August 10, 2016

Two days in Machu Picchu

As I sat on the train from Machu Picchu back to Cusco, sipping my mint tea, absorbing the vistas of the beautiful Andean valley, I thought about our last 2 days spent at Machu Picchu.

On the Vistadome train, writing down my days thoughts
We had arrived in Aguas Calientes 2 days prior by Perurail. Aguas Calientes is a small town at the base of Machu Picchu. The next morning, bright and early, we had got on the bus with our tour guide to go up the mountain where the citadel of Machu Picchu lies.

lining up for the bus
As the bus stopped and we started getting off, I felt my excitement levels rise ten fold. We were soon entering the citadel of Machu Picchu, and those stunning pictures that I've always drooled over would be forming in front of my eyes! Well, once we had stood through the long entrance line and got our passports stamped!

Passport stamped! This passport is expiring soon and I'll so miss it - it's my favourite passport, so beautifully bruised with all our travels <3
Upon entering, you already start seeing the many mountain ranges around. There's a trail to climb up some flight of stairs to get to the guard house. 2 minutes in, Umair and I started huffing and puffing. We had only been at high altitude for 2 days and were still experiencing some shortness of breath. Once at the top by the guard house, we finally saw this:

Just like that, it was right there in front of our eyes. The mountain ranges bracketing the lone standing mountain and underneath all that....the sprawling ruins of the Inca civilization from the early 1500s. 

It was as magnificent as I had thought it to be. And so very surreal. I choked up just a tiny bit and got slightly misty eyed. I've been fortunate enough to have seen some really stunning beauty that this world holds, but none have brought the reaction that Machu Picchu in that initial second did. It could be because the sight of Machu Picchu is overwhelmingly majestic. It could be because I was standing in front of a wonder of the world. 

Whatever it was, this was real. I was here.  

We spent the first three hours with our tour guide, who walked us around the ruins, giving us details on the life of the Inca civilization and how intelligent was their masonry and engineering. The Incas had the amazing ability to build walls of perfectly carved and matched stones in those ancient times. And what's more intriguing is that they would carry all these stones up in the high mountains where ever they lived. They lived in the mountains to keep themselves safe from enemies. The Spanish had conquered the Incas all around Sacred Valley but they never made it to Machu Picchu. That's how hidden this little world was. 

Agriculture fields around the ruins

the ruins. Imagine waking up to this view everyday!

After our guided tour and lunch, Umair and I entered the citadel again. We decided to hike the Sun Gate - which is where the Inca trail ends. It was roughly a one hour hike, with stony terrain going up. Because of altitude, we took a lot of breaks and huffed and puffed quite a bit, but finally managed to get up to these stunning views of the mountain ranges:

Once back down, it was already 4PM and we spent the next hour just sitting around the guard house, admiring more of the Machu Picchu view and enjoying the serenity that wasn't there in the morning. Most people leave around 3-4PM, so at this time there were very few tourists just lying around on the grass reading, eating or llama-watching. There was a certain calmness in the air, and I started imagining what beautiful views the Inca people must have woken up to every morning. 

Umair! I have a brilliant idea....since Toronto housing market sucks, why don't we be smart like the Incas?!

...I think this llama is staring me down...what were you saying?

The llama is not staring you down. I'm saying....why don't we be smart like the Incas and build our own house here on the mountains?!!

*blank stares from Umair*

So?? What do you think?

*more blank stares*

Sigh. Ok. 

We then caught one of the last buses going down to Aguas Calientes, knowing we had one more day to return. [One more day to convince Umair about moving to Inca land!)

Next morning, we woke up at 4.30AM to go stand in the bus line. We thought we were early, but the line up was already so long that our turn to get on the bus actually came at 5.45AM! This was the day I was going to hike the most glorious hike of my life.

the steep mountain the red arrow is pointing at is Wayna Picchu
Wayna (or Huayana) Picchu is the lone standing mountain seen in all Machu Picchu pictures (red arrow pointing at it above). When we booked our Machu Picchu trip back in February, we made sure to grab tickets to hike the Wayna Picchu mountain. Only 400 people are allowed each day and tickets sell out months in advance. We had heard how steep and difficult the hike can get, so I was a bit nervous. It was good to have hiked the Sun Gate the previous day to get some practice, but I was already getting breathless out of nervousness (and altitude) and wanted to quit before starting. 

But I thought you wanted to live like the Incas? Said Umair

This time it was my turn to give some stares.

The hike started off pretty OK - the trail is mostly made up of uneven stone steps. The first 10 to 15 minutes are actually simple, but then it began to get really steep. 

