A Travellerspoint blog

A Fun Filled Week in Austria

Austria


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My first stop would be Austria to catch up with Alex and see some of the country that I have visited only briefly, with Vienna and Salzburg being only vaguely familiar to me. Luckily for me Alex met me at the airport and we drove off to the wine region to catch up with her brother (who just happens to work at a vineyard) and sample some of the Austrian cuisine (this would become a common theme for us), it was really nice to have a traditional Schnitzel and some excellent wine. Luckily for me it was also the season for another local delicacy Sturm, a special type of wine here that was very tasty indeed. After this we washed everything down with Schnapps (almost everything here seems to be done with Schnapps at the end!).

This was a great start to Austria and the next day we got up early to have a little road trip on the way back to her house in Klagenfurt, in the very south of Austria. The first stop was Eisenstadt where we had a brief look around the outside of the famous palace Esterhazy before indulging in some pastries at an Austrian bakery for breakfast. Next it was off to drive around the lake that borders Hungary, Neusiedlersee trying to find a nice place for a coffee, strangely it took us until half way around the lake before we found somewhere suitable. Here we had a nice coffee and chatted with some Austrians that were starting again after a big night, so we shared some Schnapps with them and said goodbye. After this and some ice cream for lunch we bought some more Sturm and headed finally to Klagenfurt.

The next day we took it easy as I recovered and left it until the afternoon to venture out to the nearby Woerthersee lake, walking half way around taking in the spot before indulging in a relaxing beer at sunset. The lake is such a beautiful sight with the fresh blue waters reflecting the sun beckoning you in for a swim whilst the surroundings mountain ranges, one more dominant than the other shelter you from the rest of the world. It is these dominant mountains that nearby provide the borders with Slovenia and Italy however as you walk around you feel like the rest of the world is miles away. The scenery is so different here, it is quite spectacular to see the clouds draping themselves over the mountains almost like a blanket and as the sun sets the yellow and orange hues come alive as the mountains provide a perfect natural canvas.
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The next day we headed off to Velden, a little village over the other side of the lake with some lovely houses for the rich amongst us before heading up into the mountains once again. We visited a lovely castle on the hill that had a unique function as a bird sanctuary, specifically for eagles. The treat of the day was an eagle show which was remarkable with the birds being let off by the trainer and allowed to soar before returning back over the crowd. They were then given the chance to fly over (and in some cases very close) to the crowd or given the opportunity to hunt simulated prey, either by dive bombing mice or tackling birds in mid air – really cool to watch and some of the dive speeds were incredible.

The next day was a big day for Alex as she returned to the real world via a job interview, I returned to my real world by trying to navigate it. This time I was at least reasonably successful with the Minimundus allowing me to see replicas of most of the world’s sights in less than two hours, the strange thing for me was to count how many I had seen first hand, only about 30! After I had been round the world in 80 minutes (sorry couldn’t resist) and Alex had completed a successful interview we headed out for more sightseeing, this time taking a drive on an alpine road headed for a giant dam with a newly featured skywalk. The road was really beautiful to drive through and although I didn’t always appreciate the constant bends along it, you could not argue with the postcard style scenery that we were travelling through. In the background the mountains dominated the skyline as imposing figures that would not give way for you, you would have to work your way through them and in the foreground forests that in autumn had trees turning from green to brown and every shade between. Every so often you would also see a waterfall just to remind you that nature has a medium to display any colour it wants and you are but there to simply take it all in. After the drive we eventually arrived at the giant dam which was in an amazing setting with a restaurant in the shape of a boat and a glacier watching over it. We took the opportunity to walk out over the skywalk which allowed us to see into the valley below, some 160 odd meters very cool view! - . After this we sat down for a beer and some desert, I’m sure you can figure out who had what! A really amazing day was then capped off with a visit to the 4-D cinema that added mobility and compressed air jets to the traditional 3-D experience.

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In what was becoming a very busy week for us we then headed off to a national park to do some hiking for the day. The walk took us through the forest with many of the berries if not the flowers on display. The centerpiece of the park however was a lovely little waterfall that we visited before hoping to catch the bus home, I say hoping because we looked at the schedule and found there wasn’t another bus for almost two hours! Well when you’re travelling…..so we decided to hitchhike the 10km back, I know what you’re thinking with an attractive blond girl it should be easy but no, I had to stick my thumb out and hope but luckily in about 10 minutes a Slovenian guy was nice enough to take us back to the car.

