Tag Archive | scenery

Eastern Fjords and North.. Iceland continued

After the drive along the south coast from Reykjavik we continued our journey from Höfn, where we spent the night after the Glacier Lagoon trip, up the East coast towards the North. There are parts of the Ring Road at this point that are a bit challenging- the road follows the coastline which you will see is very winding, and climbs along the edges of the deep fjords. The views are breathtaking, but the journey takes much longer than you might think, and there are few places to stop and look at the view. Also at some points we were driving in mist and low cloud so be very careful.

The fields were covered in blue lupins, and we saw many sheep and goats, often in the middle of the road. There were very few villages, sometimes just an isolated farmhouse. Nothing more. Eventually we reached the  twin towns of Egilsstaðir and Fellabær, on either sides of the fjord.  Before continuing on our way we made a small detour for a very important purpose. I had read that  at the tiny village of Borgarfjörður Eystri there is a place where you can view puffins. The only other option to see them was to take a boat trip from Reykjavik, and I preferred to try this land option, as it was only an hour drive from Egilsstaðir , albeit on a somewhat bumpy and extremely winding road. We were rewarded with the sight of hundreds of puffins flying in from the sea to nest in the rocks. It was a fantastic sight!

Then we continued our drive inland, towards the area of Lake Mývatn. As you approach the area of the lake the scenery changes again dramatically. It becomes almost like a desert. There are strange stone formations, and the land looks vast and barren. No trees, bushes, animals or fjords. Everything looks like another planet again. The drive is long and there are hardly any places to stop, no settlement and no gas stations. Eventually we reached the area of the lake, which was characterized by huge swarms of midges. I had been warned about these and had considered buying a special hat with netting on it, but had not bothered. At the first available stopping point I got out at the toilets, and got mobbed by these pesky little flies which fortunately do not bite. Then the actual area of the lake is another weird volcanic area, full of strange georthermal manifestations. There are sulfur pools bubbling with boiling water, a strong smell and steam pouring out of the earth! It really is a most incredible sight!

The drive around the lake itself has several interesting places, one is Dimmuborgir, a park with strange lava formations arranged along lovely paths,and the second Grjotagja caves. We then continued to our place for the night, in the little village of Laugar, which proved idyllic as it had its own private hot tub with lovely warm water straight out of the mountain! We had a fabulous soak and went to bed, surrounded by amazing scenery.

The next day was a little rainy so our plan to hang around the town of Akyreyri (capital of the North, population 19,000) was not so successful. Took a few shots of downtown area (uninspiring) and of the church (closed) and sat in the car to eat our sandwiches. Generally I would say that towns in Iceland are not the thing- the thing is the countryside.

 

From there we continued on in intermittent rain to our next stop for the day Blönduós ( population 865) Very funny little place. Guest house was having the parking lot repaved, so we had to park outside the (deserted) church. View of the sea, right across the way. The only other guests there were a family of three from Givat Massua, Jerusalem! We sat with them in the shared kitchen and discussed our routes. The lady at the guest house also directed us to the supermarket where we stocked up with milk, orange juice, yoghurt and bread, and we made couscous with tuna for supper.

 

From Blönduós we had a day of mostly driving (fortunately it was raining) to reach the West coast and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This part of the country was less impressive but still beautiful. You become accustomed to endless waterfalls, snowy hills, tiny villages, sheep and horses. Eventually we reached our place for the night the small village of Grundarfjörður. Our apartment was supposed to be very fancy, but also shared kitchen and bathroom. On arrival we found a note with my name on and a phone number. When I called they said they had overbooked but not to worry they would show me to another apartment (better position in the village, with a view of the fjord). It turned out to be very nice, private bathroom and kitchen. After checking in we set out to explore the peninsula, and particularly the impressive Kirkjufell Mountain and waterfall.

