The February trip to Costa Rica with G Adventures was fantastic and highly recommended. We had a crazy group of people and a guide who was very knowledgeable about his country as well as the flora and fauna. And there was a lot of it; Iguanas, monkeys, lizards, turtles, snakes, sloths, not to mention all the different types of birds and insects, all to be found in various forests and mangroves we visited. There is no point including my wildlife shots as Sharif’s are far superior (as is his blog), so I included some ‘fun’ pictures instead. Photos of some of the animals we saw can be found in the link below and I would urge you to take a look at a few.http://alphawhiskey.slickpic.com/photoblogThere are a couple of activities that warrant a mention. Firstly we participated in dolphin watching from a catamaran in Manuela Antonio. Well sort of. I should have guessed what was on the agenda when I saw that our $80 fee included free drinks. Always be aware of FREE DRINKS! In this case, 8 alcoholic drinks to be consumed on a boat in the heat by 100 lobster colored Americans/Canadians within 4 hours. The photos will speak for themselves and even though my brother gave up hope of seeing any wild life (apart from those ON the boat), once the loud music had started blaring, we did manage to spot some dolphins as the sun was setting.The other highlight of the trip for me was zip lining over the canopy in Monte Verde. Definitely one of the scariest yet memorable moments of my life and I did not enjoy the Tarzan swing at the end -which was more like a bungee jump. I was screaming like a baby. However I can’t wait to go again at our local place!As we were in the vicinity we did a couple of days in PanamaCity. It is an interesting sight having the old town against the backdrop of skyscrapers and Trump tower. The people I found weren’t as friendly as the Costa Ricans and we were constantly wary of being ripped off, specially by cabs. This meant walking everywhere in the 34C heat which was great for my tan and for burning off all that ice cream. Note that even though Panama is very Americanized , you will need some basic Spanish. For a small population, the city has an unbelievable number of malls. I am sure shopping is a national pastime or maybe people just need sanctuary from the heat. Panama City is somewhere that only requires 24 hours as there’s not much to do/see (unless you what to hide your cash!) and it is a little expensive (UK prices) but I am really glad that I learnt a lot about the famous Canal (the nerd that I am)and see it in action. This was a very different trip from my last G adventure tour (Brazil/Arg/Uruguay) -it's more about wildlife than natural beauty but it was just as good and again the people on our tour made the trip so much fun!
2 weeks went really fast. I had a fantastic time but a lot of that was due to the group I was with. The initial part of the trip was just the 2 of us (me and Bro), starting off in Buenos Aries (BA) and then a 2.5 hour ferry ride to Montevideo .BA is more like a European City than Rio with its squares, Starbucks and baroque architecture. I liked the Boca area with its vibrant buildings, wall murals and and tango dancing in the cafes, even though it was overly touristy. The Argentines love Messi but they worship Maradonna going by the statues of him everywhere in La Boca. The meal recommended by my ex-colleague Soh Ming at Desnivel was excellent – the best steak you will ever eat, and this is coming from someone who always avoids the steak back home. Apart from the steak, BA was rather expensive –even supermarkets and souvenirs. The streets are pretty dirty with rubbish everywhere and not much wonderful sightseeing to be done though what we did see what pretty.The weather was hot but we managed it and it was less humid than Brazil. Montevideo was a refreshing change from the hectic and noisy BA but very small with not so much to see, although pleasant to sit on the sea front after devouring the local chivitos.Once we joined the group (G adventures) the trip really took off. It was a group of 16 led by Guillermo, our CEO. Everyone hailed from different countries and one thing in common was a great sense of humor, which helped with the multiple and sometimes long transfers.Iguaçu was the most impressive, in fact it was astounding. The views were spectacular. Pictures does not even come close; you really need to experience it. Iguaçu is a series of falls with tonnes of reddish – brown water rushing with such noise. It was really deafening. Going to the different levels of the falls, one gets closer and closer, even getting drenched at some of the viewing platforms. The boat ride was definitely one of the highlights, getting up very close to the waterfalls and getting soaked! I enjoyed our next stop, Paraty as it was a quaint town with colonial style pretty houses and a guide who allegedly was speaking English!I wasn’t so keen on Ilha Grande – beaches aren’t really my thing, nor are mosquito bites although the hotel breakfast and dinners on the beach made up for it. I think we could have missed Ilha Grande out, even foregoing the 2 hours of