Everest Base Camp, Nepal

I’ve just returned from three weeks in Nepal, most of the time on the Everest Base Camp Trek with my travel buddy. It is entirely possible to do this trek on your own, with no guide or porter, but it is definitely a little more difficult. We were unable to book flights to Lukla ourselves, so instead, the helpful staff at Yeti Mountain Home booked it for us (we also booked several nights’ stay at the end of our trip as a reward for ourselves). Each leg cost $160USD. PURCHASE TRIP INSURANCE! The weather at Lukla is very fickle and flights DO NOT land if it is rainy or cloudy! (It is the world’s most dangerous airport because of its crazy short runway!) Flights are cancelled and delayed all the time, even in what is supposed to be the “good” season. You’re forced to just sit and wait in the chaos of the domestic terminal for the day. Flights get officially cancelled at 3PM, at which point there is a mad rush of tourists to re-book, and locals trying to sell super expensive helicopter rides. You could try and reschedule your flight before the 3PM cut-off (so that you are actually able to get a new ticket, which we were too late for!) or you could just give in to the helicopter ride. The going rate is $500USD for one way, and they will always insist on having a full helicopter. They also won’t sell you a seat if they can’t ensure that they’ll have a full load of people coming back on that same helicopter. It is such a headache– it’s making my blood pressure rise even thinking about it again!



As reference, we were using the Lonely Planet Trekking in the Nepal Himalayas. The descriptions of the routes were very good, and the trails were well-marked anyways. Plus, porters and guides were typically very helpful anyways! The main gripe I have about this (as well as the Lonely Planet Nepal) is that the hike times were misleading. We’re both slow hikers, but I think even the most fit hikers would have a hard time matching up with the estimated book times! We spent about 5-7 hours hiking every day, not including breaks. We also made it a point to walk slow and steady, not getting too winded. Here is the itinerary we ended up with:


Day 1 – Lukla to Phakding

I think it’s best to give yourself 3-5 days on each end of your EBC trek and your international flights. We only gave ourselves one extra day, which meant that we had to start trekking as soon as we landed. Late afternoon flight + slow hikers + tight itinerary = potential for hiking in the dark! You are actually descending today, which was a little frustrating to me, especially since I knew we’d have to gain that and much more the next day.

Day 2 – Phakding to Namche

This was one of the hardest days of the trek. You are ascending about 1km in a matter of hours, and starting to feel the thin air!

Day 3 – acclimatization day at Namche

Whatever gear you need can be purchased here. There are shops that sell good quality knock-offs as well as legitimate brand-name stuff. I spent $40USD and bought a thick fleece, fleece gloves, a buff, poncho, rain cover for my pack, headlamp and batteries). You can also purchase Diamox without a prescription at the pharmacies here. If you have the space, stock up on snacks and toilet paper here. Prices get way more expensive as you get higher. Depending on how nice of a place you stay (ie, heated), you may or may not need to break out your sleeping bag.


Day 4 – Namche to Tengboche

Another rough day going uphill, almost as bad as going up to Namche! Didn’t help that we both had full-blown colds and it was raining the entire time either… we were too sick, cold and tired to visit the monastery. The monks chant every morning at 6AM and afternoon at 3PM.

Day 5 – Tengboche to Dingboche

The trail is quite pleasant compared to the previous two days. The trail gets steep at the end as it winds up the mountain. This is the day that you break the tree line.

Day 6 – acclimatization day at Dingboche

A lot of people use the day to make a day trip to the surrounding villages. Pheriche is a little lower and about 30-60 min’s hike away. A volunteer clinic gives talks on altitude sickness every Monday, Wednesday and Friday here and in Pheriche. We paid 100 rupees (about $1USD) for a room with two beds and shared toilet. Hot showers are available for about $5USD, and meals cost about the same.


Day 7 – Dingboche to Lobuche

It is a few hrs’ hike to Dughla, which our book recommended we spend the night at. But we were feeling good, and anyway no one seems to stop in Dughla these days anymore. Definitely consider staying here if you are feeling the altitude, but keep in mind there’s only two lodges (just one of these caters to tourists). We stopped here for lunch instead (and by lunch, in our case was overpriced cookies). It is a very steep hike right as you leave Dughla, then just over the ridge there is a small flat area full of memorials of fallen hikers. The rest of the way is fairly level to Lobuche.


Day 8 – Lobuche to Gorak Shep to EBC

At our lodge in Lobuche, we encountered a lot of people on Diamox but still having some issues with altitude. Take it easy at this point. It’s a fairly challenging hike to Gorak Shep. 

Day 9 – Lobuche to Pheriche

My travel buddy decided to wake up early this morning to climb Kala Pattar, which is the ugly giant mound of dirt you see across the sand bed from Gorak Shep. She said it was very steep and slippery, even on the “easy” trail. You can get great views of Everest from here (which you can’t from BC). She came back for breakfast, and we descended past Dughla to Pheriche, which is a pleasant walk along the stream after Dughla. We thought it’d be nice to have a change of scenery from Dingboche, plus Pheriche is lower too. It is also a lot more windy here, so don’t forget to cover your face.

Day 10 – Pheriche to Tengboche

This was one of the most pleasant hikes on the trip, not too hard, beautiful scenery, beautiful trail. It got a little hard at the end when we had to climb back up to Tengboche, but overall this was one of the easiest days on the trek. We also took a detour to one of the oldest temples in the region, in Pangboche.


(leaving Pheriche– you can see in this pic how much of a wind tunnel it is)

Day 11 – Tengboche to Namche

Day 12 – Namche to Lukla

This was by far, the longest day of this trek! We were originally planning on splitting this into two days, but it was right when the cyclone hit India which meant it was constant rain in the Himalayas. We hiked for 9 hrs non-stop, through the rain. Some people plan to do this in one day to begin with, but just keep in mind it is very long. There is a fairly steep ascent at the end when you get back into Lukla.


