Top Five Things you Should do in Amsterdam if you have a Long Layover

Amsterdam is an amazing city which is very easily accessible due to the amount of flights coming into Schipol airport.

KLM – Royal Dutch Airlines

When you arrive into Schipol  airport the City Center is easily accessible by rail. It takes about 15-20 minutes and costs about 11 euros for a round trip ticket. You can purchase these tickets right before you leave the airport.

1.  Rent a bike and go around the city

Biking is the way to go once you’re in the Netherlands. You can rent bikes from a variety of locations around the city and most hotels/hostels have bikes for rent. All the roads are extremely bike friendly so you can’t go wrong with that!

Cost: 10-20 Euros

Biking to the Riekermolen

2. Visit the Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum is the largest art museum in the country and has a ton of art to view. You can easily spend a day walking around here and looking at the various pieces of art ranging from Rembrandt, Vermeer, and many others.

Cost: 19 Euros – book online

Vincent is ready for his close up

3. Take a canal tour

What could be more iconic than cruising around the canals of Amsterdam? There are a variety of tour operators with varying structures: hop on and off, river tour, rent your own boat, etc. You’ll enjoy seeing Amsterdam from an entirely different perspective than those landlubbers!

Cost: 25-100 Euros

Nice private tour of Amsterdam

4. Walk around Dam Square

Dam Square has some of the most notable buildings in Amsterdam including the Royal Palace and the Nieuwe Kerk, a 15th century church. You can spend some time walking around here and marveling at some of the architecture that was so masterfully crafted. 

Cost: Free

The Royal Palace and some Cops

5. Soak in some history at the Anne Frank House

If you were like me you had to read about Anne Frank in Elementary School without fully understanding the circumstances with which they were faced with. Now you can go and see the real thing and walk around the house and see the bookcase door. 

Cost: 10 Euros – book online

Sunrise at Taj Mahal

One of the must-stop attractions in India is the Taj Mahal. It is the mausoleum that commemorates the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s “undying love” for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mhal. The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 and was completed in 1653 for a total cost at the time of 32 million rupees (US $827 million in today’s cost). It is considered the new Seven Wonders of the world and attracts 7-8 million visitors per year. 

Getting There

The Taj Mahal is about a three hour drive from New Delhi. So most people make New Delhi their home base and make a day trip out of Agra for the Taj Mahal visit. There are several options for commuting to Agra, one can either drive, take the train, or take a private tour. 

Driving is not recommended as the driving culture in India is very different from North America and Europe. Most drivers honk as their way of saying “hi”. Merging and driving between the lines are the norm, and some drivers take traffic light as recommendations rather than the law. 

Taking the train is an inexpensive option. Visitors from New Dehli can either depart from New Delhi Railway Station (NDLS) or Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station (NZM), depending on where in New Delhi they are staying. Both stations arrive at the Agra Cantonment (AGC) in Agra. You can get tickets here. Note that once you arrive at AGC, you will have to arrange your own transportation within Agra if you go with this route. 

Here are the cost for some of the train options. All prices are for Air conditioned chair cars.

Train Name From/To Departure Time Arrival Time Cost (INR/USD)
Gatiman Express 12050 NZM/AGC 08:10 09:50 INR755/11USD
Shatabdi Express 12002 NDLS/AGC 06:00 07:57 INR555/8USD
Gatimaan Express 12049 AGC/NZM 17:50 19:30 INR755/11USD
Shatabdi Express 12001 AGC/NDLS 21:15 23:30 INR555/8USD

The last and recommended option is to take a private tour. Private tours generally cost ~$80-$150 USD per person, depending on how many people are in your party. They usually include transportation between New Delhi and Agra via private vehicle, tour guide at Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, and a breakfast or lunch. Depending on the tour option, it may or may not include entrance tickets. 

I highly recommend the private tour as the cost was reasonable at $120 per person for our party of two. I picked the sunrise tour because I wanted to get to Taj Mahal early when there are the least amount of people and the sun is glistening over the white marble at Taj Mahal. The added benefit of a private tour is that you also get a personal photographer 🙂 

Cost

Here’s the cost breakdown between the train and private tour option.

By Train:

Description Cost per person (USD)
Uber between New Delhi and train station $5
Trains between New Delhi and Agra $22
Tuk tuk or cabs in Agra (No Uber there) $5
Entrance fee to Taj Mahal and Agra Fort ($15 / $8) $23
Breakfast / Lunch $10
TOTAL $65

By Private Tour

Description Cost per person (USD)
Tour (includes transportation, breakfast, tour guide, entrance fees) $120
Gratuity (INR 1000 per person) $15
TOTAL $135

The difference is ~$70 between a self tour and a private tour. I am willing to pay the extra $70 so I don’t have to plan anything and get my own personal tour guide / photographer. And taking the train would’ve meant that I wouldn’t have been able to see the sun rise over Taj Mahal. This all comes down to budget constraints and what you are willing to pay for convenience.

Tour

After I booked the tour, I received a WhatsApp message from the tour guide confirming my booking and the hotel location in New Delhi for pick up on the day of the tour. Also on the day before the tour, we were confirmed again by the tour guide of the pick up location.

Since this is the sun rise tour, we were picked up by our driver at 2:15AM at our hotel. It was a smooth three hour drive to Agra on the new Yamuna Expressway, which completed construction in 2012. The Yamuna Expressway cuts the travel time between New Delhi and Agra by 1.5 hours! 

Taj Mahal

We arrived at Agra at 5:15AM and were immediately brought to the West Entrance of the Taj Mahal. There are three entrances to the Taj Mahal, Southern, Eastern, and Western Gate. The Southern Gate was meant for pedestrians and construction workers of the Taj Mahal back in the day. Today, it is also the least used gate. The Eastern Gate is known for having hoard of people there during sun rise (as the sun rises from the East). Their ticket counter is also a ten minute walk from the Eastern entrance. The Western Gate is usually used by local Indian tourists but it is also the least crowded during early entry. 

West Gate ticket counter
Security at the West Gate. It was pretty empty when we first entered
The walkway leading from the West Gate to the Great Gate

After passing through the Western Gate, we arrive at the Great Gate which is the gate before the garden and the Taj Mahal. Note that there are eleven cupolas on top of the Great Gate. There are eleven more on the other side of the Great Gate, signifying the 22 years it took to complete the Taj Mahal. There are also Arabic writing and floral patterns on the front arch of the Great Gate, which is replicated on the front of the Taj Mahal as well.

The Great Gate

Once we passed through the Great Gate, I was in awe by the sight of the garden and the Taj Mahal. It was so beautiful and quiet at this hour. Our tour guide gave us some interesting history of the Taj Mahal and walked us around the entire garden. Apparently there were plans to build a Black Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River, opposite to the Taj Mahal. The Black Taj Mahal was Shah Jahan’s way of commemorating himself. However, Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, saw that Shah was using more than half the fortune of the Moguhal empire at the time to build the Taj Mahal. Aurangzeb decided to take the throne for himself and placed his father on house arrest. The Black Taj Mahal plans had to be abandoned and Shah Jahan is now buried in the current Taj Mahal, next to his wife. 

The Taj Mahal white marble came from the near-by town of Makrana. It is a six hour drive from Makrana to Agra with a car today. So you can imagine how resource intensive it was to construct the Taj Mahal. 

The Taj Mahal in its full glory. Make sure to get this reflection picture!

Don’t forget to take as many selfies as you can while it’s still relatively empty! I did many of the classic posts. #basic

After a tour of the garden, our tour guide left us to explore the actual Taj Mahal and the mosque and the guest house that were to the left and right of the Taj Mahal by ourselves. Guests that enter this area must put on shoe cover to protect the site. 

Putting on shoe cover while touring the Taj Mahal, the mosque, and the guest house

Photography was not allowed in the Taj Mahal. But inside the structure, there lies the replicas of Shah Jahan’s and Mumtaz Mhal’s grave. The real ones are actually in the basement of the Taj Mahal and are not open to the public. 

