Iguazu Falls...wonder of the world
I think this photo looks like a postcard---it isn't....I got lucky with timing and light :) Iguazu Falls isn't one set of falls, it is more than 275 falls all located in one area on the border between Argentina and Brazil. I was shocked to see that there is only 1 non-stop flight per day to Iguazu from Rio and it is at a terrible time (late at night). Since the falls were one of the reasons I made the trip, I did the 1-stop flight. I arrived to Iguazu (the Brazilian side since I left from Rio) and was met by my driver. Most the hotels on the Brazilian (and Argentinian side) are outside of the park and you need to drive to get to the park. At the welcome center, you purchase an entry ticket and board a bus. Private cars are not allowed to drive in the park. I was staying at the one hotel in the park (on the Brazilian side). The Belmond Cataratas is a beautiful, historic building (that is pink) and guests can be driven through the park in a private car on arrival and departure. The hotel is literally steps from the falls and you can hear them when you arrive. The main perk of staying here is that you can experience the falls once the park closes to visitors---you are only sharing the large national park with the guests staying at Belmond. That exclusive access makes a huge difference!
I went to the falls as soon as I arrived---around noon----and there were people everywhere. The observation walkway was one big traffic jam and you had to take a photo quickly in between people walking. Not very peaceful at all. I went back again that evening and saw more lizards than people. My second morning was even better---I had the park to myself for probably 15 minutes and only saw maybe 8 or 9 people in total. I will remember that experience and that tranquility forever. That is how I got the photo above (and others) with so few people in them. In the slideshow below, you see if with the typical crowds.
Iguazu Falls isn’t one big waterfall---like I mentioned it is up to 275 separate waterfalls that change by the season. I found they changed even from morning to night, depending on how much rain fell at the falls or upstream. The whole Iguazu Falls area is large and really is spectacular. I love being in nature and this location did not disappoint. I stayed 2 nights and I think that was probably enough---one more night, however, would have given me a chance to visit the Argentinian side or go on an excursion.
South America...starting with Rio
This was my first trip to Brazil and I sort of had an image of what I thought at least Rio would look like based on watching the Olympics and other TV shows. My perception was pretty far off. Rio surprised me---I was expecting more grit, more poverty and I guess more people in little bathing suits :) Yes, Rio has some grit, but it is also a beautiful city with forests and mountains and gorgeous views.
I began my trip with a quick stop in Rio to see the main highlights---Sugarloaf Mountain (by cable car) and the Christ The Redeemer Statue. I also saw Santa Teresa---a cool little neighborhood not to far from the statue and had my first Acai. The drive up to see the statue was far more picturesque than I was expecting. Once we left the hustle of the city, the drive up was through a beautiful forest. We were maybe 25 minutes away from Copacabana Beach. Once you arrive at the welcome center for the statue (aka huge gift shop), the view overlooking Rio is beautiful…but once you take the bus ride up to the Statue itself the view is absolutely amazing and you have views in all directions. I knew the statue would be large as it seems so prominent in photos, but I was impressed by the massive size. This is for sure one attraction that lives up to the anticipation. You can’t really do anything at the statue other than admire the view, so the visit is pretty quick. They occasionally hold mass at the statue and have other special events….including rare opportunities to go inside the statue.
We stopped in Santa Teresa on the way to Sugarloaf and it had a nice, artsy neighborhood vibe. You can see favelas on the hillsides, but this neighborhood has been gentrified. The favelas are also starting to improve with the addition of roofs on the structures and many times electricity and running water---still not adequate living conditions as most of us are used to, but they have improved in recent years. My guide took me to a little window and ordered me an Acai---the berry is grown in Brazil and is very fresh---most places don’t add anything to the berry---they just mash it.
One of many reasons to hire a private guide is flexibility. We were able to tailor the day to my schedule and I could see exactly what I wanted to see. The other benefit is they know the pulse of the city…..and the work arounds when you have lines that are miles long. We arrived at the Sugarloaf cable car station and there were easily hundreds of people in line. My guide walked me to the ticket office and said something in Portuguese. Apparently, there is an “off menu” VIP option---I looked at the posted sign after getting the VIP ticket and it isn’t listed anywhere. Normal admission is roughly $20 and for $40 you go up a special set of stairs into a lounge with A/C to wait for the next cable car. You jump the entire line. There are 2 segments of the cable car going up and 2 coming down----you also skip those lines. That was probably the best use of $20 ever!
I saw the sunset over Sugarloaf and was ready for dinner and bed. I had arrived from the States at 1pm that day, started the tour at 2pm and it was 8pm. I asked to go somewhere I could do take out as I had to leave for the airport at 4am. The restaurant did one better and delivered food to my hotel. Portuguese food in pajamas. Crazy day, but well worth it.
The next morning I flew to Iguazu Falls (there is a blog post just on that). After the falls I headed back for one more night in Rio. I got up the next morning and walked the length of Copacabana beach all the way to Ipanema. It took around a hour of leisurely walking to make it to Ipanema. I was hot and sweaty, and I knew as the morning progressed it would only get warmer, so I took an Uber back to my hotel. The vibe of the 2 beaches is very different and for some reason I thought Copacabana would be more touristy than Ipanema, but I found the opposite to be true. It seemed like more locals (some with their dogs) were on Copacabana and it seemed to be mostly tourists (with plenty of vendors) on Ipanema. I would say it is worth checking both out.
Turkey and Greece with Azamara
I had the pleasure of sailing on the Azamara Journey for 11 nights this September. The cruise started in Istanbul and ended in Piraeus (the port closest to Athens). Azamara is a premium cruise line with 4 ships--all holding about 690 guests. They are known for stopping at unique ports (Azamara is often times the only cruise line stopping at the port), staying longer in port (many days we didn't leave until 10pm) and having more cultural immersion on board.
