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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Sardinia dos and donts: what to do in Sardinia

Sardinia dos and donts: what to do in Sardinia

Best beaches in Sardinia: Crazy gorgeous fjords of Cala Domestica

Best beaches in Sardinia: Crazy gorgeous fjords of Cala Domestica

Things to do in Sardinia: watch the Sartiglia

Things to do in Sardinia: watch the Sartiglia in Oristano – photo courtesy of Marcello Treglia

Things to do in Sardinia

Things to do in Sardinia: watch the Sant’Efisio parade of traditional Sardinia costumes – photo courtesy of Marcello Treglia

Where to go in Sardinia: Roman ruins and lighthouse in Nora

Where to go in Sardinia: Roman ruins and lighthouse in Nora

Visit Sardinia: Barumini

Visit Sardinia: Su Nuraxi – Barumini

At the heart of the Mediterranean, Sardinia will make you feel like you are a world apart from the rest of the world. Here you can switch off from your daily routine, without having to cross an ocean; you can enjoy lush nature, incredible beaches, wild mountains, tasty food and a secular cultural traditions. The good news is that although it is almost mythologically described as a place for a few rich people, it can actually be visited on a budget and there are so many things to do in Sardinia that you could spend a year without ever getting bored.

Here are a few simple rules for your low budget holidays. For more ideas on things to do in Sardinia, check my post “A Local’s Guide To The Things To Do In Sardinia”.

Dos

Do book your flight in advance, making sure you catch one during the week (avoid weekends) and playing around with the dates (be flexible). This way you can even catch a round trip ticket for less than €50. There are three airports: Alghero, Cagliari and Olbia, all a great starting point for a tour of the island. Most budget airlines have fights to Sardinia from a number of cities in Italy and Europe.

Do use public transport: it links the main cities, villages and tourist destinations. While a bit slow, it is cheap enough, and once you get to your destination you can walk, rent a bike, or participate in organised tours that offer pick up services. For information on bus and train schedules visit the pages of ARST and Trenitalia.

Do consider a car rental. A splurge if travelling alone or as a couple, but if there is a few of you it may actually turn out cheap and you will have the opportunity to roam around independently. Most well known agencies have stands at the airport and are quite convenient. But book in advance to catch special deals.

Do book your accommodation early. Most cities have budget places and all tourist destinations provide camping sites. Rooms are easy to find in the low season, but during the summer, when Sardinia is at its peak season, it may be harder to get cheap accommodation. Camping sites are good options if you can carry your tent, and they often have bungalows for rent.

If travelling in a group, do consider holiday home rentals: prices are surprisingly cheap and estate agencies and apartments can be easily found online. Considering you will have your own kitchen, your budget will benefit in the end.

Do enjoy your days at some of the best beaches in Sardinia, which all have free access: carry your umbrella, towel and plenty of sunblock and relax for free.

Do go on a boat tour: some of Sardinia best beaches, especially in the Golfo di Orosei or La Maddalena, can only reached this way. Although not too cheap it is completely worth it. Do book a day or two in advance!

Best beaches in Sardinia: Cala Luna

Best beaches in Sardinia: Cala Luna

Do go on a free trekking: hiking is one of the best ways to visit Sardinia. There is a gorgeous path to Cala Goloritzé leaving from the Altipiano del Golgo; a well signaled hike to Cala Domestica; a roughly 2 hours walk from Cala Fuili to Cala Luna; or try any of the trails in Isola dell’Asinara.

Do enjoy free festivals and cultural events. If you are searching for what to do in Sardinia and feeling in the mood for some cultural activity, you will be glad to know that on first of May Cagliari hosts the spectacular “parata di Sant’Efisio”: people from villages all over Sardinia, wearing their traditional dresses, go on a march in honour of the Saint patron of the island (Sant’Efisio). In February, the beautiful Sartiglia takes place in Oristano: men (and women) wearing traditional carnival costumes gallop down a street mounded with sand as fast as they can and attempt skewering a hanging star using their foil – pure adrenaline.

If you are a jazz and nature lover, don’t miss Time in Jazz in Berchidda, patroned by trumpet player and native Paolo Fresu. Picture a whole week of jazz, across a number of villages in the area, with open air concerts (free to attend) and the possibility to stay in camping sites. This is only one of the many jazz festivals here: listening to live quality music is one of the things to do in Sardinia.

Do enjoy nightlife in Cagliari: locals go out no earlier than 10 pm. You can either walk around Largo Carlo Felice, or, for some fresh air, Libarium, in Castello, which has a great terrace and view of the city; or Caffè degli Spiriti or De Candia in the Bastione – the lattest occasionally have some live concerts: look for local bands such as Sikitikis for real fun. Cocktails cost between € 7 and 9, wine and beer are cheaper (around 3 or 4 euros).

Do enjoy a romantic dinner at Quintilio, right outside Alghero, and admire the great view of the city, the bay and Capo Caccia. Sunset is the best time to go. Do book in advance to seat outside.

Do try traditional Sardinian food: piglet on the spit, malloreddus (small gnocchi), mussles soup, fregola (a sort of cous cous made with seafood), pecorino cheese, seadas (sweet fried pastries filled with cheese and topped with honey)… There is a lot of variety.

Donts

Don’t miss Isola dell’Asinara, originally a fishing community, later on a criminal colony, a peasant colony and leprosy centre, and a maximum security jail; it was finally turned into a National Park in 1997. Should you not have much time to sleep on the only hostel in the island (highly recommended!), book a guided tour on a jeep. This will allow you to visit the sites of historical and natural importance, such as the historic jail of Cala d’Oliva and of Fornelli, and some of the best beaches in Sardinia, such as Cala Sabina, Cala Trabuccato and Cala d’Arena. You can also go on one of the many hikes (free and well signaled) or opt for a bike tour.

Where to go in Sardinia? Asinara, for sure!

Where to go in Sardinia? Asinara, for sure!

Asinara - Sardinia

Donkeys are the only inhabitants of Asinara, together with boars, cats, goats…

Don’t miss a sunset walk on the beautiful bastion overlooking the sea in Alghero. The same goes for Cagliari and its lovely bastion or the Poetto beach: they are gorgeous at sunset. You can’t visit Sardinia and miss a sunset here!

Don’t think Sardinia is only beautiful in the summer. It is just as nice in the winter, although weather in Sardinia can be brutal in the winter months. But of course summer is the best season to enjoy the beaches.

Don’t litter: all beaches have bins for garbage and if they don’t, carry your garbage back with your and throw where appropriate.

Don’t forget to try “gelato artigianale”: ice-cream made from scratch. Tip to know it is the real thing: it melts really fast!

Don’t miss a sip of mirto or fil’e ferru: the first one is a strong liquor made of myrtle berries. The second is more like a grappa. They are very much Sardinian!

Don’t miss the archeological sites such as the beautiful roman ruins of Nora, are easy to access from Cagliari, or the many “nuraghe” which are unique to Sardinia such as that of Barumini. Take lots of pictures!

Don’t miss some off the beaten path places, such as Is Aruttas beach, with its incredible white tiny pebbles; S’Archittu, with a rock formation in the shape of an arch, Masua Pan di Zucchero, Buggerru and Cala Domestica, and Porto Pino, famous for its sand dunes.

Sardinia best beaches: Masua Pan di Zucchero

Sardinia best beaches: Masua Pan di Zucchero

Don’t be afraid to communicate with Sardinians, as they are very friendly. They may not all speak English, but they will always help out.

Don’t forget to read my other posts on Sardinia for more information and to ask me if you have any more questions!