Miraculously, our flight back to Kathmandu actually made it out on time! We were apparently one of the few, before the rain came back in for the next few days! The Lukla airport is just as infuriating as Kathmandu’s domestic terminal. If you have a buddy and no guide to do this for you, have one person stand in line to check in and have another person go to the back of the room (near the entrance) to pay the departure fees. Don’t forget to get receipts, because they’ll need it at the check-in counter. The staff have a tendency to blow you off and just nod yes to whatever questions you have, so be adamant and direct about your questions (but not rude). There happened to be a large group of people who were also flying out from our hotel, so the hotel offered an agent to collect our tickets the night before to re-confirm and then get us on the boarding list. But unfortunately being lumped into this large group meant that we got bumped from our 7AM flight (luckily multiple planes came in at the same time and we were still able to leave on time). So the bottom line for Lukla’s airport is that, confirmations don’t mean anything! Be prepared to spend the day at the airport. It was such a headache that it was threatening to undo all the magic of the trek itself! Ugh.


What I used:

– one trekking outfit (underwear, hiking pants, base tank top, light pullover fleece, thick zip-up fleece which I usually ended up tying around my waist by mid-afternoon)

– waterproof shoes or boots (some people wore running shoes which would normally be ok without rain, but there are streams you have to cross, which turn into small rivers when it rains!), one pair of thin liner socks and one pair of thick wool mountaineering socks

– one sleeping/teahouse outfit (long underwear, long sleeve shirt, down jacket)

– down sleeping bag (mine was rated -6C/22F and I was very happy with it)

– fleece gloves, buff, poncho, trekking poles, goretex gaiters, trekking poles

– sunblock, chapstick with spf, vaseline, eye-drops, face and body wipes, towel

– energy gummies, NSAIDs (your knees WILL be angry!), blister prevention/care

– one 1L wide-mouth nalgene bottle

– camp soap for the occasional shower and hair washing, toothbrush/paste

– toilet paper (I bought as I went, the space wasn’t worth buying all at once in Namche)


Other miscellaneous tips:

– BOOK TRAVEL INSURANCE. I was told over and over again that the flight cancellation going out to Lukla counts as “trip interruption” and that I should be able to get the $500USD helicopter ride covered. I’ll be starting that process soon so I can’t vouch for it just yet, but it’s a good idea to purchase travel insurance anyways. Someone on our helicopter ride developed heart problems and had to get airlifted out! Other horror stories we heard along the way: someone slipped because they weren’t paying attention as they were looking up, and ended up breaking several ribs. Another girl developed bad altitude sickness at Gorak Shep but it was at night so a guide had to put her on a donkey and take her back down to the next village.

– Don’t do any sightseeing in Kathmandu until after you get back, if trekking is your main goal of the trip! Just make sure you have enough time to do the trek and fit in sightseeing you want to at the end of the trip so that if your trip gets delayed by a few days, you will still have that buffer.

– Make sure you have at least 6000 rupees when you go to the TIMS office in Kathmandu. We thought you could pay in USD but that’s not the case!! Rupees only! It is a frustratingly redundant process. You can’t get the TIMS card and permit at the same time. You have to get the card first, then your permit. It’s a lot of waiting around, and filling forms out in a cramped area with minimal table space. You’ll need a passport photo (don’t forget to get an extra one for the visa when you first arrive in Nepal as well– there is a photo booth but spare yourself the extra waiting time).

– Bring a Nalgene bottle and every night before bed, order hot water for it. Stick it in your sleeping bag at night! Boiled water costs way less than bottled water anyways.

– Bring multiple copies of flight tickets. I’m OCD so I always bring at least two but in our case, there are so many random airport officials that I found myself wishing I had at least 3-4 copies.

– Try to get the cell phone of whoever booked your Lukla flight. Some airport officials are helpful but are out of the loop, so having them be able to call an agent (if you don’t have a guide) cleared up a lot of confusion.

– Let porters and yaks pass. Step over and hug the mountain– don’t step towards the edge for obvious reasons!

– When we stopped for lunch, teahouses made everything from scratch. This means delicious food, but also meant that we usually ended up stopping for 1-2 hrs. We eventually gave up on stopping for lunch and just snacked on candy and energy gummies along the way. You can buy bars and candy there, but I didn’t see anything like energy shots or gummies or goo’s for sale anywhere, so bring those from home.

– A lot of lodges have a book area so you don’t have to burden yourself with bringing your own book, especially if you’re carrying your own stuff!

– All the lodges we stayed at had some form of bed and heavy blanket. This was never enough, so supplement with your sleeping bag. Also bring your own towel, though you’ll get to a point when it’s too cold to shower anyways! Many lodges have the option of a large bowl of hot water to wash yourself off with, if you want to just do a quick wipe-down.

– It gets VERY dry. Bloody noses are not uncommon. At one point I was so desperate I put Vaseline up my nose! Some parts get very windy too. We both got very bad wind and sun-burned lips!

– You’re going to get stinky and dirty and you’re going to get wet. Dirty and stinky is fine, and if you get wet, just dry it out by the stove in the common area at every lodge. Also, everything is either very dusty (especially when a group of yaks come by and kicks everything up) or very muddy.

– Don’t forget to plan for blisters and hot-spots! I taped all my hot spots up and never got any blisters, even with– I know this is horrible– hiking boots that I hadn’t had a chance to break in before the trek!