This was my first time sailing with Azamara and I was impressed. This sailing was a bit different in that the ship was only about 50% full---so the service we received was beyond excellent. The staff to guest ratio on this sailing was nearly 1:1 (even when full, the ratio is still close to 1 staff member for every 2 guests). This level of service is often only found on the highest end of the luxury market. Random staff members said "Good morning Tracey"....I was thinking, are they talking to me??
I chose this sailing for the ports of call. We started with an overnight in Istanbul, so even if you arrived the day of the cruise, you still had one day in the city to explore. There was only one day at sea and the other days we were in port---the earliest we left a port was 5pm and many days it was much later. This allowed me to take longer tours to get to places that were a couple of hours outside of the port and on the days where I was just wandering on my own, it allowed me to go ashore in the morning and then come back for a bit and then head out again. Since Azamara's ships are smaller, they can dock right in town---something the bigger ships can't always do.
We had strong winds on the day we were supposed to dock in the first port after Istanbul--about 30 minutes before we were supposed to dock, the captain came on and said it just wasn't going to be possible. I knew this could happen---cruise itinerary ports are not guaranteed---but when it happened at the first port, I was disappointed. We had an unexpected day at sea and it was a gorgeous sunny day (albeit it a bit windy). I saw dolphins "playing" along the ship under my balcony and we passed close to some islands that had hundreds year old monasteries along the coast. Not ideal, but Azamara made the most of the sudden change. We made it to our next port as planned the next day. I was shocked when the captain announced that on our scheduled day at sea, we would actually go back to the port we missed. This doesn't happen often as it costs the cruise line money. I appreciated being able to visit all of our scheduled ports.
As we all know, food is an important part of cruising :) I have been a vegetarian most of my life and Azamara had the most vegetarian friendly options of any cruise I have been on. I think having lots of local Turkish and Greek food on board helped the variety of options. There were gluten free, vegan and keto options at nearly every meal (buffet or menu). Of course there were plenty of meat and seafood options as well---especially at the speciality dining restaurants (a surcharge applies to these restaurants). The food was high quality and well prepared. There were always at least 3 options for each meal (including room service). There were also areas of the ship that served snacks during the day and the Living Room had late night snacks available until midnight (room service is 24/7, so no one goes hungry!). I enjoyed eating in Windows as you could eat outside for breakfast, lunch and dinner--I enjoyed several sunsets this way. The Sunday Brunch was also impressive---so many choices and it was perfect for a day when we didn't get into port until noon (Sunday was supposed to be the day at sea).
The ship itself was well equipped. I enjoyed a massage at the spa one day and it was quite large for a cruise ship---and my massage was excellent. The fitness center had several treadmills, ellipticals, weight circuit machines and free weights. There were spinning, boot camp, yoga and stretching classes during the sailing and there was an open area where you could stretch or practice yoga on your own (all with views of the beautiful scenery). The pool area had plenty of seating and there were 2 hot tubs. The ship had several bars and areas where music was played in the evenings. The top deck had shuffleboard and a walking track. One of my favorite areas was the library and it was well stocked with books for loan. For the size of the ship, Azamara offered quite a variety of options to keep you busy on board. Azamara has a destination immersion event each cruise, along with a White Night---a large buffet and entertainment on the pool deck one evening later in the cruise. This night also serves as a chance for the guests to thank all of the staff on board with rounds of applause as each department walks out.
Azamara has a mostly inclusive cruise fare---many beverages (with and without alcohol) are included in the rate, as is room service, most entertainment on board and staff gratuities. Wifi, speciality dining, spa treatments and premium alcohol are not included. For the ports where the dock is outside of the city center, Azamara provides a shuttle to and from the city center many times during the day.
I would love to help you plan your next cruise with Azamara. Please contact me to start planning.
Bucharest to Budapest by river
I joined AmaWaterways on the AmaMagna sailing from Bucharest to Budapest in April. AmaMagna is a newer ship and is larger than most river cruise vessels---it holds a maximum of 196 guests. The staterooms are larger and most have full balconies which is something not available on all ships. I admire Sammantha Brown, the travel journalist, and she is the godmother of this ship. Not exactly a reason to choose a river cruise, but I found it a nice coincidence :)
I chose this sailing for the itinerary. I had wanted to sail through the Iron Gates since I saw photos of the area probably 20 years ago. I also liked that the ports of call were smaller and places I had not visited before (although I had been to both Bucharest and Budapest before this sailing). This sailing we stopped in Rousse (Bulgaria), Vidin (Bulgaria), Golubac (Serbia), Belgrade (Serbia), Novi Sad (Serbia), Ilok (Croatia) and Mohács (Hungary).
As you can see, the AmaMagna is a beautiful ship with many amenities. AmaWaterways includes all of your dining in the price of the cruise and wine, beer and soft drinks are included with lunch and dinner. There is a self serve coffee and tea area available 24/7 and bottled water (in glass) in replenished each day in your stateroom. One shore excursion per port is also included in the price of the cruise. The guides I had in each port were phenomenal! For me, the guides were one of the highlights. They were all local and had many personal experiences to share.
I enjoyed each port and I tried different styles of excursions---I did a cooking class in Vidin (we made banitsa in a local home), a bike tour in Novi Sad, wine tasting in Bulgaria and a "hiking" excursion in Belgrade (hiking mostly just meant walking up a lot of stairs to the fort instead of taking the bus). The wellness staff on board also offered activities after the main ones ended---like a run through a city or walking on the sun deck after dinner while we sailed to the next port. There were plenty of options to keep busy if you wanted to be doing something all day....as well as half day tours in many ports in case you wanted some downtime on your own or simply relaxing on board.
Even when you are not in port, there is often beautiful scenery to admire as the ship sails. I enjoyed sitting out on the balcony with a cup of tea watching the world go by. This itinerary had more daytime sailing than some other river sailings which I liked---I like to be able to see the scenery as we sail.
Please message me if you are interested in a river cruise. The itinerary options grow each year and there are sailings to meet your needs. There are river sailings in Africa, Asia, Egypt, Europe, India and in the U.S and many sailings have a theme---from beer or wine cruises to wildlife viewing and plenty of topics in between.
