July 17 2014

The Nile is More Than Just a River

The Nile is the world’s longest river, flowing for approximately 4,200 miles and serving as a water source to eleven countries.

By both measurements, it easily beats the Amazon (~3,900 miles, 7 countries), the Yangtze (~3,800 miles, one country – albeit a massive one), and the Mississippi (~3,800 miles, 2 countries).

To ancient Egypt it was more than just a river; it was a primary source of sustenance. Although bordered by several large bodies of water – the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Suez, and the Gulf of Aqaba – Egypt is mostly arid desert. (Hint: avoid visiting at the peak of summer.)

The Nile creates a fertile green valley amid that great expanse of desert. Without it, one wonders if ancient Egypt could have risen to its heights. Egypt’s position was based on agricultural wealth, which in turn was attributed to the river.

In my infinite wisdom, I did visit at the peak of summer. But the 115-degree weather was survivable, and the highlight of my 12-day trip was sailing the Nile for four nights aboard the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV.

Sun Boat IV Outdoor Dining Room
Outdoor dining room on the Sun Boat IV

The boat itself was very nice – of the 200 or so that regularly cruise the Nile, Sanctuary’s four boats are among the most luxurious. But the sights along the way were spectacular. Indeed, while seeing the Pyramids was the motivation behind the trip, these sights further south left a greater impression.

That structures built in 2,000 BC (meaning they are 4,000 years old!) are still standing at all is impressive. That some are nearly unblemished is astounding. You can still see not only intricately carved designs, but even the colors of some painted surfaces.

Sailing from Luxor to Aswan, here are some of the sights along the way.

Luxor

The Temple of Karnak – an enormous complex of halls, temples, and other structures built over a span of almost 2,000 years – is located on the east bank of the Nile near Luxor.

A series of ram-headed sphinxes lines the approach to the temple complex:

Ram-headed sphinxes at the Temple of Karnak
Ram-headed sphinxes at the Temple of Karnak

Perhaps Karnak’s best-known feature, the Great Hypostyle Hall:

The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak
The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak

Also on the east bank is the Temple of Luxor:

The Temple of Luxor at dusk
The Temple of Luxor at dusk

Several statues of Ramses II (AKA Ramses the Great) at the Temple of Luxor are well-preserved, offering a detailed look at the pharaoh’s features:

Ramses the Great at the Temple of Luxor
Ramses the Great

On the west bank lies the Necropolis of Thebes, where many of Egypt’s pharaohs (including Tutankhamun, AKA King Tut) were buried in the Valley of the Kings. There’s not much to see above ground:

The Necropolis of Thebes
Valley of the Kings

The action is in the tombs below, though unfortunately the semi-dark environment doesn’t photograph easily.

Inside the tombs of the Necropolis of Thebes
Wall carvings inside a tomb

Near the Valley of the Kings is the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first female pharaoh:

The Temple of Hatshepsut
The Temple of Hatshepsut

These are the Colossi of Memnon, two enormous statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III designed to guard the entrance of his funerary temple (though little remains of the temple itself):

The Colossi of Memnon
The Colossi of Memnon

Dendera

The very well-preserved Temple of Hathor, goddess of love and joy, is near the small town of Dendera:

Inside the Temple of Hathor in  Dendera
Inside the Temple of Hathor

The ceiling was being cleaned at the time. In this picture, one side has been cleaned and the other hasn’t:

Ceiling of the Temple of Hathor in Dendera
Half-cleaned ceiling in the Temple of Hathor

Kom Ombo

The Greco-Roman temple at Kom Ombo is a double temple – it is one building containing two temples, each with its own entrance and chapel. One is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god; the other to Horus, the falcon god (and one of several sun gods).

The Greco-Roman temple at Kom Ombo
The double temple at Kom Ombo

Aswan

Near the city of Aswan (famous for its dams), the Island of Agilkia houses the Temple of Philae.

Because its original location, the Island of Philae, is now submerged, the temple was moved to Agilkia and reconstructed stone by stone.

The temple itself is fine (it’s actually very nice, but honestly I was templed-out at this point); however, the setting on an island in the Nile was by far my favorite temple setting of the whole trip.

The Nile River seen from Agilkia Island
The Nile River seen from Agilkia Island
Coffee break inside the Temple of Philae
Coffee break at the Temple of Philae?