hiking to Lopes Mendes beach (one of the top 10 beaches in Brazil) with it’s fine white sand and crashing waves, and instead could have headed straight to Rio.Rio is a very 3rd world city. I expected it to be richer, more like Mexico, but it is hot, humid and smelly. A lot of the places in the central part of town are rather dilapidated, in sharp contrast to the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. Although Sugar Loaf mountain and Christ the Redeemer was impressive (the latter taking many vehicles to reach there) with the most fantastic views of the city and the harbor, I don’t think I will be going back. The favelas of Rosario were a little revolting and smelt of sewage on a humid day. The colorful buildings looked nice but still dilapidated with rubbish strewn everywhere as there is no system to collect it. However the people were friendly , even skinny drug dealers hanging in the doorway with an oversized machine gun. Generally we encountered friendly and polite people in South American although English (and even Spanish) is limited in Brazil. In Rio, the taxi driver even gave my brother his wallet back after he inadvertently left it in the front seat. One thing I noticed on my trip to South America is the size of the people; vast, even the children. People on the central line look like anorexics in comparison. The ladies wear skirts, unlike in Mexico, and clothes there are far too small for them. And a lot of the women have tattoos. In fact I have not seen so many tattoos on females especially covering their whole back!
Braving the cold November rain, I made the steep climb up to the Ljubljana castle, the main attraction of the town. The castle overlooks the whole city and affords great views from the tower. There’s quite a bit to explore in the castle – a gallery, a museum and the castle itself is rather large. It is incredible how the castle was renovated into a building that can host events and houses restaurants. A couple of days are enough to see Ljubljana and to explore another town outside of the city. Bled is a stunning town surrounding a huge lake, the centre piece of the town; it is over looked by Bled castle, which hosts spectacular views of the lake. In the middle of the lake is an island with a church in pink stone. Unfortunately the mist didn’t allow me to take beautiful photos, which is a shame as it was very pretty; the autumn colours of the leaves compensated for the lack of sun. I was obliged to try one of their Bled cream cakes. Delicious, tasting a bit like mille feuille with only 2 pieces of pastry filled with cream and custard. The original recipe is used only at the Hotel Park. My final act of the being a tourist was a long visit to the very informative contemporary history museum, on the other side of Tivoli park (there are 3 Tivoli parks in Europe; Rome, Ljubljana and Copenhagen).Travelling alone meant I had to dine alone. I decided to try traditional Slovenian food. The waiters were very welcoming and helped me choose my meals and wines. Slovenian wines are definitely to be recommended.Ljubljana is a beautiful picturesque city and very easy to navigate, partly as it’s so small. The people are very friendly and seem to want you in their country- always helpful and kind. I definitely recommend a visit to this calm and small city.
Mexico City is a great place. It is very similar to a southern European city. It has so much art, archaeological ruins and interesting architecture. It is a hectic city of 24 million people and traffic is bad but it is safe and the people are very kind and don’t harass you.
Qantab The first stop of our 8 day tour was Qantab, a small sparse little fishing village 15 minutes from the capital Muscat. We stayed at the highly recommended Green Villa, run by a lovely European couple, 3 minutes from the beach. The houses in the village looked quite expensive; the majority of them were gated, probably to keep the freely roaming goats out. The houses were quite colourful, which contradicts the rest of the Oman, with their white or sand colour buildings, although the architecture throughout the country was uniform; square low level buildings. It was unusual to see the absence of high rises. There was however construction everywhere and clearly there is a modernization initiative, led by the Sultanate, who wants to diversify outside of oil. Hence, I noticed more Asians than Arabs in Oman, working in tourism or construction. Desert Our next few nights were spent in straw huts at a desert camp. These had no electricity, basic bathroom facilities and proved to be poor barriers against sandstorms. The 4WD desert safari was like a ride at Alton Towers, although the scenery was a little monotonous. The highlight was our picnic, under the only trees that were taller than 4ft where our guide Khaled made fresh rotis on an open fire. Nizwa We inevitably we got lost en route and found a small village to ask for directions. A group of men congregating invited us for a coffee. They brought out a large tray of snacks. We declined their offer of lunch so instead they gave us their number, in case we required further help, and