Travel

Visiting Prague and Nearby Castles

Prague, in the Czech Republic, is a beautiful city with striking architecture and an interesting history. It is a city that lends itself to walking. The Vltava River (the same river that runs through Český Krumlov) divides the two main tourist hubs, Old Town Square and Prague Castle hill.

Here are just a few highlights of Prague along with two castles outside the city.

Prague Castle

As castles go, it’s a little hard to recognize Prague Castle as such from the exterior – it just looks like a collection of buildings, and yet there is a lot to do here – palaces, museums, churches and shops. The castle area surrounds a large square which includes St. Vitus Cathedral. The cathedral is so massive and “shoehorned” into such a small area, it is difficult to get a good close-up photo of this stunning structure.

prague_czech-republic-13

A view of St. Vitus Cathedral (begun in 1344 and finished 600 years later), along with various buildings of Prague Castle.

prague_czech-republic-16

Basilica of St. George and Convent. This red building is Prague’s best-preserved Romanesque church. It dates from the 900’s. The convent to the left houses an art museum. These buildings are part of the Castle Square.

Golden Lane. This is an old medieval street just below the castle grounds.

prague_czech-republic-17

Golden Lane. Little shops in old medieval houses. A quaint little area in Prague’s Castle Quarter.

Charles Bridge

This bridge was built in the 14th century by King Charles IV and was the only bridge in Prague to cross the Vltava river until 1850.

prague_czech-republic-8

On the Charles Bridge, with lots of tourists moving between the Old Town Square and Prague Castle. Artists and various vendors line the bridge along with statues. The tower (on the east end, near Old Town Square) was originally a toll booth.

prague_czech-republic

The Castle (west) end of the Charles Bridge.

Old Town Square

Located on the east side of the Vltava river, this square dates from the 11th century. It was once the center for executions of convicts. A lane, called “The King’s Walk” connects Old Town Square to the famous (and busy) Charles Bridge which then leads to Prague Castle.

prague_czech-republic-3

A view of Týn Church and Old Town Square.

The Gothic Týn Church is a major landmark of the Square and has been the main church in this part of Prague since the 14th century. Nearby is the 15th century Old Town Hall and astronomical clock, which is quite fascinating–it tells time in a variety of ways (with Roman numerals, Gothic numbers and planetary symbols).

prague_czech-republic-10

The 15th century astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall. It was damaged in World War II and largely reconstructed.

prague_czech-republic-9

Another view of Old Town Square and Týn Church (the astronomical clock and Old Town Hall are just to the left of the church).

prague_czech-republic-14

A street scene in Old Town Prague.

Jewish Quarter

Close to the Vltava River, the Jewish Quarter contains several synagogues and a Ceremonial Hall which can be visited. In addition, there is an old Jewish cemetery (which was the only burial ground in Prague allowed for Jews for 300 years). Centuries ago, the Jews were required to live separately from Christians. Of the 120,000 Jews living in this area in 1939, only 10,000 survived to see liberation from the Nazis in 1945.

prague_czech-republic-4

Old-New Synagogue. Built in 1270, it’s the oldest synagogue in central Europe.

Nearby Castles – Karlštejn and Konopiště

Twenty miles southwest of Prague is Karlštejn Castle, one of the Czech Republic’s great attractions. It is a bit of a hike up to the castle from the car park, but the route has lots of little shopping booths to keep you entertained along the way.

karlstejn-castle-3

Karlštejn Castle. Built in 1350 to house the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire. Reservations are required to see the Chapel of the Holy Cross where the crown jewels were housed.

Konopiště Castle. This castle is 30 miles south of Prague. There is an interesting (and free) display of numerous statues of St. George “slaying the dragon” here.

konopiste-castle

Konopiště Castle. Construction began in the 14th century, but the castle was largely modernized around 1900 by Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne. The castle houses an excellent medieval arms collection.

 

 

 

 

The Wonders of Angkor Archeological Park, Cambodia – Day 2

 

On our 2nd day in Angkor Archeological Park, we explored some temples that are further out from the main circuit, and therefore the crowds were thinner too. Many of these temples are in an area known as East Baray (a large ancient reservoir), on the eastern side of the Park.

Banteay Kdei. We really enjoyed this temple, and had it almost completely to ourselves. It is a late 12th century temple, and is close to Ta Prohm, both geographically and style-wise.

banteay-kdei-23

A perfect picture-window section of Banteay Kdei.

Parts of the temple are a jumble of blocks and other parts you wonder how they’re still standing.

banteay-kdei-16

It amazes me that you can walk around these parts of Banteay Kdei!

It was poorly constructed using a poor quality of sandstone, but who can complain after nearly 1,000 years.

banteay-kdei-22

Another view of Banteay Kdei.

