Whirlwind Snaefellsnes

At the beginning of our Iceland trip, we stayed in Borgarnes, since we didn’t want to be driving too far on our first day on arrival in Iceland. And since we were staying in Borgarnes, and had a day to spare, we decided that we’d tack a whirlwind tour of the Snæfellsnes peninsula onto our trip to the Westfjords.

We decided to go clockwise – driving the southern coast in the morning, and then the northern coast in the afternoon. We packed our lunch at the hostel, filled our water bottles, called up the route on our phones (always pay attention to the road, as GPS can be off and where it says turn….might not be a turn. Be sure to follow the road, and use the GPS as a back up), and set off.

Screenshot_20170815-124906

Our first pit stop was at Raudfeldsgja, a fissure in a cliff face near Arnarstapi. There’s a small parking lot near the road, and a path that leads fairly straight up to the fissure, where the birds wheel overhead. You can walk into the fissure(although we chose not to as it was pretty wet, and we didn’t have a change of shoes – come prepared with a pair of water shoes/boots/sandals, to take advantage of this) but it was still interesting to do the short hike up to the cleft, and look up (and up) the cliffs, and a welcome break to stretch our legs.

From there we continued on to Hellnar, to take a short 2.5 km hike back towards Arnarstapi. The hike starts off on wooden walkways, before narrowing to a beaten track through lava rocks and fields. There are wonderful views of the glacier, as well as the ocean, and cliffs where birds nest. It’s not a difficult hike, and the trail is easy to follow. We pulled up a couple of rocks near Arnarstapi, to eat our lunch and watch the birds.

We had some tea and dessert in the café back at Hellnar, before heading back onto the road. Our plan was to stop at the Vatnshellir Cave – who doesn’t love caving? – but we were unfortunately either a half hour too early, or a half hour too late, and decided not to wait for the next tour.

Not long after hitting the road, we picked up a young couple hitch hiking. This put the curb a bit on our ‘stopping wherever we’d like to’ plan, but we did pull over into a viewing area along the northern tip of the peninsula to stretch our legs and take a few photos.

We dropped our passengers off at Kirkjufell, which they planned to climb, as we continued on to our last stop – the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum, where we would not only learn how hakarl is made, but what it tastes like (hint: not so good)

It’s a one room museum, run by the family. Inside is a plethora of fishing related gear and artifacts, and after a brief presentation of how hakarl is made (from the traditional way it used to be made, to the more modern way it’s done now) they give you the chance to sample a piece (with some rye bread to cut the taste a bit if you’d prefer).

You’re also welcome to tour the drying house out back – but I warn you, the smell there is definitely worse than the taste.

From there it was back to Borgarnes, to celebrate Canada Day at the hostel (we threw our own party because that’s what you do when you’re the only Canadians in a hostel in Iceland)

Advertisements

Roadtripping Iceland

A few years ago, Husband and I went to Iceland for the Eve FanFest. We spent a few days in Akureyri, before going back to Reykjavik for the Fest itself.

And of course, we had a blast because Iceland is that amazing. We also decided that we wanted to go back and see a different part of Iceland – so this summer, we headed back to Iceland, to do a road trip of the Westfjords.

We had a total of 10 days to spend in Iceland, so the plan was to spend 2 nights in Borgarnes (exploring the Snæfellsness peninsula), then to Laugabol Horsefarm by Arnarfjorður for 2 nights, then up to Flateyri for 3, then to Djupavik for a night, before heading into North Iceland and staying near Borðeyri (actually, across the fjord, at the HI Sæberg hostel). Our actually plan only deviated a little bit – we cut our time in Flateyri to 2 nights, and added a night at the Sæberg hostel.

