Now even if it’s always pleasant to lay down on the beach, it’s much better if it’s on a perfect white sand one with crystal clear water…
So where to go to find yourself in these magical places?
The good news is that don’t need to go to an atoll in the Maldives, there are places far more accessible.
So here is a small selection of what I consider as the 5 most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen:
Zanzibar is a magical place: on one hand, a fascinating culture at the crossroads of civilizations, and on the other hand an incredible coastline. After discovering its capital, Stone Town, a true cultural gem, you can head to some of the most beautiful beaches you’ll see in your life.
I had the opportunity to explore the island for some weeks before I ended on this spot I still consider as “my” most beautiful beach: “Paje”.
Located on the east side of the island, it is a huge strip of fine sand with crystal clear water. The tide is very strong here as the water is shallow. It’s not the best spot to swim (too shallow at certain times of the day), but the view is simply stunning. When the tide is low, you can enjoy pure transparent water over kilometers, and when it starts rising, the water will come through a full range of colors: incredible shades of green and turquoise blue will scroll over the hours.
Low tide base is also an opportunity to appreciate the seaweed harvest. Moreover, this spot has good wind conditions and is loved by Kyte surfers.
Another must do on this island: “The Rock” restaurant. Its setting is quite unique: you reach it by foot at the beginning of the day, and as the tide surges, the restaurant will be surrounded by crystal clear water. You will need a boat at the end of the day to get back to the mainland (or if you feel like swimming – like me, after having emptied 2 bottles of wine 😉
NUSA PENIDA (INDONESIA)
Indonesia is a fascinating country – it is the largest archipelago in the world with over 18,000 islands. Therefore, it is one of the best places to find incredible beaches.
The most famous beach is found on the iconic Nusa Penida, a small island located between Bali and Lombok.
But it is far from being the only one worth a visit. I’d recommend you explore: Southern part of Bali, the Gilis (Gili Trewangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air) and Nusa Lembogan. And if you venture further on (till Komodo and Flores), you’ll see some of the best and most remote beaches.
Because most of the islands were shaped by volcanoes, the scenery is spectacular. I highly recommend you rent a scooter to explore Bali and Lombok.
Rivera Maya is the most tourist place in Mexico. It all started with Cancun, a former fisherman’s village converted into a holiday and resort center that looks more like Vegas than Mexico. The second town to explode was Playa del Carmen… And finally Tulum.
I remember the first time I visited this little Caribbean paradise back in 2003. A tiny village, a few huts on the beach where you could put your hammock in exchange for a few pesos. And an archaeological site with a breathtaking view over a deserted beach and turquoise water.
Unfortunately, things quickly changed: the village became a town, the Cabañas were replaced by hotels, and in 2006 a ramp was built to allow access to the beautiful beach at the foothill of the archeological site.
Hotels located on the beach have become very exclusive, and free access has been reduced by dubious commercial policies (a Mexico’s classic). Nevertheless, Tulum remains a beautiful beach and is on my top 3. Its long strip of fine beach has not (yet) been covered with concrete and it is still much more charming than Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
And all changes are not bad: last time I visited it (in summer 2017), there was a cycle path between town and the beach (located 4km away).
Another magical place of the Riviera Maya was Holbox. It is a bay located at the border between the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. But yeah, I have to say that it’s been almost 10 years since I was there. Back then it was a small village next to a long perfect white sand beach. No big hotels just huts on the beach… I’m pretty sure its fate was similar to Tulum.
Thailand is also famous for its dreamy beaches. Between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, the country has thousands of miles of beaches. The most famous are islands such as Ko Tao, Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Phi Phi (next to the beach from the movie “The Beach”), Ko Lanta, etc.
But my favorite one was Railay, located near Ao Nang in the province of Krabi. It is a superb bay with impressive limestone rocks overlooking the water (A popular spot for climbers). The beach is a perfect strand of white sand. Moreover, it is a relatively quieter place in comparison with the surrounding islands.
SANTA GIULIA (CORSICA)
The Mediterranean is also full of amazing beaches that are as beautiful as in the tropics. Greece is probably the most famous country for its dreamy beaches, but I was quite surprised by the beauty of Corsica. The crystal clear water of Santa Giulia, near Porto Vecchio, makes it a perfect stop. Of course, the sea is not as warm as in the tropics; But bathing is still great. And then, for those who live in Europe, there’s no need to grab a 12-hour plan to get there 🙂
So that was my top 5 but there are many other beaches I enjoyed so much, just to name a few of them:
Palolem in Goa (India): A relaxing and cheap place, a great stopover on a long and intense trip to India.
Camps Bay in Cape Town (South Africa): a great beach in Cape Town’s classy neighboorhood.
The “Calanques” in the south of France: a set of creeks formed by the rock. Magical landscapes between the blue of the Mediterranean Sea and limestone rocks.
Utila in the Bay Islands (Honduras): One of the best snorkeling spot in the Caribbean. Corals are impressive, even if Roatan has better beaches
Mexico’s Pacific Coast: from Baja California to Oaxaca, Mexico offers over 2000 miles of coastline on the Pacific. I didn’t have the opportunity to explore Baja California, but some of its beaches are as beautiful as those of Rivera Maya
Koh Rong (Cambodia): This island is located off the coast of Sihanoukville. A relaxed and enjoyable place to be explored in a few days. Its beaches are sublime, although I suffered harsh weather conditions.
Perhentians (Malaysia): Perhentians Islands are located off Kota Baru. A small diving paradise, with fine sand beaches and transparent blue water.
Likoma (Malawi): As weird as it sounds, this island is actually on a lake. Yet its freshwaters are warm and crystal clear.
Copacabana in Rio (Brazil): Finding a beautiful beach in a densely populated city is not an easy task. Yet the famous Copacabana beach is a great spot, even though you won’t feel alone.
Of course, this is just a very short list based on my own experience. So now tell me what is your favorite beach to include it on my next trip 🙂
Machu Picchu is a mythical place: an ancient Inca citadel felt into the unknown during colonization and rediscovered by Hiram Bighram in 1911. It is a unique place, representative of Inca Engineering: its structures respect perfectly the mountain shape (a feature found in all Inca sites). The complex is surrounded by lush vegetation, and with a stunning view of the Vilcanota River 600m lower.
This magical place has become the most visited site in Peru. Since Machu Picchu is the core asset of Peruvian tourism, you’ll spend most of your travel budget here. For the same reason, it is very useful to know the alternatives available.
How to get there?
Machu Picchu is located about 100km away from Cusco (as the crow flies), yet its access is not easy (Welcome to the Andes). The train is the only transport accessing directly to Aguas Calientes.
So here are the only 2 alternatives if you want to use transportation:
You have to get to Ollantaytambo and take the train. The city is located 2h away from Cusco and you can get there by taxi (80 soles) or by public transport (8 soles, departure from the Pavitos/Grau street in Cusco). Once in Ollantaytambo, you still have 1h30 of a fully comfortable train with beautiful landscapes. The downside: This service is ridiculously pricey! Perurail and Incarail share the monopoly. Expect to pay at least 60$ per way, i.e. 120$ the return trip.
It is recommended you purchase your ticket in advance (either online or at Incarail/Perurail ticket office/Ollantaytambo train station).
If you do not want to pay such a sum for a short train ride (understandable), get ready for an adventure. Here is the way to follow: book your seats in one of the many vans leaving Cusco in the early morning to get to Hidroelectrica (you can get your tickets at any travel agencies in Cusco, 35/40 soles). It’s an exhausting journey (a 7h trip through mountain roads – you’ll reach a 4400m pass before going down to 1100 m and leave paved road on the last part. Once you arrive at “Hidroelectrica” station, you still have about 2,5 hours walking (11km) along the railway track to reach Aguascalientes. You can also take the train from there, but $29 for 11km in 45 minutes, this sounds like a scam. If you have time ahead of you (unlikely), stop at the Mandor’s garden. A beautiful place with tropical plants (located at km114 of the track)
You’ll have to come back from Aguas Calientes the same way. I suggest you take your luggage with you to Machu Picchu, as this will save you 5km on the way back. The bifurcation to the site is between Aguas Calientes and Hidroelectrica (2,5km away from town).
You should save around 100$ proceeding that way.
However be careful during the rainy season (from November to March), landslides are frequent and roads can be blocked. Always check the situation beforehand.
On the other side, many people want to reach at Machu Picchu after hiking in the beautiful Andean region.
So here are the best-known trekking options:
The prestigious classic: Inca Trail
This is a mythical 4-day walk that starts from the km82 on the railway between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Along the way, you visit many Inca sites (amongst which Wiñay Wayna). This is the only trek that allows you to reach the site directly by foot: indeed, on the 4th day at dawn, you enter the sanctuary through its upper part, “Inti Punku” (Sun Gate). And if you are lucky you will enjoy one of the most beautiful sunrises of your life over the sleeping citadel.
This is one of the most prestigious hikes in the world and has only 500 available seats per day (including guides and porters). It is therefore mandatory to book it at least 6 months in advance during the high season (April to October). In addition, only certified guides are allowed. So there is no other choice than going through an agency, which makes it a quite costly trek (min. $500).
The alternative mountain trek: Salkantay
This is a 5-day trek offering a wide variety of landscapes. It starts in Mollepata, 3:30 away from Cusco. On the first day, you can hike up to a superb lagoon at the foot of Humantay mountain. Then you reach the highest point of the trek (4700m), located 2 steps away from Salkantay (the 2nd highest mountain in Cusco area, 6.264 m). You then start descending almost 3000m till the coffee plantations of Lucmabamba, in the midst of tropical plants. You can also indulge yourself in the thermal waters of Cocalmayo. The 4th day is less interesting, passing through Hidroelectrica then Aguas Calientes along the railway. Almost all trekkers choose to do it through an agency, prices start from $175. Check what is included or not, the material etc. Because lower prices mean lower quality (and lower team salary and less care for the environment).
Salkantay trek has become very popular so be ready to share the road with hundreds of other trekkers!
The backpacker option: Inca Jungle Tour
This is not a trek itself, but a varied option with different activities. You start biking from Malaga pass (4400m) till Santa Maria’s surroundings. On the 2nd day you hike in the tropical forest between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa. Then you go through Hidroelectrica and Aguascalientes before ending at Machu Picchu itself. You can add activities like rafting and zip line. Starting from $160, but remember to check what does the package include!
The real alternative route; Long and exhausting, but beautiful: Choquequirao and Machu Picchu
An incredible 9-day trek to discover two amazing sites: Choquequirao and Machu Picchu. It is a demanding trek with more than 7000m of altitude gain, including a steep descent from nearly 1500m up to Apurimac river… Before going back up all the way on the other side. This is the price to pay to enjoy the magnificent Choquequirao, isolated in a dense forest and still unspoiled by tourism. It is a huge sanctuary of which only 30% have been discovered. Bigger than Machu Picchu but without the crowds. And one of its main highlights: you’ll camp on the site itself!
The classic Choquequirao trek returns to Cachora the same way, but it is possible to extend it to Machu Picchu (5 additional days), a magnificent hike in a remote area… En route, you’ll be alone in some Inca sites (like Pinchaunuyoc) and will gaze at high mountains (as Salkantay, 6.264 m) before reaching Santa Teresa and Aguas Calientes. Be ready for a true adventure far from civilization (and other tourists). You should take advantage of it now since the Peruvian government is planning to build a cable car accessing the site (fortunately, between speech and action in Peru, you should still have plenty of years ahead 😉
Once in Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes is a rather disturbing city … super packed, it is the example of the complete absence of urban planning in Peru.
You will find many accommodation and restaurants all over the place. I recommend double checking where you are going because there is the good, te bad and the worse in town. You can find cheap accommodation near the municipal stadium.
