Whether they're small weekend trips, or week-long holidays, here's a blog to help you do more than two vacations!

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  • The colourful insides of a volcano.
  • Majestic mountains all around
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  • An "encased" tram line
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Driving in Northern Norway

I was quite impressed with the video quality of the Sony RX100, I thought I’d share a video of what the drive in the Arctic looked like. We had reserved several days to view the Northern Lights, but since we got to view them on the first night, we had several days to explore Finnmark, some 500 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. This are is on the northern most province of Norway and above Sweden and most of Finland.

Driving around the fjords is an adventure in itself, especially when the desolate landscape is covered in fresh snow. Throw in a short days (sunrise was at 11, sunset was at 1, and you’d never see the sun as its was covered behind the clouds), then youa get a truly atmospheric drive.

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Updating My “Most Amazing Things Seen” List

The last two days of the Danakil Depression tour is all about one thing – Erta Ale. This involves crossing the desert, hiking in the late afternoon, to the top of an active volcano. The route is not steep, nor is it long; it takes about 4 hours depending on the fitness of the company. The hike is done in the late afternoon; half of it in light, half of it in darkness so bring your headlamps.

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Before getting there, there is still an array of things to see in the brutal desert landscape – “skyscrapers” made from stone, rising from the middle of nowhere, an endless stretch of igneous rocks left from the last eruption of Erta Ale, and a sizable group of people living in the middle of nowhere.

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Of course that was not the main event. The main event is to see one of the few (~5) permanent lava lakes in the world. After four hours of climbing (take note that this is Night #3 in the desert!), weary, grumpy, and cold (it has switched from 40 to 12 C – so confusing!) – all of this was soon forgotten by a spectacular sight: a volcanic eruption right in front of your eyes. Photo courtesy of Gilles Durdu, my camera sucks in low light!

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And there was silence for a good part of an hour. I’ll let the video speak for itself…Yup, need to update that Most Amazing Thing Seen list…

Surprisingly, the air was not filled with the smell of rotten egg, nor was it hot. But we were very close to the lava, as you can see from the video. Had the volcano erupted, well…it wasn’t such a bad sight to see…

Before we headed home, we spent another 30 minutes looking at the lava lake at daybreak. Since we arrived at camp in the dark, we didn’t realize we camped out at the lip of the crater.

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Again, I will point you to Ethio Travel and Tours for the trip – no this is not an advert, but just a tip of the hat to the folks who put this together.

Two Weeks In Ethiopia – Danakil Depression

Admittedly, I had a difficult time putting together a two-week itinerary for Ethiopia. Apart from so much sights to choose from (Visit the Southern tribes? Meet baboons? Desert safari?), there was the concern on getting from one place to another. Plane fares were double the cost if you did not fly in via the national carrier, and intercity bus travel took 8-hours minimum and no option for late night departures.

Fortunately, I had one thing that I wanted to see – sulfur formations in the Danakil Depression. Located in some 120 meters below sea level, they sparkle in yellow, green and orange in 50 degrees heat.

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The only way to get there is via an organised tour. The Danakil Depression is close to the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and let’s just say both sides don’t fully agree where that demarcation line really sits.It is amazing how much this land is disputed given that it’s one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Back to the tour – you can choose the two day version which also includes a visit to the salt lake. Bring flip flops – the high salt content in the water may ruin your shoes, and cake them when they dry up. Unfortunately, I had forgotten mine, so I got to as far as I can handle the sharp salt crystals on my bare feet.

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The two-day version will involve camping in the desert. The good news – it cools down from 53 Celsius in the daytime (and it’s not even high season!). The bad news – it cools down to about 35 Celsius at night. Whenever the wind would blow, it felt like a fresh waft of air from your car exhaust. This was my bed for the night – like they say, it’s not a 5-star hotel, but it’s a thousand-star bed.

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We were also fortunate to see the salt caravan of the Afar people. The chop up the ground into salt blocks, load them into camels, then haul them back to markets to trade. We went to the desert on a religious holiday, so we were not expecting to seem the caravan. Fortunately they trades need to happen!

