Sep 042017
 

After landing immigration was a pretty quick affair (where I saved $117 due to not being Australian) and then it was time to figure out how to get to my hotel. A nice trick I learned several years ago is that when landing after a redeye, unless you are really in the rush for some meeting or appointment, there’s no harm in sitting down, waking up, and figuring out your game plan for a new place.

Now, Santiago wasn’t new for me, but it had been nearly fifteen years since I was last there so I figured I should take my time and plan the next steps. Sat down at a coffeeshop in the immigration area, enjoyed some espresso to wake up, and plotted how I would get to the city. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been able to find an ATM, and I wasn’t sure that taxis would take credit cards, and Uber looked like an option, so I decided to go with that.

There were official taxis where the rate was just slightly higher than Uber (and the desk looked to take credit cards) but I decided to try and be a little more independent and try Uber. I was assigned a driver rather quickly, and within a minute he texted me in the app – asking where I was waiting. He didn’t speak any English, but with a little help from google translate I was able to work with him and find out there was an official waiting area for meeting your pick-up.

Walked to the area (across the main road outside the arrivals area) and while waiting, a couple different people told me not to bother – Uber is illegal here and nobody will come pick you up. Well, my driver did show up about 10 minutes later, but the first thing he told me too is that Uber is kind of illegal here, so if anyone asks…we are friends, ok?

No problem…and a good thing, because no more than two minutes down the road there was a police checkpoint where they were checking the papers of taxi drivers…and looking for illegal Ubers. They wouldn’t talk to the driver, only to me…”yes, he’s my friend.” “How do you know him?” “Well, my sister was here last year, and they met at a club, and when I told her I was coming here she told her friend and he offered to pick me up.” I’m not entirely sure they bought the story, but they did let us go. I think the driver was impressed with my ability to make something up on the spot…in my rather bad Spanish on top of it.

Traffic was pretty bad since it was around 9am, and finally made it to the hotel about 45 minutes later. The W had agreed in advance to honour the “My 24” benefit of my status, and allowed me to guarantee a 9am to 9am stay. Was great to be able to check in right when I arrived (even if it meant no upgrade) and after a quick shower I enjoyed a fantastic two hour nap that was just enough to recharge me for the day.

It was 11am by this point, and I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my day. I hadn’t really planned too much for this stop just in case I didn’t make it on the standby flight, so some planning was in order. Fortunately, there was a Starbucks right around the corner – allowing me somewhere to caffeinate and plan. Well, maybe not me, but some guy named “Jess” at least:

Couldn’t really decide what to do, and since I’ve had luck in other cities I googled “free walking tour of santiago.” Managed to find a company called Free Tour Santiago that looked good, had tours every day at 3pm, and no booking needed. Perfect! I would go check that out, and if it was promising I would go with it. After enjoying a bit of coffee, lunch, and the latest news about the DPRK and USA alarming the world, I headed out to make my way to the Plaza de Armas for the tour.

Figured out how the subway worked, how to buy a farecard, and I was off. The plaza was filled with interesting characters, and since I still had 30 minutes until the tour I took a bench for a bit to peoplewatch. What was perhaps the most interesting to me was the extremely high number of Haitians hanging out in the square. At least 100 in several small groups. I did ask my guide about it later, and he said most of them had arrived as refugees after the big earthquake several years ago, and were having a hard time integrating due to language barriers.

3pm came, and a light rain started. This wasn’t looking good for the tour. I did manage to locate the tour guide in front of the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago which was already getting set for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis.

Lots of people about, and looked like we would be about 20 for the tour today. Strangely enough, no Spanish speakers, only Brazilians and a mix of internationals who spoke English. Fortunately there were two guides, so they agreed to do one English tour and one Portuguese tour. Our group contained a couple of girls from Korea, a few Germans, a couple of American backpackers who gave up on the rain/tour after 10 minutes, and a couple of Danes. We decided to set off from the Plaza, and see how the rain went.

First thing in the square was the statue of Don Pedro de Valdivia, a Spanish conquistador, who “discovered” and founded Santiago in 1541:

Next up was the Mueseo Chileno de Arte Precolombiano. We just stepped inside for a bit to talk about the museum, and the guide gave us enough background in case we chose to come back on our own later. It was also raining very heavily at this point, so allowed us 15 minutes to get out of the rain. When the rain let up a bit we walked a bit more and made it to the Plaza de la Constitución and saw the La Moneda Palace:

In the square was a statue of Salvador Allende, so we stopped for a brief Chilean history lesson. The very short version: Allende was a Marxist who was a cabinet minister as a member of the Socialist Party. After unsuccessful runs for President in 1952, 1958, and 1964 he finally won in 1970. In 1973, the military (supported by the CIA) attempted to overthrow Allende and surrounded him in the La Moneda Palace where he eventually committed suicide.

Eventually Pinochet took over as President and ruled as a dictator until 1990, a period during which thousands of people mysteriously disappeared.

The rain continued to be a light drizzle, so the eight of us who remained kept walking to the Opera House, where across the street is a small restaurant.When Bill Clinton visited Chile he stopped in this place (for a Coke supposedly) and ever since the restaurant has completely branded itself around him – featuring a whole menu of Clinton-inspired dishes – including the “Monica Lewinsky” hot dog…

The rain had picked up again at this point, and the timing was perfect. We kept walking (into a trendy/expensive neighbourhood whose name I’ve forgotten) and stopped for snacks/drinks at a place the tour company had an agreement for. They had a “special menu” of food and drinks for the tour (supposedly cheaper than their normal prices) and we were encouraged to try the Pisco Sour.

I’d always though Pisco was a Peruvian thing (and maybe it is) but our guide insisted that it was a Chilean drink that the Peruvians had simply stolen. Now, given Pedro de Valdivia had come to “discover” Chile from Peru, the whole thing is up for debate really since the the breaking up into countries is a bit of an artificial colonial thing…

That said, the pisco sour was indeed delicious!

After the rain let up a bit we kept walking through a park, and enjoying the park, statues, etc….

Finally the tour ended up in an area known for nightlife. Now, this is usually the downside with free tours which is that they are geared to budget-minded travelers (aka backpackers) so tend to skew towards the activities more popular with the younger crowds…aka bars and clubs.

This one was no exception at the end, but as with some other great walking tours I’ve gone on there was plenty of history and a great intro to the city included, so it was well worth it. Plus, this tour ended at a place where the group could have a drink together, and the four of us left standing at the end did…plus, it was a place that brewed its own craft beer so was definitely a win!

After the tour was over I had a recommendation for a place near my hotel called Pizzeria Tiramisu to get dinner, and when I walked in I was shocked how busy the place was for a Thursday night. Tables were all booked, but the place had multiple bars inside and it was suggested to hover by them and wait for a seat. One opened up after about 10 minutes, and I was able to enjoy a nice lasagna and beer (and of course tiramisu) which was welcome after several hours walking around in the cold rain.

I was exhausted by this point, made it back to the hotel and crashed, since it would be a very early wakeup the next morning to continue on to Buenos Aires! Not too much to say about the W as a hotel – it was located in an upscale neighbourhood with lots of stuff within walking distance. It was very clean, very W-like, and not memorable. I would definitely stay there again, but given the rather expensive price I would also consider other options.

Sep 262016
 

After lunch it was back into the SuperJeeps, and off to explore more. Next stop was the Langjokull Glacier, but first, our drivers took great pleasure in charging the jeeps across progressively deeper rivers:

Eventually, we made it to the edge of the glacier, where we stopped for a break before heading onto the worst road I’ve been on anywhere in the world. Africa included. This was some serious off-roading over volcanic rock to get to the glacier. A panoramic with the glacier up ahead on the horizon:

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Heading up onto the glacier. The black is from the volcano which blew a few years back, spewing ash all over the glacier. This is actually a really bad thing because the black ash concentrates the sun, and melts the glacier at a faster pace:

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Deep crevice in the glacier…many of these go down as much as 100 meters….and there’s no telling where they end up. Possibly in an underground lake under the glacier, from which there would be no way out. Talk about a horrifying way to die!

