Three Places To Visit In Chile In Just Ten Days

Three Places To Visit In Chile In Just Ten Days

There’s many incredible places to visit in Chile: I have been there twice, both times hardly long enough to get to know the country properly. The first time there, I crossed the border for a couple of days during a longer trip to Argentina, and just visited Torres del Paine National Park.

The second time I visited Chile was during a backpacking trip across South America that started in Bolivia and ended in Uruguay. I saw some incredible places to visit in Chile that made me fall in love with it.

Chile is an amazing, diverse country that has a lot to offer to its visitors. Chile tourist attractions include incredible natural sites – from the deserts of the north, to the mountains of windy Patagonia in the south; beautiful cities; a thriving cultural life; and superb food and wine – not to mention the fabulous Pisco Sour cocktail.

I don’t think 3 months would be enough to enjoy all the things to do in Chile. But the average traveler doesn’t have that long, unfortunately. Picking the places to visit in Chile when the time is limited can then become a real challenge. There’s also many tours in Chile that, for great value for money, allow to explore the country.

The following is a selection of just three places to visit in Chile. They are the ones that I enjoyed the most when I went and they at least give a rough idea of this unique country.

Three Places To Visit In Chile In Just Ten Days

Santiago de Chile

Santiago de Chile isn’t nearly as beautiful as other cities in South America such as Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro, but it is charming and full of life. It definitely is one of the places to visit in Chile that should not be missed.

It is without doubt that visiting Santiago is what to do in Chile to get a taste of the local culture and vibe. This is the cultural and political centre of the country, and where people from the rest of Chile go to manifest their dissent against the government.

Santiago It is packed with good restaurants, a great seafood market and lots of glamorous bars. If eating delicious food is one of the things to do in Chile, Santiago is the place to go. But there’s more than just that.

Here’s a few things to do to get to know Santiago better.

Take a free walking tour

Santiago de Chile can be explored on free walking tours that depart every day from the Catedral Metropolitana. Groups can be large, but the guides are local and experienced and they provide good insights about the city. Tours depart twice a day, the morning one also going to the market. Going on a free walking tour of Santiago is one of the nicest things to do in Chile.

Enjoy street art

People who enjoy street art will find several great examples of it in Chile. While Valparaiso is generally considered one of the top places to visit in Chile for street art, even Santiago has some great examples of it, scattered around the city centre.

Learn about the stray dogs

One of the nicest things to do in Chile (and in Latin America, in fact) is volunteering at animal shelters. Stray dogs are unfortunately common in all of Central and South America. In most countries, they are not taken care of and can be seen wandering around, looking for food or fighting for the control of territory. I have separated a few dogs myself when I was in Cuzco, Peru.

Dogs would hardly qualify as one of Chile tourist attractions. But in a (nice) way, they are. Santiago, and the rest of Chile, have a large population of strays. They are known as quiltro, and they are nicely taken care of. They are a bit like communal dogs, belonging to the public who seems to care for them – feeding them, offering companionships and helping getting them sterilized. It is not uncommon to find dog houses in parks and squares around the city.

Visit the Human Rights Museum

As a former human rights lawyer, the highlight of my visit to Santiago was the Human Rights Museum, locally known as Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos. This is by far one of the best places to visit in Chile, to learn about the difficult past of the country.

Though this isn’t a jolly place, visiting the Human Rights Museum is one of the best things to do in Chile. The exhibit and the organization of the space make it very user friendly. It’s easy to spend a few hours browsing the various documents and videos and going from room to room.

Where to stay and eat in Santiago de Chile

Picking the right place to stay in a city as big as Santiago is important, so as to have access to the best Chile attractions in town. When I visited, I stayed at Hostal Che Lagarto and while it was fantastic in terms of rooms and services (great breakfast), I thought the area didn’t have a very good selection of good restaurants. CasAltura Boutique Hostel is a great alternative, and is close to the central market.

Trying local food is one of the nicest things to do in Chile, and the Mercado Central is one of the top picks in Santiago to do have lunch – there’s a fantastic selection of seafood. Bar Nacional in the center of Santiago, and Liguria in Providencia are also great options.

Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine may well be the best national park in South America. It has to be included in the list of places to visit in Chile, though getting there is quite a trip from Santiago. It is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1981, and a place to observe wildlife such as ostrich-like rhea (called ñandú), condors, flamingos, as well as guanacos.

Hiking is for sure one of the best things to do in Chile, and Torres del Paine is the ultimate place to go in order to hike. Remember though, this is Southern Patagonia: wind is typically strong, and with it comes the danger of quickly spreading fires such as the one caused by a visitor and that in 2011 destroyed over 40000 acres of old forest, killed animals and burned various buildings in the area.

What makes Torres del Paine a perfect place to hike and as such one of the nicest places to visit in Chile is the incredible array of hiking trails. Most trails are for multi-day hikes. The Paine Circuit takes between 7 and 9 days, but there’s some that are shorter, such as the W circuit or the hike between Refugio de las Torres and Mirador Las Torres, from where there’s a gorgeous view of the towers.

Another short hike that offers magnificent views to one of the nicest places to visit in Chile is that to Salto Grande, a gorgeous waterfall. From there, adding an hour walk it is possible to reach Mirador Nordernskjöld, with incredible views over the lake and mountains.

Torres del Paine National Park is scattered with camping sites and refugios where it is possible to sleep, though reservations are necessary. One way to go around the issue of having to make reservations and having to bother with organizational issues is going on a guided trek which will include all meals and accommodation – this may be one of the best things to do in Chile.