As regards food, avoid menus on the main street. I have never eaten well there. If you want to eat on the cheap, go to the market (8 soles menus). If you want to indulge yourself, head to “Indio Feliz”.
To reach Machu Picchu, you have 2 options: either you walk (around 1h to 1h30 of pure stairs climbing… nearly 600m of altitude gain!) or you use Consettur’s bus service (another monopoly as most services in the region). The first bus leaves at 5:45am (there is a queue as from 5am). The single trip costs $ 12 ($ 24 round trip). It is recommended you buy your tickets (at least to get to the site) the day before at the kiosk near the bus stop.
The sooner you get to Mapi, the more you will enjoy it (doors open at 6am, and at 8am it is already overpacked …)
When to go?
Whether you choose the easy way or the trek, it is obviously much more interesting to visit the ancient Inca ruins during the dry season (from May to October). Even though the fog can be very mystic…
You should know that the tropical region of Machu Picchu is very humid and that the site is usually foggy in the first hours of the morning. Normally, if your visit is in June, July or August, you should enjoy a sunny day (but don’t take it for sure: I went there three times (April, January… and July!) and every single time it was pouring!
In most cases you will still be able to enjoy Mapi even in on a rainy day (it always ends up clearing a little). But if you go for a trek, the season is much more important: I would not like spending the 9 days of Choquequirao/Machu Picchu under the rain. Note that the Inca trail is closed for maintenance every year in February.
The downside of the dry season: it is also the “high” season: high number of people and high prices. Well, that being said, there’s no longer low season in Machu Picchu
Cost and practical info
Machu Picchu’s access regulation has changed a lot in recent years and it can be a bit tricky to understand. The first time I went there (in 2009), it was still possible to climb to Huayna Picchu (a mountain located 300m above the main site, a former Inca observation site) without hassle. But then you needed a separate entrance ticked. At about the same time an alternative viewpoint (“Montaña Machu Picchu”) was designed. In 2017, a “shift” was introduced: since then, you can visit the site either in the morning (6h to 12h) or in the afternoon (12h to 18h). Supposedly, guides are mandatory.
With the new changes introduced on January 1st, 2019, here is where we stand:
Entry fee to Mapi alone is 152 soles (77 soles for students). It must be purchased from the Ministry of Culture (Casa Garcilaso/Calle Maruri in Cusco or Aguas Calientes) or online (only Visa cards are accepted. If you don’t have a Visa credit card, the other solution is to make the online reservation and pay the amount at any Banco de la Nacion counter within 4 hours). The entrance to the site + Huayna Pichu/Montaña Picchu costs 200 soles (125 soles for students). It is mandatory to book Huayna Picchu well in advance!
As for the timetable, the morning/afternoon shift is maintained but in addition, your ticket will indicate a minimum arrival time (6am, 7am, 8am, etc.).
Cape town is the most glamorous city in South Africa and it’s easy to understand why! Located at the edge of the Indian ocean and enjoying a Mediterranean climate (but with inverted seasons compared to Europe and the U.S.), beautiful landscapes between sea and mountain, it’s a lively city that has good restaurants at affordable prices. The city is modern and has all the necessary infrastructure,!
Here is my 15 best plans about what to do in Cape Town and its surroundings…
Watch the sunrise or sunset over the city from Lion’s Head
Lion’s Head is a strangely shaped mountain that overlooks the city next to Table Mountain. Located at 669m above sea level, it is a shorter walk than Table Mountain (around 1h30) But the view is as great as from Table Mountain. You’ll enjoy a panorama over all the city, its most beautiful beaches and Table Mountain. Simply my favorite lookout in Cape Town!
I didn’t try the sunset walk but the ascent under the full moon to spot the rising sun at the top was exceptional!
Visit Table Mountain National Park
Table Mountain is Cape Town’s most iconic natural feature. It is a high plateau dominating the city by 1,000 m that was converted into a national park. There are 2 ways to get there: The cable car or by foot. The cable car costs around 25 euros back and forth. I walked up (3 hours ) and went down by cable car. You’ll ask me why? Well, I wanted to enjoy the sunset, but the last cable car left just before it!
Enjoy the flora of the botanical garden of Kirstenbosch
It is one of the most renowned botanical gardens in the world. Here you will find an incredible number of native species. A real haven of peace after the excitement of the city. Take all your time to explore the park. The scenery is radiant with Table Mountain in the background!
Walk around Camp Bay
This is Cape Town’s classy residential area. Great beaches, trendy restaurants and bars… But yeah, be ready for pricy stuff.
Visit the Vineyard of Constancia
Constancia is Cape Town’s oldest areas. Home to a great vineyard that hosts some of the most prestigious wines of South Africa. Just feel free and stroll through the vineyards of Groot Constancia, the oldest in South Africa. And if you want to indulge yourself, stop by Klein Constancia and taste the “vin de Constance”, consecrated as one of the best sweet wines in the world!
Explore the colorful area of Bo-Kapp
Located near the city center, this area is fascinating with its many colorful facades. Its inhabitants are descendants of various origins including Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. You’ll also find this diversity in the neighborhood’s restaurants. The best way to get the most of it is through one of the many walking tours available.
Get in a party mood in the bars of Long Street
“Long Street” is located right in the city centre. It is partying reference. Its streets are already lively during the day but go wild when night falls.
Take a walk on the waterfront V&A
You will fell amazed by the unusual architecture of this place that witnessed the history of South Africa (Dutch and then the English arrived through this harbour). There are many shops and restaurants on the seaside. A perfect spot for a Sunday walk. You can also go on a boat trip (which usually lasts 90 minutes).
Enjoy the Neighborhood markets
Woodstock area is very nice and you will find it all here: shops, restaurants, good beer, etc… So why not gathering everything at the same place? Get a closer look at the market at Old Biscuit Mall. A great atmosphere and an incredible variety of products!
And in the vicinity of the city:
Visit Robben Island
The history of South Africa is linked to the Apartheid and Nelson Mandela. The former President South African was imprisoned in Robben Island (off Cape Town’s coast) for 18 years. It is possible to visit this very special place by taking a boat from the mainland (half-day tour with departure from the V&A Waterfront).
Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point
Erroneously considered as the southernmost point of the African continent, Cape Point is home to a superb fauna and flora. To get there, rent a car (very cheap in South Africa) and take your time on the way. The road to Cape Point is indeed impressive: you’ll start with Chapman’s Drive, an impressive road between the mountain and Hout Bay, before reaching the fantastic beach of Noordhoek and finally reach Cape Point. On the way back you can go through Simon’s Town and Boulders Beach.
Meet the Penguins at Boulder’s Beach
A little trip along the coast (you can use the interurban train if you don’t have your own vehicle) till Simon’s Town. Don’t miss the beautiful spot of Boulder’s beach where you can share a moment with the countless penguins chilling near the beach.
Enjoy one of the most beautiful vineyards in the world
Whether you are a big fan of wine (as I am) or not, the South African vineyard will surprise you. First of all the scenery is impressive, and then the wine’s quality is pretty fair at a very reasonable price… And finally, the tasting system is simply amazing. For a small fee (a few $), you are entitled to 4/5 by the glass tasting (actually glasses are fully filled). You can enjoy the beauty of the surroundings while sipping your wine. Only downside: the access is only by vehicle, which means tricky way back 🙂
Spend a few nights in Stellenbosh, the capital of the South African Vineyard (and students). Don’t forget Paarl and Franschhoek, the landscapes are of incomparable beauty!
Go whale watching in Hermanus
If you are visiting the are in the winter season (from May to July), you may observe these giant mammals in Hermanus. This town is also the starting point for the Garden Route.
Explore the Garden Route and ride an ostrich in Oudtshoorn
The Garden Route is a coastal road of about 200km which has a wide variety of vegetation and landscapes. It starts at Mossel Bay and ends in the vicinity of Port Elizabeth.
On the way, you can discover the South African countryside and visit one of the many ostrich farms of Oudtshoorn. I was skeptical about riding an ostrich, but it was fun…
Finally, some practical information about Cape Town:
Cape Town has its own international airport and many intercontinental flights. Otherwise, you can also come from Johannesburg by bus or by train (I did this latter option: a 29h comfortable train trip with beautiful scenery!)
If you only have a few days I recommend you the City Sightseeing bus: There are 2 itineraries that cover most places of interest I found it actually much better than that of Johannesburg), including Constancia and the starting points of Lion’s Head and Table Mountain hikes. Expect to spend around 20euros for two days.
If you have more time, use the MiCiti bus: a fast and modern urban service. You’ll need a user card (people usually leave their card for the next user at the hostels). if you feel like going local, try the “Disco” local vans. It’s a lot of decibels, but quite a lot of fun.
For activities outside town, you can choose between booking tours (relatively expensive and not flexible) or rent a car. The car is cheap (as from $20 per day) and the fuel too. South Africa is the perfect place for a road trip. I definitely recommend it!
It depends on your budget and your preferences. Downtown and Longstreet are rather for young backbackers who want to go out every day.
Greenpoint and especially Seapoint are a little more exclusive (and much quieter) areas. I stayed at Never @ Home hostal in Green Point an loved it (I spent a month there!). Great atmosphere! Rooms starting at $60 and dorms at $16.
Cape Town is one of those places where it’s easy to indulge. The city is set with restaurants for all tastes and all budget (but much more affordable than in Europe!)
South Africa is known for its meat and South Africans are crazy about “Braai” (BBQ). You will find all required BBQ facilities in most hostels. And wines are a good value for money.
My Steakhouse recommendation: “The Hussar Grill” (Camp Bay)
To have a drink: head to Longstreet!
In addition to the activities mentioned before, there are the extreme ones: bungee jumping (located on the Garden Route, it is the highest in the world), paragliding, “cage swim” with the White sharks, etc.
Yes, South Africa is a dangerous place, and Cape Town is no exception. Use common sense and you’ll be ok. Never wander alone in the streets late at night, always take a taxi when it’s dark (you’ll find Uber everywhere!), avoid townships and secluded areas alone, don’t show material belongings, etc.
Cape Town is not the cheapest city in the world, but given the infrastructure, the many activities and the food quality, it’s quite a good deal. You should indulge yourself! A great part African travel budget stayed there, but hell yeah it was good!
The high season (and high prices) is in January/February. You’ll enjoy nice hot weather (we reached 43°C!).
Winter months are rainy but quiet. It is also the season to spot whales.
So I hope you’ll enjoy your trip to Cape Town… Have a good and contact me if you have any question!
Nepal is a true trekking paradise. The country has 8 of the 10 highest peaks in the world, its nature is still relatively untouched and its landscapes are incredibly diverse. Over the years, Nepal has developed a tourist industry based on the exploration of the beautiful Himalayan trails. And few places in the world have such thrilling treks.
Enthusiast about Nepal, I explored its trails for months and have done trekking its 3 most famous treks (Everest, Annapurna and Langtang) as well as one of the most remote trek (Kanchenjunga).
So after enjoying these marvelous treks I sat on a desk and started working on a guide to help you choose the trek that fits you the best. I personally did these 4 treks but analyzed a lot of other treks in Nepal. So at the end of this article I include information about other treks based on my analysis and comments received from other trekkers (I only included treks for which I received feedback from someone who had done it).
Enjoy your reading!
Everest BASE CAMP (EXTENSION: EVEREST 3 PASSES)
Certainly the most prestigious trek with great views of the top of the world (8.848 m). This trek is recommended to those looking for high mountain landscapes. Following the steps of the world’s greatest mountaineers, you’ll reach the mythical Everest base camp. The preferred vantage point for observing the highest mountain on earth is supposedly Kalapathar (5.545 m). Ask for my opinion, and I’d rather send you to Gokyo Ri (5.483 m, located in the neighboring valley of Gokyo). To date, it is still my best mountain view ever (I actually set Gokyo Ri’s panorama as homepage picture of this blog 🙂
To get to Gokyo Valley, you must cross Cho-La (a mountain pass at 5.350 m). It is part of the classic extension to the Base Camp: Everest 3 passes. The other 2 passes are Kongma-La (5.535 m, with great views of the Lhotse wall) and Renjo-La (5.388 m, offering a viewpoint similar to Gokyo-Ri. Well, that’s what I was told since I had to cross it in a snowstorm). Consider that the 3 passes can be tricky especially if covered by snow!