Logistics note

My entire 12-day trip was booked with tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, which has an excellent reputation in Egypt. (The reputation is deserved, in my opinion.) At the time, in 2012, tourism in Egypt was extremely low as a result of the Arab Spring and the company offered rates that probably only allowed it to break even – at best. (I have no inside information, I’m only speculating.)

While I have not seen rates so appealing since, I would say the rates on the company’s website as of this writing are still reasonable for what you get – a well-executed tour with a luxury operator.

As for safety, I can only offer my personal perspective which is that I never felt unsafe during my visit despite the political circumstances. (A&K provided armed guards who traveled with us, which I appreciated but considered an abundance of caution rather than a necessity.)

Perhaps the news coverage we receive in the United States is hyped, perhaps I just lucked out that nothing happened the days I was there, perhaps the tour operator did a good job of insulating its clients from the “real world,” and perhaps it’s other things that don’t occur to me. But I can definitely say I had a great visit and never once felt threatened.

Better yet, when you go while no one else is going you get the sights almost to yourself. I have heard that on an average day several hundred tour buses visit the Pyramids of Giza. I counted five the day I visited. Granted, I wasn’t there the entire day, but one can reasonably infer that the volume of tourism was greatly diminished.

And I was very pleased to have gotten a 5-star, professionally organized tour at a vastly reduced cost – probably less than half of what I could have arranged on my own for comparable accommodations (even with my deal-scrounging habits).

With that, let me leave you with some pictures of life along the Nile as seen while sailing.

Life along the Nile (1)

Life along the Nile (2)

Life along the Nile (3)

Life along the Nile (4)

July 12 2014

An Afternoon in Las Tacas, Chile

Las Tacas is a small resort town on the northern coast of Chile which I stumbled upon during a drive between Santiago and La Serena.

I had never heard of it, and even today as I Google its name relatively little comes up. There is no Wikipedia page and there are few English-language web pages (or even Chilean pages offering an English translation).

I am not sure if the place is obscure in general, or just obscure to foreign visitors. Perhaps the Chileans like having it to themselves?

Nonetheless, this town is super photogenic.

LasTacas pano

My photos were taken with a cheap camera and I present them un-retouched and unfiltered. All I did was crop them to fit the page.

There is a stunning white sand beach:

LasTacas white sand

The water is deep turquoise:

LasTacas turquoise water

The buildings, which I think of as a mix of Mediterranean and Southwestern architecture, are spotless:

LasTacas architecture

I doubt there is much in Las Tacas to occupy a long stay, and I can’t say it warrants a trip in and of itself. But if you find yourself driving along the coast of Chile, it is definitely worth a stop if for no other reason than to snap a few photos.

It would also make for an easy day trip from La Serena, which itself has good – but different and busier – beaches.

For me, it turned out to be a great place to have a nice meal with a fantastic view amid a long drive (Santiago and La Serena are about 480 km apart).

Some (local?) kids seemed to enjoy it too:

LasTacas kids in raft

June 26 2014

The Ancient City of Pompeii

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it single-handedly obliterated the once-thriving ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

But the meters-thick layer of volcanic ash and rock that buried the town served to preserve it in stunningly minute detail for some 1,500 years – until its initial (and mostly ignored) discovery in 1599 and more comprehensive rediscovery in 1748.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pompeii in its day boasted a 20,000-capacity amphitheater, a sporting arena, government and religious buildings, and commercial structures ranging from stores to restaurants to brothels.

PompeiViva sign

To be honest, I hadn’t expected much of this visit. Having seen lots of ruins – Greek, Roman, Mayan, Egyptian, Turkish, you name it – I was kind of “ruined out.” On the other hand, the upside of having low (or no) expectations is that there’s nowhere to go but up.

However, Pompeii turned out to be quite interesting in its own right.

Because it is so well preserved, a visit to Pompeii affords an almost-intact look into the Pax Romana period – not only the structural and urban planning features of its towns, but also the daily life, occupational pursuits, and artistic expression of its citizens.

Sights

The amphitheater, located near the site’s main entrance, once hosted gladiator fights:

Pompeii Amphitheatre

The streets are varied. Some, like the one below, are relatively straight and flat; others are rockier, narrower, and harder to navigate.