A few weeks in Europe, part 1
The name of the tulip from Keukenhof pretty much sums it up...I love the joy of Spring and it is a great time to visit Europe. I did have some chilly weather, but I also had some gorgeous days. I visited 9 countries in just over 3 weeks and the pace was a bit fast, but my mission was mostly to check out new hotels, new guides and new destinations to help me plan better trips for you (my clients).
This was also my chance to check out Delta One for the first time. I flew first class from Phoenix to JFK and Delta One from JFK to Dublin. The cabins are a bit dated, but the seats in Delta One lie flat and you are given a full size pillow and blanket. I can attest to the comfort of Delta One---I fell asleep much easier and stayed asleep during the relatively quick 6 hour or so flight. I also flew Delta One back from Dublin to Atlanta and had a couple of extra hours to appreciate my comfort. The service and food were obviously better, but one of the parts I liked best was being able to board first and get comfortable without anyone disturbing you to get to their seat. I was also allowed to sleep longer as breakfast doesn't take as long to serve---breakfast was served with less than an hour to go before landing. Overall, I enjoyed the experience and will be flying Delta One again. Flying on a route that uses older vs newer planes keeps the pricing lower---while not inexpensive, I think Delta One was a great value. Being first off the plane is also a nice perk---fewer lines at immigration.
My first stop was Dublin---a city I had not visited before. Trinity College Library and the Book of Kells were my main reasons for visiting and I was not disappointed. That library is AMAZING! After my visit, I walked around the city and saw St. Stephens Green, Temple Bar, several of the famous bridges over the river and really enjoyed just wandering. Dublin is a very walkable city. I also did a day trip to the Wicklow Mountains and Kilkenny. It was a nice day trip if you only have a day to explore and can't get to some of the more famous areas of Ireland.
Next stop was Berlin. I'd been to Berlin a couple of times before, but it had been about 10 years, so it was time to visit again. I love the feeling of Berlin. It has a smaller town feel than Munich or Frankfurt and I love the architecture and history. I stayed at the beautiful Ritz Carlton Berlin and the location can't be beat. You are walking distance to much of the city and when you need to take public transportation, you are literally right next to Potsdamer Platz and all of the connections you need. The staff at the Ritz Carlton can arrange anything you would like to do and even offer great touches like running groups through the park with some of the staff and personalized check-in for kids (complete with steps so the kids can reach the front desk). Berlin is also a very international city and I had some of the best Syrian food I've ever had here (there are all kinds of great food options in Berlin).
Next stop was Bordeaux, France. I used this as a gateway to check out the Cognac region which is still a bit off the beaten path for most travelers. I loved the drive (about 1.5 hours) and once there I enjoyed the smaller town feel. There are many Cognac houses where you can learn about how Cognac is made and have a taste. The area is also great for exploring as the ocean is only an hour or so away and there are many other under the radar destinations a short journey away. I stayed at the beautiful Hotel Chais Monnet which is located in an old distillery. Parts of the property have retained the history and other parts are very modern. They have a Michelin starred restaurant on-site as well as a bar that has more than 200 cognacs on offer. It is a true 5 star property with an indoor/outdoor pool, wonderful French spa and warm and welcoming staff.
Amsterdam was next on my itinerary. I have been to the city a couple of times, but never during tulip season. I like flowers as much as the next person, but I never quite understood the appeal of going to Europe with Keukenhof as the main attraction. I made my reservation and sort of figured I'd walk around for an hour or so and be done.....well, Keukenhof proved me wrong :) I was there a bit early for peak bloom, but there were still thousands of tulips (and other flowers) in bloom. There are the outdoor gardens as well as some spectacular displays indoors. I left nearly four hours later pleasantly surprised. Back in the city, Amsterdam is a nice city to explore. There is something for everyone---from canal cruises and art museums, to the red light district and the infamous "coffee shops" offering marijuana. Amsterdam is a great place to fly into and spend a few days and then take advantage of the huge train and plane networks to continue your European journey. For me, that meant a non-stop flight to Bucharest, Romania to join a river cruise (more on that to come....)
I will continue on with the rest of the trip in another blog post. Unraveled Travel has exclusive perks to offer, such as complimentary breakfast and a resort credit at both the Ritz Carlton Berlin and Hotel Chais Monnet (along with many other hotels). Please message me when you are ready to start planning your trip!
My dream trip to Antarctica
For me, Antarctica was one of those spots so remote that I thought it would be on my bucket list for forever. It was on my list for years, but not near as many as I thought. Let's get this out of the way...yes, it is a LONG way to get there and yes---it is expensive. However it was absolutely AMAZING! One of the few destinations to live up to the hype. Antarctica is also a changing environment. If I had visited 10 years ago, it would have looked very different....and if I visit again in 10 years, it will look different than it did this trip. Unfortunately, not in a positive way. I saw a news article when I got back that in one part of Antarctica the temperature had reached 70 degrees above normal. 70 degrees is HUGE! It is was not in a part I visited and yes, it was still cold. But 70 degrees warmer affects the ice and the living beings that live in Antarctica in harmful ways. I choose to hope that perhaps the damage will be repaired enough at some point to have temperature stabilize.
Antarctica was a bit more adventurous than I was expecting, but part of that is because I traveled with Atlas Ocean Voyages---a company that is described as luxe-adventure. I enjoyed being able to get on land and hike up on the snow for wonderful panoramic views. However, if I had any mobility challenges, the excursions would have been difficult or impossible. So, this is not a trip to wait until you are retired to experience (although there are less strenuous sailings if this all sounds a bit much).
All of this to say, if Antarctica is on your list...NOW is the time.