Here’s a guide to more hiking in Patagonia and here’s one on what to pack for a hiking trip in Patagonia.

San Pedro de Atacama

At a whopping 24 hours bus ride (or a couple of hours flight) from Santiago, there’s San Pedro de Atacama, one of the nicest places to visit in Chile. The village (no more than 5000 people living there year round) is at 2400 meters above sea level and is a lovely series of adobe buildings, with a nice 17th century church, a lovely square, and a bunch of good bars and restaurants.

More importantly so, San Pedro de Atacama is a great starting point to explore the rest of the region, which is among the unmissable places to visit in Chile, and to try out a series of activities that are by far among the most fun things to do in Chile.

Here’s a few unmissable things to do and places to visit in the Atacama region.

Valle de la Luna

At 13 km west of San Pedro de Atacama, Valle de la Luna is one of the most incredible places to visit in Chile. It is a large valley with beautiful sand and stone formations carved by wind and water. Some of them, like Tres Marias, have interesing shapes to the point that they look man made.

The colors and the terrain of Valle de la Luna are so peculiar that walking there feels like walking on the moon. The best time to visit is in the late afternoon, when, climbing a sand dune, it is possible to reach a view point from where there’s a spectacular sunset. Watching the sunset from Valle de la Luna is one of the top things to do in Chile.

Valle de la Muerte

Valle de la Muerte is also known as Mars Valley – and upon visiting, it is easy to see why. Located in the Salt Mountain range, and very close to San Pedro de Atacama, this is one of the nicest Chile tourist attractions. It is generally visited on a tour that includes a visit of Valle de la Luna and Tres Marias.

El Tatio Geysers

El Tatio definitely is one of the coolest places to visit in Chile that can be accessed from Atacama. The geysers are located at over 4300 meters above sea level and they are the world’s highest geyser field. They are a surreal sight, better admired at sunrise when it really feels like walking through a giant steam bath. Tours of El Tatio usually include a dip in the hot, thermal baths.

Sandboarding

The dunes of Valle de la Muerte are a perfect place to go sandboarding, not to mention one of the best places to visit in Chile. There are various companies in San Pedro de Atacama that offer sandboarding expeditions. It’s possible to go in the morning or in the afternoon. Mornings are usually better though, as the temperatures are too hot in the afternoon.

Carrying a board (which is pretty much the same one would use when snowboarding), people go up a 150 meters high dune, to then slide down at full speed. The result is incredibly fun, though expect to be covered in sand for a few days and many showers afterwards.  Sandboarding is definitely one of the most fun things to do in Chile.

Star gazing

Atacama desert is the driest place on earth. It virtually never rains there – which means the sky is always perfectly clear, during the day and at night. The dryness, the clear skies and the altitude all contribute to making Atacama the best place on earth to go star gazing. In fact, this is one of the nicest things to do in Chile.

Where to stay and eat in San Pedro de Atacama

Being one of the most famous places to visit in Chile, San Pedro de Atacama has a great range of accommodation options for pretty much any budget, from hostels and campgrounds to all inclusive resorts. Hostal Ayni and Hostal Campo Base are good budget options; whereas Tierra Atacama is perfect for those wanting to splurge.

On the main street of San Pedro de Atacama there are a bunch of good bars and restaurants. Eating local food and sipping good wine are among the best things to do in Chile. The best restaurant in town is La Casona. There’s also a bunch of street food places not far from the center, in a parking lot on the northern edge of town.

Have you ever been to Chile? What are your favorite places to visit in Chile?

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Eleven places I would like to visit in 2016

Eleven places I would like to visit in 2016

Canada

One of the places I would like to visit in 2016: Banff National Park in Canada – photo courtesy of davebloggs007 (flickr)

“Where do you find inspiration for your travels?” people often ask me.

“Anywhere,” I say. “It can be a book I am reading, a story I have heard, a conversation with a fellow traveler, a documentary I have seen on tv.”

But I would lie if I didn’t say that, as of late, my biggest inspiration for my travels came from a number of other blogs I follow and a few good Instagram accounts who post stunning picture after stunning picture. Talk about the power of blogs and social media when marketing a destination! Yes, I admit it: reading a bunch of posts and seeing some fantastic pictures of some destinations has been influencing my travel plans.

Furthermore, I have lately come to terms with my obsession for volcanoes. There is something about them that draws my attention and if I can express one wish for 2016, I’d say that I wish to hike many more volcanoes. The good news for me, in this case, is that I don’t have to travel too far to find them. Italy itself is home to at least 10 active volcanoes.

Drawing from my old passion for adventure travel, hiking and archeology and for the curiosity instilled in me by travel blogs and social media, I have been thinking that I should really narrow down the number of places I would like to visit this year (“Keep it realistic!” I keep telling myself). The fact that quite a few of them are close to each other (and not too far from where I live) gives me hope that I will manage to visit them all.

So, let me cut the chase and name 10 places that I am really keen on visiting in 2016, divided by continent.

Asia

The Maldives

I am in a bad need for a holiday and I really want to go to the Maldives. I want to forget my phone at home, forget internet exist and just relax, hopping from beach to beach, snorkeling, relaxing, drinking a cocktail and eating all the seafood I can manage to stuff in my mouth, and working on my tan. Rumor has it that the Maldives are incredibly expensive, but apparently it is also possible to visit the Maldives on a budget, so I am not too worried.

what to do in Maldives

Snorkeling is among the top things to do in Maldives

South East Asia

South East Asia has been on my radar for a while now. Last October I have visited the continent for the first time, going on a crazy 3 weeks trip across Indonesia that left me longing to visit more of this incredible part of the world. So, my plan for 2016 is to see more of it.

things to do in Bali

Indonesia is the first place I have visited in South East Asia – not a bad start!