East Mebon. This temple was originally a man-made island, rising up out of the middle of the ancient East Baray reservoir, which is now dry. It is a late 10th century temple, and was dedicated to Hindu god Shiva, and is somewhat similar in style to Pre Rup, below.

east-mebon-5

East Mebon. This temple’s layout makes it difficult to get a good photo.

Pre Rup. This is another huge (and tall) state temple (meaning it defined a king’s capital city) and was built in the late 10th century, just a decade later than East Mebon. It has several imposing towers, and is another “mountain in stone” like Bayon.

pre-rup-1

A view of Pre Rup.

pre-rup-2

The courtyard around Pre Rup.

Banteay Samre. This mid 12th century temple is a bit isolated, at the eastern edge of Angkor Park, and hence is one of the least visited temples in the Park.

banteay-samre-3

The walls, entrance and courtyard at Banteay Samre.

banteay-samre-17

The main temple structure at Banteay Samre. The similarities to Angkor Wat are evident.

Banta Samre is surrounded by a large wall and is complete, meaning there are no ruined sections as a result of a well-planned reconstruction, and it has many well-preserved carvings. We had this temple to ourselves.

Ta Som. Another of my favorite temples, in the style of Bayon, late 12th century. This temple is north of East Mebon, but makes sense to visit after Banteay Samre if you continue a counter-clockwise route from south to north. It is a small temple, with the entrances being the most picturesque parts.

ta-som-1

The east entrance into Ta Som (note the faces in the tower behind the tree).

ta-som-1

Inside Ta Som temple.

Neak Pean. This is a very unique small 12th century structure, located on a island, with eight pools surrounding it. For part of the year the pools are dry.

neak-pean-3

Neak Pean temple.

neak-pean-2

The marshy reservoir surrounding the island temple of Neak Pean.

The waters were thought to have healing properties. You walk out on a boardwalk across a strange looking shallow reservoir to get to the temple on the island.

Preah Khan. Another great, romantic late 12th century temple. From an interest standpoint, I would put it in the same class as Ta Prohm (See Day 1 post).

preah-khan-13

Exterior view of Preah Khan.

This is a large temple, with many different courtyards, and was the residence of King Jayavarman VII while his palace was being constructed in Angkor Thom.

preah-khan-19

View of carving detail at Preah Khan.

preah-khan-35

Interior hallway at Preah Khan.

preah-khan2

This structure at Preah Khan is unusual, having round columns. It may have been constructed at a later date.

Photo-wise, Preah Khan is interesting from multiple angles, with tree roots, vines and tumbled stone everywhere.

Beng Melea. Technically we visited Beng Melea on Day 3, but who is counting! This is an early 11th century temple, about 60 km southeast of Siem Reap. We hired a taxi for the round trip, and it cost about $50 USD. I had thought that since we were going so far out of Siem Reap, it would be pretty quiet. However, this temple is now on the tourist map, and there were a number of smaller tour buses here. Even so, it is still very worthwhile.

beng-melea81

A view of Beng Melea. Much of the structure is ruined, giving it an “undiscovered” feel.

beng-melea32

A part of Beng Melea that we had to ourselves.

Being on our own, my son and I were able to visit parts of the temple that the tour groups ignore (or don’t know about).

beng-melea78

A section of wall at Beng Melea.

beng-melea73

Another secluded part of Beng Melea.

Although hard to tell, this temple is in the style of Angkor Wat, and since it was constructed prior to Angkor Wat, it may have served as a prototype for that great structure.

Angkor Archeological Park and the surrounding area can mesmerize the tourist for days. If you get a chance, visit this astounding cultural and architectural gem.

 

 

The Canary Islands – Part 2 of 2 (Tenerife)

Let’s just call it what it is…Tenerife is beautiful and it’s easy to see why it’s the most visited spot in the Canary Islands, and one of the top destinations in Spain and Europe, for that matter. Tenerife is the largest (and most populated) of the Canary Islands, and the north/west and south coasts are especially beautiful. It’s only a short (20 minute) plane ride away from Gran Canaria. The 12,198 ft volcanic peak of El Teide dominates the island and is the highest point in Spain. Probably the second most popular sight is Los Gigantes, a stunning set of high cliffs jutting out of the ocean on the very southwest coast.

Puerto de la Cruz

This is a primary tourist hub on Tenerife and it’s where we stayed. Its location at the midpoint of the island on the northwest shore provides a good base for exploring the island and is quite a beautiful setting – with the waves crashing over the jagged volcanic rocks along on the shore.

Puerto de la Cruz (3)

The rugged and beautiful coastline of Puerto de la Cruz.

Puerto de la Cruz

An evening scene in Puerto de la Cruz – lots of diners fill the streets in the evenings.

Puerto de la Cruz (2)

A church in the main square of Puerto de la Cruz.

El Teide National Park

The soaring volcano mountain of El Teide is a national park and contains a lot of rugged terrain. Going from sea level to 12,000 feet in elevation within just a few miles (as the crow flies) means you are ascending at a very steep rate and negotiating a lot of switch backs.

