Learn how to travel off the beaten path with the monthly HoliDaze insider guide  



Don't all of us have a place that we have always wanted to visit, that thing we always wanted to do, that little dream? Why wait for tomorrow to fulfill those wishes? There is a universe full of beauty around us, waiting to be seen. Here are some of the most beautiful places in the world that you just can't miss in this lifetime.

1. Greece

Greece

Greece is a beautiful place, a mix of ancient beauty both tamed and untamed with a past full of mystery, mythology and magic. With a vivid culture, breathtaking views and magnificent history, this is one holiday you will never forget.

2. Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

Travel to a different world in this city which takes you into a bygone era. A spectacle of grand architecture with a glorious history offset by piazzas, mouthwatering food and cool gelato, Rome provides an idyllic quaint charm unmatched by any other.

3. Alhambra, Spain

Alhambra, Spain

Described by poets as "a pearl set in emeralds," this fortress, originally built in the 9th century is a truly exquisite gem of Islamic architecture. Visit this palace that has witnessed centuries pass by to hear the walls whisper tales of eras past.

4. Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Feel the thrill of walking the halls once open only to the Kings favored men. See the history and the tales of ancient China come alive before your eyes. Sinning has never been more tempting.

5. Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

The holiest Buddhist pagoda, this ancient shrine embodies beauty, serenity and joy. Visit it to experience the divine connection and to appreciate an exquisite piece of architecture and beauty.

6. Egypt

Egypt

The Egyptian pyramids are architectural marvels that need no introduction. Egypt however is home to several other exquisite monuments of days past. Let the fantastic tales of Egyptian mythology mesmerize you as you pay a visit to the country where men were once gods.

7. Palace of Versailles, France

Palace of Versailles, France

The ultimate word in luxury and excess, the Palace of Versailles is a fantasy palace brought to life. With its unparalleled grandeur and incredible architecture, this will definitely be the most impressive palace you will ever see.

8. Great wall of China

Great Wall of China

An unbelievable feat of architecture, this wall is like no other you have ever seen. Winding its way over the globe, and visible from the moon, gazing at the wall at twilight is an experience you will never forget.

9. Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

Those who love retail therapy will find this ancient market a dream come true. One of the largest and oldest markets in the world, this marketplace is a beautiful monument all on its own. Soak in the atmosphere, and come back with an unforgettable experience and lighter wallets.

10. Marrakech, Morocco

Marrakech, Morocco

An old imperial city of Morocco called The Red City, Marrakesh oozes a character and charm unlike any other. Brimming with palaces, monuments, museums and souks, you will be hard pressed to decide on an itinerary for your visit.

11. Grand Canyon, Arizona, United States

Grand Canyon, Arizona, United States Of America

A natural formation, the Grand Canyon is wild, untamed and breathtakingly beautiful. An awe-inspiring and spiritual experience, this is something that will stay with you forever.

12. Stonehenge, United Kingdom

Stonehenge

Britain's greatest prehistoric icon, Stonehenge projects an aura of intrigue, power and endurance. The awe-inspiring mysterious ring of stones dated approximately 5000 years ago still continues to mesmerize visitors with their spartan beauty amidst their lush surroundings.

13. Venice, Italy

Alley in Venice, Italy

A city that breathes lives and personifies romance, Venice is a must in every traveler’s wish list. From dreamy gondola rides along the Grand Canal to checking out artistic masterpieces & charming palatial palazzos along with sampling authentic venetian cuisine & aperitivios, there is never a dull moment in this city.

14. Machu Picchu, Peru

Early morning at Machu Picchu, Peru

Peru's most-visited site, Machu Picchu is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Dating to the mid-1400s, this lost city of the Incas is an architectural marvel. Perched on a high plateau, deep in the Amazonian jungle, this is a perfect destination for a long hike.

15. Prague, Czech Republic

Prague, Czech Republic

This Czechoslovakian jewel attracts tourists in droves with its bohemian allure and fairytale atmosphere. Tired of sitting around beaches, doing nothing? Welcome on board. You can have the time of your life exploring old castles, museums, and strolling around charming, quaint streets, seeing the local Attractions. Refresh yourself with a scrumptious repast at a classic Czech tavern, and visit the famous pubs to party like never before.

16. Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Burj Dubai, United Arab Emirates

You just can't end this list without including Dubai, the ultimate luxury destination. Embodying opulence, magnificence and eccentricity, Dubai is a man made miracle that is a visual feast. Pamper yourself at some of the most lavish resorts in the world, indulge in tax free mega shopping, embark on grand desert safaris< and experience the rich Arabic culture and cuisine.

Where else would you add to this list?

Share your comments below!

Published in Travel Tips

Based on my experience visiting Krakow and its environs over nearly 20 years, here are my Top 5 Krakow-based exursions. Some you'd expect, some surprises. Am looking forward to numbers four and five myself -- next week, if the weather holds...

You can also check out my other Krakow "Top 5" Lists, restaurants and excursions)

Auschwitz in Poland

1.   Auschwitz (Oswiecim in Polish)

This has to come first, for obvious reasons. It's impossible to describe it in a couple of sentences. I devote a chapter to it and the so-called "Jewish Question" in my book. Three tips: be in the mood to visit or don't go at all. I'm one of those who thinks everyone should go there, but if you're on a short city break to Krakow to unwind, well, you may not get out of it what you should. Secondly, be sure to visit Birkenau, too. Thirdly, attend with a good guide.