With the week rapidly coming towards the end we headed into town and climbed the tower at the church (trying to find some exercise is our new daily goal) which afforded us some great views over the city and incredibly some amazing views in the sky with plane patterns criss-crossing everywhere. Next it was off to do the other part of my Austria trip shopping (this is getting close to being the theme now!) for new equipment including hiking gear, a computer and camera, an expensive day indeed! Still it needed to be done and the quality here is really good even if the prices reflect this. With my new computer and camera the remainder of the day was spent setting these up, a job made slightly more difficult by the fact they were both programmed initially in German. Still with all mostly set up we decided to head out for a celebratory drink or a two, starting off at a place that is rapidly becoming our local for an Aperol (a champagne or white wine based drink). Later we caught up with her sister at a new nightclub to continue celebrating which took us well into the night, this ensured a lazy day for us both the next day but fittingly finished what was a busy but very good first week in Austria for me!

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Posted by rhinoc 06:51 Archived in Austria Tagged austria vineyard europe travelling eagles klagenfurt alpine_road Comments (0)

Fear and Loathing

Miami


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Latin America is an amazing place to travel through and is richly rewarding in so many areas but it’s also a lot of work to travel through and this can get very tiring. Feeling a fraction travel weary and with most of the places I wanted to visit ticked off I decided to take a holiday from my holiday (yes I am aware of how ridiculous this sounds) so I decided with so many friends there that I would head back to Europe. Intent to relax a bit and see some more of the continent with systems and cultures there that are much more familiar to me even if the language is less so.

I had just one obstacle in my way between South America and Europe, Miami. This place has not been good to me in the past, actually to rephrase that this place has been downright terrible to me in the past. Despite this I had no choice and with the resounding chorus of travelers telling me how great Miami was to them I decided to give the place another chance – possibly the stupidest decision of my life! My initial welcome to the country was difficult enough and somewhat surprisingly for the first time I didn’t pass through customs smoothly and had to wait about two hours to be “processed”. The problem you may well ask….well the problem was that I needed to fill out a visa waiver form to enter the country. To paraphrase the problem, I had filled out the form (which I had to pay for annoyingly!) and had a receipt for it – they had no record of this. To summarise the paraphrasing of the problem, their system is crap and despite my best efforts to work within it I was still thwarted and left on a brown river minus an apparatus for moving. Still this was eventually sorted and with this behind me (I had budgeted a long layover for whatever Miami would throw my way) I was allowed to enter the country with my next goal being to leave it – easier said than done! I technically exited the country (passport stamped) and headed for my flight which boarded on time (so far so good) and even taxied on time and this was when the problems began. Apparently dumping all the hydraulic fluid from your steering column on the runway is not part of the take off procedure and we were soon being towed back to the airplane garage to get the problem fixed! I’m not sure what concerned people more though, the fact that the airplane had a problem or that the captain had a knack of saying the least reassuring thing possible!.

Previously I had waited a little over 4 hours at palm springs (less than an hour from Miami airport) to get clearance for landing and missed my connecting flight, déjà vu was setting in as we were sitting in the sweltering heat for two hours on the plane. Luckily just after my experience they changed the rules so the airlines get a massive fine if you are sitting on the plane too long, so after two hours where we took turns of sitting right on the fridges we were allowed to get off. After a couple of beers in the airport they decided they couldn’t fix the plane tonight and would put us up in a hotel tonight and we would fly out the next day, for those keeping score that’s: nights in Miami actual 2 vs. planned nights in Miami 0.

So with a day in Miami where I could do very little I decided to make the most of it and hung around the pool (no option of getting our luggage ofcourse) and enjoyed the food and hospitality that British Airways provided before heading to the airport first thing to sort out my flight connections. In typical airline fashion they wanted to be as little help as they possibly could, continually passing the problem to somebody else but finally one guy decided to be really helpful and sorted my problem out in two minutes, yes I had been rebooked on a flight and it was at this time. Done sorted – was that so hard?

Once again our flight boarded on time (same plane which didn’t thrill a lot of people) and taxied on time and this time took off, this time without the Oops! So long Miami I hope I never see you again, I hate that place and it hates me, my life feels slightly more complete now that I have a true nemesis. Bring on the civility and delights of Austria.

Posted by rhinoc 16:08 Archived in USA Tagged airport miami hell Comments (0)

Nicaragua

Omettepe Island & Granada


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The border crossing into Nicaragua was a lot more complicated than it had been crossing into either Panama or Costa Rica where I had simply waltzed across the border with nothing more than a thanks and a welcome if I was lucky. For me the border here was a bit of an ordeal, everything seemed to be all ok as we sailed through the Costa Rican exit process and then we approached complete chaos also known as the Nicaraguan border system.