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That’s a brief summary of what you get to see on the two day trek. I had seen what I wanted to see and I thought it was spectacular. However, I am glad I took the whole 4 days for the trip, because at the end of four days, I had to update my “Most Amazing Thing I Have Seen” list. I will speak more of that on the next post. Before I forget – I made the trip with Ethio Travel and Tours. I fully recommend them – it was excellent service from the booking of the trip (I didn’t want to do international money transfer, so I paid the day before the trip started. They picked me up from the airport, brought me to their office, and returned me to catch my evening flight) to their very gracious drivers. You can’t DIY the Danakil trip, so I would point you to the company with the most experience in such a difficult to navigate region.

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A First Taste Of Africa

It’s been a year since I wrote something in this blog but I now found the perfect excuse – I only have two vacations a year, so anything more than two blogs posts, I will consider as a victory. Ha. And in reference to that, I was extremely amazed at Iceland (you can tell), that i had to go for another interesting choice this year.

It was time to explore another continent – I’ve always been enthralled by Africa, but not for the safaris and the wildlife but more on the people and what it’s like to see first hand how different this is from places familiar. Having visited Iceland made me like nature and trekking more than city trips.

My first choice was Ethiopia – a country filled with highlands, deserts, roock-hewn churches, and one of the few permanent lava lakes in the world. I must admit, in my binge-watching of The Amazing Race, I saw a lush mountain landscape, however, the timing coincides with the dry season, so I figured it was going to be dusty and brown. In the meantime, while I write rest of my itinerary here, I will leave you with a photo.

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An Abridged Iceland Itinerary

Yes I did discourage a quick visit to Iceland, but if you must, there’s still plenty sightseeing you can do with a quick 3-day visit.

Start off with Reykjavik – a visit to the harbor, or a quick stroll around the city.

Most if not all international flights land in Keflavik International Airport, some 45 minutes away from Reykjavik. We took the very convenient Flybus for airport transfers – they can bring you to your hotel/hostel/guesthouse within greater Reykjavik, and the return offers pickup services as well. The bus provides free wifi so you can start checking in :p

Day 1 – Reykjavik

Reykjavik city is cute as a button – its compact center is easily navigable in an hour so you can fit in city sightseeing in between the lulls of waiting for your tour to take you to some awesome place. To see some of the city sights, set out an hour each to explore the city landmarks – the church, Hallgrimskirkja and the concert hall, Harpa. Both sights pay homage to the country’s geographic identity – basalt columns inside and outside the halls, and Harpa uses dark granite and a play on the glass panels as a tip of the hat to their much famous northern lights.

A smart play on light and glass – the seemingly random pattern of colours mimic the Aurora Borealis, while the shape is a nod to the hexagonal basalt columns commonly found in Iceland.

The other famous landmark in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon. It was nice soaking it up in a warm pool filled with geothermal plant water discharge – but I really thought it was a tourist trap, sorry. For 40 EUR, and a whole hour to get there, I found visiting the Blue Lagoon was something I could have passed up on, especially having tried thermal baths in Hungary, Japan, and Korea. Throw in their luxuriously-priced gift shop of cosmetics, then well, let’s just say I warned you. There are plenty of other pools around Iceland which might be more worth your kronas (more on this in the succeeding posts).

Day 2 – Golden Circle

You can take a bus tour to get to the sights, or you can rent a car. We went for the latter – as there were three of us, and the economics and flexibility made more sense. You can’t possibly miss The Golden Circle, but we did the linear version of it: Thingvellir-Gulfoss-Geysir, then back to Reykjavik. This will easily take you a day.

Thingvellir – This is where the tectonic plates separate, creating a valley filled with fissures, cliffs, and even a lake where you can snorkel and dive. You can enjoy the view of this sprawling place from the observation platform, but you can also hike to the drowning pool and waterfalls behind it. There is a 2km trek to the Skorgarkot, in the middle of the plain where a former farm (marked by stones) can be found. I recommend you take the hike and have a good wander on the area.

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Where two plates divide, a beautiful landscape appears.

We did Thingvellir in two days, as our day was filled with nasty weather. We did the waterfalls and plains on one day, and the Skorgarkot trek in another afternoon. When we decided that the rain wouldn’t ease up, we decided to drive all the way to Gulfoss instead.

Gulfoss – It’s a two-level waterfall where a power plant was proposed. Search for the marker and face of the lady that fought against the power plant, and  helped preserve the falls.

Mighty does not even begin to describe it.

Geysir – On the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped by Geysir, a plain of spouting hot springs you can easily see from a distance. If you’re not easily offended by the H2S smell, then it’s a good stroll along the grounds. One of the geysers spray up every 10 minutes or so.

