Ometepe, Nicaragua

In our first foray back into international travel since our big trip, we met up with our friend Phill in Nicaragua on our spring break week. He is on his yearlong gap year trip and invited us to join him, which is fitting since he joined us for a week in Bali on our trip!

Our first stop was the beautiful Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanoes in the middle of the gigantic Lake Nicaragua.

Getting There

Typically, we have been able to use points to fly internationally for cheap, but we were unable to do so this time. A combination of needing to fly on exact days and it being a popular time to travel meant that there were no redemption options available. So we – gasp– had to pay full price for the tickets!

There is no direct flight to Managua (the only international airport in Nicaragua) from Denver. The best cheap flight combination we found was to leave Denver Friday night, then layover overnight in Houston before flying to Managua the next morning.

The layover was long enough that we decided that we would like to get a hotel room rather than try to sleep on the airport floor. Eric did have some Hilton hotel points for signing up for one of their credit cards, and we were able to book a room in a nearby property for free using these points. Travel hacker status redeemed!

By the time we landed in Houston, it was late enough that the hotel shuttle had stopped running. We took the plunge and used Uber for the first time! We were a little nervous that we wouldn’t figure out how it worked, but it was quite easy. We even figured out how to use a first-time referral code, so the ride was free for us.

Saturday morning we took the hotel shuttle back to IAH and flew to Managua. From Managua, we then needed to figure out how to get to Ometepe. The only way to reach the island is via ferry from the town of San Jorge. This is also where Phill was waiting for us to rendezvous, as he had traveled there the day before from Costa Rica.

There are buses that travel from Managua to a town near San Jorge (Rivas) for very cheap, but on this trip, we were less concerned about money and more about time. So, we opted for the expensive but fast option to take a taxi straight from the airport to San Jorge, a two-hour ride.

Internet research suggested that $50 was the going rate for this trip, but when we went to the taxi area the tout quoted us $80! We were eventually able to negotiate this down to $60. Quite an expensive trip for us, but it was definitely more convenient.

After our rendezvous with Phill, we got on the next ferry to Ometepe. We sat in the lower level to stay in the shade – after coming from Denver, we were already wilting in the Nicaragua heat. The ride over was pleasant and not too choppy. It was a little odd though that the TV on the boat chose to play the movie Titanic during the voyage – the sinking scenes were just concluding when we pulled into the port on the island.

From the port town of Moyogalpa, we still had to figure out how to get down to the small town of Merida on the other part of the island. Phill jumped up and found us a taxi right at the dock. His Spanish is much better than ours – we can speak some, but he can speak it better and had been practicing for a month in other Spanish-speaking countries. Our “taxi” turned out to be a big passenger van! We were expecting that this meant that we would pick up other people but we had the van to ourselves for the whole ride. Phill even sat up front to practice his Spanish with the driver.

A little less than 24 hours after leaving our house in Denver, we were enjoying our first sunset from the dock at Merida.

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Where We Stayed

Ometepe is a big island, so we struggled a little bit to decide which part of the island to stay on. Did we want to stay in one of the larger towns, by the beach, or in a more remote area. Ultimately, after mapping out what we wanted to do, we decided on Hacienda Merida in the town of Merida on the west side of the southernmost volcano (Maderas).

One of the intriguing things about Hacienda Merida is that its proceeds help support a bilingual school that meets on the grounds of the Hacienda itself. Our first evening there we were given a tour of the facilities. They use a pretty ingenious method to construct the school buildings: trash! The “bricks” are made from empty 1 liter water bottles stuffed with trash. They even pay members of the community to provide them the filled bottles, so they are recycling and helping keep the village clean.

For our accommodations, we got a quad private room with attached bathroom. No air conditioning (but there were fans and mosquito nets), and cold water showers, but this was pretty standard for comparable properties. Since our room was pretty small and warm, we spent most of our free time hanging out in the open-air common space / dining room.

Our favorite part of staying at Hacienda Merida was watching the nightly sunset. The Hacienda is on the water, and has a small pier of crumbling concrete (left over from the days when this was a Somoza-sponsored coffee plantation). Each night we would grab a drink and head out to watch the sun descend. We had a great view of the sun over the lake and of the Volcano Concepcion to our north.

What We Did

San Ramon Waterfall Hike

One of the reasons we wanted to stay in Merida was that it seemed to be a good jumping-off point for some interesting nature hikes. A lot of other guests chose to take a guided hike all the way to the summit of Volcan Maderas, but we decided to opt for what sounded like a simpler self-guided hike to a waterfall that was just partway up the volcano.

