Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Traveling to Ibo island

Crossing the border to Maputo

We left the car in Nelspruit and waited for a bus that would take us across the border to Maputo. Definitely the slowest border crossing I've been involved in the last years, but not that dramatic. Much worse was instead the arrival in Maputo. We booked our stay at Fatima, one of the best known backpackers in town. At the bus station we called them to come and pick us up (non-free, btw, I paid 5$). A guy showed up, with a half broken car, takes out of his pocket a piece of paper with written "Fatima" on it and says he is our taxi driver. I was not sure jumping in that taxi would have been a good idea, but at the end I went. When we arrived in front of the hostel, however, I thought we had been kidnapped. There was a mostly broekn large, dark sidewalk, with an iron door and three hooded people sitting in front of it. It did not look like a hostel at all. The guy opened the door and there was just nothing after it, no reception, just the entrance of a building, with a parked car. I entered and then I went out again amidst the complaints of the taxi-driver and the thugs outside. Even if I felt that my organs would have soon ended up in the black transplant market, I decided to enter, there was not much I could do at that point. Fortunately it was not a human butchery inside. But the rest of our stay here was awful. The room smelled like insecticides, cockroaches in the bathroom and the coldest reception I had so far. I guess having hoods on when serving, not smiling and answering half-mouthed is not the best way of warming up the atmosphere for travelers like me. The only thing that cheered me up was that I had to stay only one night. This costed us around 80$, for a room with en-suite bathroom. So, no Fatima anymore! 
By the way, later we would figure out that the best options to stay in Maputo are guest houses. Have a look at tripadvisor. I will write more later on of our experience with guest houses in Maputo.

The impact with Maputo was not of the most pleasant. We did not do our homework, so we were not that well prepared on where to go and we ended up eating in cheap places looking for an internet connection (that was our homework for the following day in Pemba).


Flying to Pemba

Our flight took us from Maputo to Pemba, where we started feeling a totally different atmosphere. They recently found gas, and probably oil, offshore Pemba. A lot of money are likely to flow in (and out) this region soon and there is all the western companies at work for the extraction and related business. Together with the tourist sector that is booming by itself, Mozambique is living a moment of fast growth. Even if growing, tourism is still in its infancy here. And Pemba is no less. Another transition town for us, another bad hotel, but this time we ran away before checking in. After the bad experience with Fatima, we decided to ask the see the room first. The hotel is called Cabo Delgado and it is just in front of the place where the morning after we would have taken a chapa (kind of bus, but not really) toward Ibo. The hotel from outside looks like a disaster. Although this time the reception was better. But the rooms where in terrible need of a renovation and there were no mosquito nets on the beds. We felt a bit sorry for the old man trying to show off the functioning tv in the room, a mosquito net would have impressed us much more. The price was just 50$.

Pemba: There is a special price for those who can take a picture of Jasmin with her eyes open,

Then we moved with our backpacks to hotel Reggio Emilia. Finally we found the first truly welcoming reception, nice rooms, good service. Of course we had to pay European prices (120$), but that was totally worth it. We had a relaxing night, restaurant on the beach and recharged a bit from the travel.

This is where we would wait for the taxi, just 12 hours later

Pemba to Ibo

It was not over yet. Now we would need a  chapa to Tandanangue where a boat would take us to Ibo. We asked the hotel for a taxi to take us to the chapa station. The owner unfortunately told that there is not such a thing as booking a taxi. However she mentioned that she usually works with a guy that drives a taxi, but she clearly said that there was no guarantee he would show up at 4 AM. And indeed he did not, leaving us in the middle of an empty semi-dark street, with no idea how to cover the remaining 4Km to the chapa station. When I say station don't think of a station, it is just the corner where these things stop. From nowhere a car comes out and we ask for a ride. This was not a taxi driver (although there is no difference in practice, the car is a normal car, like those of the other taxi drivers we used in Pemba). In the car we explained our situation in the mixture of Portuguese, Italian and Spanish that we were inventing. As soon as the guy understands that we are going to Ibo, he calls a friend and from that point we are his friend's pray. Our means of transportation for the next 4 hours drive is a small cargo truck, where wooden bars serve as seats on the sides, the center is used for luggage (mostly rise). The top and the sides are covered with some truck cover. The exhaust smoke was all coming inside and we traveled for 30 minutes in a gas chamber, trying to breathe through the clothes pressed on our mouths. Fortunately, after a while they opened the cover and there was fresh air coming in. My bum and the wooden bench painfully crashed against each other for the rest of the trip. We passed through roads with no asphalts: small villages, kids in the house courtyards, mostly wooden constructions, red soil, banana plants and bushes and women elegantly carrying things on their head. This was Africa, it was painful, but beautiful.