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View across the edge of the glacier:

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Standing by one of the ash piles against the bright blue sky:

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View down the glacier towards the SuperJeeps:

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Melt from the glacier headed down into one of the deep crevices….I keep being terrified the ground would give way and we would tumble down…

After the glacier, we headed off to the Gulfoss waterfall. This is one of the prime attractions on the golden circle, and it was absolutely packed with tourists. Hundreds of people, to the point it wasn’t possible to enjoy the natural beauty. This was really the one place in Iceland I felt the tourist crowds, and it was the one place I would avoid next time. That said, look at that view:

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Video of the falls:

Amazing:

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Selfie with Phil in front of Gullfoss:

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On the way out of the falls, we were treated to not just a rainbow, but a double rainbow. Even nature decided to be a part of this big celebratory trip!

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Rainbow selfie!

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Amazingly, we were able to even see both ends of the rainbow:

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Then, for our final stop, it was off to the Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir is closely linked with the history of Iceland and is where the parliament of Iceland was first founded around the year 930. District assemblies were set up with a general assembly, the Alþing, which first convened at Þingvellir just before 930. This laid the foundation for the Icelandic Commonwealth, which was largely controlled by chieftains with some participation by ordinary people. As the site of the first parliament in Iceland, it’s seen as the place where Iceland really became a country. Did I mention it was also gorgeous?

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Panoramic shot after a 30 minute hike through the park:

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When we got to the jeeps at the end of the hike, our driver and guide Omar was just chilling with the jeep:

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One last group selfie from an amazing day on the Golden Circle and Glacier…with Omar chilling out on the left:

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After we got back to the hotel, got this amazing handmade wall hanging from mom. The best gifts really are those that people you care about put thought and effort into:

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Then, it was off to Kirsten’s Air BnB across the street, where it was time for drinks to celebrate being to every country. Celebratory Veuve with Dewon, Phil, Greg, and Clint:

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…because Kirsten and I are classy like that:

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Late dinner, and then back to the Foss for more awesome craft beers and craft cocktails with Lukas the Lithuanian bartender. Unfortunately, many people were leaving in the morning and lots of goodbyes were said. It was so amazing having so many people care enough to join me in Iceland for the final country, and was a real testament to the awesome people I have in my life! Off to bed, because there was still one more day in Iceland to enjoy…

Sep 232016
 

Up early the next morning to head out on our Golden Circle tour. When looking for tour companies to arrange the Golden Circle tour, I’ll be honest that I wasn’t totally sure what all the different options were. I know the Golden Circle has some of Iceland’s “must see” sights, and pretty much all the tours seemed the same. When Iceland Travel suggested the “SuperJeep Golden Circle Tour with Langjokull Glacier Add-On” the price was more than double the other options, but it promised a full day of fun place a chance to visit a glacier, so, I went with it. This was going to be our big splurge tour of the trip.

SuperJeep is a separate company, it turns out, and Iceland Travel merely did the booking for us. When they showed up to pick us up, I was thrilled. Each SuperJeep seated five of us comfortably, and we had five jeeps for the day. The drivers were absolutely hysterical, and had a radio system so they could chat between the jeeps all day. We headed out of Reykjavik, and soon we were already seriously off-road. One of the worst trails of they day, we were getting thrown around pretty seriously as we headed up the trail, but the SuperJeep was handling it like a champ. I was a bit nervous that once we got to the top a few people in the group might not have been really thrilled with the pretty serious off-roading. Fortunately, everyone loved it. Our driver, Omar, loved getting a bit crazy, and made no attempt at all to avoid rough spots of the trail!

Eventually we stopped, for a short hike up the rest of the hill for a vantage point over Reykjavik. I hung back to get a shot of the group hiking up the hill against the blue sky:

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View from the top, looking down over Reykjavik:

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First group shot of the day. I love how the bright colours stand out in contrast to the sky and ground!

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We drove a bit longer, and stopped to take in another valley:

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I love how this shot of Ted against the green hills turned out:

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Picture with mom and my brother:

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Part of the group enjoying the view:

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Done admiring the view, we continued on and stopped by a lake. I love how this pic of Jen checking how cold the water is turned out:

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The lake:

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Next stop was at the Faxi waterfall. Most Golden Circle tours don’t do this, and there was almost nobody there. It was another huge plus of booking with SuperJeep that they kept adding stops that a big bus full of people wouldn’t have time for. Kirsten posing with the SuperJeep:

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Faxi Waterfall:

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Faxi waterfall selfie:

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We walked the path down towards the falls, and got this shot from below:

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Shot with John, Kirsten, and Ted by the Faxi waterfall:

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There was a salmon ladder next to the falls, so we walked up the narrow sides of it. Love this shot of Kirsten on the way up:

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Jen and Ingo taking a rest at the top of the falls, I love how the colours just jump out in this pic:

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Getting read to leave Faxi, group pic in the SuperJeep:

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Final stop before lunch was the Geysir hot springs area. Geysir is mostly dormant now, the the Strokkur geyser still regularly erupts every 5-10 minutes:

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Srokkur erupting:

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The great thing about the Geysir area is that all the tour busses stop here along the Golden Circle tour, so there’s a great rest stop with lots of restaurants in it and great places to grab lunch. We stopped for about 30 minutes at this point until our drivers started herding us back to the SuperJeeps. We still had much more to see in the afternoon and needed to get a jump on it! The afternoon of the SuperJeep tour in the next post…

Sep 182016
 

Fortunately, the mass 22 beer flight was consumed over enough time that it did no damage, and I had a great night sleep, waking up in plenty of time for breakfast. Lots has been made of the Fosshotel breakfast on TripAdvisor, so I might as well add my two cents.

Overall, it was a great selection. Certainly not world-class like many breakfasts in Bangkok, but a very solid performance for a breakfast that’s included with all rooms. They had a great coffee machine that made to-order drinks, a reasonable selection of fruits and pastries, eggs, deli meats, a good Scandinavian option of bread with cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, and deli meat, and pretty much anything you could want. Only downside is the breakfast room was pretty crowded at peak hours between 7:30 and 8:30, but it was never so packed we couldn’t find a space. That said, if you stay at the Fosshotel you’re already giving up on the serenity Iceland is known for, so I didn’t find it a bad tradeoff.

Fortified with breakfast, the entire group met up again at 9am for our Tour de Jour. I figured many people were probably still a bit tired with jetlag (as we had a few less experienced travelers) so I scheduled a shorter/more relaxing tour for the first day. We were headed out to the Reykjanes Peninsula, and then on to the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also one of those things you have to do when you’re in Iceland. Our bus arrived right on time, and our rather geriatric bus driver herded the thirty of us on board.

