Monday, 31 December 2012

Monday photo - 31st December

'Be careful not to fall in...'. Our guide's voice drifted back along the line as he nimbly negotiated his way up and down layers and layers of rice terraces.Chickens looked up from their constant pecking as the rest of us eased our way along with more care, whilst above us the weather changed in seconds from pouring rain, to bursts of sun, to rain again. The air lay thick around us as we panted our way down, and then up, the steep hills. The main draw to Banaue and Batad in the Philippines, the rice terraces are often dubbed 'the eighth wonder of the world' (although, aren't most places nowadays?) and are certainly impressive. Just don't forget your raincoat.


Sunday, 30 December 2012

The birthplace of the Olympic Games

We stopped off only by chance. Following the coast on the west side of the Peloponnese, idly gazing out over the soft blues of the ocean after a dramatic morning driving through winding mountain passes, F muttered something about a palace. 'I'm sure I read about a palace near here' he asserted, as I shoved aside maps looking for our Lonely Planet guide. A few minutes flipping through pages later, and we'd found it - the palace of Nestor, not far from where we had found ourselves. Not unlike Mycenae, the palace is another site of the same era tangled in myth - the hero Nestor was an Argonaut and fought in the Trojan war.

As we'd made good time so far, we decided to take a quick look. Although the accompanying museum was closed, the palace is incredibly well preserved, featuring a distinct floor plan and original features, including a terracotta bathtub still in place. It must have been a magnificent place to live, high above the coast, looking out onto sparkling water glinting from the noon sun.

What was even more exciting however (although I will admit that exciting is a rather subjective word...exciting for me in this case) is that the site is undergoing a current excavation, and was full of archaeologists uncovering new sections. We watched them work, the team labouring in the heat and perfectly content to have a few observers. The palace is one of the smaller sites that may easily be by-passed in favour of the larger, more famous ruins, but is definitely worth a visit, particularly whilst excavations are still at work there.

Moving on, we soon arrived at the main destination for the day: Olympia. We parked in between a long row of coaches, promptly changed our minds, and checked in at our hotel before returning later in the afternoon. The difference was dramatic - as we walked in, the last of the groups walked out, and apart from the old family here and there, the ruins quickly emptied out. Unfortunately, countless natural disasters have stripped the centre of Olympic history of its former glory, with most buildings existing only as piles of tumbled stone or lone standing pillars, but the accompanying signs give clear information and guidance to what once had been.

Naturally, we couldn't resist having a race in the stadium (without our trusty chariots, alas), which I won, possibly due the substantial head start I gave myself, imagining the applause of the 45000 strong crowd as I gracefully (cough, cough) stepped over the finishing line. From there we marvelled at the scale of the Temple of Zeus, its lone standing column surrounded by a small hill of further pieces, each block taller than I am. Some buildings are in better shape - the Temple of Hera has resisted the forces of nature better than most, and the sheer size of the whole area means that there is plenty to explore. Visiting at the end of the day turned out to be a good move, and one that we would repeat throughout the trip - the temperature had dropped, and the late afternoon light was ideal for taking photos.

To be completely honest, Olympia was not the most stunning or atmospheric of the archaeological sites we visited in Greece, but the opportunity to stand at the birthplace of the Olympic games, particularly only a couple of months after hosting them in my home city, was not to be missed.


Saturday, 29 December 2012

'This is Spartaaaaaa!': Exploring the ruins of Mycenae, Mystras and Sparta

It was remarkably difficult to plan our trip to Greece. For most countries, we have a few 'must-see' places, and leave the rest to chance. But for Greece, the number of 'must-sees' just kept rising and rising the more I thought about it. I could have spent months slowly ambling from site to site and still only scraped the surface of this historically rich country. With only 10 days, however, we had to formulate a plan. We picked seven key archaeological sites, roughly sketched out a driving route, booked a hire car, and decided to stop off at places in between that took our fancy. It will come of no surprise then that after touching down in Athens late on the first day, we got a good night's sleep and set off bright and extremely early the following morning to hit the road.