Inside the Taj Mahal. Courtesy of Sarthak Johari of Tripoto

Both the mosque and the guest house were not open to the public so we were only able to take pictures outside. The mosque is open, however, to Islamic prayers on Fridays. Hence it is why the Taj Mahal isn’t open to the public on Fridays. The guest house, on the other hand, was meant for Shah Jahan’s guests to stay while their visit to the Taj Mahal back in the day. It also provided symmetry to the garden and structure. 

The mosque. It is to the west of the Taj Mahal. The guest house on the east looks virtually identical to this.
Don’t forget to find an arch at the mosque to get this iconic shot of the Taj Mahal
More pictures of the mosque
The detail of the roof of the mosque is exquisite
The sun finally came up while we were touring the mosque. However, because it is the month before Monsoon, everything is smoggy and dusty, which led to this color-saturated  and silkscrren-ish effect
One more of the arch and Taj Mahal photo

After the tour of the Taj Mahal at around 7:45AM , we were brought to the Howard Park Hotel (5 minutes away) for their buffet style breakfast. I was too hungry at this point to take any pictures. But it had a wide selection of Indian and Western style breakfast item such as sausages, eggs, fruits, and cereal. 

We finished our breakfast around 9AM. Since the next attraction, Agra Fort isn’t open until 10AM, our tour guide brought us to a gem / tapestry shop. No tour is complete until you have been brought to buy something! The tapestry is beautiful there and they showed us the hand-made process of making one tapestry. Although we were brought there to persuade us to buy something, I didn’t feel pressured at all. Once they felt that we weren’t interested in purchasing anything, they politely let us browse around until we were ready to leave.

Tapestry making

At 10AM, we were brought to the Agra Fort. Agra Fort was the residence of Mughal Emperor between 1526-1638, where the capital was then moved to New Delhi. Our tour guide explained the significance of each building in the Agra Fort. He also pointed out the house where Shah Jahan was placed on house arrest by his son. 

Entrance to Agra Fort
Most buildings in Agra Fort are made of either white marble of red sand stone. This is an example of white marble
This is an example of red sand stone

From Agra Fort, you can see the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River, as Shah Jahan’s goal was to be able to see his wife’s final resting place every day for the rest of his life. 

The location where Shah Jahan was being house arrested. You can see the Taj Mahal from here. You can also see me sweating a lot as it’s getting really hot after the sun has come out
The residence of the Mughal Emperor 
All the white marble have such intricate cravings 
Intricate cravings on the red sand stone buildings too

We completed the Agra Fort tour at 11AM and were brought to a carpet shop where hand-made Indian carpet is made. They were very beautiful and it was fun seeing how the carpet is made first hand. But we weren’t very interested in purchasing any. They were, again, not forceful at all and allowed us to browse for a little and take pictures before leaving. 

Hand-made carpet
From wool to carpet
The finished products

We left Agra at 11:30AM and our driver took us back to New Delhi by 2:30PM. It was a fun filled day and it was amazing to see the Taj Mahal. Don’t forget to tip your driver and tour guide. For the two of us, we gave both the driver and tour guide each INR 1000. After some research, I think it would’ve been more than enough to give the tour guide INR 1000 and the driver INR 500. But the USD – INR conversion rate is pretty favorable for us, so INR 1000 per person really wasn’t bad. It probably made their day 🙂

We went to the National Museum of India in New Delhi when we got back from Agra. Stay tuned for my next article that shows you my two days at New Delhi. 

Two Days in Cusco, Peru

Cusco is the capital of today’s Cusco region and the historical capital of the Inca Empire. It was also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. This article explores some of the tourist attractions and things to do in Cusco.

When we landed at Cusco, we immediately felt the change in elevation. Cusco sits at 11,000 feet of altitude. There are a lot of stairs going up and down the city. We were constantly out of breath, even just after climbing one flight of stairs. It is a good idea to give yourself at least a day or two in Cusco to get acclimated to the elevation before continuing on the Inca Trail hike. One of the people in our group got altitude sickness during our hike and had to be carried out of Machu Picchu. Read more about that here.

We were struggling through these stairs
Cusco is very hilly. See Central Plaza on the bottom right of this picture

Transportation

We paid 50 Soles for a local taxi to take eight of us from the airport to the Central Plaza in Cusco. I definitely recommend going the local taxi route and haggling, since taking an Uber is more expensive. We were told by one of our Peruvian friend who arrived  later that even paying 50 Soles was too expensive for the ride. So haggle, haggle, and haggle! 🙂 Once you get to the Central Plaza, everything is within walking distance. There are also taxis next to the Central Plaza if you are traveling a little further.

Accommodations

We had some issues with the Airbnb that we initially booked so we randomly walked in to Hotel & Mirador Los Apus and it worked out very well. Los Apus is very reasonably priced with their walk in rate for 11 people, 5 rooms (one triple) for $557 USD . The walk in rate was also cheaper than their rates on the official website. The hotel is centrally located and it is a ten minute walk to Cusco’s Central Plaza. There are many more options with either closer proximity to the Central Plaza or fancier accommodations, but both come at  higher price points.

Hotel entrance. Photo courtsey of Los Apus.
One of the five rooms that we stayed at. Photo courtsey of Los Apus.

Their hospitality was bar none to what we get in the US. Their breakfast spread is impressive and filled with Peruvian pastiries and other American style offerings such as sausage, egg, toast, and avocados. When they found out it was Aristo’s birthday during our stay there, they even got a cake for us! Furthermore, on the morning that we left for the Inca Trail, they even provided simple breakfast in brown bags for us at 4AM!

Feliz Cumpleaños

Luggage while trekking the Inca Trail

We left our luggage with Hotel & Mirador Los Apus while our four day trek on the Inca Trail. Most hotels in Cusco offer this service, as they are used to travelers staying in Cusco for the Inca Trail and other long treks. 

On the morning of the trek, we got luggage tags with perforated stubs. We put our names and phone number on the tag that went on the luggage and we kept the stub part with an unique identification number matching the one on the luggage. The luggage went into their storage unit until we returned from the Inca Trail Trek.

ATM Withdrawal

Most places at Cusco are cash only, especially at souvenir shops, smaller restaurants, and taxi fares. So it is a good idea to exchange for cash before your trip. But if you didn’t plan ahead, don’t fret! The BCP bank, which is in the Central Plaza, will allow you to take out large amounts of Soles with a valid credit or debit card. There is also Scotiabank in the Central Plaza and many smaller banks near by. Most of these banks work with your international credit or debit card. 

What to do in Cusco

There were a lot to do in Cusco while we got acclimated to the elevation. Here are some of the activities we did.

Central Plaza

The Central Plaza, aka Plaza de Arma, is one of the most popular attraction in Cusco. It was the historical center of colonial Cusco with Spanish-style churches like the Cusco Cathedral and Church La Compania de Jesus, souvenir shops, and restaurants.

Having breakfast overlooking the plaza
Central Plaza, Cusco
Part of our group in front of Cusco Cathedral 

ChocoMuseum

We joined the “From Bean to Chocolate” class at ChocoMuseum for one of the mornings. It was a five minute walk from the Central Plaza. The class was fun and interactive. We turned cacao beans into milk chocolate during that class. It cost ~$21USD per person (2016 rates). As of May 2018, it’s $25USD per person.

Here are some photos of chocolate making process.

Roasting cacao beans
Putting the melted chocolate into our molds with different fillings, and sampling some too!
Group photo!
There are some professionally made chocolate for sale at the ChocoMuseum too

All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) Rentals

You can sign up for a bunch of day trips while at Cusco. Aristo and Wilfred joined an all terrain vehicle day trip while in Cusco. This was actually something that was more of a spontaneous decision and not everyone in the group did but was an amazing experience. There are many tour operators in Peru and they are all along the central square. Feel free to haggle with the tour operators on the prices for the ATV rentals. We got the tour price down to 100 soles per person.

Getting Ready for ATV Exploring

The tour itself takes around 3 hours and you follow the guides around rural villages, mountain towns, and some other locations but the best location was the salt pits which we would not have seen otherwise. Here they take extract salt by evaporating extremely salty water.