Screenshot_20170816-192129

We had rented a car with Budget (through I Heart Reykjavik) –  we picked the car up at the airport and returned it in Reykjavik. We took photos of any damage already done to the car, and went over it with a rep to confirm the scratches, dings and dents. We did get a hard sell on ‘sand and ash’ insurance (which the agents at Budget assured us was nearly required if we were going along the south shore) but ultimately the numbers for the liability didn’t make sense (nearly quadruple the cost of the car) ….and we weren’t going anywhere near the south shore, so we opted out of it.

We stayed predominately at Air BnBs in the Westfjords, which meant that for several nights we’d be a considerable drive away from the nearest town…and thus the nearest restaurant, or grocery store. Our host was amazing, and included this information in our email exchange, so we were well prepared. It’s definitely a good idea to either ask your host, or take a look at a map to see how much planning you’ll need to do for food and/or drinks.

There’s no rush to get groceries in Keflavik (or in Reykjavik) if you’re going to pass through/stay in Borgarnes, as there are several grocery stores available there as well. In fact, there are smaller grocery stores located around the Westfjords, but it’s by far cheaper to buy groceries at the Bonus in Borgarnes or Isafjorður, depending on which way you’re going.

20170709_184022

A nice taco meal with an Einstock beer to wash it down

For alcoholic drinks – well, stock up at the airport. If you don’t (for whatever reason), you’ll need to hit a vinbuðin – their version of the LCBO + Beer Store. Each vinbuðin has differing hours of operation – generally, the smaller the town, the shorter the hours, and every one is closed on Sundays. Be sure to do some research before heading into the Westfjords.

Driving in Iceland is fairly easy – or at least we found it so. Driving in the Westfjords is easy….but terrifying. Paved roads give way to gravel through parts of the southern end, as well as through the summer roads that cut through the West. There’s a tourist map available (for free in various places, and available online) that shows which roads are paved, which are gravel, main vs secondary. Most of the gravel roads are bordered by mountain on one side and cliff face on the other, and can be slick in wet weather. While locals will drive with (reckless, some would say) abandon, we found ourselves slowing down…sometimes because our little car couldn’t make it that fast up the grade, and others because the descent seemed a bit perilous. At the beginning of our trip we worried about every ding we heard as rocks bounced off the car, but eventually became more relaxed. (And didn’t add any damage to the car!)

As you can see from the photos, we didn’t rent a very large car, and it did well enough on the roads of the Westfjords. Husband wasn’t overly fond of driving Carlita (I can’t drive standard, and the windy, one lane, mountainous roads of the Westfjords didn’t seem like the place to learn) simply because he was unfamiliar it – how it would handle on the slick dirt roads after the rain, but otherwise our little Hyundai i10 handled the roads extremely well. If in doubt, ask!

One website that proved incredibly useful was Hotpot Iceland. Not only did it indicate locations of hot pots, it also showed gas stations. It wasn’t 100% accurate, as at least one gas station that we used wasn’t given on the app (the gas station in Norðurfjorður) but used in conjunction with the map I linked to above, and by asking locals you shouldn’t have a problem. (That being said, do keep an eye on your gas tank).

We bought a sim card in the airport – we ended up getting a NOVA card, with 10 GB of data (way more than we needed). We ended up with not so good reception in the Westfjords, with the exception of areas around towns.

 

 

 

 

 

Quepos

20170413_141329.jpgSo after La Fortuna we headed down to Quepos on the Pacific Coast. Since we didn’t have a lot of time, we decided to take a flight on Nature Air– a 25 minute flight to the Pacific Coast. The Arenal airport just outside of la Fortuna is super tiny – washrooms, a bar (that was closed when we were there) and two check-in desks for the two airlines that use the airport. Super easy to check-in and impossible to get lost. The 19-seat planes are as comfortable as you can expect – no a/c and not much airflow, but the air does get cooler the higher you are, so I didn’t find it too bad. (Fiancé may disagree)

Once in Quepos, we got a shared shuttle to Playa Espadilla, the beach area where our hotels (more on that in a minute) were located. Super each, about $20US total.