Pompeii street

My guide seemed to talk a lot about brothels, so I ended up with many photos of them. Here’s one:

Pompeii brothel

Likely a restaurant, given the oven:

Pompeii restaurant overn

Tips

As you might imagine for the ruins of an important city, the site is sprawling. To get the most out of your visit, I would read up beforehand on not only the site and its history but also the major structures. That way, once you get there you will know what to look for and navigate toward.

Pompeii next to last

Likewise, be sure to grab a map at the entrance (or bring one), otherwise the site will seem like a huge labyrinth of rocks that start to all look the same. The place is very conducive to getting lost.

Audio guides are also available at the main entrance and from some surrounding shops.

Wear good walking shoes – there is a lot of walking to do, much of it on uneven surfaces. (Flip flops would not be ideal.)

Pompeii last

Finally, while I did not have opportunity to see it, many advise that the Garden of the Fugitives is not to be missed. It contains plaster casts of several victims – in the position where they fell and died.

For this visit I pre-booked a tour with a guide and transportation. I’m not a big fan of tours (being too ADD to appreciate lengthy lectures on historical topics, no matter how skillful their delivery), but I was pressed for time before this trip so I did not follow my own advice and read up on the site beforehand or even research transportation options. I also didn’t have much time on the ground during the trip itself, so a tour saved all kinds of time and hassle. However, I am told the site is easily accessed by train from Naples.

June 14 2014

Rio de Janeiro – a Photo Essay

In celebration of the FIFA World Cup, I revisited photos from my trip to Rio de Janeiro a few years ago. I haven’t been back since, so this is less a city guide and more a trip down memory lane.

Growing up in the United States, my idea of “football” is different from the rest of the world’s. For one, our football is oblong not round.

Although a sports fan, I had never attended a professional football fútbol game until my early 30s. Might as well “do it right” at that point, so my first game was in Rio.

Played in Maracanã Stadium – originally built to host the fourth World Cup in 1950 – the game itself ended in a rather unsatisfying tie. But the crowd’s vivacity was unlike any sporting event I’d ever attended – including those from my college days at a school with very enthusiastic sports fans.

Thanks to a friend’s generosity, I watched the game from a sky box. A driver picked me up at the hotel and drove not just to the stadium but to an interior parking area with a door leading directly into the box. Not the most authentic local experience, but I’ll take it. 🙂

View from a sky box at Maracanã Stadium:

Maracana inside

 

Before being rebuilt for the current World Cup, here’s how the stadium looked from Mount Corcovado through my zoom lens:

Maracana outside

 

Speaking of Corcovado, it is of course home to one of the New7Wonders of the World – Cristo Redentor (“Christ the Redeemer”):

Redentor afar

 

Now, two travel-related considerations with Cristo Redentor. One, it is often cloudy atop Corcovado. That can create interesting supernatural-looking shots, but at the same time cloudy isn’t the best photography weather.

Redentor supernatural

 

Two, the statue is over 12 stories high from base to top. So if you’d like a picture of yourself next to it, the camera needs to be aimed sharply upward – making your nostrils very prominent. (I’ll spare you the photo of mine.)

Almost as famous – and visually more stunning in my opinion – is Sugarloaf Mountain.

A granite monolith, Sugarloaf rises 1,300 feet straight out of the waters of Guanabara Bay:

Sugarloaf monolith

 

The most common ascent is by cable car – a ride that, even on the cloudiest of days, shows off Rio de Janeiro’s spectacular terrain. Look very closely – can you see Cristo Redentor atop Mount Corcovado in the top right corner of the photo below?

Sugarloaf cable car

 

Rio’s economic inequality receives significant press. Admittedly my visit occurred in much of a tourist bubble (more bubbly than usual in fact). But even then the situation was hard to miss.

From my hotel balcony, I glance one way and see this:

Balcony nice

 

And glance the other way to this:

Balcony favela

 

Unlike slums elsewhere, many of Rio’s favelas are directly adjacent to wealthy parts of town, built on hillsides with breathtaking vistas of the city and the ocean below:

Favela wide view

 

But since this is a travel website not a political one, I’ll leave economics to another forum and instead bid you a wonderful weekend with thoughts of a relaxing spa treatment:

Spa

June 10 2014

Amsterdam Trip Report: Introduction & Photo Essay

Trip report index:

Introduction

As I previously wrote, the stars aligned to allow for a quick trip to Amsterdam a few weeks ago. I was planning to attend an event in North Carolina and, unable to find inexpensive airfare, decided to redeem miles for the flight. But, since I’m always looking to maximize value for my miles, I don’t like using miles for domestic flights.