Let me tell you a bit about my experience. Atlas Ocean Voyages chartered a plane from Orlando, FL to Ushuaia, Argentina where we boarded the ship. I'm not going to go into much detail about the charter as they have decided not to continue this part...it looks like it will be a charter from Buenos Aires so you can experience other parts of Argentina before and/or after the cruise. Many other cruise lines do this charter from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. COVID and the strict testing requirements were one of the main reasons they tried the charter from Florida. Hopefully that is less of a concern moving forward.
After landing in Ushuaia, we were taken by bus into the Andes mountains for some scenic driving and lunch. We boarded the ship in the late afternoon and did the normal safety briefings before sailing out in to the Beagle Channel. While the Beagle is famous, the next part---the Drake Passage---is infamous. It is notorious for having some of the roughest seas on Earth. However, it can also be quite peaceful. One is termed the Drake Shake and the other the Drake Lake. We had something in the middle. I think the highest seas we had were around 21 feet which was high enough for me. The boat was for sure rocking, but you could eat and not have your plate fall off the table. I looked out the balcony door of my stateroom on deck 5 and would occasionally see a huge spray of water even at that level of the ship (which often happened after a loud noise coming from the bow). It was best not to think too much about how damaging the waves could be :) The World Navigator is a brand new ship and has state of the art stabilizers and I was thankful for them each day. I imagine you feel the swells much more on some other ships.
Because we didn't have a terrible Drake, we were able to make a stop in the South Shetland Islands. We could go on land at a former whaling station. We were lucky that there were 15 or so fur seals chilling on the beach...they mostly didn't seem to care that we were there. The landing sites are all regulated---only 100 people (or fewer) can be on land at any one time, so the Zodiac groups are staggered and your departure time announced before leaving the Zodiac. This is one reason to sail with a small ship--so you have as many landing opportunities as possible. Our sailing was nearly full and had 157 guests. The areas you are allowed to walk are marked by safety cones and the expedition team keep an eye out to make sure people are staying on the correct side of the cones (honestly, it was confusing some times).
I said the seals mostly didn't care....well I was walking along the beach and noticed a seal inside one of the old barrels. I took a couple of photos at a distance (using my zoom) and heard a noise....it took me a minute to realize he was hissing at me! I looked at my photos later and can see him growling at me. I was at least 10 feet away, but I'm still glad he chose to be lazy instead of making a move :)
The next day started the "real" Antarctica visits....we stopped on islands and we stopped on the actual continent....called continental landings....on our sailing. It is important to note that nothing is guaranteed in Antarctica. The weather changes quickly and plans change. No specific landings or Zodiac sailings are listed on the itinerary. We were lucky and got to visit nearly all of the places our expedition team hoped to visit. You have to go with the flow and understand that you may go all this way and only get to step on some sort of land once (or very rarely, not at all). I am beyond grateful that I was able to see and experience all that I did. This was my 7th and last continent to visit so it was especially memorable for me. Even the times where you aren't off the ship, you are still surrounded by beauty. I caught myself sitting in awe looking out the balcony doors several times....minutes turned to hours in a blink of an eye. The scenery was memorizing....and I was always looking hoping to see a whale or seal or an avalanche or a glacier calving or some other amazing event.
The experience on the World Navigator was also a great experience. The staff was amazing, the staterooms large and the food very good. You are on board a fair amount, so having a comfortable place to call home for the sailing is important. I 100% recommend Atlas and have some great promos currently if you are interested in sailing with them (to Antartica or one of the many other destinations they sail). I will leave it with one of my most memorable events of the trip---the polar plunge! Our sailing was especially crazy. Typically about 30% of the guests do the plunge---101 of the 157 did on ours. It was a festive atmosphere in the mud room as we all waited our turn. For me, that was over an hour which was an hour where I questioned my sanity :) Honestly, the anticipation is WAY worse than the jump. The staff tie a band around your waist in case you need help back in, but I didn't see anyone need help. The Zodiacs keep the ice out and it is a smooth process. You drop your robe, get the band, go to edge, prepare to smile for the camera (the photographer is in a Zodiac in the water) and JUMP! In all, I bet I was in and out and back in my robe in 3 minutes. The water temp was 32.7 and yes, it was cold, but I was expecting it to be a painful cold. I didn't have that experience. I was surprised when I was under water and I did feel urgency to get to the steps out, but no pain. It was more like exhilaration :) My face doesn't exactly convey that, but I am so glad I took the leap (pun intended!)
Sometimes travel is all about the logistics. I wanted to visit Cartagena, Columbia and we were in Iquitos, Peru. I knew we would have to head back to Lima to catch any flight, but there was nothing direct to Cartagena. I figured we’d spend a bit of time in Bogotá since we had to connect there anyway. Bogotá was well worth the stop. We hired a guide and spent the morning exploring a bit before heading up to Monserrate. You take a cable car up to the top and from there---on a clear day, which luckily, we had---you can take in sweeping views of Bogotá. You could truly see for miles and miles. There is a church on the hill, along with a few restaurants. After heading back down, we headed out to see some of the famous (or infamous?) street art. There was a huge controversy after police in Bogotá killed a street artist in 2011—creating graffiti was illegal, but the shooting caused condemnation from around the world and subsequently, Bogotá decriminalized street art (aka: graffiti). Now the roads are lined with beautiful pieces of street art and there are blocks in the city center where there is one piece after another. Most of the art is very professionally done and is beautiful.
We were admiring the art en route to Plaza Bolívar, the main square of Bogotá. The Primary Cathedral is here, along with the Palace of Justice and the National Capital. It is like many town squares in that it is also a place to gather---there were some peaceful protests happening when we were there and also people simply relaxing or having a snack from one of the food carts.
The city center is considered to be less safe after dark, so we headed back to our hotel that was about 15 minutes outside of the city center. I needed a SIM card for my phone so I could use it in Columbia and we headed to a shopping mall. It looked like any mall in the US with well-known stores all around with some local stores mixed in.
We headed to Cartagena the next morning. The weather had been pleasant in Bogotá, but as soon as we landed in Cartagena, it was like walking into a sauna. Hot and humid and it stays that way much of the year. We stayed in the Old Town and absolutely loved our hotel, Casa San Agustin. It was in a perfect location to walk the old city (it is within the old city walls).
