The old Bokor Palace and Casino under renovation in Bokor Hill Station, Cambodia

The Strange Charm of the Bokor Hill Station in Cambodia

Near the coast side town of Kampot in Cambodia is a cluster of old, abandoned buildings closely related to the recent history of Cambodia. This haunting place is the Bokor Hill Station, consisting of many crumbling buildings scattered around a hilltop area.

 

Bokor Hill Station was originally built by the French colonialists as a refuge for themselves from the hurling of Phnom Penh. It consisted mainly the Bokor Hill Resort & Casino (also called Bokor Palace), shops, post office, a church, and the Royal Apartments (a little summer palace).

Construction and History of the Bokor Hill Station

The construction of Bokor Hill Station started in 1921 and lasted for 9 months. It’s told that 900 workers were killed during the construction, but the French thought it was worth the sacrifice.

What the locals are saying about this place is that; “the ghosts there are many.” And after visiting these decaying facades of glory and colonialism, I’d say it’s true without a doubt.

Bokor Palace was the center of amusement, gambling, and whoring for many years. It was abandoned by the French for the first time in 1940, during the first Indochina war.

One of the stories goes, that many of the unfortunate gamblers who had lost too much at the casino threw themselves off the extremely steep cliff behind the old casino building. Not all of them were suicides, either. The dropping off the cliff was a certain death. I remember how I felt dizzy when I peeked over the stone wall into the depth unfolding below.

The second and the final time the Bokor Hill Station was abandoned by the French was in 1972 when the Khmer Rouge took it over and made it one of its bases. It also remained as one of the last strongholds of Khmer Rouge, as late as to the early 1990s.

A New Life Emerged in Bokor Mountain

Cambodian government owns Bokor Hill, but it was leased for 99 years to a company called Sokimex Group. This company had plans from the start to make this place a real resort paradise again, starting from the construction of a new tarmac road.

A new casino and mega resort have already been completed. Also, a golf course and a full renovation of the old casino was included in the plans.

When we were visiting the site, they had already begun the renovations of the old casino, the Bokor Palace, and it was full of construction racks and workers.

Unfortunately, it had also lost its old, haunted, and rotting charm. We went inside for a brief exploration, but couldn’t climb upstairs or do anything more thrilling. We were too late already.

I’ve heard since, that nowadays the Bokor Palace still stands as an empty shell, but the exterior has gone through a tacky “renovation.” It’s a shame. I also think that the ghosts, of which this place is said to be full of, aren’t so happy about the renovation. They should have let it be and crumble away slowly in the course of time.

However, the surroundings of the old casino remain as haunting as ever. The overgrown grass enveloping the sporadic, decayed columns, standing alone. The almost collapsed wall separating the hilltop and the vertical fall behind. When I walked towards the stone wall, I could almost imagine how the desperate gamblers have stood at the brim of the fall, before jumping into their doom.

And when the eerie mist started to gather around, I felt an urgent desire to leave. It’s was like suddenly being in the middle of the Silent Hill. Creepy? Oh, yes! Interesting? Yes, that too, but I think I would’ve not wanted to stay there at night.

The Ruins Still Left on the Bokor Hill Station

Despite the old casino being already “renovated”, the other buildings which the French built in the 1920s are still left virtually untouched. Some of them are totally collapsed, though, like the post office.

There is the Catholic church standing secluded on the roadside. The roof is almost collapsed, as is the interior, but it looks thrilling when the sun shines through to the stone altar in the middle of the main nave.

The former summer palace of King Sihanouk called “Black Palace,” is another building made out of the same red, crumbling stone. This place still has the feeling of the old days inside it.

The ceramic tiles have partly fallen off the walls. The roof looked like it could collapse on you, suggesting that you may not want to go upstairs if you don’t want to misstep and fall through. All windows were long gone, the holes offered stunning views down to the valley and the town of Kampot.

In one room the walls were full of writings of people who’ve visited here. I have to admit, that I carved our names in there, too. I usually never do that, but maybe I did now because there was some symbolism; the walls won’t stand forever. Just like we, they will one day crumble down and turn to dust.

On one hill there’s also a small, Buddhist temple. There was an old monk who blessed us for the rest of our journey. I still remember that moment in the tiny room, thick with incense smoke, and the old man sitting alone in the corner. Not much light came through the windows and the atmosphere was so tranquil.

We didn’t have a mutual language, but in that brief moment, I experienced some real understanding and even something mystic. I felt peace. It’s funny, how some transient and random moments will stay with you through the years like they would’ve happened just yesterday. This was one of those moments for me.

The vertical drop behind the old Casino, Bokor Palace, in Bokor Hill Station, Cambodia
The vertical drop behind the old Casino, Bokor Palace, in Bokor Hill Station, Cambodia
Behind the Bokor Palace and Casino in Bokor Hill Station, Cambodia
Behind the Bokor Palace and Casino in Bokor Hill Station, Cambodia

How to Visit the Bokor Hill Station?

All these buildings are scattered around the Bokor Hill in different locations. To visit them all, you’ll need to either hire a scooter or a taxi to drive you around.

We were staying in Kampot while visiting here and I’d say it was by far the most convenient way. If you want, you can also stop by for a day visit, like from the nearby town of Kep.

Reserve the whole day to explore around. There is a beautiful waterfall where you can sit in the shadows during the day and chill out. Best enjoyed if you bring along some snacks. Watch the Buddhist monks walking by and gather your strength before continuing your exploration.

The Bokor Hill is definitely worth a visit, even though the primary interest, the old Bokor Hill Casino & Hotel, is gone.

Have you visited here? What did you think about the Bokor Hill Station?


Masks of shame for the gossiping people in the torture equipment exhibition in Toledo, Spain

A Peek Into the Middle Ages – Medieval Torture Equipment Exhibition in Toledo, Spain

Do you want to know how the notorious “Iron Maiden” actually looked like? How about a real guillotine among other torture equipment also used by the Spanish Inquisition in the Middle Ages? Then this permanent exhibition in Toledo is for you.

 

This exhibition called “Ancient Instruments of Torture” fits somehow perfectly into the medieval mystery town of Toledo, in Castille-La Mancha in Spain. Inside its walled Old City lies a beautiful labyrinth of narrow streets between the old stone houses and citadels.

Toledo is also a Unesco World Heritage Site, because of its monumental heritage and historical co-existence of three cultures – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. Inside one of the medieval buildings, in Exhibition Hall Alfonso XII (C/ Alfonso XII, 24 Bis), you can find this – a bit disturbing – collection of instruments of pain.

An Insight Into the System of Torture

The Inquisition was established by Queen Isabella I of Spain, in 1478. Originally it was mostly intended to ensure the orthodoxy of those who had converted from Judaism and Islam. But also, other motives have been surmised, like increasing political authority, and profiting from confiscation of the property of the convicted “heretics.”

This exhibition peeks into the social changes which resulted in the practice of torture and the organization of the inquisitorial courts in Europe. It’s quite small, but pretty comprehensive and gives you a quite detailed view into the system of torture and its practices from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.

It’s divided into five sections, each having its own angle to the subject. The first two will show social, political, and religious aspects that comprise the activities of the Court. The third is focused on the inquisitorial process, the fourth shows the “Auto de fe” (public penance of heretics by the Inquisition in medieval Spain and Portugal), and the fifth is focused on “Witches and sorcerers traffic.” Let’s dive in!

Getting a Realistic View of the Torture Equipment

Inside the old stone walls hangs a quaint atmosphere, and people with seemingly mixed feelings. Others are examining all the infographics and equipment very carefully while others can’t hide their feelings of disgust.

My feelings are somewhat mixed between these two. I always enjoy learning about historical facts, and I relate to this analytically. It’s interesting to learn about all the different artifacts and their purposes, but when I think about how the tortured people have felt, it gives me shivers. Big time.

Most of the artifacts are designed to inflict as severe injuries as possible, without causing instant death. Though many of the equipment, like “the rack” or the notorious “iron maiden“, caused a slow, inevitable death.

If you try to imagine how it could have felt when the rustic, sharp, steel spikes have slowly penetrated into the flesh of the tortured, the thought will get you sick.

Psychological Torture, Religions, and People

There are also artifacts of mental torture, rather than physical. Various animal masks of shame were reserved for gossiping people, and drunkards were locked inside a heavy, wooden barrel called “the vat,” which they were forced to carry around.

Imaginative artifacts, but at any point you can’t escape the fact that the inquisitorial system was one of the cruelest organizations the Christianity has produced over the course of history.

I also usually don’t pose any religious opinions, but I have to say that I really can’t think of any honestly good thing that has come from religions, any of them. Too much cruelty has been done in the name of religions throughout the history. This exhibition is just one example of that.

Institutions aren’t good for rational and analytical thinking. I believe that people should always think by themselves, and take the responsibility for all their actions by themselves.

The Middle Ages were the Middle Ages, but people are still as cruel as they were in those days. The cruelty has just changed its shape. So in a way, even today this exhibition is not so far from the reality. This is another thing that gives me shivers.

How to Get to Toledo?

Toledo is only a 30 minute’s train ride away from Madrid. A most convenient place to catch the train is the Atocha Renfe station. You can get there by metro. The ticket to Toledo costs only 10,60€/one way and can be bought online from the pages of RENFE or directly from the train stations.

If you’re heading to Toledo on a weekend, like many Madridians also like to do, I’d suggest buying your tickets in advance. The trains can be fully booked.

The opening hours of “Ancient Instruments of Torture” are from 16.00 to 21.00 on Monday to Friday and from 10.00 to 21.00 on Saturdays, holidays and long weekends.

Have you visited in a Torture Equipment Exhibition somewhere? What thoughts it evoked on you?


Caves in Somoto Canyon in Northern Nicaragua

Swimming Through Somoto Canyon, Nicaragua

Somoto Canyon in Northern Nicaragua offers magnificent frames for an adventurous day out. Swim through Coco River that pierces this unique rock formation named as a national monument, between cliffs 120-150 meters high, and jump off from the Somoto Canyon’s cliff sides into the clear waters.

Many have been volcano boarding down the black and steep sides of Cerro Negro, but this deep canyon that was rediscovered only in 2004, near the Honduran border, still receives few tourists. Somoto Canyon national monument is Nicaragua’s relatively new, cool spot for the adventurous traveler and something not to miss!

*This post is last updated on the 15th of February, 2019.

How to Get to Somoto Canyon, Nicaragua?

Getting to Somoto Canyon, Nicaragua, is fairly easy by bus. We were riding in a pretty full ruteado (a.k.a chicken bus), heading towards the little mountain town of Somoto in northwestern Nicaragua. We boarded the bus in Estelí in the morning and it took about 2,5 hours to get to Somoto, Nicaragua.

Instead of taking a pre-arranged Somoto Canyon tour to this fantastic place, we had opted in going there by ourselves and picking up a guide when getting to the bus station of Somoto, Nicaragua. We’re not so fond of group tours and this was a certain way of avoiding them.

The chicken bus ride wasn’t exactly enjoyable and after arriving at Somoto, I ran straight to the toilet. Meanwhile, Niina caught a guide for us, a guy called Hervín who was one of the guides of the Soriano collective. They are the heads of the Somoto Canyon Tours, committed to responsible and sustainable tourism in this unique Northern landscape.

With Hervín, we took another 20-minute ruteado ride to the Soriano family house, the headquarters from where all the Somoto Canyon tours start. Their little, wooden house is not far from the Pan American highway, and you can’t miss it, because of a large sign on the roadside.

Somoto Canyon Tour – With or Without a Guide?

You can go canyoning through the Somoto Canyon, Nicaragua, also without a guide, especially if you have some previous experience from canyoning. You can just pay the 2USD entrance fee and off you go.

You may get harassed by persistent hawkers trying to make you buy a tour by telling that it’s way too dangerous to go by yourself, but that’s not true. You can do it alone, too, and it’s not particularly dangerous. Just have your common sense with you and you’ll be fine.

But I would still recommend getting a local guide. You will get so much more from the tour accompanied by the expert knowledge and stories of your guide! And, after, all, it’s just about 25USD and it will be money well spent, especially if you hire your guide without the middlemen tour agencies.