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Madagascar general info…


A room with two beds and a private bathroom with hot water ranged from 35,000 to 55,000 Ar in various places. The more expensive places were Tana, Tulear, Ranomafana and Andasibe (of course I’m not counting Vakona Lodge, which was about 200USD total for the stay plus meals and activities).

Typical “western-friendly” meals at hotels cost up to about 10,000Ar per person if you’d like a drink and maybe a small dessert. Going to a Malagasy restaurant frequented by locals usually costs no more than 6000Ar. You can stock up on roadside snacks like samosas, sausages, fried mashed potato things, fried plantains, fried doughey curry filled things, etc for about 200Ar each (and 2100Ar = 1USD).

Hiring a 4×4 for a day in Ifaty cost us 120,000Ar; our private car hire was 35EUR/day and you pay for gassing up the car at gas stations (fuel is pricey there– similar to Europe).

Every park has a park fee on top of a guide fee. It’s usually the varying guide fees that are the most expensive, which depend on the duration of the hike, which route, which park, etc. At Ranomafana and Andasibe where we did a 1.5 hr night walk and 3-4 hr day hike, we paid about 150,000Ar each (which included tips for guides). The smaller parks cost about half that.

Our three day trek in Isalo included three meals a day and our own porters, a cook and a guide. It also includes tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag. That was 255,000Ar per person, and we paid an extra 45,000Ar total for the one-way 4×4 transfer to the trailhead (to avoid the several kilometer long walk through farmland to the trailhead).


There is contradictory information in the Bradt and Lonely Planet guides! Although, LP is coming out with a new edition in a few months, so maybe some things have been corrected. We had some trouble communicating the names of places sometimes; a lot of places go by several different names that not everyone is aware of. For example, “Perinet” has been linked to Andasibe, but no one seemed to know what I was talking about even when I wrote it out. Fianarantsoa is also known as Fianar, Tulear is Toliara, etc.

Passport control is a nightmare at Tana. Try and be one of the first off the plane and in line. They collect passports in groups and you have to wait in a big group until they wave your passport in the air.

The majority of roads in Madagascar are not paved, and some are not accessible by a regular car.

I wasn’t able to get a concrete answer for the electrical outlet plug shape. But now, I can tell you that everywhere we stayed used the two round European style plugs.

You won’t encounter a lot of English speakers outside of Tana who aren’t guides. Most people speak French, but some of the older people only speak Malagasy (but can usually grab a nearby French speaker to help out).


Ranomafana has mostly narrow dirt baths, some scrambling through bushes. You’ll definitely need good shoes, and a walking stick or trekking pole may come in handy in some isolated areas.

Reniala Spiny Forest and Tortoise Village are right next to each other. They’re both sandy and very easy/flat, so sandals are probably ok.

Zombitse was also an easy walk, but I wouldn’t recommend sandals. It’s hard to spot animals here, and I think we may have gotten overcharged and/or this park is overpriced. We paid about as much for this as we did the larger parks like Ranomafana and Andasibe.

Isalo is full of huge ups and downs with no shade, lots of sharp, brittle, steep surfaces. The walk to the Blue and Black Pools near Namaza Camp is very perilous– slippery, narrow walkways over ledges. Very sturdy hiking shoes recommended for Isalo, but don’t forget sandals so you can kick them off at the end of a long day’s hike and still be able to get around.

Mantadia is closed until further notice due to cyclone damage (along with some trails in Vakona Lodge), but Andasibe trails are great for everyone. They’re wide and clear, though you might have to scramble through some foliage depending on where some wildlife has been spotted. Initially, there is a steep ascent to the plateau where the indri are, but this can be detoured (which we did because Sara had a leg strain). Don’t forget to bring a raincoat– the guide said that we were extremely lucky to be there during a 3-day dry spell.

Mitsinjo is steep at first, climbing up to that same plateau. It is more dense than Andasibe and is also a lot more muddy. There were also a lot of mosquitoes at the lower elevations, a little less so in Andasibe.

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Beautiful, amazing, wild Madagascar…

Well, I’ve been back from Madagascar for 2.5 weeks now and it’s only been lately that I feel like I’m back into the rhythm of things. This post is about the trip itself, and then I”m going to put up a second post listing general tips, facts, prices, etc. Sara and I grew very frustrated with both the Bradt and Lonely Planet books because both had conflicting information! In one book, village A was north of B, in the other, village A was south of B! I also feel like there just isn’t enough information on traveling in Madagascar, so I hope these will help anyone else planning a ‘backpacker’ style trip there. Anyway…

Not surprisingly, Madagascar was amazing! Maybe except for Antananarivo (Tana for short)– it is so smoggy and polluted there that both Sara and I had sore throats within minutes of walking around outside. We arrived late at night, meeting with Andry the following morning to hammer out details of our private driver hire through his company, Madagascar Tour Guide. Considering we only had 16 days to hit as many of the national parks as possible, we thought it would be worth it to spend a little more on a driver (35EUR/day split between us) instead of trying to get around on taxi-brousses. That method of transportation is unreliable to say the least, as anyone that has traveled in Africa can attest to. The route we decided to do was along national road RN7, one of the few national roads that you actually don’t need a 4×4 to drive on. This was our route:

(RN7 - https://i2.wp.com/www.mada2047.com/images/cartos/detail/mada-rn7.jpg)