El Teide National Park (2)

A volcanic outflow “flower” in the park.

The roads on Tenerife and ascending into El Teide National Park are narrow, steep and winding. Once you get into the park, there is a nice visitor’s center with good maps and signage.

El Teide National Park (35)

A view of the peak in the distance.

There is a (expensive) tram that takes you within 600 feet of the summit, but to climb the last 600 feet you have to plan ahead and make a reservation.

El Teide National Park (15)

The tram going up to the top of El Teide.

El Teide National Park (18)

Near the peak of El Teide, where the tram ends.

Otherwise, you can hike around the peak just below the summit for the views and scamper through the jagged volcanic rock, which looks other worldly. Unfortunately, on the day we had allowed for our visit to the park and peak the lower elevations were socked in with clouds for a period of time, but we were still able to get a few views.

El Teide National Park (9)

The moon-like landscape of El Teide National Park.

Los Gigantes

This is the postcard view of Tenerife. In fact, it was a post card I saw in a friend’s office that put Tenerife on my “must see” list. At the port, you can arrange a boat trip (of varying lengths of time) that will take you for a tour, including whale and dolphin watching, depending on the time of year.

Los Gigantes (6)

A view of the port of Los Gigantes with the cliffs in the background.

Los Gigantes Dolphin (2)

A dolphin comes near our boat.

Your boat tour will also stop at the beach for a short time, or you can arrange to disembark at the beach and take another boat back, which is what we did. While we were on the beach, a huge boulder came crashing down off the cliffs which could have easily killed someone. Luckily, it fell and rolled (at great speed) right between some very scared tourists who were running in every direction. It happened so quickly I could not get any video footage.

Tenerife Los Gigantes Masca Beach (2)

The black sand beach among the cliffs of Los Gigantes.

The best access to Los Gigantes is by taking a boat tour out of the nearby port town of the same name. You can also hike down from the town of Masca (discussed below).They aren’t joking when they say on the hike down from Masca and at the beach to be extremely careful of loose rock.

Tenerife Los Gigantes Masca Beach (4)

Enjoying a swim at Los Gigantes.

Masca

The main reason people come to the little village of Masca (in addition to seeing the beautiful setting), is as a starting point for hiking down through steep ravines to the cliffs and beach of Los Gigantes.

Masca (6)

The winding road going into Masca. On most of Tenerife you are either going up or down!

It’s about a 3-hour hike, and once you reach bottom you can catch a pre-arranged boat back to the port. Most people take a taxi to Masca to begin their hike, since it’s a one-way route (unless you’d like to spend a few more hours ascending straight back up the gorge).

Tenerife Los Gigantes Masca Canyon

Looking up into the narrow gorge of Los Gigantes. Hiking up through this gorge leads to the little village of Masca.

A couple other great beach areas are shown below.

Los Cristianos

Near the southern most tip of Tenerife is Los Cristianos, another scenic beach spot and viewpoint, with the island of La Gomera in the distance. Ferries to other islands depart from here.

Los Cristianos

The beach at Los Cristianos.

Playa Americas

This resort area (near Los Cristianos) is a major tourist hub for southern Tenerife with a great beach and numerous hotels and restaurants. If you’re after nightlife, this is where you’ll find it.

Playa de Las Americas (5)

The beach at Playa Americas.

Playa de Las Americas (8)

There’s even a Hard Rock Cafe in Playa Americas.

Small Quaint Towns

Just like on Gran Canaria, there are some quaint small towns in the interior that are worth a little time exploring.

La Orotava

La Orotava (21)

La Orotava is known for its sand murals – in particular this square – see below.

La Orotava

The square in La Orotava is transformed by sand murals – I wish we could have seen this incredible artwork – I had to settle for a picture of a picture! I wonder how they deal with wind?

La Orotava (16)

A display showing how the sand murals are created.

La Laguna

La Laguna (11)

The town of La Laguna is near the airport at the northern end of Tenerife. It was the headquarters of the Spanish Army in the 1600’s. It has a very quaint old quarter.

Vilafora

Vilaflora Iglesia de San Pedro Apostol (5)

The Iglesia de San Pedro Apostol in Vilaflora, a hermitage from the 1500’s.

 

Vilaflora (2)

The beautiful golden altar in the Iglesia de San Pedro Apostol.

If you have to pick just one island to visit in the Canaries, make it Tenerife. You will find a little bit of everything here – stunning scenery, beaches, mountains, pretty villages, good restaurants and nightlife. Five million tourists a year can’t be wrong!

The Canary Islands – Part I

Overview

If you want to visit a part of Europe that most Americans aren’t familiar with, consider the Canary Islands, an archipelago of 7 islands belonging to Spain located off the west coast of Africa. We wisely decided to visit the Canary Islands following our two weeks in nearby Morocco. We visited two islands (Gran Canaria and Tenerife), which are two of the largest and most developed islands. There are direct flights from Casablanca to the Canaries.