If you make it to Jiri on the way up or down (6-7 extra days each way) you’ll enjoy the local life of beautiful Nepalese villages (90% of hikers start from Lukla, accessible only by airplane).
Mountain landscapes (one of the best views in the world from GokyoRi)
You’ll see 4 of the 10 highest mountains in the world in a single panorama (Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho-Oyu)
Cultural trek (between Lukla and Jiri)
Highly visited (25,000 trekkers per year)
Quite expensive (flight to Lukla costs $160 per way and high altitude teahouses are very costly)
The access is not easy (10 hours of a hell of a journey from Kathmandu to Jiri then 6 days min to get to Lukla… or the only alternative: flying from Kathmandu)
High altitude (you’ll stay above 5,000m in Gorakshep)
Max elevation: 5, 545m (Kalapathar)
Days: Min. 12 days (7 more days if you want to do the 3 passes and another 6/7 days to/from Jiri)
Difficulty: Medium to difficult (Jiri-Lukla and 3 passes part is much more difficult)
Access: The trek is not isolated as per the number of trekkers but no land access at less than 7 days from Lulka
Cost: Medium- min. 20 to $30 per day (trekking on your own)
Best season: March to May and October to November (avoid 3 passes during winter months).
Restricted area (special permit): No
Required permits: TIMS ($20 solo trekker and $10 per agency) and Sagarmatha Park ($35)
ANNAPURNA BASE CAMP (EXTENSIONS: TILICHO LAKE? POONHILL AND ANNAPURNA SANCTUARY)
Nepal’s most famous trek. In its classic version, a 14-day circuit around the Annapurna range. This trek is the most diverse: there is a strong contrast between the fertile valley of Manang and the arid lands of Mustang, both separated by the highest point of the trek (Thorung-La 5.416 m). Unfortunately, the area is so renowned that a road was built until Manang and from Muktinath (which means only a few days of the entire trek are not accessible to vehicles!). Along the way, you can make great side trips (Ice Lake, Milarepa cave and Tilicho lake, all accessible from Manang). If you have enough time ahead of you, crosscut to Ghorepani and Poonhill to reach Annapurna Base Camp (this trek is called “Annapurna Sanctuary”)
Great landscape diversity and mountain views (all the Annapurna range)
Iconic small Tibetan villages and monasteries
Low cost and a full range of food options available in the teahouses
Great side trips available
Easy access from Pokhara
Nepal’s busiest trek (100,000 trekkers per year, i.e. half of the total number!)
Motorable road that covers a large part of the circuit
Thousands of stairs to get to the base camp of Annapurna (on both way!)
Max Elevation: 5.416 m (Thorung-La)
Days: 14 days for the classic circuit (extensions: Ice lake and Milarepa are day trips, Tilicho 2 days, Poonhill 3 days, Annapurna Base Camp 4 extra days. The entire trek took me 28 days at a moderate pace)
Difficulty: Medium (apart from Tilicho that is partially along a landslide path and the way to Annapurna base camp filled with stairs)
Access: The trek is not isolated as per the trekkers’ number and easily accessible from Pokhara
Cost: Low-count 15 to $25 per day (on your own)
Best season: March to May and October to November
Restricted area (special permit): No
Required permits: TIMS ($20/$10) and ACAP ($20)
LANGTANG VALLEY (EXTENSIONS: TAMANG HERITAGE & GOSAINDKUNG TREKS)
The best option for those who only have a week but still want to feel the essence of the Himalayas. Although its starting point is located only 100km away from Kathmandu, the bus ride is a nightmare.
You start with 2 days of gradual ascent to reach Kyianging Gompa (3.700 m), your headquarter for the exploration of the neighboring summits of Kyanjing Ri (4.700m) and Tserko Ri (4.980m). Both offer an exceptional view of the surrounding mountains. Mountains are not as high as in other treks (but remember that these are the Himalayas: Langtang Lirung is 7.245m high!). I was suprised by the beauty of the landscapes (this trek was my last one). You can also get a closer look to the Langtang Lirung Glacier (facing a 3000m ice wall) or meet the Yaks in Langshisha Kharka.
When you are done with the trek, you have several options: head towards the Chinese border by visiting Tamang communities (a low altitude cultural trek). If you found that the bus ride on the way up was too harsh, you can get closer to Kathmandu by hiking the Sacred lakes of Gosaindkund (great views of Ganesh Himal and Manaslu) or even get back to the city if you trek Helambu!
Finally, I need to say that trekking to the area has a really positive social impact. Langtang was devastated by 2015’s earthquake. Almost every local I met had a sad story about this tragic event. And the entire area was avoided by tourists for an eternity. Your contribution is vital to them.
Great landscapes and mountain views in a short trek
Less frequented than Everest and Annapurna but equally comfortable
Locals are exceptionally kind
Same way up and down from Kyanjing Gompa
The bus ride from Kathmandu is simply horrible!
Max Elevation: Tserko Ri (4.983 m)
Days: 2/3 days to get to Kyanjing. Consider at least 2-3 days to explore the surrounding area. Plus 5 extra days for Tamang, around the same for Gosaindkung
Difficulty: Easy to Medium (Tserko Ri)
Access: The trek is not isolated as per the number of trekkers and not far from Kathmandu
Cost: Low – 15 to $25 per day (on your own)
Best season: March to May and October to November
Restricted area (special permit): No
Required permits: TIMS ($20/$10) and Langtang permit ($30)
KANCHENJUNGA BASE CAMP (NORTH AND SOUTH BASE CAMP)
An exceptional trek in one of the most remote areas of Nepal for those who want to enjoy the most beautiful mountain scenery without the crowds. Located on the border with Tibet and the ancient kingdom of Sikkim (India), this trek goes gradually up until you reach the foothill of the 3rd highest mountain in the world, Kanchenjunga (8.586 m). En route, you can share the local’s daily life and enjoy unspoiled nature. Kanchenjunga has only been converted into a “teahouse trek” for a few years, and its shelters are quite rustic. But what you lose in comfort you will gain in authenticity (most lodgings are actually local families’ home). And what a mountain scenery! Beside the huge Kanchenjunga, you’ll face incredible peaks: Jannu, Kambachen and the Kabrus, all at nearly 8,000 m. The trip to Taplejung is very long and grueling, but you will be rewarded for your efforts!
I recommend you take advantage of this trek that is the least visited teahouse trek in Nepal (less than 2,000 trekkers a year) before it becomes another Annapurna.
Stunning mountain scenery (views on Kanchenjunga and Makalu)
authenticity: inhabitants and nature are still unspoiled
Very isolated (reaching Taplejung is a hell of a journey… Even if you fly, you still have a 12h road trip)
Shelters are verybasic
Max Elevation: Lapsang La (5.160 m)
Days: 21 days in its full version (north and south B.C.)
Difficulty: Medium to Hard
Cost: Expensive – expect to pay around $1,000 for 21 days (i.e. $40/day)
Best season: From March to May and October to November
Restricted area (special permit): Yes. Guide and Group of min 2 people mandatory
Required permits: TIMS ($10) and Kanchenjunga Conservation Area permit ($20) and Restricted area permit -RAP ($10 per week)
After this detailed presentation of the treks I’ve done, here is a description of other treks as per the information collected from other trekkers:
described as the new Annapurna (it is actually named “Anaslu”), it is a circuit around the 8th World Summit (8.163 m) that started to attract crowds a few years ago. A superb cultural trek, recommended for both its landscapes and its diversity.
A little extra: during a side trip, you can cross Tibetan border illegally 🙂
Max Altitude: 5115m
Difficulty: Medium to Hard
Price: High (restricted area with mandatory guide)
Season: March to May and October to November
Permits: TIMS ($10), ACAP ($20), MCAP ($20), RAP ($70 the first week, $10 after)
MAKALU BASE CAMP
One of the most isolated and least frequented treks, actually quite challenging. trails aren’t easy and nature is wild. You will meet a few other trekkers en route and the shelters are scarce and basic (this is the last trek that was converted into a “teahouse” one). Avoid it outside season (lodges will be closed). One of the drawbacks: you have to go the same way there and back.
For adrenaline seekers, there is a possible extension that connects Makalu B.C. (4th Summit in the world – 8.468 m) to Everest BC trek at the height of Pangboche. WARNING this is mountaineering with the crossing of Sherpani Col (6.135 m) and West Col (6.143 m). You will need all the necessary equipment (spikes, rope, food, etc.). I inquired about it before giving up (lack of time and resources). But according to what I found and comments from other people it is one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes in the world (breathtaking views of Makalu, Everest, Lhotse, Kanchenjunga).
Max Altitude: 5250m
Access: Very isolated
Price: Average (not in a restricted area)
Season: March to May and October to November
Permits: TIMS ($20), Makalu Barun Permit ($35)
A new alternative to Annapurna Base Camp. Here you’ll get stunning views of the Machhapuchhre (also named “fishtail” after its shape, 6.997 m). You start sharing the itinerary of Annapurna BC before rising and following a parallel path. You’ll walk 1000m higher than the valley (which offers a much better view without the crowds). You’ll reach the foothill of Mardi Himal and Machhapuchhre, and will enjoy a great view of Annapurna. It can also be combined with other treks in the area (Annapurna circuit, Poonhill, etc.)
Max Altitude: 4200m
Difficulty: Easy to Medium
Access: Easy from Pokhara
Price: Low (not in a restricted area)
Season: March to May and October to November. Thanks to the low altitude, also possible in winter.
Permits: TIMS ($20), ACAP ($20)
Finally, I also wanted to mention 2 beautiful cultural treks
One of Nepal’s gems with old Tibetan-like villages. Located in an unspoiled area in western Nepal, a true journey back in time. Aside from the cultural aspect, this is still a Himalayan trek: you’ll have to cross 3 passes higher than 5,000 m.
Max Altitude: 5.200 m
Access: Very isolated
Price: High (restricted area and obligatory guide)
Season: March to May and October to November.
Permits: TIMS ($10), RAP ($500 for the first 10 days, $50 per extra day!)
The border between Mustang and Upper Mustang is located in Kagbeni, on the Annapurna circuit. From there begins the ancient kingdom of Upper Mustang. This cultural trek will reach its climax in the Forbidden City of Lo-Mangthang, next to the Tibetan border. This area is so close to the Annapurna circuit and yet so protected from tourism, you will discover a true ancient kingdom. Your guide will tell you about the many myths and legends that surround these places.
Max Altitude: 4,000 m
Access: Easy from Jomson
Price: High (restricted area and guide mandatory)
Season: March to May and October to November.
Permits: TIMS ($10), RAP ($500 for the first 10 days, $50 per extra day!)
Of course, with such a high permit cost, very few people can afford it (I only met a group of hikers who did each one of these circuits). I find remarkable the wish from the Nepalese government to protect these areas from mass tourism (a bit like Bhutan). Unfortunately, money is the only way, and I am part of those who cannot get there. But I am convinced that these treks are completely different and amazing!
I hope you enjoyed this article about Nepal trekking options. If you have any questions or you know any other itineraries (I confined my article to teahouse treks and my own experience), please feel free to comment 😉
Finally, now that you know which trek to choose the next step is to get ready for it. I’m currently working on an article giving you all the related information (equipment, formalities, how to find trekking partners, transportation, etc.). Let’s keep in touch and I’ll give an update asap.