The guidebook made it sound like this was going to be a relatively simple hike, and no one at the Hacienda disputed this. They did warn us that the waterfall itself was not super impressive, but we still thought the hike up sounded pleasant.

To reach the trailhead, we walked down the road south from Merida along the shore of the lake. It wasn’t strenuous, but it was very hot, so we already had drunk a lot of our water by the time we reached the gate to the hike.

 

From the trailhead, it was a 3 km walk up to the waterfall. Well really more like a climb – we followed a road and then a trail up, up and up.

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Check out the elevation gain – starting at the trailhead by the lake

By the time we reached the top, we were hot, sweaty and exhausted. And, as warned, due to the dry conditions the waterfall was more of a trickle.

There wasn’t any shade at the top, so we only lingered long enough to cool off our feet then headed back down. Luckily, we were able to catch a ride from some other tourists who had their rental car parked at the trailhead.

Back at the Hacienda, we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the hammocks with some cold fruit juice!

Ojo de Agua

On the morning of our second full day, we caught the local chicken bus back to the center of the island. We hopped off at the entrance to Ojo de Agua, a complex with two pools filled with crystal-clear spring water. It was a little more developed than we had anticipated, but the water was nice and cold, and we had arrived early enough in the day that there weren’t too many other people around.

 

Playa Santo Domingo

From Ojo de Agua, we took a shortcut shown on Maps.Me (to Eric’s surprise, actually accurate) and took a nice scenic walk to the most popular beach on the island, Playa Santo Domingo.

After a nice lunch (see below), we walked up and down the beach itself. It was a little windy to swim or lounge in the sand, but we did enjoy the nice views of the lake and Volcan Maderas.

Getting back to Merida from Santo Domingo was a bit of an adventure. We waited for over 30 minutes by the road before the chicken bus finally came by. It was so crowded that we just hopped on via the back emergency exit – Eric almost fell off when the bus pulled away while he was still getting on! We had to crowd in and brace ourselves against the ceiling of the bus, which was quite uncomfortable.

Where We Ate

Hacienda Merida had its own restaurant, so due to the convenience we just ate there for all our breakfasts and dinners.

For breakfasts, the two of us had the traditional gallo pinto, which was rice and black beans plus some scrambled eggs.

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The first night for dinner we all had barbecue chicken with potatoes and fried plantains. The second night we had something different: Della and Phill got homemade corn tortillas topped with beans and veggies, while Eric splurged and got a full grilled fish (surprisingly not too bony!). The last night the restaurant offered a full buffet, which included pizza, cannelloni and more traditional fare like rice and beans.

 

Our one meal not at Hacienda Merida was on Playa Santo Domingo at Natural, a vegetarian restaurant right on the beach. Some nice fresh fruit smoothies helped cool us off, then the two of us each got a curry which was quite good. The most interesting part was that they had simmered a full banana in with the curry, so it had soaked up a lot of the flavor for a nice sweet and spicy treat.

Final Thoughts

Ometepe is a beautiful place, and it is very cool to stay on a volcanic island in the middle of a gigantic lake. That being said, we weren’t sure it quite lived up to our expectations. We suspect we might have enjoyed it more if we visited when it wasn’t so hot and dry. Maybe next time!

The sunsets were one of our favorites things of our entire time in Nicaragua though – might have been worth going just for that!

One Year Ago Today

Since we have returned home from our round-the-world trip, on quiet evenings we like to play a game where we try to remember what we were doing on the same day one year ago. For example, on March 25, we remembered that one year ago we had left Ko Lanta in Thailand and flown to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. On October 25, we remembered that one year ago we had been exploring ancient Olympia in Greece.

One year ago today is a milestone that we are not soon to forget.


 

One year ago today, we were in Nepal.

One year ago today, we left the town of Syabru Bensi and started hiking up the Langtang River valley on the first day of our Langtang trek, which we had been looking forward to the entire trip. We chose to take the “low road” path that stayed down in the valley with a more gradual ascent.

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One year ago today, on the trail we leapfrogged a few different groups and individuals, making small talk about the scenic canyon and the arduous nature of the elevation gain.

One year ago today, we debated continuing to hike for another hour to our intended first night’s stop of Rimche, but then decided to take a break for tea and chapati in the village of Bamboo.

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The view from our table at the teahouse

One year ago today, at 11:56 Nepal time, at 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal about 100 km west of the Langtang valley.


 

One year ago today, as we were drinking our tea, we felt the ground shaking beneath our chairs. We turned to each other and asked, almost incredulously, “Is this an earthquake?”

One year ago today, we weren’t quite sure what to do in an earthquake. We thought about running into the teahouse, but changed our mind when the workers ran out of it.

