de Peniche historic fort to walk around, several small churches and of course at the peninsula isthmus is the colorful and crowded Peniche Beach which itself has a small boardwalk full of restaurants and bars overlooking the beach.

Peniche Portugal

On day three we headed to downtown Lisbon

Around 11am we drove straight into Lisbon and started at the Place of Commerce “Praça do Comércio” which was a large square overlooking the Tagus River.  The square is outlined by museums, restaurants, the welcome center, and a viewing platform from which in the distance you can see Portugal’s version of Rio’s “Christ the Redeemer”.  Moving up through the Archway da Rua Augusta we traversed Augusta Street which was lined with artists, performing artists, outdoor cafe’s, fountains, statues, incredible architecture & lot’s of cool shops.  There was one that was selling bottles of hundreds of year old port.

The day was pretty much spent walking town square to town square, window shopping, watching the performing artists, admiring the architecture, checking out the gardens, and drinking sangria at the outdoor cafés while people watching.

 

Lisboa Portugal

Lisbon Portugal

Lisbon Portugal

On day four it was off to Obidos.

This day we started off slow.  After a morning swim and some lunch we decided to head on recommendation to the medieval town of Obidos around two in the afternoon.  We hadn’t looked into what the town was all about and to be honest it didn’t sound all that exciting.  We figured we would spend an hour or two there. We were wrong, as we are 9 out of ten times.  We ended up climbing castle walls and walking the length of the town on them, wandering around all of the medieval shops, checking out all of the people who came dressed in medieval costumes, drinking in the pubs and then to top it off watched a medieval hair band.  They were actually pretty good.  Time flew, we spent four hours there.

 

 

Obidos Portugal

 

Obidos Portugal

Band Obidos Portugal

And finally, day five was spent in Sintra.

While we were in Obidos on day four, we got a text from Tricia here at Passport Tourist.  She saw that we were around Lisbon and said we had to check out Sintra Portugal.   Once again, we had never heard of it, but we were going anyway.  She assured us it was worth it.  As it turns out, it was on of our favorite places we have ever visited.  As usual, we did it all wrong and yet it turned out amazing.

At our hotel, we checked out a couple of pictures of Sintra and decided what we were going to do there.  Our main objectives was the Castle of the Moors and Palace of Pena both of which were high atop Sintra.  As we arrived in the small town, we somehow got a prime parking spot and things were going great.  For a few minutes at least.  Then we got to the bus station that had the rides up to the Castle of the Moors and the line for the bus wrapped around the corner & down the block.

Then luck struck again, a few feet from the bus station we saw a sign that had a hiker and an arrow on it and said Castle of the Moors.  We were quite fresh from a few days of relaxation, so we thought, why not.  It ended up quite a hike, it seemed like a thousand or two steps, but very scenic.  At the top we didn’t feel that bad and knew it was all down hill from there.

Castle of the Moors
Castle of the Moors

The Castle of the Moors was incredible, the view was amazing, walking around on a medieval castle wall was a lot of fun.  After about an hour, we could see the Palace of Pena on a hill-top across the way and started to head over.  There was a very well-marked path and about 25 minutes later we were walking though Pena.  For about ten minutes, it was an extremely colorful really cool place.  Then disaster struck.

We could see it coming from not too far away, it had just erased the Castle of the Moors in the distance .  A big low-lying white cloud had completely encompassed us along with Pena Palace.  We couldn’t see five feet in front of us.  After about half an hour we abandoned hope of seeing anything else and started back down the mountain.

Palace of Pena
Palace of Pena

About ten minutes into the walk, we couldn’t get a signal on our phones and it had started raining.  The roads were wet, cars were sliding and we found safe harbor on the side roads because we were afraid a car would slide into us on the main road.  We got lost for about an hour, but kept going down so we were pretty sure we were going the right way.  Then we found steps that looked like the ones we had taken up to The Castle of the Moors.  We were drenched as we walked for about 20 minutes down the steps to where they ended and we seemed to be in a giant botanical garden.

We walked around, there were statues, ponds, well taken care of plants and buildings.  It was beautiful and the detailed artisan work was astounding.  After about 30 minutes of walking around we found out a big problem.

We were walking around inside a place called Quinta da Regaleira and it was closed for the evening.  To make things even better, the place was like a giant maze.  We had no idea how we entered the place and the only way out was climbing a 7 foot fence that had spikes on the top.  This was pretty much the cherry on top of the crazy ice cream cone day we’ll never forget.

Quinta da Regaleira
Quinta da Regaleira

We had no agenda or idea what to expect when we went to Lisbon, but it ended up one of our favorite, most scenic, adventurous, and relaxing trips we’ve been on.