The difference was immediate and obvious for everyone to see, everyone perhaps other than those that designed the system. Firstly there is no restricted area at the border meaning that whilst you are standing in the lines to get a stamp or even filling out the forms you have people hassling you for taxi, to change money, to buy stuff ect – really annoying when all you want to do is get the stamp. Another frustration is that you have to wait in line to get a form to fill out (or pay one of the touts to get it for you), then you have to wait in another line to get the stamp, meanwhile they open and close lines as they see fit. The cherry however was that you have to pay an entry fee to enter the country (which is fine) but when I attempted to pay it in local currency they refused it, it is not a good sign when your local currency is not accepted even in official transactions. Despite the chaos and challenges we had we managed to find our way to a bus that was headed to my next destination of Omettepe Island, formed in the middle of Lake Nicaragua when two volcanoes erupted.

The island is very picturesque with the two volcanoes dominating the landscape and almost everything else seemingly being water. The volcanoes themselves are now distinctly different with one being still active and therefore dry and the other being dormant and the lush ecosystem in the top giving birth to a rainforest and a craterial lake. The island is quite small and should be easy enough to travel but for the fact that there is only one really decent road on the island that the buses use. This left us waiting until about 7pm to check into our hotel in the pouring rain but still we arrived despite it being a long day.

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The first day we decided to check out the local natural springs in the morning trying to beat out the rain that apparently arrives every afternoon at about 2pm and doesn’t stop until the morning. The springs despite the water being a fraction cold was incredibly refreshing especially as it was still quite hot during the day. The incredible thing was seeing first hand the effect of the rain with the lake simply flooded with most of the beaches on the island now underneath three feet of water. Even the walkway from the ferry is a temporary fix at the moment and the jetty on one side of the island is at the water level rather than above it. This is sad for the people of the island who had to use sandbags to stop the rising water invading their houses.

The next day we headed off to visit the waterfall on the island that is 40m high and a very nice walk through the forest to get there. The best bit was that whilst it was very hot walking through the forest (and humid as hell!) we got to have another swim in the refreshing water. The most frustrating part was however was the bus ride to get there which involved a little over 3 hours to go about 25km, such was the quality of the road made even worse by the flooding.

I had wanted to climb the volcano here but after seeing the amount of rain I decided the path would be too wet to hike enjoyably and the trek has to be completed by 2pm or else you would be very wet! The other thing was that when the rain comes the clouds come as well so the view would sadly not have been spectacular either. Instead I decide to journey up to Granada a colonial city set on the lake.

Arriving and walking through Granada reminded me a lot of Salta with the building design being very traditional but the colours being very unique and eclectic. This is one of those cities that is pleasant to simply walk around and observe the look of the city and also stroll down to the shore of the lake. The strange thing for me was that waterside there was no development at all, no bars, restaurants or even houses – quite strange given it should be prime real estate.

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With my flight to Europe arriving very fast I decided to check out the nearby markets in Masaya and buy some handicrafts before I left on my long journey back to San Jose. The markets are supposedly quite famous here but didn’t seem much different to the traditional latin markets that every country seems to have. Still the crafts were quite nice and I managed to find a couple of presents. Afterwards we walked down to the lake passing by the local hearse which was a rather nice horse and carriage I've senn and had a nice view as the intense sun reflected off the surface. A couple of local beers and one last meal of ceviche provided a fitting ending to my time here as I headed towards Europe for a bit of stability and a break from constant travelling.

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Posted by rhinoc 02:09 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged volcanoes island granada Comments (0)

Turtles & Volcanoes That Fail to Fire

Costa Rica

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The border crossing here is notoriously painful so we decided to cross the border early despite being nicely hungover at the time. We however had an almost boring border crossing with the guys seemingly completely uninterested in talking to us or that we were leaving/entering the country, always nice when it works out that way. A short wait and bus ride saw us in the “so called” brother city of Bocas, Puerto Viejo.

This is much more like what I was expecting Bocas to be like with the town set on a beach and lots of cabins and other beach style accommodation available along the one road in and out of town. The place also has a lot more relaxed feel about it with much less hassle than Bocas. The strange thing is that so many people speak English here and its difficult to know how to start a conversation so I would generally walk in and say buenos/hello and see what they came back with!
The jump up in prices definitely continues from Bocas and despite the accommodation being a little bit cheaper the food even in the supermarkets is quite expensive and eating out is very expensive. With this in mind we hunted out the local fish man and found we could get marlin steaks for $2 each, this comfortably did us for dinner.