Crazy Guides communism tours in Krakow, Poland

2.   Nowa Huta

This won't be everyone's cup of tea but it is a chance to get an idea of what life was like under Communism: endless monolithic concrete blocks laid out as plazas - soulless and depressing but impressive in their own way. Take a tour with Crazy Guides and travel around in the old cars from that era - I went in a yellow Trabant - and see the main sites such as the steelworks (outside only, I'm afraid) and a Soviet era tank.

The amazing Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland

3.   Wieliczka

Spectacular salt mine that extends to nine levels underground, inluding a cathedral and ballroom! Also a must-see. Tips here would be take a jumper, and be prepared to descend many steps at the start, and walk several kilometers. A scary but quick elevator ride back to the top!

  The Wieliczka Salt Mine is part of the HoliDaze epic 366-item Travel Blogger Bucket List (TBBL), a massive compilation of the most exciting, extreme, unique and offbeat global destinations and activities.   Check It Out!

Planty, a circular park is full of fountains, open spaces and monuments to famous Polish historical figures in Krakow, Poland

4.   Blonia bike ride

Hire a bike on or near Planty, the shock of green that surrounds Krakow's old town. Cycle through the Planty, an oasis of calm and cool, until you reach the Vistula river near Wawel castle. Head along the banks of the river behind the castle, turning in eventually to the large recreational area Blonia. Follow cycle tracks towards the end of Blonia, furthest from the town. Return to the old town via the student town, around Reymonta street. All this will give you a real feel for Krakow, and you'll be amazed how much green and tranquillity there is just outside the heart of Krakow.

5.   Dorozka ride

Hire a horse and carriage just outside Hawelka restaurant (see my previous article on the Top 5 Restaurants In Krakow) on the main market square. Not the cheapest, so take the half hour (as opposed to one hour) option, asking to go on the Grodska/Wawel castle route. Feel like royalty for half an hour and relax: it's really comfortable! Unique and enjoyable way to see the old town.

Peacock showing off at the Krakow Zoo

Wildcard: Krakow zoo. Some way out of Krakow. Unusual because set in thick forest, and therefore very pleasant to visit. Good display of animals. The huge bison most impressed me. Bison roam free in another part of Poland. Don't worry: not in Krakow town centre!

What are your favorite things to do in Krakow?

  flickr   //   yarwood   tuliobertorini   voxaeterno   jenniferboyer   generale   wyzik

  Top 5 Krakow Attractions     More Top 5 Lists

Published in Poland

Few people are lucky enough in life to get to see this for themselves. It is not on the beaten path, not somewhere that you can bop down to for the weekend. It is a journey to get to, that is for sure. And actually, I think that is one of the things that makes it so incredibly amazing. It is not cheapened by convenience. Nestled deep in the mountains of a country steeped in ancient culture an tradition, the journey to the top of this sacred mountain is as incredible as the space itself.

Machu Picchu in Peru

I visited Machu Picchu in 2009, while on an archaeological dig during college (I did not excavate there, I was working in a small town called Pucara). I was with my family for a few weeks before the dig, my mom, dad, and little sister. It was actually by the grace and stubbornness of my mother's gypsy spirit that we made it there in the first place: it was on her bucket list. I should mention that this same wanderlust has already taken her around the world and back numerous times.

My sister and I were crassly awoken by our alarm at around 4 am on the morning of our ascension. You have to get to the bus station EARLY if you want to get your butt on a bus and make it up to the top by sunrise. Rubbing our eyes, we stumbled out onto the tiny cobbled streets of Aguas Calientes, a city with plenty of alpacas but not a single car (unless you count the busses that shuttle masses back and forth to the top of the mountain).

The stories were true. Even this early, the lines were crazy long. But we were on a mission. And if you know my father, you know that he has a (not so) mysterious way of moving through crowds. It is not unusual to get left behind if you get distracted for even a moment. A few elbows thrown here and there and voila! We were on our way. The bus driver (like ALL other drivers in Peru) threw caution to the wind as a rule. The bus careened wildly up a series of impossibly tight switchbacks, and, if we weren't awake before the drive, we certainly were now. Nothing like fear for your life to perk you right up. After we surprisingly reached the upper parking lot in one piece, we were herded off of the bus, and hustled up to scout a viewing area. We didn't have long to wait. The light was getting brighter, and the sun was only minutes away. I was practically pushing people out of the way of my camera's viewfinder...I knew this was something that I did NOT want to miss, and I certainly didn't want my visual memories of the experience to include large German tourists.

In the end, the sunrise was so awe inspiring that I forgot the supposed importance of digital memories and just took the moment for myself. It was the feeling of knowing that you are witnessing something truly special, that few others get to see, and that you will only experience this one time in your life. There is nothing like that feeling. It was the most beautiful morning, the sun came up quickly as wisps of fog crowded through the high mountain jungle and across the dramatic green peaks. Pictures of Machu Picchu are incredible, but unless you are there in person there is no way to describe the scale of these mountains, and the drop offs that await you on all sides of this ancient getaway. I live for moments like these, I relish them, and I hold on to them to examine later when things get boring.

Later that day my mom witnessed tourists being stampeded by llamas. (How's that for a closing note?)