Our first stop was Mycenae, arguably one of the greatest kingdoms in Greek history. An imposing influence for over 400 years, the city is also wrapped up in legend, founded by the great mythological hero Perseus. Perfectly situated in a dramatic landscape, the thick walls of the citadel look out over the surrounding high rolling hills. Still early morning, we arrived well before the tour groups, and had the site almost to ourselves. Entering beneath the Lion Gate, towering majestically above me, was an amazing moment, the city opening out in front of us as we passed through.

Although the citadel lies heavily in ruins, individual rooms are identifiable and the location and high walls give a sense of the power once held there. Upon reaching the far end, we descended into the secret cistern - a series of wet, slippery stairs leading underground, an excursion that would have been a lot easier if we'd have thought to bring along a torch, rather than stumbling and sliding around in the dark.

After Mycenae, we travelled onwards to ancient Sparta, stopping off at Larissa Fortress on the way. I was surprised at how little attention is paid to this famous city - on arrival in modern Sparta we located the Leonidas statue without difficulty, but there was only one small sign directing us through an olive grove to the ruins of the city. Tumbled columns lay scattered next to inscribed blocks of stone, pale vines wrapped around their bulk as nature gradually reclaims the area. The theatre was the most discernible feature, still mostly standing if littered with cracks. Although a sense of abandonment hangs low over Sparta, I loved the whole site, and we spent much longer there than originally intended. With no-one else around, and no barriers or entrance gates in sight, it felt lost and ready to be explored. Clambering over stones, we ran our hands over deeply carved lettering, compared column styles and sat listening to the wind gently brushing through the olive trees. It was peaceful and very atmospheric (F was particularly pleased that we had the place to ourselves as I couldn't embarrass him with my near continuous shouts of 'Spartaaaaaa'). But the sun crept lower, and we had one final stop on our list.

Leaving ancient Greece temporarily behind, we moved forward into the Byzantine era at the fortress of Mystras, just south of Sparta. I wasn't sure what to expect from this collection of churches and palaces winding steeply up the side of a mountain, but was very impressed with what we found.

Numerous richly decorated buildings surround the path, their interiors an explosion of reds, greens, blues and golds, lavish with religious symbolism. The hike through the area was strenuous and seemingly never-ending - there were just too many churches, libraries and houses to do justice to. Towards the top, courtyards afforded incredible views back down the mountain, and scores of cats lay curled up in the late afternoon sun. It was the perfect end to a fabulous first day.  


Monday, 5 November 2012

Monday photo - 5th November

The descent into Ushuaia was simultaneously amazing and terrifying. As we dropped through the cloud, high snow-topped mountains reared up around us, with deep blue lakes pocketed between them. Moments after snapping this picture from my window, the plane squeezed between two very sharp-looking mountains, before circling the waters of the Beagle Channel and making an impressive landing on a narrow runway, jutting out into the channel like a boat pier. I think everyone on the plane was alternating between gasping with amazement at the beautiful sights that welcomed us to this most southerly town, and holding their breath as the tricky landing became apparent... 

Monday, 29 October 2012

Monday photo - 29th October

This week's Monday photo comes from an airport hanger - not at all exciting until you realise that it houses the famous Terracotta warriors of China. Despite our less than relaxing experience there, the life-sized figurines lined up in perfect rows were a sight to behold. Trenches surrounded not only warriors but horses and full-sized chariots, and with every face unique, there was no way you could possibly become bored.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

On our way to... Greece!

Pinned Image
Picture via Kileen Tayla on Pinterest

When I was a child, there were two countries that completely captivated me. My reading books of choice were packed with magical stories of gods and goddesses, all set within a backdrop of giant structures reaching up towards the sky. In these places nature was equally as dramatic - whether blowing gritty sand into huge storms or lashing up waves on a dark sea.