We were asked twice the price asked to the others travelers (400 meticals per person, rather than 200). We settled for 250 per person. Last bit was the boat, waiting for the chapas and the tide. Everything, we would soon learn, depends on the tides here. We were ripped off again, paying twice as much for the trip but we finally arrived in Ibo Island.

Numbers

If you are travelling to Ibo any soon, this is the prices that you should expect to pay
Pemba Tandanangue, by chapa, is 200 meticals per person
Tandanangue Ibo is 50 meticals per person.














Saturday, June 8, 2013

Kruger National Park


Why not Sicily?

This year I would have liked a relaxing holiday, really. But Jasmin had a round-trip ticket paid for South Africa and we decided that would be economically wise to venture down there. This would be a couple of weeks holiday:  we decided we would spend the first 3 nights in Kruger National Park and the rest of the time in Mozambique. I was not too excited about Kruger, my objection was "well, we watch animals, and then?". Asking advice back home did not help. Everybody seemed to expect me to be obviously excited about seeing wild animals in their own habitat. I was not sure I was going to be. So I ended up agreeing on going, not without complaining a couple of times on the way with things like "ah, we should have gone to Sicily". 

So did I like it? Yes, admittedly, it was totally worth it. Driving around our (rented) car in the park was both fun (the game is to try to spot the animals before others do) but also truly bewildering. Stopping the car to let giraffes cross the road, being surrounded by elephants or buffalos, was not as boring as I thought at a first time. I would totally recommend to try to experience this once to those, like me, that might thing this is boring.

How to Kruger

The way it works at Kruger, is that you choose a camp where you want to stay overnight and during the day you roam around with your car. You can also do some guided tour, both by car and by foot. We did both. The one by foot was an order of magnitude more interesting than the one by car. You actually get to walk in the bush, with a couple of (armed) guides. We came across a couple of Rhinos that were fortunately more scared than us than what I was of them. The sunset drive was less interesting, we did not see much, it was cold, and anyhow you are by car, it is totally different than walking.


Skukuza

I read a lot of bad things about Skukuza. For us it was not much of a choice, given that we booked late and that we had to come from the airport the same day. Mind that we arrived at 9 in Johannesburg, but by the time we rented the car, bought some food and got used to driving on the wrong side of the street, we arrived at the Skukuza gates after the regular time and we had to deeply thank the guardian for not letting us sleep with lions outside the gates. But at the end Skukuza was not that bad. Maybe it was not party season, but there was no noise at night other than the animals lullabies. We got the luxury bungalow with view on the river and we did not regret the choice. I would not call that luxury, but I would not even expect to pay what we paid for real luxury. The only negative thing about Skukuza, for us, was the food at the restaurants (we tried both). Staff was friendly, but food tasted like microwave crap. We had a much better time cooking by ourselves on the bungalow grill: wild local meat, grilled onions and a bottle of great wine.
Walking in the bushes.


Animals

No, we did not see all the big five. Damn it! We missed the Lion (Jasmin would saw and pet (!) them later on, when I would already be back home). We saw most of them already the first day. Second and third day we almost got used to see these many. Apparently the area around Skukuza and Lower Sabie is so densely populated with wild animals that does not take great luck to spot them.
One of the biggest trophies was spotting the leopard, quietly crossing the street in front of us. We stopped to see the beast going through the bush, while a car was speeding toward us to try not to miss the show. Once they arrived the leopard was gone. The driver, realized he was too late, decided to go off the car and squatted down to see whether the Leopard was still around. Fortunately for him he was not. This is that silly thing that one is not supposed to do.