Published in Peru

Now this is truly a unique sight like no other! Everyone has seen algae, that icky often green stuff that grows in water all over the world — but have you ever seen rainbow-colored algae? That is what happens for a brief period every year at a remote river in Colombia, South America.

The Caño Cristales River located high in the Serrania de la Macarena Mountains is one that most travelers have never even heard of. It’s location is so remote that the river does not even have any fish and you can only get there after a long trek via foot or donkey! But that is not all, it gets trickier...

This multicolored algae occurs only during the brief period in between the wet and dry seasons, usually in September or October. At that time, for only a week or two at the absolute tops, all the algae on the rocks of the rivers turns a rainbow of colors — and thanks to the clear river water visitors can get a perfect view!

Rainbow colored algae at Caño Cristales River in a remote part of the Colombian mountains
Show up at the wrong time though and all you see is boring old green...

I tentatively plan on joining friends in Peru in September, but I told him I would only come visit him on one condition: if we can travel to neighboring Colombia and spend a few days camping and relaxing at the Caño Cristales River. This is something I absolutely have to see with my own eyes, even if it means staying up in the mountains for two or three weeks, and that is why Caño Cristales River is #40 on the HoliDaze Ultimate Travel Blogger's Bucket List (TBBL for short).

  What do you think, pretty wild huh? Would you trek up the mountain to check it out? Let's hear your comments!

Published in Colombia

This place baffles the experts and has started attracting tourists!

Ever visited the African country of Mauritius? It is an island nation east of Madagascar in the southwestern corner of the Indian Ocean that was the only known habitat of the now-extinct Dodo bird. Mauritius has long-since had a reputation as a very beautiful island and renowned for its many waterfalls, such as the 83 meter (272ft) Chamarel Falls. However a discovery in the 1960's is now beginning to change all of that and making the region famous for something completely different.

Mauritius Seven-Colored Earth
Behold!! The mysterious 7-colored earth

It is known as the seven-colored earth of Chamarel and is quickly becoming a perplexing tourist attraction. And yes, it is sand that is distinctly different colors, including red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple, and yellow. According to geologists the colored sand was created from clay made of lava cooling off at different times, which effectively caused seven different colors of sand to form. But the mystery does not stop there, it only gets stranger.

If you take all the colors and mix them together, they will naturally separate and rejoin the correct color grouping that they belong to! Countless experiments have been done, sand has been shaken and mixed together in a test tube, but a couple days later it has separated into individual bands of like colors. Scientists who have studied this are still mystified! And what if I were to say it gets even crazier than that?

The 7-colored rainbow sands of Mauritius are a geological wonder and unexplainable by geologists

Despite the torrential downpours that occur with the wet season every year, the sand sand experiences no absolutely erosion! It has actually now been cordoned off and people are prevented from walking on it or disturbing it; they instead must be content to experience the view from the over-looking platform.

  Chamarel Falls and the seven-colored earth of Mauritius also made it on the HoliDaze Utlimate Travel Blogger's Bucket List. Judging from the pictures it should be no surprise why!

  Heard of this place before? How badly do you want to visit now? What are your thoughts?

Published in Mauritius

Are you a fan of haunted places? Do you have nerves of steel? Well then, this place may be just for you -- if you also do not mind facing legal action in a foreign country. That's right, like with other haunted places this one has no shortage of myths and ghost stories, but unlike other places this one is so haunted the government of India has made it illegal to enter the grounds. I'm dead-serious. Apparently anyone who has been out past sunrise in the ruined town of Bhangarh, also known as Bhangarh Fort, has never returned alive.

The haunted Bhangarh Fort in India is not far from Jaipur

The Bhangarh Fort Warning Sign

Now there is a sign posted warning people away under threat of legal action. However the sign is not posted in front of Bhangarh as you might suspect but rather posted a safe distance away -- on the sacred grounds of a nearby temple.

Translated, The Sign Reads:

The Government of India
The Archeological Survey of India, Bhangarh


Important warning:
1. Entering the borders of Bhangarh before sunrise and after sunset is strictly prohibited.
2. Shepherds and woodcutters who enter Bhangarh area will face legal action.
3. The Kewda or Pandanus trees found in Bhangarh area belong to the Archaeology Survey of India. Is it forbidden to subject this tree to any kind of harm.
Note: Anyone flouting of the rules mentioned above will face legal action.

By order
Supervisor, Archaelogical Survey Board

Bhangarh was established in 1573 (Vikram Samvat calendar year 1631) and at its peak had a population of just over 10,000 inhabitants. But starting with the death of the ruler in 1630 (VS 1688), population began to decline and things just continued downhill from there. The last known inhabitants left in 1783 (VS 1840) supposedly vacated overnight.

As far as what exactly makes Bhangarh Fort so haunted, there are two prevailing myths.

The first legend states that the town of Bhangarh was cursed by the Guru Balu Nath, who only sanctioned its establishment under one condition: "The moment the shadows of your palaces touch me, the city shall be no more!" Years down the line, when a descendant raised the palace to a height that cast a shadow on Balu Nath's forbidden retreat, he cursed the town as prophesied. As a matter-of-fact, Balu Nath is said to lie buried there to this day, ensuring that the curse is never lifted.