It starts off not too bad - stone stair trail

View of the ruins on our way up
At one point the steps got so steep, all of us were on all four limbs! For the most part, there is also no support to grasp on except for a flimsy rope. I don't know how the Inca people used to climb up and down carrying stones and other materials through these stony, uneven, crazy high trails.

Ok, maybe the Inca people were not that smart after all....going up and down and down and up the mountains all the time. Who does that?!

Umair, I don't think I want to live like the Incas. I announced, huffing and puffing.

Too bad, Umair replied and started climbing on his four limbs. I followed suit.

Got really steep after the first 15 minutes - look how high those steps are - and no hand support.
This hike is definitely not for those who have a fear of heights. At some points, there are large drops off the side. We're both ok with heights, but were stopping every 15 or so minutes to catch our breath. At 1,158 feet high, the hike was the most challenging physical activity I've ever done, especially considering we were already at almost 8000 feet above sea level. Oxygen was less, air thin, but our spirits were high. We kept pushing through.

It took us roughly an hour to get to the top. The last stretch was the toughest - we had to be on all four limbs to go up. we had to go under big rocks and slide off rocks at one point.

View of the ruins from the top.
But we made it to the top! Such an exhilarating feeling to get to the top and be able to get a bird's eye view of the ruins at the Machu Picchu. 

Ok, I may have changed my mind again and would like to live her-

No, you've maxed out on the number of times you can change your mind for the week. Let's see who gets to the bottom first. And off he went. Again, I followed suit.

Coming down was hard on our ankles but we somehow managed without spraining them so yay for that! Once out, we had no energy left to do anything else but to take the bus back down to the town and get ourselves a nice massage before catching out train to Cusco. 

February 28, 2016

Visiting the Lost City of Angkor, Cambodia

At 4 AM the alarm went off. We had barely slept for four hours. Even after being a week in SE Asia, our sleep patterns were whack. But I jumped out of bed as soon as the alarm went off, as today was the day I was going to cross an item off my bucket list. Today was the day I was going to see the sun rise behind the magical Angkor Wat!
Being Canadians, we debated keeping a cardigan since it was so early in the morning. However, as soon as we left the hotel to meet our driver who was already waiting for us, humidity enveloped us. 

We drove off towards the temples in the dark, stopping to buy tickets. It was pitch black where our driver dropped us, so we turned on our flashlight and started walking in the darkness towards where everyone was walking. We reached a set of staircases where we could hear a lot of chatter. We quickly found a spot right by the pond, so that no one could come stand in front of us obstructing our view. People started gathering as time went by; while we stared at complete darkness, with only flashlights here and there, mosquitoes humming, and an anticipation in the air.
I was finally going to see the Angkor Wat standing in front of me at the first light of dawn! This wasn’t a picture online anymore; it was actually going to happen. It was almost like a lucid dream – the darkness slowly fading away and the silhouette of Angkor Wat starting to form in front of our eyes. It felt like time was moving in slow motion, but also if you blink your eyes you'll miss the magic unroll. 
It was a cloudy day – so we did not get to see the orange hues of sun rising behind the complex – but it was still enchanting to watch darkness turn into light; obscurity turn into clarity. Of course, it wasn’t as romantic as I might be making it sound – there were tons of people behind trying to take pictures; pushing, shoving. We were lucky however to have had a good spot without any heads obstructing our view.

the three towers of Angkor Wat coming out of darkness

After taking fifty odd pictures, we walked back to our driver, who was going to take us back to our hotel so we could have breakfast, then get on with our Angkor ruins tour. I remember walking back; I felt a bit disappointed that the day was cloudy, that I did not get to see the sun rise. Can I even check this off my bucket list? I thought. Sun rise is what I wanted to see. But when I look back at that day, the feeling of finally being where I had wanted to be – right in front of the mighty Angkor at the break of dawn was a miracle in its own way.

After breakfast, we set out again with our driver and guide to visit the different complexes of the ruins. Some of our stops consisted of below:

Banteay Srei:

Our first stop, and one that is a bit further away from the main Angkor Complex. It was a 30 minute drive to this one. Banteay Srei is a 10th century temple and was built with red sandstone which gives the temple a gorgeous pinkish hue, which you won’t find in other temples. 
Banteay Srei was made from red sandstone!