Salt Pits in Peru

We highly recommend the ATV tour if you’re into taking a more active and cool tour. It is also much more affordable than ATV tours elsewhere in the world.

Other tours

There are other adventure and sight seeing day tours that you can join at Cusco. Another tour that I highly recommend is the Rainbow Mountain tour. Jack and Aristo did not have enough time in Cusco to join this tour, otherwise we would love to have experienced it. Depending on your haggling skills, you should be able to join the Rainbow Mountain day tour for 80-100 Soles.

The tour starts around 3:30AM and ends around 6:30PM. The day trip starts with a 3 hours drive from Cusco to the Rainbow Mountain. From there, it’s an 8 hour round trip hike, at an elevation from 14,000ft to 17,000ft. Once the hike is completed, it’s another 3 hour drive back to Cusco. The hike is very strenuous and not for the faint of heart. But the views are amazing. I would love to go back at some point to do this trek.

Rainbow Mountain, photo courtesy of Viator

Massages

There were a lot of street hecklers around the Central Plaza recruiting customers for massages. Usually we haggled for a while, and once we agreed on a price, we were led to their massage shop and proceeded with the actual massage. We went a total of three times, twice when we first landed at Cusco and once more after our Machu Picchu hike. All three times we were able to haggle down to 20 Soles per person. With tip, we paid 30 Soles per person per massage. We were slightly embarrassed about how smelly and grimy we were for our post Inca Trail massage. But the  masseuse told us that people do that all the time and it doesn’t really bother them. The massage after the hike was much needed and certainly the cherry on top after an enriching trek to Machu Picchu. 

Dining

Here are a few restaurants that we dined at.

Chicha
Price range: $$$
One liner: Peruvian fusion with a classy vibe. Decent cocktails too.

 

 

La Cusquenita
Price range: $$
One liner: Traditional Peruvian food with a show

Traditional Peruvian dance being performed during dinner
Guinea pig!

 

 

Jardin Cusqueno
Price Range: $
One liner: Budget friendly and decent Peruvian food with a cafe vibe and patio seating

Patio area. Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor
Sirloin sandwich

Hiking the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

Description and History

The classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a hiking trail which brings you from the 82nd kilometer marker of the Cusco Railway to Machu Picchu. It was a route of pilgrimage used by the Inca (or Emperor) in the 15th century. It is the most famous trek in South America and is rated as one of the top five treks in the world. Along the trail, you’ll trek pass Inca ruins Llactapata, Runkurakay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca and Wiñay Wayna. 

This particular trail, which attracts many hikers today, is actually part of an extensive Inca system of trails that consists of over 23,000 km of trails that integrated many different regions of South America. It was re-discovered by Hiram Bingham between 1913 and 1915 when he was clearing fields for planting crops.

Getting Permits and Booking a Tour

The first thing we needed to do in order to hike the Inca trail was to find a tour provider. The government of Peru only allows 500 people per day to enter the Inca Trail, this includes guides and porters.  A licensed Inca Trail Tour Operator must reserve these permits for hikers. Hiking the Inca trail alone is not allowed. We chose Alpaca Expeditions as they were highly rated on Trip Advisor. Please note that permits do sell out quickly. You’ll need to go ahead and book these well in advance. We booked ours about 8 months in advance to get these dates. To check for availability on Peru’s official website, click here. The website is not the most tourist friendly, and it still requires flash. You can also check for permit availability on Alpaca Expedition’s official website. On their website there is also a live chat and other useful information. We paid a $200 USD deposit via Paypal to reserve our spot, the rest was due when we got to their office in Cusco.

Arrival in Cusco – Orientation Day

After we arrived to Cusco and settled into our hotel, we checked in with Alpaca Expedition’s office. This is when the rest of our balance was due. IMPORTANT: At check in, please remember to bring your original passport and immigration forms to provide to the Alpaca staff. Immigration forms are given to you on your flight to Peru and you will need to keep it until you leave the country. They need a copy of both to present to the government for their taxes.

The night before our trek, at 6:30PM, we returned to the office for our briefing with our trekking guide and trekking group. At this point, we were introduced to our trail guide Wilson. Wilson was one of the best trail guides as he was very descriptive and entertaining. He was extremely fluent in English and the local dialects. 

After our briefing, we were given duffel bags to pack our belongings that we didn’t need during the day – i.e. extra clothes, sleeping mats, sleeping bag, pillow, toiletries, etc. Whatever we pack in our duffel bags would be with the porters all day and not returned until we got to our camp site each night.  It is important that total weight for the duffel do not exceed 7kg/14lbs. This has been regulated by the Peruvian government to safeguard the well being of the porters. That being said, the porters still carry a lot of stuff so tip them well!

Day 1 – Cusco – Piskacucho KM 82 – Llactapata Aypata

Walking distance: 8.7 miles/14 km (6-7 hours)
Elevation Gain: 3,500 Feet / 1,066 Meters
Campsite altitude: 10,826 Feet / 3,300 meters (high) above sea level
Difficulty: Moderate day (getting used to the Inca Trail) 

On the first day, Alpaca Expeditions picked us up from our hotel in Cusco at 4:30 AM. We then drove to Km 82, and arrived there around 7:00 AM. Most of us took a long nap on this delightful shuttle ride. After we arrived, our cook prepared an awesome breakfast for us complete with scrambled eggs and other delightful pastries. This was the only time we got to enjoy fresh eggs and pastries as these do not transport well on the trail. Proceeding this we went through our first Inca Trail checkpoint to begin our trek (please make sure you have your original passport with you to enter the Inca Trail).

Getting started on our hike
Group photo in front of km82 marker, the start of the Inca Trail 

The first 2 hours of the trek were relatively easy and we made it to our first Inca site, Patallacta, which is an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu. We were completely stunned by our first view of ancient Inca ruins. If you haven’t seen any before, it is quite a sight and we spent a few minutes just taking in the awesome views. Wilson gave us a few minutes to walk through the upper portion of the ruins before continuing on our trek.

Patallacta

From Patallacta, it’s another 2 hour hike to our lunch stop. This was relatively easy but with the impending rain, many of us opted to hike a little faster to get to our lunch spot.

Some of the gourmet food buffets that we had on the trail
A lot of rain on the Inca Trail as we went during the rainy season

After lunch, we hiked for another 2½ hours until we reached our first night’s campsite at Ayapata (3300 meters / 10826 feet). On this last stretch we passed through two small communities.  If you want to buy any energy drinks or snacks you can do so here, you can also buy any essential items such as batteries that you may have forgotten. We arrived at our campsite by 5:00PM and it was quite a surprise to find all of our tents and belongings had already been set up for us! We had about 2 hours to rest before dinner was served at 7:30PM.

Our porter team at the first camp
The team preparing dinner inside the chef’s tent

Since this was many of our group’s first time in the Southern Hemisphere we attempted to get some astrophotos of the night sky in the south. As you can see we managed to capture a lot of the stars and the movement at camp.

Night time at camp

Day 2 – Ayapata – Dead Woman’s Pass – Runcuraccay Pass – Chaquiccocha

Walking distance: 9.94 miles / 16 km (7-8 hours)
Elevation Gain: 4,500 Feet / 1,371 Meters 
Campsite altitude: 11811 feet / 3600 meters (high) above sea level (chilly weather)
Difficulty: Top day (you will have survived the two highest passes)
Area: Andes and Cloud Forest

The second day is the hardest day on the Inca trail, however your porters will make sure to fuel you up in the morning. They delivered us hot towels and tea in our tents as we awoke early in the morning (around 6:30 AM). From there we got to enjoy a nice hot breakfast filled with delicacies such as a fruit turkey, pancakes, and more!

Getting up for the second morning
Breakfast turkey

Following breakfast we began our hike for about 4 hours up to Dead Woman’s Pass. From the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, we spent about an hour waiting for the rest of our group to catch up and also enjoyed some hot coca leaf tea. 

Unfortunately on our ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass, one of the members in our party started to exhibit extreme symptoms of altitude sickness. Wilfred had to be helped by our tour guide Wilson to reach the pass.

