The land of lions-Gujarat

Gujarat as a state, had never been in my bucket list of places to visit. But when I read articles or saw posts of people who had visited Rajasthan, I took a look at India’s map to find out the less travelled or less explored destinations for our next holidaying. And that’s when Kutch came in to picture, yes- the Great Rann of Kutch. A little more research in to the state and its terrains- I had decided that Gujarat would indeed be our next spot. Gujarat has a deep sense of culture and the countryside holds many treasures- local artisans, dyeing works, block printing, textile industry, embroidery, paintings, many Jain and Hindu pilgrimage sites  and mosques- atop mountains rising amidst flatlands- I can go on and on. The 10 days that we spent in Gujarat and its different jewels will definitely go down in to our favourite places to travel in India.

This was our itinerary and places that we visited ( in a nutshell):

Day 1: Flight from Hyderabad to Ahmedabad. Since it was the biggest full moon the next night and since we wanted to see it rise at Rann of Kutch, we took a taxi from Ahmedabad to Bhuj that same night. The drive was close to 6 hours. Fantastic roads, plenty of pitstop options and most drivers followed the lane rules and beam etiquettes- which is very rare at nights.

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Day 2: Bhuj to Nirona to Kutch and back. The humble village of Nirona lies at about 45 kms from Bhuj and boasts of the extraordinary skills of its artisans- be it the ancient Rogan art by the Khattri family, or be it the Luhars’ art of making copper bells. These have been preserved for over 7 generations by these families and they even taught us live on how they make these exquisite crafts.

 

The next stop was Kalo Dungar or the black mountain, 80 kms from Nirona. The hike up the mountain gave us picturesque panoramic views of the vast, white Rann of Kutch. Although the place was crowded, we went off trail for a bit to get the best, uncrowded views. And not to forget, the high magnetic field areas en route, where the cars do actually get pulled towards the fields.

By sunset, we were at the Great Rann of Kutch-45 kms from Kalo Dungar- where the sun was setting on one side  and the big, full moon was rising on the other side. Rann Utsav’s vibrancy made the place more lively. To be able to watch the salt land shimmer and shine in the moonlight; it was definitely one of the best sightings ever.

And then, close to midnight, we were back at Bhuj.

Day 3: Bhuj-Mandvi- Bhuj ( train to Vadodara)

Bhuj fort, Aina Mahal and Shree Swaminarayan temple were the places that we covered in a half day. After lunch, we were off to Mandvi, which was roughly 60 kms away. Mandvi is a small town by the coast of the Gulf of Kutch. After visiting Vijay Vilas Palace, we spent close to 2 hours at the Mandvi beach. It was a very clean beach despite all the crowds, ATV rides, camel and horse rides, food stalls and shops. On our way back to Bhuj, we stopped by the Jinalaya Jain temple. We had a night train to board from Bhuj to Vadodara, which was our next stop.

Day 4: Vadodara

We reached Vadodara at around 7:30 am. After settling down at our hotel and freshening up, we headed out for our local sightseeing. Sayaji Baug, Lakshmi Vilas Palace, Sur Sagar Lake, BAPS Mandir, EME Temple, Aurobindo Ashram, followed by tons of shopping places in Alkapuri and nearby areas. I was mesmerized by the amount of textiles and the block printing works taken up by the locals.

Day 5: Vadodara to Statue of Unity to Surat

The SoU is located at Kevadia, approximately 90 kms from Vadodara. At around close to 8 kms from the statue, we have to board the SoU buses. Cars are not allowed beyond that point. Despite all the poor organization of buses, despite no buses being available to get back to the parking and to the Narmada dam-although these were all included in our tickets, despite all the crowd and the chaos, the statue proved to be all worth it. It is truly a manmade marvel, but sadly it has impacted not only the water level in Narmada, but also the vegetation around the area. We had the best nylon Dhokla there at the cafeteria.

Surat was roughly 150 kms away and that took about 3 h 30 minutes or so.

Day 6: Surat to Ubhrat to Surat

With nothing much to do within Surat besides the tiny but attractive Surat fort and ISKCON  temple, we had to resort to shopping inside the renowned Bombay Market. We ended up buying an extra suitcase as well! The shopping experience in Surat was overwhelming to  a person like me, who rarely shops. The picture itself will explain the rest. Surat turned out to be a bigger textile place than Vadodara.