This is how WE did it:

  1. With Airline miles we flew into Lisbon Portugal and rented a car
  2. With Marriott Points we had booked a room at the Praia D’El Rey Marriott Golf & Beach Resort for five nights
  3. Drove from Lisbon Airport to the Marriott, a very easy drive with well-marked highways.
  4. Drove around to all of the places above.
  5. Drove back to the Lisbon Airport and flew back to the states.

 

How to Machu Picchu

How to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu has probably been on 99% of all travel bucket lists since the invention of travel bucket lists.  It was number 5 on ours and yet we went into this venture with a ton of trepidation.  The big fear was that there is a lot of time, money and preparation in getting there and hopefully it wouldn’t end up a tourist trap with just a couple piles of rocks on a hill.

Since we’re not people who like to leave other people in inexorable suspense…  It wasn’t just a pile of rocks it was much more.

Machu Picchu

So, how do you Machu Picchu?  We (six of us) decided to forgo the travel/tourist companies and booked all of the travel ourselves which saved us thousands per couple and was not that complicated. Details of that are at the bottom of this article.

Machu Picchu

The train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes is part of what made the trip great.  The majestic mountains viewed from the glass-topped train, the river with farmers and colorfully dressed local towns people strewn about, and the band going train car to train car playing pan-flute music really sets the tone for Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

Aguas Calientes is a small town at the base of Machu Picchu that has shops, restaurants and most importantly the bus terminal.  You can walk to the entrance to Machu Picchu, but it is best done by bus unless you are an extremely good hiker and completely acclimated to the thin air.  Altitude sickness was something we saw over and over while up on Machu Picchu. From the looks of it, the park is used to the problem as we saw them administering oxygen to people several times. Believe it or not most of the people were young . Getting acclimated to the altitude is very important as there are tons of steps and it is a very large area. You see people hunched over half way up steps everywhere.   Having spent a few days at Lake Titicaca and a day in Cusco both of which are higher altitude than Machu Picchu, we were good to go.

The short bus ride up and down along the cliff is scarier than many amusement park rides.  At the park entrance there were several tour guides offering their services but we opted to go it alone having been that road before.  We purchased our entrance tickets, a map and a small book that had the basics of what everything was and never looked back.

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Machu Picchu

One of the cool things about Machu Picchu are the llamas and alpacas that roam the terrain freely.  We saw several of them running scared from people who were chasing them for pictures and opted for a different approach.   The park had placed small apples around for them to eat so we sat in an area where bunches of them congregated to eat and let them come up to us.  It made for some great photo opportunities, well, that was until people saw us there then came over and scared them away.

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Another cool thing was the several amazing trails off the beaten path like the one along the cliff in the picture below.  The thing that was odd was that we never saw the tour guides anywhere near any of them.  To us it seemed like the people who took the tours missed out on some of the best parts of Machu Picchu.  We used our map as our guide and because of the sheer size of the place we found ourselves referencing it pretty often.

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We walked around for hours on end snapping photo after incredible photo and sometimes just sat to take it all in.  Somehow, one of the “New” Seven Wonder of the World, Machu Picchu completely lived up to its hype.

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This is how WE did it (we had two other couples from USA join us)

  1.  Used round trip Delta Airlines using miles to fly roundtrip to Lima Peru from the USA
  2.  Flew to Lake Titicaca for a few days then to Cusco Peru both on Tam Airlines booked on Cheapoair.com
  3.  Took a taxi to Hotel in Cusco (JW Marriott booked on points)
  4.  In Cusco town square we purchased round trip train tickets from Ollantaytambo (a town close to Cusco) to Aguas Calientes on Peru Rail.
  5.  Early the next morning we took an early taxi from our hotel to the train station in Ollantaytambo Peru. (booked the Taxi at the hotel front desk)
  6.  Took the Peru Rail train to Aguas Calientes (small town at the bottom of Machu Picchu)
  7.  In Aguas Calientes we got off the train and purchased a round trip bus ticket to Machu Picchu
  8.  Took the bus up to the Machu Picchu entrance
  9.  After a day at Machu Picchu we took the bus down the hill back to Aguas Calientes .
  10.  Then the train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo Peru (read below)
  11.  Taxi from Ollantaytambo to our hotel
  12.  Taxi from hotel to Cusco Airport
  13.  Flight from Cusco to Lima (Tam Airlines)
  14.  Lima flight to USA

A few tips.

I’m pretty sure 90% of the people staying in the hotels in Cusco are going to Machu Picchu.  Just ask at the front desk of any hotel and they will tell you what to do, how long taxi/train rides are and everything else you need to know.  They have answered these questions a million times.

We purchased tickets for Peru Rail in the Cusco town center.  They were much cheaper than purchasing online.  After we received a detailed explanation, we chose the train embarking from Ollantaytambo Peru because the train from the closest train station in Poroy Peru got you up to Machu Picchu way later in the day and the extra cost was the same as the cab.  They do not have taxi’s or a bus that will take you to all the way to Aguas Calientes (at the bottom of Machu Picchu).

