How to find heaven on earth: visit Komodo and Rinca Islands, Indonesia

How to find heaven on earth: visit Komodo and Rinca Islands, Indonesia

Before heading to Komodo and Rinca islands, in Indonesia, I had a picture in my mind of what a tropical paradise should look like. My fantasy involved sights of uncontaminated lands, beautiful hilly landscapes swept by some soft breeze and offering incredible hiking trails, crystal clear seas with a thriving marine life, unique and at times scary wildlife and as little inhabitants as possible. After visiting Komodo and Rinca, I have decided that these two islands are, indeed, as close as it gets to my idea of a tropical paradise.

I set foot on Rinca on a hot morning of October, after a boat ride from Labuan Bajo across the calm waters of the Flores sea. The boat ride was just a small sampler of what awaited us. An infinity of small islands glowed in the distance, against the bluest sky one can conjure. The tranquil seas broke on the shores of the sandiest, whites beaches, lined by lush vegetation. I felt spoiled to be experiencing just that (and thankful that I did not get seasick as it had happened to me in Panama, thanks to the fast pace of the boat!).

Read more about my misadventures while sailing on my post “Sailing San Blas.”

Looking wistfully at the dramatic wedges of rock jutting out of the turquoise sea

Staring in the distance at the dramatic scenery – photo courtesy of Jeremy Goh @g0ldeng0h

Then, after two hours of navigation, we arrived to Rinca island. 

Spotting the Komodo Dragons in Rinca – it’s no monkey business!

Koh Kima is the hidden dock of Rinca, from where a trail starts, taking visitors to the base camp of Loh Buaya. It did not take us long to spot the first of the multitudes of Komodo Dragons who literally own the island (around 2000 live on the archipelago of Komodo, Rinca, Gila Motang and Flores), as he (or was it a she?) rested “peacefully” under a tree.

Komodo

Don’t worry, he’s resting – and looks almost harmless

Those komodos look so scary that it is said that the legend of the Chinese Dragon takes after them. And scary indeed they are. These giant lizards, locally known as ora, can reach a whooping length of 3 meters and weight up to 170 kg, and feed on the insects as well as the buffaloes, goats, monkeys, boars and deers that also live on the island. They are proper predators, who patiently hide to ambush their prey. So determined they are in their hunt, that they wait around till their meal of choice dies from the strong bacteria transmitted through their saliva once they bite.

hunting komodo

Sticking his forked tongue out, hunting for food – komodos are scary!

Don’t be fooled by how lazy the dragons look when they slowly walk around, sticking their forked tongue out. That is a sign that they are smelling around for food, and knowing that they can ran as fast as 40 km per hour should be a good enough deterrent to keep at a good distance. Indeed, although the komodos prey of choice are buffaloes and deers, incidents have been reported during which humans have been attacked.

komodo

Watch out – komodo hunting

One of the victims of such attacks was one of our guides, Rino, who took us around one of the various trails to show us the local wildlife – including a number of nests where female komodos lay their eggs – and who bravely recollected how he had to literally climb a tree for life and then seek immediate help against the bites. It’s little wonder then that all visitors must hire the services of a guide carrying a wooden forked pole to keep the dragons at bay and properly instruct tourists on each move they may or may not take.

it's no monkey business

Waving us goodbye at the dock, the monkeys of Rinca island

On the way back to the dock, before we boarded our boat again heading to Komodo Island, we got a quick yet cute reminder that if komodos rule in Rinca, monkeys may provide as excellent competitors in getting the attention of visitors. A multitude of monkeys waved us goodbye as we got on our boats, jumping from one branch to the other, playing around and threatening to steal our cameras, phones, water bottles and even our sunglasses. 

In search of the perfect view in Komodo

We then set sail towards Komodo Island, which we reached after about 30 minutes. Walking on the long wooden dock towards the camp site of Loh Liang, I embraced the view in front of me and immediately knew I was in love with this remote place. There, we could again see a few komodos – these ones were bumming on the beach, taking in the sun. And what a mighty sight they were!

Komodo

Turquoise waters, a dock and more islands in the distance: this is Komodo

As if Komodo was not perfect enough already, accompanied by our guide we started hiking in search of more wildlife and even more stunning views. There are a number of hiking trails around the island, all starting from Loh Liang and varying in length and difficulty – from the 1 hour easy trek through mostly flat trails and in good shade, to one that takes roughly 4 hours and is a bit more difficult, if anything because of the blistering heat and completely exposed to the sun.