The last leg of the trip, from Snaefellsnes Peninsula back to Reykjavik was the least interesting part of the Ring Road, with very little to see. We were happy to have done the Ring Road in the anticlockwise direction and seen the South coast first. In Reyjavik we did a free walking tour which was fun. But we did not really find it to be that impressive. The architecture is extremely minimalist and there is not a whole lot to do. Not sure why people love the town that much. The Hallgrimskirkja, Harpa Concert Hall and the Sun Voyager statue were less impressive than I was expecting. It is not classical European architecture.So maybe just not my cup of tea. The last day of the trip before our flight home we went to chill out at the rather splurgy and touristy Blue Lagoon since we really didn’t have anything else to do and we were exhausted. This turned out to be an inspired ending to the trip and we thoroughly enjoyed it! Stay posted for next trip… Japan!

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More sheep (and horses) than people- Amazing Planet Iceland

 

This trip was a rather unexpected one for me, especially after Krakow. My friends know I am not a big fan of the cold, and here we are doing TWO cold destinations one after the other. Anyway, the main culprit is my friend Ivette, whose blog on her trip in a campervan to Iceland set me off on this journey. What happened was that I saw Ivette’s pictures and my jaw dropped. D said “Ok let’s go” and that was it. We soon had a flight booked and I started on the itinerary and the accommodation.

I have to say that this part was way more complicated than your usual 12 day trip somewhere mainly because Iceland, a destination with only 300,000 or so people has very few towns and not many guest houses/ hotels. So you have to book at least 4 months in advance if you plan on going in the summer. We had originally planned to go in May for 12 days, but after a back injury this became end of June, by which time many of my accommodations were unavailable. In Iceland you can drive 200 km without seeing a single house, or gas station (or bathroom!) so you have to bear this in mind when planning. We booked almost exclusively guest houses or air bnbs with shared bathroom and kitchen, which was just fine. Icelanders are extremely fastidious and nearly all the places were spotlessly clean. The other consideration was that we wanted to cook for ourselves, as eating out is horrendously expensive in Iceland.

Usually when I blog a trip I outline cities and sites that we visited, but Iceland being Iceland really the main thing to do is just drive round the Route 1 ring road and just stop wherever you fancy. There are only gorgeous beautiful sites to see, mostly a result of the weird geology of the island. The entire interior is glaciers, and around the road you find a massive array of volcanic features (craters, hot springs and geysers etc) impressive waterfalls and beautiful fjords and scenery. Everywhere you stop is amazing. There are a few must- sees, such as Kerið crater, Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir in Thingvellir National Park, and of course the awesome Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach. But generally what people do is just drive the ring road either clockwise or anti clockwise, and then book accommodations nearby at sensible distances so you are not constantly driving.

 

 

So instead of naming all the places on the itinerary (most of which are unpronounceable anyway) I will just outline the different areas that we saw. Actually one of the best descriptions of Iceland is my great friend Nas Daily’s one, where he says that Iceland is in fact like another planet, and that’s really accurate, and it is because of Iceland’s unique geological features. Some places look like the surface of the moon, or Mars, and sometimes you just feel inundated with waterfalls, snow capped glaciers, fields of bubbling sulphur pools, or weird lava rock formations. It’s all rather overwhelming. Iceland has more weird geological features than anywhere else on the planet. It also has an abundance of sheep, goats, ducks, sea birds, puffins, whales and cute Icelandic horses. What’s not to like? WE drove around the ring road anti clockwise and so we began with

Part 1   The South Coast

Some people go clockwise, and leave this area for the end. It is really the most touristy and “crowded” area of the country (a term which has little meaning in Iceland) . And some people come in tour groups and ONLY see this area. So you are going to see tour buses congregating along Thingvellir National park ( lakes, geysers and waterfalls), and near Seljalandsfoss, Vik and Reynisfjara Beach,  and especially around  Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. There were myriad groups of Chinese toting very fancy cameras and tripods.But even in June nothing was that crowded. People arrive at a place, stay about 30 minutes or so and move on. Kerið glacial crater is quite lovely. Reynisfjara Beach has remarkable black sand and strange rock formations. OF course if you like you can take a long hike around any of these site.

I highly recommend the boat excursion on the Glacier Lagoon because you get to see the  glaciers up close and you experience it in a different way, and even see seals sitting on the ice.

We stayed the night at Kirkjubæjarklaustur (don’t ask me to say that) in a wonderful place called NiceHostel, which had a brilliant Lamb soup with free refill, just what we needed after getting soaked with rain at Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi waterfalls. After the Glacier Lagoon trip we continued on to stay at Hofn, a lovely little fishing town which would be our last stop along the South Coast.