The second story involves a former princess of Bhangarh, Princess Ratnavati, who was said to be the shining jewel of all Rajasthan. At that time lived a magician well versed in the occult named Singhia, who was in love with the princess but knew that it could never be as she was above his class. Then one day when Singhia saw the princess in the market, he had an idea. Using his black magic skills, he cursed the oil that Princess Ratnavati was purchasing so that upon touching it to her skin she would surrender herself and run to him. The princess, however, seeing that Singhia was enchanting the oil, foiled his plan by pouring it on the ground. As the oil struck the ground it turned into a giant boulder which crushed Singhia. Dying, the magician cursed the palace with the death of all who dwelt in it.

  Which do you think it is? Share you comments below!

Bhangarh Fort in India, so haunted the government has made it illegal to visit after nightfall!

According to the curse, whichever you may believe, it was also said that if Bhangarh was ever rediscovered, the township itself would not be found, only the temples would show up. True to the story, only the temples of the lost town of Bhangarh dot the landscape and even far up on the mountains only shrines can be seen.

Many locals and visitors alike claim that they have witnessed paranormal activities there, including eery sounds of music and dancing as well weird colored spots in photographs of some of the chambers.

Now I've come across a lot of haunted places, but I have never before seen one that even the government is afraid of. How wild is that! It's that morbid sense of intrigue that earned this place a spot on the ultimate Travel Blogger's Bucket List (TBBL for short).

  India Unexplored: 24 Incredible Offbeat Destinations

What I Want To Know Is:

Why haven't any ghost-investigation shows worked out a deal with the government?

  Other Haunted Sights In India

The Ramoji Film City, in Hyderabad, was built on war grounds of the Nizam sultans. Witnesses report the movie lights suspended up high kept falling down. Light-men who sit with the lights on top have been pushed countless times and many have had grievous injuries. But it doesn't stop there. The food left in cast rooms also gets scattered around the room and strange marks are left on the mirror in an unknown script resembling Urdu, the language spoken by the sultans. Girls are the ghosts' favorite to haunt. They tear at their clothes, knock on the bathroom doors while the outside doors are locked, and in general create mass havoc. Many preventive measures have been taken to prevent hauntings, but none have been of any use.

Sanjay Van, near the Qutab Institutional Area of New Delhi, is a huge forest spread over around 10 kilometers. There is a cremation ground also there, and many people have reported having seen a lady dressed in a white saree appearing and disappearing suddenly.

Vrindavan Society at Thane. It is said a man once committed suicide in one of the Buildings of the Vrindavan Society -- Bldg. No.66 B to be specific. Ever since the security guard's patrolling the area around have come across weird happenings. Once a guard was slapped so hard that he got up from his chair and hit the other guard who was near by him, thinking he was the one who hit him.

Dow-Hill in Kurseong, West Bengal, where the forests are damp and dark, and have an uncanny feeling. People up here tend to be depressed and countless murders have taken place. On the stretch between Dow-Hill road and the Forest Office, woodcutters returning in the evenings have repeatedly sighted a young boy walking head-less for several yards and then walk away from the road into the woods. Other than this, footsteps are heard in the corridors of the Victoria Boys School when the school is closed for long holidays from December to March.

  Visited any of these haunted locations? Know of any others? Share your thoughts!

Published in India

Three months travel in Africa created endless ‘great experience’ opportunities and one of the most memorable was a walk – in fact, two walks! After six weeks travelling through Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi I arrived in Zambia with the new addiction of admiring the African wildlife in their natural habitat. And the adrenalin from seeing lions up close and personal surpassed all others.

So imagine my excitement when I arrived at Livingstone, the adventure capital of Zambia, and discovered there was more on offer than just bungee jumping and white water rafting to get your blood rushing. It was also possible to go for a walk – a walk with a cat – a walk with a big cat – in fact, a walk with TWO big cats...and these big cats were LIONS!

African lions are now on the “vulnerable list” as their population is decreasing at an alarming rate and a Rehabilitation and Release Program in Livingstone is one of a number of ALERT supported programs in Africa trying to combat this impending tragedy. To help fund the program and educate people about the lion’s plight, the centre offers a ‘Lion Encounter’ which delivers exactly what the name suggests – an encounter with a lion.

Upon arrival at the centre we received a safety briefing, watched a short ALERT presentation and then eagerly walked into the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park to join two ten month old cubs for their daily walk, which is one of the first steps of the program designed to get them ready for release into the wild.

I was quite excited to hear we were walking cubs and instantly had visions of cuddling cute little lions not much bigger than over-fed domestic cats. They were only ten months old, how big could they be?

Who was I kidding?!

At ten months old the cubs already reached above my knees and despite being accompanied by an armed guide, knowing these walks were a daily occurrence and not having read anything in the news about tourists being mauled alive whilst on a lion walk, I was a little nervous. My fantasy of cuddling a little lion was very short-lived.

They might be cubs but they were still lions!

I was a little amused to be given a stick to carry before we set off – yes a stick. I still suspect it was to help us move branches out of our way rather than intimidate a potentially aggressive lion cub and I’m relieved we never had the opportunity to find out what impact the stick had on an angry ten month old lion cub.