Although we wanted to make it to the haunted, black sand Dumas beach, we were skeptical about it after hearing a lot about it from the locals. That’s when we chose to go to Ubhrat beach, 40 kms from Surat. It wasn’t crowded at all, but was extremely dirty with all garbage around.

Day 7: Surat to Ahmedabad

That was an easy day in the entire trip. All that we did was board our train from Surat to Ahmedabad and head to our room there. We did walk 500 m to shop for our stock of snacks for the rest of the trip.

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Day 8: Ahmedabad to Rani Ki Vav to Modhera Sun Temple to Gandhinagar to Ahmedabad

Modhera Sun temple, 90 kms from Ahmedabad, is a must visit place. The beautiful architecture of the temple and its bright location speaks for itself.

Rani Ki Vav, a step well built in the 11th/12th century, will mesmerize one with its intricate and pristine architecture. 45 kms away from Modhera Sun Temple, located in Patan, this place is the cleanest iconic place you will ever see.

Gandhinagar, the capital city of Gujarat, was close to 2 hours away from Patan, but very close to Ahmedabad. It can clearly be labelled as the most planned city because of its well laid roads, cleanliness, lovely greenery and absolutely no traffic. We visited the Dinosaur Park first, where there were real size sculptures of dinosaurs that once lived the region. Akshardham was the next, but it was extremely crowded, we left the spot instantly. Dandi Kutir was the next spot, followed by Adalaj ki Vav in Ahmedabad.

Day 9: Amdavad sightseeing

Ahmedabad or Amdavad, as the locals call it, was very similar to Hyderabad. At least the older portions of the cities were. The city was gearing up for the kite festival, with streets full of shops selling patangs, charkas and manjhas. What a beautiful sight it was! Children all over the city were practicing their flying and competing skills already. It didn’t matter where they were- mosques, streets, house terraces! Teen Darwaza, Delhi Darwaza, Kankaria Lake, Sidi Bashir Mosque, Bhadra Fort, Sarkhej Roza, Hutheesing Jain temple, topped by sunset at Sabarmati Ashram overlooking the Sabarmati river- Amdavad is truly a gem.

Day 10: Amdavad again and flight back to Hyderabad.

We woke up quite late that morning. We visited the Jhulta Minara and Jami Masjid that day, followed by an entire day/evening at the Science City. And then we headed to the airport to board our flight back to Hyderabad.

 

Important tips/points:

  1. We travelled only by trains between all cities except on days 1 and 5. Trains have to be booked well in advance.
  2. It does get extremely cold in winter. Gear up with your layers to stay warm.
  3. Within the cities, we relied on taxis and autos. Uber was available in Vadodara, Surat and Ahmedabad.
  4. Advance booking is required for taxis during Rann Utsav.
  5. Tickets to the SoU have to be booked well in advance as well.
  6. Stay at Bhuj: Hotel KBN ( decent stay option), at Vadodara: Ginger hotel, at Surat: Budget Inn Bellevue, at Ahmedabad: Hotel Bait Inn
  7. We googled up a Bhuj based travel agent’s number for our first ride to Bhuj from Ahmedabad. That agent was generous enough to have passed on another agent’s number for Vadodara and so forth.
  8. Vegetarian food is available all over, non-veg too at some places.
  9. Permit needs to be taken to consume alcohol. Not sure how that works, but I did read it at all the places that we stayed.

 

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Charminar- the icon!

Be it a short visit or a long stay in Hyderabad, I wouldn’t miss visiting Charminar at any cost. The last time that I had been there was almost 4 years ago, which itself had seemed like a decade. It had been almost a month since I had landed here in Hyderabad and I hadn’t gotten the chance to visit the gem. It was the first day of my kids’ schools and I decided to set out to Charminar.

I boarded the MMTS train from the Lingampally station. After successfully using the ticket kiosk to buy tickets for 5 RS, I waited on the platform for my train. Kacheguda station was my destination plan and then I took an autorickshaw to the monument.

The sight of policemen restricting the traffic made my heart skip a beat. I wasn’t sure of what was going on. That’s when I realized that Eid was only two days away. The entire area was bustling with people. Shoppers were all over shopping for bangles in the Laad Bazaar, clothes, dresses, sandals, jewellery, dry fruits, fruits and what not. The pleasure of feeling lost in a place that is so close to your heart- the joy is unexplainable.