So, hotels. The hotel we wanted to stay in only had availability for the last three days of our planned stay, so we booked two nights at Vela Bar. Nice place, but we were a little taken aback by our room, which was one of the non-newly renovated rooms. (It turns out the room was great – although it didn’t lock very well, we had a small sitting room type area, with no a/c, and our bedroom, which did have a/c was up a short flight of stairs, a room large enough for a door to open, a double bed, and a night-stand.) The room had two patios – one off the bedroom at the back, and one at the front.

One evening, while having a beer on the front patio, reading our books, a small cat ran up the stairs and sat on the far end of the patio….viciously “playing” with a mouse. He came over for pets and cuddles afterwards. We didn’t realize that he wasn’t actually playing with the mouse, but having his dinner, until the next morning.

Our other hotel, La Posada, was right on the edge of Manuel Antonio Park. This room was much more modern, but larger so the a/c had to work to keep it cool and less humid. One of the bonuses of being on the edge of the park, besides easy access, was that occasionally wildlife would come to visit, like this deer that wandered around the fence.20170416_155039

Our first day we spent at the public beach – you can rent chairs and umbrellas for about $10US for a full day – you can leave your towels to go get food at one of the restaurants that line the street, and the people who rent the chairs will watch them for you. We arrived on a Friday (Good Friday in fact) and it was incredibly busy, the beach was packed. Lots of options of things to do – they had parasailing, surfing lessons, boogie boards to rent, or just play in the waves (our option). Lots of people hawking wares, but a simple “Non, gracias” and they would wander on to the next umbrella.

We decided to spend a day in Manuel Antonio Park, relaxing on one of the relatively secluded beaches in the park. After the security check point, where they look for contraband (such as alcohol and chips) we headed along the dirt road, past groups and guides. These guides, with their telescopes to spot hidden animals in the canopy, can be hired just outside the gates. We decided to verge off the dirt road and onto a wooden boardwalk that had been built through the forest, paralleling the road.20170416_085854

We decided not to hire a guide, as our focus was more on the beaches inside the park. We headed to Espadilla Sur. As you follow the path, you come across a long arc of a beach, that quickly fills up as people arrive. This is also prime monkey spotting territory, as the monkeys gather in the trees nearby. If you keep walking, however, you reach a slightly more secluded beach – which is where we decided to set up. The waves here are slightly larger and slightly more powerful, which was great for us.

While in the park, we did manage to catch glimpses of some wildlife – besides the lizards and monkeys, we also saw raccoons (who knew Costa Rica had raccoons?!?) and a coati-mundi. We found out afterwards that this is a great place for spotting sloths – it may well be worth it to hire a guide and wander through the trails to see the wildlife of Costa Rica.

The night walk we booked ended up being far better than the one we had done in La Fortuna. It ended up being just ourselves and another guy from Edmonton (Canadians unite!). We driven just outside of town, and along a bumpy road, then dropped off with our guide. We ended up finding quite an array of animals – a kinkajou running through the canopy, monkeys, opossums, scorpions, moths, spiders, and a wide variety of lizards. Incidentally, scorpions under UV lights are incredible. We walked for about 2 hours, at a fairly slow pace (obviously) stopping frequently to see whatever the guide had found. And yet, about 20 minutes in, we were all dripping in sweat. It was that humid.

Our last full day we signed up to do a catamaran tour. Which ok, I had to talk Fiancé into, because yeah it sounds boring. But! It included snorkelling time, which I thought would be well worth the boat cruise aspect of it.

So we headed out on the catamaran tour, with a brief stop at Manuel Antonio park (just off of Playa Espadilla Sur, where we had spent the day before), then off to find dolphins – watching them play in the waves at the bow of the boat. Then it was time to snorkel – we probably spent about a half hour to 45 minutes in the water, watching the fish swim around the rocks, and trying desperately not to be dashed upon them. (the current was a little bit strong).