The cubs were in a playful mood and after entertaining us with some good natured wrestling (with each other, not with us) they decided they were ready for a walk. If strolling alongside them wasn’t surreal enough, we were allowed to grab hold of their surprisingly strong tales which effectively changed the scenario into one where the lion was walking us. At times the cubs decided to stop and rest, providing us with a unique photo opportunity and if whilst posing you forgot the reality of the situation you only had to turn around and look at the cub’s eyes to be reminded these were still wild animals.

It was a truly magical experience.

A month later I had the opportunity to repeat the experience – with a twist – at the Tenikwa Rehabilitation Centre near Tsitsikamma in South Africa. This time, instead of walking lion cubs, I had the opportunity to join two of the centre’s cheetahs on their daily walk.

There was no stick this time, but the cheetahs were put on a long (and strong) leash as we led them through the nearby bush. The cheetah is such a serene, beautiful creature and as I held the leash of one of them as she gracefully loped along I was so caught up in the moment I forgot where I was and imagined I was walking my parent’s dog Misha along the road. My lapse in concentration didn’t last long as the cheetah changed direction, signalling who was in charge, and reminded me that although it was surreal to be walking a cat on a leash, this particular cat could probably eat poor Misha in one mouthful!

My initial discomfort at a big cat being put on a leash was short-lived when one of the cheetahs decided it was ready for a run and simply took off – the leash was clearly nothing more than a decoration. It was a sad reality that these particular cheetahs would not survive in the wild and whilst the centre ran a Rehabilitation and Release Program, these two would see their days out in a form of comfortable captivity. It was a timely reminder how important it is that the human race protects the freedom of these magnificent creatures.

HOW TO MAKE IT YOUR EXPERIENCE

First you need to get yourself to Africa

It’s unlikely you will fly all the way to Africa just to walk with a big cat, so it’s usually part of a greater African travel adventure. Southern Africa, where I did both my big cat walks, is accessible to all types of travellers and there are a number of international airports. Whilst Johannesburg in South Africa provides the most international connections, it is possible fly directly to Livingstone for example.

Southern African countries tend to be a little more developed than their Eastern neighbours and the wider range of accommodation and transport options mean there are more options for different travel personalities. There are also better transport options which make a Southern African short holiday a viable option if you are short of time. Adding a Big Cat walk to your African itinerary is as simple as researching the Rehabilitation Centre you want to visit and making a booking. These days everything is possible over the internet but these organisations still use that old-fashioned communication called a telephone if you are not internet savvy.

If you are on an organised tour, like the overland trip I did with Intrepid Travel, you may visit somewhere like Livingstone in Zambia where the Lion Encounter is offered as an optional activity. If you are part of a tour that doesn’t offer this activity but you know the opportunity exists in an area you are visiting, ask your tour guide about it. This is how I ended up walking with cheetahs at Tenikwa.

If you are travelling independently simply contact the Rehabilitation Centre and make a booking. Many of them offer transport to and from your hotel/campsite as part of the fee.

You may need to grow

Some organisations, like the one I visited in Zambia, will only let you join the lion walk if you are taller than 5 feet. But don’t be deterred if you have children with you, there are child-friendly activities offered as well.

FINAL WORD

It was difficult to see African wildlife enclosed in a Centre after the magical sight of lions and cheetah in their natural habitat throughout my trip, and it was a sombre reminder that the future of these big cats is less than certain. Whilst these ‘walks’ provided me with two unforgettable experiences, the money I paid for the privilege is being used to run an organisation that hopes to contribute to getting the African Lion off the ‘vulnerable list’ once and for all, eliminating the need for such programs. I hope they are successful - these animals belong in the wild.

Published in Zambia

“Quick, stand still and get ready – they are coming towards us”. This was the moment I had been waiting for.

3 hours earlier. I was standing under a tree outside the headquarters of Parc National des Volcanos, having just been introduced to our local guide for the day, a handful of specially trained gorilla trackers and seven other travellers. Nearby, seven other groups were being formed as we all prepared for what we hoped would be the experience of a lifetime.

We were about to trek towards mountain gorillas.

I felt a growing feeling of excitement as our guide talked about the gorilla family we were heading towards, gave us some information about the area we were trekking in and shared some interesting facts about the endangered mountain gorillas that lived there. This excitement was slightly offset by my nervousness of starting what I had heard could be a simple two hour hike or an eight hour intense trek, depending on where the gorillas were currently located. I was hoping that my comfortable North Face hiking shoes, waterproof jacket, cargo trousers, bandanna and small backpack disguised my poor fitness levels and presented me as a confident and experienced trekker.

We jumped into a small mini-van and drove the short distance to our starting point, the edge of the 160km² national park that protects Rwanda’s section of the Virunga Mountains which is a range of six extinct and three active volcanos crossing the intersection of the Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo border and home to the endangered mountain gorilla.

There are less than 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and half of them live in the Virunga Mountains, a region famous for the studies of Dian Fossey and infamous for the on-going human conflicts and poaching that have contributed to the gorilla population decline. There are currently eight gorilla families living in the region and each group was trekking towards a different one.

A few months earlier I had paid $500 for my trekking permit in what seemed an expensive fee. But already I realised it was money well spent as I learned more about the conservation efforts employed by the Park as they not only worked to avoid a further decline in the mountain gorilla population but aimed for future growth and sustainability.