Firgas (1)

A map of the Canary Islands. We visited Gran Canaria (the circular island in the lower center) and Tenerife, to the northwest of Gran Canaria.

Even though these two islands house most of the local population, you can find remote and quiet areas very quickly. We really enjoyed this part of our trip. The difference between Morocco and the Canaries was a bit of a culture shock (the pace of traffic, roads, lifestyle, etc.), and we felt we were stepping from one world to another after our 1.5 hour flight.

Gran Canary Scenery (5)

The landscape of Gran Canaria, near the caldera of the volcano that was the island’s origin. The elevation here is about 6,000 feet.

For a combination of rugged volcanic mountains, loads of hiking trails, beautiful beaches and small quaint European towns, the Canary Islands are hard to beat.

Gran Canaria Hiking Sign

A sign showing hiking trails in the mountains of Gran Canaria.

The Canaries are only about 100 miles (depending on the island) off the coast of Western Sahara, a region of Africa administered by Morocco. While Spanish is the primary language, the high number of tourists (and residents) from the UK make English more common than in mainland Spain. Even though these islands are close to the Sahara Desert, they have a mild climate and pleasant temperature all year long. The climate zones vary greatly within each island and from island to island due to changes in elevation and the prevailing winds. Some areas are a bit desert-like, other areas are forested and green, and you’ll find everything in between.

Gran Canaria Guanches (2)

The Guanches were the native people of the Canary Islands, who were essentially wiped out during the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands.

To get around each island we rented a car (the roads are good, although sometimes more narrow than mainland Europe). To get from island to island there are numerous flights as well as ferries (we flew to save time).

I’ll share a bit about Gran Canaria in this post and then share more about Tenerife in my next post.

Gran Canaria

This island (and its largest city, Las Palmas) is the capitol of this region of Spain and the main business hub for the Canaries. Although the island is not big (about 35 miles diameter), many of the roads are narrow, steep and winding, so it takes longer than you might think to get across the island. There is one major freeway on the eastern shore.

Las Palmas Playa de las Canteras (45)

One of the main beaches and boardwalks in Las Palmas, Playa de las Canteras.

Columbus visited Las Palmas to take on supplies on his first voyage to the New World.

Las Palmas (23)

Statue of Columbus in Las Palmas.

There is an excellent museum about his voyages and world exploration at the end of the 15th century. He also is believed to have lived in this building as well.

Las Palmas Casa de Colon (19)

The exterior of the Museo de Colon (Christopher Columbus Museum) in Las Palmas.

Las Palmas Museo de Colon (7)

A map showing the route of Columbus’ first voyage – 1492-1493. He stopped in Las Palmas on his way to the new world.

Las Palmas Museo de Colon (14)

One of the exhibits in the Museo de Colon, showing the interior of a sailing ship of Columbus’ era.

There are other sites to visit in Las Palmas as well, including a great cathedral.

Las Palmas Catedral de Santa Ana (14)

Las Palmas Cathedral – Catedral de Santa Ana. Located near the Museo de Colon.

 

Las Palmas Catedral de Santa Ana (12)

Interior of Catedral de Santa Ana.

Beyond Las Palmas, there is a whole island to explore, with small quaint towns and rugged mountains.

Arucas (7)

The town of Arucas on Gran Canaria

Arucas Iglesia de San Juan Bautista (4)

In the town of Arucas, there is a Gothic church (Iglesia de San Juan Bautista), which is not old, but quite beautiful and will remind visitors of the great cathedrals of Europe.

A couple other cute towns are Teror (don’t let its name frighten you away!) and Firgas.

Teror (3)

Street in the town of Teror.

Teror Basilica (6)

The Basilica of Teror, quite beautiful inside.

Firgas (3)

Many of these little towns have some sort of iconic site. Firgas, not far from Las Palmas, has a waterfall cascading down a street.

The southern shore of Gran Canaria has high cliffs that are an imposing sight and a lovely fishing village, Puerto de Mogan.

Puerto de Mogan (6)

Puerto de Mogan is an upscale little village on the southern shore of Gran Canaria.

The landscape at the higher elevations reminded us of our home state – Colorado.

Pozo de las Nieves (4)

This spot is known as Pozo de las Nieves, and is the highest spot on Gran Canaria. It offers views of the island of Tenerife, which can (barely) be seen above our heads. Also, just over Robyn’s head is Roque Nublo, a famous landmark and sacred spot to the Guanches (the native population).

Roque Nublo (11)

Another view of the rugged volcanic landscape found on Gran Canaria, near Pozo de las Nieves.

Grand Canaria is a gateway to the Canary Islands and definitely worth a few days of your time. In my next post, I will share some information on Tenerife, another “hot spot” in the Canaries.

 

 

 

Penshurst Place – An English Fortified Manor Home

A view of Penshurst Place from the gardens. The Baron’s Court (Great Hall) is on the right.