20170417_105707

After our snorkelling excursion, it was back onto the boat for some lunch, and to terrify ourselves on the slide at the back. The slid had a near vertical drop, and you were instructed to put one hand on the back of your head, the other holding your nose, and to cross your legs….before they pushed you down, and you went skidding across the water like a human-sized, very heavy, pebble. We could also jump off the roof of the catamaran into the water below – this being only slightly less terrifying than the slide.

After our boating excursion, we had the driver drop us off at El Avion a restaurant/bar situated in and around a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane. The restaurant has an excellent view over the Pacific Ocean, and we had been planning to come for lunch or dinner during our stay. Somewhat unluckily it did end up raining while we were there, so our views weren’t as fantastic as they could have been, but the canopies hanging over the edge of the roof kept us dry, and the food wasn’t bad.

20170417_165403

 

Nature Lover’s Paradise – La Fortuna, Costa Rica

This Easter, after a not too terrible winter, we flew to Costa Rica for nearly 2 weeks of rest, relaxation….and some mildly strenuous activities.

We started off our trip in La Fortuna, a small town near the base of Arenal Volcano. Our hotel, Volcano Lodge and Springs, was about 6 km outside of town. We made the mistake on our second day of trying to walk into town – I suppose if the weather had been milder, it would have been fine, but as it was it was hot and the sun was merciless. There wasn’t near as much cover as we had planned on, so we arrived in town sore, sunburnt and exhausted. If you’re staying at any of the hotels along the road leading outside of town, definitely get a cab if you’re planning to visit the town itself.

Our first day we had booked a 3-in-1 tour with Anywhere.com– visiting a park with hanging bridges, a waterfall, as well as a volcano hike. (There is a 4-in-1 option that includes a soak at hot springs afterwards, but since our hotel had hot springs, we opted not to do that tour.) We were picked up on time (bonus!) and on the way to the Mistico Park our guide and driver suddenly stopped. There were two toucans on trees near the road, so we all trooped out of the van to peer through telescopes at the birds.

These telescopes are a routine sight in Costa Rica, as most guides carry them to help you see animals that may not be that close. Interestingly, most guides are also adept at lining up cellphone cameras with the lens of the telescope to take pictures!

Once at the park, we split into two groups – one with the families with kids, and one with the couples (a mixed group ranging in age from late 20s to late 40s). As we walked through the park, we would stop periodically to see various animals – snakes, frogs, sloths, monkeys. The park has 16 bridges, 6 of which as hanging bridges at various lengths and heights. As someone who’s nervous about heights, I did have a few moments on the first few bridges, but quickly adapted to them with no trouble.

After the nature walk at the park, we headed to the La Fortuna Waterfall. With 500 steps leading down to the waterfall, it’s not exactly accessible for people with limited mobility. (And climbing back up the steps is exhausting). At the bottom of the stairs is a small flat area with a few benches – on one side is a calm river where kids can splash around, on the other is a pool at the base of the waterfall, where those of sturdier fare can swim. The force of the water hitting the pool, plus any wind, does create a bit of a current that will try to push you towards the rocky shore. (I should note that at the entrance to the waterfall is a small shop, along with washrooms that you can get changed in.)

From there we headed back towards the volcano for a short hike up a small ridge to get a better view of the volcano. First we had a brief history of recent eruptions, and how the volcano came to the shape that it is today, and then we set off for a short 20 minute hike. The hike itself isn’t too strenuous, although there is one steep section near the top.

Our last day in La Fortuna we booked a stand-up paddle (SUP) boarding excursion on Arenal Lake. The company provided life jackets as well as the board, and drinks and fruit at the end of the paddling. We were guided around the edge of the lake, paddling for about one and half hours, before stopping and loading our boards onto the boat following us, getting to enjoy some fresh fruit and a beer, before heading back to the launching point.