Instead, I thought I’d try to find an international award flight to use those miles on and then just tack on a stop in North Carolina for free. (On an international award ticket, United allows one stopover and two open jaws for free.)

That same week, there was award availability at the InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam – a hotel I’d always wanted to stay at in a city I’ve yet to visit. While grand in other ways, the hotel has only 55 guestrooms and 24 suites, making reward availability scarce. And with rates in my timeframe starting at €500 (approximately $700) per night for a standard room, I wasn’t about to pay cash.

The last piece of the puzzle was finding award flights on dates that lined up well with both the North Carolina event and the Amstel hotel availability. It took a bit of work – I had to (politely) hang up on a couple of United reservations agents before getting one who could make the itinerary work. Tip: if the agent’s not helpful, use the HUCA trick (hang up, call again).

In the end, I redeemed 60,000 United miles for a roundtrip ticket to Amsterdam with a free 2-day stopover in North Carolina.

Trip costs

As a discretionary, opportunistic trip, I was determined to keep costs low. At the final tally, I ended up spending about $230 in cash for four days in Amsterdam – flights, hotels, insurance, and sightseeing included. (I don’t count meals and ground transportation as I incur those expenses regardless of whether I’m traveling.)

AMS trip costs

In the next post I’ll share my thoughts on visiting Amsterdam, and in later posts I’ll review the hotels on this trip.

Meanwhile, enjoy a short photo essay on the city…

Photo essay

The view on approach to Schiphol airport:

1-AMS approach

 

Amsterdam’s Canal District was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. Prinsengracht (“Prince’s Canal”), one of the main canals, is where you’ll find the Houseboat Museum. This photo was taken from the bow of the boat/museum:

2-View fr Houseboat Museum bow

 

The Anne Frank House – also a museum – is on the Prinsengracht as well. This is the house’s canal-facing façade:

3-AnneFrankHouse

 

Dutch painter Rembrandt was buried at Westerkerk (“Western Church”), just yards away from the Anne Frank House. Its spire is said to be the highest church tower in Amsterdam:

4-Westerkerk spire

 

In contrast to the elaborate spire, I found Westerkerk’s interior relatively plain:

5-Westerkerk interior

 

The city’s transportation hub, Central Station:

6-Central Station

 

A grim reaper in Dam Square looking toward the National Monument:

7-Dam Sq toward monument

 

The Royal Palace sits on the other side of Dam Square (there’s the grim reaper again!):

8-AMS Palace w grim reaper

By the way, is there significance to grim reapers in the context of Amsterdam? (Seemed they were pulling in healthy tips from tourists wanting photos with them.) My quick Google search didn’t turn up anything, but if there’s a back story please enlighten me!

The Red Light District at 5:30pm is not the best “gawking” time, but you can still see enough to get a sense of the place. Here’s a PG-rated photo of the area:

9-AMS RLD

 

Outside the Rijksmuseum (“State Museum”) you’ll find sculptures in nicely manicured gardens:

10-Rijks Museum Garden

 

Inside, you’ll find a vast collection which includes Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (my photography “skills” do not do it justice):

11-TheNightWatch

 

Museumplein (“Museum Square”) is surrounded by three of the city’s major museums – the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum. Here, the Rijks is in the background:

12-Museumplein

 

May 1 2014

My Favorite Travel Photobombs

If I had time for another hobby it might well be photography. As that’s just plain unrealistic for now, I’m content to remember my travels with the help of a simple camera and my primitive photography skills.

Often my attempt at a clear picture is foiled by a car or a stranger coming into view. And yet, instead of ruining the shot, they make it better.

These are some of my favorite photobombed shots, where the “intruder” illuminates just how grand and immense the intended subject really is.

Find the bus in the foreground (and remember it’s in the foreground) to see how vast the Pyramids of Giza are:

Pyramids

 

The tip of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro:

Sugarloaf

 

The base of the Eiffel Tower (not the whole base, just the center of it):

EiffelTower

 

The Taj Mahal on a rather crowded day:

TajMahal

 

One corner of the Colosseum, also on a crowded day. It was wall-to-wall people that day, yet they appear as mere specks against the amphitheater:

Colosseum

 

Even with rudimentary photography skills, I guess after thousands of shots it’s possible to find a few memorable ones.