One year ago today, we followed everyone up onto the raised terrace that belonged to the teahouse, and sheltered ourselves under wooden tables while boulders as big as cars crashed down from either side of the canyon.

One year ago today, we saw the teahouse we had considered running into flattened by a falling boulder.

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Looking south at the teahouses immediately after the quake. Compare to the above picture

One year ago today, we followed the other tourists, guides and villagers up just above the village to an area with two huge boulders that had not moved, with a small depression in between.

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This photo was taken by fellow trekker Corey: http://www.gofundme.com/tjssd5h9

One year ago today, we huddled against these boulders as further aftershocks and landslides occurred, praying for moments of calm and pleading with the Earth to stay still.

One year ago today, we stretched out for a night of fitful sleep under an orange tarp thoughtfully put up by others in the group.

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One year ago today, our families and friends back in the USA heard the news of an earthquake in Nepal, but did not know exactly where we were or how badly our area had been hit.

One year ago today, we began to make connections with this group that would help us survive until we were rescued five days later.


 

One year ago today, the village of Langtang, two days walk further up the trek (and where we were planning on spending our second or third night), was wiped off the map when a glacier broke off on the mountain above, triggering a massive landslide.

One year ago today, in Kathmandu, the royal palace and many of the historic temples surrounding Durbar Square (which we had visited three days prior) were destroyed.

One year ago today, the building adjoining the hotel that we had stayed in while in Kathmandu collapsed, killing multiple people inside.

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The same view after the quake, with the hotel just beyond in rubble

One year ago today, a villager on the trail just below where we sat was struck in the head and killed by a falling rock.

One year ago today, Or Assaraf, an Israeli trekker who had ridden on the same bus to Syabru Bensi that we did but had started his trek in the direction of the Gosakind Lakes, was killed in a landslide triggered by the earthquakes.

One year ago today, over 8000 people in Nepal lost their lives.


 

One year ago today, we were truly fortunate.

For more information about our experience, you can read our series on the Nepal earthquake. Many of the organizations that we highlighted in our how to help post have continued to do great work in Nepal as the country continues to rebuild, so please consider donating.

Getting Back to GlobeGazing!

We are getting quite close to another milestone on our big RTW… We’re almost to the point where we have been back to “real life” for as long as we were away.

One year ago today, we were exploring the colorful, lively markets of Mae Sot, Thailand!

We have returned to the jobs we took leave from, each with some exciting new challenges and difficulties. But, overall, it has been a bit of a difficult transition for us both.

There are definitely some things that we love about being back. Things like:

  1. Being able to see family and friends often and feeling more connected to the lives of the people we care about. Despite the fact that the worldwide web gave us the opportunities to stay in touch really well, we did feel like we were out of sync with a lot of the people we care most about. It is nice to be able to see them often.
  2. Having access to a washer and dryer (mostly a dryer!!) any time we want! After living with really limited clothing options in really hot, humid climates, it is still really lovely to be able to put on clean clothes every day. Dryers are an especially amazing thing: delivering warm, soft, pleasant smelling clothes every time! Della, in particular, used to hate doing laundry, but now she appreciates it.
  3. Everyday conveniences of the first world. Not surprisingly, it has been nice to get back the relatively quick internet speeds, the diverse array of appliances, and the dependable hot water of home. We really have begun to appreciate it even more often than we did before we went away.
  4. The comfort of our own home. There is definitely something to be said for having your own space… A place where you can keep “stuff” that you don’t need at any particular moment. The comfort of our own bed, the familiarity of our own rooms, and the ease of having our own cars has definitely been nice.
  5. A regular routine. We put this one last, because it has been nice, but also difficult and restrictive at the same time. While on the road, the freedom was amazing, but it was also a challenge. There was no normal. Decisions were required all the time, for every moment. Things like what to eat, where to go, and how to get there were constant questions. There is a comfort in having a routine again and knowing what comes next.
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11 months ago today, we were celebrating Eric’s birthday by kayaking the karsts of Cat Ba, Vietnam!

However, despite our enjoyment of the list above, we have still felt… despondent at times. Somehow, regular life just isn’t as much fun as traveling. (Surprise, surprise!) We miss the constant stimulation, the excitement of getting outside of comfort zones, the beauty of the world, the exploration of other cultures, the challenges of figuring out new places that we don’t understand, the spontaneity, and just plain thrill of being on the road. 

On July 13, 2014 we were exploring the roads of Botswana – and even facing down a hyena and Camp Khwai!

For those reasons, we’re happy to say that recently, we were able to purchase tickets for not one, but two trips abroad in the upcoming year!