Read more about Indonesia and the many things to do there on my post “Fantastic Things to do in Indonesia.”

Traveling to continental South East Asia seems fairly easy, as transportation works quite well there, plus there are a number of budget airlines that offer very cheap flights. My idea is to spend a month wandering around, during which I will probably only manage to scratch the surface of the many incredible sights this part of the world has to offer. There’s two main places I would like to visit in South East Asia.

The Sapa Valley in Vietnam

The first country I would like to visit in 2016 is Vietnam: the mixture of interesting history, unique culture and minority groups, buzzing cities and incredible natural sites is what attracts me to it. If I had to pick one place in Vietnam that I wouldn’t want to miss during my trip, I would say the Sapa Valley. Cascading rice terraces, mountains, small villages where people still follow a traditional life style, colorful markets, and the possibility to go on amazing hikes: it seems that Sapa Valley has all that I look for in a destination!

Vietnam

One of the places I look forward to visiting in 2016 – Sapa Valley, Vietnam

Angkor Wat in Cambodia

I love visiting archeological site and I would never dare going to South East Asia without planning a visit to Angkor Wat, the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cambodia. The Khmers’ national symbol is a fantastic example of architecture, the epicenter of their civilization and it is little wonder why Cambodian are so proud of it. My plan is to spend at least 3 days wondering the entire complex of Angkor and one of them would be definitely used to visit it at sunrise, to admire it under a special light.

Angkor Wat

I can’t wait to see Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Europe

Europe is an incredibly varied continent, with landscapes that span from the picture perfect beaches of Sardinia to the astonishing fjords of Norway. Europe has a lot to offer to its visitors, and despite the reputation of being incredibly expensive for travelers, with a few tricks and research it is possible to visit it even on a limited budget. Eurorail passes connect the entire continent and budget airlines make traveling cheap and easy. I intend to explore more of Europe this year and I have a few places in mind to check out.

Asinara

One of the best places Europe has to offer: Sardinia

Read more about my beloved Sardinia on my post “A Local’s Guide To The Things To Do In Sardinia.”

Meteora in Greece

I am embarrassed to admit that, despite having been to Greece 3 times already, I haven’t made it to Meteora yet. Ages ago, when social media didn’t exist and internet wasn’t really a thing, I saw a documentary about it and thought it would be a great place to visit, yet for some reason I had this idea that it would be almost impossible to get there, thinking it would be too remote and isolated. Yet this UNESCO World Heritage Site intrigued me.

Meteora sunset

Let’s hope I make it to Meteora in 2016 – photo courtesy of Daniel Solabarrieta (flickr)

I then started researching and reading around (bless the many blogs I follow) and realized Meteora is less than a 4 hours drive from Athens, there are many lovely villages to stay nearby, and several hiking trails to get to the many monasteries. There even is a monk jail – how weird and interesting is that?

Bergamo in Italy

I have resolved to visit more of Italy in 2016. Despite having lived in Italy most of my life, the fact that Italy has way so many interesting places to explore means I only know a limited amount of them. Big cities and smaller villages, museums, archeological sites, fantastic mountains, incredible coastline and regional cuisine, Italy really has it all.

Bergamo Alta

The gorgeous Bergamo Alta

One city I am curious to explore but that doesn’t get much attention from travelers is Bergamo, a lovely hilltop town that owes much of its architectural splendor to the influence of Venice. I don’t know much about Bergamo, aside from the fact that it is divided in two main parts: Bergamo Alta which crowns the hill with its cluster of medieval and renaissance buildings, and the more modern Bergamo Bassa below. I am curios to find out more, and the good news is that thanks to In Lombardia I will have a chance to tour the city and its surrounding for a few days in February.

Etna volcano in Italy

In the course of time I have become more and more interested in volcanoes. I have hiked Cerro Negro in Nicaragua, Volcán Pacaya in Guatemala and Mount Bromo in Indonesia. Find out more about my adventure on Mount Bromo, IndonesiaThere’s at least 10 active volcanoes in Italy, which is home Mount Etna, towering at 3370 meters above sea level.

Mount Etna

The stunning peaks of Mount Etna

Etna is incredibly active and photographers from around the world try to capture the incredible show of its eruptions. It is only fair that I put together my interest in volcanoes, my addiction to hiking and the love for my country together and pay a visit to Mount Etna – anybody can agree on that!  Read more about my passion for volcanoes and Nicaragua on my post “Awesome things to do in Nicaragua.”

Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland

Following on with my interest in volcanoes, one of my biggest wishes for 2016 is to visit Iceland and hike Eyjafjallajökull. Perhaps by the time I go (hopefully in the summer) I will be able to pronounce the name of the volcano that kept Europe ransom for a good while in the spring of 2010. Rumor has it that the hike to its crater is one of the best in the world and I simply don’t want to miss on that. And I would not miss a chance to stopover in Reykjavik.

Iceland

After it stopped the air traffic in Europe for weeks in 2010 I am curios to see what this volcano is all about – photo courtesy of Ars Electronica (flickr)

 

Teide volcano in Tenerife (Spain)

The Canary Islands are pretty easy to reach from Europe, and it is even easier to travel around them as – well – they are part of Europe and I wouldn’t have to bother with issues such as exchange rate (have I ever mentioned I am hopeless at math?). Lots of Europeans choose to spend their Tenerife Holidays. My trip there wouldn’t be so much of a vacation: I would go there to quench my thirst for adventure. Tenerife has some unique landscapes and nature. It is home to the Teide volcano, whose 3718 meters summit is the highest peak in Spain as well as the highest peak of any of the islands on the Atlantic. By now it is pretty clear that I want my 2016 to be much more about hiking and exploring volcanoes so inserting the fairly close Teide in the places I want to visit in 2016 seems quite obvious!