Cuba is a very special destination… Beautiful landscapes, paradise coastline… And also a country that has a very special (and controversial) history. Armed revolution and mystical Che Guevara are part of it.
The Caribbean island offers a unique cultural mix and an impressive musical scene. Cuban music is indeed as its people: rhythmic and joyful. In spite of the day to day struggle, Cubans enjoy life, they smile, dance, and always look on the bright side of things.
The home of the “Guajiros” has many places prone to be visited: Varadero beaches, Viñales, Trinidad, Cienfuegos bay, etc.
Since I only had a few days, I focused on visiting its heart, Havana. I had wanted to explore this city for a long time. And the recent changes in Cuba’s situation made me hurry.
Indeed, one of the intriguing sides of Havana is its relation to time. Between the 1960s and 2000, the city changed very little. But since then, things have changed rapidly. Old American cars from the 50s, the Cuban cliché itself, are being replaced by more recent models, and will soon become a collection object. Regretting these changes would be a non-sense: we shouldn’t forget that Cuban people have suffered a lot from the embargo and good rationing. Economic precariousness is still one of Cubans’ main concern. Things can only get better with the gradual ending of the embargo.
Anyway, let’s move on to the very purpose of this article: A practical guide to Havana.
Preliminary note on Cuba’s currency: Cuba uses a dual monetary system: the CUC (convertible peso, at parity with the dollar) and the CUP (Cuban peso, local currency). All prices in tourist areas are in CUC. Only local buses and restaurants are in CUP. There’s a striking difference in prices: items priced in CUC are not much cheaper than in Europe/the U.S. The CUP version is absolutely different… Don’t worry about the exchange rate: it is the same everywhere. Avoid dollars because you’ll face a 10% extra tax. I also recommend changing CUP (1 CUC = 24 CUP) in case you want to enjoy local prices because otherwise, you’ll get ripped on the exchange rate.
8 MUST DO:
My top advice: Explore the city center through a free walking tour.
Organized in Spanish and English, this tour of approx. 3 hours will show you the main city sights (among others: The Plaza Vieja, the Floridita, Capitolo, the Plaza de Armas, the Plaza San Francisco, the Universidad,).
There are 2 itineraries: Habana Vieja and Centro Habana. Departures are at 9:30 and at 4pm from the road junction next to the Inglaterra hotel, located at Parque Central (hang around and enjoy a coffee at the hotel’s terrace while listening to Cuban rhythms).
The tip you’ll leave at the end of your tour is really valuable for your guide (the average salary in Cuba is $30 per month!).
Meet Afro-Cuban culture and enjoy its rhythms at the “Callejon de Hamel”
Located in the area of Cayo Hueso, near the University, this colorful and artistic neighborhood will surprise you with its unusual frescoes. It is the work of the Cuban sculptor Salvador González Escalona, who gave a second life to this popular district.
And if you are around on a Sunday, join the crowd and enjoy Afro-Cuban music!
Wander around Plaza de la Revolucion
One of the largest public squares in the world, dominated by the monument to Jose Marti (entrance fee 1CUC). On the opposite, you will see the famous steel image of Che Guevara and Camilo Cien Fuegos. Located outside the city center, expect a 30-minute walk to get there or a 10-min drive (5 CUC by taxi).
Walk around Vedado’s neighborhood
It is an old residential area where you can have a closer look at the pre-revolution architecture.
Visit one of the city’s museums
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Parque Central, 5 CUC) and Museo de la Revolucion (Avenida Belgica, 4 CUC) are your best bets.
Enjoy the Malecon (seaside).
Sea breeze and nice views of the Castillo del Morro and Castillo de la Real Fuerza. The best way to get around: ask the owner of one of those old American cars to take you on a ride (10 CUC for 30 min).
Have a mojito at La Bodegita del Medio:
Habana’s history is intimately linked to Ernest Hemingway who spent several years in Cuba. One of its favorite bars was “Bodegita del Medio”. A colorful place where crowds gather. But I’d rather warn you: you won’t have your best mojito here!
Take Salsa lessons:
Remember that you are in the birthplace of salsa music and as you may know Cubans are true salsa masters! There are many salsa schools spread around town. You can choose either group or individual classes. A top pick: La Casa del Tango (Calle Neptuno). Individual classes cost around 15CUC. Don’t forget to practice your skills in one of the many “Salsoteca” (nightclubs playing only salsa music) the city has to offer you. Locals will be happy to help you improve your body movements.
What and where to eat?
Cuban food is not very famous. Needless to say that the embargo and rationing did not help (options available in supermarkets are so restricted!). Remember that Cuban people eat to live and not the contrary!
That being said, here are a few Cuban dishes: Congri (rice and black beans), Moro y Cristianos (black beans), Plantin banana, Pork fricassee, Yuca (cassava), salsa mojo (oil, garlic, and orange gravy).
The historical center has decent food options, as Dona Eutemia (typical Cuban dishes between 7 and 15CUC, located a few steps away from the Cathedral-Callejon del Chorro) and San Cristobal Ladar (in an old restored mansion, main dishes at around 20CUC)
On the other hand, almost all restaurants located downtown are touristic and priced in CUC (which means not cheap).
If you wanna go more local (and get the related prices), stay away from the tourist areas and look around. You’ll see small signs offering daily dishes (the classical rice/beans/plantain/pork or chicken) for 30 to 35 CUP (1,5$)!
If you want to make sure you are at the right place: ask if the price is in CUP!
Where to stay?
One of the advantages of Cuba’s recent economic opening is the development of some kind of “competition”. During ages, options were limited to beach resorts in Varadero (applying European prices (from 50 CUC upwards) and “Casas Particulares” (Guesthouses) costing around 25/30$ per night.
Nowadays you can stay in dorms starting from 10$ (although these keep the form of casa particular, so do not expect a classical backpacker with bar and pool).
After a quick search on Booking and Hostelworld, I went for Hostal Corazon del Mundo, located in Calle San Jose (12CUC per night in a 6-bed dormitory). Clean and decent. The location was ok (a 10/15 minutes walking distance from the center, in a very popular area).
As you ‘ve probably understood, Cuba is not cheap!
But if you do it right, you can still make it on a decent budget.
Example of a daily budget (be ready to walk):
Dorm accommodation in a casa particular: $10
Breakfast in a shopping center: $4
Daily dishes in local restaurants: $5 (2 meals)
Mojito in a bar downtown: $3
or about $22 (in thrifty mode)
How to get there?
Many flights options from Europe and Latin America. I flew from Brussels to Varadero for as little as €200 with Tui Fly.
My flight out: Habana-Cusco (Peru) with a stopover in Bogota ($330 with Avianca).
Interjet operates daily flights from Cancun and Mexico city (approximately $100 per way).
Return flights from Canada cost approximately $300.
Arriving at the airport:
In Varadero, the bus company Viazul has bus connections to Havana (more or less 3 hours). The cost is 10CUC ($10). Very irregular service (don’t trust the official schedule listed online).
From Habana International Airport: Taxi is almost the only option. $25 from/to the center (try to share the cost with other people if you are travelling alone). It is possible to get to the airport using local buses, but I was strongly advised to avoid it with luggage.
Once you are in the city: the historic centre of Havana is a very pleasant walk. There is also a “Habana Bus Tour” which costs 10CUC (for the entire day). Very useful to get to “Plaza de la Revolucion”. There is public transportation, but it doesn’t look very well organized, and having only a few days, I skipped it.
Last tips: Enjoy the country and its people but remain aware that many Cubans have suffered a lot. Poverty and the embargo have struck them (although they will not openly admit it). Show empathy. And if you can, leave them some basic items (toothpaste, shampoo, cosmetics, etc.).
If I tell you about Kenya, what do you have in mind?
“Safari” would probably be the very first word. Indeed, with National Parks such as Masai Mara, Tsavo, Amboseli, the country is a reference and one of the most popular safari destinations.
Kenya is also well known for its white sandy beaches stretching along the Indian Ocean, from Diani in the south to Lamu at the border with Somalia. I must admit that I was surprised by the beauty of Kenyan beaches, even those located in the northern suburbs of Mombasa. The Kenyan coast has been at the crossroads of African, Arab and Indian civilizations. Cities like Lamu have such a special atmosphere.
During my 4-month stay in Kenya, I did spend some time doing safaris and chilling on beaches. But my most memorable experience is without a doubt this epic journey in the northern part of the country, where I took part in a permaculture project (Sadhana Forest, more information at the end of the article).
Kenya’s remote areas are your best opportunity to discover what makes Africa: its ethnic diversity. Whereas the Masaïs are the country’s most famous ethnic group, it has to be said that there are not less than 42 different tribes on the sole Kenyan territory. Traveling north you will meet, among others, the Samburu ethnic groups (and Turkana if reach the Ethiopian border).
This beautiful project I joined aims at reforesting a semi-arid area. Some permaculture techniques are taught to the locals and all the necessary assistance is provided to them to plant various species at home. The final objective is not only ecological but also social (in the long run, local communities should enjoy food self-sufficiency). Other kinds of training (as i.e. building an energy efficient oven) were also organized. All the training were on-site training and the follow-up was ensured through some visits to the communities. At the same time, water is distributed around communities (which saves a 20km journey to get water). Besides, a water filling station and an electric charging station (produced from renewable energy) were set up next to the project site. Because as strange as this modernity seems, the locals have mobile phones and internet, but neither electricity nor running water…
The visits to the communities were a wonderful experience that enabled me to discover the locals’ daily lives and learn more about their culture and beliefs. A great cultural exchange between human beings and a fructifying collaboration.
I will also keep a wonderful memory of the wedding we were invited to. A colourful ceremony that lasted 3 days. The climax: we were driving on our way back under a magnificent sunset and acacia trees as far as you can see, and the Morans (Samburu Warriors) started chanting. Zebras could be seen everywhere. Definitely one of my African highlights.
One of my favorite places was the small local market of Likicheki, held every Saturday. A landmark full of unusual scenes: tribesmen selling goods in traditional clothing, old men chatting about the latest news, and from time to time, random people would start singing at the glory of lord “Yesuh”, soon enough joined by the crowds!
To sum up, this area of Samburu is a unique place to discover real Africa, the one you don’t find in any travel guide. A truly authentic place where you can experience the traditional way of life of one of the many tribes of this beautiful continent.
Kenyan safaris are up to their reputation and its paradise beaches are worth a visit. But if you are seeking something different, more intimate and authentic, you should definitely head to the remote areas of this beautiful country, you’ll love it!
How to get to Samburu area?
From Nairobi: take the bus to Nyahururu at Nyamakina bus station. The ride is about 4hours and costs $6. From there you can either keep on traveling to Maralal (another 4 hours, but plan accordingly as departures are not frequent) or split your journey and spend the night in Nyahururu.
If you opt for a night in Nuyahururu, check out Thomson Falls, a 30-minute walk from town.
Where to stay?
Maralal is a small town but offers a few lodging options (I didn’t try any since I was sleeping on the project site)
In Nyahururu, I stayed at Olympia Hotel. Basic but decent and clean ($10 per night).
Maralal Camel Derby in August: Camel race and folklore show
Samburu National Reserve: In case you wanna go to a less crowded safari (entry fee: $70 per person per day… You’re still in Kenya 😉
Rift Valley: Samburu has one of the best viewpoints of the African rift (you can overlook the valley by more than 1000m!)
Information about Sadhana Forest project:
It is a global permaculture and reforestation project. Originally based in India, they’ve started projects in Kenya and Haiti. During your stay, you will learn various permaculture techniques and live without leaving any environmental footprint. So be ready for a very rustic way of life (camping, bucket shower, toilet composting, etc.) and a vegan diet.
The project is amazing as it provides invaluable help to local communities, not only by providing ecological solutions but also access to running water and electricity.
As a volunteer, you’ll be asked for a petty contribution (that barely covers your food and accommodation).