We normally tend to avoid guided tours but this was one of those times when we didn’t regret taking one. Hervín, our guide, was very professional and informative and brought his own expertise to spice up the experience.

There are different tour options and you can even have the full 6-hour loop, but be prepared to be in pretty nice shape – you’ll enjoy more if you’re not completely exhausted.

The Most Popular 4-Hour Somoto Canyon Tour, Nicaragua

We had agreed to go on the most popular 4-hour tour, and Hervín gave us a room from the house to change our clothes. We stuffed all our valuables into dry bags which were staying in the house, and our cameras and phones into another, which was coming with us to the Somoto Canyon.

Another, a larger group of people was leaving ahead of us. We were happy that it was only us and our guide going together. Hervín gave us sneakers from their vast shoe collection, so we didn’t have to wet our own shoes. The sneakers fitted nicely and also turned out to be suitable for hiking on the slippery rocks. Then we equipped ourselves with life vests, and it was off to the Somoto Canyon adventure ahead.

Hiking to the Somoto Canyon National Monument

It was only about 1 km hike down to the Somoto Canyon national monument, and we had time to enjoy the views on the way. The trail went through the bushy countryside and soon came to a viewing spot from where you could see all the way to Honduras.

Hervín spoke only Spanish, but luckily he spoke so clearly that even we with our broken Spanish survived some small conversations. He told that this particular area with the proximity to the Honduran border was also popular with drug smugglers. That is why there are lots of police around, too.

Hervín told us that one guy had tried to smuggle 85kg of marijuana from Honduras, but he only got about 300 meters away from the bus station before the police caught him. He got 12 years in jail. And if you get caught with just one smoke of marijuana, you’ll face 5-6 months in prison. Nicaragua has strict drug laws which is a good thing.

These exciting stories of Hervín kept us entertained, and we arrived at the Somoto Canyon in no time.

Starting Our Somoto Canyon Adventure

From this point on the adventure began. It was mostly swimming forward in the bit chilly water of the Coco River which runs through the Somoto Canyon or Canyon de Somoto in Spanish. The scenery unfolding before us was spectacular; the red, rocky cliffs on both sides rose so high that you could hardly see over them. The river water was glimmering in green in the bright sunlight, shining straight into the canyon.

I could barely imagine the awe of the geologists who rediscovered this place in 2004 when they have arrived and saw all this natural beauty in front of their eyes. Fortunately, Somoto Canyon has been declared a protected area as a national monument, as also to keep this site mostly untouched.

After covering ourselves with sunscreen, we dipped into the cool river and started swimming forward, between the mighty cliffs. The river was quite shallow; you could touch the bottom with your feet most of the time. But I was still happy about the life vest, I didn’t need to stress out and was able to enjoy this experience thoroughly.

It was absolutely awesome to just slowly swim and float through the Somoto Canyon. Sometimes we stepped out from the water and hopped from cliff to cliff, hiking on the slippery rocks. We also stopped to take pictures always when we wanted to. Hervín always dug up our cameras from the dry bag and waited patiently.

Occasionally Hervín showed us huge spiders with long legs, hanging on the wall near the waterline, and we also saw little bats flying around. The rock walls were spotted with tiny holes, inhabited by the bats.

Then soon came a place where you could jump into the river from a cliff point 4 meters high. I chose to just slip my way through a narrow gap along with the river, which did not prevent me having a full plunge into it, but Niina jumped down.

Jumping Off the Cliffs in the Somoto Canyon

The journey consisted of swimming and hiking alternately on the rocks for three (3) kilometers through the canyon. It felt much longer, though. The whole route is about 8 km altogether.

On the last third of the river was the highest jumping point, on a spot where the river is pretty wide between the rock walls. Here we caught with a bigger group which had been traveling ahead of us. Here is also the spot for the daredevils to show their skills. On the rocky walls, there are several jumping spots at different heights: 8, 16, and 21 meters.

I climbed with Niina and Hervín to the first edge of 8 meters, but with no intentions to jump off. Yes, I may be a bit of a chicken, I admit, but I’ve just not ever been fond of jumping in the water. Actually, I’m quite terrified of diving into the water from high points. Instead, I was there to catch on film when Niina leaped off the edge and plunged into the shimmering water below.

People took turns in jumping from various heights, and it looked like they had a blast. I bet they did. I just floated around, admiring the natural beauty of this place, its untouched corners, and unique features.

If you love jumping from high places, just remember that it’s hazardous, tooI You can potentially seriously injure yourself, so be careful! In this spot, you have to jump far enough, as not to hit any rocks at the bottom of the river, for example. So, take a careful look where you’re jumping! So, there you go, you had a warning.

The Bravest Jump to the Somoto Canyon, Nicaragua

Our guide Hervín and his brothers who were guiding the other groups showed off their skills and jumped off many times from the cliff. Hervín was the bravest and did the highest jump from 21 meters. It seemed like he climbed upwards forever on the rocky wall until he was seen only as a small spot, and then leaped sharply off the cliff. It looked terrifying, but he pulled it off professionally. Everyone was impressed and made big applause to him.

Unfortunately, soon after our adventure in the Somoto Canyon was over; we had swum through this fantastic crack in earth’s surface, and it was something to remember, for sure.

We still had to walk a little way back to the Soriano Family house. A chicken dinner was waiting for us, and after our 4-hour tour with surprisingly much physical efforts included, it was more than welcome.

Our 2-hour chicken bus ride back to Estelí in a packed ruteado wasn’t the most convenient ending to the day, but it didn’t matter since we’ve had such a great adventure. And at the end of the day, we ended up having bad burgers in a casual restaurant but fortunately accompanied by cold beers.

When to Visit Somoto, Nicaragua?

The water in the Somoto Canyon rises too high during the rainy season, between November and February. During that time the canyon becomes inaccessible. Hervín also told that during that time he has to go to work elsewhere, like to Costa Rica or Mexico. You can visit Somoto Canyon, Nicaragua, during any other month of the year, though. So, there is plenty of time in a year to go to see this amazing natural wonder.

Where to Stay Near Somoto, Nicaragua?

If you’re wondering where to stay while visiting the Somoto Canyon, I’d strongly suggest staying in Estelí. It’s a bit bigger town with more services and you can also do other, awesome tours and activities, like going to visit a cigar factory.

Yet, Estelí is not too far from Somoto for doing just a day tour. Good accommodation options are also available, from cheaper, yet great to middle-range and a bit more expensive. You will have plenty of good options from which to choose.

What to Bring for a Somoto Canyon Tour?

Wear comfortable, light clothes in which you are prepared to swim in if you’d want to and wear your swimwear underneath. If you’re going independently, bring at least:

  • Dry Bag – this is ESSENTIAL! Don’t go without!
  • Good shoes, preferably jogging shoes or similar, in which you’re going to swim in
  • Lightweight towel
  • Enough drinking water
  • Some snacks (protein bars, etc.)
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat
  • Camera – action camera and/or your regular one

Where to Book Your Somoto Canyon Tour, Nicaragua?

The six Soriano brothers mainly run the tours as cooperation, with few outside guides as help. You can also book the Somoto Canyon tour from the Treehuggers restaurant in Estelí or from the Nanamcambre Tours, who as a first company, has established small rock climbing tours to the Somoto Canyon, Nicaragua.

We preferred to book straight from the Soriano brothers, ensuring that no middlemen cut a share from the profit. We also think that you shouldn’t visit the Somoto Canyon without a guide. It may not be that dangerous to go alone, but you will get a richer experience out of your visit if you have someone to tell you great stories and information about the canyon as you go.

Our tour was cheap, only $25/person. Just note that this price has probably gone up, though, since we were there in 2014. But I’d recommend booking the Somoto Canyon tour as we did, avoiding the middlemen. That way, you’ll also be contributing straight to the sustainable tourism the Soriano brothers the practicing.

And if you’d like some help to plan your holiday, check out our ultimate Nicaragua itinerary! 

When looking for places to stay, check our top picks for hotels in Nicaragua!

Have you visited Somoto Canyon, Nicaragua? How did you like it? Tell us about your experiences – we’d love to hear!

We think that if you like adventures, you should definitely include Somoto Canyon on your bucket list!

The map of Somoto Canyon in Nicaragua
The map of Somoto Canyon in Nicaragua

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Have a thrilling adventure by swimming through the beautiful Somoto Canyon in Northern Nicaragua

Eternal flame outside the Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali, Rwanda

When Reality Slaps You in the Face in the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda

 When you realize that the genocide of Rwanda happened only about 20 years ago, the reality hits you hard. It happened during our lifetime. It’s not just some distant memory you read from history books, like the World Wars, where your grandparents likely fought. It happened just recently and most probably you really didn’t know much about it.

Everything that happened between the 7th of April and 15th of July in 1994 was only an exacerbation of things that had been bubbling under the Rwandan society for decades. We were taught in school that it was an incident where the Hutu majority mass-murdered almost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the approximate 100-day period.

I’ve learned since, that it’s not the whole truth. It was also the other way around and the Tutsis were not entirely innocent, either. But there’s always two sides to a coin, isn’t there?

Background Noise Eventually Leading to the Genocide

The genocide took place in the context of the Rwandan Civil War, which began in 1990. But things that spiked the civil war had been in existence already long before – even back in the times before Rwandan colonial era. But it couldn’t have happened without the time of the Belgian colonialism policy when the colonial masters manically tried to rationalize and re-arrange the African cultures to death.

New borders were drawn, without caring about the old ones, nor about the old, African social and cultural habits. They were just erased. Even after 75 colonial years, the new habits had not enough time to get roots in the African society. When European countries were forced to abandon their African colonialism in the 1960s, the “new society model” wasn’t ready. It just left many African countries in a state where the old is dead and the new hasn’t yet been born. It’s said to be a very dangerous situation and it truly was that, especially for tiny Rwanda.

There are hundreds of books written on this subject and if you want to read some of the best ones, here are my recommendations: Gérard Prunier: The Rwanda Crisis (1959-1994): History of a Genocide. And a must-read book if you want to get a comprehensive insight into what has been (and still is) going on in these parts of Africa: Gérard Prunier: From Genocide to Continental War: The ‘Congolese’ Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa.

What happened after the genocide was the catalyst that eventually lead to the falling of Mobutu and his Zaire (nowadays known as DR Congo). What happened in Rwanda, was actually a state of total chaos; politically and societally. I think that even today all the members of the notorious Interahamwe, the main perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, haven’t been caught. That thought gives me shivers.

Outside the mass grave at Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali, Rwanda
Outside the mass grave at Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali, Rwanda

Inside the Genocide Memorial in Kigali

The building of the Kigali Genocide Memorial doesn’t look like much from the outside, but when we stepped inside, the atmosphere changed radically. It felt like the destinies of almost a million people would billow over in one rush. It felt like the place itself would’ve wanted to tell us the saddest story of our lives with the voices of the dead. The first feeling was overwhelming.

The exhibition inside is very detailed and if you can’t bare to look photographs of endless piles of corpses – also of children and elders – this place may not be for you. More often than once during our visit we encountered visitors, who cried openly when walking through the halls. However, it’d be a mistake not to visit here.

Regardless of how absolutely horrible this major crime against humanity was, we tried not to get overwhelmed by emotions. Instead, we tried to concentrate on the facts and into the terrible story that this place wanted to tell us. It wasn’t easy, but I believe that we got more out of our visit that way.

I encourage you to spend some time and get to know the exhibition. Read the boards and have an insight into what happened. Stare Death in the eyes and look at all the rows of skulls in the glass cabins. But – don’t take everything for granted. I urge you to grab one of those books I mentioned before, and you’ll have a deeper understanding of the happenings.

On the Outside, It Is a Mass Grave

When we stepped outside to wander through the garden area, which is actually a mass grave of over 250,000 people, we couldn’t do much more than be silent. On the stone memorial sites, there are always piles of fresh flowers and groups of people who come here to mourn their deceased relatives. The atmosphere of grief hangs heavily around.