As we started our trek I forgot the gorillas for a moment as I was mesmerised by the stunning Rwandan landscape. Endless green, lush mountains surrounded me with the occasional splash of colour from the clothing of local farmers brightening the landscape. The bright sun warmed my face as my jacket protected me from the bitter wind and after twenty minutes of a steady but comfortable walk across the relatively flat ground, I took my first step into the tree-filled forest and began to climb up towards an impending meeting with a mountain gorilla.

The guide and trackers kept my mind off my aching knees as they shared facts and antidotes about the gorillas and the local farmers. Information about the alpha-male role of a silverback in a gorilla family was amusingly followed by a tale of farm bosses placing a bottle of vodka at the end of a field as incentive for their staff to work harder and faster. The trackers often ran ahead or communicated with their colleagues on their radios to ensure we were heading in the right direction and as we grew closer they reminded us of the ‘rules’ of gorilla trekking, designed to protect the great animals:

Viewing time is limited to one hour
Always keep a distance of at least 7 metres between yourself and the gorilla
Keep your voice low
Do not make any rapid movements
If you are charged by a silverback stand still, look away and make no eye contact
And the one rule above all others: follow the direction of your guide. After all, they carry the rifle!

A couple of hours into the trek, I was enjoying a chat with the local guide as I learned about his lifestyle, listened to the passionate description of his job and reflected on his interesting view that poachers should be given jobs in the Park rather than sent to jail “to teach them to love, respect and protect the mountain gorillas”. It was an interesting conversation but one that ended abruptly as we looked ahead to see one of the trackers calling out to us.

“Quick, stand still and get ready – they are coming towards us”. This was the moment I had been waiting for.

We were no longer heading towards the mountain gorillas – they were heading towards us! We followed our guide’s instructions and placed our backpacks on the ground, got our cameras out and stood waiting for the majestic animals. Within a few minutes I heard the rustling of leaves and thought I was prepared for my first sighting of the gorilla family.

Mountain gorilla in Rwanda
via langille

I was wrong. Nothing can prepare you for your first encounter with a mountain gorilla and words cannot adequately describe it.

Within seconds of seeing our first mountain gorilla many of us broke one of the gorilla trekking rules (keep your voice low) as we unintentionally called out variations of “oh wow”!

Our first viewing was of a mother and her small child and as magical as it was, it didn’t compare to the surreal arrival of the alpha male of the group, the silverback. His arrival caused the second rule break of the day but this time it was the silverback breaking the rule instead of us. We all understood that keeping a distance of seven metres was for the protection of the gorilla as human germs do not always mix well with gorilla DNA, but when a large silverback walks towards you and other gorillas in the family are behind you, you aren’t going anywhere!

I had heard stories of a silverback charging trekkers to stamp his authority on his territory but this one seemed indifferent to our existence. He sat down with his back to us for a few minutes giving us all an opportunity for the obligatory ‘near a mountain gorilla’ moment before climbing a tree to rest. The sight of a large silverback climbing a tree with speed and ease is one I will not forget and when the mother and child we had first seen followed him I was a bit alarmed that our one hour viewing would be reduced to ten minutes.

But it didn’t take long for the rest of the family to arrive and we were treated to an incredible hour of being up close and personal with these mountain gorillas. Like the silverback, they seemed indifferent to our presence and lazily chewed leaves, wandered around, scratched their backs and used their bush toilets! The similarity of their behaviour to that of human beings is both extraordinary and entertaining.

The hour seemed to fly by and we reluctantly started to make our way back, leaving the mountain gorillas behind. In just a few hours I had experienced one of the most memorable and uplifting experiences of my life and felt like I was skipping back to the park’s headquarters, such was my excitement at what I had just seen.

There have been moments in my life when I have had a sudden awareness of both the insignificance of the human race in the bigger scheme of things and the importance of the human race playing our part in the bigger scheme things. This was one of those moments.

It had truly been a great experience!

Mother mountain gorilla with baby gorilla in Rwanda
via duplisea

  How To Make It Your Experience

First you need to get yourself to Rwanda!

Rwanda is accessible to all types of travellers but when visiting any developing country I encourage you to do your research so that you are supporting local businesses and people as much as you can.

Those who are short of time, not suited to long and sometimes bumpy overland rides or not interested in long queues at overland border crossings will be relieved to learn there is an international airport 10km east of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. There are direct flights from Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Bujumbura (Burundi), Entebbe (Uganda), Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Brussels (Belgium).

There are land border crossings into Rwanda from Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Uganda for the more adventurous traveller but you should always check the security situation first, especially in the often volatile regions near Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. The Foreign Offices in both Australia and UK have great websites with updated information that I always check before I visit a country.

One of the most common ways to visit Rwanda is on an overland tour and these are designed for those ‘in between’ travellers (or those I refer to as All Rounders in my What is Your Travel Personality article) who want to travel independently without the bureaucratic red tape and security concerns that sometimes accompany travel in Africa. I spent three incredible months in East and Southern Africa in 2009 and visited Rwanda as part of an overland tour with Intrepid Travel.

Mountain gorilla in Rwanda
via puddlepuff

Then you need to get yourself to Parc National des Volcanos (Volcanoes Park)

The most common base for visitors is the town of Ruhengeri. As there is no public transport from the town to the Park’s headquarters the most common way to organise your trek is through a pre-booked tour. This may be part of a longer overland tour, a tour specific to Rwanda or a pre-booked day for gorilla trekking. This is the easiest way to organise your trek as the tour company will organise the permit that must be obtained before you arrive and your transport to/from the Park. When I visited the Park, permit fees were $500 but these have recently been increased to $750.