Srinagar is the main city of Kashmir, a region located in northern India that has faced under political tensions over recent years (check the situation beforehand). Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, its main attraction is Dal lake. You can stay on one of the many “Houseboats”, that appeared in colonial times when English people could not acquire lands.
They have a unique style and spending the night there is a great experience. But choose your boat carefully (once you have made your mind there is no way back). Be sure to check what is included or not beforehand (most boatmen include 2 meals a day).
Also, you’ll work your patience: locals can be very insistent on selling you “Pashmina” stuff. We even had our local merchant on board. He kept reminding us every single hour that he had selected the best fabrics especially for us!
Boat trips on the lake (an insight into local life)
The experience of staying overnight on the houseboat
THE GOLDEN TEMPLE OF AMRITSAR
India offers an incredible diversity of cultures and religions. Among these, Sikhism. This religion, halfway between Hinduism and Islam, has its most holy shrine located in Amritsar, just a few steps away from the Pakistani border.
The golden temple is the perfect place to meet Sikhs and learn more about their history and daily life. Those great warriors and peerless traders are also charming people.
Share your lunch break with other pilgrims at the temple’s canteen: every day, a nearly 60,000 people receive a dish made of dhal (lentils), bhat (rice) and chappattis. In a country ruled by castes and social distinctions, it is amazing to see people of all backgrounds and religions sharing a complimentary meal. You can bring the experience further and volunteer for the meal service.
Take advantage of your visit to the region and get to the Pakistani border. You’ll entertain yourself with a very special show: the border closing under the ovations of delirious crowds on both sides of the border.
Meeting the Sikhs at the golden temple
The impressive crowd in the temple’s canteen
The show at the border
Goa’s beaches used to be the place to be for hippies and psychedelic music. Things have changed quite a bit: junkies have been replaced by tourists (mainly Russians) and beach resorts are found everywhere.
Yet Goa remains a nice place to hang out during a long-term trip to India. Its quietness is really enjoyable after bustling other Indian cities. Former Portuguese colony, its architecture is completely different from the rest of the country. Goa’s capital Panjim has many pretty colorful churches. The cleanliness of the streets contrasts with other Indian cities.
Goa’s gastronomy is a fusion of traditional Indian cuisine and Mediterranean influences. A must try. In addition, alcohol tax is the lowest in the country!
Its beaches are the cleanest of the Indian subcontinent (but do not expect the beauty of the Andaman Islands).
Goa’s cuisine (oh this yummy “Shrimp Thali”!) and cheap beer
The quietness and cleanliness
India’s most iconic monument had to be on my list. The Taj Mahal is a white marble mausoleum built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Arjumand Arjumand Begam. It was elected new wonder of the world in 2007.
Located 2 hours away from Delhi, it is the most visited site of India. For the same reason, make sure to get there as early as possible.
While in Agra, you should take the opportunity to visit its Red Fort. Fatehpur Sikri’s architecture is also remarkable and worth a visit.
The view from the Red Fort
Meeting local families at Fatehpur Sikri
THE HOLY CITY OF VARANASI
Varanasi, the old Benares, is what I consider as the craziest city in the world. Holiest city of Hinduism, located a few steps away from one of the four most sacred places of Buddhism (Sarnath), this place is just about pure and intense spiritual energy.
Be ready for all kind of extremes, especially along the “Ghats” (docks) along the Ganges. This is the very place where most activities of this ancient city take place: “Pûjâ” (offering rituals), “Ganga Arti” (a religious ceremony that takes place at sunset), the controversial sacred bathing in contaminated waters… and of course the corpses cremation!
According to Hindu beliefs, the cremation of a deceased person along the sacred river is mandatory in order to obtain better rebirth conditions. Some scenes are just insane: crackling logs, grieving families, street dogs and cows that are eating whatever they can find. Since some families cannot afford the cremation ceremony, it is not uncommon to see dead bodies floating on the river.
Does this description seem apocalyptic to you? Indeed, I would not recommend Varanasi to the faint-hearted. But this sacred place has such incredible energy that is worth feeling once in a lifetime. An intense moment, discovering the essence of Indian culture and spirituality.
Boat trips on the Ganges at sunrise/sunset
The ceremonies (ganga arti, cremation, etc.)
The lassis at “Blue Lassi Shop”
The quietness and beautiful energy at Sarnath
I remember a travel friend’s words when I arrived at Rishikesh for the first time. He told me, “Yes, this place is all about business, but you’ll love it”. And indeed!
Rishikesh is a very special place, sort of replica of the neighboring sacred city of Haridwar, but in a tourist-friendly (and commercial) version.
Ashrams (spiritual retreat centres) are found everywhere. Some of them (like Sivananda) are fully booked months in advance.
You’ll also find many Yoga centers. Spirituality has become a consumer product as any other one and Rishikesh is no exception. You’ll find statues, incenses, relaxing music, ayurvedic products, etc. for sale at every street corner.
Despite this mercantilism, Rishikesh remains a beautiful place. Moreover, its tourist boom has enhanced the surge in the number of “westerner friendly” restaurants, which I enjoyed quite a lot.
Rishikesh is also famous for the “Beatles Ashrams” (named after their stay in 1968).
The “Ganga Arti” at Parvath Niketan
The “Holi” celebration during my first trip there
Sand dunes, colorful cities, grand forts… Rajasthan has it all. Located north-west of Delhi, at the very border between Hindu and Muslim religions, this state is one of the most visited in India.
A trip to Rajasthan usually starts with its capital, Jaipur, the “Pink City”. The place is less oppressive than most Indian cities. It holds many architectural treasures such as the Hawa Mahal. Don’t miss the sunset from Nahagahr Fort!
Another very popular place is Jaisalmer: a huge fortress located in the middle of the desert. It is the start point of camel safaris: a great opportunity to learn about the nomadic life of local communities. And sleeping under the stars in the desert was simply stunning!
You can then proceed to the city of palaces: Udaipur, with its beautiful buildings located around Pichola Lake.
Less known but equally beautiful: Jodhpur, “The Blue City”, nickname conferred after the color of its roofs. Its fortress is huge and can be deeply explored.
Finally, for some spirituality and meditation, head to Pushkar, a Hindu pilgrimage site.
The camel safari trip
The sunset from Nahagahr in Jaipur
Hampi has an unprecedented landscape: glorious temples surrounded by a surreal boulderscape !
its color combination is unusual: red boulders, green rice and banana fields, blue sky (and the less glamorous black river cutting the city in 2).
You can visit most of the temples located in the area. Vittala is the most famous one, with its masterpiece: the stone chariot.
Just relax and enjoy the hippie atmosphere of this small town. You can also practice your climbing skills on the boulders.
The relaxed and hippie atmosphere of the area
The stone temples
Exploring the area by moped
This small town located above the city of Dharmashala hosts the Tibetan government in exile and is thus the official residence of the Dalai Lama.
Located in the state of Himachal Pradesh, at around 2000m, it is an enchanting place.
Here you’ll have to choose between a bunch of activities: meditation, yoga, hiking in the surrounding mountains, Tibetan cooking classes, etc. You can also help the Tibetan community, especially by volunteering as an English teacher.
And of course, pay a visit to the headquarters of the Tibetan government. An adjacent museum will give you more information about the history of this country invaded by China.
If you are lucky, you may even meet the Dalai Lama: although he is often traveling abroad, this great man gives teachings and lectures on a regular basis.
Volunteering and English conversation classes in local associations: the best way to meet Tibetans!
Attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings
The hike to Triund
Tibetan cooking classes: some yummy Momos!
Ladakh is one of those places that you won’t forget. It is a vast desert area located in the north-east of India, at the border with Tibet and Pakistan.
Ladakh’s peacefulness contrasts with the intensity you’ll get in most of India: no hassle here. Ladakhis are among the nicest and most genuine people I’ve met in my life.
Leh, the capital, is a magical place. Located at 3,500m above sea level and surrounded by arid mountains, it’s truly peaceful. Its anachronistic center has some medieval looking. The main temple will remind you Tibetan Potala. Depending on the time of the year, you may enjoy a Tanka exhibition inside the temple. Do not miss its tourist-friendly festival which takes place in mid-September: you’ll discover Ladakhi folklore in a relax mood.
Ladakhi landscapes are similar to Tibet. And its monasteries are true gems. My best pick: Thinksey, so impressive with its 12 floors and a huge Maitreya statue (Buddha of the Future). Hemis and Lamayuru are also worth a visit.
My best tip to explore Ladakh: rent a Royal Enfield (expect to pay around $20 per day). These bikes are designed to withstand the (difficult) conditions of the legendary roads of Ladakh, a bikers’ paradise. Take your time and explore some very unusual places: Nubra Valley, Khardung La pass (the highest road pass in the world at 5.602 m); the meeting point of the Hindu and Zanskar rivers; The splendid lakes of Pangong and Tso Moriri, etc.
And if you make it from Manali (Himachal Pradesh) or Srinagar (Kashmir): The journey itself is an adventure!
In need of adrenaline?! Remember that you are in the heart of the Himalayas: you can either go trekking for a few days along the Marka Valley or climb a 6.150 m summit (Stok Kangri). Plan a minimum budget of $200/$250 for each one of these activities.
And if you are bold enough to brave winter: walk the frozen Zanskar River looking for the snow leopard, the most famous Himalayan cat.
The unprecedented kindness of “Mama Sonam” at Jiggyas Guesthouse
The friendliness of Ladakhis and the conviviality of Leh Festival (September 2017)
Biting the dust during the royal Enfield trip
Himalayan views from the top of Stok Kangri (6.153 m)
ANOTHER WAY TO DISCOVER THE KILIMANJARO AREA (MEETING THE LOCALS AND AWAY FROM THE CROWDS)
Tanzania is one of the most popular countries in East Africa. Between the white sand of Zanzibar, the famous Serengeti National Park and the massive Kilimanjaro, the main issue is to make a choice as it is difficult to see it all.
And even if you have all the time in the world, doing all these activities would burn all your savings. Because as you may know, prices are completely insane in this part of the world.
As a reference, you won’t be able to get a 4-day safari in the Serengeti for less than 800$.
The Kilimanjaro is no exception… Africa’s highest peak (5.895 m) obviously attracts the crowds. It is indeed the only continental summit that can be climbed without prior experience.
And for the same reason it has become a huge cash machine: be ready to spend around $1400 for the 6-day ascent.
There is another alternative in 5 days (via Marangu) but I wouldn’t recommend it. Remember that the Kilimanjaro is a massive volcano (actually there are 3 volcanoes) overlooking the surrounding by about 5.000 m, so you’d be lucky to be successful in your attempt to climb these 5,000m in just 4 days (any mountain guide would consider this as a pure madness). And even the 6-day climbing has a low success rate due to the altitude challenge.
This must be an amazing experience, but I find the price to be excessive (there are much better hiking/climbing options in the Andes and Himalayas, for a fraction of the cost). And if only the funds spent would supporting local communities… But more than half of the amount paid goes straight into the pocket of corrupt politicians…
Since I had decided to make better use of my bucks, I was considering the available options, while having lunch in Moshi (a town near to Kilimanjaro). In no way, I’d pay any government fees.
I started chatting with the waiter, a young man born and raised in the region. He offered to show me the surroundings.
No sooner said than done: the next morning, we headed to Marangu by local transport. From the main road, we got into the bush. The slopes of Kilimanjaro are the habitat of a huge diversity of fauna and flora. The ground is also very fertile and you can find all kinds of culture… Among which many coffee plantations from which are extracted some of the finest coffee beans in the world.
At some point, we reached a waterfall… Before going down to check it more closely, I was required to pay the “Muzungu” tax (an half-affectionate/half-despising nickname given to white people in East Africa). 2000 shillings, less than $1, fair enough!