On the trail
Our group at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass
At the top of Dead Woman’s Pass 4,215m (13,828 ft)

Once we reached Dead Woman’s Pass we descended into the Pacayamau Valley for 1.5 hours until we reached our lunch spot. Lunch was amazing as always and very much needed after getting up and over Dead Woman’s Pass.

Backside of Dead Woman’s Pass

After lunch we continued onto Runkurakay Pass where we passed by some smaller ruins. These smaller ruins are much smaller than the cities and towns that we previously passed. Archaeologists assume this must have been a small post house where messengers relaxed after Dead Woman’s Pass and before continuing on for the rest of their journey towards Machu Picchu.

Runkurakay
Checking out the bottom of the Valley

After reaching Runkurakay Pass, it was another hour downhill hike to reach the magnificent Inca site, Sayacmarca. To get to this particular ruin we went up some steep and narrow steps cut from stone. This was the biggest ruin we explored so far and is situated on top of a rock outcropping. The ruin is separated into two parts, a fortress on top and a farming section below. 

Sayacmarca
From Sayacmarca we can see our campsite already set up in the distance

We toured Sayacmarca for about 30 minutes and hiked for another 20 mins to our campsite. Our campsite was already set up upon our arrival and the dinner was well underway as well!

Sunset in our tent

Day 3 – Chaquiccocha – Winaywayna Camp

Walking distance: 6.2 miles / 10km (5 hours)
Elevation Gain:  1200 Feet / 365 meters
Campsite altitude: 8530 Feet / 2,600 meters (high) above sea level (chilly weather)
Difficulty: Easy day – all downhill!
Area: High Cloud Forest

After our breakfast, we hiked for 2 hours along what was known as “Inca flat” (gradual inclines) and begin to enter the jungle region, known as the Cloud Forest. As we hiked, we had the opportunity to see the majesty of Salkantay, the second highest snow-capped mountain in the Sacred Valley, and a fantastic panoramic view of the Vilcabamba mountain range. Towards the end of the Inca flats we began to make our way up to the last peak at Phuyupatamarka (3600 meters / 11811 feet) which provided great views overlooking the Urubamba River.

Getting the day started right with a group picture on the trail

Unfortunately during this part of the trip, Wilfred experienced serious symptoms of high altitude sickness including a fever and shortness of breath. He was carried to the next campsite by three porters who alternated carrying him down the trail.

Wilfred being carried

On our descent, we visited 2 Inca ruins, Phuyupatamarka (Town in the Clouds) and Intipata (Terraces of the Sun).

Phuyupatamarka
Phuyupatamarka
Intipata
Our group overlooking the valley at Intipata

Once we passed the two sites, we arrived at our campsite around 1:00PM to have lunch. We then got the rest of the day to relax and hang out before we had an orientation about Machu Picchu and what to expect the next day. In the latter part of the afternoon, Wilson took us to the near by Inca ruins, Wiñay Wayna. We spent 1.5 hours there exploring the ruins. The ruin was only a short walk from our campsite and it is truly an amazing ruin, which is second to that of only Machu Picchu.

Wiñay Wayna
Another view of Wiñay Wayna

This night, the team went above and beyond on their cooking skills as they prepared a cake for one of our group member’s birthday, Cindy. They managed to scrap together a cake from the ingredients they have, and it was quite tasty as well. We were pleasantly surprised by this as we had only mentioned Cindy’s birthday through our casual conversation with Wilson during the trek.

Amazing cake prepared by our chef Alberto

Day 4 – Machu Picchu – The Lost City of the Incas / Hyuna Picchu

Walking distance: 4.5 miles/ 7.2 km (5 hours) – distance includes Hyuna Picchu
Elevation Gain: 1900 Feet / 579 Meters 
Difficulty: The most exciting and magical day (early wake up 3.30AM)
Area: High Cloud and Subtropical Forest
Weather: Hot and very humid (bring lots of water)

On the last day of our journey we had to wake up extremely early – about 3:30 AM. We woke up this early in order to get a spot in line for hiking through the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu. The earlier we were in line, the quicker and less crowded it would be for us passing into Machu Picchu.

It was also at this time that Wilfred was having severe trouble breathing and was barely able to stand. Wilson radioed the staff at the Machu Picchu station to inform them of the situation. The staff let Wilfred and the three alternating porters carrying him into the Sun Gate early so he can be carried through to a medical facility. Wilfred later accounted that, while he was in and out of consciousness, he saw Machu Picchu in all of its glory while on the back of a porter on the way to the medical facility. 

Even though Wilfred was let in early into the Sun Gate, the rest of our group remained at the entrance. We found that there were many tour groups lining up for the opportunity to be first through the Sun Gate when we got in line at 4:30AM. We were given a very simple breakfast, a breakfast biscuit, an apple, and a juice box. It wasn’t a lot, but it was fulfilling enough to get us going to Machu Picchu. We then waited until the Sun Gate open at 5:30 AM. It was also at this point we parted ways with our porters (excluding the ones that were carrying Wilfred). The remainder of the trip was between our group and Wilson. 

Waiting at the Sun Gate

We reached the Sun Gate by 6:30AM and were greeted with a cloudy view of Machu Picchu. We decided to sit at the Sun Gate for 20 minutes to see if the clouds would clear and they actually did! You can see the time lapse of this towards the end of our Machu Picchu video.

Nice View of Machu Picchu
The clouds cleared in time for a group picture!

Once we reached Machu Picchu, Wilson explained the extended history of how the city came to be and what each different building in Machu Picchu was used for. We noticed there were extensive restoration projects underway on many of the buildings to try to restore Machu Picchu to its former glory. The awe of the city is something that cannot simply be described by words and pictures. It’s something you must truly visit yourself and see it with your own eyes.

Clouds rolling in on the city
Panoramic shot of the city

After we finished exploring around Machu Picchu, we had earlier arranged to hike Huaynapicchu at an additional fee of $65 USD.  It is well worth it to do this  hike. However, some people preferred not to due to the intensity involved in hiking this particular mountain after hiking the Inca trail. Much of the trail is very steep and involves getting on your hands and knees.

Cindy and Deb getting down on their hands and knees to hike up the stairs

Unfortunately when we got to the top, we were enveloped in clouds and could not see too much so there wasn’t much to take pictures of. However, if it’s a sunny day, you can be sure to see Machu Picchu in it’s entirety!

Jack and Aristo at the top of Huaynapicchu
All fog at the ruins near the top of Huaynapicchu
Entire GPS track

Tipping After the Hike

Alpaca Expeditions Tipping Verbiage: “It is customary in Peru to tip your crew at the end of the trek. Please know that Alpaca makes sure to give our entire team a good salary and they do not survive off only their tips. We do want to share some advice on how to do this, since different cultures have different preferences about tipping. Porters and chefs do prefer tips in soles. Often the entire team of trekkers will pool money together for the Green Machine and each porter will receive between 60 – 80 soles and the chef usually receives double. For your guide, this is often a personal decision and done by each separate group.”

For our group we pooled together all of our tips and gave each porter 80 soles, the chef 160 soles, and we gave our tour guide Wilson the most at 100 soles (per person from our group).

Post Hike

After our hike, we were given our shuttle bus tickets so we could make our way down from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes.

Aguas Calientes – Small town at the foothill of Machu Picchu
Street shopping in Aguas Calientes – feel free to bargain!

Wilson met us in the village and took us to a nice local restaurant for our last meal together. He also gave us our train tickets at this time so we could return  to Ollantaytambo.

We were booked the Expedition class train departing Aguas Calientes at 4:20. Please make sure you are on the platform at least 30 minutes ahead of time. This train takes about 2 hours and has large windows. This allowed us to see views and ruins which we previously did not see on the trail.

Getting on the Peru Rail
Time to pass out from a long day

After our train arrived in Ollantaytambo, we were met by our Alpaca driver and Wilson who took us the rest of the way to Cusco by a 2 hour car ride. However, before stopping at our hotel, we went to visit Wilfred at the hospital.

Wilfred was carried to a medical facility at Machu Picchu and given oxygen for his altitude sickness. The doctor there then escorted him to the train station for a train back to Ollantaytambo. From Ollantaytambo, an ambulance picked up Wilfred and drove him all the way to the hospital at Cusco.