In almost every bouquet there is a message saying: “Never again.” Though all the remorse and grief present here, I cannot help thinking about how close it has been, more than once, to still happen again. Rwanda may have learned from their mistake, but the rest of the world certainly has not. Visiting here makes you humble, but it also makes you remember how cruel humans can really be. And that made me ashamed.

Bouquets outside the Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali, Rwanda
Bouquets outside the Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali, Rwanda
Below is a mass grave in Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali, Rwanda
Below is a mass grave in Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali, Rwanda

Aftermath Effects of the Rwandan Genocide

Not only did the genocide shatter the whole Rwandan society into pieces which it hasn’t been able to put thoroughly together even today, but it also affected severely to its neighboring countries. Masses of Rwandans became refugees, and many of them fled to the Eastern DR Congo (then Zaire).

The victory of the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) over the genocidal acts in mid-July 1994 made especially many Hutus to flee to Zaire/DR Congo. Unfortunately, many of these were former genocidaires and members of the Interahamwe that just carried on their activities and regrouped themselves in the shadows of the Congolese refugee camps.

The inaction of the international community and the UN, both during the genocide and its aftermath events, has been largely criticized and not without reason. Could it have prevented the genocide? Maybe not, but the results may not have been as bad as they were now when they virtually did nothing. They had UNAMIR (UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda), but they eventually made them inoperative when unable to strengthen their force and mandate to act in time.


The Victoria Falls Bridge seen from Livingstone, Zambia

Bungee Jumping in Victoria Falls Bridge, Zambia (VIDEO)

We toured around Zambia in November and also visited Livingstone, which is said to be one of the adventure capitals of the world. So we couldn’t resist doing the best and most daring of the adventures available: white-water rafting and bungee jumping!

This is a video from our first ever bungee jumps; 111 meters down from the iconic Victoria Falls Bridge! First from a spectator’s view and then from the jumper’s point of view.

We actually did the “Big Air Experience”. It also included a zip line over the Zambezi river; where you start from Zambia’s side and end up on the Zimbabwean side of the bridge. And the last was the gorge swing, where you jump from the same platform as the bungee.

It was an adrenalin-junkie experience and highly recommendable when you visit Livingstone! We also have a blog post coming up soon about this experience, but for now, check out our video about the Victoria Falls bungee and enjoy the views!

Disclaimer: Shearwater Victoria Falls gave us a discount on the “Big Air Experience” including the zip line, bungee jump and gorge swing. Also, part of the video material is by the courtesy of Shearwater. But our opinions are entirely our own. 


At the gate of Virunga National Park, Congo DR, just before the Nyiragongo volcano trek

Our Absolute Travel Highlights of 2015

 Our year in travel could be described by one word: mind-blowing. We visited in 8 countries altogether, 5 of them being new ones. One of our all-time dreams came true when we started out the year by visiting Tanzania in March. It was our first time in Africa. During the year, we ended up visiting Africa three times! That was something we couldn’t even have dared to dream about for some time back.

 

When experiencing so many remarkable things during the year, it made it tough to choose the best ones for this recap post. But we managed to narrow it down to these eight. It may not come as a surprise that the majority of them is from Africa, but the “Mother Continent” deserves all the glory it can get.

This list is in chronological order because we just wouldn’t be able to put it in any other order, nor to choose any of these experiences as the “best of all”. Every trip is different, and every experience is memorable in its own, distinct way.

The year is just about to change now and we already have more great plans in store. But first of all, we’d like to thank all you people who have made this possible: our readers, partners, and all who have supported us along the way! Thank you so much! Together we can make incredible things happen! We hope to continue doing our best to bring you engaging stories and visuals from all around the world, as well as actionable tips and tricks so that you too could travel more! Here are our top moments from 2015.

Serengeti National Park, TANZANIA

Since I was a kid, I’ve always dreamed of visiting in Africa. In March 2015, this dream came true. It was incredible to drive around the iconic Serengeti National Park and see all its magnificent wildlife: lions, zebras, hyenas, hippos, countless species of antelopes and birds, and even the start of the migration of the wildebeest. My feelings were mixed with awe and gratitude that I was able to be there to see it all with my own eyes.

Ngorongoro Conservation Area, TANZANIA

This unique conservation area is home to some of the world’s last black rhino populations. The landscape of the crater itself is sometimes almost moonlike. The crater has a unique ecosystem and is strictly protected. There are not many black rhinos living in the area. It’s never guaranteed to see them when visiting Ngorongoro. We were there for only one(!) day, but had the best of luck: we saw four black rhinos altogether, and even managed to get three of them in the same picture! That was something that even our experienced guide hadn’t ever seen before!

Zanzibar, TANZANIA

Zanzibar was a place which deserves to be mentioned separately. The distinct mix of the Arabic, Swahili, and Indian cultures makes it a unique place to visit. Get lost in the narrow alleys of Stone Town and visit a museum to have an insight into the old, brutal business that once made Zanzibar the center of the slave trade. Spend the day watching the boys dive into the ocean from the stone walls of the city, or head out to the numerous white sand beaches of Zanzibar to enjoy the sea with a sunset drink.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, UGANDA

Visiting Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda in June and meeting the critically endangered mountain gorillas was one of the best travel experiences we’ve ever had. A real once-in-a-lifetime experience! There are only about 800 mountain gorillas living in the world and Bwindi is one of the three places to see them. The other places are Virunga National Park in DRC and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.

Being only a few meters away from this distinctive species made us understand how close relatives they actually are to humans. It wasn’t easy to reach the gorillas in this forest that actually lives up to its name, but it truly was worth every effort! If you ever have the chance to go gorilla trekking, don’t hesitate for a second!

Nyiragongo Volcano, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

One of our more daring adventures was climbing to spend the night at the rim of the boiling lava crater of the volcano Nyiragongo in DRC. We struggled to get visas to the DRC, which is not easy for anyone. But we finally managed to get them and had the chance to see the spectacular lava show at night on top of this volcano – one of the most active ones in the world. The boiling crater was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

Also, spending a few days in Goma, in the war-torn Province of North Kivu, was already an experience on its own. We had mixed feelings about the streets crowded with different NGO and UN vehicles, and about seeing all the UN soldiers in full combat uniforms everywhere. However, we never felt insecure. It’s only a small fraction of DRC where you can visit at the moment; most of this huge country being off-limits because of the ongoing conflicts between the government and several guerilla soldiers.

But I would still recommend visiting DRC: in the oldest national park in Africa, Virunga. Climb to Nyiragongo or visit the mountain gorillas. The people working in the tourism business in DRC really need it, and you’ll have a true adventure tale to tell back home.

Toledo, SPAIN

This little, medieval town only a 30-minute train ride away from Madrid was worth the few days’ visit in July. World famous for its steel making craftsmanship, Toledo is one of the best places to make purchases of different knives; for cooking as well as for camping and traveling. And if you fancy a sword to decorate your house – buy it from Toledo.

Also, the medieval old town has a homey atmosphere with historical buildings everywhere you lay our eyes on. Simply put, it’s beautiful. Toledo is in Castile-La Mancha – a province of Spain best known by its most famous fictional character: Don Quijote de la Mancha by Cervantes. This sad knight is ever-present on the streets of Toledo, standing in his shining armor in different forms in practically every souvenir shop. And those iconic windmills, which Don Quijote endlessly fought against, you can find near the town of Consuegra. It’s about 60 km away from Toledo.

White Water Rafting And Bungee Jumping, Zambezi River & Livingstone, ZAMBIA

In November, we visited Africa for the third time this year and toured around Zambia. We stopped in Kafue, Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa National Parks and saw incredible wildlife and spectacular African sunsets.

When we were in Livingstone, we just had to try the two must-do activities there: white water rafting and bungee jumping. I’m actually afraid of water, but managed to win my fear and did a full day rafting on the raging Zambezi River! The rapids of the Zambezi range from scales of 1 to 5. These rapids are appreciated with even the best professional rafters of the world. We flipped over only twice during the whole day, and I didn’t like that at all, but it was a fun and challenging experience at the same time.

The other thrilling activity was a bungee jump from the Victoria Falls bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe. We made the first bungee jump of our lives from the 111 m high platform in the middle of the bridge. Sceneries were majestic and the jump itself was an adrenalin-high experience.

We actually jumped twice from the same platform. At the other time, we did a tandem jump on the gorge swing. We just stepped right over the edge into the emptiness, attached to each other with our harnesses and safety ropes. After the free-fall we were left to swing above the gorge for awhile – time to enjoy the views.

If you go to Livingstone, we can highly recommend doing all these activities, as not to miss any fun!

Széchenyi Bath, Budapest, HUNGARY

We spent the Christmas bathing in Europe’s largest medicinal bath – Széchenyi Spa in Budapest. There are three outdoor thermal baths and 12 indoor baths. The warmest of the pools were +38C and the coldest +16C. All the pools were open when we visited, so we tested them all, as well as the all the different saunas. Though unfortunately, Széchenyi did not have a unique, traditional Finnish sauna. I also have to confess that I didn’t try out the coldest pools because I had the little flu, but Niina did.

The milieu itself is fabulous; the spa, built in Neo-baroque style, was opened in 1913. The thermal waters include sulfate, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, fluoride and metabolic acids. They are said to help different joint-based illnesses and chronic and sub-acute joint inflammations. My back had been hurting for almost four weeks in a row when we were there, and unfortunately, the waters didn’t help me much. But maybe they’ll help some others.

Nevertheless, it was very relaxing to soak in the warm thermal pools and enjoy the calm atmosphere created by the old men drinking beer and playing chess at the edges of the warmest pool, or the excitement of the people having fun all around. One of the best ways to spend a day in Budapest – also if you ask from locals.

 

These were our top picks for highlights of our wonderful year of traveling in 2015. Many great experiences were left out from here, but we promise to tell you all about them in other posts.

What were your best adventures this year? Tell us in the comments, we’d love to know!

For now, we have only this to say: Have a joyous New Year and safe travels in 2016! See you again next year and we hope you join us for new adventures!


Lions resting by a carcass in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

How to Pack on an African Safari?

A safari is coming up and you would have to pack your things, but you just keep wondering what you should pack. Familiar situation? We’ve been there, too, and that’s why we created this great safari packing list to help you sort it out.

Packing for a safari can be an intimidating task if you don’t know what you’ll need and what you don’t. You could end up dragging things with you that you don’t need and forgetting to pack up something vital. We have learned to pack for the safari ”the hard way” –  through trial and error. But so that you don’t need to do that, we decided to create these safari packing tips to help you out. No need to look for a complete safari packing list anymore!

Where Are You Heading?

Your essential items depend on a bit on where exactly you’re heading. If you’re going to South Africa, you will need a slightly different set of clothes and accessories than if you’re heading to the remote areas of Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tune this list accordingly, but we’ve tried to gather a good, basic list of clothing and accessories as a foundation for you to build on. So far we have been in TanzaniaUganda, Rwanda, Zambia and the DRC, and we’ve gathered this list based on those adventures.

Zebras in the Serengeti, Tanzania

Necessary Safari Clothing

And if you’re heading somewhere where it will be cold (like climb a volcano and spend a night at the top, like we did in DRC), be sure to pack some long underwear and woolen cap to keep you warm when the temperature drops!

In addition to the normal trousers, I usually take one pair (or sometimes two, depending on the length of the trip) of army combat trousers. Those designed for hot/temperate climate, are almost unbeatable in their practicality; they have enough pockets, are made to endure extreme circumstances, and they’re comfortable to wear. What more could you ask for travel pants?!

An elephant and an infant in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

What Shoes to Take?

It’s also a matter of choice, but we usually carry just three pairs: light trekking shoes, sandals, and barefoot shoes. If we’re about to do some serious trekking, I’d recommend taking the most comfortable shoes you own, which have some support for the ankle. If you don’t have one, I’d consider buying a pair of good, sturdy hiking shoes. Your feet will thank you after the 6-8 hour trek to the top of the mountain, for example. I have these HAIX Black Eagle Athletic 2.0 shoes (with Gore-Tex) and they have been unbeatable so far! HAIX makes shoes for the military and other professionals, so the quality is superb!