I would spend hours buried in a mixture of fictional accounts and non-fiction reference books, trying to work out the line between the two, so interwoven in ancient society. When a family member visited both countries, I eagerly poured over postcards and imagined myself in their place.

It's no surprise that as soon as I could afford to travel further than the odd short trip within central Europe, I shot off to Egypt, and have revisited this amazing country again since then. I'm sure it won't be long before I'm called back there - there's still so much I have yet to explore, and the stories from my childhood have never lost their appeal.

But for all the places I've been - 40 countries and counting - I'd never set foot on the second land of my childhood dreams. I've travelled further than I ever imagined I would, and set my eyes on sights I didn't even know existed as a child. And yet the place that was right there at the top of my wish list, and right within Europe, passed me by. Until now.

Finally, after years and years of convincing myself to hit the furthest places first whilst I can and then gradually work back inwards, the pull was too strong, and I am on my way to... Greece! Two weeks in the warm autumn heat, completely centred around archaeological sites both on the mainland and Crete, in a tiny car.

I can't wait!

Image via Pinterest

Monday, 22 October 2012

Monday photo - 22nd October

 When imagining SE Asia, the distinct temples of Cambodia's Angkor district probably spring to mind. With intricate detail and a unique style, they had fired my imagination long before actually setting eyes on them.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Images of Central America: A photo-blog

My weeks spent in Central America were ones I'll never forget. Superb archaeological sites sit within diverse natural environments; extreme activities got my blood pumping and the waters of both the Caribbean and Pacific were rich with colourful fish. Such a variety of things to do meant that there was no chance of the 'travel fatigue' that can sometimes be felt after a lengthier time away. As usual, I took hundreds upon hundreds of photos - here are just a few that I felt summed up our travels through this incredible region.

Even a heavy mist, raging winds and heavy rain couldn't keep us away from the zip lines in Monteverde

After excitedly glimpsing sloths high up in the trees, we were staggered to come across a baby crawling along the ground right in front of us

A brief break between rapids on the river Pacuare in Costa Rica

Guatemala truly was the land of volcanoes, surrounding us on all sides in Antigua
Colourful buildings line Antigua's streets
Tikal was my favourite archaeological site

The flight over the Blue Hole was like gazing into a huge eye

The jungle threatens to envelop Palenque, creeping ever closer

Archaeology was abundant when driving around the Yucatan peninsula

Mexico City was the perfect ending to the trip, where amazing architecture met a cosmopolitan centre


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Mexico: Do's and Don'ts!

Last on the list is Mexico - chock full of ruins, varied landscapes and dynamic cities. You could spend months here and only touch the surface of what the country has to offer, and with barely a fortnight we limited ourselves to just a couple of regions. Here's the final in the series of tips and advice for this summer's trip...


- Hire a car. If you are staying around the Yucatan peninsula, then a car is the best way to go. The roads are in great condition, other drivers are generally considerate and it's easy to navigate yourself between towns and archaeological sites. Having your own set of wheels also enables you to pay a visit to those attractions that are far our of the way, and have a whole set of ruins all to yourself, as well as arriving at the most popular places well in advance of the tour groups.

- Gorge yourself on the delicious food Mexico has to offer. To be honest, I don't think I could bear to look at a plate of refried beans, nachos and guacamole for a long time yet, but until the food fatigue sets in, Mexico is the perfect place to indulge. It may be different for Americans, but coming from a country where Mexican food is not particularly popular, being able to eat moist fajitas, crispy tortilla chips and warming soups was a daily pleasure. My personal favourite was the incredible sweet and sour sauce (nothing like the Chinese version) that came slathered on top of soft pork. Yum...

- Form your own opinion. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was very disappointed at the portrayal of Chichen Itza in guidebooks and online. Yes it is busy, as you would expect the most popular attraction in Mexico to be. But the almost pretentious air surrounding it just isn't a fair reflection of the site.


