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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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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Split: when a city doesn’t always live up to expectations

Sometimes you get to a city and instantly know you’re ready to leave- that the main “story” you’ll get out of it is “well, I guess now I’ve seen it.” If you’re thinking of going to Split for more than just a stopover, below is my account of why this city, for me, was Split. I also considered titling this post “French tourist mecca.” Take it with a grain of salt.

I decided to head to Split because I’d heard good things about the city. Granted, this is all from people who’d never been there. First mistake. And I admit that I can see how the city might have held a certain charm before it exploded from being just a transit hub into being a full-blown tourist mecca. Maybe I’d just hit it too late.

On my way to Split from Šibenik, I did get into a mess that I knew would happen at some point. Since I was sick of being that obvious tourist and repeating “Split? Split?” (insert name of city you’re trying to get to here), I did my best to check the signs on the front of each bus, and hopped on board the one I thought was headed to Split. Big mistake. Turns out, the bus was coming from Split. 5 minutes after we pulled out, the ticket guy got to my seat, checked my ticket, and said roughly and matter of factly: “Split? No. Zagreb.” And just as I’d mentally resettled on making the best of it and changing my plans to include the 8 hour trek back up north to Zagreb and a new city, I was (kindly) dumped at the next bus stop.  Continue reading “Split: when a city doesn’t always live up to expectations”

Krka National Park

Imagine bright green water, cascading gently over mossy rock and forming beautiful pools. Little wooden walkways just above the water offer a path right through this unique landscape and biosphere. Now imagine you can get in that water on a warm day and swim right up near these waterfalls. Surprise: you’re at Krka National Park. 

My ride to Krka National Park from my hostel in Sibenik was in the very back of a van, carefully balanced in a wicker chair. Bumpy ride. The roundtrip had been arranged by the hostel owner for 30 kuna, but you can also get there by bus or by bus to Skradin (which, by the way, is known for its 12 hour risotto) and then by boat in, which I hear is a very attractive option.

The entrance fee was 110 kn this time of year (roughly $16 USD), and once paid, it’s a straightforward walk down a dirt path. When you reach the water, you’ll amble on wooden footbridges hovering just above the water, snaking through fish-filled green ponds and overhanging trees. Given the mostly barren landscape leading into the park, it’s an especially interesting little oasis.

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Šibenik: small town with the gorgeous sunset

“What’s your favorite city you’ve visited so far in your 6 months traveling through Europe?” I once asked another traveler. Without hesitation he answered “Šibenik.” This charming city boasts all the best parts of Croatia (sunsets, great seafood, quaint alleyways, and historic churches) all in one small, magical location. As the oldest native Croatian town on the shores of the Adriatic (others were founded by Greeks, Illyrians, or Romans), it deserves to be enjoyed as much more than just a stopping point on the way to Krka National Park.

The Croatian part of my stay started in Šibenik, a small Central Dalmatian city that serves as the gateway to Krka National Park. I sauntered off the train in Šibenik around 11pm, three trains and a bus later from my farmstay in Semic, Slovenia. When I finally made it to my hostel, the middle-aged woman at the front desk looked tired and relieved that I’d finally made it. She was very nice in broken English, though, and got me a seat in the back of her son’s car to go to Krka National Park the next day, the main reason I’d come.

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Slovenian train stop on the way

Some of the bombing evident in the town of Karlovac, Croatia – pit stop on the way to Sibenik

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