For spring break, we are thrilled to be meeting our friend Phill, who is currently on his RTW, in Nicaragua for a whirlwind week exploring Ometepe, Granada, and Leon. If you have any must-dos, please share.

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13 months ago, we had just finished an awesome week with Phill in Bali!

In addition, we were able to purchase tickets for our honeymoon this summer. We took a long time to decide where we wanted to visit for this trip, considering places like Iceland, Scandanavia, Italy, and the Greek Isles. We ultimately decided to do what we should have done to finish our RTW, had we not come home early: Japan! We had already done a bit of planning for this final country, and are quite excited to explore it. Again, any recommendations would be welcome!

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We’re super excited to be strapping on our packs again!

 

RTW Timeline: 4th Century BC

After seeing so many interesting sites and learning many facts about places all around the world, we thought it would be interesting to arrange the different places and events on a timeline to provide more of a context for the different highlights.

Towards the end of the fifth century BC, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta and the classic era of Athens came to an end. However, Greece was still a major player in the events of the world, with the conquests of Alexander the Great spreading its influence far and wide.

380 BC – Butrint Fortified With a New Wall

The city of Butrint in present-day Albania was a Greek city that grew in importance during this era, enough so that a large wall was built to protect the inhabitants of the island. We walked through this wall on our visit to the ruins on a day trip from Saranda. This site was later a major Roman city, so the Greek ruins were mixed in with those from later time periods.

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375 BC – Temple to Aesclepius constructed at Epidavros

The Greek city of Epidavros was a pilgrimage site for those looking to be healed of physical ailments. Therefore, a temple to Aesclepius, the god of health, was built here. Not much is left of the temple today. We visited Epidavros as a day trip from Nafplio.

The temple

The temple

360 BC – Tholos at Delphi Built

One of the most iconic ruins at the Greek city and pilgrimage site of Delphi is the partially reconstructed ruins of a tholos, a circular temple. Archaeologists are still debating the purpose of this structure.

In front of the Tholos

In front of the Tholos

Mid 4th Century BC: Stadium at Olympia Moved to its Current Location

The city of Olympia was the site of the ancient Olympic games, a Panhellenic competition between athletes from all over Greece. We spent a nice afternoon in the ruins of this stadium.

Racing the track

Racing the track

350 BC – Tomb of Amyntas built by the Lycians in present-day Fethiye, Turkey

The Lycians were a civilization based along the “Turquoise Coast” of southwestern Turkey which existed concurrently with the Greeks and Romans. They were known for creating elaborate tombs in which the rock was carved to look like wood. A grand example of one of the tombs is carved into the hill overlooking Fethiye.

The Tomb of King Amnytas

The Tomb of King Amnytas

Sometime in the 4th Century BC – King’s Tomb built in present-day Kaş, Turkey

Another type of Lycian tomb we saw was in the style of an elaborate sarcophagus elevated off the ground on a large platform. There is an impressive example of this style of tomb called the “King’s Tomb” in the middle of the modern city of Kaş.

King's Tomb Jelfie

King’s Tomb Jelfie

340 BC – Antikythera Ephebe sculpted

This bronze sculpture was found as part of the Antikythera shipwreck, hence its name. It is considered one of the classic Greek sculptures. Since we can’t see what object the subject is holding, we aren’t sure who it is, but many people believe it is Paris holding the golden apple. We viewed this sculpture at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Paris

Paris

338 BC – Phillippeion in Olympia constructed

Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, had a monument constructed at Olympia to celebrate his victory in the Battle of Chaeronea, in which he defeated an alliance of Greek city states including Athens.

The Phillipeon

The Phillipeon

330 BC – Temple of Apollo at Delphi rebuilt after an earthquake

The main attraction at Delphi was the Temple of Apollo from which the oracle would issue prophecies and give advice.

Jelfie in front of the entrance to the temple

Jelfie in front of the entrance to the temple

330 BC – Initial Construction of Theater at Epidavros

As mentioned earlier, Epidavros was a pilgrimage site for those looking to be healed. Its main attraction today though is its large Greek theater, which has been amazingly well-preserved. We enjoyed taking turns standing on stage while the other person ran to the top to test the amazing acoustics.

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329 BC – Panathenaic Stadium rebuilt in marble

This large stadium in Athens was the host site for the Panathenaic Games, another Panhellenic festival held every four years. It was extensively renovated and reused for the first modern Olympics as well. We stayed in an Airbnb just behind this stadium during our second visit to Athens.