A beautiful example of a medieval (and then Tudor) fortified manor house is Penshurst Place, located in the picturesque village of Penshurst, about 85 miles south of London’s Heathrow airport.

Location of Penshurst Place, in southern England. (forgive misspelling of “Penshurst” on map)

I visited this estate as part of a day trip from London that took me to Pevensey, Herstmonceux Castle, Battle (Hastings) and finally Penshurst.

herstmonceux-castle_england-3

A view of Herstmonceux Castle (dates from 1441), part of the Queen’s University, Ontario Canada.

Penshurst Place and Gardens

This historic mansion is not on the typical tourist “radar” but for a taste of life in aristocratic England in the 14thcentury, take the time to visit this beautiful castle-home.

Interior view of Penshurst Place–note the detailed wood work on the walls and ceiling.

A bedroom in Penshurst Place–note the wood work on the walls and beautiful bed.

I was very impressed how beautiful this estate is—the stone work, interior decorations and landscaping—even in February I could tell how much care went into the well-manicured landscape. Some people come to tour only the gardens.

Another view of Penshurst Place.

The outstanding feature of Penshurst Place is the Baron’s Court (also known as the Great Hall) with its original chestnut wood beams from 1341.This room (and the entire estate) is now used on occasion for weddings, conferences and other events (pictures aren’t really allowed in the Baron’s Court, but I got a quick one of the ceiling!).

A snapshot of the 14th century ceiling of the Baron’s Hall.

Sir John de Pulteney built the Manor house on 4,000 acres he purchased in 1338. In 1382 the defensive features were added—making it almost a castle—including eight large towers and crenellated walls. King Henry VIII owned this home for a period of time, and today a descendant of the Sidney family, who received the home as a gift from Henry, is the custodian.

A view of the village of Penshurst.

Old timbered houses in the village of Penshurst.

Penshurst Place is part of the English Heritage system, meaning purchasing an English Heritage membership allows entry to this site and many others for one fee. The single entry fee as of February 2012 was £9.80 for the house and gardens. Visit penhurstplace.com for more information.

A Day Tour of the Sacred Valley

Day Tour Route - Sacred Valley

On one of our 3 days in Cuzco we did a day tour of the Sacred Valley. We were on a mid-size bus with perhaps 35 people. The tour costs 35 NS per person (1 USD = 2.8 NS). Another option would be to rent a car, but signage on the roads is not very clear, and it was just easier for us to book a tour than to find a car to rent. The tour consisted of a stop at a small set of tourist shops (of course) not too far from Pisac, then the ruins of Pisac, a drive to Urubamba for lunch, then on to Ollantaytambo town and ruins, followed by a drive over a high plateau to the little town of Chinchero, and finally back to Cuzco via Poroy, which is the same town where the trains leave for Machu Picchu. A tourist ticket to visit the ruins below, in addition to others (see my other posts on Cuzco sites) costs 130 NS (about $46), for non-locals. The ticket can be purchased in Cuzco or at your first stop. Unfortunately it’s “all or nothing,” you cannot purchase individual site tickets.

A view of the Sacred Valley from Ollantaytambo

Pisac
The town of Pisac is quite small (about 4,000 inhabitants), and the ruins are set high in a valley behind the little town. It’s about a 2,000 foot drop in elevation from Cuzco to Pisac, and a very scenic drive. The ruins contain a variety of buildings and varying stone and adobe brick work. This Inca site was thought to contain a bit of everything—religious site, observatory, as well as residences. Due to our limited time with a tour group, we only were able to visit one portion of the site—it’s large, and still being excavated. The views of the valley from the ruins are quite spectacular, even with the heavy mist we had.

A view of the ruins of Pisac

A view of the valley and terraces at Pisac

Ollantaytambo
After lunch in Urubamba, our tour took us to Ollantaytambo, at the northwest end of the Sacred Valley, and the literal end of the road (at least in the direction of Machu Picchu). This is a nice small town, and is laid out on the original Inca city plan. The fortress ruins are very impressive, looking up from the town directly below. There are large terraces ascending straight up a narrow cleft in the mountain to the ruins at the top. This site was largely defensive in nature. The Inca fled here in 1537 after being defeated in Sacsayhuaman by the Spanish. They actually made a stand and won a battle against Pizzaro here, but eventually the Spanish conquered this city. In addition to the main ruins by the town, there are additional ruins on the other side of the small valley, to the southeast of the town. Ollantaytambo and Sacsayhuaman were my favorite Inca sites in addition to Machu Picchu. The trains to Machu Picchu make a short stop here on their way to Aguas Calientes.