A scared rhino.


Numbers

  • Renting a car in South Africa is very cheap (at least compare to Mozambique), it costed roughly 110$ for three days.
  • It took us about 6 hours to get to Skukuza from the Airport. We stopped for food only once.




Saturday, December 29, 2012

Five lakes hike

(Sep 16)

Or should I say four lakes hike... one was little more than a pond to us. I would have probably done no hike this summer, as comfortable as I am on my old yellow couch. But Jasmin really wanted to go and  at the end it was a beautiful hike. Not that hard, as the start is already quite high (and you get there with cable car and chair lift). 






Thursday, June 21, 2012

Conclusions

The Arctic is under threat,
 it's time to save it!

(June 22)

Our trip.  The routes are color coded: Blue for bus, orange for flight, red for car and yellow for boat. Click here to see it in a larger map.



This was our trip, started in Buenos Aires and ended two months after in Lima. It was a great experience and now, comfortably relaxed, at home, with my family, I am thinking back at it, trying to answer a few questions that I ask myself.

What did I like the most? If I have to choose a single section, I would choose Rurre, swimming in the river at sunset. That mixture of adrenaline and excitement was extraordinary. A little more in general, I think I would recommend to spend more time in Peru and Bolivia, rather than Chile and especially Argentina. I say this not because I think those places are not worth being visited. Rather, for somebody coming from Europe, I am not sure it is really necessary to travel to the other part of the world to see those beautiful mountains or cities like Buenos Aires and Santiago. 

What did I like the least? Probably the cities, the bigger the worse. I like living in a city, for the amount of opportunities that are within easy reach for its inhabitants. And this was true also for the cities we have seen. It made me feel comfortable to have services always (or almost) in sight. But this big jungles of concrete and metals, randomly growing, with unbreathable air were nothing that I could really appreciate.

What did I learn? Well, I enjoyed more than what I learned, certainly. But I learned something, I think. Other than the obvious, like I experienced (a bit) different traditions and customs, I can say I learned some Spanish (being Italian, this was not a huge effort), I learned to stay dirty and stinky for a longer time and I made some experience in combining work and fun without letting one influence too much the other.

Any regrets? Yes. We wanted to take the boat from Puerto Williams to Punta Arenas. We arrived there one day late because of me losing my glasses in Torres del Paine. I wish I can go back one day, with Jasmin, just to do this. But probably it will not happen any time soon.

Was this the right way of traveling? I think we did our best to do something serious. We wanted to feel the countries we were visiting. The major limitation though, was time. For the amount of road we traveled, we probably used too little time. I am thinking of Jasmin now, that in two months will see only two different cities, doing some volunteering work. This is certainly a truer way of visiting a country, at the cost of limiting the amount of things you can see. 
We did the whole trip in last-minute-planning mode. This has the disadvantage that your plan is likely sub-optimal and will probably cost you more. But it has the great advantage that you are extremely flexible. If something unexpected comes up, you can easily adapt.

What's next? Work, couch and Zurich, for a while. But sooner or later it will be Asia, without flying!


Last stop Lima

(June 2 - 5)

So the trip comes to an end. I was supposed to stay another 3 weeks in Peru, but I had to change my plans because work was calling me back. We left Cuzco with Cruz del Sur, on June 2. It is a 20 hours bus drive to Lima, but honestly it was one of the best trip done in the last two months. Great part of the merit was of the company. As for the views during the trip, I was expecting better. 

Relaxing on the excellent Cruz del Sur bus to Lima.