The view from the end of the stadium. They were setting up for the marathon finish line

The view from the end of the stadium. They were setting up for the marathon finish line

Last Quarter of 4th Century BC – Doric Tomb built in present-day Kaş

In addition to the King’s Tomb mentioned earlier, Kaş also has another impressive Lycian tomb on a hill overlooking the city. It is called the Doric Tomb based on the shape of the column outlines carved into the wall.

Cube Tomb Jelfie

Cube Tomb Jelfie

323 BC – Alexander the Great Dies

We didn’t see any artifacts related to Alexander the Great, but his death was such a large event that we thought it was worth putting onto the timeline for context. He had stretched his empire from Greece all the way to present-day Pakistan. He died at the age of 32.

After Alexander’s death, Greece entered into what is known as the Hellenistic period. Greece’s influence remained strong, but its art and culture would not continue to make the great steps forward that it had during the classical period. In addition, a new power began to arise in the Mediterranean which would shape the next few centuries.

RTW Timeline: 5th Century BC

After seeing so many interesting sites and learning many facts about places all around the world, we thought it would be interesting to arrange the different places and events on a timeline to provide more of a context for the different highlights.

In our previous installment covering the first half of the first millennium BC, we saw the Greek culture grow and develop, leading up to an explosion of culture and history in the period we will cover today, the 5th century BC. This is considered to be the classical era of Greece, and especially of Athens as that was the center of much of the development.

490 BC – Athenian Treasury built at Delphi to celebrate victory at Battle of Marathon

The sanctuary at Delphi was surrounded by structures built by the city-states of ancient Greece, given as offerings to the oracle in thanks for the good advice. After Athens defeated the Persians in the battle of Marathon (the one that gave the modern race its name), the city dedicated a treasury in Delphi to show its thanks and display the spoils of victory.

Failed jelfie in front of the Athenian Treasury

Failed jelfie in front of the Athenian Treasury

480 BC – King Leonidas of Sparta dies at the battle of Thermopylae

King Leonidas led the militaristic city-state of Sparta on the Peloponnese peninsula. He died in the battle of Thermopylae against the Persians (the same battle dramatized in the movie 300). There is a large contemporary statue of him in the modern city of Sparta which we visited.

A statue for King Leonidas (main character in 300)

A statue for King Leonidas (main character in 300)

478 BC – Serpent Column erected as part of a sacrificial tripod in Delphi

We actually saw this column at its current location in Istanbul. Emperor Constantine moved the column from Delphi to Constantinople for use as a decoration at his new Hippodrome.

The serpent heads on the top of the column were removed at some point

The serpent heads on the top of the column were removed at some point

474 BC – Charioteer of Delphi created

We viewed this well-known striking bronze sculpture at the archaeological museum in Delphi.

The famous Bronze Charioteer

The famous Bronze Charioteer

460 BC – Artemision Bronze Sculpted

Art historians don’t know if this depicts Zeus or Poseidon, since he could either be hurling a lightning bolt or a trident. The date for this sculpture is also just a guess, because it was found as part of a shipwreck about which not much is known.

Zeus/Poseidon

Zeus/Poseidon

456 BC – Temple of Zeus Built in Olympia

This was the largest temple at Olympia. Today, only one of the massive Doric columns has been reconstructed.

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

440 BC – Temple of Poseidon at Sounion constructed

This temple, located on a promontory overlooking Cape Sounion, was a pilgrimage site where those about to take a sea voyage could make offerings to the god of the sea.

The Temple of Poseidon

The Temple of Poseidon

438 BC – Parthenon Completed

The classic Greek temple dedicated to Athena, the patron of Athens, sits on the acropolis overlooking the city below. The decorative sculptures have been removed and it is under recontruction, but just seeing it in person was a great experience.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon

432 BC – Construction of Athenian acropolis Propylaea halted due to outbreak of Peloponnesian War

Athens dominated the Classical age of Greece, but it didn’t last for too long. War eventually broke out between Athens and the Peloponnesian city-states (led by Sparta). Costs for the war drained money from the treasury, and the ceremonial entrance to the Acropolis, the Propylaea, was never completed.

The Propylaea is still the main entrance for tourists

The Propylaea is still the main entrance for tourists

420 BC – Nike of Paeonius created for display at Olympia

The dynamic sculpture is missing a few pieces these days but still does a great job of conveying motion.

Nike - goddess of Victory. She stood on a pedestal where the Olympic victors were crowned near the Temple of Zeus

Nike – goddess of Victory. She stood on a pedestal where the Olympic victors were crowned near the Temple of Zeus

420 BC – Temple of Athena Nike constructed on Athens acropolis

This small temple is found on the southwest corner of the Acropolis. This was the oldest Ionic temple that we saw. Nike means victory in Greek, and Athena was worshiped in her victorious form here. Note the date – the Athenians were praying for victory in the Peloponnesian War which was still going on.