This one ‘erupts’ every 10 minutes or so. Stand back, it gets pretty steamy.

Here’s something you may not see on the guidebooks: On the road back to Thingvellir from Geysir, you will find a viewpoint (marked on the road) that will showcase Thingvellir lake and some mountains. There’s a little ledge that you can go down and see this: a massive fissure covered in moss. It was a nice find after a long and tiring day.

You need to go a little bit further than the marked view point (and picnic tables), but the view is so much worth it.

I’d leave the third day vacant for you to decide what to do but, I would give some options here:

1. There’s this tour where you can go inside a volcano. You trek some 3 kilometers to base camp where you take turns going descending on an elevator shaft to the magma chamber of a volcano (reasonably, it’s dormant). You enter through the top crater and go down some 120m (40 floors!) to look around what it’s like being inside one of the most ferocious natural events on earth. It’s a bit on the pricey side, but how many people can claim that you’ve been in the heart a volcano and not just on top of it? More information on http://www.insidethevolcano.com

Inside a volcano has got to be one of those really unique experiences.

2. You can make a looong day to visit the glacier lagoon in Jokulsarlon. On the way you will see more waterfalls, lava fields, enormous glaciers and of course a river filled with ice. If you have energy, the tour starts at 7 in the morning, then ends around midnight. For obvious reasons, I passed on this one, and broke up that trip into a more leisurely pace. More on this one later.

Don’t miss out on Reykjavik’s night life – it’s interesting to see a city of 200,000 go around town. Everybody knows everybody (heck they might be cousins!), and the pubs are small and cozy. We went in the summer so it was generally still light at 12 midnight, and the sun never sets. Imagine pub-hopping in the bright midnight sun! Added bonus: Reykjavikers have a very distinct sense of style; they put a leg up on the words hipster.

Don’t Go To Iceland

It’s quite isolated, hard to get to from most places, and it’s pretty expensive. But if you do – it’s a reward; I keep saying it: It’s the best country I’ve visited so far. I usually reserve my judgement for a few weeks before I hand out a verdict like that, but this one won in me in the first three days.

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Just to counter what I initially said, Iceland has direct flights from North America and Western Europe, with national carrier Icelandair and budget airline Wow that opens up additional flights during the summer (May-Sep). Expensive? Not crazily so. At par with many Scandanavian countries, maybe a tad lower if you’re not booze-centric, and most of their attraction are natural wonders, which are free.

Going back to the “don’ts” :

1) Don’t just spend 5 days in the country; you’ve (probably) come a long way to get here, so make the most out of it. There is plenty of nature to be enjoyed across all points of the island. Do explore the far eastern reaches of the island.

2) Don’t limit yourself to the city accommodations; there are cute little cottages scattered everywhere. The prices do not vary wildly, so take a chance on the cozy cabin by the lake, or the homey guesthouse on a cliff overlooking seals. There are plenty of camping options everywhere too.

 

Your cabin. Sheep, glaciers, and the rest of nature included.

3) Don’t come unprepared clothing-wise – the weather changes quite frequently and be prepared to deal with ice, rain, wind, and sun.

Narcissus flowers fill the lava fields

4) Don’t expect ice and snow all the time – yes, the weather may be variable, but it not all snow and glacier despite what the name (and Game of Thrones) tells you. A friend observed: there’s a lot more ice in Greenland, and a lot more green in Iceland.

A glacial lagoon. Cool.

5) Don’t worry about wifi – the country is very connected. I even got wifi (not 3G!) at the crater of a volcano, beside geysers, and in fjords. But having said that, do you really want to be immersed in your little gadget when you’ve got a beautiful country all around you?

On the next blog post – a  little bit more on itinerary help, and what to see. In the meantime, more pictures!

Majestic mountains all around

Plenty of trekking to be done.

Here’s a “do” : Brush up on geology to appreciate how these land forms were made!

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I don’t have the energy to write a full blog post, so in the mean time, I will put together a sampling of the photos I took during my stay in the country. It’s not a pocket trip, but a full-on vacation. Don’t worry, I’ll write something up – but suffice to say, it was the best country I have visited.

 

 

 

 

Reykjavik houses. Cute as a button.

 

Walking between two diverging plates.

Inside Harpa – a music hall incorporating influences from the Icelandic landscape.

Inside a volcano. One of the very few places on earth where you can enter the magma chamber.

Reykjavik – in Leifur Eiriksson in front of the landmark church.