- Be scared of Mexico City. Common sense goes a long way - being out on the streets very late at night isn't the best idea, and I've always found the behaviour of the locals to be the best indicator of how to act yourself. However, the country's capital is a buzzing, vibrant place, full of treasures to discover. We only had four days there, and have both expressed a desire to go back as soon as we can, taken by the atmosphere and friendliness.

- Miss a visit to a cenote. We were so absorbed by all the history the country has to offer, that we only stopped off at the Grand Cenote by chance. It turned out to be one of the most interesting places we visited in the whole of Mexico. The water was an unearthly shade of vivid blue, the stalactites hung low and sharp, and the icy water provided the perfect break from the humidity outside. Highly recommended - just don't forget your snorkel!

Miss any posts on Mexico? Find them all here:

A glimpse into the world of the Aztecs at Teotihuacan
How I unexpectedly adored Mexico City
The jungle ruins of Palenque
Visiting Chichen Itza
Archaeological sites of the Yucatan
Coastal ruins and an almost-hurricane


Monday, 15 October 2012

Monday photo - 15th October

 Visiting the Moai on Easter Island a few years ago was a dream come true for me. Day after day we drifted around the island, seeking out as many majestic statues as we could and marvelling at their presence. The weather-worn stone looked even more impressive backed by a brilliant blue sky.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Belize: Do's and Don'ts!

Belize is easily the most laid-back country I've ever been to, and certainly one of the friendliest too. If it wasn't for the intense heat, I could lose weeks island hopping and popping in and out of the water. Unfortunately, we had just a week to explore this turquoise paradise. Here are some tips for making the most of all Belize has to offer...


- Spend as much time in and on the water as possible! Whether it's snorkeling, diving or kayaking, the crystal clear warm waters are a playground for those who love wet activities. It isn't cheap, but well worth every penny. My favourite trip was to shark ray alley, where huge sting rays glided over the sandy floor and nurse sharks swam around us in huge groups. I didn't want to leave...

- Try to find accommodation on the beach if heading for a Caye. We were initially put off by the high prices quoted on the web, but beach huts can be found for a bargain if you are willing to search and move away from the well-trodden paths. Although our hut was a good 30 thirty walk from the town centre, the slow wander home after dinner each night, watching rays slip between sea grass in the gloom, form some of my favourite memories of our time there.

- Stretch the budget for a bird's eye view over the Blue Hole if you can. Seeing the great eye from the air was breathtaking, and although it was an extremely expensive morning, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity.


- Underestimate the cost of diving and snorkeling in Belize. Although it's still something I'd recommend, I was staggered by the amount companies wanted for day trips. Compared to other famous diving spots in SE Asia, Belize is very much over the top. The $500+ for a 45 minute Blue Hole dive was just too much for us to stomach, and the trips we took set us back more between us than our whole stay in Costa Rica. Choose carefully, assess your priorities, but do go on at least one trip - the water is perfect and the wildlife spectacular.

- Expect Belize to be representative of the rest of Central America. History and immigration has resulted in a wonderful Caribbean vibe unlike anything else we encountered, where the primary language spoken to us switched to English and Reggeton music pumped from huge speakers in the evenings, reflecting the island atmosphere.

More posts on our time in Belize can be found here:

The Blue Hole: A photo-blog
Snorkeling with sharks, rays and turtles

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Guatemala: Do's and Don'ts!

When we first starting planning our travels in Central America, Guatemala was high on the list for one main reason: Tikal. The site far exceeded my expectations and more, but was matched by vast lakes, high volcanoes and friendly locals. Here are my tips for getting the most out of a visit to this amazing country.


- Hike a volcano. Guatemala is full of them, so there isn't really any reason not to spend a day trudging up a steep slope. If you strike it lucky with the weather then the views are incredible, the air cool (if a little sulphurous...) and the dry, pumiced landscape alien. And what could possibly be better than roasting a marshmallow in a fumarole?!