Can you spot the tree?

Teide, where volcano meets ocean – photo courtesy of Mike Beales (flickr)

Aushwitz and Birkenau in Poland

Interestingly enough, I am writing this post on the Day of Remembrance, when Italy pays its respect to the millions of people who died in concentration camps during World War II. The thought of the cruelty that other human beings have gone through, of the constant violations of even the most basic human rights that still occur in the world has shaped much of who I am today – I have worked as a human rights lawyer and spent most of my life doing research for universities and non-governmental organizations.

My interest in visiting Poland and the concentration camps dates back to time immemorial. It is just something I have to do because of who I am and of what I have done all my life, a place I must visit to keep the memory of those who died there alive, to pay them my respect.

Poland

Will I feel emptiness when I visit concentration camps? Photo courtesy of Clelia Mattana

I am not sure how I may react to a visit to the concentration camps. My friend Clelia, who visited them last September, felt nothing, in what almost seemed as post traumatic stress disorder kind of reaction. Her total lack of emotions (which I interpreted as simply too many emotions to be let out) is well expressed in a beautiful post on her blog, which can be read here. What would visiting the concentration camps mean to me, considering the impact human rights issues have had on my whole life? I need to go and find out.

The Americas

I am on the constant lookout for good flight deals. I have subscribed to all the major airlines newsletters so I get regular updates on their offers. With a bit of research and good planning, flying to the other side of the world can actually be cheaper than one would imagine. I will keep monitoring prices in the hope that I manage to get some cheap ticket to cross the Atlantic and go on further exploration of the Americas. I have a few places under my radar.

Banff National Park in Canada

The fact that someone like me, who is generally obsessed with South America, eventually develops an interest in Canada is the proof that social media have an incredible power in marketing and selling a destination to even the most reluctant. For a while now, each time I open my Instagram feed I see photo after photo of the incredible work of nature that is Banff National Park in Canada. Alright, I get it and yes: I want to go!

Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Canada

I am drooling over photos of Banff – photo courtesy of Shane Lin (flickr)

Mountains, lakes that reflect the view of the snowcapped peaks, forests of a million shades of green, wildlife that includes bears, charming chalets and quiet little towns and infinite possibilities for adventures. I can’t wait to make my way there and hike around.

Mendoza in Argentina

mendoza

One of the places I look forward to visit again – photo courtesy of Roman Korzh (flickr)

I have already been to Argentina twice. There are so many things to do in Argentina, and the country is so vaste, that I doubt I will ever tire of it. During my last visit I spent a few days in Mendoza, enjoying the city and wandering around the vineyards, having one too many glasses of fantastic Malbec. Needless to say, I want to drink more of it (and no, drinking it from the comfort of my home in Italy is not nearly the same thing) and I want to spend a good amount of time there so that I can also do a proper wine tasting course, enjoy the harvest festival and have a chance to hike the mighty Cerro Aconcagua.

Read more about Argentina and the many things it has to offer on my post “Great things to do in Argentina.”

It remains to be seen whether I will be able to really visit all of these places or if I will have to postpone some of these destinations further away in the future and the only way to find out is to stay tuned and keep following my adventures!

Where are your travel plans for 2016 taking you?

 

 

 

 

Ring of Fire or Circle of Hell? Crossing Dante’s Inferno on Mount Bromo

Ring of Fire or Circle of Hell? Crossing Dante’s Inferno on Mount Bromo

All hope abandon, ye who enter here! (Dante Alighieri, Inferno)

Limbo: forgive me for I am a pagan

Mount Bromo is located at about 4 hours drive from Surabaya, the capital of East Java, in Indonesia and it is part of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. It is considered one of the top bucket list destinations in Indonesia, one of the places to visit in Indonesia. I suppose it deserves to be one of them.

Read more about Indonesia on my post “Fantastic things to do in Indonesia.”

But despite my best efforts and almost complete lack of expectations, I could not warm to it. In fact, I doubt I will ever want to give it a second chance, not until I know for a fact that things over there have changed, that this attraction is managed differently and in what to me is a more enjoyable way.

Don’t get me wrong, Mount Bromo is a site of amazing natural beauty and I think in the right conditions it would be quite enjoyable, but as things stand at the moment, and based on my experience, I did not enjoy it one bit.

visit Mount Bromo

This pretty picture is pretty much the only good memory I have of Mount Bromo

What I faced in Mount Bromo was the biggest cultural and personal clash I have ever experienced in my many years of living abroad and traveling to countries near and far (actually, very far) from home. I do believe that traveling is much more about self discovery than about the actual discovery of a destination. Sure enough, I understood many things about myself when I visited Mount Bromo.

It has been an enlightening experience as it made me come to terms with some aspects of myself that I did not know where so deeply rooted, and it made me realize that I am much more sensible than I perhaps like to show. It made me understand that different people will see the same thing differently. It also made me understand how important responsible tourism is to me and that it is the only way I want to travel, and that I want to become an advocate for it. And it finally made me decide that I can’t and won’t ever tolerate animal cruelty, no matter what, no matter where, no matter the excuse.