Essential Safari Accessories

These will also depend on how much you’re willing to carry around, but I would recommend going with only for the most necessary items for you. These are what we carry:

Fighting wildebeest in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Essential Electricals

The list below is what you’ll find in our bags. However, this section depends wholly on your preferences. Others will always carry their laptop; we take it more lightly. But one item that everyone who is serious about photography should carry around is a portable hard drive to back up all your memory cards on the road, and a sturdy tripod.

As you’re going on a safari, you could consider renting a telephoto lens, if you don’t own one yourself. It’s heavy and bulky to carry around but will give you quality photos. Just weigh the pros and cons, and don’t forget a good insurance if you decide to rent one. The other option is to get a good quality teleconverter for the lenses you already have.

*Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links. If you choose to use them, we may have a small commission from your purchases, but there will be absolutely no additional costs to you. But you will help us bring you more captivating stories and useful tips from around the world. Thank you so much! 

There you have it. This set will get you far. But what you would pack on a safari? Have we forgotten something? Let us know – we’d love to know your survival sets!

And – if you want to read more about packing for a safari, check out our Ultimate African Safari Packing List post here! 

Wondering what to pack for a safari? Check out our ultimate African safari packing list and get excited about your adventure! #safari #packinglist #Africa

Batwa pygmies, Echuya Batwa, of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

An Afternoon With the Batwa Pygmies of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda

Echuya Batwa, more commonly known as Pygmies, are the most marginalized, vulnerable and voiceless group of indigenous people in Uganda. The Batwa were the original dwellers of the jungles of Bwindi and Mgahinga, but their lives changed forever with the establishment of the National Parks.

History of the Batwa People

The Batwa were called the ”Keepers of the Forest” because they lived in harmony with the jungle, in small huts made out of leaves and branches. They hunted small game using bows, arrows, or nets and collected plants and fruits in the rainforest. As hunter-gatherers, they frequently moved in search of fresh supplies and food.

Some anthropologists estimate that pygmy tribes like the Batwa have existed for at least 60 000 years in the rainforests of the equatorial Africa. Despite their long historical existence and wide acceptance as the original inhabitants of these areas, they don’t have any legal titles to the lands.

Therefore, when Uganda Wildlife Authority established the Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks in 1991, the authorities were able to evict the Batwa from the forests. The Batwa didn’t receive any compensation and were driven to live on the edges of the Ugandan society, experiencing systematic and pervasive discrimination. The Batwa became conservation refugees.

Many Batwa died during the first years of exile from their ancestors’ lands, and the Tribe faced a serious threat to their existence. Since the beginning of 2001, their situation has improved with the aid of different NGOs and other foreign help. Especially the Kellerman Foundation has done a lot to improve the situation of the Batwa. Their overall position is still far from good though the establishment of the Batwa Development Program (BDP) in 2008 has resulted in some significant improvements, too.

How can you visit the Batwa?

You can visit this interesting pygmy tribe near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. One of the options is to take the Batwa Experience. The program is created by the Batwa pygmies themselves to educate their children and to share their heritage and traditions with the rest of the world.

The other option is to arrange a visit by yourself via your tour operator or guide as we did. In both options, the majority of your contribution is going straight to benefiting the Batwa community. It’s eco-tourism at its core meaning and will give you an unusually authentic and memorable experience of a marginalized culture.

Our Afternoon on the Batwa Trail

We got to choose what we’d like to see during our visit to the Batwa community. Initially, we wanted to visit only about three locations, but eventually ended up visiting them all and didn’t regret it. Not even when we were high on the hills at a Batwa house, and it started to pouring rain – just a moment before we had to leave back to our lodge. The darkness had begun to descend, and it would make the already slippery, steep trails almost impossible to walk.

But let’s get back to the beginning. We met our guide at our lodge, and we walked about 15 minutes outside of the main village and lodges of Bwindi. Our guide was telling us some general information of the Batwa and soon we came to an area of small, wooden houses, inhabited by locals alone.

Our visit was a trail, eventually leading to the misty hills above the village of Bwindi. We started out by visiting ”a one woman coffee factory”. A woman with an infant sleeping peacefully on her back showed us how she did it all by herself, from picking the coffee beans from her few bushes to making a cup of coffee on the open fire for us to enjoy. We even got to try grinding the coffee beans on the makeshift, wooden grinder. It was not easy, nor a light job.

After sipping our cups of freshly ground, black coffee, we continued to meet an old man who had a small tea farm. Tea farms are a common sight here, and the same old man had owned this little slice for 50 years. We learned the different phases of tea farming and soon afterward were met by another old man. He wrote poems with Braille and sang us a traditional song, accompanying himself on a stringed, self-made musical instrument. He also told us briefly about himself, of how he had lost his eyesight, and of how he began to write poems. It was nice meeting him, although it left us with a bit sad feeling.

The next stop was one of the most interesting ones; we met a man who manufactured banana gin! First, the bananas were dug into a whole, about a half meter deep and covered with a thick cover of banana leaves. The bananas were left there to ripe for approximately 5-7 days. Then the ripe bananas are peeled and boiled. When boiling, the juice is filtered off through a clean, white cloth. In the next phase, sugar, yeast, soy milk, and some lemon juice are added to the liquid. That liquid is then put into a sealed container and it’s let ferment for about 2-3 months.

With the approximately same system, Ugandans also make banana beer and wine. It depends on how long the juice is being let to ferment. At the end of the demonstration, we got to taste the final product, banana gin, locally called “waragi.” “Waragi” is loosely translated as “war gin.” You could actually taste the banana in the clear liquid, but I couldn’t really say I liked the taste – even though I am a friend of gin.

After the tasting of banana gin, the path started to ascend pretty steeply to the lush hills, and sometimes we hopped over slippery rocks in little streams, dodging the low hanging branches. After climbing for awhile, we saw a Batwa man wearing a hat made out of leaves, standing on an outcrop, waiting for us. He was the Shaman of the Batwa community. Our guide translated his words to us, and he showed us many medicinal plants and told us about what he can cure with them. I hope we would’ve had more time to spend with him since I would’ve liked to learn so much more about this spiritual and animistic side of the Batwa. They still use herbal medicine a lot, and the Shaman is a very respected person in the community.

Check out the video about making a fire – traditional way with the Batwas!

Unfortunately, we had one more place to visit still and the afternoon was already far, so we had to move on. Even further up on the hill was a Batwa communal house of some sort and there were a lot of people wishing us welcome. They performed their welcome tribal dance and showed us how they make fire with a just a couple of wooden sticks and some thin wood slices. We tried that too and failed miserably.

At the end of the tour we were supposed to plant a tree on the hill slopes as a remembrance of our visit, but soon after the fire making performance the threatening looking skies broke and rain started pouring down. It rained so heavily that the paths leading down became extremely muddy and slippery. The sky looked sleek gray, telling us that it wouldn’t stop raining for a good while. Because the dusk was already creeping in, we decided to put our raincoats on and start descending back to our lodge before dark.

We didn’t have rain pants, and when we got back to Mahogany Springs, our pants were soaking wet. Luckily we had time for a good, hot shower to wash away all the mud after our interesting Batwa visit. And even though we got drenched, it was worth the effort to meet this marginalized group of people and see even a scratch of their endangered culture.

Where to Stay in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park?

There are as many choices of lodging in Bwindi as there are different budgets. If you are looking for something truly comfortable and luxurious, with magical views of the cloudy hills and forests of Bwindi, your choice should be Mahogany Springs. This lodge has comfy and spacious, private cabins spread around their premises, offering exclusive privacy and serenity.

The restaurant of Mahogany Springs has the most spectacular views straight into the home of the mountain gorillas, and they provide great service. Enjoy a drink on the terrace looking to the hills or sit back on a couch, enjoying the warmth of the fireplace when the evenings get chilly. Either way, you will be totally relaxed while staying here. Mahogany Springs is also a perfect base for going gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and the convenient situation is great for doing other activities, too, like visiting the Batwa.

Have you visited an indigenous tribe like the Batwa? Who they were, where it was, and how was the experience? We’d love to know!

*Disclaimer: We were hosted by Mahogany Springs during our stay in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and by Mamaland Safaris on a tour around Uganda, but all the views expressed here are totally our own, honest opinions. 


Murchison Falls National Park,big elephant on the banks of the Nile river, Uganda

Boat Cruise on the Nile River in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

Viewing game on a boat is a totally different experience than the traditional game drives done by the 4WDs. It’s amazing to float in a little boat on the mighty river Nile, amidst the hippos and crocodiles. The banks of Nile are filled with wildlife, which you’ll see from a whole another perspective. 

We were driving in a big hurry on the red dirt road of the Murchison Falls National Park, towards the dock, where our boat was already waiting for us to join a game river cruise. We were bound to see all the wildlife living on the shores of the Nile and the magnificent Murchison Falls itself.

When we were about 10 minutes’ drive away I suddenly heard a really bad noise from our jeep – we had just got a flat tire! The time was ten to two o’clock already and we were supposed to reach the boat at 2pm. At that moment I felt hopeless: now we’d inevitably miss our boat, despite all the hurrying.

But our guide, Paul, hadn’t given up. He called the boat master, sprinted out of the jeep and began to change the flat tire in a record speed! While we watched him in awe, he changed the tire in about 10 minutes (yes, in 10 minutes!) and we were back on track, driving towards the dock. Because of his rapid save we did catch our boat after all.

River Cruise on the Nile

We had a small, but convenient boat with one ranger on board as our guide. The channel leading to the bottom of the famous Murchison Falls got us through flocks of different animals; we saw hippos, crocodiles, elephants, warthogs, kobs, oribis, and countless species of birds. The feeling in the middle of all this natural beauty was just awe-inspiring.

Our first encounter was a big horde of hippos; floating just few meters away from our boat. I suddenly remembered that according to the African people, hippo is the most dangerous animal of Africa. When staring into one’s huge, yawning mouth so close to us, I found it very easy to believe. A hippo could easily kill a human by its shear weight alone.

Trodding aside the slight feeling of nervousness about what would happen if one of the hippos got angry on us, I concentrated on photographing their floating heads on the surface. We navigated slowly in the middle of the grey giants, trying to guess where they would pop up next. It’s rare to see hippos out of the water, but here we saw few of them, grazing on the green grass of the bank.

Spotting the Wildlife with Style

We also had a cooler box on board, filled with cold sodas, water, and a local beer called ”Nile”. So after a while, we decided to uncork a couple of beers and toast for our ride on the Nile. What a great way to enjoy the experience, right?!

Next, we spotted a female elephant with her infant, eating grass on the nearby bank. The driver slowed down the motor, but when we approached, the poor little one still got scared and ran away to his mother – still with a mouthful of food.

We saw plenty more elephants further down the river. This time, it was a full herd. One individual with giant tusks was standing in the shallow water on the shore, really close to our boat. It seemed undisturbed by us and just kept on feeding. It felt like it’d have been only an arm’s length away. Such a beautiful sight! Because of this golden opportunity,I got a few good, close-range shots from it.

In addition to all the mammals, we saw so many different bird species with complex names that we lost count. I did manage to capture some of them with my camera, but to get more detailed shots you would have needed a telephoto lens. I didn’t let it bother me too much. At least I had more time to concentrate on the experience itself, rather than just looking everything through the viewfinder.

The rugged shores further down the river were filled with tiny holes. Actually, the rocks were dotted with the nests of Kingfishers. There are crowds of Kingfishers here and we did succeed in seeing a few of these beautiful, colorful birds. Though they are so tiny, that a really good view would have required binoculars.

Reaching the View of the Mighty Murchison Falls Itself

After awhile we finally began to reach the great Murchison Falls. The current started to amplify and our boat parked to the shelter of some rocks. From there we got to climb onto the rocks to get a pretty nice view of the falls itself. We were actually still quite far away, but this was as close as you can get with a boat, because of the strong currents of the White Nile. But with a nice zoom lens, you’ll still get good frames of the falls.

Just be careful on the slippery rocks and wear steady shoes. You don’t want to fall into the cold river water inhabited by crocodiles. We saw quite a few of these nasty creatures during our way back. One especially huge crocodile was just lazying around on the riverbank. We floated really close, which unravelled its enormous size. It could have jumped into our boat anytime it’d have wanted to.