We spent most of the first day driving south to the village of Ambositra and stayed at Hotel Artisan, which I highly recommend! A bungalow with two beds (one in the loft area) was 55,000Ar or 26USD. We continued on the next morning after a cheap, very satisfying European-style breakfast. Our first park stop was a short hike at Ialatsara Lemur Forest Camp, which led through some farmlands before the actual forest area. The trackers here operate similarly to the mountain gorilla trackers in Rwanda– they all communicate via radio and span out ahead of the guides. Our first lemur sighting of the trip was the Milne-Edwards Sportive Lemur! We also saw a few small chameleons (the second smallest ones, before they discovered the species that can fit onto a matchstick) and crab-spiders with large, elaborate webs. They have an option to camp there overnight as well, but we decided to drive on to one of the big parks, Ranomafana. This park is bisected by a paved road, along which the village of Ranomafana is found. Prices here were a little more than Ambositra. Up until this point, the drive along RN7 has been super windy– Sara and I both got motion sickness, which is very rare! The road is less insane after Ambositra.

madagascar, may 2012
(Milne-Edwards Sportive Lemur at Ialatsara)

We signed up for a night walk with our Ranomafana guide, which was just along the paved road (they used to have night walks in the park but there were too many tourist accidents). The guide explained that since the pavement holds heat, a lot of cold-blooded reptiles come down there at night. Even just walking along the road, we saw so many different types of chameleons, a ground boa and even a brown mouse lemur. Spotting the reptiles/lizards aren’t so much an issue of how rare they are– it’s how good your eye is. They are EVERYWHERE! We started the Ranomafana day hike as soon as the park opened (to avoid the heat and to catch animals at a higher activity level). The hike first starts as steep steps down to a river, before climbing back up to the peaks via different side trails. They are mostly narrow dirt paths, but there is some scrambling through dense brush depending on where lemurs are when they’re spotted. If they’re not busy munching away on leaves, they’re leaping from tree to tree. The wildlife here is similar to Ialatsara since they are in the same area, but it is at a much larger, wider scale. We got to see a red giraffe-necked weevil and a tiny leaf-tailed gecko; its camoflage was so good that we were staring at a branch that had maybe 3-4 green leaves and 2-3 brown leaves..? Neither of us could spot it after several minutes, and were in disbelief when the guide traced its outline for us!

madagascar, may 2012
(tree boa in Ranomafana at night)

madagascar, may 2012
(find the leaf-tailed gecko!)

After Ranomafana, the plan was to spend the night in Fianarantsoa. Sara and I decided to keep driving on for another 1.5 hours to Ambalavao. Fianarantsoa is insanely huge, crowded, noisy, dusty– it was so disorienting after having stayed in small villages for the previous 5 or 6 days. On our way to Ambalavao, we stopped at Lazan’i Betsileo Vineyards– yes, Madagascar produces wine! We took a tour (Sara was the French translator since most people in Madagascar only speak that and Malagasy), and then had a tasting. They produce a large variety of wines in their 1960’s equipment, including a “grey” wine which is apparently white wine that has been aged extra long. We spent the night in quaint little Ambalavao at a place that had algae coming out of its tap and frogs that appeared in the bathroom (we’re assuming they came out of the tap).

madagascar, may 2012
(beautiful landscape at the vineyard)

At this point, since we were both getting over a cold, we decided to finish driving all the way to the east coast before hitting the parks coming back up to Tana. So, we spent the next day driving to Tulear, a large-ish city that serves as the entry point to a village called Ifaty– that is, if you have access to a 4×4 to take you on national road RN9 or are willing to deal with the taxi-brousses. The locals live in simple thatched huts that are fenced off with upright branches in between all the resorts for rich, older French tourists. It’s a very stark contrast. Ifaty is also where you can visit Reniala Spiny Forest and the Tortoise Village, which is working to breed several species of endangered tortoises. Reniala Spiny Forest has several trails that lead you around to different types of trees, including bilbaob trees. The trails are on flat sand, so no hiking boots are necessary. We had lunch on the beach at one of the restaurants before heading back to Tulear.

On our drive from Tulear back up north to Ranohira, we stopped by Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park. This park isn’t one of the big popular ones, but it’s still worth checking out especially if you’re interested in birds. Our guide spotted a Hubbard’s Sportive Lemur and it took us a few minutes to actually SEE it– we have no idea how he spotted it! We also drove by Ilakaka village, the hub of the sapphire trade. My Bradt guidebook described it as a Wild-West town, with prostitutes mingling with hired security with villagers risking their lives going into the mines for a chance of finding a sapphire that could potentially take care of them and their family for the rest of their lives. In fact, our Reniala Spiny Forest guide used to work in the mines and told us that several of his friends had died. Have any of you ever watched Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio? Do you remember the scene when he pops a diamond out of his tooth and sells it in town? That’s exactly how Ilakaka looks/feels like. Out of curiosity, I asked to stop. Our driver Bio recommended that we go to the village of Sakaraha instead, since it was a little more safe. He took us to this “shop” which had several men hanging back near the entrance, two plastic lawn chairs in front of a vinyl-covered desk with another chair behind it. A sleazy Sri Lankan man came out and started showing us cut and uncut stones. We left after a horrible attempt to rip me off. I don’t regret going– he still talked to me and showed me some of the stones he had.