The crowd, the noises, the push and rush- it all felt very therapeutic. Something I had been longing for. Walking around Charminar clicking pictures, climbing up after buying tickets, and exploring the Mecca Masjid right by Charminar- these had become the standard to-dos in my list. As usual, I walked in to the Masjid and spent some time there as well. And even though I don’t wear bangles, I did do some shopping as it was mandatory. Who would walk by Laad Bazaar and not shop? And for my life I had  never  seen the iconic place as lively as that day.

 

And to relive that day, I went to Charminar few days after Eid. The place was as deserted as can be- no shops and no crowd. Reality struck strong that more than the building’s architecture and presence, it is the people and their liveliness that has not only defined but also added charm to that place! I’m fortunate enough to be living so close to this gem of the world!

 

Day trips from Hyderabad #1

It had been over a month since we had gone on a trip. That itch to go on a drive had become so strong, that I decided to check with my Google buddy what my options were. And without much contemplation, Surendrapuri topped the list. It was way beyond time that the 5 year old plan materialized.

25 degrees Celsius, light drizzles and overcast sky- filling petrol in our drive partner, we set out to Surendrapuri at 8 am. Roughly 112 kms from the outskirts of Hyderabad, en route to Warangal; it took just about 2 hours to reach there- all thanks to the Nehru Outer Ring Road; affectionately called the NORR.

As far as I had known, Surendrapuri was a tiny town with plenty of tall statues, depicting various mythological figures. But only after we had parked there, did we realize that the entire place had a name- Kundha Satyanarayana Kaladhamam. After paying 20 RS for the parking and 350 RS per adult for the entry tickets, we entered the mind-blowing mythological theme park. And for the next 3 hours, approximately 3 kms, we were able to revisit, learn and visualize many of the stories and fables that we had heard a long time ago. There also were temples replicas of Kasi, Haridwar and Shirdi. Both our children had their antennas up high, looking around and seeking all sorts of information about every single character visible.

After exhausting ourselves both physically and mentally, we headed out of the park, to our car, to our next destination- the Lakshmi NarasimhaSwamy temple in Yadagirigutta. It was hardly few kilometers away from the park. On our way to Surendrapuri, my Man pointed at a Fort and said that he had been there ages ago. Now that Fort, which was located atop a hill, was way more attractive to the wanderer in me, than the temple. But we wanted to give the temple a shot as well. As we got closer to the temple, the reality kicked in. It was a Sunday afternoon, and trust me, the place was crazy busy! We hovered around for few minutes and then gave up. Bidding adieu to the temple from outside, and after grabbing a quick lunch, we headed to the Fort that was 6 Kms away.

Bhuvanagiri Fort, also known as Bhongir Fort, is situated on the top of a hill, looking out at the entire area. Quite unsure about why the place has two names though! However, that didn’t dishearten us. The Man wanted to take us there and show us around- nostalgia I guess. The weather couldn’t have been better- gentle breeze gusting up sometimes, dark clouds, and no crowd! Elated, we hiked up the hill as quickly as we could (after paying for our entry tickets-of course).

In less than two hours, we were back down by our car. Both the kids and us adults had had a great time during the hike. And a woman was chargrilling fresh corn right by our car! Could it have gotten any better?

Relishing the lightly salted hot corn in the rain, we headed back home with the memories of a beautiful day!!

 

 

Assateague Island- A Bronco fantasy!!

My Man had gifted me a solo trip to Vancouver this year for my birthday. Not to explicitly mention, I was excitedly looking forward to that. 7 years ago, when we had decided to move back to India from New Jersey, both of us were pretty sad that we hadn’t had enough time to make it to the renowned Assateague Island. And to make up for that, this time my Man booked tickets for me and our children, to the Island and back. He didn’t want to join us, because of work of course. And it was lined up right after my Vancouver trip because 2 weeks later, we would have been off to India again ( relocation, folks). All my excitement turned in to anxiety and I started to feel heavy in my chest. Would I be able to enjoy the place? Will I be able to keep my 3 year old occupied enough in a 6 hour flight? And then, get down, pick all the luggage, get a rental car from Philadelphia and drive all the way to Ocean City? There were too many thoughts running in my head. Blessing in disguise, our older one fell sick few hours before the flight. My Man frantically looked around for the numbers to call and reschedule the tickets. And guess what? We shortened our 5 days trip to exactly 3 days ( including the flight time) and the Man agreed to join us too!