The next day we were there we rented bikes and headed along the beach out to supposedly the nicest beach in the area, Manzanillo which was a very nice beach full of white sand, warm blue water and not many people which was ideal.
After some lazing on the beach for a couple of days I took the long journey out to Tortuguero, by way of a 5 hour boat/wildlife trip from near Puerto Viejo. Despite being the more expensive way of getting there it was nice and the spider monkeys, raccoons, caiman and countless different birds offered a nice view than buses and cars on the road.
It was a nice trip though a bit more expensive than the alternative way however we get to see a few spider monkeys, a couple of raccoons, a few caiman and countless different birds along the way which helped break up the trip.
The main reason for coming to Tortugeuro was to see the giant greenback turtles that are currently laying eggs on the beach and as soon as I arrived I organized a tour to see them that night. True to form it rained all night but after assurances this wouldn’t bother the turtles we set off towards the beach. With the turtles being cautious and easily disturbed and Costa Ricas willingness to conserve their environment we not allowed to use torches or cameras which was a bit of a shame but understandable. The tour took us along the beach where they have spotters there using infared lights to see where the turtles are at that time, given the whole on beach process takes somewhere around 2 hours. Just as we arrived we were able to see a giant mother turtle slowly (and I mean slowly!) making its way down to the water. The amazing this about the incredible creatures is their size as they are over 1m long and atleast 30cm high as well as living past 100 years old! Next we got to see a turtle laying its eggs after digging out a giant hole for a nest, the turtle will lay over 100 eggs that are reminiscent of ping pong balls and whilst she is laying she is in a trance undisturbed by her surroundings. However as an idea of how cautious they are, since it was raining and there was lightning they were nesting as close to the trees on the beach as possible. After they finish laying they take a good amount of time to camouflage their nest covering them with sand, something that was made more difficult by where they decided to lay. After they are happy with their nest they make the slow trip back to the water and prepare for another cycle of laying in about 7 days time. Given the turtles lay up to 6 times a cycle and over 100 eggs each time its hard to imagine these incredible creatures are still endangered. However such is the amount of predators that are after the eggs and the way in which the turtles move within the nest as well the survival rate for these eggs is only 1-3%.

After seeing the turtles laying their eggs it was time to leave Torteguero and return to the mountains hoping to catch a glimpse of some lava at the continuously active volcano Arenal near La Fortuna. This town name translates to “the fortune” and it was changed to this after the last eruption happened on the side away from the town otherwise the town would have been demolished. The town here has a beautiful but quiet little setting amongst the mountains and after a full day of travelling (a boat and 5 buses) I decided to rest up and prepare for the night tour of the volcano. The night tour is supposedly the best time to see the volcano as during the afternoon the clouds come in and completely cover the volcano whereas in the early morning the view is very clear. Despite getting up at 2:30am to get to the viewpoint nice and early the volcano failed to perform and other than a few grumbles and some smoke we saw little. Still afterwards we got to have an early morning dip in the hot springs which was a really nice start to the day.

After this I was still full of energy and decided to hike up cerro Chalto which was a once active but now dormant volcano with a lake inside it. The hike up there was quite beautiful as once you get to the trailhead (and take the free entry trail – check in hostels for instructions) you climb up through the rainforest which provides a lovely backdrop as well as plenty of shade for the hike. The climb is only a couple hours but given the heat and humidity I was glad to get to the lake and have a swim in its cool (actually make that cold) waters. The lake was a beautiful shade of green when the sun came out and then became very eerie looking as the clouds came in and covered the lake. A really nice day despite the disappointment of not seeing lava but how often do you get to swim in an old volcano! Tomorrow its off to cross the border to Nicaragua.

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Posted by rhinoc 07:36 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged turtles volcano arenal Comments (0)

Central America at Last

Panama City

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With the lost city found and the northern part of Colombia visited it was a choice between heading south to Bogota or north to Panama City, both capital cities of their respective countries and both offering a very different appeal. Since a capital it would have to be I decided to continue my journey northwards, taking a flight into Central America to Panama city and a visit to the world famous canal.

Arriving in Panama city it was quite different and I immediately felt I had left South America behind as the drive into the city from the airport took us along a giant 8 lane highway, past skyscrapers and a Vegas style array of neon lights, a far cry from the capital cities I had visited in South America. Once we arrived at our hostel however the character of the city completely changed as I was staying in the old city. With a fish market on one side and a series of what seemed questionable discos on the other side the area didn't appear to be that amazing but still somehow managed to carry with it a romantic old neighbourhood style reminiscent of Havana in Cuba.