When we arrived in the pseudo-desert town of Ranohira (which really is in the middle of nowhere, it’s probably only there because it’s the jumping-off point for Isalo National Park), we booked a 3-day trek with Momo Trek complete with porters and meals, and decided to stay at one of his bungalows that night. The Isalo area used to be full of rivers but now it is arid and airy, with massifs coming out of the ground every few miles. I should point out that the Bara people believe that pointing with your finger is fady (taboo). You can point with your middle knuckle instead. Anyway, the next morning we took a 4×4 to the trailhead and began a very steep, difficult ascent up a canyon face. There was barely any cover from the sun, plus this was at some elevation (not a substantial amount, but enough to notice!). This was the Canyon of the Monkeys. We camped that night in a valley and showered under a natural waterfall. We met two girls– one Malagasy with a French teenager. Apparently, France has a program that judges or parents can enroll disenchanted teens in, which pairs them with a local Malagasy mentor for 6-9 months. The next day’s hike was a little easier, going by the Piscine Naturelle and ending in Namaza Camp. This is the campsite where families of ring-tailed lemurs meander through the campsite and mingle with visitors. Sara and I had plopped down overheated and exhausted at one of the stone benches and were about to dig into some delicious pineapple slices (those things were like ambrosia at that point), when a ring-tail jumped onto the bench! They were like aggressive squirrels that I’m sure you’ve experienced before when picnicking at a park at home! The last day was really fast, walking from Namaza Camp back to Ranohira.

madagascar, may 2012
(beginning of our Isalo trek)

madagascar, may 2012

On our way back up, we stopped again at Ambalavao, but stayed at a place that had a great shower (with no frogs or algae!), Bougainvillees. It was so nice!! Near the top of my list for Madagascar accommodations. Our next stop was Anja Park, which is actually a co-op run by the village. There wasn’t much wildlife to be spotted except for another family of ring-tails, but it was so much fun, scrambling up and down huge boulders on all fours!

We had to stop in Fianarantsoa to exchange more money (only Ariary is accepted everywhere), and got totally screwed by the exchange rate. Andry had warned that the further you get from Tana, the worse the rate gets. The trade-off is space, surprisingly. Their largest note is 10,000 Ar and that’s only about 5USD! Our original pile of 1000USD (which we got an outstanding rate on through Andry in Tana) came out to be $2.1 million Ariary which was at least 3 or 4 inches thick. You may have heard that there has been political tension– the last presidency was kicked out in a coup and is now ruled by a self-proclaimed leader who no one acknowledges. There are police and military checkpoints at every other village (even if it only takes a minute to drive through the entire village), but I’m not sure if that was always the case or if it started since the coup. People are not happy with the situation. When we were leaving Fianar (seems like there’s nicknames for every big town), we drove through a student protest full of teenagers that had walked out of class. Oh and I think there was a cockfight about to start at the gas station we stopped at.

From Ambositra, we drove to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. This is actually two parks, the much larger one being Mantadia. We encountered no notice of this in all our online research, but MANTADIA IS CLOSED INDEFINITELY thanks to the huge cyclone earlier this year! Lame, especially since we had planned on spending several nights here since there were so many trails in Mantadia! Andasibe has three trails, but the third one covers the first two anyways. Andasibe is popular because of the largest existing lemur, the Indri indri. Besides their size and the lack of a tail, another distinguishing feature is that instead of grunts and shrieks, the indri sing. It’s very eerie– almost like whale song. They sing in the morning to call to their family and to protect their territory. At this park, we also saw the colorful Diademed Sifaka (sifakas are like larger lemurs) the Eastern Wooly Lemur and the Common Brown Lemur. And of course, so many chameleons! We also went for a night walk along the road, but at this point, we were chameleon’ed out. There was supposedly a mouse lemur, but no matter how hard the guide tried to point it out with his two different colored flashlights, we just could not spot it.

madagascar, may 2012

Mitsinjo Park shares the same area as Andasibe, and is actually run by a local NGO. Their goal is to protect the endemic flora and fauna of Madagascar and one way of doing that is by slowly removing invasive/introduced trees and replanting native trees once they’ve grown enough in their tree nursery. It really is an impressive organization. Our Mitsinjo guide spoke great English (probably the best English speaker out of all our guides!) and was genuinely interested and invested in his cause. Still not convinced that Mitsinjo is worth checking out? They have something that Andasibe doesn’t– the territorial line that splits two families of indri! During our hike, one of the families was leaping through the trees above us to take up arms after sounding the alarms! (The territory-alarm sounds similar to their regular call, except it goes on for longer.) Our guide found another species of leaf-tailed gecko, this one much larger than the Ranomafana one. He tested us and gave us a minute to find it– we stared at that two foot long part of the tree trunk but managed to barely spot it! I’m still not sure where its tail ends though, even if I stare at the picture.

madagascar, may 2012
(just a tree trunk?)

We decided to splurge and stay at Vakona Lodge. What a beautiful place!!! They have their own private reserve with several trails (a lot of them were closed because of cyclone damage as well, since this is closer to Mantadia than Andasibe), a crocodile farm with a tree boa you can handle and some tortoises you can feed flowers to, a pair of caged fossa (kind of sad)– they even have a private island, Lemur Island. It’s called that because it’s full of habituated lemurs that were donated as ex-pets that run and jump all over you! They’re mostly the common brown lemur, but there are a few black & white ruffed lemurs. They seemed to be the more mellow species, but both loved plantains (and also, the salt from dried sweat– agh!!). There is a family of ring-tails on another small island; they don’t like to be pet, but they’ll clamber on you.

madagascar, may 2012
(so mellow– black and white ruffed lemur on Lemur Island)

Our flight out of Madagascar wasn’t until 1am so we spent the last day roaming in and near Tana. We checked out the ruins of Ambohimanga, where the emperor used to live a few centuries ago, then onto Ilafy to visit a small museum that focused on the different tribes of Madagascar where we befriended some teenagers studying to be guides. Back in Tana, we had lunch near the prime minister’s palace, which contained some artifacts of the queen that survived a huge fire that occurred not that long ago. Our last two stops of the day were the croc farm near Tana which was also a zoo and an orphanage, Akany Avoko.

I would suggest that if you’re out in an area with any kind of forestry or shrubs, keep your eyes and ears peeled! You’re bound to spot something, like…
… a bumbling lowland tenrec
madagascar, may 2012
… or Parson’s chameleon!
madagascar, may 2012


Filed under International, Madagascar, Travel

Back to Little Corn

It’s about time for a tropical beach vacation again! I knew Little Corn (La Islita), a Nicaraguan island in the Caribbean, would be a safe bet judging from my experiences there in 2008.