Though you cannot go so close to the falls with a boat, you can visit the Murchison Falls on a separate nature walk. It’ll take you at the top of the Falls where you can see the huge power at close range; the thundering roar when the water forces its way through the narrow gap. We did that too, of course. You can read more about it in a separate post in here!

Step onboard and check out the video from the cruise!

I’d say seeing game from a boat is one of the must do’s on the Nile and is a different kind of Murchison Falls safari. Have you visited the Murchison Falls National Park? Tell us, we’d love to hear about your experiences!

*Disclaimer: We were hosted on a tour in Murchison Falls National Park and around Uganda by Mamaland Safaris, but all the opinions and views expressed here are totally our own.


A Banksy piece on Stillwell Av in New York City, USA

Where to Find Great Street Art in New York City

(Cover photo by Bob Cooley via Trover.com)

If you enjoy street art in its many manifestations, you won’t feel disappointed in New York City. You can find countless murals and graffiti from even the most famous street artists of today. After all, street art is by far one of the most interesting art forms of modern culture. 

Political, communal, social, anarchistic – the viewpoints into the world are anything you can imagine. That is exactly what makes it so interesting and versatile, as well as the countless different techniques the artists use to create their artwork. Street art is like a mirror into the nation’s soul, it tells you so much about its values, appreciations, and problems. All you have to do is just look a bit closer.

A Cultural Starting Point

A great place to start would be the Bushwick Collective; an outdoor street art gallery founded in 2012, where you can see pieces from Dan Wiltz and Swoon, among many others. If you’re in the neighborhood of Troutman Street at St Nicholas Avenue during June 2, there is an all-day street party, where you could have an interesting insight into the graffiti culture.

Continue to the Bowery Graffiti Wall at East Houston Street which has stood there since 1982. Admire the works of different artists invited by the real-estate man Tony Goldman in 2008 to rotate murals into it.

The Bronx holds the unofficial Wall of Fame of New York Street Art on the East 173rd Street at West Farms Road. Many famous artists, like Phetus and Iz the Wiz, have painted their works on these bricks, but if you want to see this you have to hurry. There are plans to tear down this landmark piece in favor to build some affordable housing.

From Outdoors into the Galleries

Graffiti and murals don’t just stay in the shady alleys and backstreet corners anymore – they have long ago landed into the art galleries as well. It has definitely raised the profile for street art, but it may have also made it lost something of its edgings. Part of the fun is the hunting around the city for great pieces.

But if you want an easier approach, stop by for example in the Jonathan LeVine Gallery. It has exhibited artists like Shepard Fairey and even Space Invader with his iconic mosaic pieces. The Gallery at 5 Pointz holds also an indoor gallery in addition to the 200,000-square-foot open-air display of aerosol art.

Walking Tours Through Layers of Paint

I’d just go hunting for the best pieces around the New York City alone with a camera, but you can also go on guided street art walking tours. I would like to join on this one by Free Tours by Foot which is on name-your-own-price –basis.

These are just a little scratch off the surface of NYC’s street art scene. There are almost endless choices to choose from, as there are places to stay in. But when exploring this quirkier side of the NYC, you could stay in a hotel that also has its own place in the pop culture; the Hotel 17 in lower Manhattan.

This article is part of the #HipmunkCityLove series.


Big Mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetreable Forest National Park, Uganda

Meeting the Giants of the Forest – Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

There are only three places left in the world where you can meet the critically endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Possibly the most iconic place for a gorilla trek of these three is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda – which really lives up to its name!

One thing is for sure – going for gorilla trekking isn’t cheap, but it will probably be one of the most memorable moments of your life. It was for us. It won’t be easy, either. You must be reasonably fit  to trek even for hours amidst the thick vegetation of the literally Impenetrable Forest.

How to Book the Gorilla Permits and to Which Sector?

It’s recommendable to start planning the trek a good time beforehand, especially if you’re going to travel during the high season (between June-September or mid-December-February), because the gorilla permits are usually booked even months ahead.

Though sometimes you can book the permits just a few weeks ahead, don’t count on your luck too much. It’s also always worth to try to book the permits for a less popular tracking sector, as these won’t usually be so fully booked.

We did the gorilla tracking in Ruhija, which is considered to be the most remote of Bwindi’s four gorilla tracking sectors. It has three gorilla families; we had the best of experiences visiting the Kyaguriro family with the small group of only four of us. As a small group as possible gives you a more intimate experience with the gorillas – another benefit of a more remote sector.

The price of a gorilla permit is usually $600/person, but the Uganda Wildlife Authority sells the permits for a discount price of $350/person during the low season (November and April-May).

Sometimes already booked permits can be canceled by people who cannot make it for one reason or another and these permits can also be purchased at a discounted price, straight from the tracking places.

In theory, you can just show up to Bwindi without a pre-booked gorilla tracking permit, but be prepared to stalk for the cancellation permits even for days. If you don’t have an excessive amount of time, I recommend booking your permits beforehand. Booking via safari operator is by far the easiest choice.

The permit’s price is high, no doubt, but the majority of it goes straight into befitting the park. The incomes from the permits go into the general upkeeping of the park and its roads, to the salaries of the rangers, and most importantly – to the continuing research of the endangered mountain gorillas. You are directly contributing to all these things by buying your permit and it makes it a lot more justifiable, doesn’t it?

What to Pack for a Gorilla Trek?

I’d recommend packing the most comfortable hiking gear that you own. The most important are good shoes, preferably hiking shoes that will support your ankles and are waterproof. We have also made a general safari packing post, which may help you with the task.

Long trousers and a long-sleeve shirt, made out of breathable fabric is also pretty recommendable. Even though it can get hot during the day, a long-sleeve shirt will be a better choice than a t-shirt. It’ll save your arms from countable scratches from the spiked bushes which you’ll penetrate through during your trek.

A hat or a scarf to your head is a good idea, too. Add to that a waterproof backpack for carrying your photography gear, thick gloves, and lots of water, and you’ll be greatly prepared. And did I already mention that there are certain flies in the forest that can lay eggs to your bare skin? Yes, very gross, so don’t forget that long-sleeve shirt and a scarf! It’s also recommendable to get your trekking clothes washed right away after the trek. You won’t want any ”extra passengers” in your clothes.

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Where to Book For a Gorilla Trek?

Gorilla trekking is done in small groups and probably every tour and safari company can do the booking, or you can do it yourself with the Uganda Wildlife Authority. You can also book a small gorilla trekking tour that starts from Entebbe from here.

Rising Against the Sun and Going for Gorilla Tracking in Uganda

Your trek starts from the Ranger Post where you usually have to be at around 7 am. This means you have to wake up early for a good breakfast to have enough energy for the trek. We woke up crazy-early at 4.30am, long before any rays of sun emerged from behind the horizon. We filled ourselves with fruits, bread, eggs, and sausage, washed down with some strong coffee. And after 6 am, we were ready to hit the road towards our gorilla tracking sector, Ruhija.

It was still dark while we drove the winding road, confronting only the occasional locals on their way to tea plantations, walking on the side of the road with heavy loads. The sun began to rise around 7 am and we reached Ruhija a little after.

Some other people had already arrived on the Ranger Post, so we quickly changed some clothes while waiting for the briefing of the rangers before embarking on our gorilla trek. We were divided into two groups and received a short briefing of what to do and not to do while encountering the mountain gorillas. There are strict rules of behavior when in the presence of the gorillas. But rest assure you will be safe when doing according to the rules. So pay close attention to the directions of your guides.

You also have to be perfectly healthy or otherwise you won’t be allowed to go gorilla tracking. The mountain gorillas are susceptible to many human diseases; they can get infected by your cold or similar illnesses.

The price of a gorilla permit is usually 600$/person, but the Uganda Wildlife Authority sells the permits for a discount price of 350$/person during the low season (November and April-May).

Sometimes already booked permits can be canceled by people who cannot make it for one reason or another and these permits can also be purchased at a discounted price, straight from the tracking places.

In theory, you can just show up to Bwindi without a pre-booked gorilla tracking permit, but be prepared to stalk for the cancellation permits even for days. If you don’t have an excessive amount of time, I recommend booking your permits beforehand. Booking via safari operator is by far the easiest choice.

The permit’s price is high, no doubt, but the majority of it goes straight into befitting the park. The incomes from the permits go into the general upkeeping of the park and its roads, to the salaries of the rangers, and most importantly – to the continuing research of the endangered mountain gorillas. You are directly contributing to all these things by buying your permit and it makes it a lot more justifiable, doesn’t it?

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest – A Jungle Living Up to Its Name

We had only four people in our group, six altogether with two guides. The other guide had a rifle with him, in case if we’d encounter some forest elephants during the way and he’d have to scare them away. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any elephants – it would’ve been great – but the trekking itself kept us busy enough.

Most of the time there wasn’t any path whatsoever – there was only the vegetation so thick that our guide cleared the way with his machete so that we could pass on. The majority of the trek we had to look really carefully where to put our feet, as not to slip over. Twisting an ankle here, in the middle of the jungle, would not have been a good idea.

Reaching the gorillas can take anything from 30 minutes to several hours, depending on where they are residing on that particular day. So be prepared to trek for hours, up and down the steep hills, full of branches and vegetation. The actual trackers, who have left an hour or two before you, will find the gorillas for you.

We had already been walking over two hours when our guide finally got the message from the trackers into his walkie-talkie that they had reached the gorillas. Our excitement grew enormously – soon we’d encounter those gentle giants with their babies!

“ Most of the time there wasn’t any path whatsoever – there was only the vegetation so thick that our guide cleared the way with his machete so that we could pass on. ”

It still took about half an hour’s climb to actually reach the gorillas and this part was by far the hardest one. There were really steep hills to go down ­– so steep that we were extremely happy about the branches to which we could cling onto when descending slowly. A wrong move and falling down would have meant for an injury for sure.

Because of this, it’s very important to have thick gloves, so you can grab the branches tightly. Some of the branches are also spiked, so you still have to be careful. We were also very happy about the protein bars and coconut water which we had taken with us. They became very useful sources of extra energy along the way.

Check out how it looks like to trek the gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park!

The Magical Encounter with the Mountain Gorillas

Finally, we had almost reached the gorillas and the guides told us to prepare our cameras. I thought they were just around the corner, but instead, we still had to climb up a fair bit of hills. At this point, I loved my Black Rapid Sport -camera strap a lot.

After a while, when we least expected it, the gorillas were there. All of a sudden one emerged from the bush right in front of us! It glanced us briefly and continued climbing upwards. We followed right behind it with our guides, wishing it would stop so that we could take some pictures.

Continuing upwards the hill we next encountered the leader of the pack; the silverback gorilla himself! He was sitting only about 10 meters away from us, picking leaves from the nearby tree. He seemed not to care that much about our presence, but still kept an eye on us and was estimating us with his gaze.

However, it never felt threatening in any way. There was somehow very distinctive look in his face and the moment just felt unreal. I cannot even explain how special it felt to sit there in the middle of the bush, be in the presence of this extremely rare species, and share the feeling of somehow mutual respect between us. It was purely magical!

I also felt really privileged and thankful to be there. It was one of the most exquisite moments in my life and the respect towards the gorillas made me literally speechless. I put down my camera, just observed the huge silverback gorilla, and fully enjoyed this once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

“ I felt really privileged and thankful to be there and meet the mountain gorillas. Each one of them had a personality, unique features, and deep, meaningful look in their eyes. ”

Shortly after the meeting with the silverback, we reached the spot where the whole Kyaguriro gorilla family was hanging out and eating their dinners. There were a few young adult males and many females, some of them with their infants! In Kyaguriro family, there are 19 gorillas altogether. Under the supervision of our guides, we got to get really close to the gorillas. We got to see them doing their routines and briefly be a part of their daily lives.