Looking up at the ruins of Ollantaytambo

The ruins of Ollantaytambo

Temple of the Ten Niches at Ollantaytambo

Chinchero
We drove back down the road to Urubamba, and then south up over a high plateau in the Sacred Valley to the town of Chinchero. On this road are incredible views of the surrounding Andes mountains. This town is 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) in altitude, higher than Cuzco. The Incan past is very obvious in this little town, with the buildings along the streets built upon their original Inca foundations. The Inca, in fleeing to Ollantaytambo, laid waste to this town to slow the Spaniards. Too bad. Chinchero has a very interesting church, built in 1607, with the wood beam ceiling covered in intricate paintings. I could not take pictures inside, but it was very beautiful and worth the visit. We arrived very late in the afternoon, near sunset, so our visit to this interesting town was limited.

Growing crops at 12,500 feet (near Chinchero)

The soaring peak of Lagrimas Sagradas (Sacred Tears) 5,800 meters (about 19,000 ft) high.

A narrow street in Chinchero--houses built on Inca foundations

The 17th century church in Chinchero - built on Inca foundations, and decorated with ceiling paintings

Exploring North Central Peru – Gocta Falls (aka “Gojta”)

A house in Cocachimba

On our 2nd day in Chachapoyas we decided to go to Gocta Falls. These falls (a series of two) are the 3rdhighest in the world. The lower falls is about 500 meters in height, and the upper falls is about 200 meters high. In the travel blogs I had read prior to our trip, it was difficult to know how accessible the falls were. As it turned out, they were pretty easy to get to. As we had done the day before, we went to the main square in Chachapoyas and arranged with a different tour company (simply to spread our business) for transportation to the falls. We paid 30 NS per person for the car and driver and also paid a 5 NS entry fee ($1 USD = 2.8 nuevos soles).

The village of Cocachimba, start of the Gocta Falls trail

On the trail...

Getting closer to the falls...

The lower falls as we arrive...

We were the only ones going to the falls that day, and had a private car and driver. The drive took us north of Chachapoyas about 1 hour (of which only 11km is gravel) to the small village of Cocachimba, where the hike began. The well-maintained trail is 5.3km in length, and it took us about 2 hours to get to the falls. Along the way, there are various signs promoting ecotourism and pointing out some of the natural surroundings (local birds for example). The falls are visible from near the trailhead, and if one did not feel like hiking, just viewing them from the distance would be possible. The trail goes up and down a lot through many ravines, but is not difficult.

The huge falls dwarf our son, Sean...

Standing at the base of the falls, looking straight up 1500 feet is quite spectacular. We had the falls to ourselves. There was a small group of German tourists hiking down as we were going up, and we saw just a few other people along trail. This was a very quiet and an enjoyable experience in the natural beauty of Peru.

A sign for Facebook in the remote village of Cocachimba!

Gocta Falls is 1 hour north (by car) of Chachapoyas

Exploring North Central Peru – Kuelap (“qway-lap”)

On the 2.5km hike to Kuelap

Housing area in Kuelap-the only restored structure on the site

If you’re looking for a less-discovered, uncrowded ancient historical site in Peru, consider Kuelap. It is located 45 miles (which takes about 2.5 hours due to a gravel road most of the way) south of Chachapoyas. The road is much improved from several years ago, when rains would make it nearly impassable. Our tour group included 13 people in a minivan. The tour cost 60 NS (1 USD = 2.8 nuevos soles) per person, and included lunch and the entry fee (10 NS). Most of the tourists were from Peru and other South American countries. When we arrived at the site, we were pleased to see just a few other minivans. After arriving at the parking lot, we hiked about 2.5 km up to the site itself.

The scenery from the mountaintop fortress of Kuelap. The dirt road seen near the bottom of the picture is the road to the site

The massive walls surrounding Kuelap

One of the main entrances to the site

Hiking up into the fortress

I knew little about Kuelap, but enough to know it is one of the great sights in Peru and I wanted to see it. Kuelap dates to the 6th(?) century AD, constructed by the Chachapoyan people, who apparently were warriors, given the defensive nature of Kuelap. We don’t know much about these people, but they were described as a “tall and fair” people by the Inca—supposedly blonde and blue-eyed, and even today I understand that there are some people in the area that fit this description, but they are not European descendants. They were eventually conquered by the Inca around 1472, and Kuelap was inhabited until 1670 when it was abandoned during the Spanish Conquest. It is one of the largest pre-Inca ruins in existence, set on a 10,000 foot mountain top ridge. Massive walls (reaching up to 60 feet high) surround the site, which is 600 meters in length. It is believed that about 2,500 – 3,000 people inhabited about 400 or more homes (most of which are circular) in the site. The site’s construction reminded me of castles in Europe—well built, but not to the exacting standards of the Inca. Based on the skeleton remains and large numbers of skull surgeries at Kuelap, archeologists believe a “medical” school was located here.

Templo Mayor (observatory? prison?)

Another view of the ruins in Kuelap

Decorative stonework in Kuelap buildings

The surrounding mountain scenery is beautiful, and from Kuelap, one is at equal height with most of the surrounding mountains.