After a short break, just enough time to take a few pictures with my new friend, we resumed our journey. We then stopped at some nice folks’ places. They had decided to set up a project aiming at showing the daily life of local tribes. Very interesting. You can get into small huts and see how those people live. Without any feeling of being intrusive.
Nobody charged me any fee here. I just got a delicious local coffee while chatting with the people around and supported by buying some souvenirs.
We then had an”Ugali” (a typical African dish made of maize flour).
We eventually resumed our way inside the coffee plantations before entering again into the rainforest. And reached a second waterfall lost in the middle of the jungle. This one was even nicer than the first one!
It was about time to head back to town so we slowly went back to the main road and grabbed a local bus that dropped us in Moshi about an hour later.
I was quite happy with my day. I had discovered the beautiful surroundings of Kilimanjaro and had also learned a bit more about local tribes and Tanzanians’ daily life.
As far as money is concerned, besides the fact I had spent peanuts compared to the cost of climbing the Kilimanjaro, the most satisfying point was that I felt it had been spent ethically. Indeed, rather than stuffing the already well-filled government’s belly, it was a direct support to local communities; the ones who need it the most.
Locals are trying to benefit from the tourist industry, whose revenues are so unfairly allocated. I believe it’s our duty as tourists to support them.
How to find a guide? Well, just ask around, and trust your guts. We had found a nice deal with mine: I’d pay him all transportation, meals (and some improvised beers in the middle of the afternoon) plus a $15 tip (which is better than his daily wage as a waiter). I strongly recommend ending the day with a few beers at a local bar: it’s a great opportunity to share their daily life (and learn their best-kept secrets 😉
The full day cost me around $40 ($8 for transportation, $10 for meals (local food), $15 for the guide, $1 for both waterfalls… Consider a very variable budget to be spent at the local bar at the end of the day.
Sure, you can also explore the area on your own (this is actually my preferred way of traveling), but I must admit that I would have skipped most of these lovely places if I hadn’t asked the advice of a local guide… And not to be forgotten: you will almost always be better considered if you are coming with a local.
In Moshi, there aren’t many lodging options (Arusha, a much larger city, which is also the closest to Serengeti, catches most of the visitors and offers more alternatives).
I stayed at “Rafiki Backpackers”. Nice atmosphere. Dorms starting at 10$. They also offer tours on the Kilimanjaro’s slopes (coffee plantations, etc.), but the price is much higher…
To get to Moshi:
– EITHER by bus from Dar Es Salaam : plan at least 10/12 hours to reach your destination. Tickets can be purchased at any counter inside Dar’s “bus station”, but beware scammers: it’s a real mess!
– OR by plane (Kilimanjaro Airport is 30km from Moshi). There’s a shuttle service between Moshi and the airport (in the early morning… check timetable beforehand): a great option for about $10. Flight tickets start at $125 (fast jet).
If you can afford it just fly: apart from the unrivaled comfort, you’ll get great views of Kilimanjaro!
To get around Moshi (and its surrounding area – Machame, Marangu and Arusha), go to the “bus Stand” (which has a central location in Mawenzi Street, a few steps away from Uhuru Park). You will also find a well-stocked shopping center next to the bus station.
Finally, for an amazing view of the Kilimanjaro, you should head to the 2nd floor of the YMCA facilities (Kareem Road, slightly outside the city center). The best sunset ever!
To make the most of the mountain views, consider the period of the year. For instance, I was there in May and views were clear only at the end of the day. At other times of the year, you can only get a glimpse of the mountain at the rising sun…
In any case, seeing the sun falling on this mythical mountain is an unforgettable experience… You should go for it!
Peru is a fascinating country. Of course, it is home to the Machu Picchu, elected as one of the new world wonders in 2007. But the country has much more to offer than the MP and it is sad that most tourists just rush straight to the ancient Inca citadel, without taking any time to explore the innumerable highlights of the country, whose three large geographical areas (coast, mountain and jungle) mean a great diversity of landscapes, cultures, music and gastronomy.
So writing about the main country’s highlights would be quite time consuming, but I wanted to dedicate my first article about Peru to this beautiful region where I decided to settle, clearly one of the most beautiful places in the world: the Sacred Valley of the Incas, linking the ancient site of Machu Picchu to the capital of the empire (Cusco). For this very reason, the area is full of archaeological sites, lost in the mystical Andes.
As said before, a great number of tourists just come to see the Machu Picchu and try to get there as fast as possible from Cusco, which is a non-sense to me: take your time and you’ll enjoy many wonders on the way. Isn’t the journey as important as the destination?
So here are a few tips to plan your trip to the Sacred Valley. Classics are included but also some less known (and cheaper) alternatives.
Note: all prices are mentioned in Peruvian soles. 1€ = 3.9 soles and $ 1 = 3.23 soles (April 2018)
How to get to the Sacred Valley?
Cusco is the unavoidable hub to access the Sacred Valley, no matter where you come from.
The golden rule for your arrival in Cusco: cab’s price … 4 soles for a ride inside the city. 5 soles from the airport (They can ask you up to 40 soles at the airport so be careful!). Just get outside the airport building, a short 200m walk. And be firm about the price, avoid mentioning that it is your first time in Peru).
Cusco is Peru’s most touristic city and I will write a separate article about it shortly.
To get to the Sacred Valley, tell your taxi driver to drop you off at “Pavitos” where there are many transport companies (6 soles to Urubamba and 8 soles to Ollantaytambo). For more comfort, you can also opt for a taxi (about 60 soles to Urubamba). The journey time is approx. 1h30 to Urubamba and 2h to Ollantaytambo.
What to do in the valley?
Since most people only have 1 or 2 days to spend in the Sacred Valley, almost every single tourism agency in Cusco will offer you the following options:
Sacred Valley tour: Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero archeological sites
Tour of Maras salt ponds and Moray
If you are on a tight schedule, go for it! Both are relatively inexpensive (around 30 soles for half a day tour. However, be informed that it includes neither the meal nor the entry tickets; basically it’s just transportation).
If you have a few days in front of you, it’s worth taking your time to explore the valley. You will enjoy its quietness, especially after the bustle of Cusco and Machu Picchu.
Some places of interest:
WITH ENTRY FEE:
Chinchero: a small town located on a highland between Cusco and the Sacred Valley at around 3.700m. The Inca terraces are impressive and offer an overview of the Sacred Valley and the surrounding Apus (sacred mountains of the Incas). You can also stop at many weaving workshops, a nice way to learn more about the manufacturing process. But beware the overrated prices. I personally suggest purchasing of any souvenir and Andean clothing in Cusco.
To get there: take a bus or mini-van from Cusco or Urubamba (6 soles by minivan, 3 soles by bus)
Pisac: friendly Andean town located upstream of the Urubamba river, do not miss its local craft market on the main square (prices are to be bargained). The Inca site is located 4km above the town. The easiest way is to get there is by cab. Terraces are huge and impressive. I recommend you getting back to Pisac following the footpath from the last temple. On the way, you’ll see some old Inca tombs in the rock (the remains were mummified and placed in small cavities inside the mountain).
To get there: From Urubamba: bus to Calca (1.5 soles) and then Pisac (1 sol). From Cusco, bus to Pisac (4 soles) located in Puputi street. Taxi from Pisac to the ruins: 15 soles (one way)
Ollantaytambo: a beautiful place, coming straight from another era (this is actually the only village built on its former Inca structure). Feel free to wander around its narrow streets, full of small water channels flowing in all directions. The archaeological site is obviously worth a visit. It has many nice temples. Last train station towards Machu Picchu, this picturesque place deserves more than just a 45-minute visit while waiting for the train.
To get there: by bus from Urubamba (1.5 soles) or Cusco (8 soles)
Moray: incredible terraces where the Incas undertook agricultural experiments (based on the various microclimates according to the altitude, the sun exposure, etc.). The site is about 12km from the junction with the Cusco / Urubamba road
To get there: bus from Cusco or Urubamba to Maras’ junction on the main road (6 soles – 3 from Urubamba). There is a Taxi stand at the crossroads (40 soles including return journey and waiting time)
Note: to enter the above-mentioned sites, you will need the Cusco tourist ticket: it can be obtained either at the tourist office (Av. Sol in Cuzco) or (an even easier way) at the entrance of the archaeological sites. This ticket will cost 130 soles and gives you access to 16 archaeological sites for a period of 10 days. If you only have one day, the daily entrance fee is 70 soles and gives you access to either the sites of Cusco or those of the Sacred Valley.
WITH ENTRY FEE (NO TOURIST TICKET):
Maras (entrance 10 soles): impressive salt ponds that have been cultivated since the Inca era. Therapeutic virtues of this salt of exceptional purity were proven. You can get a great sight of all the ponds on the way down from Maras. To get there, take a cab from Maras’ junction. On the way back, I recommend you walking after the last salt pond (a 30-minute walk downhill)). From there, just cross the bridge and reach the Ollantaytambo – Urubamba main road), where you can grab a “combi” to Ollantaytambo or Urubamba (1 sol).
To get there: take a bus from Urubamba (or Cusco) and get off at the junction with Maras / Moray located 10 km away from Urubamba. From there, there’s a taxi stand where you can get private transportation to the site (15 soles one way – 25 soles return)
Museo Inkari (entrance 30 soles): there are many museums dedicated to the pre-hispanic cultures of Peru, but most of them disappointed me. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of archaeological museums. Watching the remains of some pottery under the showcase with a small written description is nothing but exciting to me (you need a lot of imagination to get a glimpse of the way they lived). Inkari includes interactive tools so that you don’t only read about the culture but also feel it through amazing ambiance rooms. Inca culture is put in its context: although it is the most famous for being one of the largest empires in the world (and especially the last one before the arrival of the conquistadores), it is in fact only one of the many cultures of this diverse country. Actually, the peak era of the Incas lasted for barely two centuries and most of the elements of their daily way of life were integrated from previous cultures (as it always happens). In Inkari, you will travel back in time, following by chronological order Peru’s 8 main pre-hispanic cultures. Descriptions are detailed and allow you to deeply understand the essence and the evolution of these cultures. But you’ll reach the climax inside the ambiance rooms that will immerse you in the heart of these ancient civilizations, using a great light and sound performance. Rebuilding these environments involved a great amount of work. For this reason, Inkari is not the cheapest museum in Cusco, but if you just wanna see one, choose this one: I guarantee you won’t regret it!
To get there: take a bus to Calca from Urubamba or Pisac (1 ground), the museum is indicated by a giant statue (you can’t miss it!), located about 15km from Urubamba.
Machucolca: it was used as a food reservoir by the Incas and has many terraces located halfway between Cusco and Urubamba, at 3,800m above sea level. There’s a sign on the road and you will see some small stalls selling fake alpaca sweaters. In fact, the beautiful view is a common picture stop for tourists on their way to the valley. But nobody really takes the time to visit the archaeological site located a little higher. Go for it and give me your feedback. You will not only enjoy a delightful quietness in the peaceful alleys but will also get what I consider as the most beautiful view of the valley. Moreover, nobody is gonna charge you an entrance fee or try to sell you souvenirs. Don’t spread the word too fast, so that it remains as calm as it is.
To get there: the site is located 10km away from Chinchero heading toward the valley (Cusco – Urubamba road). 6 soles by minivan, 3 soles by bus.
Pumahuanca: a nice walk that goes partially along the path of the trek that goes from Urubamba to the thermal springs of Lares (I’m planning to write an article about the best hikes of the Sacred Valley soon). It will take you up to ancient Inca ruins lost in the middle of nowhere. The site itself is not the most impressive, but the inner peace of the place and the lovely walk to get there makes it the perfect option to spend half a day.
To get there: from Urubamba, ask the way to the fish farms (“pisigranja”) of Pumahuanca (or go by moto-taxi: 4 soles), and follow the path that goes between the mountains. The way up will take you around 2 hours (gradual ascent) and the way back around 1h15.