We arrived in Managua and stayed for what we thought would’ve been one night at Camino Real, a large, modern hotel close to the airport and not really anything else, unless you count the casino next door. They offer free airport shuttle service, though at the time it seemed like it had to be pre-arranged (maybe because it was the low season?). A room with a king size bed was 90USD with an amazing breakfast! A lot of the people there had a lot of attitude, but it was a good place to get refreshed and cleaned up.

I had assumed that we didn’t have to pre-book our flights from Managua to Big Corn via their domestic airline, La Costena, but I was wrong. The afternoon flight (they have two flights a day, 630am and 2pm) was completely booked. As we were waiting on standby in the domestic terminal, it started raining.. torrential, tropical style. This delayed the flight, and although we were told the entire flight was cancelled, we found out the next day that only the second leg of the flight was cancelled– passengers spent the night in Bluefields, on the coast of Nicaragua. I walked next door to the La Costena agency and booked for the 630am flight the next morning, about 169USD each, round-trip. To play it safe, we decided to fly back to Managua a day early instead of the original plan, which was flying back on the early morning flight and spending 4-5 hours at the Managua airport before our flight home.

little corn island, nov 2011

After landing in Big Corn’s tiny airport, we shared a taxi with a traveler from Belgium who had been on a year-long trip. It costs 1USD (or 15 cordoba) to get anywhere on the island, including the pier. There is a pier tax (can’t remember the amount but it was pretty low). We had some time to kill so we grabbed a bite to eat at the nearby restaurant. There, we met the British couple that runs Dive Little Corn, one of two dive shops on La Islita. They’ve taken a lot of extra certification classes, including one aimed at handicapped divers.. you could clearly tell that they were in it because they love diving, not necessarily to just make money. The panga from Big to Little Corn costs 110 cordoba per person and takes about 30-40 minutes.

We had a reservation for five nights at Little Corn Beach & Bungalow (LCBB), a newer (it wasn’t there in 2008) highly rated place to stay on the ocean-side of the island. This little spot is owned by a couple from Colorado, soon to be managed by another couple that is moving from their resort in Granada (the wife is American and the husband Portuguese). They’re all super nice and accommodating. The rest of the employees are locals; I’ve had some of the best service ever at this place, including at their restaurant, Turned Turtle. Also, Turned Turtle has some of the BEST food I’ve ever had! The best filet mignon, the best lobster tail, the best butter garlic shrimp.. the list goes on– and this is compared with every other restaurant I’ve been to around the world and at home. The prices are great by American standards, 15-20USD for those meals, which include appetizer, salad and dessert. Their pina coladas and margaritas are amazing as well– I’ve been thinking about them everyday since I got home! We spent the first four nights in a 84USD/night ‘Gulliver’ level bungalow, which includes a mini fridge that works when the island has power (it goes off everyday from 5am-2pm) and the last night in a ‘Crusoe’ level which is 20USD cheaper, but has way fewer amenities (since we missed the first La Costena flight, we pushed our reservation back one night but had to switch bungalows the last night due to another booking). I would say the worst con was that the Crusoe had no fan, and even though it had windows, we still ended up sleeping with the door open. A little aggravating, considering there were a few storms that rolled in throughout the night! Overall, LCBB was an awesome place to stay. Two unique perks I really appreciated was that they have someone that will meet you at the panga and transport your luggage in their wheelbarrow, and will walk you back when you leave (you will be extra appreciative in the rainy season when the trails are super muddy and slippery). The other unique perk is that they have wifi when there’s electricity.. not that I was too attached to my inboxes, but it was convenient in terms of checking other reservations, etc.

little corn island, nov 2011
(the beach at LCBB)

Besides lounging around on their hammocks, eating and drinking at Turned Turtle, reading your book on the veranda of your bungalow, LCBB also has kayak and snorkel rentals. Brian snorkeled from the beach and swam all the way to the reef, but it took a lot of effort. Another morning, we booked a 15USD, 2-stop snorkel trip with some guides that stopped by the LCBB beach. We spent a lot of time playing dominoes as well. Oh, what a hard life!

little corn island, nov 2011

little corn island, nov 2011

If LCBB is beyond your budget, I recommend staying at Derek’s Place, on the same side of the island. I stayed here last time and fell completely in love with it. It’s more affordable than LCBB, but that also means less amenities.

A note about Little Corn is that this is not a 5-star location. Electricity is limited, and most of the places to stay encourage limited water usage since the only water sources are an aquifer and collected rainwater. There are NO paved roads– there are only a few dirt paths that cross the jungly interior of the island, though most places are on the beaches so you can just walk along the shore. The plumbing is sensitive, so all toilet paper must be thrown away, not flushed (most Central American countries are like this). Only cash is usually accepted, and even then, they have to scramble for change if you try to pay with a larger bill. There are no banks or ATMs on this island, though there is one on Big Corn with an ATM that gives you dollars or cordobas.

We spent our one night on Big Corn at Sunrise Hotel, which is where I stayed last time. Even Scott at LCBB said Sunrise Hotel was a great place to stay. Their ocean-view rooms are 55USD/night. A little old, but really clean and well-furnished, with lots of natural lighting. Big Corn is noticeably more developed than what I remember. As in, there actually is a slum there now. There used to be more Garifuna than Nicas but that’s not the case anymore. One very unexpected thing was that there seemed to be a lot of tourists from the American South here..!!?? We met one guy at Sunrise, who works on an offshore oil rig in Louisiana. He showed us some nasty looking cuts on his palm and bicep (nasty as in, fat tissue was visible), telling us he got completely drunk the night before, rented a golf cart, convinced some local woman to drive it even though she insisted she didn’t know how to (‘well, you’d probably drive it better than me right now!’), then crashed it. He flew off and the first thing he grabbed was barbed wire.. refused to go to the hospital to get stitches, was still in his bloodied clothes drinking his beer at the bar the following morning, which is when we met him. These are the Americans that give the rest of the Americans a bad reputation abroad!! I have no pity for him.