Long story short, that marked the beginning of our long flights- short trip to Assateague Island. We arrived at Philadelphia airport in the evening that Sunday. After picking our rental KIA Sportage up, we headed to the hotel by the airport. Itinerary for the D-day: Head straight to Assateague Island from the Maryland side and spend the day there at the beach watching the wild ponies, then drive an hour down south to the Virginia side of the Island via Chincoteague Island and do the Salt water pony tours, watch the sunset from the Maryland side and stay back at Ocean City. We were all excited, especially the children.

The drive to Assateague Island, Maryland side was a pleasant one passing by all the picturesque locations en route. It took us close to 2 hours and 20 minutes. Needless to say, we pulled in to the Assateague Island State Park and began seeing horses and ponies everywhere. There was ponies grazing at the parking lots, not even bothered by us. They were playing in the marsh, at a distance. It was a sight to see. The beach was not busy too, there were no horses by the beach though.

Undoubtedly, our children had a wonderful time. They were so happy to have seen horses so up close, especially our daughter. She is a horse lover! After spending some quiet time at the Maryland side, we decided to drive down to the Virginia side of the Island. We were told that the horses in Maryland side were free to roam anywhere on the Island, unlike the Virginia side, where the horses were cared for by the Chincoteague Island Volunteer Fire Department. And annually, every July, the famous pony auction fair was conducted to sell off ‘extra’ horses on the Island. Roughly, only 100-150 horses and ponies included, were considered the right number for the Island.

An hour later, we arrived at the famous, touristy, Chincoteague Island. After grabbing a Subway lunch, we headed to our boat’s ramp. We boarded our boat with Captain Henry and a senior couple, to the Assateague Island. No matter how sunny it is, it can get very chilly out there because of the breeze from the Atlantic Ocean. We sailed around the Island to get to Assateague Island  and saw plenty of horses grazing in the marshes and meadows.

The Captain was in no rush since we were his only passengers that day. We spent slightly over 3 hours on the boat, looking out horses. It was around 5:30 pm when we got off the boat. We went to grab some hot chocolate at a nearby cafe to warm ourselves up. We realized that it was too late to drive back to the Maryland side of the Island to watch some horses grazing during sunset. We were also told that in the Virginia side, the horses were fenced off from humans. We were in a dilemma, but we decided to drive further down in to Assateague from Chincoteague and watch sunset by the beach, if not the horses! En route, we stopped at the Lighthouse and went for a quick walk.

After our hike, it was close to sunset time. We drove further in to the Island, closer to the Atlantic Ocean. And what we saw next, was what can be called as ‘once in a lifetime’ experience.  A herd of horses had come out of the wire fencing, to the parking lot. We got off our car to see them up close. In less than a minute, we were surrounded by 10-12 horses. They were all chasing this one horse that I guess didn’t belong to that herd. We were excited and scared at the same time; our hearts were pounding so hard and fast. They were all trotting and galloping so fast; it was indeed a treat for the eyes. All of a sudden, they began to coolly graze as well. We didn’t touch them of course, we were warned not to. But now when I think back, it was a wonderful feeling to have been literally swarmed by these wonderful beings.

Once they had successfully chased that horse off, they were back to their normalcy- as if nothing at all had happened, they went off grazing, drinking water and crossing the road back and forth! We then drove some more to catch the ocean side before the daylight was gone. We were the only people on the beach.

IMG_20180423_193722IMG_20180423_193929It couldn’t have been more beautiful. We were so happy that we had the opportunity to see wild horses and hang out with them for a while. We were glad that we didn’t drive all the way to Maryland. On our way back, we saw the same group of horses on the road again. Contentedly, we drove 2 hours to Ocean City in Maryland. Little did we know that we would be spending our night, by the mighty Atlantic Ocean. The Oceanfront hotel and its Ocean view room were mind-blowing. I made sure to wake up at 5 am to be able to watch the sunrise by the ocean; something that I hadn’t seen in a long while.