We set off on a drive out of the city, headed in the direction of the airport. The Blue Lagoon would have been a much easier visit on the way to the airport or on the way back to the airport, but with everyone coming and going on different flights we decided to make a day trip out of it so everyone could go together. Our guide started sharing with us stranger and stranger stories, and complaining about the lack of infrastructure in Iceland for tourism – notably, the lack of bathrooms in rural places. We weren’t sure if he thought one of us needed one (I mean, we’d only left the hotel 30 minutes prior) or he needed one. We stopped at a series of rural farmhouse, and he came back defeated each time. At one point, while he was looking for a bathroom, we stopped and got to see a very friendly Icelandic horse (and quickly learned you don’t call them ponies):

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Next stop was about 15 minutes on, the bridge between two continents. This is the place where the European and North American tectonic plates meet and these ridges have risen up:

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Kirsten being all high and mighty and looking down on me from Europe:

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Hanging out in the neverland between Europe and North America, while others simply take the bridge back and forth:

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Fascinating land a mixture of volcanic rock, sand, and moss…

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Back on the bus, Ted found the only seat comfortable when you’re 6’8:

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Next stop was on the coast of the peninsula:

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Rocky outcrops on the far western coast of Iceland:

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A statue of a Great Auk, which went extinct about 200 years ago…playing with perspective and taking a photo with part of the group that had climbed a nearby hill:

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Selfie with Dewon on top of the hill, with the North Atlantic in the background:

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Fascinating geography:

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There’s lots of stories about hidden people and trolls in Iceland, and our geriatric driver only seemed to become animated when talking about them. We noticed the bus came complete with a troll on the dashboard:

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Final stop was an area of geothermal activity. Steam rising from underground – be careful to stay on the walked pathways as the ground is unstable and prone to collapsing:

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Smoking-hot selfie with Rich:

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After getting our fill of sulfur, it was off to the Blue Lagoon to relax. Unfortunately the sun wasn’t out, but it was still not too cold. After parking the bus in the Blue Lagoon’s rather large (and increasingly commercial) parking lot, you walk the path between volcanic rock to the welcome centre:

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The Blue Lagoon is definitely crowded, no getting around that. However, they do manage the number of entries every hour quite carefully so while crowded it was never so crowded that it felt too hectic. The only hectic part is the check-in area where you get your bracelet, slippers and robe if you paid for them, and directed to the changing areas. You do have to buy your tickets in advance as they definitely sell out (especially in the middle of the day) but it was possible for the one member of our group who missed that memo to buy one as a walk-up. Not sure if that was because there were already 30+ of us with tickets or what, but they did make it work.

After the mandatory change and shower, it was out to the lagoon:

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Panoramic shot of the lagoon:

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Part of what makes the lagoon famous is the silica mud on the bottom, which they scoop up (and maybe process) and put in bowls at the side. The idea is to make a mask of it which is supposedly good for your skin. Personally, I think it made me look more like a swamp creature:

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Ramzi and Jason, however, decided it made them look absolutely fabulous:

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This is also a good place to mention that you get a bracelet which has an RFID chip in it, and is used to track all your purchases inside the lagoon. Our first drinks were included, and there was a maximum of three drinks per person for safety reasons.

There was also a photographer off to the side taking pictures and e-mailing them, and the most shocking part of it was that they didn’t even ask you to pay for them. Pic of a part of the group:

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When you leave the lagoon, you have to stop by the cashier before you can get out. They scan your bracelet, collect any payment due, and they you have to scan your bracelet with a zero balance again to get out the turnstyle. It’s all rather well organized and efficient, and we had a great time spending a couple of hours there relaxing away the jetlag.

Then it was back on the bus to the hotel, where it was already late afternoon. After a short rest a group of us met up to head to the largest church in town, the Hallgrimskirkja:

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It’s a fully-functioning church, but also functions as a tourist attraction with an observation desk that provides a nice view of Reykjavik. For a price, of course.

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After taking in the views, we headed off to find somewhere with happy hour to have a few drinks before dinner. Unfortunately, this was also the one time on the trip that it decided to rain, so we ducked into the nearest bar with seats. After drinks, the group split up a bit to try and find something to eat. Getting increasingly frustrated that everywhere seemed to have no open tables, the group continued to splinter further and further, and eventually our smaller group of eight ended up at Steikhúsið – or steakhouse. They were able to seat all eight of us, and looked to have an interesting menu, and it was still pouring rain, so was an easy choice…until we got the bill, of course.

Starter of reindeer samosas….

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The surf and turf platter of horse and minke whale steak…along with fried sweet potato tots. Yum!

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Group shot at dinner:

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After a delicious meal fortunately the rain had reduced to a light drizzle/mist, and the 1.5 km walk back to the hotel wasn’t that bad. When we got back, some of us met up in the lobby bar where we discovered one of the Fosshotel’s hidden treasures – Lukas the Lithuanian bartender. You just had to give him an idea what you want “something with gin and an icelandic twist” and he’d come up with craft cocktails featuring local spirits, herbs, berries, you name it. Plus, he was really fun and chatty and added a great ambiance. If it wasn’t for the group of 30 geriatric german tourists all ordering Irish Coffees, where each espresso shot had to be pulled by hand, it would have been an amazingly relaxing atmosphere. Then, it was off to bed, since our big tour day left early the next morning.

Sep 162016
 

We finally arrived at our hotel, the Fosshotel Reykjavik, a little before 3am after the bus drama, and check-in was reasonably efficient given the hour. Only one problem – they couldn’t find one of the reservations. Fortunately my check-in didn’t take too long, and it was up to the room by around 3am. Found out the next morning that Garrett had to wait another 30 minutes for them to figure out his room. Ugh!

I decided I was going to sleep in and stay closer to east coast time for a day, since if I tried to operate on 4-5 hours of sleep it wasn’t going to get the trip off to a great start. Being around 11pm east coast time when I finally got to sleep I slept very soundly, finally waking up around 11a local time. When I did finally wake up, I took a look out my window and had a great view of the city:

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We (the group that arrived late) had made plans to meet at 11a to find some food and more importantly coffee, so set out on a walk. Found a nice little coffee shop where we grabbed coffee and tried to wake up. We still had plenty of time before the group was meeting for the planned tour, so walked back to the hotel via a longer route along the water:

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When I did get back to my room, there was a nice vase of flowers from the hotel as a congratulations (thanks mom for guilting them into it!) which made the room much more festive. I think this was the first time outside a couple of work trips that I’d spent five nights in the same hotel room in a long time, so it was a very nice touch!

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At 2pm those of us staying in the hotel met up to walk to the meeting point for the walking tour of the city. It was about a 20 minute walk to the Parliament where the tour would kick off, and mostly downhill, so made for a nice walk. Unfortunately the angle of the sun was bad for getting pictures of the parliament, but in the square – known as Austurvöllur – was a statue of Jón Sigurðsson, a leader of Iceland’s independence movement:

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We soon found our tour guide Marteinn from CityWalk Reykjavik, who had agreed to lead a private tour for us. The first piece of the tour was about the parliament itself which was built in 1881, long before Iceland’s independence. The square was also the site of many protests, including a 1949 protest against NATO and the 2009 protests which brought down the government after the financial crisis. Apparently Icelanders are rather polite when they protest, preferring to bang wooden spoons on anything that makes noise.

From there we walked just around the corner of the square to the statue of Skuli Magnusson who lived in the 1700s and was largely responsible for the founding of Reykjavik as a city…such as it was in those times with just a couple dozen people:

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From there we walked through the old part of the city where there was a marker of the year 874 which is when a Norwegian chief named Ingólfr Arnarson and his wife arrived in Iceland. According to the Landnámabók he threw two pillars over the side of his ship and vowed to settle the land wherever they landed. When he found them again, he set up home there and named the place something along the likes of Reykjavik, which he translated as “smokey cove” – although it’s questionable what he really meant to call it. The pipe attached to the pillar is venting steam from the underground thermal pools:

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We walked a bit more in the downtown of the city, and Marteinn told us about Iceland’s most famous traditional dish – the hot dog. He was just kidding, but we passed the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand, home of Reykjavik’s most famous hotdogs…and where tourists and locals alike form a massive queue to get one of these treats. Seriously, I don’t know why, but Icelanders seem to love hot dogs. Marteinn also educated us that what are viewed as “traditional” Icelandic foods such as whale, horse, and puffin, are really not eaten much anymore…except by tourists.