Komodo National Park

The blistering sun didn’t keep us from hiking to the top

We felt particularly fit that day (besides, hiking really is one of my favorite things to do) and decided to climb the steep hill of Gunung Ara, the island’s highest peak at 538 meters above sea level, and challenge the sun and heat. We were thus rewarded with amazing views of the beautiful landscape, spotting the odd komodo as well as other wildlife on the way to the top, where we finally got to enjoy an incredible panorama over a small cove with really blue waters and a docked boat.

Gunung Ara

The rewarding view from Gunung Ara

We were so in awe of the view that it was not an easy task for the guide to finally convince us to leave and go back to the base camp, where lunch as well as a multitude of komodo dragons were waiting for us (come to think of it, they may well have thought that we were their lunch).

spot the photographer

Try to convince us to leave this paradise!

Finding Nemo

Just as a proper cherry on a delicious cake, our final stop for the day was the Pink Beach, or Pantai Merah, at about 30 minutes boat ride from Komodo island. Before getting there, the question was whether the so-called Pink Beach actually is pink. And I was also secretly asking myself if I, a girl from the beautiful island of Sardinia, would find a beach that could bare the comparison to what I am used to. The conclusion? Well, yes: the Pink Beach really is pink. Tiny coral fragments mixed with the golden powdery sand give it a slight pink color. What makes the place even more beautiful is its complete isolation (there are no buildings on this small island) and the shallow yet pristine water that have perfect visibility and that really are a paradise for snorkeling. So, the Pink Beach fully passed the tough Sardinian test!

Pink Beach

Do we look happy?

It took me a total of 15 seconds from the moment we set foot on the beach to take my clothes off and jump in those transparent waters, jumping around in happiness at the beauty of it. It really felt like heaven. Then, I sported some snorkeling gear and went in search of Nemo, and along with him I found many other fishes and corals. So we swam, relaxed and took pictures just before getting back on the boat that would take us back to Labuan Bajo, not before enjoying yet another gorgeous sunset, as only Indonesia seems to have.

Nemo

Nemo lives on the Pink Beach

I was happy: I found my tropical paradise. So, whatever happens, please do whatever it takes to protect Komodo and Rinca Islands and make sure they stay the same so that when I make my way back there, they will still shine in all their splendor.

Practical Facts

The Komodo National Park is one of the places to visit in Indonesia. Tours to Komodo National Park normally start in Labuan Bajo (Flores), with departures in the early hours. It is a full, yet pleasant and eventful day and visitors should expect to stay out for a good 10 to 12 hours. Make sure to wear comfortable clothes, hiking shoes, a hat and a swim suit if planning to snorkel, and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration, which is common in such hot weather.

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

Those who wish to spend a bit longer exploring the island can sleep in the modest facilities available in both Rinca and Komodo – wooden huts and bungalows that have plain rooms, with shared bathrooms and a dining area that offers simple yet delicious local staples like nasi and mie goreng. What makes sleeping on the islands so special is the feeling of closeness to nature that one only gets here.

Komodo National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as such there are several fees to be paid for its protection and maintenance. They are as follows:

Entrance Fee – used for the conservation of the area: 20,000 Indonesian Rupiah (roughly $1.5 USD)

Local Area Tax – goes to the local community: 50,000 Indonesian Rupiah (less than $4 USD)

Snorkeling Fee – for trips inside the national park: 60,000 Indonesian Rupiah (around $4.50 USD)

Camera Fee – 50,000 Indonesian Rupiah

Local Guide – hiring a local guide is compulsory for reasons of safety and protection of the territory: around 80,000 per group (less than $6 USD)

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

Highlights of Colombia

Highlights of Colombia

I arrived in Cartagena by plane, from Panama. It was my first stop in Colombia, and I was immediately welcomed by the amicable people. It is a very pretty city, and I took the chance to visit its centre and points of historical interest such as the Palacio de la Inquisicion, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the Puerta del Reloj, the Cathedral and the neighborhood of Getsemanì. I loved the street murals, the colonial buildings, the cobbled streets and I enjoyed the breeze coming from the sea in the afternoon to cool down the city. I met many locals and found them ever so friendly. I even took the chance to do a private boat tour of the beautiful Islas del Rosario.

My second stop was San Gil, the adventure capital of Colombia, where I arrived after a 17 hours bus journey from Cartagena. A relaxed, small and truly Colombian city, it is set in an area perfect for exploring its natural beauty. I had a great time rafting the Rio Suarez and mountain biking in the Parque Nacional Santuario de Igaque, which also allowed me to visit the beautifully preserved colonial city of Barichara.

I then made my way north to the gorgeous Villa de Leyva, a colonial settlement that feels like a walk-through museum; and continued on to Bogotà, where I explored La Candelaria neighborhood, the Botero museum, and enjoyed the view from the Cerro de Montserrate.