Ta Prohm:

This temple, to many, might be known for Tomb Raider. Its uniqueness comes from the fact that upon discovery, this temple was not restored and instead left mostly in the condition it was found in; swallowed by the jungle. The gigantic ancient trees growing atop the temples provide us with an excellent visual example of unkempt nature and man-made architecture intertwining and blending flawlessly, albeit creepily. Both eerie and cool at once, Ta Prohm offers some visually stunning adventure to curious minds like me! It definitely is one of the most magnificent things I’ve seen so far in my travels.
gigantic roots growing on the temples

Bayon Temple:

Gate to enter Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom was an ancient capital city of Khmer empire; inside which the Bayon temple was situated. Once you enter the gates of Angkor Thom - on both sides of the narrow road are jungles that took over the city. I have this fascination for ruins...for its mysterious aura; trying to imagine a life existed where now giant trees are in abundance. Looking at all the temples, that are still intact with their intricate details,  but have lost their original opulence. What once was a civilization is now a tourist spot. 
Bayon temple was my favourite, mostly because it was quiet when we were there, but also the mystery in the air seemed to have multiplied there. Maybe it was due to the perfectly carved serene stone faces all around us. The architecture and intricacy of the Khmer people are to be admired about.

endless corridors around the ruins

Phnom Bakeng

This temple is popular to watch sunsets, because it is situated high up. We hiked up the temple late afternoon and waited around to watch the glorious sun go down. 

Our guide during our tour was so knowledgeable and amazing - and also very used to the heat. Which we were not. I kept asking Umair how is he not breaking into sweat in 35c + humidity?! Every time he started telling us a story, I wanted to tell him to lets move in the shaded area to talk but he was so unaffected by the heat. 
We spent our evenings in Siem Reap in the pub street area where all the expats and locals meet with tons of eateries. We were only there for 3 days but I absolutely enjoyed our time there and would love to go back one day. The people - our hotel staff, the guide, the car driver, our tuk tuk driver....everyone was just so sweet and hospitable; with the warmest smile on their faces. 

Angkor Wat grounds
Angkor Wat during the day

April 4, 2015

Sleeping in the jungles of Africa!

Driving around the massive African Savannah trying to spot the big 5 is definitely an adventure in itself. But sleeping in the middle of the jungles with no fencing or barrier except for your tent? Now that's an experience quite like no other.

Before we started planning our safari trip to Tanzania, I was clueless about how accommodations worked. I thought the lodges would be situated outside the jungles. And camping in the jungles would mean having big fencing all around and rangers guarding us all night.

I was so very mistaken.

The lodges we stayed at, while luxurious, were right inside the jungles with no fencing or barriers. In the evening, we would be escorted by security from the main dining area to our rooms because the lodges are visited by all sorts of animals, especially by the pool areas for water drinking purposes! We were in the jungle for 4 nights and slept 2 nights in the lodges and 2 nights in "luxury tents".

Luxury tents are the best thing happened for people like me who run away from camping. The luxury tents were spacious enough to have a double bed in them and some walking space. They also had a zipper attached to a small washroom area - and flush toilet! And the incredible thing is, these tents are mobile tents, meaning they move these tents according to the animals' migration every season. In the middle of the jungle, you've got flush toilet and even hot water to bath. You tell the camp people what time you want to shower and they come around that time with hot water, fill it in a bucket that then leads to a shower head. Incredible!

So we stayed 2 nights in Serengeti in 2 different camps. The first night we stayed at the Kati Kati Camp. We got to our camp area at dusk and there were people chilling by the bonfire. 

Kati Kati tents. Ours was the furthest away from the Mess tent.

Our tent

Dinner was served in a mess tent - an awesome 3 course meal cooked right there. After dinner, we were escorted by a guard to our tent. While walking, we spotted a pair of shiny tiny eyes in the darkness. The guard told us it was a hyena. 

I've never camped in my entire life because a) I like my safety and comfort and b) I am terrified of creepy crawlies. So just the sounds of crickets and various bugs around had my fear levels up, and then there were hyenas!

Why did I ever agree to this insane level of vulnerability?! 

Once inside our tent and after making sure the entire place was zipped properly so there's no room for any living creature to creep in, we tucked ourselves in the bed to try and sleep. It was only 9.30PM but we were pretty beat. Then we heard a sound.

What is that, I asked?

Sounds like a cape buffalo, replied Umair.

Oh, it's just a buffalo, eating up the grasses. He's having his dinner. Just like I had mine. All good.

Then there were more sounds. Buffalo walking....around our tent? That's fine. As long as it just walks...around it.

More sounds. Of buffalo? No. Really loud thuds. The fabric of our tent was moving. Really hard. the tents shake when buffaloes walk around them?