Temple of Athena Nike at the entrance

Temple of Athena Nike at the entrance

415 BC – Construction of Temple of Hephaestus completed

This Doric temple, found in the Ancient Agora of Athens, is one of the better preserved temples that we saw.

Temple of Hephaestus Jelfie

Temple of Hephaestus Jelfie

406 BC – Construction of Erechtheion on Athenian Acropolis complete

The Erechtheion is a temple on the north side of the Acropolis, dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon. Arguably its most famous feature is the “Porch of the Caryatids,” where the columns holding up the roof were carved into women in flowing dresses.

The porch with the caryatids on the Erechtheion

The porch with the caryatids on the Erechtheion

404 BC – Sparta triumphs over Athens in the Peloponnesian War

We visited Sparta, but there was much less to see there than there had been in Athens. Its culture was much more focused on the military than it was on building grand temples.

This is Sparta! No, really, this is actually the historical site of Sparta. And the modern town of Sparta beyond.

This is Sparta! No, really, this is actually the historical site of Sparta. And the modern town of Sparta beyond.

 

After Athens lost the war, its time as the dominant force in the region was over, and its boom of monumental architecture was through. Structures like those seen on the Acropolis in Athens were never to be equaled.

However, as you will see in our next entry, covering the fourth century BC, there would still be many sites in Greece producing architectural gems that are world-renowned to this day.

Our Top 10 Favorite Places We Stayed on our RTW

We’ve finished our RTW trip. We get a lot of questions about our favorite things on the trip, so we’ve decided to start a new series called “So, What Was Our Favorite…” We visited 29 countries on our RTW: Egypt (just 1 day), South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe (just 1 day), Namibia, Germany (just 1 day), Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, USA, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia (just Bali), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Nepal.

This edition will cover our top 10 favorite places we stayed around the world. These are not in order of preference, instead they are in the order in which we visited them.

When making this list, we found that how much we enjoyed a place had less to do with the actual accommodations (though certainly it helped when we felt comfortable) and more with the experience or vibe of a place. We loved places that gave us unique insights to the culture of the area, or places where we were able to meet a lot of like minded travelers to create connections.

Amber Tree Lodge, Cape Town, South Africa

The Amber Tree was a really wonderful place to stay in Cape Town. It had pretty comfortable beds in the dorms with substantial lockers, a full kitchen and an awesome common area. The vibe there was also just perfect for us, laid back, fun, but not a full party. We met a lot of really great people there, and had enjoyable evenings hanging out with travelers from all over the world! In addition, it was in a pretty great location – at the foot of Table Mountain, which made for great views from the balcony. It is also not too far a walk from the famous Long Street in Cape Town.

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Pension Oaza, Levoca, Slovakia

We really enjoyed this pension in the small town of Levoca. We had a very large and comfortable room. We had plenty of space to spread out, a refrigerator and microwave, and our very own bathroom! The woman who owned the pension was kind and offered us homebaked goodies. She also told us to grab some of her many tomatos growing in her garden. It was quite a nice location too, located midway between the main bus station and old town.

Our room came with its own table

Agria Retur Panzio, Eger, Hungary

This pension was extremely pleasant. We had a pretty sizable room with a private bathroom, and some skylights above our bed. There was a shared kitchen and meal area that was quite pleasant. We were only a few minutes walk from Old Town and the town Minaret was practically right outside our door!  In addition, the lady owner was so kind and really interested in making sure that we felt at home. We felt as if she wanted to take us under her wing as a mother figure!

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Apartments Samardzic, Kotor, Montenegro

When we arrived at the Apartments Samardzic, we almost immediately decided we wanted to extend our stay. That certainly bodes well for an accommodation! We had a nice queen-sized bed, a good bathroom, a kitchenette, a big living room, and our favorite feature: a view over the bay. We spent most of our afternoons just relaxing the in the living room, looking out over the bay and catching up on things. The kitchen was convenient and the bathroom was comfortable. The hosts live right next door, and were always very kind whenever we had a question.