In an effort to protect the already endangered gorillas trekking groups are limited to eight people and there are only eight treks a day. Don’t arrive at the Park expecting to purchase a permit and book yourself on a trek that day – it simply will not happen.

You are then ready to start trekking

You may experience both sunshine and rain in the same day so it’s best to dress in layers with a long-sleeved t-shirt and thin waterproof jacket. You will be trekking through trees and bush so long sleeved shirts and trousers are ideal and of course you will need comfortable hiking shoes (my North Face Hedgehog GTX XCR shoes were my best friend during my round-the-world trip).

  Remember that your guides know best and the ‘rules’ exist for a reason. We are a visitor in the mountain gorilla’s home and their survival relies on us learning to co-exist with each other. If you have a contagious illness or even the flu or a cold, you won’t be allowed to join the trek.

Also remember that the National Park is not a zoo and the gorillas are not waiting in cages for us to come and look at them. You need to trek to reach them and you cannot predict the length or level of difficulty of the trek. I was quite luck in that my trek was only a couple of hours and relatively easy but to be honest I would have felt a little short-changed if it was anything less than that. Reaching the gorillas felt so much more satisfying knowing I had made the effort and worked up a sweat to get there. Of course some people do have limitations and letting the guides know this at the start will make it a more enjoyable day for you.

  The Final Word

I have never come across anyone who has trekked to mountain gorillas in Rwanda and regretted it. It is an incredible experience that you will never forget and you can enhance this experience by visiting some other areas of Rwanda. Don’t let Rwanda’s traumatic history deter you – this is a country in recovery, a country that is relatively safe for tourists and a country full of beautiful people. Almost all Rwandans I met begged me to ‘spread the word’ about how beautiful their country is and to encourage my friends to visit. They recognise the value of tourism to their country and they are proud of their landscape, culture and wildlife.

  The genocide and historical civil unrest in Rwanda is like a cloud in an otherwise blue sky and Rwandans believe a clear blue sky awaits them – they need the rest of the world to believe the same.

Want more Rwanda?     5 "Must-Have" Experiences in Rwanda

Published in Rwanda

Birthdays don’t bring out the best in me.

Instead of celebrating being another year wiser, reflecting on a year of great experiences and appreciating being healthy and having great family and friends in my life, I approach birthdays with a sense of insecurity and impending doom.

I can’t help it.

I get depressed about being single (even though I love my independence and would rather be on my own than with the wrong person), I moan about not having children (even though I don’t actually want children), I detest the accounting career that has seen me stuck in a 9-to-5 office job rut for most of the past 17 years (even though it has also paid for a 15 month career break, other travel opportunities and the deposit on my London flat) and I view being another year older as a step closer to my grave and start panicking about not doing everything I want to in life.

Every birthday feels like a mid-life crisis. But this year is going to be different.

I recently reflected on some of the amazing travel adventures I’ve experienced in my “40 Countries, 40 Travel Ideas to Inspire You” article, so the time feels right to start planning some more. As the clock ticks over to an age I’ve been dreading since I turned 37 last year, I’m celebrating it by adding 38 things to my “bucket list” - 38 things I want to do before I die.