You see, I am an atheist and hardly a believer that heaven and hell exist. Yet, if I have to describe my experience in Mount Bromo, the first thing that comes to my mind are the Nine Circles of Hell of Dante’s Inferno. Much like Dante’s journey through hell, accompanied by his guide Virgil, I felt that I was also going through the nine circles, although in my case there was no real guide in sight but just other members of the tour group.

Each step that took me closer to the crater of Mount Bromo was a step into one of the nine circles, each nastier, scarier and more painful and sorrowful and than the previous one. My first circle was Limbo, the one that pagans, non-believers, deserve – for a pagan I was, as (shame on me!) I had close to zero knowledge of Mount Bromo before visiting. But that was soon to change, as I made my way through the other circles.

Lust: or, rise and (don’t) shine

My visit to Mount Bromo was included in a guided group tour of Indonesia to which I took part. I was glad it was one of the included destinations on the tour, because I really do enjoy volcanoes and generally they are the highlight of any of my trips. Little did I know that this time it would be the other way around. The night before visiting the trip organisers gave us instructions to wake up at 2:00 am and told us that, as this was a popular attraction among Indonesians, there would be even more people on a Sunday. I had no idea what to expect – but I soon learned that my definition of “a lot of people” surely isn’t the same as that of Indonesians.

Read why I like taking guided tours on this post.

I didn’t mind having to wake up so early though. In fact, I remembered the many early rises during my long term travels, to see amazing places, and I was greateful I’d get to experience this. There is a special light at sunrise. There is the feeling of exclusivity, of being one of a few that has the chance to enjoy something special; that of being close to nature as the day starts and the first rays of light come through the sky, finally making the surroundings visible and glowing.

It was pitch dark when at 2:30 am I met the rest of the group and left to reach Mount Bromo so that we could admire the sunrise. I was sleepy and a bit lost – most of us were – but eager to go. As soon as I got to the meeting point, together with other 4 persons I got wisked on a jeep, although we eventually only left at 2:50 – not bad given the relaxed standards of Indonesia that are so hard to deal with for us Europeans. The minute we left, I knew that this would be a long day. I kept my thoughts to myself and tagged along, trying to push any negativity away. 

Gluttony: it’s so slushy out there

The mayhem began immediately afterwards. A rather silent driver joined a race we didn’t know we were taking part in, against any other jeep also going to Mount Bromo. It felt like being on the Paris-Dakar, with the difference that we were not in the desert, breathing just dust and clean air. We were somewhere in the middle of Indonesia and the dust was mixed to the exhaust fumes, making it hard to breathe. The jeeps sped like mad in the foggy and pitch black night, passing each other on all sides, making many of us think that at each turn we’d actually go on a straight line and that would be the end of our visit to the country.

Then, our jeep stopped. In a broken English the driver told us he would not go any further and we’d have to just walk our way to the entrance of the site. There was too much traffic for him to keep going and he’d be unable to park. He told us he’d wait for us, no indication of an exact time (not that it would matter). So we started making walking.

What I happened next was so intensely scary, so frustrating, so thoroughly annoying that at the end of that misadventure I was ready to leave the country for good, never to return again.   Masks on our noses and mouth in a failed attempt to protect ourselves from the thick fumes, we started walking up, trying to keep an eye on each other so as to not get lost in that madness (there was no way we’d find each other again, in the dark, among thousands of other people); not sure which direction to go but relying on the flow which was only going one way.

Mount Bromo

Is the view of Mount Bromo really worth going through all that trouble?

It was pitch dark. It was noisy. It was frightening. Traffic was mad. In what could be best described as a scene of Apocalypse Now, oblivious to the traffic and the pedestrians, jeeps kept making their way to the top, dropping people off and then coming down again. They were everywhere. They completely disregarded the pedestrians who had to jump on the side of the road, in the very limited space (and remember, it was dark!) to avoid being hit.

To add to this already burning hell, a multitude of motorbikes kept zipping their way up and down the hill, again hardly bothered by the presence of pedestrians unless it was for stopping them to offer a ride for as cheap as 10000 Rupiahs, no helmets involved, no guarantee of survival, no strings attached. So unbothered were they by the people that in fact a few times they just about hit us, and we had to scream from the top of our lungs to be heard above the loud noise so that they would avoid us.

I felt hopeless. I could not understand why human beings could be so careless and uncivil to the environment; so disrespectful of human life. I was angry at them, for killing every little bit of positive energy I had when I woke up. Energy that I had to use in order to stay alive, to yell at them to move away, to scream to please leave me alone, to please not hit me with their motorbikes. I could only see unsensible, unreasonable people that, for the sake of (actually very little) money, were ruining the environment and what was meant to be one of the most beautiful natural sights in Indonesia. And they were doing it with the tacit consent of the authorities.

Greed and anger: because after going through the slush, I really really wanted to see that volcano and not just more slush

Then, we finally made it to the pedestrians only area. What literally were hordes of people were all going up, to the view point, to see the seeminly amazing sunrise on Mount Bromo. We eventually made it to the top to just find out that the actual smart ones had taken all the best front row “seats” – they had camped there the night before. Selfie sticks out, these multitudes all waited cheerfully (and noisily, so as to kill any magic left in the air) as we on the other hand tried to find a spot were we could stand and brace ourselves against the bitter cold (now, being cold is actually as unique an experience as one gets in Indonesia!) till the sun would come out and showed us Mount Bromo in all its mighty beauty.

Visit Mount Bromo

Bracing ourselves against the cold during our visit of Mount Bromo

So we waited. And waited. And waited. And theoretically the sun came out, but some thick clouds covered Mount Bromo so we did not get to see it. There is nothing one can do when nature rebels against his or her wishes, so we just decided to leave, cameras safely stored again and eyes unsatisfied as any hope of getting a view of the sunrise on Mount Bromo had now gone.