Into Chiapas- Mexico Part 2

Having experienced the wonders of the Yucatán peninsula, we were hungry to continue our journey to another part of the country. People had told me that “Chiapas is the REAL Mexico” and that the Yucatán is very touristy and not the real thing. I am not sure what this means, and have questioned this in regard to other countries (China for example). But truth be told, the scenery in between the cities in the Yucatán was deadly boring and flat, so we were quite happy to board a bus and travel 10 hours to reach the UNESCO  world heritage site of Palenque.

The ride was comfortable, with spacious seats, air conditioning and a toilet. The screens showed movies in Spanish but with the volume turned down. The view was in fact wonderful. For the first hour or so we were riding along the coastline, so we saw the sea, fisherman, seabirds and little port towns. Then gradually we swung inland, and the scenery began to get green and hilly. The hills were dotted with farmlands, horses and cows in fields and a much richer variety of flora and fauna than we had seen in the scrubby scenery of the Yucatán. We eventually arrived in Palenque at around 5.30, in time to check into our hotel, book a tour to the famous  ruins for the next morning, and get some dinner. The street we stayed in, a neighbourhood known as “Canada” was all hotels, tour companies and restaurants.

Next morning, bright and early we were picked up by minibus to tour Palenque jungle ruins, and then a visit to Misol Ha waterfall and Agua Azul natural pools. What can I say about Palenque? I think it was really one of the highlights of the trip. There is something about jungle+ temple which = Indiana Jones. Even though you are not really being an explorer, you feel like one. We had a guide for the ruins and a separate one for the jungle, which I was glad of, because I felt like we could have easily got lost. The site is extremely impressive, especially when you learn that only 10% has been excavated, and most of the temples are still under the jungle, and likely to stay that way. When we asked why, it seems that 1. there are no funds to continue and 2. the ecologists and the archaeologists are pitted against each other. Anyway, what you see is certainly impressive, to say the least.

After the tour of the ruins, and the walk through the jungle (not easy for us, since everyone else was young and agile- but we kept up) we went back to the minibus for a quick trip to the Misol Ha waterfalls and then to lunch and a swim at Agua Azul.

This place REALLY was as great as it looks in the photo. The water was pretty cold at first but after we got in, we really enjoyed the swim and the lunch at one of the many restaurants nearby. We returned to the hotel in Palenque exhausted after a full and exciting day. There were people on our bus who opted to take a collectivo (shared minibus/taxi) directly to San Cristobal de las Casas that same evening (people that we actually ran into when we got there the next day) but we were glad that we went back to the hotel to rest, and travel on by day bus the next day. (But more of this in the next entry)

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Agua Azul

And so, next day we again boarded an ADO long haul bus to travel 7 hours to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a town we had heard very good things about. At an elevation of 2,200m this is a little town surrounded by mountains, and inhabited by a mixture of tattooed and pierced young musician types, who look like they are refugees from Woodstock, and the hard-working local people, many of whom belong to minority ethnic groups, such as the Tzotzil and Tzetzal. Their religious practices are a strange mixture of Catholic and Native Indian religions. As mentioned above, the road to San Cristobal was very long, but this turned out to be because of the route that the public bus takes. Instead of going directly to cover the 218km in 4 hours, it switched back to pass through Villahermosa and then back east again. It transpired later that the direct route was dubious- we met a Canadian couple who had hired a car and tried to drive directly to San Cristobal but had run into a roadblock which made them turn back and return (at night) – rather scary. The origin of the roadblock appears to be some kind of demonstration or “political unrest” … as I said, we were glad we had taken the public bus. The folks who went by minibus also said the road they had taken had been extremely windy and unpleasant, and some of them had felt unwell on the way up to the town.

San Cristóbal is hard to describe objectively. It is, as mentioned, high up in the mountains. Every street you walk down, the mountains rise up in the distance and surround the town. The houses are colourful as in Mérida and Valladolid, but with a greater simplicity and have something endearing about them. The town has a slow pace to it. Our host, James, at The Hub hostel put it this way “Many people come for a couple of days and end up staying for 4 years. ” The main drag has tons of hip restaurants, coffee bars and shops, and leads to the main Zócalo, which in turn is surrounded by hip restaurants and coffee bars. One thing we noticed immediately is that there is live music of all kinds going on all the time. There is not a whole lot to do in San Cris except eat, drink, listen to music and people watch. But sometimes that’s all you want to do, right?