- Spend some time in beautiful Antigua. As well as being the perfect jumping off point for day trips in the region, the city itself is dazzling. Wandering through the maze of streets, brightly-coloured buildings against brilliant blue skies, I felt relaxed and calm. Bursting at the seams with delicious restaurants, markets and cafes, the city balances traditional with modern perfectly. The overall atmosphere reminded me of Cuzco, another city that I loved, so perhaps I was biased from the start...

- Stay in Tikal national park. The hotels are expensive and getting up at 2am was tough. But the chance to sit atop a temple, gazing out over the jungle as the sun's rays gently lit the sky was one of the best moments of the whole trip. The mist rolled like orange-tipped waves, revealing both the tall ancient structures and the wildlife who call it home, as howler monkeys woke the forest up. Truly spectacular.


- Underestimate the distance between the main attractions. It takes time and patience to travel through Guatemala, up and down extremely windy roads that seem to go on forever. Tikal in particular is a long way from anywhere else, deep in the jungle. Plan in whole days for getting around if travelling by land.

- Forget to pack some sturdy walking books. Guatemala is a land of hills, the volcanic landscape resulting in sharp ups, and knee-breaking downs. Even streets in the towns can be on steep gradients, but the resulting views made the aches all worthwhile.

- Miss the cultural aspect of the country. It's easy to get swept away in Guatemala's natural beauty, but the truly fascinating experiences we had were to be found in churches and village houses, where the combination of Catholicism and traditional ancestor worship has resulted in a balance I hadn't expected to see. 

Want to read more about Guatemala? Check out these posts:

Magical Tikal
Volcanoes, lakes and a picture-perfect town


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Costa Rica: Do's and Don'ts!

Central America was one of the loveliest regions of the world I've had the opportunity to visit, and is definitely an area I'd like to return to one day. Kicking off the usual tips posts, here's my advice for a visit to the first of our four countries: Costa Rica.


- Hire guides for the national parks. If you want to maximise your chances of glimpsing the wide range of wildlife that Costa Rica has to offer, then an experienced guide is the way to go. Inexpensive and often loaded up with all manner of gadgetry, our guides helped us spot animals we would have completely bypassed, from well camouflaged vipers resting on leaves barely inches from us, to sloths and toucans high up in trees. And that's without mentioning the passion, enthusiasm and great of humour that comes for free.

- Indulge in some extreme activities. Costa Rica is home to some top white water rafting, suspended bridges swinging gently at the top of forests and fast zip lines that make you feel like a gliding bird. Hikes are filled with wildlife, and if surfing is your thing, the waves are not for the faint-hearted. Conquer your fears and give some of it a go!

- Pack ready for all weather conditions. The coast was hot and humid, the city warm and breezy and the cloud forests cool and extremely wet. Bring light layers and a good set of waterproofs and you'll be ready for any sudden change.


- Only restrict yourselves to the beaches. Sure, the coast is lovely, and the beaches more appealing than most. I'm a big believer in spending time abroad wherever and however it suits you, but I have to admit to feeling a little sorry for the people we met who were restricted to the seaside. Costa Rica is a small and easily accessible country, and a few hours drive can take you high into the cloud forests or deep onto waterfall-filled trails for a day trip to remember.

- Forget to pack a pair of binoculars! (like we did...) Vibrant birds, small rodents, huge lizards, sloths and monkeys are all plentiful around the country, although they tend to sit high in the canopy. If it wasn't for the binoculars and large scopes of our guides, we may well have missed half of them. With the birds in particular, details only reveal themselves once you can observe them up close.

Miss any posts on our time in Costa Rica? Find them all here:

The wildlife of Costa Rica: A photo-blog
A close encounter with a Sloth
The cloud forests of Monteverde
Arriving in Costa Rica and a very active first day