The mayhem started again. The crowds that a couple of hours earlier were all trying to reach the viewpoint now all moved towards the improvised parking lot, aka the road where the jeeps had casually dropped us off. Once again, we had to put our best efforts to avoid the jeeps and motorbikes that risked hitting us; we had to stop and jump for our lives to the side of the street, in the little space that was left among the parked jeeps. The noise was deafening, the exhaust fumes once more thick. The only difference was that now we were at least able to see where we were going.

Heresy: I should have seen this coming

After miraculously finding our jeep and silent driver among what seemed to be like a million jeeps, we started making our (much too fast) way down towards the desert, from where we were meant to ride horses up to the crater of Bromo. However, a quick turn and the view opened up for us. There stood Mount Bromo, in front of our eyes, mighty and spiteful and making fun of us and of all our efforts – the early wake up call, the walk through “the slush”, the risking our lives, the screaming, the anger, the fright, the tripod placing, the hopeless waiting.

There was our opportunity to shoot a good photo, to have proper proof that yes, we had been to Mount Bromo. We could not miss it. We jumped off the jeep, and, used to the noise, the traffic, the pollution, the cars and motorbikes’ careless driving, we crossed the road to fight our way among the (actually lesser) crowd, to get to a good spot where we could finally catch on camera the spectacular view and hope that nobody else but us and Mount Bromo would be in the picture. It took quite a bit of effort, but I must admit that it worked. Mount Bromo looked pretty. I almost bought it. Almost.

Mount Bromo

Signs of distress are already showing on my face after I had to go through a lot of trouble to get to Mount Bromo

Violence, Fraud and Treachery: if it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t

My love affair with Mount Bromo was not meant to be. I should have known it, since our relationship got off on a really bad start and it did all it could to put me off. And I felt a bit cheated. I soon learned that what I thought was Mount Bromo was in fact Mount Batok. Mount Bromo was right behind, having a good smoke.

Getting back on the jeep once again, we finally set off to cross the sand desert. I was baffled. I could not fully grasp what I was seeing. Among the jeeps that sped their way through the sand, lifting a great deal of dust to mix in with the exhaust fumes, the last thing I expected to see were motorbikes. Not cross country motorbikes, though. Not the kind that can go on any sort of terrain. Proper, small city motorbikes. And each of them carried two and even three persons, in proper Indonesian style. None of the passengers wore helmets but “bravely” fought the forces of nature, sliding in the sand, lifting more dust as they tried to push the motorbike (which unsurprisingly silted) forward.

At this point, I did not let the dust, the noise and the once again almost apocalyptic scene bother me. I was just amused by it, and at most puzzled. I suppose I got it figured out then: people in Indonesia have an idea of fun which consists in challenging life as often as possible, that involves motorbikes and which implies having as many people around as are available. Talk about cultural differences.

Mount Bromo

Our jeep crew. There were many more around, all set to visit Mount Bromo – photo courtesy of Kuan Ju

Despite the mask, the thick sand got in my throat, causing me to cough strongly. By then, my throat was hurting. But the pain in my throat, the difficulty to breathe were soon going to be the least of my problems. According to the program, we were meant to ride horses to the top of Mount Bromo, so that we’d be able to see the crater and the thick sulfuric smoke coming out of it. Horses had already been arranged for the group. On paper, this sounded like an amazing experience.

Pity is that the minute we got off the jeep, in the middle of the sand desert, I saw the horses that we had been provided. I immediately felt that what had so far been a challenging day was taking a turn for the worst. To anybody that has an even minimum interest in animal welfare, it was easily visible that those horses were not exactly cared for. There was no mistake that those animals were malnourished; there was little question that they were distressed. They showed all signs: ribs painfully sticking out of the thin bodies; foam at the mouth; chewing the bridels; stamping nervously.

visit Mount Bromo

I was supposed to ride this horse to the crater of Mount Bromo – I refused

I had tears in my eyes; my throat tightened; my stomach tensed. It took me about a split second to decide that I would not contribute to their suffering and that I would not ride any of those horses. Only 3 others refused to ride the horses. The rest of the group, on the other hand, went on the ride on those very same horses that were unfit to carry heavy weights, and although they did notice that the horses didn’t look too well, they didn’t make much of it and joyfully rode them (to then realize that the poor animals could not carry them all the way to the top and that, when they summoned the owner to get down and just walk, this whipped the poor animal harder so that it kept moving).

Don’t get me wrong though. I don’t blame the others for not behaving like I did. In fact, in a way I envy them for being able to toughen up, block any negative emotions, put up a brave face (something that I was completely unable to do – in fact, I cried for about one hour) and manage to appreciate the beauty of Mount Bromo and understand the cultural differences between their country and this one.

I couldn’t and my experience was pretty much ruined, as now whenever I think of Mount Bromo all I can see are the images of those poor horses, whipped and starved; of the immense crowds, selfie sticks out, oblivious to the pollution and the damage to the environment they were contributing to. And all I can remember was hiking up to the crater, seeing the poor horses around me, pushing my way through the crowd, tears rolling down my cheeks.

Mount Bromo

The smokey crater of Mount Bromo – I got to see it even without riding a horse: the walk is perfectly doable.

I know I am perhaps overly sensible to animal welfare issues. I have been since I was a child, since that time my elementary teacher took my class to the circus and I thought it wasn’t really that much fun watching lions in cages being forced to act unnaturally. As I got to my room that night after visiting Mount Bromo, and for the following days (actually, for the following weeks and even now, as I write), I have tried to make sense of what I saw and of why I have felt that way. The words “culture” and “poverty” have come up often in conversations, with people telling me that some countries don’t have such a great culture in caring for animals, or it is their culture to behave in a certain way.