We arrived in Lime June 3. I decided to give another chance to restaurants, mainly looking for fish. It was better, but only partially. I want to share a rant about Restaurante Brujas De Cachiche. We went there because they had the lobster festival. I was excited, I thought I could finally eat something special. We soon realized we were in a sort of exclusive (ie expensive) place. But whatever, lobster is lobster and this was the end of the trip. So the waiter brings us the menus and I start looking for the red beast. I start to get worried when I see that there is no simple lobsters: all I find is lobsters cooked with cheese or whatever else they thought would make it better. I call the waiter to ask whether they can cook me a simple lobster, no need to cut the claws, no need to stuff it with cheese. Just boil the beast, bring me lemon and/or mayonnaise sauce and I will do the rest. When the waiter told me that did not have lobsters with claws, I understood that we would spend a lot of money for little quality, in that place. And so it was.

Much better were the other fish restaurants (Punta del Sal) and the very famous Istrid y Gaston (for this one, it is better if you book in advance, we were given the bar seats, where you cannot have their exclusive 21 courses menu). 

Other than eating we did little more. Walking around the coast, looking for presents and sleeping. On June 4, Jasmin left for her second part of the trip, that would last other 2 months and that you can follow here.

Before getting home, I had to suffer a 20 hours flight, terrible, comprising a stormy crossing of the Atlantic. But now I am safely at home, so all went fine (predictably, you might be thinking). And so this is the end. I will spend the whole June at home, with my family, before starting my new job. I will add another final post to this blog to share my final thoughts.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Machu Picchu

(June 1)

View from Montana Machu Picchu.

We slept one night in Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu. This is more or less the only option you have unless you are doing the Inca Trail (if you want to do the Inca Trail you have to book it before February, for June). The other trails do not end in Machu Picchu. Even the Salcantay Trail, does not really end in Machu Picchu, it actually ends in Agua Caliente, from where you will reach Machu Picchu with all the other tourists. On the other hand, a trail might be a good thing to do regardless of where it ends. We did not have much time and preferred to visit the surrounding of Cuzco (see previous post). 

To reach Machu Picchu, from Aguas Calientes, we could either take a bus (8$ for 15 minutes) or walk up one hour and a half. We decided to wake up early and walk up. It is not easy, but not that hard either. Harder, but totally rewarding, is instead the two hours walking up to Montana Machu Picchu. As we did not buy the tickets in time, we could not buy the entrance to Huyana Picchu, so we decided to go for the newly open Montana. I cannot compare, because I did not see Huyana Picchu, but I found our hike splendid. The view is fantastic, but the hike is quite tough (2 hours only going up the stairs). Another advantage, is that this second route is not-so-popular-yet. The day before we went only 77 people registered to go up. I suspect this will change soon, especially because Lonely Planet decided (rightly) to recommend this hike. Anyhow, go up early in the morning, less people and less heat. At the end, this was the best part of the day, for me. 

Masonry and carving.

Machu Picchu is a great place. I personally think that most of it charm comes from the ruins location (ie surrounding mountains), rather than the city alone. The best example of the incredibly skilled Inca masonry are to be found in the surrounding of Cuzco, rather than here. Do not keep your hopes up for a mystic experience. Machu Picchu is a fabulous place, but everybody knows it. And all it takes to reach it is money, so there is no endurance filter here. So you will constantly have tourists around you, yelling and asking you to move to another place to free the view for a picture. Yet, I recommend this place, even with all it costs.

People, instructed by their guide, feeling the energy.
Numbers: bring water, we had in our bag and nobody complained about it. You can buy it there for 8 soles for half a liter (for comparison, 2 liters of water in Aguas Calientes is 5 soles, and in Cuzco is 3.5 soles). I had one liter with me and it was slightly too little. Drink plenty of water before going up.




Saturday, June 16, 2012

Cuzco

(May 28 - June 2)

Cuzco was chosen as our last destination before my departure from Lima. I was slightly reluctant in the beginning of this trip, to stop by Cuzco. The reason was that I thought Cuzco is just Machu Picchu, and I was scared by the tourist-ness of the area (with reason, as I will tell you later). As with most of the other destinations, I did not know much of what I was about to discover. But the risk of flying away from Peru and having to disappoint all those that, back at home, would ask whether I had seen one of the most gossiped ruins in the world, was honestly too big. I gave up my reluctance and me we jumped into a bus to Cuzco, from Copacabana.