Wilson was kind enough to stop at a cake shop and pick up a cake for Wilfred as it happened to be his birthday also.

Celebrating Wilfred’s birthday in the hospital

After our visit to the hospital, we were dropped off at our hotel. We waved good bye to Wilson and this unforgettable journey. From there, we flew back to Lima where we sight-saw, paraglided, and fine dined at The Central. Post for Lima coming soon!

Credit to Deb LeMonds for the hike tracking data! 🙂

How to Save Money on Dining During Road Trips

The summer season is fast approaching and that means more road trips. With more road trips inevitably means more fast food dining, and these costs can quickly add up with a family of 5. With the ubiquity of the internet and smartphones, these dining options can be a whole lot cheaper. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the ways that you can save by using apps and other options on your road trip. We’ll talk about a few of the popular options: McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, and Wendy’s. If you have more tips, feel free to share them in the comments below.

McDonald’s

The McDonald’s app is the most well developed app out of all the fast food apps. It allows deals and orders to be made in store, at the drive-thru, or in app. The app also has the most quality and quantity deals out of any other app. Depending on where you are located they will also have regional deals as well. In Los Angeles they offer deals when the Kings, LA Clippers, or Dodgers score a certain point or whatever they deem as the promotion during that period.

San Francisco deals

 

Los Angeles Dodgers shoutout from McDonalds

Some deals are specific to mobile order only, while others allow for both restaurant order and mobile order. To redeem the deal with mobile order, simply add the deal to your mobile order and continue with the order at the payment page. To use at restaurant, pull up the deal with the app and scan it when paying at the restaurant. 

Buy One Get One 1/4 Pounder

 

Burger King

The one breakfast deal that I always go for on the Burger King app is the $4 for 2 Croissan’wich, 1 small hashbrown, and 1 small coffee. I can’t even get the ingredients to cook all those things for $4!

Once you redeem a coupon, you will have 15 minutes to use the coupon code. Simply order in store or at the drive-thru and tell your cashier the 4 digit code prompted on the screen and they will have the order ready for you. 

The Burger King app offers Mobile Payment option where you can add a PayPal account or a BK Crown Card. However, there’s no option to order online. It seems like Burger King has some catching up to do on their app development.

Main Burger King page

Starbucks

Starbucks are located throughout the US and in most airports so it makes it very easy for you to use Starbucks rewards. The difference between Starbucks and the other ones listed here is that Starbucks works on a reward scheme. You have to earn points in order to be able to redeem for free items.

As a rewards member you earn 2 points for ever $1 you spend. However, they often have promotions which fast track your earnings to redeem for items much quicker.

Example of a “star challenge” listed below.

Star dash details

Often times Starbucks has additional promotions where they offer certain amount of stars for loading your card with money. These are some of the best promotions as you don’t have to spend any money to get stars.

In order to redeem these points you will tell your cashier that you want to redeem your points for a reward – which can be redeemed for any menu item. It’s important to note that any redemption costs 125 stars – so even if you are deciding between redeeming for a small coffee or a sandwich, both will cost 125 stars.  I usually use my rewards for something more than a drink – either a panini or a salad. My favorite panini option is: Chicken & Double-Smoked Bacon.

Wendy’s

Note that Wendy’s is one of the few fast food chains that does not serve breakfast menu. They also generally has less offers and less value saving in their offers. But it’s still money saved by using these coupons. 

The same code ordering scheme is used at Wendy’s as it is at Burger King. Follow the instruction on the app to retrieve the offer code and provide it to the cashier.

Wendy’s offer screen

The app has an “Order” button but when I click on it, it could not find any locations near the Bay area that offers online ordering. However, it is available in SoCal at one location in Burbank so we suspect this feature is still being tested and not available nationwide yet.

Gift Cards

One topic that isn’t discussed much in this article are gift cards. If you carefully craft your road trip, you will know which fast food or dining options are in the area. In this case, you can save even more by pre-purchasing gift cards for these particular chain establishments from places such as Costco, Giftcardbin, Ebay, and other various websites. If you stack these gift card purchases with the coupons and rewards programs listed above, it will save you a ton of money.

Alternatively, you can also use apps like Swych / Gyft to buy Fast Food Chain gift cards. These will code as 5x the points with cards like Chase Ink Plus. Chase’s Ultimate Rewards points, when redeemed for travel, is valued highly due to the lucrative nature of travel redemption. These gift cards can be used with coupons as well because they are treated as cash / debit cards.

Buying gift cards on Ebay

 

Gift cards on Costco’s website – instore offerings may be different

 

Gyft App screenshot

 

Swych App screenshot

Day Trip to Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is a beautiful national park that’s close to the San Francisco Bay area, making it possible to do it in a day trip. It is about 2.5 hours away from San Francisco, and is one of the newest national park in the to be inducted into the National Park system back in 2013. 

The park itself is approximately 26,000 acres (compared to 750,000 acres at Yosemite). It is formed 23 million years ago from volcanic eruptions. Throughout the years, erosion led to the unique pinnacles and cave formations. The landscape in Pinnacles National Park is quite diverse, with the west side containing the pinnacles and canyons and the east side filled with grasslands and  chaparral.

Few tips about Pinnacles National Park before your visit:

  • Entrances: There are two entrances to the park – East and West side. There are no roads connecting the two entrances (only foot trail) so you must pick one to enter. The East Entrance contains the campground and is open 24 hours. The West Entrance is open from 7:30AM to 8PM. Vehicles can still exit even after the gate is closed. I highly recommend entering from the West Entrance if you are making a day trip. It is less crowded and is close to the Balconies Cave.
  • Times to visit: Pinnacles National Park gets to the high 90s F and is extremely dry during the summer. So it is recommended that you visit the park during Spring or Winter time. Spring is preferable as Winter season can have moderate rain as well. I also recommend arriving early to the park to avoid both the hot mid-day sun and the crowd.
  • What to see / do: The park is known for its caves. There is also hiking, rock climbing, and bird watching Prairie, Peregrine, and the endangered California condors.
  • Be prepared: Brings lots of water and sunscreen for this hike. Most trails aren’t covered! Also bring a flashlight or headlamp for cave exploring.

Getting there

As mentioned earlier, Pinnacles National Park is a quick 2.5 hours drive from San Francisco. We left the Bay area around 7:30AM and arrived at the West entrance by 10AM.


Did you really go to a National Park if you didn’t take a picture in front of its sign?

Hiking

Since it’s our first time here, we figured we would do the most comprehensive trail, a counter-clockwise loop around the park! We started at the Juniper Canyon Trail, then continue on the High Peaks Trail,  then Old Pinnacles Trail, then the Balconies Cave Trail, and finally the Balcony Trail for a complete loop of 10.2 miles. It took us about 5 hours total. 


Our Strava map of the loop we did

Juniper Canyon Trail

We started off at Juniper Canyon Trail which has high elevation gains. We wanted to do the high elevation part first because this is when we still have the most energy in the day. There were lots of switchbacks on this trail but the views are worth it!


Panoramic view while climbing up the Juniper Canyon Trail


Once we got up to the top, the view was even better! And of course, I had to climb to the top rock at the peak to get those good photos!


Another panoramic view from the top.


It wasn’t too crowded when we were at the top of Juniper Canyon Trail around 12PM.

High Peak Trail

At the high peak, it switches from the Juniper Canyon Trail to High Peak Trail. Although the High Peak Trail sits on the highest elevation of the park, and has some more elevation gains, the steepest part of our hike was at the Juniper Canyon Trail. 

The unique part about High Peak Trail is that there are narrow and steep stairs that you have to occasionally climb through. Here are some examples of the stairs that we had to do. 

The struggle was real.

Old Pinnacles Trail

After the High Peaks Trail, it starts declining back to lower elevation. The whole trail is a gradual decline with barely any covers. It was hot and bare and it definitely hampered my mood to take any photos during this part of the trail. Here’s a picture of a dry creek that we passed through while on Old Pinnacles Trail.