But I don’t think that culture should be used as an alibi for the mistreatment of animals or for the fearceless exploitation of the environment. You see, I have spent most of my previous working life researching and writing on topics such as culture and cultural identity. While I have been an advocate for the protection of the right to cultural identity and the right of people to live their lives according to their (more or less) traditions, I can’t in any way use the cultural argument to justify cruelty and suffering, whether it is referred to human beings or to animals. I refuse to label an activity as cultural and then just accept it as it is, if the results are hurtful. I find it unethical. And I know through years and years of studies that culture is not a fixed, never changing concept.

Indeed, culture changes with time, it evolves, and that doesn’t in any way make it “less cultural”. Traditional activities and occupations remain traditional even when they are practiced through modern means. One good example is that of people whose traditional occupation is in sheep-farming. Nobody expects them to still milk the sheep by hand for the activity to remain traditional. Not even the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has taken a clear stand in saying that culture is not static and it may actually develop without losing its protected character. So really, there is no way that I will ever justify the mistreatment of animals by saying that “it is the culture of the country”. I won’t just close my eyes, shut my mouth and pretend that all is good and move on with my life, because my conscience won’t allow me to and I feel I have a duty to inform, for as small as my voice is, and to contribute to change.

The road to redemption: a few tips for visitors and management

I would like to stress that the way each one of us experiences a place is always a matter of his or her own personality, and many other factors are involved. I have indeed said on another post of mine that what may be hell to some of us, may well be heaven to others – and the fact that some of the others on my group truly enjoyed their experience on Mount Bromo, taken on the exact same day and exact same means, is proof of this. All in all, I think that each experience we have as we travel is enriching, even the ones we consider bad – because in a way they lead us to understand more about ourselves, to question ourselves, to test our limits.

I don’t want to entirely rule out Mount Bromo from the list of places to visit in Indonesia. And But I would like to see changes before I recommend it to other travelers, and before I ever give it a second chance. Many things can be done to make sure that tourism in the area becomes more responsible and sustainable and some of them are fairly easily enforceable. Mount Bromo, indeed, although at the moment is so mismanaged that it makes various travelers end up holding horrible memories of it, has the potential of becoming an iconic attraction of Indonesia, and of South East Asia as well.

visit Mount Bromo

This pretty picture is pretty much the only good memory I have of Mount Bromo

If things stay as they are, my recommendation for anybody who is keen on visiting Mount Bromo is to make sure not to go during the weekend and to take alternative tours that don’t go to the viewpoint at sunrise, as this is what most people do. This is an extremely popular attraction among the locals, and they crowd the place in such a way that it completely loses its wild character and charme. Going during the week may be a better option, as it is bound to be at least less crowded.

Picking a good tour operator to organize the guided tour is also a key factor. It is important to have a good guide that speaks English (or whatever other language one may understand); that fully explains how the activities will evolve throughout the day; that will follow the group at all times and guide it through the crowds so that it doesn’t get lost and that can provide meaningful insights on the attraction, on its significance in natural and cultural or religious terms.

When picking the operator that will provide the services, it is important to make sure that the cars used are properly kept and equipped, and that if riding horses is an option, they outsource to locals who do feed their horses well and properly provide for them and don’t abuse them.

Ask questions, such as: Are we going to have a guide with us at all times? How does the day develop, and what does the tour include? Is there a meeting point in case we get lost? Who should I contact in case of emergency? Are the horses we are going to ride well fed? Where are they kept? How many hours per day do they work? Try to make sure that the answers are not evasive, because that may well be a sign that the operator isn’t reliable and that it is outsourcing its services to the cheapest provider, which will keep the costs down at the expenses of the environment and the animals.

Mount Bromo

If horses on Mount Bromo look like this, refuse to ride them.

A more sustainable and responsible approach to tourism in Mount Bromo may imply limiting the number of daily visitors, something that has been done to several key attractions around the world, in order to protect their cultural, natural and historic relevance and uniqueness. It may be necessary to implement a system of online reservations to access the attraction, but nowadays setting up a website and a reservations system is easy and the benefits for the preservation of the natural beauty of Mount Bromo would be countless: cleaner environment including cleaner air; less people and thus less cars meaning less pollution and traffic; and the fewer visitors could count on a more thorough, enjoyable and all encompassing experience.

Another advice would be that of closely monitoring the horse dealers at the feet of Mount Bromo, and require that before providing their services of renting horses they meet at least some minimum standards in terms of animal welfare. Horses need to be properly fed and must have plenty of water when working; the number of working hours should be limited and even the amount of weight they can carry should be based on their own size.

The main point here is trying to ensure that Mount Bromo is not completely exploited and consequentially ruined by mass tourism for the sake of easy and short term money, but that it becomes the avant-guarde in terms of careful management of a natural attraction, one that should be proudly protected and that will eventually lead to a more steady, durable revenue. The authorities of Indonesia have proved on other occasions, in other places (such as on Komodo National Park) that if they want they can take responsible tourism and protection of the environment and the wildlife of the country quite seriously. It would be good to see that the same is being done on Mount Bromo. It would be great to see its real beauty blossom.

Read more about Komodo National Park on my post “How to find Heaven on Earth.”

Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia as part of the #WonderfulIndonesia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.