We had a couple hours to kill that morning before our flight so we ended up renting a golf cart ourselves (25USD for their 2-hr minimum) and driving around. There are still no souvenir shops, which is a good and bad thing! Anyway, I was right to book our La Costena flight back to Managua a day early. That flight was delayed by a few hours! It’s really saying something when my experience with that airline was way better three years ago. But, what can you do? That’s the only airline that services Big Corn. I highly recommend leaving a big buffer on both sides of the trip. We stayed at Camino Real for our last night in Nicaragua. Same crabby attitude, same great rooms. I love Little Corn, but it’s definitely nice to be able to take a long, hot shower with great water pressure, and then step out in an air-conditioned room with low humidity. And now, back to a fast-paced life complete with traffic jams, smartphones, rapid-fire emails and excel spreadsheets. Until next time…

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New Orleans

Teresa and I just got back from a weekend in New Orleans. Unfortunately, I had a full blown cold by the time I landed so I couldn’t do or enjoy much!! It was mostly a quickie foodie trip so here are my findings:

If you love that Cajun/Creole cuisine, call ahead and reserve a table at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and Emeril’s NOLA Restaurant, around the corner from K-Paul. They were both highly recommended to me by a lot of people and I can see why! For a cheaper, but equally yummy option, check out Acme Oyster House (just be prepared to stand in line outside). When you’re strolling around, grab some beignets (fried doughnuts buried in powdered sugar) and an iced latte at the legendary Cafe Du Monde! Keep in mind though, that it’s cash only and pretty chaotic inside– just grab the first open table you see and a server will eventually come up to you.

new orleans, june 2011
(garlic crusted drum at NOLA)
new orleans, june 2011
(beignets & frozen cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde)

My other favorite thing in New Orleans was checking out the voodoo stuff. The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum was well worth its $5 entry fee and the store, although small, had well-priced items (especially compared to other shops). Down a couple blocks is Voodoo Authentica, another interesting voodoo stop. I’d say that the Voodoo Museum was the better of the two.

new orleans, june 2011

And now, I return to my Tylenol Cold induced haze…


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Eindhoven & Amsterdam

One of the projects I have going on at work is a collaboration between our lab, PATH (another non-profit research institute based in Seattle), and Biocartis, an off-shoot of Philips. We were sent to the Biocartis facility at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven, Holland for a 4-day training session.

Holland, April 2011

We flew into Amsterdam, rented a car and drove the 1.5 hours down to Eindhoven. Others had chosen to fly into Brussels instead, driving for 1 hour but leaving Seattle several hours beforehand. I was a little freaked out about driving in another country, but it wasn’t bad at all! (Plus, we got a nice car.) People there drive better than in Seattle. But all I can say about Eindhoven is that… it’s a cute little modern town, but it doesn’t have much going for it if you’re just a tourist. Sorry!

Holland, April 2011

After training was over, we spent a little time in Amsterdam, keeping it pretty tame. Our lodging of choice was RobertRamon, a cute little boutique hotel with a great location. The rooms were small and the walls were thin, but service was excellent and it was fairly priced for what and where it was.

We had pre-purchased timed entry tickets for the Anne Frank House, which I highly recommend. The line to purchase tickets at the door literally stretched around the corner! I think we could’ve probably purchased tickets for the Van Gogh Museum at the door. It seems like there are special events there on Friday nights (they’re open later and by the time we got there, a kimono fashion show had just ended). For most of our one full day there, we just walked around and used the hop-on/hop-off boats, checking out the Tulip Market and the shopping areas.

Holland, April 2011

Holland, April 2011

Holland, April 2011

Not much to report… we were gone for just a week! 😉

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Beautiful Blue Lagoon

After a physically and mentally trying several days (the ATV accident, subsequent whiplash, then off-roading and getting stuck on a huge snow drift and having to help get the vehicle unstuck), Brian and I were anxious to get to the famed geothermally heated healing waters of the Blue Lagoon right after the 4×4 trip.

We got off at the BSI bus terminal after the 4×4 trip and immediately bought bus tickets to the Blue Lagoon. Reykjavik Excursions offers round trip bus fare with hotel transfer with and without Blue Lagoon entrance. If you buy their package, you end up saving about $10USD (versus if you only bought bus fare yourself, and paid separately for the entrance fee). However, Brian and I wanted to do the exclusive lounge, which came out to only be about $60USD more per person. You get your own private changing room with a magnificent shower with WCs in the same area (ours was right across the hallway), towels, bathrobes, a fruit plate, bottled water, tea, coffee, a private indoor section of the Blue Lagoon, access to the rest of the Lagoon, a small lounge area with a fireplace, and your own personal host.

Walking into the reception area, we were tired, cold (the kind of cold that drains your energy and gets right into your bones), in pain and cranky. Gunni, our host, led us up to the quiet private area and right when we walked into our private room, we were enveloped in a blanket of luxurious, warm air. It made my ears tingle! The interior was beautiful– modern design, heated stone floors, backlit blue and purple lights, brushed steel and aluminum appliances. When Brian went out to go smoke, I sat down, closed my eyes and enjoyed the wave of glee that came over me.