He also told us about Brennivín, also known as the “black death.” It got its name because shortly after prohibition ended they put a skull and crossbones on the bottle to warn against drinking it…and the name apparently stuck. It’s apparently best enjoyed with fermented shark, which Icelanders do apparently still eat. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a stop to try it…

From there we walked up the Arnarhóll, which is located next to Iceland’s Supreme Court. It was a good place for the first of many group pictures…

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From there we continued to a monument to the women of Iceland, where Marteinn again comment on the suspicious underrepresentation of women in our group. He noted that Icelandic women were famous for many inventions, and I was also shown a famous Icelandic invention – the beer mitten. Unfortunately, no beer was provided with it, but there was a nice Icelandic orange soda to enjoy:

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From there, we walked towards the City Hall and the lake that sits in the middle of the city centre:

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This is where we learned a couple of very important facts about dating in Iceland. Apparently there’s a website called the “Book of Iceland” where you can put in your name and the name of the person you’re thinking of dating, and learn just how distant of relatives you are. In a county with only a couple hundred thousand people apparently this is important….

Marteinn also pointed out that because Icelanders are very big on gender equality, having even had a lesbian Prime Minister recently, they had recently erected a new display in the city hall. Since the city has a penis museum, they felt it was also important to have a giant vagina painting hanging in the City Hall. No, I’m not making this up.

After showing us around for a few hours, Marteinn left us to explore on our own, and naturally several people went to find the painting…unfortunately, the City Hall had just closed and they were left disappointed. I can’t recommend Marteinn and CityWalk Reykjavik enough. It was a fantastic introduction to the city and to Icelandic history, and also a wonderful chance to walk off some jetlag.

Next up was celebrating visiting every country with a celebration beverage, but first, a few of us circled back to the hot dog wagon for a snack:

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There really wasn’t anything special about the hotdog, but “everything” included ketchup, mustard, remoulade, crispy fried onions, and raw onions. It was definitely tasty!

It was just warm enough to sit outside and enjoy some happy hour two for one drinks:

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After happy hour ended it was back to the Fosshotel where the sun was just setting over the city. View from my room:

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A short while later, a group of us met up in the hotel’s beer garden for dinner and more celebration drinks. The beer garden has 22 beers on draft, and offers them all in a tasting flight. Phil and I were up for the challenge, and although it took a bit of time to get through them all, I’m proud to say we defeated the giant towers of beer:

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This was polished off with some tasty fish and chips before calling it a relatively early night. We had to be up early the next morning to head out on our tour, and I wanted to make sure I was up early enough to get some breakfast beforehand!

Jul 202016
 

Tried to sleep in a bit, but due to the time zones was up super early. Got to breakfast shortly after 7 and they still weren’t open but went back a little later and they were. The odd thing, the breakfast buffet was set up in a restaurant that had only one purpose all day: to serve breakfast. It was a huge room, definitely capable of seating a few hundred, but at no time did we ever see more than ten people there. The whole atmosphere was surreal.

The breakfast buffet was also quite large, with plenty of options, included a white chocolate fountain and fruits for dipping. It was a very strange combination of items, but more than enough choices. It actually felt rather wasteful as few people as there were there, but I was happy to get a good start to the day. Shortly after, I got a text from Ian that he had survived the post-terrorist attack chaos at Istanbul Airport and had just arrived in Ashgabat and met the driver. Shortly after he got to the hotel, and we headed out to do a city tour.

First stop was the ancient settlement of Nissa. The site is located about 10 miles outside of Ashgabat, and the driver said we should do it first thing in the morning since it involved a good deal of walking and it would be better to start before it got too hot. It was already nearly 90 degrees fahrenheit at 9am, so this sounded like a good plan. Nissa was a settlement of the Parthian Empire which lasted around 500 years from 250 or so BC to 250 or so AD. The Parthian Fortresses of Nissa are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but excavation has been slow. In order to protect the sites from the elements, many of them have been covered in mud temporarily to protect them. Here’s one spot where the mud was peeled aside to show just a little of what’s underneath:

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Part of the old fortresses, partially restored. It was difficult to tell what was original, and what was restored:

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Obviously, this part is mostly restored:

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We wandered around for an hour or so, but it was really difficult to get much sense of the place because so much of it still had yet to be excavated. It was still interesting to see, but having seen so many other ancient ruins at places like Leptis Magna in Libya, this was more than a little bit underwhelming. I asked if we would be seeing the tall rotating statue of Turkmenbashi that used to sit in the city, and it was announced that was where we would go next.

The statue has been placed outside the city now, and while the gold statue of Turkmenbashi still stands atop, he no longer rotates so he is always facing the sun. According to our guide, this may actually be a legend, as nobody admits to remembering seeing it rotate in the past. I guess this is what happens when one ruler-for-life is replaced by another. The monument is known as the Neutrality Monument, built to commemorate Turkmenistan’s status as the only officially neutral state in the world:

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Great views of the City of White Marble from above the viewing platform:

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Although you can’t really see it in the pictures, one of the interesting features is that all of the government ministry buildings (which were absolutely huge and made of white marble) were constructed in the shape of what they were in charge of. For example, there was the ministry of health located near the local medical university. The building for dental studies was shaped like a large tooth, for example. The Foreign Ministry had a large globe on the roof, with Turkmenistan outlined in gold. The Ministry of Health itself was shaped like a giant syringe. We were told that one joke was if the University ever opened a department of OB/GYN studies you had to wonder what the building will be shaped like…

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Funicular up one of the legs of the tripod, and from there you take an elevator to the observation deck:

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Looking up at the monument from below:

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Last stop before lunch was the Turkmenistan Independence Monument, surrounded by famous people from Turkmen history. None more important, of course, than the leader himself:

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Celebrating Turkmenistan’s independence, and trying to look half as fierce as the guys in the background:

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After a morning of monuments, we headed back to the hotel to get some lunch, and get out of the heat of the day. Before heading back, however, we needed to change some money. A very…favourable rate…was obtained, and suddenly prices didn’t seem to be quite as much of a rip off. On the way back to the Yyldz Hotel we stopped at the National Wedding Complex, complete with its own hotel for guests who come from outside the capital to get married: Definitely an interesting architecture:

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View of the city from the hill outside the Yyldz Hotel:

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We grabbed lunch at the hotel restaurant, not to be confused with the breakfast restaurant. This one was on the second floor from the top, complete with white tablecloths and a very formal atmosphere…and nobody other than us eating. Grabbed a couple of club sandwiches and beers, and took a couple hour nap before our long evening excursion.

After resting up, it was time to begin the approximately three hour drive out to Darvaza to see the flaming gas craters. We had originally planned to camp near the crater and spend the night, but being exhausted and in need of a good night of sleep we opted to drive back afterwards and just sleep in in the morning.

The drive itself was pretty uneventful, and the road was in decent condition most of the way. We stopped at a small village near the crater to stock up on important supplies: local beer and snickers bars. Definitely the dinner of champions!

First stop was the “water crater” and yup, it was filled with water. It was easy to climb over the security ropes, and get very close to take pictures. I definitely didn’t want to fall the 50+ feet down into the crater, however. Pretty obvious there would be no easy way out!

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Second stop was the “mud crater” which clearly had some gas burning off as well, but there was lots of bubbling mud. Again, you could get really close, and in this case falling in was definitely not going to have a good outcome:

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After these two craters we headed off to the final stop, the flaming gas crater. On the way, it was a bit of offroading through some very desertesque landscape:

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Final stop, the Darvaza Gas Crater, otherwise known as the Door to Hell. It collapsed in 1971, and geologists set it on fire because local nomads kept wandering into the area and dying from all the poisonous gasses being released. They had expected the gas to burn off quickly, but now nearly 45 years later it is still going. The crater is more than 200 feet across and 70 feet deep:

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As the sun began to set, we wandered up onto a nearby hill to take some pictures:

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Ian looking down on the crater from the hill:

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Sunset. You can’t tell from the picture, but there was an extremely strong wind in the open area, and I can’t imagine pitching a tent to camp there. It would definitely been a very windy and very uncomfortable night:

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Sunset, with the crater in the distance:

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Shortly after sunset, the crater gave a brilliant glow against the night sky:

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Looking evil next to the flaming crater at night. It was hard to stand this close because of the extreme heat:

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One last look:

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By this point we were quite tired, and I’m pretty sure I slept on and off (mostly on) for the rest of the drive back to Ashgabat. We arrived around 12:30am, and I crashed hard for nearly 9 hours from exhaustion. Coming back was definitely the better call, because with a 4am sunrise, combined with sleeping in a tent it would have been very difficult to get enough quality sleep. Next up, time to see a bit more of Ashgabat and then head to Mary and see the Ancient City of Merv.