One of the reasons I wanted to visit Cartagena was that I wanted to visit a treehouse resort on the ocean about an hour or so outside of the city called Las Islas. The driver picked us up for the journey (you can also take a boat or helicopter to the resort) and within about 30 minutes, we were basically in the middle of nowhere. As we were approaching the resort, there is a little town and the kids all seemed to be running a little tourist trap scheme----they would hold up a rope across the dirt roadway and wouldn’t let the vehicle pass until you paid a “tax”. They kids were maybe 8 or 9 years old and our driver just laughed at them and paid them a few cents. It seemed pretty harmless and we could certainly afford their “tax”. This happened 3 times before we came to the gate for the resort. When we were leaving the resort, with a different driver, this little game seemed a bit scarier as the kids were more like 18 and weren’t happy with a few cents. Our driver was also not in the mood to humor them and just tried to drive into/over the rope. The 3 checkpoints had also turned into more like 10 and the further out we got, the tougher the “kids” looked. It was a sad experience as I’m sure the people living in this village don’t have much. I felt like the resort could organize ways to support the community and offer opportunities for economic development and/or jobs. I know I would have contributed to a fund that would help this village and its residents survive or purchased local artisan items. Many hotels speak about sustainability or responsible development in terms of the environment, and while that is very important, I think we need to encourage more hotels to think more broadly.
Now back to the travel details…the resort itself was a really interesting concept. The treehouses aren’t really treehouse as they aren’t attached to a tree, but they are built to give the impression that you are in a treehouse high up in the trees. If you read my blog post about the Peruvian Amazon, you know this wasn’t my first treehouse this trip. There are very few similarities between the two experiences other than having beautiful views. At this resort, there was air conditioning, internet and a bidet toilet---so a few more creature comforts than in the Amazon The water for the shower was still pretty chilly (room temp at best), but it was so warm outside, that wasn’t a huge problem. We also had a beautiful deck with outdoor furniture overlooking the ocean. The outdoor soaking tub seemed to just collect leaves and was quite dirty---so not exactly a perk.
There were several included activities at Las Islas---from star gazing using the on-site large telescope (too cloudy each night for this to happen while we were there) to swimming in bioluminescent waters---a cool experience. The beach is small at the resort, but they have a nearby island that they have turned into a beach club---a boat takes you back and forth throughout the day.
After a few days, we were ready to join civilization again. To line up with our next flights (back to the logistics….) we had to spend another night in Cartagena. We stayed in the new part of the city right on Boca Grande beach. The views from our room were beautiful. The experience on the beach itself was very hectic and a bit dirty. There were vendors trying to sell you everything under the sun as you walked and it was quite crowded (many of the COVID restrictions had recently been lifted). After an hour or so of walking around, we were mentally exhausted….having to be on alert and try to nicely say “no, gracias” about 100 times takes a toll.
The next morning we were off to Panama City. More on that travel later….
I have wanted to see the Amazon for a long time, but I always imagined seeing it in Brazil. However when we had the opportunity to see the Peruvian Amazon we jumped at the opportunity. My husband did some research and found the pink dolphins are easier to see in Peru---that was his main reason for wanting to go (now you are wondering why I didn't lead with a pink dolphin photo...more on that in a bit).
We flew from Cusco to Lima to Iquitos for the start of our journey. The drive into Iquitos was more like India, especially after being in Lima and Cusco. More poverty, more tuk-tuks than cars (and more than we had seen elsewhere….) and generally more chaos. The buses looked like "chicken buses" and our guide, Willie , said they are made out of wood with just a thin covering of metal. Very colorful. The drive to town took about 30 minutes and we were tired even though it was only 6pm or so. It was very hot and humid….
The next morning we met Willie again and walked down to the Malecon….a walkway near the Amazon. It sounds better than it looks :) Iquitos has seen better days. The rubber boon of the early 1900’s was its heyday and some of the architecture is still there, but mostly not in great condition. An old beautiful hotel with European tiles looks ok from the outside, but Willie said the inside is not in good shape and is currently used for military offices. Willie was very conscious of our safety and didn’t want us to take our cell phone out for fear it would be stolen. We walked around the old part of town and saw the Iron House….made by Eiffel...the creator of the Eiffel Tower. Story is it was supposed to go to Bolivia, but the water level was too low to take it on the Amazon, so it stayed in Iquitos.
We walked to the market of Belen and it was a bit crazy…but not more so than any other market we have seen in Asia or elsewhere. Willie said not to take photos, so we didn’t. He took us upstairs of the main building (most booths were out in the street) and he showed us all of the things that should not be there….like jaguar skins and turtle eggs. There were even live turtles people were selling for meat to eat. It always makes me feel uncomfortable and I want to save everything that is still alive. The upstairs also had shaman healing items like potions and ointments, etc. The market also had the usual assortment of fruits and veg in addition to the meat and other exotic items.
We took a tuk tuk to get back towards our hotel and Willie took us to an old steamer ship---it is currently on dry land as it is dry season, but in the wet season, the Amazon rises high enough for the ship to be in water---we are talking like 100+feet difference in where water goes. The steamer ship had exhibits on the rubber boon and how terrible it was for the indigenous people.
Even now, the area around the Amazon is a shanty town where houses are built on stilts since the water level changes so much. The government will give you a metal roof which is better than I’ve seen elsewhere, but the structures are still very basic and there is no plumbing. The areas outside of town are similar.
After our tour, we were soaked in sweat---it was so hot and humid! We sat in the a/c, ate dinner and got ready to leave the next morning for the lodge further down in the Amazon. We knew this would be our last chance for a/c in awhile so we savored every moment :)
We arrived at a small shack along the river and walked down a steep incline to board a wooden boat---there were about 10 seats and the windows on the sides could open. It was a peaceful journey and we even saw some dolphin at a distance. Only a part of the trip was actually on the Amazon and Treehouse (where we stayed) is on another river about 20-30 minutes from the “real” Amazon. All of the rivers feed into the Amazon, so other than the width of the river, it appeared to be the same ecosystem.