Our tour van and restaurant for lunch

A great lunch - Lomo Saltado

Kuelap is 2.5 hours south (by car) of Chachapoyas

Visit now before this incredible site welcomes crowds like those at Machu Picchu!

Exploring North Central Peru—Chachapoyas

Chachapoyas is an 8-9 hour (285 miles) bus ride east from Chiclayo

The countryside of Chachapoyas (on the way to Kuelap)

Chachapoyas is a whitewashed town of about 25,000 located in a very interesting and beautiful part of Peru. It would be easy to spend 4-5 days touring the area—we spent two, exploring Kuelap ruins and Gocta Falls. A green, mountainous area, Chachapoyas is located between the very dry northwest part of Peru and the Amazon jungle region to the east.

Getting on the bus to start our overnight journey to Chachapoyas

To get to Chachapoyas, the logistics are as follows: a flight from Lima to Chiclayo, followed by an overnight (about 9 hour) bus ride from Chiclayo to Chachapoyas. Another option would be a flight from Lima to Cajamarca and then an 10 hour bus ride (mainly on a dirt road from what I understand) to Chachapoyas. There are no commercial flights to Chachapoyas, although there is a small airport where some small charter flights operate.

The comfortable semi-cama bus seats

The bus ride is not quite as bad as it might seem. The operator was Movil Tours. The bus is a double-decker, with more comfortable seats on the lower level and typical long-haul bus seats on the upper level. While the bus makes a few short stops, they are only to pick up and drop off passengers. Seats in the economy (upstairs) section cost 45 nuevos soles (NS) and 75 NS in the first class section. A small dinner (not too exciting) was served, with one movie shown (in Spanish of course). ($1 USD = 2.8 NS).

Hotel Vilaya in Chachapoyas

Our room at Hotel Vilaya--about $35/night (checking in at 6 am!)

The bus from Chiclayo arrives in Chachapoyas at about 6 am. Upon arrival, we asked for hotel recommendations, and took a taxi for 2 NS to the hotel, and got a triple room on the spot for 100 NS per night, with (very) early check-in being no problem. There are several decent, but certainly not fancy hotels in the town. After getting cleaned up, we then ventured down to the main square to arrange a tour to Kuelap which left at 8:30 am. The tourism industry here is just developing and at this time of year (October), it was no problem getting a hotel, or booking a tour. There are at least a half-dozen tour agencies on the main square, and from what we could tell, they all offer similar tours and at similar rates. The main tours in the area include: Kuelap, Gocta Falls, Revash, Karajia, Laguna de los Condores, and Quiocta Caves.

One of several tour operators on Plaza de Armas, Chachapoyas

Pedestrian street, Chachapoyas

Plaza de Armas, Chachapoyas

Four Hours in Indonesia

Kids at home in Tanjung Pinang, Bintan

Ferry route to Tanjung Pinang from Singapore (about 2 hours)

On my last trip to Singapore I took a day-trip to Indonesia, since several islands are so close to Singapore. I had a choice of either Batam or Bintan islands, both of which are just a ferry ride away. As I searched the internet for information about both islands, I was surprised at how little information was available on the logistics and what to do on such a trip.

Here is some information I wish I had known…

Which island?

  • Batam. Batam is closer to Singapore and a little easier to get to (see ferry information below). However, I didn’t see much on the internet that enticed me about Batam. There are shopping malls, some modern mosques and temples, and factories, but not much in the way of historical sites from what I could tell.
  • Bintan.Bintan is divided into two very different parts: the beach resorts on the north side of the island and the “real” Indonesian southern side. I wasn’t interested in beach resorts, and wanted the real thing. From what I had seen on the internet, Tanjung Pinang (TP) looked like a very interesting, authentic Indonesian town, and is the primary ferry port on Bintan. I decided against my hotel concierge’s advice (I think he was more concerned about convenience and safety than I was) and went to Bintan. I was very glad I did. Upon arrival, most tourists have a bus waiting to take them to the north shore resorts. I noticed one other person from the U.S. on our ferry ride over and the rest appeared to be Singaporean or Indonesian.

    Typical house on stilts in Tanjung Pinang

What about Indonesian visas (for U.S. visitors)?

  • As of September 2011, visas for U.S. citizens are purchased on arrival at the TP Ferry terminal. Cost was $10 USD, or $16 Singapore (Sing) dollars. Given the current exchange rate of 1 USD = 1.28 Singapore dollars, having exact US change (no change available) is a better deal. The visa document takes up an entire page of the passport, and is valid for 7 days.

What about language?

  • In my short stay on Bintan, English was hard to come by—I had to make a lot of gestures and do some writing of numbers. What a refreshing immersion just two hours from Singapore.

What about ferries?