Jun 152016
 

Our flight landed in Dakar around 5pm and by the time we were through passport control and got our checked bags it was after 530. Fortunately, the hotel’s shuttle was waiting at the airport which saved us the pain of trying to organize a taxi. We got to the hotel, and I ended up having two switch rooms because they gave me a ground room floor…with two beds…that had doors opening out into the pool area…and the AC barely worked either.

Rather quick change of rooms, however, and was able to get a much cooler room. It’s funny, I’ve stayed in this hotel at least 10 times, and I find the “garden facing” basic rooms are much better air conditioned than the upgraded “business class” rooms. I think next time…if there is one…I’m going to ask NOT to be upgraded!

We headed to the pool bar to have a couple of drinks, then eventually headed out to dinner. Quick pizza dinner at La Piazza where I had taken Jordan and Daniel back in January, and back to the hotel for an early night. I think the jetlag had caught up to me and ended up sleeping nearly ten hours. Woke up feeling great, and headed over to the Casino Supermarket next door to grab some pain au chocolates and red bull for breakfast.

After grabbing something to eat we grabbed a taxi down to Place d’Independence (not the port – because taxi drivers will try and gouge you once they hear that) and we walked the rest of the way down to the port for the ferry to Gorée Island. The touts were out in full force, and ducked into a small market to grab some cold drinks and try and break some 10,000 CFA notes so we had small bills.

At the port there was a bit of drama, because they were demanding passports to get into the port area. After several minutes of begging and pleading with the guard he finally let us in as long as we signed the visitors logbook. I’m still curious if the port police are searching for Gerry Adams from Ireland and Cecil Rhodes from Zimbabwe…

Got to the window to buy the ferry tickets, and there were three prices. The local price, the African price, and the tourist price. Local price was around 50 cents, African price was maybe $1.50 and the tourist price closer to $5. Well, after the logbook in for a penny in for a pound, so Cecil Rhodes naturally asked for the African price…but what works with the logbook wasn’t working with the ferry ticket matron. No identification you pay the foreigner price if you’re white…that’s just how it works.

Wasn’t a long wait for the ferry, and in the meantime we were hassled by throngs of local women who were “from the island” and “I have a shop there, you will visit me?” Three of the ladies were especially persistent, and kept doing the “you remember my name, right?” I’m sure it’s the exact same women I ran into on previous visits…and I still didn’t remember their names. We were also approached by the regular parade of guides offering to give tours of the island. We didn’t commit to any of them, but did want to get a guide since Ian hadn’t been before and it would be good to get the history.

The ferry wasn’t at all crowded, and fortunately it was a nice cool day with highs only around 23-24C. The sun came out from time to time, but wasn’t so strong that it would burn. After getting off the ferry we told the guide who was the least pushy and spoke decent English that we would hire him. He showed us where to pay the tourist tax, and then told us the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves) was closed until 14:00 so we could walk around the island first.

First stop was the “never forget” memorial to slavery:

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After this we walked along the island, eventually ending up at the “door of return.” Many of the slavery memorials in west Africa have a “door of no return” which is though to be the final door slaves walked out before boarding ships for transport to the Americas. Goree Island also has a “door of return” which was built for those who were coming back to Africa to trace their roots:

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At the highest point on the island were old guns pointing out to see to defend the island. Being big guns, of course Ian needed a picture with them for perspective…

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Memorial to slavery on the top of the island:

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After walking around the island, we were still waiting for the House of Slaves to open, so we headed back down to the waterfront via a trail where local artists were selling paintings:

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At the waterfront  there were lots of local kids playing in the water:

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We had a beer on the beach while waiting at Chez Kiki:

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Finally it was almost 2pm so we headed back to the Maison des Esclaves so we could be the first ones inside before it got crowded. Just inside, the main yard of the house and straight ahead are the chambers were the slaves were kept, often dozens in a room:

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Our guide insisted we take the “traditional” picture everyone takes, so we rushed to the Door of No Return to get the picture before others arrived. Smiling probably wasn’t the appropriate pose, but looking out onto the ocean:

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After this we headed back to try and catch the ferry, and of course our guide pulled us aside to discuss payment “here…so everyone doesn’t see I will have money.” Hah. He suggested an amount which was completely reasonable, and rather than try and lower it and have him follow us onto the ferry and demand more the whole ride back, we agreed to it, and shook hands. He left us alone for a nice quiet ride back.

We walked back from the port, and unremarkably none of the touts bothered us since we were leaving. Crossed the Place d’Independence, and decided to show Ian the Pullman Hotel where I stayed on my first trip to Dakar, which I affectionately named the “hooker hotel” because you’d get random knocks on your door at night from local women offering “company.” Unfortunately, the hotel was under massive renovation (which is good, because it was sorely needed) so their nice lobby bar was closed.

Decided to walk a bit further, and found a nice cafe where we were able to get pastries and espresso before heading back to the Radisson to cool down for a bit. Quick taxi back, rested up for an hour or so, then headed out again to see the African Renaissance Monument. Negotiated a good price with a driver to take us there, wait, and come back, and headed out. Got there just before sunset, and lots of locals were out seeing the monument as well:

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The Monument was mostly constructed and designed by the North Korean Mansudae company and was extremely controversial when it was completed in 2010. Over $27 million was spent on the monument at a time when Senegal was going through a major fiscal crisis, and President Wade was widely criticized for building a vanity monument. When the statue was finally opened, many foreign dignitaries and heads of state arrived. The US? Well, we sent Akon and Jesse Jackson…

Couple of local kids insisted on posing for a photo when I got the camera out:

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View of Dakar from the hill the monument sits on:

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Back to the hotel, and we were wiped out from a long day in the sun, and although we wanted to head out to Chez Loutcha for a local dinner, just didn’t have the energy to leave the hotel. Decided to eat by the pool at the Radisson, but unfortunately there was nothing local on the menu. I asked the waiter if they could make Chicken Yassa, and they were happy to do so:

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It was pretty tasty, and we ended up crashing pretty early as the next day we needed to get an early start to head to St Louis, Senegal near the border with Mauritania by taxi….

Jan 172016
 

About two weeks before the trip, I got an email from SPG that the Sheraton Gambia Resort was no longer the Sheraton, but had kindly agreed to honour SPG awards but not benefits. Well, considering it was like 2,000 SPG points per night (a complete bargain since I value points at 2.5 cents…meaning $50 a night and the paid rates were over $200) I could forego the benefits for a super cheap stay.

Upon arrival, the resort looked much better than online reviews would lead you to believe. People complained about shoddy run-down facilities, terrible food, disinterested staff, mosquitos eating you alive in the middle of the night, you name it. People did not have nice things to say about this property.

I got a nice little bungalow on the second level, and overall it seemed good. It was a bit damp and musty smelling, but hey, this is a country where humidity hovers around 99% so what do you except. Clearly not rebranded toiletries:

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After a quick shower to wash off the plane gross, headed down to the hotel outdoor bar and cafe for a bit of dinner. The creatively named JulBrew (Banjul, get it?) and a big heaping plate of chicken yassa. Definitely super tasty! I don’t know why people were complaining about the food…AND cheap! Most of the people at the resort were Brits and on all-inclusive package tours, so they seemed quite confused when we wanted to sign our drinks to the room.