We walked to our treehouse---I knew I picked the newest one and the one closet to the river, but the website didn’t give a lot of other details…..so I didn’t know it was also the furthest out. We walked on raised boardwalk for a good 5 minutes (the ground underneath is dry now but is wet/part of river in the wet season) and then we walked up about 20 stairs to the platform of another treehouse. Then we had to cross a fairly long suspension bridge---so not my favorite….it was high up and swung when you walked on it. Honestly I’m not sure how I overcame my fear and walked across this one several times each day. That lead us to another platform for another treehouse and then across a shorter suspension bridge---this one didn’t move as much and was easier for me. Everything in the treehouse was screened in, including a small balcony overlooking the river. We had a bed that is covered in mosquito netting and a smaller bed (also covered) that we didn’t use, but it meant our treehouse was bigger than some others. The bathroom has a composting, flush toilet, a sink and a shower with ambient temp water…..typically it felt quite cold, for better or worse (sometimes the cold felt amazing!) A ceiling fan did help at night to keep the air flowing. We had electricity 24/7 and the treehouse was well made….beautiful wood and the tree trunk had a great patina in the middle of the space.
On our first excursion that afternoon, we headed out to the mouth of the river Treehouse is on and saw a sloth at a distance and several birds en route. At the mouth where one river joins another, there were several dolphins, including some pink ones. You would see a flash of pink and they would be gone---Marden (our guide) said they are shy and not as playful as the grey river dolphin. You could hear them come up for a breath as it was really quiet---we were the only boat for most of the time. We could also hear them breathe when they were in the river in front of our treehouse (although we were quite a bit up in the air). So, after trying probably 100 times over the 4 days we were in the Amazon.....we got the ONE photo above that shows something pink coming out of the water. I don't think National Geographic will be calling...lol! The river is huge and even after seeing one pink dolphin by chance and then thinking you could follow it with your eye for a photo....they breach so fast that unless you had multiple cameras taking continuous photos....you would never get a great shot. That is ok---I have the memories in my mind :)
We ate dinner at the main building and then headed out for a walk with Marden. It was pitch black and there was no trail like other places we have been on night adventure walks (like Borneo). We walked off the boardwalk and into the trees---we did have to wear their rubber boots to help in case of snakes or insects (was glad they had them!). It was hard to not be a little creeped out and think something was going to fall on us. We all had headlights, but they only went so far. We saw large frogs, white see through spiders, several types of ants (including one that Marden said was super painful and gave him a fever and was terrible….10x worse than fire ants), spikey trees, and heard many other things. We walked for probably only 30 minutes, but I was ready to be back on the boardwalk and in the light. On the way back to our room, we saw another type of frog that was camouflaged to blend in with the wood steps (nearly stepped on him). We also saw a tarantula on our last bridge that night….tried to tread lightly when we passed her. She didn’t seem to mind us at all. Even with all of the creepy crawly sightings, we slept well that night.
We got up really early---around 4:15am--- to be ready for the sunrise---we headed to the same spot we saw the dolphins last night. The sunrise was beautiful and peaceful. We looked a bit along the shore for animals and Marden heard some monkeys in the distance. He brought the boat close to the shore and we jumped out and went in to explore. The monkeys here are generally scared of humans and will go deeper into the forest with any noise. So the crumble of leaves and branches underfoot gave us away and we never did find them. Marden said later he was glad we didn’t encounter anything else and he was looking up and down and all around since we didn’t have on boots. Pretty glad I didn’t know he was worried in the moment…my imagination was going enough thinking of all of the things I could step on without knowing that the guide was thinking the same thing.
Came back and ate breakfast and then we took a short ride across the river to go for walk. We had seen a boat of tourists the night before looking in these trees and there were monkeys----they were trying to attract them with bananas. It made me uncomfortable---I didn’t like that humans were interacting so much with the monkeys----turning this small part into a mini-zoo. Marden explained more about their situation today----the woolly monkeys are furry and look like they would be nice to cuddle and villagers had kept these as pets. As they got older and bigger, there came a time when the villagers just dumped them. The monkeys were far from wild---they knew how to swing from the trees, but were so habituated to people, they could never really be truly wild, so the nearby lodges sort of started looking out for them. Some guests love that they can feed the monkeys or come close. As I understood the situation more, I see what a difficult decision this was (and continues to be). Villagers do kill some monkeys for meat, but there is some sort of agreement to leave these alone, so the human threat is less. There are about 8 monkeys in this group so it is small subset of the monkey population.
Our guide Marden seemed to like one of monkeys more than the others….the female called Martina. He called her name and she came. She reached out her paw and Marden held her paw and petted her. You could tell they had a real connection and that Marden was doing what he could to protect her. As time went by Martina was more comfortable and came down and started interacting with Kirk (my husband)---grabbing his leg and she was very interested in his sunglasses. We watched her for awhile and decided to move on. Little did we know that Martina gets jealous. We had walked to the side to see a large bird on top of one of the trees and Martina and another monkey swung over and basically tried to show us they were more interesting than any bird :) I was a little nervous to have Martina climb on me (for disease purposes) but she came over to me and there really isn’t anything you can do when a monkey wants to hang on you. She was on my boot and then decided to start nibbling----that is sort of a catch 22. Monkeys like other animals can sense fear and I was a little nervous, but I also needed to get her off me so I tried to calmly mention the nnibbling to Marden so he could help me. No big deal, she got off me pretty quickly and didn’t break the skin, so all is well.
We then started walking and Martina kept following. Marden said it was as far as he had even seen Martina go---she probably followed us for a mile or more. Mostly in the trees but occasionally she came down to check on us on the ground.