The tent walls started shaking harder. And kept getting volatile. It was freaky and I shut my eyes tight and announced,

Buffaloes are trying to break into our tent. They are charging at our tent. We should blow the whistle and call the guard.

....No, it's ok. They'll get bored and move on. Said Umair.

But the shaking didn't stop. It only got harder. At this point I was pretty terrified so we decided to turn the solar lights on and maybe peep through the window to see what the heck is it that these buffaloes wanted. I'm not sure why we thought that was a productive idea.

Once the lights were on and we got out of bed and moved around our tent, we realized IT WAS THE WIND. 

I've never been so grateful for crazy winds this much in my entire life. It was a crazy wind storm of some sort. And the next morning our guide told us that yes, Serengeti can get really volatile winds at night. 

Okay then, now that it was settled, I could finally sleep. I heard hyenas calling each other out. An attack? Yup, it seemed like the hyena just got his dinner too. Then I heard a lion. Oh cool. There's a lion. Maybe he'll eat up the hyena.

But after all that intense fear and what not, I was surprisingly mellow. I pretty much passed out to an awesome night's sleep at the sounds of the lion. 

We were up at 6AM the next morning to go for game drives to spot cheetahs. I had survived my first morning in the camp! 

Bring on Night 2 of glam-ping, I was more than ready for the hyena lullabies!

Our tent the first night. No fences or barriers around!

the Mess tent. Having breakfast after chasing a cheetah.

Our 2nd tent - Serengeti Wilderness camp

Inside the 2nd tent - not too shabby!

Morning after our 2nd camp night, we saw some visitors outside our tents!

February 1, 2015

A Night in the Sahara

When I was in grade 6, we studied about ancient Egypt and Caravan routes through the Sahara. Since then I've had a fascination for the Sahara Desert and the great pyramids of Giza. Two of my top bucket list items since I was a kid. In 2014, I got to check one of these off my list. When we started planning our Africa trip, Egypt and Tanzanian Safari were in our books. After much research and pondering, we figured maybe Morocco was safer at this point in time to visit. I had grown a fascination for Morocco in the last couple years, so we altered our itinerary to Morocco and Tanzania.

Apart from Marrakesh and Fez, which are a must-do in Morocco, I also really, really wanted to experience the Sahara and camp a night in the vastness of the majestic desert.

It was a bit difficult at first to fit it into our itinerary. But we had to do it! I mean, how many times do you get the opportunity to sleep in the middle of nowhere in one of the biggest deserts on the planet, under the gazillion stars?! All the Sahara tour guides I was emailing told us we needed at least 3 days. Morocco is huge, and they don't have train networks connecting Marrakesh or Fez to Sahara. So our only bet was to get there by car which is around 10 long hours of a bumpy, curvy ride!

So we cut one day short in Fez and signed up for a 3 day trip from Marrakech - Atlas Mountains - Sahara - Fez. 

Left: Todra Gorge on the way to Sahara. Top Right: Fortified City. Middle: Crazy roads we drove through Atlas Mountains. Bottom Right: Atlas Mountains

After a long drive under the hot African sun on Day 2 of our 3 day trip, we reached the little town of Merzouga, which is the gateway to Sahara Desert in Morocco. Once the weather cooled down in the evening, we were taken to our camels that were going to take us into the Sahara to our camp in true nomadic fashion! 

As we started our 90 minute journey, endless rose gold sand dunes was all that we could see. We didn't spot any other tourists on our way. All I kept saying to Umair was, 

We are in the Sahara, can you believe it? In the SAHARA!! ....Umair, are you listening? 

Yes, what, yes...I think I'm slipping off the camel. Also, I think my camel just peed.

Rose gold coloured gorgeous sand dunes!

Halfway through, night fell upon us and the only light around was that of the stars. I've never seen so many stars so clear shining bright. I won't lie, I was starting to get nervous and maybe even a bit scared. I kept asking our guide if he even knew how to get to our tents, because really, to me it seemed like he was just walking without any sense of direction. He smiled and told me not to worry, he knows the way; he follows the stars!

Sigh, I wanna live a life of following star trails rather than GPS. How cool would that be?!!

Once we got to our camping area, we checked out our adorable little tent. We didn't go with the basic tents because well....I've never camped in my life! And my first time "camping" (some might call it glam-ping!) was in the Sahara. Second time in the jungles of Tanzania (more on this in a different post)! I'm not a camper, but I like to try different things. And one of my goals in life has become to push myself out of my comfort zone. So yes, even with a bed and an attached washroom in our tent, this was me getting out of my comfort zone! 

Our Berber tent!