The “chulpas”: These are small constructions set up by the Incas on the mountain slopes, where food (mostly grain) was stocked all year round. They are scattered all over the valley, but there are two that are particularly worth the seeing:
In Ollantaytambo: the chupa is right in front of the archaeological site and offers an incredible sight over this latter. It is accessible until 4p.m. The steep climb will take you around 40 minutes. To get there from town: from the main square, take the alley on your right, go straight on during a few hundred meters, and then you will see a sign and some steps on your right.
In Urubamba: the chulpa is located in Pumahuanca area. You have to find Torrechayoc church that is located on the avenue named after it. Then you go straight on for about 1km and take the second path on your right. There is a sign “hotel-restaurant las chulpas” (you have to reach that restaurant). Once you get there, the path going up to the chulpas is on your right (around 30 minutes to the chulpas).
Cross the bridge before arriving at Ollantaytambo and follow the path on your right, along the river. It is the starting point of an awesome hike that will lead you to an Inca sun gate (Intipunku). Be ready for a 3 to 4-hour harsh walk before you reach the top. On the way, you’ll enjoy the stunning views over the Snowy peaks and the Sacred Valley.
When you finally reach Inti Punku, take your time and enjoy the scenery: in front of this ancient Inca gate, you’ll have a glorious view of Apu Veronika (5.750m) and the flat valley located 1.200m below your feet. The perfect spot for a picnic before heading all the way down using the same path.
Consider at least 5/6 hours of a strenuous walk for that hike, but it’s completely worth it. If you wanna split the hike in 2 days, there is a camping site around 1 hour away from the top.
Where to stay?
Options are wide: you can stay either in one of the 3 main towns of the valley (Pisac, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo), or in one of the many hotels located on the main road. Budget hotels are mostly in towns. Here are a few of them:
Hostal el Chasqui: simple but comfortable rooms starting at 40 soles. Center location at the corner of the street that goes to the train station.
Chaska Wasi: quiet and well-located hostel, with a green area. Dorms cost 30 soles.
Hospedaje Calendula: nice family-run hotel located 10 minutes walking from the main square, with inner patio and comfortable rooms from 40 soles.
Flying Dog Hostel: Newly opened hostel (a classic of the backpacker scene in Cusco), outside the center with a large garden. Dorms starting at 30 soles.
Hospedaje Inti: rustic, but well located 2 steps away from the center. Kitchen facilities available. Single rooms from 35 soles.
Casa Intihuana: Located a little outside the city, in the popular area of La Rinconada. Dorms starting at 20 soles.
Where to eat?
The Valley obviously has a great number of restaurants… with a very wide range of quality. Besides the popular restaurants offering simple and inexpensive menus, there are numerous tourist restaurants, aimed at foreign customers and of course much more expensive.
Here are some good places:
Tourist restaurants options (usually a buffet): Alhambra and Tunupa at the exit of Urubamba on the road to Ollantaytambo (set buffet at 70 soles). Other excellent addresses in Urubamba: “El Huacatay” and “Uru gastropub” (with a la carte and mid-range prices).
Popular restaurants in Urubamba: El Chorillano, with its delicious menu at 8 soles and the Cevicheria “El Nuevo Rey” (Yes, it is possible to find a decent ceviche in the valley!). Seafood platters starting from 15 soles. As far as Pisac and Ollantaytambo are concerned, many small restaurants offer 10 soles menus but to be honest, none really appealed to me so I will not include any of them here (if anybody has good references, they are most welcome!). As a general rule, avoid the main square surroundings where you will pay double for the same (average) quality.
Finally, there’s an emerging beer culture that has recently developed in the Valley. In case you are looking for an alternative to industrial Cusquena and Pilsen, there’s some nice crafted beer option available. The most famous is the Sacred Valley brewery that is located in Pachar, near Ollantaytambo. High-quality tasting and nice snacks available, with musical events organized each month to support local organizations.
In summary, the Sacred Valley is full of charming places, and it is difficult to issue an exhaustive list. Visiting all the region’s highlights will take a lot of time, so I recommend you to take it easy, even if that means planning another trip to the region (not a big deal at all!). We usually want to see it all (we believe that it’s the only way to get the most of it) but we end up losing the pleasure of traveling, which is a unique opportunity to disconnect from everyday stress and open ourselves to other realities. Feel free to get in touch with me if you plan a trip in the area, I will be happy to assist you 😉
Nepal, a fabulous country… Lost in-between the giants China and India, naturally protected by the Himalayas. A mystical country with generous inhabitants. With 8 of the 10 highest peaks in the world located on its territory, nobody will raise argument if we say that Nepal is THE trekking world reference.
The “teahouses”, the sound of the yaks’ bells, smiling faces, kids’ cheekbones burnt by the high altitude sun, the sound of prayers coming from mystical Tibetan monasteries, colorful prayer flags, ‘mani’ walls, and as an idyllic background: the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world… Anyone who gave a try to a hiking experience in Nepal will put a smile on his face while remembering all these emotions.
What makes Nepal such a unique trekking place: these small huts, which have been named “teahouses”. A true sanctuary where you can enjoy a well-deserved rest after a long day walking. An opportunity to chat with other hikers or read a book while sipping a ginger tea, before rushing on the Dal Bhat (typical Nepali dish composed of… “dal” (lentils) and “bhat” (rice), served with a selection of vegetables and pickles). May the one who had the idea to build the very first of these shelters be blessed. Indeed, since the average trekking duration ranges from 2 to 4 weeks, the (relative) daily comfort provided by a fine mattress is of great help!
Nepal’s big 3 treks (Annapurna circuit, Everest 3 passes and Langtang) offer VIP versions: comfy mattresses, hot shower, and extensive menus (pizzas, apple pie with custard, muesli and fruit, spaghetti carbonara, beer, etc.). But the flip side is that these treks are sometimes overcrowded (especially the Annapurna circuit during peak season). So alternative routes have developed in recent times, including the Manaslu circuit (8th highest mountain on earth – 8,163m), “the new Annapurna”. Teahouses have recently been built on different spots of the Makalu (5th highest peak – 8.485m) and Kanchenjunga (3rd highest peak – 8.586m) base camp trek.
Being located in a remote area of Nepal, right at the border with the ancient kingdom of Sikkim (India), Mont Kanchenjunga captured my attention and I chose to give a try to the least frequented trek of Nepal. As a consequence of this low affluence, you’ll get off the beaten track and it can be sometimes a bit tricky… Besides, food options are much more restricted (you’ll have to choose between dhal bal or … dal bhat). The bedding in teahouses usually consists of a simple bench covered with a stinky blanket. But as I like saying: what you lose in comfort, you gain it back in genuineness.
So here is a brief report of these 3 fabulous weeks …
First of all, reaching the trek’s starting point itself is an expedition … From Kathmandu, consider spending approximately 15 hours (very variable) to reach Birtamod, a small town without much interest, located 10km away from the Indian border. From there it’s another 8 to 9 hours by jeep until you reach Taplejung, located at around 2,000m high.
Our multicultural team is made up of 6 people: our guide, Mingma, who’s spent most of his life in the area and knows it like the back of his hand; Stephanie (Denmark), Martin (Germany), Nixon (Australia), Tony (Trinidad and Tobago) and myself.
Day 1 :
In the early morning, we are lucky enough and enjoy a clear sky that lets us glimpse the distant silhouette of Kanchenjunga, an impressive wall of ice located 6.500m above us. After a vertiginous descent of over 1000m down to the river, we walk to Mitlung (921m), a small village where time seems to have stopped. The “H” on the map should mean that “teahouses” are around, but it’s rather at a local’s place that we’re going to rest after this first day of walking (on a low table turned into a bed for this special occasion). Time for a stroll in the rice fields to disconnect from the modern world. I feel peacefulness while seeing the villagers returning from the fields. True, they have such a hard life; but they seem satisfied with their reality. Unlike us, they don’t look to have many expectations. Despite their poverty, they might be happier than we are … In any case, we certainly have a lot to learn from these people living in agreement with natural cycles, something we lost for the sake of our technological modernity.
We continue our journey following the river, surrounded by lush vegetation. The hot and humid weather makes the walk heavy and exhausting. The dal bhat does not help to say the truth … We finally arrive in Chirwa (1.250m), a small place with 3 houses, for a second night hosted by a local family… Card games required to spend the evening.
Today, we are finally starting to climb, and the air is getting cooler. After the daily dal bhat, we cross the river and start the climb (about 700m) which will last 1h30 until reaching Amjilosa (2.390m). At this altitude, the cold shower is no longer pleasant after dusk…
We enjoy a great view in the morning: we overlook a gorge formed by the river located 700m below. We follow the path on the hillside, crossing woods while continuing our ascent. The vegetation begins to change, from tropical flora to lobed-leaves trees. A brand new road made of large blocks of stones perfectly cut (in the style of the Roman roads) announcing the last stop of the day: Giable (2.780m).
After contemplating the sunrise on the other side of the cliff, it’s time to get back on track. After a few hours, we are back to the riverside at an altitude of 3000m. Clouds are thick and we start feeling the cold. We cross a ghostly village consisting of uninhabited small wooden huts, that are used by the locals during winter. A bell sounds at a far distance… This characteristic sound remembers me my first treks in Nepal: it’s the sound of the yaks grazing around. Similar in morphology to cattle, their thick hair allows them to withstand the extreme cold of Himalayan areas. Actually, this natural protection is so effective that it is rare to find them below 3,000m high. We take a short break and to bring variety to our eating habits, we opt for a noodles soup in lieu of the dal bhat. Before we resume waking, we explore the small monastery of Phale for a quick meditation time. We keep on climbing gradually along the river until reaching Ghunsa (3,450m), last stop before the high mountain. This will be our last opportunity to refuel in chocolate and other treats before reaching the North Base Camp. The rain continues to fall at night, and when we wake up the ground is coated with a thin white layer: temperatures are getting below 0° and we eventually feel happy about having carried this thick sleeping back (occupying half of the backpack) up here.
We leave Ghunsa to enter a thick forest, alternating leafy and pine trees, remembering me my native Belgian Ardennes. For the first time since the beginning of this trip, we can feel the seasons: October reaches its end and fall is beautiful, with its impressive palette of colors. Everyone walks at his own pace and we are supposed to meet at the first bridge to share a snack before resuming. But… the said bridge was swept away by the waters during the last flood and I won’t see my team members before the end of the day. The climb is steady and air gets rarer. A short break at the top, just to get an overview of the colorful valley that we’ve just left behind. The end of the afternoon is almost there, and I eventually distinguish a few huts indicating the arrival at our camp for the day, Kambachen, located at 4.170m. Cheer up! Just a few more meters … to become aware that the way is blocked by icy water, which despite my eagerness will remain impassable. I will have to spend another 45 minutes to find a suitable path. I finally reach my destination and enjoy a dal bhat, hot tea and then straight to bed! Needless to say that at this altitude, nights are freezing, and leaving the cozy sleeping bag to take a night pee is a delicate matter (Why are bathroom always outside?!).
Rest day in Kambachen to get acclimatized to the altitude … The sun rises under our amazed eyes and reveals the beautiful white peaks that are facing us: Ghabur Peak (6,044m), followed by Pholesobi Thonje (6,645m) and Sobi Thonge (6,670m). The Himalayas in all their beauty! I take advantage of the clear sky and leave early, heading towards the glacier (In the afternoon, clouds are almost always there and hide the snow-capped peaks). I sneak into the narrow gorge between 2 giants over 6,000m to finally reach the glacier. What an amazing view! A few miles away from me, on the other side of the glacier (which looks more like a moraine, the ice being hidden under the rock) a huge ice wall. Besides the peaks visible from the camp we can now see Jannu (7.711m, only!). I follow the path along the huge glacier resulting from the snow accumulated on these ice domes. It leads to a dead-end, the way is blocked by a wall of ice of nearly 3,000m, which would have certainly prevented the invasion of the white walkers in Game of Thrones. Way above me, in the distance, is Kanbachen (7,802m, a direct neighbor of the king Kanchenjunga). Subjugated by this unreal landscape, the unique calm that prevails in this place, I forget to check my watch. The sun is already disappearing on the horizon, and it’s about time to leave before the freezing night is here.
