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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.