We did do two day trips from San Cristóbal. The first was to Sumidero Canyon, a deep rift where you sail down the Rio Grijalva  in a cruise boat for about 90 minutes. The guide spoke only Spanish, as we were the only foreign tourists on the boat, but really no explanation was needed, as we spotted crocodiles, seabirds of various kinds and a small grotto with a Virgin Mary in it, and some strange outcrops of rock in odd shapes. At one point the canyon walls are one kilometre high, and all in all it was a fun day out.

The second trip we made was to San Juan Chamula, a village in the mountains just outside San Cristobal, where the locals famously have a church where they practice their weird version of Catholicism mixed with local Indian belief. It’s all very secret there and you are not allowed to photograph the inside of the church. All I can say is that we saw a woman waving eggs over her head, and that the floor had some kind of palm fronds strewn over it. The statues around the church were also a bit creepy.

In any case, the whole day trip was fascinating, despite the compulsory stop in the textile shop to buy handicrafts made by the locals. Actually, this was more than a shop, as it seemed to be a house where the extended family live together, doing weaving, embroidery and cooking, which you can watch as you browse the handicrafts.

After a wonderful week of music and chilling we decided it was time to move on to our next stop, the amazing Oaxaca in a new state, Oaxaca State.. stay tuned!

Nong Khiaw- a bumpy ride to the most perfect sunset

After chilling out for several days in Luang Prabang we felt ready for another adventure.So we boarded a minibus for the 3 hour trip to the small town of Nong Khiaw, north-east of Luang Prabang.This place is noted for having splendid limestone karst scenery on the banks of the Nam Ou River,similar to the familiar views of Guilin on the Li RIver in China,or the karst scenery in the South of Thailand.Now you might think that an air-conditioned minibus would be a better choice for the trip than the cheaper non a/c open tuktuk which is called a “bus” here in Laos.Well you might be wrong.Firstly the tuktuk goes slower so the bumps and jolts are not so bad.Secondly the driver didn’t actually turn on the a/c for most of the trip so we sweltered and bumped,and one Australian even bumped his head on the roof at one point in the journey.Anyway we eventually arrived at the “bus station” in Nong Khiaw which is minimalist to say the least.We had been reliably informed by the Indian guy who works at the Indian restaurant in NK who happened to be in the minivan with us that it was only 600 metres from the place we were dropped into town,so we walked it and arrived at the “throbbing” town centre in about 15 minutes as it was starting to rain.The place was tiny but there were many restaurants and guest houses to choose from.We found one named the CT,which had a restaurant, rooms with balcony onto the river and checked in.

Most of our two-day stay in Nong Khiaw consisted of gazing up at the mountains. The view was indescribably beautiful and a bit mesmerising. We could have gone tubing,hiking,bicycling,canoing or caving.Plenty of backpackers were doing just those things.But we were content to lap up the view and relax there.For one thing it’s the rainy season.For another we are lazy,and have done so much travelling over the last 3 years we are enjoying living the moment. So we gazed at the mountains in the morning,when they were swathed in mist.And we gazed at them in the evening when the sunset over the Nam Ou was simply perfect.One night we did this over a splendid curry at our Indian friend’s place.The next evening we did it over a wonderful Chicken Laap and Mango Shake,served by the French-speaking owner of Sunset Bungalows. Now tell me that this isn’t just the perfect romantic spot!

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After two days of musing we returned by tuktuk (less bumpy but this time soaking wet) to our lovely Saynamkhan River View room.The owner had very kindly kept our room for us and our suitcases were there waiting for us. Ahh it’s a hard life in Laos.We revisited the Big Brother Mouse in the evening to meet with more young Lao friends,this time accompanied by a young lawyer from Manchester. She has travelled far and wide,including Africa (Ghana). and most of Central and South America, and is now heading to all the Stans -Turkmenistan and so on.So she was an interesting travel companion.More anon…Please leave comments.