  1. Take time out to explore my home, the country I left 12 years ago, on my Great Aussie Road Trip
  2. Find a way to earn a living doing something I am passionate about that doesn't involve the suffocating routine of a 9-to-5 office job
  3. Turn the dream trip of a lifetime into reality and save up for an Antarctica Expedition, sharing the ice with penguins, seals, whales and birdlife (whilst wearing a really warm jacket!)
  4. Head to the opposite pole to search for polar bears in their natural environment
  5. Return to one of my favourite places in the world (Africa) to repeat one of my favourite experiences of all time (wildlife safari) during the annual migration from the Serengeti to an area I didn't see on my last visit to the country (Maasai Mara, Kenya)
  6. Have an article or photograph published
  7. Extend my exploration of South East Asia to one of the few countries in the region I have yet to visit, Indonesia, and enjoy a mojito as the sun is setting on one of its tropical beaches whilst singing Redgum’s “I’ve been to Bali too”
  8. Return to Myanmar, a place that provided one of my most humbling travel experiences of all time, to hopefully learn that the recent change in the political environment has encouraged more travellers to visit the country to create additional income and opportunities for the locals, without leaving the negative aspects of tourism behind when they leave
  9. Explore the temples, shrines and gardens of Kyoto during the cherry blossom season in Japan
  10. Force myself to slow down in an ashram or spiritual retreat in Asia, appreciate simply “being” instead of wondering “what next” and learn to meditate
  11. Get up close and personal with the lemurs and other unique wildlife of Madagascar
  12. Return to Iceland in winter to search for the Northern Lights and revisit my favourite location, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, to witness the surreal floating ice in a different season
  13. Trek the terraced rice fields of Banaue in the Philippines to assess whether the locals’ description of it being the “eighth wonder of the world” is warranted before heading south to chillax on the beaches
  14. Further explore my spiritual side on a journey through Tibet
  15. Get my hands dirty with some organic farming somewhere in the world with a WWOOF holiday
  16. Take advantage of my recent experience at driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and head to Yellowstone (USA) with my camera and hiking boots in search of beers, wolves, bison, moose and other wildlife amidst the waterfalls and geysers of the world’s first national park’s thermal region
  17. Be in a country when they win the football World Cup (and accept that it’s unlikely to be in England)
  18. Contrast my recent experiences in East and Southern Africa with an overland adventure through the Western countries of Ghana, Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria, Niger and Togo
  19. Take off my watch, put on my hiking shoes, pick up my camera and lose myself (not literally) in the Canadian Rocky Mountains
  20. Stand opposite Petra (Jordan) in the cave that Karl Pilkington described as the “better piece of real estate” due to its view
  21. Embrace the ‘real’ religion of South America with locals at a football match
  22. Pack my bikini, sunglasses, sunscreen, kindle and party shoes for some Greek Island hopping
  23. Head off the beaten track to explore the geographical diversity of Oman
  24. Treat myself to a spa resort on a Caribbean Island and watch a live cricket match in the West Indies
  25. Sip a glass of Pimms at Wimbledon and go punting in Cambridge, two ‘must do’ things in England that I still haven’t done after living in London for 12 years
  26. Embrace my inner David Attenborough, avoid being eaten by a piranha and attempt to co-exist with blood-sucking leeches in the Amazon
  27. Replace the Ethiopian stereotype placed in my mind by Bob Geldof in the 1980’s with a stereotype created from my own visit to the country
  28. Visit Colombia to discover for myself if the positive backpacker recommendations for this country outweigh its negative media perception
  29. Take what I’ve learned from both positive and negative volunteer and NGO experiences and apply it to more volunteering and international aid support in developing countries
  30. Follow up my first European encounter 13 years ago with a photography-focused European escape, including countries I haven’t yet visited such as Croatia, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia.
  31. Party with the locals in Rio, Brazil
  32. Head to the Galapagos Islands to discover if it’s really true that it’s one of the most incredible wildlife locations on earth
  33. Hike through and photograph some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world at Patagonia in Argentina.
  34. Head south to New Zealand to confirm whether the magical landscapes depicted in Lord of the Rings was reality or just great camera work
  35. Watch re-runs of Northern Exposure and then head to Alaska to see how accurate the depiction of this unique state was
  36. Embrace the cigar, rum, classic car, salsa stereotype of Cuba
  37. Join the Gringo Trail and explore South and Latin America with a flexible itinerary and no deadlines
  38. Leave my accounting career and office job behind to experience a year or two of odd jobs and explore alternate career paths

 

Have you had any of these experiences?

What is on your own bucket list?

Published in Travel Tips

Nearly everyone on this planet, traveler or not, has at least an idea of roughly what Machu Picchu is so I'll just summarize the basics. Built and occupied by the Incas from the early 1400s to the late 1500s, this lost city is arguably the crowning achievement of the Inca civilization. Totally unbeknownst to Spain during their conquests, Machu Picchu sat undisturbed until it was discovered in the early 1900s.


The iconic Machu Picchu shot ;)

Since that time many of the ruins have been reconstructed and the place has become a tourist sensation known worldwide, seeing an average of 75,000 visitors a year. The entire 125-sq-mile national park is known as the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, which includes South America's most famous hiking trail, the Inca Trail, within its borders.

If you have not yet hiked the Inca Trail, I'm going to take a wild guess and say it is on your bucket list. It is on the HoliDaze Ultimate Travel Blogger's Bucket List (TBBL for short) -- but then again with 366 items, you have to have some stereotypical things on there. Well have no worries my friend, there are a good 150 different tour companies and groups offering excursions to Machu Picchu, most of them located in Cusco.

But along with that many tour companies come tourists, most of which book during the dry season (June-September). If that's when you will be going plan on booking a couple months in advance, as the trail and Machu Picchu can see the majority of its yearly visitors during these peak months. Additionally, due to the extreme elevation differences of Peru and the lack of oxygen at such high altitudes, you should spend at least a day or two in Cusco upon initial arrival -- if not three or four -- before attempting to move on to the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary.

If you choose to go all in for the authentic Inca Trail hike then you will have two choices: the 2 day / 1 night package, or the 4 day / 3 night package. Which one you choose really depends on 1) how much you love the mountains; 2) whether or not you are a photographer (the landscape shots offered on the larger trek are phenomenal!); and 3) how tight your wallet / schedule is strapped.

Prices can vary significantly from place to place, but remember that you always get what you pay for -- especially in foreign countries. You can expect to spend around $100/day for an adult participating in the group tours (less for kids I'd assume but I don't have any info) after ticket, fees, tips, etc. Additionally, they also have private tours available for a more hefty fee.

  In closing, I will leave you with a video taken from Machu Picchu. It is a short clip from the first season of An Idiot Abroad and if you have never heard of that show, I suggest you look it up. Anyone who loves travel will get a kick out of it....And at the same time probably be a tiny li'l bit envious that it is not you on the all-expenses-paid journey but rather this strange funny little man named Karl Pilkington who is laughably out of place and wants nothing to do with foreign travel...or everything anything out of his British tea-time comfort zone for that matter.

  Have you ever hiked the Inca Trail or is it still on your bucket list? Share comments below!

Published in Peru

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