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Had a good night of sleep, and in the morning had to be up at oh-dark-thirty for our “Roots Tour.” Daniel had found the tour, and since the former Sheraton was a bit out of town, we were the early stop on the tourbus pickup. The bus kindly came with a map of The Gambia on it, so you could see the river – part of which we’d be navigating. This seemed like a good way to spend the day, since when an entire country is named after a river it would be a shame not to spend some significant time on said river!

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The views from the pier weren’t half bad…it was a bit overcast, which was great for keeping the temps cool:

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Our boat:

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Just kidding…this was our boat…marginally better:

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After a nice two hour or so cruise up the river in relative cloud cover, we finally docked on this beach:

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…and arrived at the twin villages of Albreda and Juffureh:

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The “Roots Tour” was so named because in the 1970s American author Alex Haley wrote a book called Roots which claimed he had traced his slave ancestry all the way back to The Gambia and “The African Kunta Kinte.” These were the villages Kunta Kinte were supposedly from. I say supposedly, because there’s lots of controversy around the book involving plagiarism and allegations that the book is largely a work of fiction based on what he experienced trying to find his roots. Regardless, it was a very interesting insight into his journeys. A “never again” monument to slavery in the village:

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The remains of an old Portuguese church – possibly one of the earliest Christian churches in Africa:

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The women and children of the village were all assembled to sing for us…and of course the donation basket was out:

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Jali, playing the Kora – he wrote a special Ode to Jordan the Traveler…unfortunately I can’t get the video to post!

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Jufurreh…a baby-friendly community!

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…and there were certainly lots of children around…again, note the donation tin. Pay us for being cute!

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Women pounding out grains for either tourist photos or to eat…it was unclear which. But the way she pointed at me…and said YOU PAY ME…I have my suspicions…

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We were followed around the village the whole time by a group of local Gambian police, including my friend “The Colonel.” He kept saying to me “Big man! My friend! You lift weights!” To his credit, he never asked for money or anything, he just wanted a photo as we got on the boat and ready to leave…I love this pic!

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Once back on the boat, a buffet lunch was served. Some spicy beef rice (with extra hot sauce), pumpkin, and other local vegetables. Rather tasty!

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Soon, we were approaching Kunta Kinteh Island:

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Why was this island so important? Well I’m glad you asked!

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Remains of the old fort where slaves were held, often hundreds to a room, before transport on to Goree Island in Senegal and eventually across the ocean:

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Cannons from the Old Fort:

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More ruins of the fort:

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After the island, we settled in for the long two plus hour cruise back to Banjul. Chatted with a couple of Londoners on the trip back, who snapped this pic of us just handing out on the boat…complete with passed out Swedish tourist in the foreground:

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On the way back into town, we convinced the bus driver to stop a second to snap a picture of the national liberation monument:

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Back at the ex-Sheraton, and after a quick dinner completely passed out. Daniel was staying at another place across the street, so once we had dinner he took off and I’m pretty sure we all passed out quickly.

Up early, and a nice view of the pool, with the ocean in the background:

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Beach chairs, and a volleyball net:

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The beach at the resort…only moderately crawling with local hucksters trying to entice you on boat tours, “come drink with me in my local bar” (I mean, I’d love the chance to get drugged and mugged, sign me up!), etc…and it was a nice beach, so worth the mild hassle:

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Strange art at the resort. There were several cats roaming the property, and this was apparently an artist’s rendition:

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The walls of the resort were covered with all sorts of local art:

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We had arranged with the bus driver from the day before to drive us to the Senegal border in the morning instead of trying to negotiate with some random taxi, and while we waited, I checked out the local news. The President was apparently urging all Gambians to live “as one strong family”

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There were also 20+ full page ads in the newspaper from various companies, wishing His Excellency, President Sheikh Professor Doctor Al-Hadji Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa a Happy New Year. Now if that name isn’t impressive…

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Our driver arrived right on time, and it was time to get on the road for Senegal!

Dec 222015
 

Fair warning, this is going to get very long with lots of pictures!

The original plan had ben to do two full days in order to maximize my short time in Cuba as much as possible. Since I ended up arriving at noon this was cut to 1.5 days. My company was great, however, and picked me up from the airport and instantly started the Havana tour. It was a great way to cut down on the transatlantic jet lag, and get a start on seeing things. Yes, it meant I would have a bit less time in Havana, but I knew I’d also have a half day before my flight out, so I was planning to use it more as an intro to the city.

Unfortunately, this also meant that the morning visit that my guide had scheduled with an elementary school class had to be canceled. At least I still had two more exchanges set up in the brief day and a half we had left.

Guide met me in the arrivals area and, let’s just say I was the envy of all the other westerners arriving. Between my amazing classic car and my amazing guide there seemed to be a bit of jealousy. Too bad a bit of it was lost on me, and too bad she was uncomfortable posing for a blog picture with me 😉

Our first stop was the Plaza de la Revolución, where large rallies and events are often held with tens of thousands of people for major speeches and events. When Pope John Paul II visited he held mass for over 100,000 in the square, and Pope Francis did the same earlier this year. The iconic picture of Che Guevara was on a building on one side of the square:

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On another side was the Ministry of Information and Communications, and on the side was the portrait of Camilo Cienfuegos and his famous quote “Vas bien, Fidel!” Loosely translated as “You’re doing well, Fidel” it was his reply to Castro in 1959 at a large rally when Castro asked him if he was making the right decisions by nationalizing various things:

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The other side of the square had a large statue of José Martí, but unfortunately due to the angle of the sun I wasn’t able to get a good picture of it. My guide mentioned that the elevator going up the monument was unfortunately closed due to needing some parts, so we weren’t able to see it.

She asked if I was hungry yet, and since I wasn’t we decided to continue the tour in New Havana. Our first stop was the Hotel Nacional, famous for hosting everyone from mobsters to international dignitaries during its lifetime. The bar inside actually has portraits of all its famous guests, and reads like a whos who of 1930s-1950s America. Funny, but after 1960 most of the pictures are people like Mugabe, Soviet leaders, and the like…

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After walking around the hotel a bit (and dodging tourists) our next stop was Parque Lennon, or John Lennon park. Most notable in the park is the statue of Lennon on a bench, wearing his usual glasses. For many years, the glasses would be frequently stolen for the scrap metal they contained, but lately a local woman has been keeping watch over them. She holds onto them, and when she sees tourists coming she puts them back on him for photos, hoping for a few pesos in return for her work:

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By this point it was mid-afternoon and I was getting pretty hungry, so my guide took me to a Paladar, which is a restaurant run by the self-employed as opposed to a government-owned restaurant. The food at these venues is almost universally better quality, and the staff actually care about doing their jobs as they can be fired for not doing it. Paladars came into existence in the 1990s during the first wave of economic reforms, and seem to be where almost all tourists eat these days.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the name of the Paladar she took me to for lunch, but they were having a special – for 20 CUC you got a starter, a main course, a drink, and a desert. What a bargain! As promised by my guide I met with not just the owner of this paladar, but three others for a couple of hours of chatting about my work over the meal. We discussed the small business environment and how it had changed over the last couple of years including the challenges that increased competition are having on business.

But you want to hear about the meal…Starter was a “salad” of cheese, ham, and chives…it looked and tasted much better than it sounded:

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Main course of local fish, shrimps, and lobster tail with frijoles negros. YUM! Although I’ll admit eating lobster in Cuba felt slightly…bourgeois 😉

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This is probably a good time to talk about money in Cuba. There are two currencies that circulate side by side: the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) also referred to as the “kook” based on its abbreviation. The government conducts business in CUP, but everything a tourist will run into is priced in convertible pesos. The convertible peso is pegged to the dollar at 1-to-1, however, there is a 10% tax for exchanging dollars so you really end up paying $1.10 for a convertible peso. In contrast, at current exchange rates, one euro buys you 1.08 convertible pesos, so you get a much better rate if you go dollars to euros to pesos. Confused yet?