A long and almost scary but very scenic bus journey took me to Salento, the beautiful small city that perfect to visit the Eje Cafetero – where I could learn the secrets of Colombian coffee – and the incredible Valle de Cocora, with its 60 meters high wax palm trees.

My final stop, on the way to Ecuador, was Popayan, a very well preserved example of Spanish colonial architecture.

Find out more about Colombia.

Take me back to Cuba

Take me back to Cuba

Yes, I know my first few posts after coming back from Cuba sounded like I was a nerve wreck. I probably was. I admit I did not get much of Cuba while there, and with my “rich white girl” (ok, I am a girl and I am white but I am definitely not rich) it was hard to understand the point of view of someone whose daily life is a challenge to get by. All I did while there was trying not to get ripped off, which made me defensive and not very communicative. I should have relaxed, and live like a Cuban, I suppose. Quite simply, enjoying whatever I could get.

Now, sitting in front of my computer screen all day, living the hectic life, feeling the need to communicate whatever I do, however I feel, and to check what’s happening in the world, now that I have embarked on yet another task which keeps me connected with the world – this very blog – I can say I miss Cuba, and I want to be taken back there. I miss that simple life, where people talk face to face, or by phone. Where computers are not a must-have, where food is bought fresh every day, and there are only local products, where there’s not the problem of having to choose between a million kinds of cereals, shampoos, lotions and what not. Yes, I miss all that. I miss that tranquility.

And the mojito I made yesterday for my friend who celebrated her birthday at a local bar is only a demonstration of that. She’s been to Cuba several time, she is terribly in love with it too. She knew this was going to happen to me too. And when I was acting as a bartender and I handled her the fresh mojito, and told her “take me back to Cuba”, she laughed, knewing this was coming.

If you want my two cents, I think that every single day you spend in Cuba you should try to put yourself in the shoes of Cubans. Try to communicate, try to appreciate their life, try to understand their problems and share yours. Ask, listen, don’t act like a typical tourist, don’t expect to “buy” things as you would do in your own country, don’t expect the same kind of services you’d get back home.

No matter how much money you have, you can’t buy Cuba, Cuba is not for sale.

Take a holiday break – relax in Cuba

Take a holiday break – relax in Cuba

Forget cell phones, whatsapp, facebook, wireless connection: just have a good time!

Ah, the pace of life as it used to be back in the days – how I miss that.

Before travelling to Cuba, my friends recommended that I stay in touch with them! After all – they suggested – you are going to log on the internet every now and then, check your email, look at your facebook page.” You see, I sit in front of a computer screen all day, every day – or so it seems. I thought to myself: what is the point of going on holidays to exotic places if I end up living the same life I live at home? I promised myself that I would cure my facebook and cell phone addiction, knowing it would be fairly easy to do in Cuba. I purposedly only topped up my cell phone with 15 euro, knowing I would most likely be unable to top up from Cuba, and warned my parents and friends not to call me, but at most send text messages (roaming is waaay too expensive), and I promised I would send a text home every so often. It is very difficult to get Cubacell sim cards for foreigners, so I had to make do with whatever credit I had on my cell phone.

Wireless basically does not exist in Cuba, so checking emails on the cell phone was not an option. And bless for that! People in Cuba like talking on the phone. Anything is done over the phone. Want to book a room in a casa particular? You call, ask questions, see what they have to say. Want to have informations on buses? You call, or go to the station. Front desk at travel agencies have no computers. When you book a tour, everything is done manually, and via phone. Computers are so rarely seen, and the internet connection so slow anyways, that I never even considered for a moment to get on the web. It would have been a waste of money, time and energy. So, I relaxed.

Whenever I wanted to call home, I would go to an Etecsa point, top up an international calling card, and make the phone call from a phone booth. If Etecsa was closed (such as at weekends, or after office hours), I would have to wait till the day after.

I learned to wait. I learned to switch off, to forget about my phone (I left it off for days!). I learned to take my time in talking to people and ask for directions and explanations – after all, there was no google, wikipedia, or anything similar to easily access information. I had to take it easy, one way or another. So I did.

With all the difficulties I found in travelling around in Cuba, where there hardly is any free commerce, where even when you have enough money you can hardly find what you need, I can say that the lack of easily accessible communication made my life nicer and my holiday a real break. At times the electricity would go on and off and at 9:30 I had to be in bed, nothing else left to do but talking to my just as exhausted sister. Have I missed anything? Has the world stopped just because I could not observe it through a computer screen, a cell phone, tv, read it on a paper or whatever else? Surely not. But I can promise you, the day after I was so rested.

Just… chillax!

Care to know more of my Cuban adventures? Read my other posts.