Machu Picchu bus tickets are easily purchasable when you get to Aguas Calientes.  About $15 dollars for them to take you to the entrance at the top with a return ticket included.  You can also walk to the top, but it is a big hike.

We recommend purchasing a bottle of wine in Aguas Calientes for the train ride back to Ollantaytambo .  Make sure to take an opener with you that day!  We did, and they will supply you cups on the train.

Staying in Aguas Calientes is also an option, but the hotel prices in our opinion were not worth it, plus we loved Cusco!

One Day in Quito Ecuador

One Day in Quito Ecuador

More often than not, travel has a lot to do with luck. The way our airline miles flight and a separate flight to the Galapagos worked out, spending a day in Quito Ecuador would save us a bunch of money and miles.  Also as luck would have it, that day was Fat Tuesday.  There will be more on the Ecuadorians crazy way to celebrate that later.

After a bit of research we picked three things that may have been of interest to us in Quito.  The Historic Center of town which is supposed to be one of the best in South America,  the El Panecillo Statue and the cable car that supposedly had great views of the city.  We only had one day and because of that had to nix the cable car ride.

In the morning, we got up had breakfast and asked for a cab to the Historic Center.  We got dropped off at the bottom of El Panecillo hill.  In retrospect we should have got dropped off at the base of the statue, which at the time we didn’t know was an option.  It was a long 700 step climb to the top of the hill especially when Quito itself is 9250 feet above sea level.  The air was very thin.

Quito, Ecuador

Quito, Ecuador

The 130 some foot high “El Panecillo” statue of the Virgin Mary stomping a serpent was quite a site and for a few dollars you could climb up the base and get an even better look of the city.  In the distance we could see our finish line for the day the Basílica del Voto Nacional.

Quito, Ecuador

So I mentioned that it was Fat Tuesday.  In Quito and all over Ecuador they celebrate Carnival by dousing each other with water and spraying foam on anybody near by.  They actually sell carnival spray foam cans all over town.  We saw people on the back of pickup trucks with Super Soakers having people throw pots of water on them.  It was a battle for the ages and a lot of fun to watch.  We had been sprayed by foam and Super Soakers all day, but people were nice enough that if you weren’t spraying back they wouldn’t completely douse you.  .We chalked it up to another cultural event we were lucky to experience.

Quito, Ecuador

After the long trek back down the hill, way easier than the climb up, we entered the Historic District of Quito.  All around was amazing architecture, restaurants, pubs, open air markets.  We even got some honey fresh from a live bee hive.

Quito, Ecuador

I must mention that we are pretty much clueless travelers.  We didn’t even know what Quito was until we started planning a Galapagos trip.  That being said we saw people in line to view stuff and just jumped in line.  The first line we got in was to visit the Church of La Compañia de Jesus.  I must say, I have stopped in many churches all throughout Europe hearing about how one is better than the other. This Church of La Compañia de Jesus is one of the most amazing artisan crafted churches I have ever seen.  The 160 years of wood working intricacies and gold leaf trim that adorned every inch of the inside of the church was incredible.

Quito, Ecuador

We wondered the rest of the way through the historic district occasionally stopping for a wine, beer and food all the while getting surprise foamed or squirted.  We love their brick oven pizza in Ecuador almost as much as they do!

Finally we had made it to Basílica del Voto Nacional, the “must see” according to everyone we had talked to.  Supposedly it’s a replica of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris with one exception.  The gargoyles that adorn the outside are 1/3 Notre-Dame gargoyle replicas, 1/3 animals native to Ecuador and 1/3 native animals of the Galapagos.

Quito, Ecuador

Quito, Ecuador

The thing that made the Basílica del Voto Nacional more unique than any other I had been in was the access to everything.  We felt like we were insiders, custodians or maybe even part of the clergy.  There is scaffolding with 2 x 12 boards that crosses long ways above the top arches you see in the picture above that lets you view basically how the arches were formed.  Across the scaffolding, which by the way has a railing, there is a small ladder that leads to an open outside deck.  From there even another very narrow very steep set of steps that takes you up to the top of the spire.

Quito, Ecuador

At the top of the spire waiting for us was another incredible 360 degree view of the city and framed between the clock towers the starting line of the day the El Panecillo Statue.

Quito, Ecuador

This is how we did it.

  1. Used airline miles from USA to Quito Ecuador
  2. Booked a hotel online, there are hundreds of well-known hotels and others lesser knowns
  3. Taxi from airport to hotel
  4. Taxi to Historic District.  (We recommend getting dropped off at the El Panecillo Statue instead)
  5. Taxi from Basílica del Voto Nacional (there’s a taxi stand right out front) to hotel
  6. Taxi from Hotel to airport.