It also seemed that all Cubans who were middle class had access to convertible pesos. Often, these come in the forms of tips for tour guides, hotel workers, or anyone else who might have occasion to run into foreigners. Consider that the exchange rate between the peso and convertible peso is 25 to 1, you can see why nobody is anxious to deal in “regular” pesos. The paladar owners gave me quite an insight into how the dual system really makes it difficult to get the supplies they need, which in turn stifles small business growth.

After the very long lunch, we drove along El Malecón, which is the seaside boulevard that runs between new havana and the old city of La Habana Vieja, which is also a World Heritage Site. Along the way, we passed the brand spanking new US Embassy:

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Building in the Old Town:

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Buildings around a square in Old Havana:

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Odd statue in another square in Old Havana:

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View of a square in Old Havana:

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View from the roof of the Hotel where Ernest Hemmingway lived:

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We walked the old town for a couple of hours, before the light rain started in the early evening, eventually turning into a torrential downpour. What better time to retire to my hotel and be cliché and have my first mojito of the trip:

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When the rain finally let up a bit I walked around the corner to get some dinner. I didn’t want to go too far due to the rain and the jet lag, but also wanted to get out of the hotel, so went to a place recommended by some other people in my hotel. Yes, it was cliché, but how can you go wrong with a cuban sandwich and mojito. Hint: the ones in Miami generally are much better….

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I’ll go into details on my hotel later, but suffice to say I crashed hard after a long day and managed a good night of sleep before beginning the super long day of touring we had planned. Our first stop the next morning was across the bay to have a view of the city from a lookout point:

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Panoramic:

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As we drove out of the city, we passed a war museum, which I was advised to snap pictures of from the road, because, “it is not worth the admission:”

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…and because Rio has one, Havana needs a large Jesus status to watch over it as well:

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1950s classic car next to a horse drawn carriage…guess which is older?

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As we got out of the city, we started on the highway to Matanzas and Varadero. Our plan was to stop first in Matanzas and see the old city, but just as we approached the skies opened up and it started pouring. We opted to continue on to Varadero first and hit Matanzas on the way back. Our first stop was at some caves outside Varadero where we waited for 30 minutes with a large group of local tourists to go down and explore the cave. The tour was in Spanish only, but it was pretty much like every other cave/cavern tour in the world. Lots of stalactites and stalagmites, and people taking selfies that would never turn out:

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By this point it was early afternoon, so my guide asked her driver (who was from Varadero) for a good place to get some lunch. He recommended the Pequeño Suarez, which previous clients had told him was really good. Based on the lobster thermidore I won’t disagree, even if the cheese wasn’t completely melted on the lobster. Yes, there were more mojitos:

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Shot of the car I drove around in all weekend after lunch:

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After lunch we walked around Varadero, mainly people watching and watching the throngs of tourists behaving badly. Oh, and I might have jumped in the ocean for a bit. I contemplated a small swim to Key West, but didn’t want to aggravate the shoulder any more:

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Unfortunately, as we were walking my guide got a call that the interview we had scheduled with a group of university students that afternoon had been canceled. They didn’t give a reason, but I was majorly disappointed since I was looking forward to this as one of the highlights of the trip. It also left us with several hours to kill.

After walking around the city for a couple of hours to kill time, on the way out of town we drove by the Casa de Al restaurant, which allegedly was an old home owned by Al Capone. It’s now a government-owned restaurant with terrible service, and thus, no tourists:

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The rain had let up a bit, but started as a light rain just as we approached Matanzas again. On the main square we stopped to look around. First site, which was very frequent in Havana as well, lots of people camped out next to buildings that had WiFi using the signal. Internet cards are easy to buy, and the signal is horridly slow, but finding a hotspot is harder. Thus, people congregate wherever they exist to use them. My hotel sold cards for nearly 4 CUC an hour and they could be purchased for just about 1 CUC from a government vendor. My guide helped me buy a few, however, the lady refused to sell me more than three hours. “No! You do not need that much! Save for others!” Ah, socialism…

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Panorama of the main plaza in Matanzas:

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Statue of José Martí again in the centre of the plaza:

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On the way back, we stopped to see a bridge. Classic cars parked outside, next to a large tourist bus:

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In 1960, the Puente de Bacunayagua bridge was completed, and offered great views:

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After a long day of driving, I got back to my hotel to see they had left a creepy towel elephant for me. Talk about working for those convertible pesos in tips…I couldn’t resist a tip after this:

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So this is probably a good place to talk about the hotel. I stayed at the Hotel Mercure Havana, mainly because it was easy to book from abroad. Apparently, this isn’t common, as almost every there is on a package holiday and prepaid. Once they figured out my unusual situation it was fine, but they did request I pay in full in cash upon arrival. Ok, no problem, I had planned on this.

As far as the room goes, it was comfortable enough. There was anemic air conditioning that kept the room just comfortable enough to sleep, it was clean, and fairly large. The only rooms they had had two beds which was less than optimal, and the washroom was in serious need of upgrading, but overall the rooms were pretty good. I didn’t bother to check if the tv worked, so can’t give an update on that. Also, the anemic WiFi was only in the lobby.

I also tried the breakfast restaurant, which was decent and did make omelettes to order. The rest of the selection of breads and fruits was pretty poor, but the coffee was decent and it was more than enough for breakfast. The best part was the price, which was only about 100 euros a night. From what I understand, that’s a pretty good deal in Havana, so I was pleased with it. Also, the lobby lounge made good drinks and had live dancing and music all afternoon and evening so was a good place to hang out. Overall, I’d recommend it. The staff were helpful and friendly as well, which isn’t necessarily easy to find in Cuba.

For dinner, I ventured a bit further from the hotel along the Malecón to what was described as a “traditional Soviet eatery.” I mean come on, how can you not try such a place in Havana:

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The pelmeni dumpling starter was tasty too. You can see I also continued the mojitos:

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Dinner was stroganoff. Now, I would have had the beef stroganoff, but there’s a problem in Cuba. Apparently, cows are in short supply. To the point that if you kill one, you can go to prison for life. When they do eventually die of natural circumstances, you must call a government vet to come certify that the death was natural (so you don’t go to jail) and then the government takes the dead cow to make into beef for hard currency sale to foreigners. Reminded me so much of this:

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Anyways, politics aside, for 1/3 the price I accepted the pork stroganoff, which was just as good:

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I met an American family over dinner, and we had a great chat. They were from South Carolina, and were a couple of lawyers and their college son in Cuba doing “research on the legal system.” I was surprised the government was kosher with that, but hey, made for a great mojito-infused Thanksgiving dinner, and after last year’s dinner with the Israeli military it was hard to top. I’m really going to have to work hard next Thanksgiving to come up with a good story.

Thanks to the mojitos I passed out relatively early again, only to wake up to this view from my room. Life was rough:

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View of the atrium of the Mercure hotel from my room on the sixth floor. Everything was a lovely shade of pink and beige:

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Headed out for a walk after breakfast. More classic cars:

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The Museum of the Revolution:

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The Bodeguita del Medio, Hemmingway’s favourite place to grab a mojito:

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Inside of Havana Cathedral in Old Havana, a short walk from my hotel:

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Back to La Bodeguita del Medio to have mojitos with the tourists, and enjoy a bit of music:

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Making tourist mojitos by the batch:

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The most expensive, and probably the worst, mojito I had the whole trip. But with Comrade Castro and Hemmingway looking down on me, the atmosphere made it worth the 5 euros:

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The full tourist experience…one after another…

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Walking back to the hotel, a produce vendor. Bananas were cheap…and I got three for about 25 cents US.