even offered us money. This extreme hospitality was so typical of the people we met in Oman. The central attraction of the town was Nizwa Fort, built in the 17th century by Sultan bin Saif al Yaruba. Inside there was a small fortress and Souks surrounded the tower, from the top of which one could look down onto the murder holes, where people threw sticky date liquid from above onto the enemies. We were fortunate enough in the evening to receive a night tour by a shopkeeper/Imam, Ali. He was keen to show us the Falajs, the town’s underground aqueduct system. We also took in a traditional wedding, a multi millionaire’s house and met his brother, who was keen to tell us that Omanis were not terrorists. Jabreen /Bahla/Jemel Shams Jabreen, is home to a castle built in 1670AD. It was quite a large maze but with very modest interiors, high ceilings and interconnecting rooms, sprawled over 3 floors. As we were leaving we met a group of people having breakfast on the mats outside. A small girl came up to us offering cake and so we sat and accepted their hospitality. This was so typical of Oman! In Bahla, we circled, on foot, a 12th century fort built by the Bani Nebhan tribe. With the sun beating down we made our way to Al Hamra, at the foot of the never ending Hajar Mountains. The town is famous for its old clay Yemeni style houses but they looked dilapidated in the dirty village. Don’t bother to pay a local to look inside - it’s not worth it! What was worth paying for was the 4WD drive up to the Jemel Shams (don’t pay more than 20 OR). This is Oman’s highest mountain and lying alongside it is the Wadi Ghul, the Grand Canyon of Arabia. The views were spectacular; similar to Petra but with fewer colours in the rocks but the drop was incredibly steep. Our last day at Nizwa was back at the Souk. We didn’t manage to get to the animal market in time, where they trade livestock from Oman, Ethiopia and Somalia. The goats or cows are bought at the end of Eid and kept for a year to be fattened up for the following Eid. Before we could return the Qantab, of course we were invited by yet another Omani to have coffee at their house. Syed, a father of 10, gave us a tour of some of the mosques which were less well known, followed by a tour of his gardens. The first one consisted of livestock; goats, chickens, turkeys followed by his fruit garden; dates, bananas, oranges and even roses. We were fortunate to receive a packet of dates from his garden from his daughter. On our way back to the airport we managed to visit the main tourist attraction of Oman, the Sultan of Qaboos Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world. The chandelier was impressive and the world’s 2nd largest hand-woven carpet is not to be missed either but I wonder if people sit and pray on it? Oman is a fantastic place to visit. Although historically I gained more from my trip in Jordan and I did a lot more exploring, the hospitality from the Omanis is something I have NEVER experienced in all the countries I have travelled. Friends warned me to be careful, saying it’s dangerous, there are extremists, etc. That could not have been further from the truth. There are more extremists and even more letter boxes in London than there are in Oman.
POLAND I recently returned from an enlightening trip from Poland, having spent ten days visiting her major cities of Wroclaw (also known as Breslau), Warsaw and Krakow. Despite the stereotypical misgivings that some people in the UK have about Poland, I found it to be a friendly and inviting country, steeped in much important history. WROCLAW This is a picturesque university town and very easy to navigate through its resplendent architecture. Both the main square and Salt Square were lined with colourful buildings, vibrant nocturnally when the bars and restaurants were brimming with tourists and teenagers. Despite the stylish exteriors of the churches, their interiors were not as opulent as the ones found in Rome. St Maria Magdalena’s church had two towers that were connected by a bridge that, after a mountainous climb, you could traverse for panoramic city views. Cathedral Island (Ostrow Tumski), a little north of the old town, reminded me of rural France, with its quaint streets and buildings, except for the beautiful skyline above the river Odra. It’s amazing how most of this city and Warsaw were destroyed by the Nazis and had to be rebuilt. Thank goodness for Polish builders! The most bizarre thing for me was the Panorama Raclowkci. Expecting to go to a tower with city views, I was instead was greeted by a 5m x 120m painting depicting the 1794 battle of Raclawice (a village 320km away) when Polish peasants defeated the mighty Russian army, accompanied by a 20 minute presentation. Despite initial preconceptions of it being dull it is probably one of the most splendid of art works I have ever seen in my life. It was so detailed with hundreds of painted figures and trees as to almost look 3D. It was remarkable how they merged the painting’s surrounding areas with the foreground, which was a mock up using hay, wood etc. The Szcythieki Park had a fountain 'show,' where jets of