Ana’s Rest House, Berat, Albania

We were thrilled with our time at Ana’s in Berat. The guesthouse was quite new and comfortable. The bed was large and lovely. There was a small common area which we frequented and met several other interesting tourists. In addition, there was a lovely patio with a stunning view of Berat which we enjoyed on more than one occasion. We also lucked out with the new worker there. He was a native of Berat and was starting a burgeoning tour business. He was around all the time and we really enjoyed a lot of discussions with him from everything from books to American politics to Albanian history. After a lively and informative day with our guide, and several evening/breakfast conversations, he found out that Della was a teacher and he expressed his deep interest in teaching as well. He also was adamant that Della have a chance to see Albanian schools in action. Not knowing what to expect, we said that might be cool. He called a friend, a Peace Corps volunteer from Maryland, who worked in an alternative high school in Berat. This opened the door for us to spend the morning with the Peach Corps volunteer discussing his job and then an hour in his classroom where he works with a partner Albanian teacher to teach English to the students, the equivalent of seniors in the US. We really enjoyed and benefited from our stay at Ana’s!

Eucalyptus Hotel, Patara, Turkey

We were the only guests at this hotel as it was down season in Turkey. But, to be honest, that was part of the charm. We had a comfortable, pretty large room. The hotel provided breakfast every morning as part of the price. They also cooked dinner to order. All meals were served on a lovely outdoor patio which beautiful and comfortable Turkish style. The couple that ran the hotel was very kind and we did get a chance to chat with them a few times when they served us our meals. The owner also drove us to and from the bus stop at no extra charge which was a welcome and necessary service in the down season. We also made good friends with the cat at the hostel. We think they called her “Kedi,” which means kitten in Turkish. She would always join us for meals and follow us back to our room when we headed up.

The patio at the Eucalyptus Hotel

The patio at the Eucalyptus Hotel

Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse, Mandalay, Myanmar

We can’t rave enough about this place! If you are going to Mandalay, you should stay there, no question. The level of service is amazing: everything is done with a smile, the provided breakfast is large and you have to fight to keep from getting extras and the facilities are nice, clean and commodious. The owner, who everyone calls “Mama,” is amazingly kind and generous, and will go out of her way to make you feel at home. She is so sweet, and wants to make everyone her children. On our last day there, she took us down the street to a restaurant, stuck around to make sure that we got excellent service, and then absolutely insisted on paying for our meal. She wouldn’t take no for an answer! We were overwhelmed by her generosity. Also, this place seems to attract a nice crowd of like-minded travelers, and we made a lot of fun connections just hanging out in the common area each night.

Della with "Mama" - the head of our amazing guesthouse - Yoe Yoe Lay

Della with “Mama” – the head of our amazing guesthouse – Yoe Yoe Lay

Payogan Homestay, Ubud, Bali

We actually didn’t find this place, our friend Phill (who is currently on his own RTW – check his blog here!) did when we joined him for our holiday in Bali! We are so glad that he did! The homestay’s owner is the amazingly gracious Ketut. It is slightly outside the town of Ubud and is within the complex of Ketut and his family’s home. Ketut makes sure that you are comfortable and well cared for! He also is an excellent tour guide for sights surrounding Ubud. Make sure to ask for his special pancakes for breakfast! In addition, he is heavily involved in his local temple and made sure to get us involved too. We were so lucky to experience a “birthday celebration” for that temple which meant several evenings of activities. Ketut and his family made sure that we had the correct clothing so we could attend and experience everything. We were so grateful for the opportunity!

Golden Time Hostel 2, Hanoi, Vietnam

There are three locations for the Golden Time throughout Hanoi. We loved Hostel 2, though it was really more like a hotel. The best part about the Golden Time was the friendly staff that work at the front desk. Tony and Ahn, a married couple, always greeted us by name and with a smile. There was always coffee, tea and bananas set out as well, which was refreshing after a long day of sightseeing. The included breakfast also had a good selection. The rooms were nice and spacious, so we slept well. The location was close to the main tourist attractions but not right in the center of the hubbub.

Posing with Ahn, the friendly proprietor at Golden Time Hostel 2

Posing with Ahn, the friendly proprietor at Golden Time Hostel 2

Hotel Bright Star, Kathmandu, Nepal

Hotel Bright Star is unique on this list, as we believe we were some of the last people to stay there. It was severely damaged in the earthquake on April 25. We will always remember the kindness and generosity that the owner of this hotel showed us both before and after the earthquake. This is a passage about the hotel from our blog Kathmandu: Before the Quake.

We didn’t get in until almost midnight, but the owner of our hotel, the Hotel Bright Star, had stayed up to check us in. We had a small room on the top floor – the stairs were a nice preview of what we expected to be a lot of uphill hiking on our trek.