Balconies Cave Trail

After what seemed like a forever sunny hike, we got to the Balconies Cave Trail where the cave is! The cave was significantly cooler and was very fun to explore. Definitely bring a flashlight or headlight as it gets pretty dark in there.

 

This is the darkest part of the cave. We stayed for a while doing some long exposure photography.

We had some fun with the rocks too!

Balcony Trail

After the caves, it’s another 10 minutes of flat ground on Balcony Trail to walk back to the parking lot.

Winery

We finished the hike at around 3PM and started driving out of the park. Then, about 3.5 miles from the West Entrance, we saw these signs for multiple wineries. You can’t miss them as there is only one road in and out of the park. We randomly picked Michaud Vineyard and started driving towards it. It took about another 4 miles into that split from the main road to get to Michaud Vineyard.

Their wine tasting is $12 per person. Sara and I ended up splitting one because I have to drive. Their wine is quite good. I enjoyed their Table Red and Pinot Noir a lot! And their tasting room gives an excellent view of the pinnacles!

Gilroy

We passed by Gilroy, CA on our drive back to the Bay. Gilroy is known for their production of garlic. It is nicknamed “Garlic Capital of the World”. They even have a Gilroy Galric Festival every year which offers interesting cuisine like garlic ice-cream (I tried it and personally wouldn’t recommend it, but different strokes for different folks!). 

But did you know Gilroy also offer cherry picking? We didn’t actually end up picking cherries this trip but saw multiple signs that had cherries for sale. So we stopped at one of them and bought some fresh fruits before heading home!

Budget

This was a fun day trip filled with loads of activities. It was also really good on the wallet too!

Pro tip: if you are a national park frequent visitor, I strongly suggest getting the America the Beautiful annual pass. It is $80 for one year. The Pinnacles National Park entrance fee is $25 per vehicle. Other national parks are usually $30 per vehicle. So if you go to more than 3 national parks within a year, the pass will already have paid for itself. This is also why I didn’t have any entrance fee cost in the budget below.

Description Cost Cost per person
Meals / snacks $50.00 $25.00
Wine Tasting $12.00 $6.00
Fruits $11.00 $5.50
Gas $45.00 $22.50
Total $118.00 $59.00

Getting Interviewed

While at the park, we were interviewed by the local news channel about the recent price increase of the Pinnacles National Park entrance fees! Refer to the Budget section above for my solution to the ever increasing park entrance fee!

 

How to photograph the Northern Lights and was the igloo hotel (Kakslauttanen Resort) worth it?

The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are lights that are created by solar winds bombarding the Earth’s magnetosphere. The lights are amazing and something that one should check out if they have the time, means, and willingness to brave the harsh cold weather to do it. 

I was fortunate enough to go to the Arctic Circle in Lapland, Finland in March of 2017 with a few friends. Few facts to kick off this blog post: 1) Lapland is the largest and northernmost region of Finland, with the majority of the region lying above the Arctic Circle. 2) Average sunlight during the dead of winter is about 4 hours (10AM-2PM) and average temperature are between – 16 °C (3 °F) to 3 °C (37 °F). 3) There is a town in Lapland called Kakslauttanen where the Kakslauttanen Resort offers glass igloo rooms for guest to observe the Northern Lights.


Lapland 


Kakslauttanen Resort

Getting There

We used American Airline miles to get to Finland / Norway. This was a multi-country trip but in this article, I will focus on the Lapland portion. During winter season (off-peak), AA Saver Awards round trip to Europe is only 45k miles. Of course, you have to be flexible with the travel dates and book in advanced to ensure this rate. Once we were in Europe, we bounced around Finland and Norway using budget airlines like Norwegian Air and SAS.

For more information about getting AA miles and how to use them to redeem for cheap flights, refer to one of my favorite credit card guru, DoctorOfCredit.

There are many airports around the Arctic Circle. The closest one to the  Kakslauttanen Resort is Ivalo Airport (IVL). The reason that we flew into KKN was because the flights going to IVL during our trip dates were 2-3 times more expensive. Other airports near the Kakslauttanen Resort are SOT(1.5 hours), RVN(2.5 hours), KTT(2.5 hours), KKN(3.5 hours), ENF(4 hours), KEM(4 hours). If you are truly on a budget constraint but have ample time, you can also consider driving from Helsinki to Ivalo (12 hour drive). 

Flying into KKN was great as it was one of the most northern edge town of Norway. We got to see the Barnets Sea and drove across the border into Finland for this trip.

Flight Cost
JFK->OSL / HEL->JFK 45k AA miles + $44.56 in fees
OSL->KKN $100
KKN->HEL $110


Snow everywhere in Lapland!

Car rental

I highly recommend getting a car rental in Lapland, simply because it will make traveling around a lot easier. It will also allow you to chase the lights versus staying at a particular area / near the hotel when the lights may be elsewhere.

There were only a handful of car rental at KKN so options were limited. We went with Budget car rental. They gave us an automatic car even though we booked for manual. The car even came with studded tires, which is a necessity in Lapland. Most of their roads are not plowed during the winter. They know trying to beat the snow is a futile attempt. So they simply view snow as a matter-of-fact and learn to drive on it with the proper tires and mentality.  


Crossing the border between Norway and Finland. This was about as plowed as the road ever got during our trip in the Arctic Circle.

Accommodations

We were in Lapland for four days and three nights. Two of those night we stayed at a hotel in Ivalo and one of the nights we were at Kakslauttanen Resort at the glass igloo room. Airbnb wasn’t really an option in Lapland as there wasn’t enough people around the area to host their homes. The prices with Airbnb was similar, if not more expensive, than hotels around the area.

How to chase the lights

In general, the best way to see the lights is to find a really dark spot. There are also several apps that I downloaded to help us chase the Northern Lights. I highly recommend downloading them at home before you get to your destination to avoid any data or Wi-Fi issues.

Most of these apps are pretty intuitive and easy to use. The two that I used were Aurora Alerts and Aurora. 

Both Aurora Alerts and Aurora gives you forecast of kp number around your area. Kp number is a measure of aurora strength. It goes from 0-9, with a higher number representing stronger aurora activity. Both apps also offer Aurora Map showing where the Aurora activity is in the world right now. 


Aurora Alerts App


Aurora App

Both apps also allow you to drop a pin at any locations on the map to see their Aurora forecast. This is helpful when you drop pins at different locations near your hotel to see which area has the best Aurora activity at the moment. I personally like Aurora Alerts better because their interface is slightly more intuitive in my opinion. To change location on the Aurora Alerts app, you simple click on the map icon on the home page, as circled in red in the image. You can also have multiple locations saved in the app.

Aurora also allows pin dropping. But it is not as obvious. You have to click on the KP index box first, then it opens up a notification box asking whether you want to change the location. And you also cannot store multiple locations in this app. 

We were fortunate enough to see the Northern Lights two nights out the three that we were there. For the first night, after checking the apps, we drove to a location an hour north of Ivalo that had  kp number of about 3-4.  And the second night, where we were at Kakslauttanen Resort, the kp number was about 4-5. 

Photographing the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are actually fainter than all the photographs that you have seen on the internet. That’s because the camera actually does a way better job than the human eyes can perceive and capture the lights. In real life, the Northern Lights are more like a colored haze. After your eyes have adjusted to the dark skies, the Northern Lights become easier to spot. They usually come in waves, with periods of strong activity follow by periods of low to no activity. When the aurora activity is strong, the colors of the lights become stronger and more diverse. The most common color is green. But during strong Aurora activity, you can spot purple or red colors in the lights. 

Equipment

If you only have a cell phone camera, the native camera app will not be able to capture the lights as they cannot perform long exposure photography. There are apps like the Northern Lights Photo Taker which is a camera app that has preset settings for performing these long exposures captures. I have not personally used them but the app is an inexpensive option if you do not have a DSLR.

For those with cameras that allow manual settings, this will be your best bet for capturing the Northern Lights. I was traveling light for this trip, so all I had was my Sunpak tripod, Nikon D5100, and wide angle lens Sigma 10-20mm, f3.5. For those that can bring better equipment, I highly suggest bringing your fastest wide angle lens, preferably with aperture f.2.8 or lower.