  • Most ferries to Batam leave from the HarbourFront Ferry Terminal (southern tip of Singapore, by Sentosa Island resort) and are very frequent, about once per hour. Batam is only about a 45 minute ferry ride.
  • Ferries to Tanjung Pinang, Bintan leave from Tenah Merah Ferry Terminal, which is near the Changi International airport, on the southeastern side of Singapore. There are 3-4 ferries per day in each direction. I caught the 8:50 am ferry from Singapore to Bintan. Several ferry lines serve Bintan, mine was Falcon Ferries. I did not make reservations ahead of time; I simply got to the Ferry terminal about 90 minutes prior to my desired departure time to ensure I could get a seat on a Saturday morning—which was no problem—the ferry was probably 50-60% full. I understand the ferries are very full on Singapore holiday weekends, so plan ahead if that will be the case. I didn’t find the ferry websites too user-friendly, and it was easier just to go the terminal to purchase a ticket. The round trip cost was 50 Sing dollars or about $38 US. Don’t forget your passport! The journey took about 2 hours. The ferry served bottled water (free) and had some snacks available for purchase.

    Falcon Ferry Interior

    Our Ferry to Bintan, Indonesia

  • One other important note: You must confirm your return ferry trip by going to a local TP travel agency (best to do immediately upon arrival). The agency information is given with your ticket purchase. There is a small fee for this transaction (equivalent to $1.50 US). I decided to return on the 2:00 pm ferry, giving me about four hours on shore, which was perfect for my interests. Keep in mind that there is a one hour time change between the two countries, (Indonesia is one hour earlier than Singapore). My return ferry was only about 10% full.

What else?

  • There is an Indonesian departure tax (about $1.50 US) that must be paid at the Ferry terminal prior to going through security and immigration.

    Ferry Terminal, Tanjung Pinang

  • Indonesia is very inexpensive (although I am sure the resorts are not) compared with Singapore. Sing dollars seemed to be accepted about anywhere.
  • Food. I did not sample the local fare, since I did not want to spend time eating when I had only a few hours to explore, and I did not see much in the way of restaurants, just outdoor food stalls, and I was not sure of the sanitary conditions. I have eaten Indonesian food in other locations and enjoyed it.
  • Hotels. Since I took a day trip, I can’t speak about the TP hotels, although I saw one or two modest-looking hotels in my wandering through town.
  • There is a pier next to the ferry terminal with small boats (holding about 15 people) that take passengers to Penyengat Island (within view of TP) with the Sultan of Riau Grand Mosque. I didn’t figure this out until I was leaving, but it would be fun to take this ride next time.

What to do on Bintan?

  • I had no guide book on Bintan and finding information on the internet or even in Singapore was somewhat difficult. So, I “winged it” and decided to simply wander around the town of TP and see what I found. Bintan has had a reputation in the past of being a center of prostitution for those coming from Singapore, but I was glad to see no overt evidence of this upon my arrival. I was the only Caucasian (and tourist from what I could tell) wandering around the town, and received many stares, and invitations for scooter taxi rides. I was cautious with my small backpack, but never felt any concern for my safety. The longer I wandered around the more comfortable I got. Coming from Singapore, TP was a shock and quite fascinating. I was a bit shocked by the poorer conditions (and trash heaps under the stilt houses)—a huge contrast to the sparkling clean, vibrant and wealthy Singapore—and I was also fascinated by how different the culture and town felt from anything in Singapore.

    No need for regular trash pick-up!

    Fresh fruits and vegetables in Tanjung Pinang

  • Harbor. I wandered down a street and found myself at the edge of the harbor, perhaps a quarter mile away from the ferry terminal. There were little rickety wooden boats with small in-board motors waiting to take locals across the bay. Through hand waving and some writing, I arranged a private “tour” (45 minutes) of the harbor for about $10 Sing dollars. I highly recommend this little tour—seeing the old, large wooden fishing boats (with a style totally different than what I had seen elsewhere) anchored (and in some cases looking like abandoned ghost ships) in the harbor was fascinating, along with the homes and warehouses built on stilts in the middle of the bay.

    My harbor cruise boat

    House on stilts in Tanjung Pinang Harbor

    Fishing boat, Tanjung Pinang Harbor

  • Street wandering. Just wandering the streets with the shops was fun. Spices and every type of little dried fish (and other unrecognizable seafood) was available. I also went to a Buddhist temple and got a tour from a little lady who made a lot of gestures and grunts about what I was seeing.

    Buddhist Temple Tanjung Pinang

    Bales of little dried fishes

    Looking for a machete? Lots of choices!

  • Houses on stilts. Further into the town I found a housing area, and realized that the whole neighborhood was over the water. I wandered through back alleys and enjoyed seeing how the “average” Indonesian lived in TP, over the water, with wooden and sometimes cement stilt foundations, with no lawns to mow or cars to park.

    Waterfront property in Tanjung Pinang

    Hard to believe this street is over the water...

    Tanjung Pinang neighborhood on stilts

If you have an extra day while in Singapore and want a completely different experience, take a day trip to Bintan. It was a blast. Plan about 10 hours total for the adventure mentioned above.