water were released in time to music. The Japanese garden at the back was pretty and atypical for a city like Wroclaw. The abundance of malls in Wroclaw seem to reflect the Polish love of shopping. I also found it odd that they called a giant roundabout the Ronald Reagan Roundabout, both in Wroclaw and Warsaw (Warsaw even has a monument to the late US president), but given the copious support he gave to Poland during his tenure one can appreciate why they would want to honour him. WARSAW Warsaw was just too big. There was the Old Town, New Town and the Castle route. Wanting to see everything meant 4 days of roaming the sites, namely statues, monuments, churches and palaces. One of the highlights was definitely the Royal Palace, home of Europe’s first constitution, although 32 rooms was a lot to take in, especially with an audio guide. The Chopin museum was probably one of the least interesting museums I've been to (luckily it's free on Tuesdays) but the technology was like something I have never seen before. Your pass activated touch screens, which are programmed presentations with subtitles automatically in your own language or to play music. The Palace on the Island was the most important building in Warsaw’s huge 76 hectare park, Lazienkowski Park. Within it, was small amphitheatre. Opened in 1791, it uniquely separates the audience from the stage with water. The influence of other cultures such a Roman or Greek on Poland’s architecture was evident everywhere. Warsaw easily rivals any European city in terms of culture, history, architecture and greenery, and aesthetically is easily on par with Madrid, Rome and Paris. KRAKOW Again, a very beautiful city with a town square, a castle (Wavel Castle), barbican walls and fortifications. In terms of historical significance, it was the most interesting city of the trip and I will remember it for 3 things: Oscar Schindler's Museum, the Salts Mines and Auschwitz. The Salt Mines is a subterranean world of labyrinthine passages, giant caverns, underground lakes and chapels with sculptures in the crystalline salt and rich ornamentation carved in the salt rock, astonishingly mined over 900 years. Our tour only took us 135m down covering just 1% of the mine. Everything was made from salt; walls, ceilings, floors and I inhaled as much as I could of the supposedly beneficial fresh air down there. Schindlers' Museum is an old factory that employed Jews to save them from the camps and gave a very detailed account of what happened during Nazi occupation. Nearby is the old Jewish ghetto of Kamizierz (named after King Casimir), notable for its synagogues, but it didn't really provide a sense of what it would have been like in the 40's when the Jews were forced to settle there, before being sent to the camps. The Concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau were my last stop before I returned to London. The camps have been turned into museums. There were pictures of emaciated people and rooms full of items removed from people at the camps; spectacles, shoes, cooking pots, even hair. Birkenau was even grimmer, where a rail track divided the camp into 2-wooden barracks for men and brick ones for women. At the end of the rail track were the gas chambers and oven (now destroyed). The inhuman toilets consisted of rows of holes in concrete slabs. It was said that the best job in the camp was mucking them out as it was indoors, thus avoiding the harsh elements as well as the beatings from the SS men who would hardly venture in there. I was taken aback by the sheer size of the second camp, Birkenau. It looked like a small town. The museum wasn’t as gruesome as what I had seen in Cambodia last year (the legacy of the Khmer Rouge ) but it was still very eerie. Reading about what happened to the people in the camps, it was difficult to imagine the suffering of the prisoners (who were incidentally not just Jews, but Soviets, handicapped, Polish, POWs, etc) and inside the camps it was even harder to envisage as it looked so bare. The scale of it is impossible to comprehend but I saw on the tour how the Nazi’s had in fact industrialized genocide in such an efficient manner. I would advise everyone to visit this place as reading about it doesn’t even begin to touch how atrocious the place was. MISC In Poland I mainly stayed in youth hostels (private rooms), very central. They were of a very good standard with helpful and friendly staff, and my RBS colleague owns the one in Warsaw. That was a very charming place, with very great facilities. With the constraints of time, I tended to eat on the go, but I did try a couple of Polish dishes. The Pierogi dumplings were good although a little on the greasy side. I also had a typical polish meal of potato pancake and beef chop (bone removed so how is that a chop??). Unfortunately after 10 days of travelling in the heat with blisters and churches and castles merging as one in my head, I felt it was time to call it a day. I had planned to go to Lviv and Kiev but I lost the motivation to plan and to live another 7 days out of a case. I called it a day and vowed to return to the Ukraine in the autumn.