That evening we went to the nearby nature reserve –Arenal Natura Ecological Park – for a night walk. While we didn’t see any mammals, or snakes, we did see a plethora of frogs, some caimans, and crocodiles. The tour itself was about 2 hours, and not very strenuous. We were in a small group with several children – I think I would have preferred if they had split up the group into families/non-families, as a lot of time was spent trying to get the kids to a) let everyone have a turn to see (insert animal here), b) keep their flashlights down and not in people’s eyes, and c) behind the guide and not out in front.

A Brief Tour of Klaipeda

One of the highlights of this trip was having it unplanned and going with the flow. We spent an evening in Kaunas deciding our next steps, and we decided on Klaipeda. From there we could visit the Curonian Spit (and see Russia) but also have an easy bus route to Riga, where we had rented an AirBnB for a week.

Because it was unplanned, we ended up last-minute booking a suite at a hotel, Friedrich Guesthouse, in Klaipeda. It turned out to be a great deal because we had a small sitting area, a small dining area, and a kitchenette! Plus for the first time on the trip, we weren’t sharing the bathroom with the rest of the rooms.

20160804_083730

Hotel sitting room

We did our standard walking tour of the city the first….including the walk from the bus station to the hotel, which should have been aboutt 20 minutes, but took us closer to an hour, as we walked through a sculpture park, past a war memorial, and beside a river. Our hotel was very centrally located – about 20 minutes from the bus station, and 10 from the harbour.

20160804_063534

Hotel sitting room

After checking in at the hotel, we dropped our bags, snagged a ‘What to do in Klaipeda’ travel guide, and headed out. We noticed that there was a blacksmith museum, and a brewery tour, of the Svyturys brewery (which had been our beer of choice throughout this leg of the trip). Alas, the brewery (once we figured out where the entrance was) didn’t look too inviting to guests, and after reading the local brochure more, we found out that tours need to be arranged in advance through the tourist office.

So we continued to wander around, trying to find the blacksmith museum, coming across a tourist market in the town square, where we loaded up on some amber souvenirs. I had previously gotten an amber necklace in Czech Republic, so I picked up a pair of earrings to match, and the Fiancé got an amber die. 20160804_185721

Of course, it rained, so we popped into a pub’s patio, before heading back to the hotel. Where we found the blacksmith’s museum across the street from the hotel. So much for paying attention!

Our evening plans were put on hold when we had a massive downpour of rain. Thankfully the hotel had a series of restaurants attached along an alleyway, with several tables covered by awnings, so we had dinner and drinks there, while watching the rain come down…..and trying to avoid getting wet.

 

 

Kaunas

Our second stop of our Baltic adventure was Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania. We arrived by bus, and walked to our hostel, the Monk’s Bunk. (It’s an easy 15-minute walk from the bus station to the hostel, with only one leftturn)

20160802_180252

Follow the backpacker to Monk’s Bunk

We had been told that the hostel could be difficult to find, and they weren’t kidding. Located on Laisves, it’s actually behind the buildings on the street. You walk through an archway, and you’ll see a hiker painted on the wall, with an arrow pointing towards the hostel. It’s located on the second floor, with their private rooms being in a separate apartment on the fourth floor. (There’s no elevator, so be prepared to carry your bags!)

During our two-day stay in Kaunas we toured the castle, as well as did our own little walking tour around the city. And we made up for not visiting any museums in Vilnius by going to a gem museum and the devil’s museum.

Our walking tour of Kaunas began at our hostel, down Laisves to Zemenhofo, where we saw a sign post pointing to a ‘Gem Museum’. So we headed down Zemenhofo to the end, went back to Laisves….no sign of a ‘Gem Museum’. It turns out that the ‘Gem Museum’ is actually a jewellery store with quite a few different types of gemstones on display. It’s located at the corner of Zemenhofo and Kurpiu.