It’s actually very hard to describe these moments with words alone. Like I said before, our feelings were mixed with respect, enchantment, and vivacity. Here, just a few meters away from the gorillas, it wasn’t hard at all to understand why they are so close genetical relatives to humans. Each one of them had a personality, unique features, and deep, meaningful look in their eyes. Here you can check even more facts about the magnificent mountain gorillas if you like.

We tried to get good shots with our cameras, from as close as possible; yet with a respectful distance away. Sometimes it was hard to hide my enthusiasm to get that bit closer, but then I remembered that you really have to act calmly and respectfully in the presence of the gorillas. You are, in the end, intruding into their territory and they allow you to do it. You have to honor that.

I urge you to also put your camera away, sit back to the bush, and just observe. Concentrate in the moment. That will give you more to remember than a hundred photographs ever will.

An hour is a very short time and observing the gorillas it went pass flying. When the time came for us to leave, no one from our group would have wanted to. The time you get to spend with the gorillas is strictly limited to the one hour, so, unfortunately, we had no choice. Reluctantly we left and began our trek back to the Ranger Post.

“ Put your camera away, sit back in the bush, and just observe. Concentrate into the moment. That will give you more to remember than a hundred photographs ever will. ”

However, the feeling I had was one of strange fulfillment from knowing that this adventure would be one of those that I’ll recall for the rest of my life. And I dare say that all the others probably shared the same feeling.

The journey back took only about 30-40 minutes because at the half way we got to join the faster group for going back. This was fortunate for us because it started to rain heavily about 10 minutes before reaching the Ranger Post. It was still enough to get us soaking wet, but luckily we had only about 15 minutes drive to the hot shower.

The Situation of the Mountain Gorillas

There are only about 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and they are critically endangered. So it’s a true privilege to meet species like that. In addition to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, there are mountain gorilla populations living in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The latter is currently under a serious threat of the latest proceedings of oil exploration in Virunga. The Congolese government has awarded tree concessions for oil exploration to a British-owned mining company called SOCO International.

These cover 85% of the park. So, if they will really start clearing the forest and doing underground drillings in Virunga, it’d mean even more shrinking living habitats for the endangered mountain gorillas. I hope that will never happen. But only time will tell, how things will go. Meanwhile, you can read more about this disturbing issue from Save Virunga’s website.

Have you been on a gorilla trek? Where did you meet these distinct creatures and how was your experience? We’d love to hear your stories, too! 

PS. If you have thought about other safari destinations first, what about a 3-day Kruger National Park safari in South Africa3-Day Kruger National Park Safari?

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*Disclaimer:All the opinions and views expressed here are totally our own. We were hosted on a tour around Uganda by Mamaland Safaris, but we paid for our gorilla trekking permits ourselves.


A mountain gorilla peeking at us in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda

Gorilla Tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda [VIDEO]

We toured around Uganda for a month in this June 2015 and visited all of the most famous National Parks. We were stunned by the lush, green beauty of this country and had many memorable experiences during our journey.

Experience Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

One of the most memorable adventures was this gorilla tracking which we did in Ruhija, the most remote gorilla tracking sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Our trek wasn’t from the easiest end; we walked over 2,5 hours before reaching the gorilla family. The impenetrable forest really lives up to its name, too, I can tell you.

It was purely magical to finally encounter the endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat – to sit in the bush and observe these magnificent creatures, only a few metres away! We even managed to meet the mighty silverback.

We created this video to show you a glimpse of this very special, true once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And here is a long blog post about this extraordinary adventure, so you can read more profoundly about our gorilla trekking experience!

We hope you enjoy watching this!

Check out how it is like to go gorilla trekking in Uganda!


Yawning lion in the bush in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

Chasing Lions at Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda

In Queen Elizabeth National Park you can enjoy tranquil game drives amidst the great plains and savanna of ”the Pearl of Africa”. Encounter tree climbing lions in Ishasha, take a boat cruise along the Kazinga channel, or go chimp tracking in Kyambura Gorge. Whatever you do, one thing is pretty sure – you will likely see some lions.

Queen Elizabeth is covering an area of almost 1980 square kilometers in the Western Uganda. This national park holds diverse landscapes; vast savannas, shady forests, glimmering lakes and fertile wetlands. It is home to over 95 mammal and 600 birds species. The majestic Rwenzori Mountains set a dramatic background to your game drives.

Crossing the Equatorial

Queen Elizabeth National Park was founded in 1952 and it spans the equatorial line where you can see monuments on either side of the road, marking the latitude 00. These are popular for tourists and locals alike to stop and snap pictures literally on the equatorial line. We did that too and were quickly surrounded by a local family who wanted to pose with us for at least dozen photographs – all together and everyone separately. Ugandans are very friendly and this was a fun moment to share.

Us with a Ugandan family at the Equator, Uganda
Posing with a fun family who insisted taking a photo with us.

Tracking the Lions on Game Drives

When the first rays of sun rose at Queen Elizabeth, we were already up and having breakfast on the open air restaurant deck of Kasenyi Safari Camp. I’m certainly not a fan of rising before the sun, but if you want to have the best game drive possible, that’s what you have to do. I also admit that the sunrise over the surrounding savanna was a very beautiful sight, not to mention the great shots we got from it. Sometimes it does pay off to rise against the sun.

Our guide, Godwin, arrived to pick us up at 7 am and we headed into the park. We had got some nice tips about lions residing just nearby our safari camp and decided to go check them out. First off, though, we headed into the opposite direction to see what this park would have in store for us.

We did drive for a quite significant amount of time before seeing some animals; kobs, buffaloes, warthogs and other more common residents of these plains. I have to admit that we were a bit surprised to see so few animals, but Queen Elizabeth National Park is not so packed with wildlife like for example the parks of Tanzania.

We were already back near Kasenyi when we encountered one of the few jeeps on the whole game drive, and the driver told us about some lions nearby. Without wasting any time we rushed to the scene and were rewarded with a small pack of lionesses with a couple of cubs, hanging out in the middle of the long grass.

It’s great to have the opportunity to observe these creatures at a close range, even though you don’t always get good photo opportunities. This pack got bored to us quite quickly and headed back into the shadows of the nearby bushes. One lion was also hiding in the nearby cactus tree – it was the first lion we’ve ever seen in a tree! These lions made our day and soon after we headed back to our safari camp for a lunch.

The Night Game Drive Experience

We had gone on a second game drive later in the afternoon and we should have gone back to our camp before dark ascended. But instead of going back, our guide Godwin drove us back to the spot where we had earlier seen the lions. When we reached the same area, we hit the jackpot! All of a sudden there was a little herd of lions and we were right in the middle of them.

We drove a little off-road, turned off the engine, and just stood there watching the lions walk slowly all around us. We could see few right at the front of our jeep’s headlights. We could see some of them walking right beside us. It was a totally different feeling to see the lions in the dark – much more exciting. After spending a while among the herd, we drove back to our camp with a feeling of happy fulfillment of the day. After all, we had just got our first ever night game drive experience and it was a total blast!

The Tree-Climbing Lions of Ishasha

This sector of the Queen Elizabeth National Park is famous for its tree climbing lions. There are only two spots in the world where you can see lions behaving like this on a daily basis, as it’s somewhat uncommon for lions to actually climb trees. The other population like this one in Ishasha can be found in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania.

The very reason why do these lions climb to trees remains unknown, but some say that it’s their way to protect themselves from the hard-biting tsetse flies on the ground level. And some claim that they climb up tp trees to escape the scorching heat to the cooler shadows. When we were on our drive through Ishasha, we noticed how hard it actually was to try to spot these lions lazily lying on the branches of the fig trees. Most of the time it’ll take a very keen eye, a spare of binoculars, and a little bit of luck to see them. Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky this time.

Other Popular Activities in Queen Elizabeth National Park

Besides traditional game drives, there are many other popular activities available. You can go hiking and take nature walks in Maramagambo Forest, Mweya Peninsula, and Ishasha River. There is also a bat cave in Maramagambo if you fancy a little bit different adventure. Bird lovers will also love the fact that Queen Elizabeth is classified as an Important Birding Area (IBA) by Birding International, having a variety of over 600 bird species.

You can visit the Kyambura Gorge, which is the most popular spot for chimp tracking. But you can also go track them in Kalinzu Forest like we did. And don’t forget to go on a boating safari along the Kazinga Channel. There you’ll have nice chances to spot various wildlife on the shores, especially bathing elephants and lots of hippos. Our cruise on Kazinga Channel was full of surprises – highs and lows. We will write about it more specifically in a post of its own, so be sure to check it out later.

I would advise reserving enough days for Queen Elizabeth National Park into your safari itinerary so that you’ll have time to experience it to the fullest. Because the safari schedules are usually pretty hectic, try to reserve also some time for relaxation – for just to sit back to admire the nature.

Where to Stay?

Luxury lodges, tented camps, camping sites – there is a lot to choose from, depending on your budget and taste. In my opinion, the tented camps tend to give the best experience, as they will let you be closer to the nature in general.

We stayed at the Kasenyi Safari Camp, which has very comfortable, tented cottages spread around pretty vastly on the savanna area. Magnificent views open up from the porches to the salt lake down below in the valley, and you feel that you really are in the middle of the wildlife. This can sometimes mean literally in the middle of, as lions are regularly seen in the camp’s area. Sometimes even sleeping under one of the tented cottages! Hippos are passing through the camp in the middle of the night when you can even hear them. And sometimes hyenas can also be seen.

I recorded some audio during one night at the camp and this is how it sounded:

I also woke up briefly one night to the roars of the lions, which definitely were very close! It felt really exciting and made me feel like really being among the wildlife, as it should be when you are in Africa. But even though being surrounded by the wild animals, you’ll be perfectly safe. After dark, you will also have an armed guard to escort you to your tent.


*Disclaimer: We were hosted on a safari tour around Uganda by Mamaland Safaris and hosted during our stay in Queen Elizabeth National Park by Kasenyi Safari Camp, but all our opinions and views expressed here are totally our own.


Chicago skyline in Illinois, USA

6 Lesser-Known Places to Visit in Chicago

Would you like to see something else on your visit to the ”Windy City” than the usual places; the famous installation ”Cloud Gate”, locally known as ”the Bean”, or the sky deck on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower? Here are six lesser-known and a bit uncommon places to check out in Chicago.

1. The Gardens at the Art Institute

There are actually two gardens at the Art Institute, which is near the Millennium Park. These South and North Gardens are perfect for chilling out and relaxing from the bustle of the city. South Garden is great for having an outdoor lunch and the North Garden shows you a nice glimpse of art with its many sculptures – especially if your time doesn’t allow you for a full visit to the Museum. Winter doesn’t make an exception, except perhaps only to the length of your visit.

2. The Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank

This is a bit of a quirky one, but here you can learn how to spot a counterfeit bill – certainly a very useful skill for us travelers. They even have guided tours, but you can just venture on your own as well. When leaving, don’t forget to pick up your bag of ”Fed Shreds”, a bag consisting of shredded money not fit for circulation anymore, worth $364. But you’re not able to piece them back together, I’m afraid.

3. Have a Stroll in Albany Park

This neighborhood has some of the best Middle Eastern restaurants of Chicago. To get here, take the Brown Line subway. After a hearty dinner, walk among the Arab shops, bakeries, and get a feeling of the East.

USA
USA

  1. Beach on the 12th Street

Yes, there are beaches in Chicago. This one is not often crowded and it’s right next to the Alder Planetarium, another interesting spot to check out if you’re in the neighborhood.

  1. Find the Book You’ve Been Looking For in Bookman’s Corner

Do you fancy burying yourself in the middle of bookshelves, tucked way too full of old, rare, and odd books of about every topic possible? Then you just have to pay a visit to the Bookman’s Corner at Lakeview (2959 N Clark St). You could spend hours there, just checking out the huge piles of books, spread all around. I’ve also heard that the prices are right, so bookmark this place into your ”Places to Visit in Chicago” list.

  1. The Movie Fan’s Place: Odd Obsession Movies

What Bookman’s Corner is for a bookworm, Odd Obsession Movies on Milwaukee Avenue is for a movie fan. They may have all the latest hits, but like their name suggests, they are specializing to the independent, obscure and more bizarre movies. You can also buy some film-related t-shirts and posters. Weird cult movies are your thing? Odds are good that you’ll find some gems from here.