 

Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia

Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia

Colombia is a huge country, and it is much more than the old cliches of narco-trafficking and kidnapping. As the Lonely Planet describes it, it is a great cocktail consisting of caribbean atmosphere, the great mountains and glaciars of the Andes, the Amazon, the unique Tatacoa desert, cloud forest, colonial cities, indigenous, Afro-descendants and European cultures, and colourful and friendly people. Top all of this with a great, relaxed atmosphere and here is the perfect place. One could spend months travelling around the country, and still feel unfinished and wanting to explore more.  Furthermore, some of the places to visit in Colombia are so isolated that no roads get there. Leticia – the main starting point for a visit of the Amazon basin – can only be reached by plane.

Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia

By all means, I know I am an adventure seeker, and I know I have a choice of about a million places to visit in Colombia. But, since I was looking for some of the great Colombia tourist attractions combined with fun sports, I headed to San Gil. This is definitely THE place for extreme sports and I could easily fill up my days there with all sorts of activities, from rafting to rappelling, torrentismo (rappelling down a waterfall), horse riding, paragliding, caving, mountain biking, and so much more.

The best thing to do for me, since I didn’t want to burn all my energies was to alternate any of these extreme activities with quieter ones such as swimming in natural pools (such as the Pozo Azul), visiting the nearby waterfalls (Cascadas de Juan Curi) and going on easy, nearby hikes. Although San Gill is small city, it gave me a pleasant and authentic Colombian feel and it is not crowded with travelers. I could enjoy its atmosphere fully during the day, at the local market, or after sunset, when the locals meet for evening drinks in the main square, children happily run around, and everybody is up for a chat.

Things to do in Colombia: go mountain biking with Colombian Bike Junkies

Things to do in Colombia: go mountain biking with Colombian Bike Junkies

Rafting

Among the things to do in Colombia, there is some great rafting. Many companies in San Gil organise whitewater rafting excursions. Unexperienced rafters may prefer opting for the easier Rio Fonce – with rafts of grades 1 to 3.

I was in the mood for something more challenging, so I opted for the Rio Suarez: around 30 dollars for a full day (about 6 hours in total and snacks included, consisting of fresh fruit, local cheese, crisps and drinks). Colombia Rafting Expeditions is the most reliable company in town. I was picked up from my hostel and driven (about one hour drive) to the starting point.

The English speaking guides are very experienced, and did everything to make my day memorable. After a briefing on safety measures, we started rafting down the river. We all got soaking wet, we got the chance to swim in the river carried away by the current, and we even had to get to shore to hike up for a while, and even jumping off cliffs. The only low point is that there is nobody taking pictures for the rafters, so I would advise to carry a waterproof camera.

Things to do in Colombia: go rafting with Colombia Rafting Expeditions

Things to do in Colombia: go rafting with Colombia Rafting Expeditions

Mountain biking

Another one of the things to do in Colombia is mountain biking. Mountain bike tours near San Gil go through the Chicamocha Canyon and they allowed me to visit the beautiful Barichara, an immaculately renovated city of white-washed buildings and stone streets, with a beautiful cathedral and a gorgeous and airy main plaza, which is definitely one of the places to visit in Colombia.

Places to visit in Colombia: Barichara

Places to visit in Colombia: Barichara

The best company running the tour is Colombian Bike Junkies. It is based out of  the restaurant Gringo Mike’s, which is also the meeting point. The trip lasts all day (by which I mean ALL day – do not expect to be back before dark!), it costs around 60 dollars. Ok, that is not cheap but it possibly is the best and most fun among the things to do in Colombia and it is worth saving on other things to embark on this adventure.

Colombia Bike Junkies is reliable, the bikes are in excellent state, and it is organised to the point that when I booked the tour, I was even asked where I wanted to have the front and back breaks, and even a meal preference (yes: a delicious lunch, snacks such as fresh fruit and home baked cookies and water are all included, as well as a “well done” beer after finishing) and my size, as at the end of the day I was given a t-shirt that will always remind me of this great adventure.

There was a very good guide at the front, ready to help with any problems and to give instructions and advice on the technicalities of the path; as well as a guide at the back, driving a jeep and carrying any equipment that may needed to fix bikes on the road, including flat tires. And, to top things off, I didn’t have to worry about taking pictures as the two guides took plenty of shots in key points and moments and shared them with participants. Look at me in full motion:

Things to do in Colombia: mountain biking!

Things to do in Colombia: mountain biking!

The 50 km trip will be tiring: going downhill is challenging for non-expert mountain bikers, yet it is a lot of fun. After the lunch break, the path is an easier (in technical terms!), slightly uphill 16 km road.

By the time I got to the finishing point, I was dusty, sweaty, dirty and, most importantly, happy and accomplished and that beer tasted oh so good!

What do to in Colombia: become a Colombian Bike Junkie

What do to in Colombia: become a Colombian Bike Junkie

Where to sleep and eat in San Gil:

Open House Hostel in San Gil is an excellent option for backpackers. It is very close to the main plaza: it is clean, quiet, and it has nice, comfortable beds, an airy common area and very well equipped kitchen and a nice backyard. My humble advice is to cook at the hostel, as, other than Gringo Mike’s, there aren’t many good options to eat in town and the market sells lovely fresh vegetables and fruit.

How to get to San Gil:

San Gil can be reached by bus from pretty much anywhere in Colombia. There are night buses from Cartagena (the trip lasts 17 hours and goes through Barranquilla); there are regular buses to and from Bogotà (8 hours, around 17 dollars), Medellin (11 hours, around 30 dollars) and Bucaramanga (2 hours), which is the closest airport.

Looking for more things to do in Colombia?