20160802_064313

Relaxing on the pedestrian street, Laisves

From there we headed back to Laisves and walked on to the old town hall, which is now the city museum….and which was never a church by the way. It may look like it started life as a church but it wasn’t. For a nominal fee you can tour through the town hall, seeing the history of the city. Worth a pop in, especially if it’s a gray overcast day!20160803_034557

Our next stop was the castle, which is incredibly interesting, with a dungeon that you can explore (but it’s tiny, so there’s not much exploring.) The stairs leading down to the dungeon are on a steep angle, but it’s short. At the bottom, there is a round chamber with stocks, and chains, which you can play around with (although there is no way my head and hands are going into a set of stocks.) An archway leads you into another chamber, with a few placards that give the history of the castle and prisoners that were held there after various wars.

From the dungeon you climb up the narrow, stone, spiral staircase of the central tower (and only tower….) into various rooms that display period clothing, archaeological items, paintings…you can even step out at one point for a view of the rivers and city.20160803_102355

Walking back towards the hostel, we took a different route, taking Gertrudos and then down Daukšos, and stopping in at Hop Doc for some beer and food, before spending the evening in.

The next day, we headed in the opposite direction. We headed down Micheviciaus to the funicular, taking it to the top of the hill.

We then walked down Zemaiciu, to a set of stairs, with a fountain at the bottom, leading back up the hill, which we explored. Back at the bottom, we headed along Putvinskio to the Devils’ Museum – which started off as a private collection – consists of artwork from around the world (paintings, masks, statues) depicting various versions of the devil.

That Time I Bussed to Riga

From Vilnius to Kaunas, and Kaunas to Klaipeda, we had arrived at the bus station and just bought our tickets then and there for the next bus. And we had had no problems. The buses were coach buses, large enough to accommodate 40 to 50 people (I’m guessing) with free wifi, outlets to charge phones, and space to stretch out a little.  We envisioned no problems with our proposed Klaipeda to Riga trip – buses definitely ran the route (we had checked before deciding to visit Klaipeda).

The first bus was at 10 am, so we arrived at the bus station around 9:30 and walked up to the ticket counter.

“Hi, two tickets to Riga?”

“At 10?”

“Yes.”

“One ticket.”

“Oh, no, two tickets. We need two tickets.”

“No, one ticket. There’s one ticket for Riga. Maybe, ask the bus driver. Maybe. MAYBE.”

“Ok, I guess we’ll ask the bus driver.”

How, we thought, had the bus sold out? Is the route extra popular? Was it because it was a Saturday? Was it because it was the first trip that day? Maybe it was because it was the first trip of the day on Saturday on an extra popular route!

It turns out that it was nearly sold out because it was essentially an extended mini-van/mini-bus. Able to sit about 20 people. We waited until all the passengers with tickets had boarded, and approached the bus driver to find out if maybe, just maybe, there was enough room for the two of us.

He stood there doing calculations (If 2 people get off in the next city, but one person gets on, and if 4 people get off at the second stop, but only 1 gets on…) before deciding that yes….there was juuuuuust enough room for the two of us. So we loaded our bags onto the bus, clamored aboard, and realized……the only two seats left together were at the very back, between a very tall man, and a man with the widest shoulders I’ve ever seen. (This includes football players I’ve seen on TV).

Right after we got on, another passenger (also English speaking) asked for a seat on the bus, and (somewhat) badgered the bus driver into giving him the one open seat on the bus. When he finally boarded the bus, we headed out towards Riga, with the two of us squished in the back.

The bus stopped in Šiauliai and a few people got out to stretch their legs. We briefly changed seats (they came back, we had to move back to the squished seats), and then it happened.

Someone new got on.

And walked to the back.

And walked to the front.

And started debating with the driver.

And someone turned to us (having heard us speaking English to one another) and said “Too many tickets sold, haha.”

I have no idea what happened with the woman who had bought a ticket but had no seat…she wasn’t on our bus as we headed out towards Riga. All I know is I spent 4 hours crammed into a seat and had to unfold myself when we finally arrived.

But we made it!