I was a little surprised at how few other critters we saw. We did see a monk monkey high up in a tree---the monkey looks like it is wearing a monk robe----and lots of birds, but not much else. The wildlife seems to be deep in the forest…and I’m not sure It is as prevalent as I expected it would be overall. I was certainly seeing less than I expected.
That afternoon, we sailed the "real" Amazon and took in the scenery. We saw several more pink dolphins along the way. Kirk decided he did want to take a dip in the Amazon and he jumped in right off the side of our little boat. Probably swam for 5 minutes and thankfully no piranha bit him :)
There is an area on the Amazon where parakeets roost each night and it was an amazing sight to experience and hear. Parakeets were coming by the hundreds to this group of trees and all being vocal. They were coming from all directions and since it was getting dark, you couldn’t really see their brilliant green color, but seeing them closer to black and white (especially in the photos) gives it an otherworldly feel. Really interesting to see and hear.
We headed back at a quick pace and saw a beautiful sunset along the way. I like being on the water, so this afternoon was a highlight.
The next day was much the same with time on the river exploring and going on land to try and see more animals. We tried some of the wild fruits and Kirk went fishing for piranha (catch and release). These should have been the highlights of the day, but the "highlight" (if you can call it that) of our last full day was the experience of viewing the tarantula life cycle. As we were heading out in the morning, we noticed completely by chance that a tarantula (perhaps the same one that was on our bridge) was INSIDE our treehouse. She was just sitting on the netting. Our rationale was that the mosquito netting on the bed would keep her out and she probably wanted nothing to do with us. I was truly ok with her being inside---I didn't feel threatened. Well, when we came back after lunch, she was still there and I went to sit on the screened porch and saw what looked like a really small tarantula and honestly thought it was sort of cute...until I looked up and saw probably 25 or 30 of these small tarantulas crawling everywhere! Eggs had hatched while we were out. To my credit, I was only hysterical for about a minute :) Then it was ok, we are in the Amazon and this is all part of nature and how can we get to a place where I can sleep tonight.....because the mosquito netting probably wasn't going to keep a baby out. I chose to go to the main lodge to read my book while I pondered (just couldn't be there and watch them crawling everywhere!). Before we headed out to our evening excursion, I told Marden about our new family members and he gave me 2 options---they could come in with a broom and encourage the spiders to leave (I felt like this was code for kill them) or I could do nothing. I didn't want them dead, so I simply hoped they would have moved on by the time we went back for the night (and I made a deal with my husband that we would tag team to the bathroom in the middle of the night with 2 flashlights so we didn't step on a baby). We got lucky and there were only 8 or so babies (and mom) left when we came back after dinner...and we actually slept.
Peru, part 1
Peru has so much more to offer than just Machu Picchu, but looking at this photo it is hard not to focus on this amazing location. I will get to Machu Picchu, but let me start from the beginning.
I planned this trip at the last minute and if it had not been during COVID, I would not have been able to see everything I wanted or stay at the properties of my choice....so when you decide to visit Peru, please give yourself plenty of time to plan. The first step (as of the time of this writing), is getting a PCR test to visit Peru. The airline will verify your test results when you check in at your departure airport (for me, Portland, OR), along with your vaccine card.
Since COVID regulations were changing frequently, I worked with my partners in Peru to have them meet me at the airport and help me in each location. As a travel advisor, I appreciate all of my local partners as they know exactly what is going on in the destination and can help my travelers make any needed changes immediately. We landed without incident in Lima and headed into town for a short 2-night stay.
We stayed in the Miraflores district and headed out for a walk by the ocean. Our driver had mentioned that there had been some erosion due to earthquakes, but I was shocked to see it in daylight. Right at the ledge is a shopping mall above and the JW in the background is only a block or so away from the ledge. This is honestly the image I have when I think of Lima now. Of course, there is much more to the city. The food is wonderful and the people we met were all very friendly and welcoming. Lima is for sure worth at least a day in your itinerary (giving you 2 nights here).
Next, we headed to the Sacred Valley---we flew into Cusco and it is about a 2 hour drive from there. The Sacred Valley is a lower elevation (about 8,000 feet) than Cusco (about 11,500) and staying the valley can help with altitude sickness as your body can adjust more gradually. Machu Picchu is also around 8,000 feet.
I knew the Sacred Valley was beautiful, but I felt like everywhere I looked was beautiful. I took hundreds of photos! The Sacred Valley is a peaceful location to do some hiking or biking or simply relax. We spent 3 nights here and that gave me time to sightsee and enjoy some spa treatments (nice balance). The area is very agricultural--they seem to grow mostly potatoes and corn. The corn is nothing like I had seen before....the kernels were huge! They also had purple corn.
From the Sacred Valley, it is a 1.5 hour or so train ride to the city of Machu Picchu. We went on the Vistadome train which has windows on the ceilings and local entertainment during the journey. It was exciting to see the terrain change along the way and there truly wasn't even a moment with a bad view. The COVID restrictions were the strictest on the train---you had to wear 2 masks and a face shield. It didn't deter from the experience from my perspective and gave us a funny story along the way. We had to buy the shield at a little vendor by the train (about 50 cents) and we put it on....and couldn't see anything....it was all blurry! I thought, how terrible...this is supposed to be a beautiful journey. Our driver thankfully knew what he was doing and peeled a film off each side of the shield and suddenly everything was clear. We probably had to tell 20 or more people to take the film off their shield on trip---no one other than out driver seemed to know what was going on.
From the city of Machu Picchu (formerly called Agua Calientes), it is a 30 minute bus ride or a couple/few hour hike up to the actual Machu Picchu ruins. We stayed at the only hotel at the ruins---Belmond Sanctuary Lodge---so we took the bus up right after the train. Arriving around 3pm we were the only ones on the bus up (that is around the time of the last entry into Machu Picchu so everyone was coming back down, not going up).