We went downstairs to where the lounge was, inhaled our fruit platter, and stepped into the warm water. The water is light blue due to silica and algal elements, and is geothermally heated. There are several outlets of steam around the Lagoon, I’m assuming excess energy that hasn’t been harnessed by the nearby geothermal plant. The air is still super cold and chilly, but the water is so warm that everything is perfect! There is also a bar that you can wade up to and charge your purchases to the wristband that you pay out upon departure. We spent the next few hours wading around, exploring the nooks and crannies of the Lagoon. Beautiful and relaxing… it was exactly what we needed!

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Ouch! Brrrrr!

Got into an ATV accident yesterday. I was following Brian who was following our guide, Thor of Eskimos (http://www.eskimos.is). We were quading around some roads that were covered with gravel and at times snow and/or ice, going up and down small mountains, crossing running rivers and frozen ponds that broke underneath the weight of our ATV’s. It was fun! I deliberately hung back so I could gas it all the way at times (NOT where there was snow or ice, just on gravel). Unfortunately, these were tuned down to be street legal so the acceleration and top speed were less than what I’m used to.

Anyway, so there was one part that literally had a foot of solid ice covering most parts of the road. Brian said that even Thor had to slow down to maneuver the road. So from what I gathered afterwards (from what I remember and Brian seeing it happen in his rear view), I hit a foot-deep rut, it yanked my handlebar all the way to the right, I yanked it forward but by then it was too late. I hit the left side of my head (yes we had helmets) first before getting more banged up and my left foot pinned underneath the ATV. The ATV was somehow completely upside down and perpendicular to the direction I was traveling. I laid there dazed for a bit but managed to wiggle out. By the time we got back to the apartment, my head was pounding and I could already feel whiplash settling into the left side of my neck, plus several spots where bruises would probably form.

Probably against better judgement, I still went on our 4×4 offroading tour this morning, which probably aggravated my neck. Then to top it all off, our vehicle, which was pretty much a Mormon Mobile that was equipped with enough gear to make it close to impossible to get stuck, got stuck. On a six foot snow drift. And we had to get out and push. Unsuccessfully. For a full freaking hour in sub zero temperatures. Not cool. Luckily, some guys on snowmobiles saw us, grabbed their own 4×4 and towed us out. Well, at least the surrounding snowscape was beautiful!


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Golden Circle

Well, the Northern Lights tour was moderately successful. Several factors come into play, beyond just being north enough: the brightness of the moon, solar activity during the previous 24 hours, light pollution and how cloudy or clear the sky is. We drove around and stopped several times and saw them faintly. Actually the brightest viewing was a flare of it while people were boarding the bus! I didn’t catch it but Brian did.

Another popular day tour here is the Golden Circle route, which we went on the day before yesterday. Reykjavik Excursions offers it for 8900ISK including hotel transfer. The three main stops are Gulfoss (Golden Falls), Geysir and Pingvellir, all located fairly close to each other once you get a little inland outside of Reykjavik.

Gulfoss is called the Golden Falls for a reason. The sheer size of it is stunning! The area was covered in snow and ice; some parts of the falls had actually frozen over (the wind chill is shocking!).

We stopped for lunch at the tourist stop just outside of Geysir, the geyser that gives its name to all other geysers (or so the guide repeatedly said). Geysir itself erupts with boiling water every 5-10 minutes, sometimes it’s impressive and other times it’s not. Surrounding Geysir are other geysers and boiling mud pots, though those weren’t visible from the trail. There is a multimedia center at the tourist stop– one of the displays is this thing you can stand on and it mimics the earthquake caused by a major volcanic eruption a couple decades ago (5.1 on the Richter scale).

Last main stop for the day was Pingvellir, the place where you can actually see the crack between the Eurasian and North American Plates. There was so much snow there though, that I couldn’t see where I was walking! At one point my foot fell into a smaller crack up to the top of my boot between the two plates! You can hike down a bit between the plates in some areas. Up top, there is a spectacular view of the adjacent lake. This is where political gatherings used to take place back in the 900’s, due to its accessibility.

I’d have to say that my favorite of the three was Pingvellir. The landscape around it is beautiful (as is the other landscape during the drive), the view is amazing, and seeing the meeting place of these gargantuan pieces of the moving Earth blows my mind!

We’re going 4×4’ing around some volcanoes in a bit!

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Hello Reykjavik!

Not too long ago, my boyfriend Brian and I booked some cheap non-stop flights to Reykjavik via IcelandAir. Well, we finally made it here yesterday morning!

Our quaint, clean, beautiful studio apartment is located within a 5 minute walk from the main street, Laugavegur. Kalli’s Apartments has several units to rent, all with free access to a washer/dryer, free wifi, and an awesome welcome by the cheerful landlord, Systa! We bussed into town from the airport, getting off at the BSI bus stop (tickets were bought at the flyBus kiosk right outside baggage claim, 7000 kronur for 2 roundtrips, 45 minutes). Systa picked us up from BSI, took us to our apartment and came up with us to get us all oriented on the map, patiently answered every question we had, and collected rent for the 8 nights (99000 kronur).

It’s been snowing, as you may have already guessed for Iceland in February. During the daytime, it doesn’t get too bad. Once the sun starts to set however, the temperature drops noticeably fast. Leftover slush rapidly freezes, the wind chill gets painful, and the city seems to get muted as it settles in for the night. Then at that point you can turn up the heat in your room, fueled by geothermally heated water! (and yes, there is a trace of sulfur in the water here)

We haven’t done much so far, besides go grocery shopping and wander around a little (prices are similar to Seattle, maybe a little bit more). Brian’s cooking dinner now, before heading out on a tour to see the Northern Lights in a couple hours.

There’s a surprising amount of awesome street art here. Check it out!

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