Actually, on the way to Cuzco, we stopped for one afternoon in Puno, just to see the floating islands. Now, this was really nothing to write about in this blog. Pretty useless stop, good just to break the trip. 

So once in Cuzco we realized that there is much more than just Machu Picchu. I was eager to finally discover some ancient south-america culture and the Inca are popular, legendary and mysterious enough to satisfy all my needs. Besides Cuzco itself offering some interesting Inca ruins buried under the Spanish era buildings, there is plenty to see in the surrounding. What I really loved, was to able to hop in a bus or a taxi and head to one of the many destinations around the old capital of the empire. You get a nice idea of the possibilities you got, reading this National Geographic article. There are two main loops that I would recommend (see the numbers section below) : the 4 ruins close to Cuzco and the sacred valley loop. 

Now Peru was also a slight improvement in the food quality, with respect of what we had seen before. Nothing marvelous, yet. We tried the cuy (guinea pig). They stuff it with spices, cook it in the oven and put it on your plate as it is. I did not think I could have any problem with that, but the small legs and the claws, were too much for me. After tasting it, I happily gave it to Jasmin, that showed much less pity for the beast.

My tiny Jasmin
Oh and this was also the end of my paper. The deadline, June 29, was happily met. With the project report and the project deliverable submitter, I now only had a project meeting to take care of (May 31), but with the extraordinary help of Gabriele (with whom I will have an unrepayable debt for the rest of my life) we managed to do that smoothly, as well. So the last 4 days of my trip will be entirely work free!
This is the most typical product of the local textile artisans. It is also quite expensive  (from 130 soles to 200 for the small ones you see here), but it takes 1 to 2 months of manual work for each piece.
We did not go with organized tours. We wanted to have the freedom to choose things on the way, without having to wake up at a certain hour. We hired a guide once (at Quenko) and we bought a book to have an explanation of the rest. We heard local guides giving improbable explanations, pointing at mountains that should look like puma, or faces, or condor or any other sacred Inca animal. The best was one guide that showed a picture of a mountain, that when turned 90 degrees looked like the Inka face. They say there is not too much left of that civilization, mostly because the Spanish meticulously destroyed most of it. This being said, I am sure there are very experienced guides out there that can give you more than what we heard here and there. Also, the book we picked up (chosen because available on amazon kindle) was really nothing good. You can find my book's review here.

Machu Picchu was booked in these days, for Friday June 1. Coming up next on this blog.

Numbers: You can do a couple of tours around Cuzco that will keep you busy from 2 to 4 days, depending on what time in the morning you will like to wake up. The first loop is the one close Cuzco, comprising Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Quenko and Sacsayhuaman. Now the order here is important. Take a cab to the first (Tambomachay) and walk down to Sacsayhuaman. You can do also the other way around, but it is all uphill. Nothing against that, but don't forget that Cuzco has an altitude of 3400 m. The second loop is the one of the sacred valley. This a bit longer, but waking up a bit earlier, you can do it all in one day. We were given an offer from a cab, 160 soles to do all the tour. We declined the offer and went by the extremely cheap local buses, at least partly. We visited, in order Chinchero (spent a lot of time in the market and local textile artisans) then took a cab to Moray and Salinas. We ended up in Urubamba, but it was late to continue, so we went back (by bus). The day after, we went to Pisac and Ollantaytambo, where we got the train to Machu Picchu (cheaper from here, than from Cuzco). With careful planning you can probably do this second tour in one day.

If you have to pick up a single one, I would say go to Pisac. Otherwise, do the 4 ruins tour in one day, do the Chinchero-Moray-Salinas-Pisac tour another day and finally go to Ollantaytambo the last day and take the train to Machu Picchu from there.



Moray Salinas Pisac

Ollantaytambo Pisac Superlative masonry