We continue our climb until reaching what will be our higher altitude night, a few steps away from the base camp. The climb is steady and pleasant. The clear sky reveals innumerable peaks over 6,000m. Halfway, I find myself surrounded by friendly yaks chilling on green plains. Behind 2 yaks, the clouds fade for a moment to reveal a snowy peak. I just go into raptures in front of so much beauty and decide to sit for a while and enjoy the show. The icy afternoon wind forces me to resume my walk that will end in Lhonak (4,780m), at the foot of the Kanchenjunga Glacier. As soon as it gets dark, snow and wind come. The temperature will reach -10 ° a few hours later!
The elder of our group, Tony, had a hard time during the ascent and arrived completely exhausted around 6 pm, accompanied by our guide. The short rest at night will unfortunately not be enough to enable him regaining all his strength before the final assault.
The big day, Kanchenjunga North Base Camp: Pangpema!
After an express breakfast in the freezing cold of dawn, it’s departure time. Before sunrise, to maximize our chances of clear views. The way is easy, gradual, along the glacier. You just have to make sure you keep moving so you don’t freeze and shake the water bottle a few times, to prevent its content from freezing. After a good 2-hour walk, the reward: some colorful prayer flags flying in the air at an altitude of 5.143m. Arrived well in advance, I decide to keep on and climb a small ridge to enjoy an even more impressive scenery. Being a bit too excited, I lose my way and find myself climbing a steep hill during a few hundred meters. At the top of the hill, the view over the glacier is just stunning. Exhausted, I collapse on a rock and eat various treats among which a Toblerone (I know, A Belgian guy eating Swiss chocolate that takes the cake!). The view is hard to describe: below me, at about 5,000m above sea level, the moraine gently sneaks between two mountains until it faces a huge column of ice that goes till the top of Kanchenjunga, which is over 3,000m above my head. And of course, the surroundings are just as breathtaking: this gigantic glacier covers miles and is surrounded by peaks of 6,000 and 7,000m. So goes the cycle of nature: the pristine snow accumulated over time gradually descends under the pressure of its own weight, carrying sediments on the way, and starts melting to offer the purest water brought to us by our beautiful planet, before men take care of polluting it downstream …
The descent is a bit risky, given the many rocks on my way. I reach the base camp around an hour later, and rush to Lhonak because the afternoon is already on its end and cold has come.
When I meet my fellow trekkers in the early evening, I sadly find out that the unfortunate Tony couldn’t make it and went down to Kambachen.
Despite the biting cold, I manage to escape from the sleeping bag in the middle of the night to take a few shots of the landscape sublimated by the full moon.
The descent to Kambachen is pretty smooth, at a low pace so I take my time to enjoy the Himalayan landscapes. And try to be mindful of some parts of the track made uneasy by landslides. We arrive in Kambachen quite early, actually just in time to do a necessary laundry while enjoying the heat of the sun. A well-deserved rest follows…
A very short hike today so we take it easy, relaxing and enjoying the sun, making the most of its heat. On the way, I meet Tony, who left well ahead of me: he’s struggling with his knees… Back in Ghunsa, I indulge myself a true luxury: a hot shower (the first one since the start of the trek). A real treat…
The beginning of the day is a little improvised since our friend Tony arrived exhausted in the late evening and experienced severe knee pain. No way for him to keep going, so we had to arrange an emergency rescue helicopter. In any misfortune there is always a positive point: the owner of the teahouse takes the opportunity to send his daughter, who was recently injured, to Kathmandu so that she can receive the appropriate healthcare in the Nepalese capital. Given the remoteness of the area and the cost of an air evacuation, it is worth the try.
We leave Ghunsa around 11 am, heading towards the Selele pass a 1000m higher. The ascent begins in a dense forest and will last for about 2 hours, till we reach the top of a hill offering an exceptional panorama over the valley downstream. The weather is highly variable above 4,000m, and temperature can fall by 15° in a few minutes. The vicious polar wind that arose together with the snow will ruin my throat. We finally reach our rest place by the end of the afternoon. Lost in the mist and an unbearable humidity, this will remain as the most obscure place of the trek (3 pieces of wood used as a bed, 5 other ones used as a kitchen ), we all feel a little down. We are just caught in the middle of nowhere, in such a thick fog that we can barely see at 5 meters, and we lost one of our fellow trekkers. It is time to go to bed and try to find some comfort in the heat of the sleeping bag.
Every single day is a new story, and today we wake up under a beautiful clear sky. The mountain is covered with fresh snow and gives us the best panoramas. When we reach the pass, we are captivated by an exceptional 360° view: on one side, in the far distance, we get a glimpse of Makalu (8.485m) and Everest (8.848m), while on the other side, Jannu (7.711m) is showing us its shoulders. After a shooting session, we keep on with a light heart and head towards the second pass of the day: Sinion (4.680m), lost in the mist. The final part of the day is an epic descent: 800m straight down until reaching Cheram, our stop for the day, and starting point for the exploration of the southern camp of Kanchenjunga.
So here we are on our way to the last big mountain panorama: Ramche, located at 4,600m and less than 2 hours away from the south base camp of Kanchenjunga. The 800m ascent separating us from our destination is very pleasant, a gradual path, starting inside a mystical pine forests and ending on sublime lagoons reflecting the white peaks of Kabru range (4 mountains with an altitude varying between 7.100m and 7.500m). We arrive at our resting place in the beginning of the afternoon and the sky is still completely blue. I take this opportunity to explore the surroundings of the glacier located a little further up. And since the mountain gods are on my side, I’ll have a nice surprise: first, in the distance, the impressive spectacle of an avalanche unfolding before my eyes: a huge crush of ice and a deafening sound. Then, a few minutes before sunset, I will have the unique opportunity to catch a glimpse of the great Kanchenjunga, which will turn into a wide range of yellow, pink and red tones. I know I’m lucky since this is the first clear afternoon. I eventually get back to the camp where another show is about to start: a beautiful starry night…
We begin our slight ascent to the south base camp at dawn. Needless to say: it’s damn cold! Some prayer flags and offerings to local deities indicate us that we’ve reached our final panorama. I will take all my time to enjoy this gorgeous scenery as the following days won’t be as fun (going down back to the valley). Nepal is definitely one of the most incredible places on earth. In the afternoon, I start the long descent to Cheram, where I will enjoy a hot bucket shower.
That’s it! High mountains are behind us… It’s time to leave the area and get back to civilization… A long descent in the woods until reaching Tortong, (3.000m). Nights are finally getting warmer which is a relief for my throat.
Following a giant landslide, we are forced to climb 800m to get to the other side of the valley … and then we must go down more than 1,700m, while the heat is getting more and more overwhelming. I usually have strong knees, but they will suffer here. And I’m not the only one: Stephanie will struggle to reach our destination, and she will not be able to get back on the road on the next day.
The arrival at Yamphudin, located at 2,000m, is quite pleasant since we’re back to a tropical area and can enjoy the bustling life of the Nepali villages.
“Nepali flat” at its best! We start at 2.000m altitude. We will end at the same altitude. But between these two points, only up and down. I don’t know if it’s the surprise effect (because I was expecting a relaxing day) or the accumulated tiredness, but I’m going to struggle all day long, in a tropical humidity which I’m already tired of. I get to the small village of Kébang in the mid-afternoon, where I meet up with Nixon. We’ll spend the day watching kids playing on the local square, devouring all kind of junk food (mainly weird chips and chocolates), bought for a few cents in local stores (it’s been a long time…). We also figure out that we would be alone to end the trip since all our companions are now gone to Kathmandu by air.
Being only the two of us and feeling a bit fed up, we decide to walk to the small village of Thelok, from where they should be some buses going to Birtamod … The plan looks simple, except that the information is hard to find and never accurate. First of all, you have to find the exact place from where buses are supposed to leave, and then: when is the next bus leaving? We’ll get confirmation by 6 p.m… leaving the next day at 4 am. Thus, It will be a rather short last night, laying down on a bench-bed for a few hours, listening to some men getting drunk on rakchi (sort of rice alcohol of dubious origin) a few meters away.
Every bus trip Nepal is a true adventure, and this one is no exception. First of all, as we suspected, the departure time shown on the ticket (4a.m.) was just a reference. We had to wait until 5:30 before we eventually left, happy to have awakened at 3:30 and waited for 90 minutes in one of these old buses whose seats are as comfortable as cactuses. The road is rough, but we are moving … well, at least for 20 minutes! I’ll remember Mingma’s face expression when we asked him the fateful question: “Is the bus broken? No, no, the road is broken”. And in fact: a massive rock was blocking our way. We eventually crossed to the other side to catch another bus… oups, there was a water stream here… My feet are now nice and wet!
After that, it took us around 10 hours that seemed endless until reaching Birtamod. And at that moment, I still had a 14-hour journey to Kathmandu. But yeah, that’s another story…
Permit: Nepal has trekking areas that are accessible to all (Annapurna ACAP, Everest, Langtang, etc.) and other ones subject to restrictions (such as Kanchenjunga, Manaslu, Upper Mustang, etc.). For these latter you must have a guide and at least 2 participants. Permits should be obtained at the Nepal Tourism Board in Kathmandu.
Price: This trek is rather expensive – more than the average – due to its difficult access. We went through an agency because it is not easy to find a guide for the Kanchenjunga area in Kathmandu. However, it was the first (and the last time) I went through an agency for a Nepalese trek. Let’s say the guide was great, but it’s frustrating to give such a high commission to the agency for so little work (in fact, the agency fee amounts to almost the cost of food and housing for 3 weeks!).
To sum up, the cost of the trip can be split as follows:
o Transportation: $ 28 for the return trip by bus Kathmandu / Birtamod ($ 200 for the same trip by plane, recommended for the nice views… And speed of course!)
o Guide: $ 25 a day (to be divided between the number of participants. It doesn’t include the tipping – usually about 20% of the total cost)
o Permit: $ 40 (restricted area permit) + $ 10 per week + $ 10 for TIMS (hiker card)
– Accommodation: around 500Rs (5$) per room per night … more expensive and more basic than on other hikes like Annapurna and Everest.
– Food: logically, prices vary greatly depending on access, and the higher you go, the higher the food expenses. The reference price is … the dal bhat: 250 Rs. (2,5$) in Taplejung and 650 Rs. (6,5$) in Lhonak. The main advantage of dal bhat is that you can get a refill (at least once, sometimes more …) and that apart from the constant rice and lentils, there is a surprising variety in the garniture. Remember to buy snacks beforehand because a snicker will cost you 6$ in Lhonak.
In total, this hike cost me about 1200$, but by going on your own (2pax) and just hiring the guide, you can save up to 400$ (you can contact me for references – I have the contact of our guide Mingma, who is from the area. He is young but well experienced. His English is pretty decent. He will have one of his contacts in Kathmandu to deal with the “paperwork”).
For trekking advice in general and more particularly in Nepal, I will write a separate article shortly.
And please don’t be afraid to get into this adventure … the big 3 (Everest, Annapurna and Langtang) are magnificent but victims of their own success. Kanchenjunga is great not only thanks to its amazing mountain scenery but also because it has many cultural aspects since you’ll be exploring one of the most remote areas of the country. Enjoy the purity of the place, before it becomes one of Nepal’s main trekking destination…