This was only a preview of the generosity that the owner showed us during our three days in Kathmandu. He provided plenty of good advice, and walked us halfway to the tourist office (so we wouldn’t get lost) to pick up our trekking permits.Hotel Bright Star on its quiet streetThat made it that much harder to see him again after the quake. We had left two bags at the hotel while trekking, and we went back into town on May 1 to pick them up. He said on the phone that he and his family were ok, but when we got there it was clear how close they had come to disaster.The hotel next door had collapsed during the quake, and all that was left was a pile of bricks and tangled wires. The owner, clearly shaken, told us that 10 people had died inside. We ran inside our hotel to get our bags, and it was clear that it was the first time that he had been back in. He didn’t want to linger, and neither did we; one of the walls of the lobby on the side of the collapsed building was bulging inwards.The same view after the quake, with the hotel just beyond in rubbleHe said the rest of his family had been safely moved to Pokhara, but he would remain staying in a building down the street until all of the left baggage had been picked up. Hopefully the people who left their bags will return soon…

If you would like to read more about our experience during the Nepal Earthquake, click here.

 

We stayed at plenty other really good and interesting places around the world as well, so it was really hard to get this list down to 10! Still, it seems like this cream of the crop from all around the world is a good representation of the places we would like to stay on future travels as well.

RTW Timeline: First Half of the First Millennium BC

After seeing so many interesting sites and learning many facts about places all around the world, we thought it would be interesting to arrange the different places and events on a timeline to provide more of a context for the different highlights.

Our first installment in the timeline series covered events from the beginning of human history up to 1000 BC. This installment will cover from then up to 500 BC. During this time, one of the great civilizations emerge, and a deity is born.

776 BC – First Panhellenic Games in Olympia, Greece

The Greeks established a tradition of Panhellenic games, in which male athletes from all over the country would converge on a location and compete in contests of speed and strength. The most famous and the oldest were the games held in Olympia, which gave rise to the tradition we now know as the Olympics.

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Around 600 BC – Sounion Kourous Carved

As the Greek population grew and the culture began to flourish, what we now call the Archaic Greek culture emerged. The hallmarks of the art of this period were standing figures carved out of stone; the male figure was called a kourous and the female a kore. We saw one of the more well-known Archaic kourous figures at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

A korous (male)

Sounion Kourous (male)

590 BC – Temple of Hera Built at Olympia

The Panhellenic Games held every four years at Olympia were not just an athletic competition. In addition, they functioned as a large religious festival. To support the religious activities, a large number of temples were built in an area called the sanctuary, or Altis. This temple was one of the first structures erected, and one of the first examples of a Doric temple. Today, it is used as the site where the Olympic flame is lit by sunlight reflected from a mirror.

Remains of the Temple of Hera

Remains of the Temple of Hera

586 BC – First Pythian Games Held in Delphi, Greece

The games held at Olympia are the most famous, but the sanctuary to Apollo at Delphi also hosted a Panhellenic Games every four years. These games had the same athletic events as those at Olympia, and also had art and dance competitions.

The remains of the stadium from the Pythian Games (renovated during Roman times)

The remains of the stadium from the Pythian Games (renovated during Roman times)

580 BC – “Argos Twins” Sculpture Created

This pair of kouros statues were sculpted in Argos, but were found in Delphi, where we viewed them at the archaeological museum.

The Twins of Argos

The Twins of Argos

563 BC – Siddhartha Gautama Born

The man who would attain enlightenment and become the Buddha was born in Lumbini, Nepal around the middle of the 6th century BC. We didn’t visit this site, but we did see the influence of this event in the countless stupas, pagodas and wats that we visited all throughout Asia.

560 BC – Sphinx of Naxos Created

This is another famous piece of Archaic Greek art that we viewed at the archaeological museum in Delphi. This massive carving of the mythical creature was sent by the island of Delphi as a offering to the sanctuary in Delphi.

The Sphinx of Naxos

The Sphinx of Naxos

554 BC – Mahamuni Buddha Image Cast

Legend states that this bronze image of Buddha was cast in the kingdom of Arakan when the Buddha visited. It now resides in a special temple outside of Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma). Male pilgrims apply gold leaf to the image which has given it a large gold covering.

Males applying gold leaf

Males applying gold leaf

520 BC – Temple of Apollo Built on Aegina

We visited the island of Aegina as a day trip from Athens with Della’s family. We walked by the ruins of this temple to Apollo on our way to the beach, but couldn’t go in because it was closed for the day. All that remains of this temple is a solitary column that we were able to see from a distance.

The lone column remaining in the Temple of Apollo

The lone column remaining in the Temple of Apollo

 

As the first half of the first millennium BC drew to a close, the Greek culture began to reach its apex. In our next installment, we will travel through many of the relics of the Greek classical period that we were able to view.