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Buildings in Old Havana:

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More classic cars:

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At this point, it was time to head back to the hotel. The green car above was the taxi I hired from my hotel, and made a great end to a memorable trip. I would highly recommend anyone interested in Cuba to head there soon. The infrastructure isn’t in place to support massive numbers of visitors any time soon, so the biggest constraint will be capacity. Hotel rooms are already a bit tough to find (mine was sold out more than a month in advance) and that will only get harder as more Americans are allowed to visit.

Off to the airport, and my next stop…the Bahamas!

Dec 162015
 

Upon landing in Algiers, immigration was a piece of cake, and not a single question was answered. I was a bit surprised since the visa took quite a bit of bureaucratic paperwork to procure, to the point I actually used a visa expediter to ensure it got done on time. That said, immigration was a piece of cake, and I was out to the taxi queue quickly.

Finding a taxi was easy, but the best price I could get out of the four drivers I talked to was “pay what you wish.” I had an estimate from online, so I decided to just go with it. When we arrived at the hotel I offered 10 euros, which I knew was still slightly generous based on advice I’d read online. Of course, as predicted, the driver became indignant and started a big scene, and demanded 15. I probably should have started at 5 and gone up to 10, but hey – I was tired and just wanted to get to the hotel. At the end of the day it wasn’t worth the argument, so I gave him the 15.

Checked into the hotel, which I’ll describe more later, and then took a quick hour nap to try and fight the jet lag a bit. It was mid afternoon when I woke up, so after a quick snack decided to wander the neighbourhood a bit. Just down the street was the Jardin d’Essai du Hamma. The gardens are a large green urban oasis, subdivided into a french garden and an english garden. I couldn’t tell you what the difference is, but… It’s said to be probably the best botanical gardens in Africa, and from what I saw I’d certainly believe it.

I wandered the garden for a bit, which was absolutely packed with families and couples out for a weekend stroll. The clouds were pretty dark and threatening, but I figured it wasn’t too long of a run to the hotel if the skies opened up, so decided to keep walking. A couple of pics of the french gardens:

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Nice wide lane, with a place on the left that sold delicious banana nutella crepes. I may have stopped for a snack…

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Now onto the english gardens. Family walking along a small pond/stream:

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Couple strolling through the english gardens:

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After about 90 minutes of walking the sun had almost set, so decided to head back to the hotel. Timing was perfect, because the minute I got back the skies absolutely opened up and it started pouring. Which went on for at least the next several hours until I went to bed. Given the combination of jet lag and rain I wasn’t leaving the hotel, which was fine because they made a pretty reasonable attempt at a croque madame sandwich for dinner:

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Passed out for nearly 10 hours, which I didn’t feel too bad about when I woke up and the rain was still coming down in bucketfulls. I decided I might as well enjoy a leisurely breakfast and see if it stopped, which was a good thing because…they did a darn good breakfast. Even made french press coffee and brought an entire basket of breads along with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. YUM!

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Around 10:30 the rain finally let up to a very light drizzle, so I decided to start my exploring for the day. First stop was the Martyr’s Monument on top of the hill, which required either taking a taxi or the funicular. Since I put the fun in funicular, that was to be the obvious option! Walking from my hotel to the funicular:

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At the funicular I attempted to pay for my ride, but when she saw all I had were large bills (obtained from the ATM at the official exchange rate of 115 to the euro) she just waved me through without paying. Score! Short ride to the top, followed by a short walk, and I was at the monument.

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Police standing guard at the monument, erected to commemorate the martyrs who died fighting for Algeria’s independence:

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After hanging around people watching for a bit, the skies had cleared, so back to the funicular to head back to the hotel. Picture of the funicular (called the Télépherique in Algiers) station at the top of the hill:

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View from the car, descending back down to the city:

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After grabbing some quick lunch at a small place packed with locals near my hotel (where I had some delicious lamb couscous) it was time to plan out the rest of the day. I only had a few hours of daylight to see the remaining sights I wanted to see (rain holding off, inshallah), so it was time to get strategic. I struck up with a taxi driver parked at my hotel, and he agreed to drive me around for 4 hours for a reasonable price which I don’t remember more.

Our first stop was the Notre Dame d’Afrique Cathedral, located on the outskirts of town and high up in the hills. To get there, we drove through the Casbah where we stopped for a short walk. It was just another run down bazaar to me, so we continued onto the cathedral, which felt very out of place in north africa:

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Good views from the cathedral as well down to the water:

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After the cathedral we drove back to the casbah and parked to take a bit of a longer walk through another part. I tried to take pictures several times, but was always asked for money first. I kinda felt like a cross between a working market and a tourist trap, so I got frustrated pretty quickly and said I’d had enough. He also drove me past several of the squares and sights downtown, but it was hard to get a picture from the car. No problem since I planned to come back in the morning.

He insisted I had to see the Martyr’s Monument again by nightlight, and he was right, it was pretty cool:

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This is where the evening got kind of weird. I’d been asking him all afternoon to help me with exchanging some money. Seems up until a month or two ago, it was easy to do on the black market in the casbah or in a place called Port Said Square, but the police have recently cracked down (due to counterfeit bills) so now it’s much harder. But don’t worry, he has a friend, he will find.

After calling several people, and lots of loud talking in Arabic, he assured me he had a friend would could handle the sum I needed to change. I should note at this point the driver spoke no English, so we were getting by in French, and doing a pretty good job of things. Eventually, we got to his friend’s restaurant, which was a small local restaurant that looked a bit like a hole in the wall cafeteria. But, it also had a nice walk-in fridge where business was conducted. He was happy to exchange my euros at 165 to the euro as opposed to the official 115, saving me over 40% on my meals and hotel. Score! He wasn’t even offended when I double-counted and checked the currency. Big win for my driver, and ensured him a good tip.

At this point, the light drizzle had turned into a total downpour again, so decided to go back to the hotel and call it an early night. I got an early printout of the hotel bill, and realized I actually had quite a bit more cash than needed to pay for things after the fantastic exchange, so decided to enjoy a nice leisurely dinner in the hotel’s “fine dining” Algerian restaurant. It was good, but definitely overpriced, so I’m not sure I would give it a high recommendation. That said, I had the extra money to spend, so it was a good experience.

Fortunately, it wasn’t raining the next morning, so I could head out and explore on my own. Algiers’ relatively new subway system wasn’t far from my hotel, so decided to use that for exploring. Heading down into the station:

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Inside the station, looking along the platform at Hamma station:

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Train arriving on the other side:

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Empty station:

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Overall I give the subway high marks. It was quick, clean, efficient, people were polite on it, and very reasonably priced. First stop was the Place de la Grande Poste:

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La Grande Poste itself. Great old post office building:

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I walked around for another 30 minutes or so before I had to head back to the hotel and pack up to leave for the airport. A few thoughts on the hotel. I stayed at the Sofitel, and overall it was a great choice. Fantastic location near the subway and the gardens, also the funicular to the martyrs monument. Also, it had a good lounge and restaurant, so it was easy to stay at the hotel during back weather.

The service was also quite good overall, and staff were friendly and helpful, especially the staff in the lounge and the breakfast/buffet restaurant. As far as the rooms go, they were clean, comfortable, and functional, and a very reasonable temperature. Picture from the elevator area – all rooms were arrange around a large atrium:

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Overall I’d definitely stay here again the next time I visit. The price was a bit on the high side and it wasn’t in the middle of downtown, but it was still in the city and accessible. As far as the high price, after paying in cash with the 40% discount thanks to my friend it felt like a reasonable price and I was quite happy with my choice. Now, time to check out and head to the airport for the next adventure!