Settings

It took a few tries on the spot to get my photos to come out beautifully. Note that I had a full moon the first night that I was in Lapland, so it definitely helped to illuminate the snow and trees in the foreground but also may have drowned out the more dimly lit Northern Lights. 

With the full moon, super long exposure (15-30s) will capture a lot of the Northern Lights, but it will also blend everything together and remove any distinct patterns of the lights.


f3.5, 30s, ISO1000


f3.5, 30s, ISO3200
The long exposure here was too long, making it seem like day time, with the Northern Lights all blended together.

Whereas if you do a shorter exposure (5s), but keep the ISO high and aperture low, you can get better results. The high ISO may make the photo grainy, but you can fix that in post-processing.


f4, 5s, ISO1600

On the second night, where we had Aurora activity earlier in the night, thus the moon wasn’t as high or as lit yet. I had to change the settings to a longer exposure to compensate for dimmer skies and foreground.


f3.5, 13s, ISO1600


f3.5, 15s, ISO1000

Depending on the conditions that you are shooting, you will have to adjust the settings accordingly. As a blanket statement, I suggest 5-15 second exposure, with ISO1250-2000, and aperture as low as possible f1.8-3.5.

Think foregrounds and backgrounds

When photographing the Northern Lights, think about foregrounds and backgrounds! Your foreground shouldn’t be too busy to distract the viewer from the main highlight of the picture, the Northern Lights in the background! This sounds slightly unintuitive as I am calling the Northern Lights the background. But I am simply using this foreground/background nomenclature because the Northern Lights are at the back of the photo, hence background. And the foreground is the environment immediately to the front of the camera.

For foregrounds, I highly suggest finding a place with unobstructed views. Photographing the Northern Lights at a lake or any bodies of water would be best. You will have unobstructed foreground and the body of water may even reflect the lights, allowing for more light to enter into your camera. The second best thing would be to find an open field which is what we ended up doing. We were at an open snow field with some trees further away. The trees provided some context of the scale of the photo and the expanse of the Northern Lights in the sky.

With this foreground and background in mind, the Kakslauttanen Resort was difficult to shoot the Northern Lights because all the glass igloos are close together and did not provide that open field that I desired. Immediately beyond the glass igloos were tree lines so it added to a very busy foreground. These busy igloos present a unique challenge in photographing them but also provided a different view of the Northern Lights that made for some beautiful timelapses (see next section).

Timelapse

Don’t forget to do some timelapses too! Same settings as suggested in the Settings section. My camera had a timelapse mode where I set it to take a photo every minute for about half an hour. I later stitched together all the photos using Apple’s iMovie.

What else to do in the Arctic Circle

There are a lot more to do in the Arctic Circle than chasing the Northern Lights! We joined a Husky Safari and a Snowmobile Safari while there. You can also enjoy ice fishing, snow shoeing, reindeer rides, cross country skiing, and horseback riding in Lapland. 

I do suggest joining these tours at a local vendor instead of joining the ones at  Kakslauttanen Resort. They are cheaper and Kakslauttanen Resort actually just subcontract out their activities to these vendors anyway! The only advantage that the resort bookings offer are the transportation to and from the resort and the activity destination. But if you are renting a car already, why pay for that “extra” service? 🙂 

Here’s a comparison chart that I made (winter 2017 rates, all in USD) when I was deciding which company to join our tours at. Prices may have changed, but in general, the Kakslauttanen Resort rate was more expensive.

We went with Husky & Co for all our tours. They were reasonably priced and I enjoyed both the Husky and Snowmobile tour with them. 

Kakslauttanen Resort

The resort offers many different kinds of rooms for enjoying the Northern Lights. Anything from rustic log chalets with a glass igloo observation deck, to snow igloos, and to the most famous of all, glass igloos.

For this article, I will focus on the glass igloo that we stayed at, since that is also the selling point of the resort. The glass igloo comes in either two-person room or four-person room. We were a group of three people so we opted for the four-person room. The 2017 rate was 883euros for three people. I did a quick search for March 2019, and the rate is 954 euros for three people. 

The four-person room has a shower and a toilet. The two-person room only has a toilet. The room is pretty spacious with a privacy curtain on the bottom to block off yourself from the other rooms. The room was also HOT! It wasn’t an uncomfortable kind of hot. It was just hot enough compared to the -25 °C degree outside that you feel comfortable walking around the room in shorts and t-shirt. The room even has a kettle with tea bags. It has all the basic amenities you’d expect from a hotel, except for the TV. But who needs a TV when you are watching the Northern Lights all night long? The only small complaint I have of the room is that they are placed fairly close to other igloo rooms. So if you are unlucky and have neighbors that turn their room light on and off all night long, it will be slightly distracting.

The price includes a dinner and breakfast the next day. Here are some pictures of the three-course dinner (with bread).

The breakfast was buffet style.

Overall the meals were pretty good. And I had a great time watching the Northern Lights in the comfort of a warm room. 

Is Kakslauttanen Resort worth it?

The short(ish) answer to whether the Kakslauttanen Resort is worth it? If you are a photographer, no. But if you hate the cold but wants to see the Northern Lights; or if you are traveling with family with a wide age range and different physical abilities; or if you have already traveled to the edge of the world to see the lights, and might as well be bougie about it; then yes! I certainly enjoyed my stay there for the night. 

A Guide to Scuba Diving in the Caribbean – Roatán, Honduras

 

For those of us who are not familiar with Roatán – it is an island in the Caribbean Bay Islands and is part of the country of Honduras. Roatán is mainly known for its dive sites and specifically catering to divers. It also happens to be a cruise ship-docking site, which services a variety of brands such as Norwegian and Royal Caribbean. Our vacation was diving focused so the rest of this article will be related to diving.

Getting There

There are many options to get to Roatán – Juan Manuel Galvez International Airport (RTB). Flying from the US you can choose either an American carrier or a variety of other carriers from other countries, which service RTB. Since we were flying from LAX we opted to use American Airlines and connect through Dallas Forth Worth (DFW).

Below is our flight schedule:

Flights for this region can be as cheap as 25,000 AA miles round trip. However for our specific dates the round trip cost ended up being around 40,000 AA miles round trip – so it wasn’t the best redemption but still a very good value with round trip ticket dollar costs hovering around $700 for economy tickets.

Approaching Roatan

Accommodations in Roatán

There are a ton of resorts on the island itself and many of them cater to divers. I would highly suggest staying at one of the smaller resorts as they really pander to your individual needs and customize packages to your liking. We ended up staying at Seagrape Plantation Resort  and opted for their 7 Nights Accommodation / 14 Dives package and chose the Ocean View Bungalow.

Seagrape also provides pick up and airport drop off service so it is really convenient and they take care of everything.

Seagrape is a short airport transfer from the airport
Police riding in the back of the pickup is one the first thing we see

I would highly suggest opting for the Ocean View Bungalow as it is quite an awesome upgrade over the hotel experience. The bungalows all have A/C as well which is a nice added bonus during the hot and humid Caribbean heat. The bungalows have a single shared wall with another bungalow next to you but you have your own porch and balcony with a hammock.   It’s an excellent place to relax after a long day of diving or resting in between dives.

Interior shot of one of our bungalows with a double and single bed
Sunset from the pool
Sunset from the porch while hanging out on the hammock

Here were our details for our costs and their reservation policies:

Bungalow (Double – Per Person) $856.80
Rates includes:
*19% Honduran sales tax
*7 nights accommodation ocean view bungalow
*14 dives each
*No additional charge for dive equipment
*2 meals per day (Breakfast & Lunch)
*Airport pickup and drop off

Reservation Policy: We require a 50% deposit due 30 days prior to your arrival. Balance is due upon check-in. Deposits are non-refundable, Deposits are valid for 1 year from the date of booking and may be applied to a future reservation within this time period. Deposits may be made by credit card, mail, or funds transfers(wired).

For those of you who are looking to get certified, the rates were not that much more to get certified at Seagrape. The open water diver course and an additional 5 dives after the course costed $904.05 per person.