From the Orchid Garden at the Belmond, you can see the citadel of Machu Picchu (to the left of the mountain in the photo above). We were glad we had seen even that small glance when the next morning at our 6am entry time (best time to go---you avoid a lot of the crowds) it was a downpour and super foggy. We literally could hardly see our hands in front of our faces. We thought the view from the garden might be all we would get. Like I mentioned, I planned this trip at the last minute and got lucky to get tickets....but there wasn't enough availability to get a second entry time (advice: if you have bad weather, it is reassuring that you have a back up time).
Our guide was patient and we waited until the end of our entrance window to enter and then walked slowly up the path. Still raining, still foggy. Then the guide began speaking about how Machu Picchu is a spiritual location and he encouraged us to think positively and actually try to blow the fog away with our deep breaths. I'm open to new approaches, but at that point my husband was looking at me like this was all a bit too crazy for his liking....but after doing the exercise, within about 2 minutes, the fog began to lift and we could see a small sliver of the citadel and a bit of the path into the main part of the ruins. The fog would lift for a few moments and then roll back in. This continued for much of our time at Machu Picchu, but I honestly felt that the mystical atmosphere made the visit more memorable. Each time we could see something, it was like we were finding it for the first time. The weather had scared away lots of people and for the first 1.5 hours or so, we were basically alone. We did get a glimpse of the sun towards the end of our visit and those views are also gorgeous. You are allowed 4 hours at the site, but no one really times you. The path is one way so you can't back track----that naturally limits your visit since once you make the circuit you have to leave.
This is the end of part one.....this part of the journey was 7 nights. 2 in Lima, 3 in the Sacred Valley and 2 at Machu Picchu. Until next time....
Return to Europe
Like many of you, I had been waiting...and waiting...for travel to be allowed again to Europe. The morning of my flight I checked and double checked that I had all of the necessary information. It seemed pretty straightforward and thankfully it was. The airline agent checked my COVID vaccine card when I checked in at the airport and then...nothing. No one checked anything during my connection in Atlanta and when I landed in Frankfurt, the immigration officer simply asked the purpose of my trip and I was allowed in. Yes, masks are still required and Germany requires the masks to be medical masks---no cloth masks or other face coverings are allowed. There are social distancing markers and hand sanitizing stations in place. Most hotels, restaurants, stores, tourist attractions, etc are open and welcoming guests.
My main reason for visiting Germany is always to see friends...and it was especially exciting to see them this time since I hadn't been to Germany since December 2019. A long time for me... Germany is a beautiful country and I love being outside and being able to walk nearly everywhere. I can't post Germany photos without at least one of cake :)
After spending a few days with friends, I flew to Santorini, Greece. I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. Somehow, it never worked until now.
Normally, when you fly within what is called the Schengen Area (many countries within the EU), there is no immigration or customs. You can land and walk right out of the airport. However, now that each country has its own COVID entry requirements, there is an additional step. For Greece, each passenger had to show proof of vaccination OR a negative COVID test. Each passenger also had to fill in a passenger locator form (PLF) on-line at least 24 hours prior to arrival and show a QR code as proof.
I had only one night in Santorini and I was hoping for a beautiful sunset. Oia, a town on Santorini, is known around the world for amazing sunsets. There is hardly any rain during the summer on Santorini, so my chances of seeing one were pretty high. The sunset did not disappoint....and the surrounding area was gorgeous! I could have sat and watched a hundred sunsets and not been bored. I would certainly recommend spending more than 1 night on the island---3 or 4 nights would be my recommendation.
I had most of the next day to explore and I hired a guide to show me the island. Efi was an excellent guide and she truly showed me nearly every part of the island. I was gathering intel to help me plan trips for you---it was a bit of a whirlwind---I didn't get to spend much time in any one location and to truly see the island would take a few days.
There are beaches, but they are all black sand and while a couple of towns have beach clubs, Santorini isn't the best location to visit if you want to stay on the beach all day, every day. A beach day or two is great, but Santorini is known for its wines, views, food, architecture, and the ancient city of Akrotiri. A volcanic eruption buried Akrotiri in a similar way that Pompeii was buried in Italy...except Akrotiri was buried much earlier and is sometimes referred to as the lost city of Atlantis.
Each village on Santorini has a different feel and it is important to understand what you hope to see on the island before choosing where to stay. After seeing how narrow and windy the roads are on Santorini (and how difficult it is to find a parking spot!), I would strongly encourage you to not rent a car, ATV or moped.
From Santorini I headed to Athens---it is a quick 30 minute flight. I had been to Athens before and had seen the most popular spots (Acropolis, Acropolis Museum, etc). For this visit, I hired a guide for a culinary tour. We walked all over Athens and I saw neighborhoods I wouldn't have normally seen. It was fun not knowing what I was going to taste at the next stop.
I stayed about a 10 minute walk outside of Plaka---the main tourist neighborhood of Athens. It was nice to be so close when I wanted to visit, but far enough away that the neighborhood wasn't crowded and it was more locals at dinner than tourists.
Not all of these photos were taken on the culinary walk, but thought this was a good place to keep the food together. I had amazing food and looking and these are making me hungry for more Greek food!
Like all international destinations, I had to get a COVID test before I could return to the US. Greece has many testing options--including a testing site at the airport. I got my test at a pharmacy in the middle of a pedestrian only shopping street about a 5 minute walk from my hotel. I paid 20€ and had my results in less than 5 minutes. It was very simple. There are even companies that will come to you at your hotel---that price was 40€ for the same test.
I had an amazing time and wish I could stayed longer than 9 days, but I loved every minute. Hoping I can make another trip back to Germany this winter (crossing my fingers!).
I am here to help you plan your return trip to Europe. While restrictions and entry requirements are different for each country, more than 60% of European countries are open. River cruises are starting and ocean cruises have been sailing in Greece and Croatia since those countries opened earlier this year. This isn't the year for a large tour, but private guides are eager to show you their countries and many, if not most, tourist attractions are open for business. Please get in touch when you are ready to start planning.
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent (thanks to the recent visit to Antarctica!