During the day the city took on more of a classical old town feel with architecture set back in the 1950's yet still remaining elegant in the modern day, even if half our neighbourhood seemed to be abandoned for one reason or another - from what the locals say mostly due to the rent to live in the old town. The buildings might give the city a face but it is the people who give the city its personality with all the locals being very friendly without being in a rush, its clear to see that you have left South America behind and found yourself in the Caribbean.

The next day we headed out to take a look at the world famous canal, surely one of the most remarkable engineering feats of the 20th century. A simple yet effective engineering feat that saves every boat about 2 weeks, by not having to navigate around the base of South America. The first thing you notice about the canal is the sheer size of the boats using it, one particular ship will stick in my mind forever as it seemed to have several hundred giant containers on it. Back at Murrin these containers seemed huge and would hold 20t of nickel comfortably….and this ship had hundreds of them! The canal itself is a bit of a strange tourist site as you spend about 15 minutes trying to work out what is actually happening, then once you do the mystery disappears and it’s just a couple of boats (albeit giant ones) coming in one side and out the other. The canal is in fact rather simple in its operation with gates closing the canal in at both sides and then the boat slowly being lowered by moving water from the high side to the low side until the boat can float comfortably through. Then its simply a case of returning the water back to the high side and therefore lowering the low side down to water level and the boat sailing off - simple but brilliant!

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The next day it was time to make another tough decision between the world famous islands of san blas and the Caribbean coast of Bocas del Toro. The fact that Bocas was north and close to Costa Rica gave that the advantage and that night I was on a bus headed for the Caribbean coast. Bocas is a strange old town mostly for the fact that whilst it’s on an island there are no real beaches there and you either have to take a bus to the other side of the island or a water taxi to another island to actually go to the beach - very strange. Still Bocas is a nice enough town and arriving first thing in the morning and waiting for a bed saw us go on a tour to check out the popular dolphin bay, snorkel along the reef and finally take in one of the nicer beaches on one of the other islands.

Dolphin bay was a popular spot with more than a few boats hovering around the area waiting for the majestic creatures to come out and play and true to form the dolphins didn't disappoint with as many as three swimming and playing together to entertain the crowd. The dolphins here are slightly shier and don't come as close to the boat but it was still a nice start to the day. Next we headed off to the shallow reef to do some snorkeling and skin diving that was really quite pretty with lots of fire coral on display and I was also lucky enough to swim amongst a school of incredibly coloured fish, they seemed to have the entire rainbow spectrum. Next it was off to red frog beach, so named because of the odd coloured creatures that inhabit the jungle on the way to the beach. This was quite a nice beach with white sand and blue water but little to nothing in the way of waves. Still we started off a spirited game of beach soccer and managed to beat the locals that was no mean effort, after that a nice long swim saw us ready to head back to our hostels and a fresh shower - the water here is incredibly salty.

That night I met a dive instructor and after a few beers he asked me why I didn't have my ticket yet given the places I could have done it - I had no real reason why so when he gave me a good price I started the next morning. First off it was a discovery dive to see if you enjoy it and want to continue, we started off with some basically skills to survive underwater and then took off along the reef seeing some incredible fish including the lionfish and the ugly toadfish! The first dive took me a bit of time to get used to but after that it was great fun and the second dive was a really great experience and I didn't really want to get out of the water afterwards. The course took in five dives in total including some great reef diving and a wreck dive which was really quite cool despite being nothing more than a transport ferry ship. Amongst the dives I saw some amazing things including lobsters, a really bizarre looking flamingo tongue snail, a deadly scorpion fish, a green moray, lots of upside down jellyfish, sea stars, crabs, squid shooting ink and the most spectacular the very rare flying ganard fish. It really is incredible being under the water especially here where the water temperature is about 28 degrees and the visibility is always upwards of 10 metres. The feeling of almost weightlessness is awesome as well as once you get to the point of neutral buoyancy you can float up and down simply by breathing - a really cool feeling.

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After finishing my course it was time to have a night out in Bocas, a lot of people raved about the nightlife here but I found it underwhelming and wasn't really excited by it but we had to have a celebration drink. With my dive course done it was time to head further north crossing the border to Costa Rica and heading further into Central America.

Posted by rhinoc 11:25 Archived in Panama Tagged diving panama canal bocas Comments (0)

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