While you are exploring the lesser known Chicago and want to rest your head for the night in a centrally located hotel, check out the Radisson Blu Agua Hotel Chicago.

This article is part of the #HipmunkCityLove series.

What do you think are the best sights in Chicago?


Yonghegong Lama temple, Beijing, China

Sight of the Week: Yonghegong Lama Temple, Beijing, China

Yonghegong Lama Temple is a sole, little haven of Tibetan Buddhism in the middle of the bustling Beijing. It’s worth an extended visit to take in the atmosphere of peace and tranquility fully.

This lama temple complex in Beijing was built during the Qing Dynasty in 1694. Somehow Yonghegong has survived in the middle of this bustling city which is always evolving and recreating itself. Yonghegong is considered to be the largest and most perfectly preserved Lamasery in today’s China. Back in the days, it was the residence of the Emperor Yongzheng when he was just a prince. But in 1744 the Qing Dynasty turned it into a lamasery, and it became the national center of the Lama administration.

Walk in from the South end, and it immediately feels like you’d have come to a wholly different world. There are cauldrons full of burning incense, their smoke so thick that it’ll fill your nostrils to the brim. Locals are mingling around, and you can see the occasional monks in their daily businesses. The architecture is full of details, so take your time to breath in the atmosphere and explore every corner.

There are many different halls inside the Yonghegong, but the most impressive are the main palace – Hall of Harmony and Peace (Yonghegong). There are three bronze Buddhas on three sides of the room. Here people are stopping by to pay their respects as an endless stream. Even if you don’t care about religions, this place as a whole will make an impact on you.

Yonghegong – One of the Best Things to Do in Beijing

The most convenient way to get to the Yonghegong Lama temple in the buzzing Beijing is to take the subway. It’s cheap and easy to use – thanks to the Western station signs along with the Chinese ones. Take the lines 2 or 5 to Yonghegong Station. Get out from the Exit C and just walk South for about 400 meters. You can take a bus, too. For example buses, 13, 116, 117 and 684 have a stop at Yonghegong Station. But to make the journey easy, just take the subway.

When you are planning your sightseeing tour in Beijing with all the major highlights of the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and the Temple of the Heaven, don’t forget this little gem.


(Sorry for the picture quality. The picture of the Yonghegong Lama Temple is taken with a real film camera in 2004 and scanned.)

Yonghegong Lama temple, Beijing, China
Yonghegong Lama temple, Beijing, China

Baby elephant with its mother in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania

Tarangire National Park – the Best Place to See the African Elephants?

Tarangire is often said to be the best National Park to see elephants in Tanzania. True enough, you can see herds of up to even 300 elephants roaming the vast plains. Tarangire National Park also offers the greatest concentration of wildlife outside the Serengeti ecosystem, so you will have opportunities to spot a wide arrange of other animals as well.

Besides the mobs of elephants, the migratory wildebeest, zebras, buffalos, impalas, gazelles, and hartebeest crowd this National Park. And these are just to mention a few species from this 2850 square kilometers’ area of shifting landscapes.

Getting There and When to Go?

The easiest way is to drive from Arusha, where most of the safaris start from, following a surfaced road to the main entrance gate. Tarangire National Park is also easily accessible from Lake Manyara. The most common option to continue from here is to the Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. There are also charter flights from Arusha and the Serengeti if your wallet allows it.

You can visit Tarangire year round, but dry season (between June-September) gives you the highest number of animals. No matter is it the dry or wet season; you can easily spot the mobs of Tarangire’s magnificent elephants. We visited in March and enjoyed the advantage of seeing lots of baby animals.

Inside the Gates of Tarangire National Park

Can you imagine a place where almost everywhere you lay your eyes on, you can see something new? An animal, a bird, a tree you’ve never seen before? There are numerous elephant families walking on the savanna with their slow, majestic way. Zebras and warthogs are eating grass side by side in the shadows of the old baobab trees. The pythons, lions, and leopards of Tarangire climb trees, where they can be so well disguised that only a trained eye will spot them. There are more than 550 bird varieties on the swamps and the Tarangire River is choked with wildlife, no matter the season. It sounds like a paradise for wildlife spotters and that’s exactly what it is.

We were in Africa for the first time in our lives when we drove through the gates of Tarangire National Park with our 4WD safari jeep. When we saw our first herd of elephants, the feeling was surreal. The scenery in front of our eyes was one formerly seen on nature documents only, and I had to pinch myself as to believe I was really there and not dreaming. I could smell all the strong and mild scents in the air and I was spellbound with Africa from that moment on.

Less Crowded Park with Packed Photo Opportunities

When driven forward into the park, we encountered many more elephants, both individuals, and packs. As it was the season of baby animals in March, we came across many newborns. One herd of roughly ten elephants were literally just a few meters away from our jeep, eating peacefully, with many infants among them. Seeing baby elephants in their natural habitat is one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen and I filled a large portion of my memory card with dozens and dozens of frames of them.

This particular heard was also somewhat special to me. Maybe it was the privilege they let me have – to be so near. I observed them and they observed me, rising their trunks high in the air and sniffing us. I had mixed feelings of slight fear and huge respect especially when the big males were staring right at me, almost on a touching distance. Yet they were undisturbed by our presence and their surprising tranquility made me respect the elephants even more.

To fully enjoy the spectacular sceneries of wildlife and nature unfolding before you, you should have a jeep with a pop-up roof. It allows you the 360 degree’s view at all times and so you won’t miss anything. Though this should be automatically provided by your safari company, it’s worth to double check when booking the trip. If you want to know what else you should take into consideration, check our Comprehensive Guide to Choosing a Safari Operator in Tanzania.

There are up to 3000 elephants in Tarangire National Park during the peak season. Even outside these peak season months, there are so many elephants that you will get more photo opportunities than you can take. Tarangire National Park is also delightfully less crowded than for example the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro and is often overshadowed by them. It has a fraction of the visitors of the more famous parks of the Northern Circuit, but it has pretty superb game viewing just because of that.

The habitat is also entirely different, and fewer people will mean that you’ll get the quietest game viewing environment of all the parks in the Northern region. If this isn’t enough reason to visit this surprisingly large National Park with immense beauty, nothing is. It just offers an entirely great value! Some say that it has less value outside the dry season months, but I disagree. You may see a bit fewer animals in general, but if you go for example in February/March, you will be heartily granted with the high numbers of newborns.

Tarangire – A Birder’s Paradise

Even though I’m more interested in the mammals and great predators, it is worth a mention that Tarangire National Park is also a bird watcher’s paradise. Not only it has countless species to see, but the swamps are the focus of the largest selection of breeding birds in the world. So if you like to spot birds, bring your keen eye and binoculars here and you won’t be disappointed.

Where to Stay in Tarangire National Park?

There are many options both inside and outside the boundaries of the park and it’s pretty much a matter of what you prefer. Options include lodges and tented camps of variable categories, mainly from mid-range to luxury. When in Tarangire National Park, we stayed just outside the park boundaries in Maramboi tented lodge.

*Disclaimer: We were hosted on a visit to Tarangire National Park on a safari tour with Ombeni African Safaris/Ombeni Foundation, but all the opinions and views are entirely our own.


The welcome dance of the Maasai in the Ngorongoro, Tanzania

What You Should Know Before a Visit to Masai Village

If you are heading to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania, visiting a Masai village is probably in your itinerary. The Masai tribe may be the most famous of the indigenous tribes of East Africa and the most common tribe to visit, but it’s still an experience worthy of taking. 

This post is last updated on the 9th of January, 2019.

Included in most of the safari itineraries is a visit to one of the many Masai villages in Ngorongoro. Even if it’s not, I’d recommend arranging one for your safari. It may not be the most interesting tribal encounter to take, but it will be educational – in one way or another.

The Masai Tribe of the Ngorongoro

Our guide told us that there should be around 10 000 Masai people living in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. At least, that is the precise amount the Tanzanian government has approved.

But instead, there are almost 60 000 at this moment, which is way too much to bear for the environment. The number of the Masai people in Ngorongoro is a problem because the delicate ecosystem may not carry such an overburdening for long.

The Masai tribe are nomadic, and they still follow quite strict traditions. Only the men do the herding and women are responsible for cooking and taking care of the children. Just as in the ancient times, they still move along with the water.

Visiting Masai Village in Tanzania

Outside the Masai village, the sons of the Village Chief waited for us and greeted us when we arrived. After our guide paid for us admission (50$ for our group of three, for a one-hour visit), a tribesman invited us to see the traditional welcome dance, performed by the Masai men in their colorful, iconic cloaks.

The Masai men jumped high and chanted under the scorching sun of Africa, while we watched the show with interest. I say ”show” for a reason, because that was how I felt. The Masai jumping dancing is an integral part of the original Masai culture, but it was performed only as a slightly tired show for tourists.

However, I still enjoyed it in my own way. After all, it won’t be every day that you’re in one of the most iconic National Parks of the world and meeting with its famous, indigenous tribe.

The Masai Experience – As They Called It

After the first welcome dance, there was another dance. This time it was the original, traditional jumping of the Masai – where every man tries to jump higher than the others. The women of the village stood beside an akashic tree, wishing us welcomed to the town.

These moments are somewhat annoying for me personally – traditions only allowed to men. I was not so interested in fitting a beautiful necklace and hanging out with the women. Instead, I would’ve wanted to try my jumping skills with the men.

But because I’m not a man, that wasn’t possible. So, I settled on documenting the scene with my camera. You have to accept that you can’t always engage, unfortunately. Instead, you have to respect the culture and habits. You are only a guest, after all.

Bits of the Masai Culture

Our local Masai village guide was one of the sons of the village Chief. He told us more about the Masai culture and traditions while we walked towards the village school.

Even though I knew the Masai are polyamorous, it still struck as a bit odd to hear that our guide had 39 brothers and even more sisters.

However, according to the tradition, only the men considered as rich can afford to keep more than one wife. This tradition makes polygamy possible for only a selected few.

Also, every woman is entitled to have only one man, while every man is allowed to have several wives. Ancient traditions that don’t belong to the modern day, I’d say.

Brief Visit to a Masai Village Shcool

After a while, we stepped inside a little, shaky house serving as a school. Our guide introduced us to a small class of various aged children sitting inside.

The children seemed a bit shy in front of our cameras, even though they receive several visitors like us every week. Few braver ones showed us their skills in counting in English, as well as saying some familiar phrases.

The pressure from the guide was evident as he hinted several times towards the donations box during this short visit, which made me feel uncomfortable.

In any case, I didn’t have any cash with me, and even though if I’d have had, I would’ve probably opted not to leave anything. So much this seemed like only a tourist show.

Inside a Masai hut

Last in the schedule was a brief visit to a traditional Masai hut. Every one of us got our own host to go with, and we dived into the low shelters, very dimly lit even in the brightest daylight.

I sat almost on the ground level, listening to how my host told me details about his family, the construction of the hut, and their nomadic lifestyle. I even received a handful of curious questions myself.

Did you know that it takes a whole month to build a Masai hut and it’s actually the women who build them? Men will only bring the supplies. They’re made out of the Acacia branches with cows’ manure and grass as insulation.

And as the Masai tribe moves many times during the year, following the water, they take the hut’s materials with them. The hut is built from new materials only once a year.

The shed itself contains just a small spot for cooking and the separate sleeping areas, one for the husband and the other for his wife and the children.

Visiting the Masai Village For an Overnight Stay

It’s also possible to arrange overnight stays in some Masai villages, but I realized that it still might be a bit too extreme – even for me.

I’ve spent a night literally in the middle of the jungle in Nicaragua, over a half day’s journey away from the nearest town and mobile coverage, but I still admit that I couldn’t have handled a night in a Masai hut. But if you enjoy an extremity like that, just go for it! It’ll be something to remember, for sure.

