Ubud: Eat, Pray, Love no more

Ubud. Bali. The words alone connote scenes of lush greenery, zen yoga activities, and crashing waves during sunset. I’m not sure if this is all I hoped to find when I flew into Bali for the beginning of my few months in Southeast Asia (the insanely cheap flights probably had a little more to do with it than anything), but unfortunately it’s far from what I found when I landed there in February 2016.

Landing in Indonesia was at least much easier than expected. Fears of being turned away for lack of a visa and no ongoing flight had forced me to frantically book a random flight onwards to Singapore before I boarded the plane, but it turns out none of this mattered. Arriving at the immigration counter in Denpasar, the attendant no more than glanced at my passport, asked when I planned to leave, and sent me on my way. No visa charge. Getting out of the airport was easy and I managed to get a taxi for 300,000 rupiah (about $24 USD), too tired after 31 hours of travel to figure out any other cheaper method. An hour and a half later of Balinese music and a pretty straight shot down a 1-lane “highway” lined with silver and stone shops, I was in Ubud.

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Trekking the Salkantay – just the two of us

Oh the Salkantay Trail. You were all I wanted for 5 days and more.

When most people think of trekking to Machu Picchu, they’ll usually conjure up thoughts about walking the Inca Trail, stumbling upon ruins each day, and sharing each day and night with a guide and fellow travelers. That’s definitely not our experience on the Salkantay.

The Salkantay Trail is a 60.5km (37.5 miles), 5-day endeavor leading to Machu Picchu. (Compare that to the 4-day 45km/26 mile Inca Trail). To be clear, one of the biggest differences with the Salkantay (and one of the things I worried about before we left for Peru) is that, instead of coming through the infamous Sun Gate on that final morning, you’ll walk directly from the over-touristy Aguas Calientes. But, honestly, if you’re looking to go at it solo, are willing to give up some ruin-hopping along the way (there are plenty of ruins to see in the Sacred Valley before or after your trek), and are ready for some pretty incredible views, the Salkantay may be for you.

While we (a friend and I) went ahead and did the trek solo – after a lot of deliberation up to the last minute – there are plenty of companies that offer guided treks. I’d recommend waiting until you’re in Cusco to book anything, as the entire area around Plaza de Armas is filled with tour booking offices and you’ll be able to pick the best fit, and usually get a better deal than if you booked online before arriving. The cheapest tour we found ran around $180/person, up to about $550/person and higher.

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How to use Couchsurfing

I like to think I’m an adventurous traveler, and I mean that in various senses of the word. I love to get dirty in a new place, climbing mountains, jumping off mountains, and everything in between. But I also like to be a bit adventurous in my accommodations, and veer off the hostel/hotel path once in a while to try to meet people and get a better sense of where I am. One of my go-to’s for this is Couchsurfing.com, but the site can offer up a lot more than most people initially think (and from what I initially thought too), so I wanted to give some ins and outs I learned along the way.

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Doesn’t this make you want to jump on and meet people?

Hidden benefits

  • Meeting other couchsurfers: A couple times while Couchsurfing, it turned out others were also staying with my host, which made for a fun night and an even bigger network of friends. When I first landed in Stockholm for a 6-week stint in Europe, I used Couchsurfing to stay with a host, and ended up meeting a great group of people (including another Canadian girl who was also staying with my host) to kick things off with. We ended up all staying out til 3am, huddled under a tarp in the rain, and who knows, you may even meet people to go visit on your next trip. I now know exactly where I’ll want to be staying on my next trip to Montreal. 

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Warsaw: a special gem in Poland

Warsaw: the city that would bring me back to Poland in a heartbeat.

So I sadly can’t say I got to spend too much time in Warsaw, or really have a recommended itinerary after my whirlwind time there (including a missed flight and a night that lasted until 7am -those are whole other stories). But it was just enough to make me want to come back again and again, and discover even more of Poland. Note: I was there in October 2015, just as it started to get colder and the air a bit crisper.

First off: Poland is cheap. Like, really cheap – despite being the 2nd biggest economy in Central Europe and 6th biggest in the EU. It also has amazing food and really friendly people. And, compared to Krakow, Warsaw is like its hipper, younger cousin (my opinion). A lot of people say you prefer one or the other: like a San Francisco/Los Angeles or Berlin/Munich rivalry, and in this case, Warsaw reminds me of Berlin – I loved it. Continue reading “Warsaw: a special gem in Poland”

Krakow: a day full of food

Sometimes you leave a city and your biggest memories of that place are the food. And the eating. And the drinking. It happens. Krakow was one of those places.

We got into Krakow late at night (sensing a pattern?) after a day full of train rides from Budapest into Brno, Czech Republic, a BlaBla car to Gliwice, Poland, and then trains all the way to Krakow.

Undeterred and obviously determined to soak in all of Poland, we headed right out after checking into the hostel and ended up at another Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa in the Old Town. I’ll say right away these vodka bars were probably one of my favorite parts of the entire trip – and no, not just for the alcohol. From the second you walk in, it’s like walking into a Russian bar and old-style American diner, blended into one. White tile, swivel bar stools, and 2 chalkboards – 1 for food, at 8 zl each (about $2), 1 for drinks (4 zl each). Old Communist posters and advertisements cover the walls, and people – young, old, and everywhere in between – keel over laughing, drunk, red-faced, and enjoying life. It’s a crazy scene. We also went to one in Warsaw that was not part of this chain that was a bit more authentic, but they’re really all great. It’s sadly also somewhere I knew right away I never would have ended up had I been alone or with someone other than a Polish person.

Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa – a chain of vodka bars all over Poland

 

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2 days in Belgrade

After a great 2 days of hiking in Montenegro, I was ready to hit the “Party City” of Belgrade. I know Serbia doesn’t too often appear on the travel plans of many Americans, but I would strongly recommend including the Balkans area in general (including Serbia) on your radar. I never once felt unsafe in Belgrade (full disclosure: I was traveling with a guy, but I’m not sure I would have felt much differently if I had been traveling alone). Overall, I wish I had gotten more time there, and look forward to coming back to experience the infamous nightlife.

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The beautiful Tara Bridge on the way out of Montenegro

 

The bus ride to Belgrade was long: 9 hours from Zabljak to be exact. (I think I’ve learned a new level of patience from the long bus rides in Europe – 8 hours from Berlin to Munich, hours more down the coast of Croatia, and now this). I was definitely happy to have some company along for this ride at least. Continue reading “2 days in Belgrade”

Bobotov Kuk: I can see 3 countries from here!

If you’re in the Balkans and looking for a (relatively) easy, off-the-beaten track day-hike to the tallest mountain in the country, you should make it out to Durmitor National Park for a short trek up Bobotov Kuk.

So, after a decently adventure-filled day of biking and hiking the day before, today it was time to hike the tallest mountain in Montenegro – Bobotov Kuk. The whole reason I’d come to Montenegro (OK, there are obviously many more things to do in Montenegro, but with my short amount of time and desperate need for more nature, this was it).

Somehow another guy from the hostel and I ended up as the only ones without a ride from hostel host Alex to the start of the Bobotov Kuk hike. Undeterred, we of course took matters into our own hands. There was no way either of us was leaving Montenegro without climbing to this peak. So, after a hearty breakfast, we set out (with the dogs in tow) to the parking lot next to the supermarket. A few attempts later of calling out “Seblo? Seblo. Seblo?” (the town where we would start the hike) to anyone who would listen, I got some help from a woman running a newsstand. She agreed to call a taxi driver and within a few minutes we were off in his car, with a taste of local Montenegrin music for extra flair. 

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Montenegro: stray dogs, deep canyons, and biking without brakes

If you like hiking, consider yourself pretty adventurous, and like getting off the beaten track, you have to make it to Durmitor National Park in Montenegro. Formed by glaciers, the Tara River Canyon is the deepest in Europe, and makes for some gorgeous views.

I started out my trip to Montenegro mostly unplanned. At 1am, in typical non-planning-backpacker fashion, I was sitting around my hostel in Mostar, Bosnia, with one other Australian backpacker, curled up on the couch writing down all my bus times to get to Sarajevo the next morning. I had “planned” (because any sort of planning when you’re mostly just deciding on a whim which place to go next is always up for change) to go on to Durmitor National Park in Montenegro after Sarajevo for 1 quick day of hiking. I knew it wouldn’t be enough, but at this point in the trip, I was really trying to squeeze everything in. After a last minute move to check the weather, though, I realized the one day I had marked off for Montenegro hiking was expected to be a fully wet one with 90% chance of rain. Back to the drawing board – made a whole new page of bus times and routes to go to Zabljak, Montenegro at 7am instead of Sarajevo, and with that, snuck back into my dark hostel room, packed up last minute things, and crept into bed.

One mistake I did make (not even sure why because this is the first time I decided to do it) was purchasing my bus ticket online. Note: especially in these areas, it’s much easier to just buy your ticket at the station. Buses and trains were never full, and showing up with an online reservation and no printed ticket usually just causes more hassle. Sure enough, at my stopover in Nikšić, I had to buy a new ticket (only 5€ luckily) since the attendant wouldn’t accept my email confirmation. Luckily, the bus driver at the station in Mostar was extremely helpful, and even walked with me over to a tourist office near the station to ask them to print my ticket for me, reassuring me in broken English “Is OK. Is OK. Don’t worry” the whole time, as if caring for a lost, injured songbird. That’s about how I looked I’m sure. Continue reading “Montenegro: stray dogs, deep canyons, and biking without brakes”

Bosnia: instantly one of my favorite places I’ve ever been

While I “only” made it to Mostar and the surrounding area (a detour to Montenegro got in the way of coming back to Bosnia for Sarajevo and more), I cannot say enough about Bosnia and Herzegovina. I ended up extending my stay by a night, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my trip. If you didn’t have Bosnia and the Balkans on your radar, add it. Now. 

I get in to Mostar late afternoon, the first place I’ve showed up without a reservation for somewhere to sleep. I ring the bell at the Hostel Majdas, which had great reviews online and which I’d luckily starred on my map. I’m ushered into the courtyard by a young woman who sits me down at one of the picnic tables, hands me some colored markers and some fresh cake, and asks me to create a colorful nametag for myself while she goes off to make me hot tea. Living the life much?

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Brač: life on the big island

Brač (pronounced “Bratch”) is the largest island off the coast of Split, but also one of the less touristy (compared to Hvar and Korcula). It’s mostly known for 2 things: its white stone and the Zlatni Rat beach, which were about the main highlights during my 1 night stay there with a Croatian family. 

The easiest way to get to Bol (the city on the other side of the island where I’d booked a small AirBnB room in the home of a Croatian family) from Split is probably by the once-daily direct ferry. But since I didn’t want to wait until afternoon to take the ferry (it runs at 4:30pm during the summer and 4pm the rest of the year), I got the 9am catamaran over to Supetar first, and then the 1 hour-long bus from there across to Bol. Let’s just say, I think I underestimated how much of an ordeal it would be getting there, just kind of floating with the idea of “island=small” in my head when I booked the room without much research. Oh well. The bus ride allowed me to see a lot of the piles of white stone I’d read about (mostly after my visit). Did you know that a lot of the stone from major monuments (like the Reichstag in Berlin, Diocletian’s palace in Split of course, and even the White House), comes from Brač? Pretty cool.

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“Old Boys Club” at a bus stop in the middle of Brac island

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