We were the only ones that night in our camp area, which was awesome! We gazed and admired the amazing stars while hot meal was being cooked for us. 

So many stars <3
Our host, Mohamed, told us stories about his Bedouin life. Moroccans are simple, and amazingly hospitable people, which we had already experienced by now in Marrakech and with our guide through this 3 day journey. But Mohamed - he was a unique one! When I was researching on Sahara tours, I emailed Mohamed a million times with senseless questions such as:

Will there be any bugs in our tent?! Are the lizards or scorpios in the desert gonna harm us??

Don't worry about anything, Naima would be his reply to my emails. I could sense amusement in his tone even with just the emails. And when we finally met, he didn't forget my worried questions and teased me about them when we were finally at the camp. 

Our Bedouin host Mohamed and Umair chatting away.
In case you're wondering, we spotted no geckos or weird bugs or scorpios around. Just a few mosquitos trying to taste some Canadian blood :)

After an awesome meal and spending some time with our host by the bonfire, we hopped into our beds to sleep. It was pitch black once we turned off our solar powered lights in the tent, and my realization of being in the middle of nowhere in the darkness of the night started to creep in. Umair fell asleep right away, and I was up, with a flashlight next to my pillow, trying to sleep.

....And then the guard dogs started barking. And running around. I could feel them running around close to our tent. Barks grew louder. I was terrified because the "door" of our tent was literally just a thick piece of fabric with no zippers. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally fell asleep. We were woken up by our host at 6AM to watch the sunrise.

We climbed up the highest dune around us to welcome the bright new day. It was a very calming experience; no one around, except for us and our host, fresh chilly morning air and the majestic sun rising slowly. The world we live in truly is a masterpiece.

Waiting for the sun to come up.

We had breakfast then, and off we went to our hotel in Merzouga to freshen up and start our journey to Fez! I was now ready for my next camping experience in the jungles of Africa! Not really....stay tuned. 

March 5, 2014

Roadtrippin' Croatia - Part Two

It's been a while....I feel bad for neglecting my blog. I always mean to write but life's been busy. I should start writing again though because I've always liked writing and sometimes find it to be therapeutic. It's my creative outlet, and after a day of working around bankers, I need that! Quick updates on me first:
  • I have a job! I went back to working where I was before moving to Germany in January. But soon after, got a new job in the same bank which I start next Monday. How hard was it to get back to work mode after a super long vaca? Don't ask. It still doesn't feel real. But I love that I just need to roll out of bed 20mins before I start and can walk to work with Umair! I don't miss taking the GO trains at all. 
  • Our condo is slowly shaping up and coming together nicely. I had to redo it because this condo was Umair's idea of decor.... which isn't bad, it's just guy-ish with lots of brown. So we got the walls redone, new furniture, feature wall etc... it's still a work in progress. I love interior decorating, so it's exciting to pick out pieces and see it all come together. 
  • I love our neighbourhood. It's right next to St. Lawrence Market and is in the Old Town so the area has a very charming feel to it. Plus lots and lots of restaurants all around. I'll post pictures once the weather gets better. But our winter days are mostly spent cozying up at home, checking out restaurants, inviting family and friends over. And a long weekend visit to Montreal, which consisted of indulging in gluttony.


So, where were we? Oh yeah, we had reached Dubrovnik. We drove a little up to get this shot of the orange walled city:

That's the old walled town right there!

So it was a hilly, curvy drive with super narrow roads where I made Umair stop the car for 2 seconds, rushed out to get a few of these shots and back in the car to move further up the hill.

To get up the hill, they had cable cars which most people took. But Umair decided to rough it out by driving up the mountain. With no proper roads or road signs. It was exciting, but I almost felt like the car might just topple over and fall down. Now that would be a story to write home about. Or maybe not.

Trying to take a picture while keeping myself from falling over!

Umair maneuvered through that very nicely while I kept my one eye shut.

But it was all worth it for this beautiful view:

The cable car that most people took up and missed all the fun of driving!

On our way back down.
After admiring the prettiness around us and having lunch overlooking the orange and blue, we drove down to take a walk around the old town and walk the walls.

The tiles, the cool!

Walking the walls of Dubrovnik:

Gorgeous orange and blue city!

the promenade
 After staying 3 days in Dubrovnik, we drove to Split:

the main square in Split with guards!

random fountain which intrigued the kids and Umair alike!

Loved the rugged feel of the town with pops of greens:

And then we made our way back to Munich, a long 9 hour drive....with a lunch stop in Slovenia of course!

Drove up the mountains to Lake Bohinj.