Their included breakfast and lunches were simply amazing. Everyday was different and the menu was always varied and never the same. I can’t say enough about the local cooking they provide and simply say that a homecooked meal away from home is hard to get!

Our group enjoying breakfast in the morning before diving
Typical Lunch – An Amazing Chicken Sandwich with Fries

As a testament to their level of customer service – later on in the trip Jade got an ear infection and the owners drove us to the hospital in Coxen Hole. They spoke to them in Spanish and translated for us and helped us throughout the whole ordeal. They come highly recommended!

Seagrape Diveshop

The diveshop is located just a short walk from your hotel room or bungalow – the walk only takes less than 5 minutes and is quite pleasant. The sign up for diving is fairly straight forward – they have a white board which you sign up for different time slots (8:30 , 10:30, 14:30). Depending on how many people they have signed up for a particular dive they will operate more boats if needed. The boat will return to shore after each dive to get new tanks so if you need to grab something in between dives you can leave it in the office where it’s relatively safe.

Dive Board – showing sign ups for dives during the day

They do offer free rental gear as well. I personally did not rent any gear since I had my own gear but their rental gear seems to be nice and well kept. Most people who were diving here opted to use the free rental gear so that’s a huge plus if you don’t have your own gear.

Seagrape’s pier and the dive boats docked
Getting up on the dive boat

Diving in Roatán

Most of the dive sites that they operate are within a 20 min boat ride from the resort so they are fairly close together.  The dives here were pretty awesome and for the amount of diving we were doing we really enjoyed the temps being in the mid to low 80s.

Below are all of our dives listed in chronological order including the dive time and site

  Date Day Time Dive Site
1 5/14/2017 Sunday 8:30 AM Seaquest
2 5/14/2017 Sunday 10:30 AM Overheat
3 5/14/2017 Sunday 2:30 PM The Wife
4 5/15/2017 Monday 8:30 AM Hole in the Wall
5 5/15/2017 Monday 10:30 AM Melissa’s Reef
6 5/15/2017 Monday 2:30 PM Bikini Bottom
7 5/16/2017 Tuesday 8:30 AM Spooky Channel
8 5/16/2017 Tuesday 10:30 AM Lighthouse Reef
9 5/16/2017 Tuesday 2:30 PM Blue Channel
10 5/17/2017 Wednesday 8:30 AM Texas
11 5/17/2017 Wednesday 10:30 AM Temptation
12 5/17/2017 Wednesday 6:00 PM Gibson Bight (Night Dive)
13 5/18/2017 Thursday 8:30 AM Mary’s Place
14 5/18/2017 Thursday 10:30 AM Prince Albert Wreck
15 5/18/2017 Thursday 2:30 PM Canyon Reef

If you’d like further details about dive profiles and depths please feel free to shoot us an email.

Below are some of the things you can expect to see on your dives:

There are also a lot of swim throughs and crevasses which you can go through. If you haven’t been through some of these before it is highly recommended that you try and go through these!

Spooky Channel – A cool crevasse!

Roatán – Food

Seagrape is located in what is known as the West End and you are very close to a variety of shops and restaurants. Since Seagrape catered to us for breakfast and lunch we did have to find somewhere to go for dinner. They do not provide dinner and so we had to head out to town to take a look at the local offerings. We noticed that a lot of places have people outside heckling tourists and asking them to come in to try their food. The food here in general is pretty cheap when compared to American prices as long as you know where to go. Some of the restaurants that cater specifically to Americans and/or tourists are much more expensive and can really run up your food budget. Also please note that not all places accept credit cards but most places will accept American dollars. I have never seen the Honduran Lempira or how it looks so you can get the idea of how you will fare as an American with USD.

Map of Seagrape and Roatán
$5 lunch at Calelu’s in the West End

There are plenty of street food vendors. We were not the least bit wary of these and found these to be quite good. There was a man and his son who happily served us food on the beach and brought us large plates of meats. He served various plates of pork, beef, and or chicken for $6 each.

Street Side Charcoal Grill

Another place that we found that was quite tasty was Anthony’s Chicken – it was a little more established but not quite up to the standards of a what would be considered a typical restaurant in the US. The menu was written on poster board with Sharpie – but don’t let that stop you at all!

Anthony out front cooking the meat and the menu
A typical $5 plate at Anthony’s Chicken in the West End

Creole’s Rotisserie Chicken is also another really good place in the West End that offers a ton of food for $20 – you get a whole chicken + 4 fixings. We ordered two of them for $40 total and you can see how much good we got for $40! Needless to say we were completely stuffed afterwards.

A large sampling of what is to be had at Creole’s Rotisserie Chicken

Coconut Tree Diver’s Restaurant was by far one of the more expensive restaurants that we went to due to it’s proximity to a resort. Their plates ranged between $15 – $25 for dinner and we found the food to taste quite great but priced for tourists as you didn’t get quite as much food as some other places, i.e. less value.

Lobster and shrimp plate at Coconut Tree Restaurant

One of the nights we decided to venture out of the West End and head into Coxen Hole to see what the non touristy side of the island had to offer. Boy were we surprised at how much cheaper everything was! The taxi ride can vary depending on how well you can haggle with a driver. We managed to get a one way ride for about $12 and the van fit all 6 of us.  That’s where we found the Bay Side restaurant and we feasted on a sampling of shrimp, fish, beef, ribs, pork, and chicken. The huge sampling of food you see below only costed about $25 per person and we were completely stuffed!

In front of the amazing sea and land food – Bay Side Restaurant

Need to make sure we get a picture of the food

Another place where we got food was a local spot called Garifuna Living Food in Punta Gorda. Cleve from Cleve’s Tours took us here. It was a real eye opening experience in terms of getting to know what the locals eat. All of the food they served here was caught locally by fishermen and tasted absolutely amazing!

A restaurant on stilts
Yummy seafood in Punta Gorda

The street food here is also simply amazing as well – don’t miss the freshly squeezed orange juice in a bag or the pastelitos! You should be able to find these in Coxen Hole on the street – Cleve brought us to this specific location.

Freshly squeezed is the best kind of juice

Cleve’s Tours and Adventures

For our last day on Roatán we needed to take a non-diving day to allow our bodies enough time to dissipate any residual nitrogen so we could fly safely. Cleve transported us from the airport which is how we found him. His tour costs $45 per person but it is well worth it. You can find his Facebook page here. It’s filled with all 5 star reviews!

Cleve is one of the most enthusiastic and passionate locals you will ever meet. He is also an extremely kind soul and it shows throughout his entire tour.  Do not miss his tour!

On Cleve’s tour we visited locations such as: Punta Gorda, Little Venice, Jonesville, French Harbour, Coxen Hole, and West End. The tour is also completely customizable and Cleve will take you wherever you want to go and see. We wanted to go zip-lining and see the sloths so he took us to both of those!

For zip lining we went to Jungle Top Adventure Ziplining. It was on our way around the island and we stopped here for about two hours to complete our adventure here. It was $40 per person for the zip line tour. They also have a monkeys and birds on the premises so make sure not to miss those!

Getting ready for some zipling fun
Monkey business

And if monkeys are not your thing but sloths are, then be sure to visit Daniel Johnson’s Monkey and Sloth Hang Out. Their workers will readily pluck the sloths from their trees and place them around your neck for your new Facebook profile picture.

Watchu looking at?

We liked Punta Gorda and Little Venice the most as they seemed to show the local culture and heritage. Make sure to visit these places as these are definitely not touristy and the people who you see are locals.

Sunset in Punta Gorda
Twilight in Little Venice

Video Compilation of our Trip

Trip Budget

Since we choose a resort that was semi-inclusive you can see that most of our costs are bundled into the cost of the resort.

Description Cost
Flights (American Airlines) $11.20 9/11 security fee + 62.66 Carrier Surcharges + 40,000 AA Miles
Seagrape Resort $856.80
Dive Tips ($5 per dive) $75
Dinner Budget for Whole Trip $150
Cleve’s Tour + Tip $45 + $10
Zip Lining $40
Total Approximate Cost Per Person $1250.66