What You Should Know About a Visit to a Masai Village

The end of the visit, unfortunately, wasn’t the best one possible. Some of the women escorted us straight to a ”market area” where the Masai people tried to sell us their handicrafts very aggressively. Don’t get me wrong; this part traditionally goes with every tour like this, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

What was wrong, though, was the manner with how the Masai approached this opportunity. When we were not interested in buying their highly overpriced artifacts and politely refused, some individuals’ attitudes towards us changed pretty radically to worse. This rapid shift in their attitude just made us feel very unwelcome and we wanted to leave immediately.

Don’t Fall For Buying the Rip-Off Priced Artifacts – Negotiate!

Fortunately, few of the Masai people were more polite. After some negotiations with them, we even did buy a few pieces of jewelry to take home. It was just that the situation as a whole left a very sour taste. When you feel so pressured to buy, it doesn’t ever feel nice.

A sad fact is that these visits have become so commercialized, that there is little originality left anymore.

Visit Masai Village in Tanzania or Kenya?

I believe every visit has the same pattern, and you can’t feel special anymore. However, there still can be Masai villages with a bit more traditional approach to visitors, I’m sure.

I also think that the pattern is pretty much the same, whether the Masai village is in Tanzania or Kenya.

We did visit a more authentic-feeling Masai village in Kenya, in the Masai Mara Conservancy Area. That one was not a village usually visited by tourists, as it was a home village of one of our guide’s friends.

I’d suggest asking for your guide to take you to an authentic Masai village and not to those that they usually take their clients. This request may show to your guide that you’re informed about the more commercial villages and they will want you to have a good experience. Hence they could take you somewhere else.

You can check out this Masai village tour, for example.

Where ever you’re going to Africa, remember to check out our ultimate African Safari Packing List – a comprehensive list with a downloadable tick-off list about all you’re going to need on your African adventure!

Our Conclusion of a Masai Village Visit

I won’t say that our visit was horrible. It was educational, and it made me think more about the impacts of mass tourism, as for how this coin truly has two, very different sides.

Despite the bit sour ending, I would still recommend visiting a Masai village when you have the chance. It may be the only way to see at least a little glimpse of the Masai culture. Just keep in mind what to expect and take as much out of your visit to a Masai village as possible.

And while in Ngorongoro, you too can see things like we did – also many rhinos!

 

*Disclaimer: We were hosted by Ombeni African Safaris while visiting the Maasai in Tanzania, but all our opinions are entirely our own. This post also includes affiliate link(s). If you choose to use them there will be absolutely no additional costs for you, but we may get a small compensation and you will help us to maintain this blog and bring you more moneysaving and practical tips. Thank you so much!


Bran Castle, also known as the Castle of Dracula, Romania

Bran Castle – the Castle of Dracula, Romania

The Bran Castle is best known as ”the Castle of Dracula,” although the presumed role model of Dracula, a Wallachian Prince Vlad Tepés (Vlad the Impaler), actually had little to none connections to this castle.

The Bran Castle is near the town of Braşov, on the border of Wallachia and Transylvania. This picturesque castle is known for its alleged connection to the most famous vampire in literature – Dracula. Though there are many other castles linked to the legend of Dracula, like Hunyad and Poenari Castles, Bran may be the best known.

First mentions of Bran are dating back to 1377, and it bears a colorful history. It has been used in defense against the Ottoman Empire, and it has been a customs post on the mountain pass between Transylvania and Wallachia, just to mention few. Vlad Tepés passed several times through the Bran Gorge but stayed in Bran Castle only briefly as a prisoner in 1462. Nevertheless, this place holds a particular interest to all fans of vampire literature, as well as historians interested in medieval castles. Bran Castle truly has a bit of mystic atmosphere and beautiful architecture. You can have a guided tour, or you can delve around on your own and try to find the secret passages. I can give you a tip – there are more than one.

I would suggest exploring around independently. Then you can spend as much time as you like, wandering around the stone hallways and the surrounding garden, absorbing the history and the visual beauty of the Bran Castle.

Getting there

You can get to Braşov for example in 3,5 hours by train from Bucharest. Trains are departing hourly and costing approximately 10€ (40 Lei). You can check the timetables from here. From Braşov’s bus terminal No. 2 you can take a bus to Bran (approx. 45 min and 1,2€/5 Lei/ride).

Bizarre Fact

Want to buy a castle? The Bran Castle has been on sale on the open market since 2014, after its current owners, the Habsburgs, unsuccessfully offered it back to the Romanian government for $80 million.

A secret passage in the Bran Castle, Romania
A secret passage in the Bran Castle, Romania

Looking For the Big 5 – It's a Game

Whether you’ve been on a safari or not, you’ve probably heard the term “Game Drive.” When it comes to safari itineraries, it’s used to describe the drives with the 4WD vehicles you do in the National Parks, and there really is a reason for the name.

In Serengeti, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Conservation Area or any other big or small National Park in Tanzania – or almost anywhere else in Africa – you can have Game Drives in the parks. It’s when you hop on the 4WD jeep and drive around the vast plains or dense forests in search of different animals. But have you ever thought why specifically it is called a “Game Drive”?

Safari is an Adventure of a Lifetime

We had our first dip to an African safari in March with the Ombeni African Safaris. We embarked on a 10-day adventure through the most iconic National Parks of Tanzania on the famous Northern Circuit. We didn’t really have such a definite clue as what to expect, having previously seen these places only in the nature documents. It actually felt unreal to the point until we hopped onto our own, dedicated 4WD jeep, entered the first National Park of our itinerary, Tarangire, and saw our first elephant herd some few hundreds of meters away. It was a reality check – we really were there. And we were spellbound by the magic of Africa from that moment on.

Playing the Safari Game

After spending some time photographing and admiring those majestic elephants who kickstarted our epic safari, we drove quite awhile before getting a glimpse of some zebras and hyenas.

Our guide, Ami, a slim Tanzanian man in his mid-thirties and a professional wildlife guide, told us about the schedule of the day, while driving on the dusty roads full of holes and bumps on both sides. He told what we have a chance to see that day, not what we are going to see. This particular sentence perfectly summed up the spirit of the Game Drive.

Since the majority of the National Parks are huge – for example the Serengeti is 14750 km2 wide – the animals have enormous areas to roam. Practically this means it may be tough to find them. Sometimes you can drive the whole day around the Park, zigzagging on the narrow dirt roads and only see a handful of animals. Then again, on some occasions, you can see so many different species during the same day that you’ll lose count of what you’ve seen.

Now you may think that it all comes down to luck, but it doesn’t. Your guide will have a big part in how successful your Game Drives will be. His (or her) experience about where most of the animals are spending their time is invaluable, as is the communication with other driver guides via the car’s short wave radio.

If there’s a herd of lions having a dinner after a kill somewhere nearby, the driver guides will let others know via the radio and tell which direction to drive hurriedly to catch a glimpse of the scene. This communication is how as many car loads of people as possible can have the experience of seeing these unique animals in their natural habitat. It is also why it can sometimes get pretty crowded on the scenes when more than 10 jeeps are gathering in the same spot.

Every morning of your safari you’ll rise with the sun and head out to drive around the parks. Mornings are the best times to spot the animals, before the hottest hours of the day when most of them are just lying in the bushes, away from the scorching sun.

Every day it’ll be a new game – a game where you will try to track down as many animals as you can. And every day will be different since you will never know what exactly you’re going to see. It’s a game where your guide will try to guess where the animals would be on that particular day and towards what area they could be heading.

Because every day is unique, you won’t feel bored at any point. There will always be more photo opportunities presenting themselves during the day than you are able to shoot. And if you in some point start to feel like you’ve already seen the sceneries so many times that it starts to get too familiar – Africa will always have an ace up its sleeve and will throw something entirely different before you, just ”out of the bushes.” Time after time, you’ll be mesmerized again.

Looking for the famous ”Big 5”

Every traveler who comes to Africa will dream about spotting the famous “Big 5” – the lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhino. Though the truth will be that the majority of the people won’t see them all. Usually at least the rhino is left unseen, just because many of the rhino species are very endangered, and they’re the hardest to spot overall. If you want to see rhinos, you got to have quite a bit of luck as well.

The rhinos are the hardest catch also because of their living habitats are so restricted. In Tanzania, the black rhinos can only be spotted inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. And there are only 32 individuals living inside the Ngorongoro, according to the last year’s count. It’ll give you some perspective on how hard it is to see them. But even if you won’t see the rhinos, don’t think that your safari isn’t complete. You’ll only have one good reason more to come back!

Most likely you will see many lions, elephants and buffalos out of the Big 5. Every scene and every sighting are unique. Especially if you come around February-March, like we did, you will also have the privilege to see many newborns with their parents. All those tiny elephants roaming around with their mothers, playing in the water and in the bushes, were a sight I’ll always remember!

Looking for the famous ”Big 5” Every traveler who comes to Africa will dream about spotting the famous
Leopard walking calmly on the side of the road in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Two endangered black rhinos in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania
Two endangered black rhinos are walking by a jeep at a very close distance. A highly unusual occasion!

The most common sight on your safaris will be the wildebeests and zebras roaming the vast plains in herds of different sizes and combinations. But before you can prepare your camera, you may see a leopard lying in the middle of the tall grass, trying to hide away, or a bunch of lions hanging around in the shades of a tree.

And when the dusty road turns around the corner, there can be a rhino waiting for you. Safaris are full of surprises and don’t forget that it still is a game – sometimes you win and sometimes you may lose. Though you won’t ever actually ”lose” in Africa, you will have magical memories to bring back home from every Game Drive you take.

Surely if you have enough time, in addition to being lucky, you can indeed see all of the famous bunch of Big 5, too! And if you are very lucky, like we had the rare privilege to be, you can see the Big 5 even in a very restricted time frame. We had only the ten days and managed to see them all! We saw even the black rhinos of Ngorongoro, though we had only one day’s chance. But sometimes one day is enough.

 

Have you been on a safari? How was it? What animals did you see? Have you seen the Big 5? We’d love to hear about your experiences!

*Disclaimer: We were hosted by Ombeni African Safaris/Ombeni Foundation on a 10-day safari-circuit to spot the Big 5, but all the opinions and views presented here are entirely our own.


Piritta in the Adventure Rooms, live room escape game in Athens, Greece

Sight Of The Week: Live Room Escape Game, Athens, Greece

Would you like to experience a realistic thrill like in the live roleplaying games? Want to test your recreational and reasoning skills in problem-solving? Then this game is for you.

In the Adventure Room, you’re facing a labyrinth of puzzles to solve, and you’ll have 60 minutes to escape from the rooms you are locked in. You’ll have three different scenarios to choose from; the Bar Case, Black Queen, and the Original Game. Each features a different theme, but each game has the same basic principle.

We chose to try out the latter. In this story, you are kidnapped by a mad scientist and locked inside his laboratory. The mission is to find your way to freedom by solving different kinds of puzzles using your logic and recreational abilities. You are allowed to use some objects in the rooms as an aid, but not everything. There’s a digital clock on the wall, running backwards, like an hourglass showing how much time is left to get away.

An hour’s game time may seem like a lot, but especially if you’re playing the game only as a team of two, you’re going to have to hurry. The problems are very logical, practical and demand some swift applying of ordinary things into other, suitable purposes. For example, what would you do if you have to get a floating key out of a vase half filled with water, but it’s too far to reach by hand? What would you need to apply to get it? When you know, the ingredient needed, look around you and use it.

It’s not by far easy to win the game and succeed to escape in the 60 minutes provided. We started out way too slowly and by the time when we had our mindsets fully adapted to the game and were pretty smoothly solving the problems, we ran out of time. But don’t worry, only about 30% of players manage to get out. Though it will be irritating to lose, if you’re as competitive as we are. Next time, we will get out in time for sure! But above all, this was a fun experience! Super fun, to be frank. It’s also an entertaining and creative way to improve your team works as well as your logical skills.

There are Adventure Rooms or similar kind of live escape games in many countries. So if you want to take fun, but creative and intelligently challenging game – go try this out! Challenge yourself, your co-workers, spouse or your best friends and have an excellent time. Are you able to escape?

Have you tried out a live room escape game like this? How was it and how did you manage?


*Disclaimer: We were hosted for a game by the Adventure Rooms Greece
but all our opinions and views are entirely our own.