Sadly, we had to pack up. All the adventures and excitements of the previous day were all beautiful memories now. We headed out to The Greenhouse cafe, for a warm breakfast. We also found few quotes in their restroom!

Interesting, right? And then we were on road, 2 hours to Philadelphia airport, and in few hours, back in Oakland, talking only about horses, horses, horses and beaches!! What a trip it was!

Vancouver-the city that has it all!

Vancouver- ah, the name that gives me goosebumps today, even after having explored it! Well, it really hasn’t been long since I went there, but if ever given a choice to revisit a city, Vancouver will definitely top my list.  There are so many beautiful and convincing reasons that I could go on about to justify my intent to revisit the lovely city. This blog will never be fair enough to explain that. But despite all that, my heart is overwhelming with all the points that I sincerely want to jot down, to at least try to be just!

Vancouver, located in the state of British Columbia in Western Canada, is an extremely diverse city with temperate rain forests. And as the word ‘diverse”s meaning goes, the city has it all- not only immigrants/people of various ethnicity, but also people from the Rainbow Community. The city’s culture is an alluring, intricate mix of all of these; making it unique and one-of-its-kind. And not to forget, the hustling, bustling eateries: the varieties and the vegan choices that the city has to offer!

I had visited the city last weekend, that was during the mid of April. Spring weather at its peak, rain, rain, rain, everywhere! On arrival at the Vancouver International Airport, I walked over to the Skytrain station following the signs around. And by following the prompts on the kiosk, I purchased the Compass Card Daily Pass.

As soon as I boarded the Skytrain, I took out the city map that I had picked up at the airport. The lady who sat beside me began to peek in to my map, and thus we struck a conversation! This is something that would never happen if it were in the United States, or may be it had never happened to me. She was very kind enough to have suggested a lot of vegan eateries and stores to buy vegan snacks. She even asked me my list of ‘Places to see’ and suggested the best possible routes I should take to get to these places.  She really went on for the next twenty minutes and then it was time for us to get down at the station. That first interaction with a Canadian, only reinstated the known fact that Canadians are very friendly and courteous.

The hotel that I stayed, was right by the BC stadium and Chinatown Station. Vancouver Public Library, Graffiti Street filled with the ‘Spirit of the Realms’ depicting the Canadian Inuit roots, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, Steam Clock, Gastown and Yaletown were all within walking distances.

 

Besides these, I also visited the major tourist attractions in the city and they were all accessible by public transportation:

  1. Stanley Park, walk over the Vancouver Seawall, See the Totem Poles and Brockton Point Lighthouse, Overlook West Vancouver, SeaPlanes, Canada place and Vancouver city’s skyline.IMG_20180413_182440IMG_20180413_183455IMG_20180413_184421
  2. English Bay Beach and Sunset BeachIMG_20180414_133351
  3. Granville Island Public Market via FerryIMG_20180414_131310IMG_20180414_132126-EFFECTS
  4. Capilano Suspension Bridge Park- Capilano Suspension Bridge, Kia’palano, Cliffwalk, Treetop houses, Nature’s Edge walk and Raptors’ Ridge, Grouse MountainIMG_20180414_104701IMG_20180414_104024IMG_20180414_102112.jpgIMG_20180414_103217IMG_20180414_100442

I did get many opportunities to interact with some lovely people at the restaurants as well. They were very genuine in helping me with what more I could do with my time in Vancouver!

Getting around with the public transportation did take up a lot of my time. However, it was worth the wait. The city is on the expensive side as far as shopping is concerned. But there is only one city like Vancouver! If you do some research prior to getting there, and if you have enough time to spare in walking and waiting for transportation, the city is totally for it. During my 2 days there, it rained and rained all the time. When the clouds cleared for a tiny bit, the joy in people’s faces was memorable! That didn’t last long though. Weather can be the only flip side, the only one that I can think of. An umbrella, a raincoat, a jacket, good shoes, plenty of time and a jolly good soul- Vancouver can never disappoint you!

Some useful tips:

  1. Compass Cards purchased from the Airport have an additional fee of 6$ on the daily fare of 15$. Although the fare is valid on the Skytrain(Canada Line), SeaBus and the regular buses, the fare amount is valid only for that particular day of purchase. Every day, the same Compass Card can be refilled with a Daily Pass value of 10$ from the kiosks available at any station. ($=CAD)
  2. Entry ticket to the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park was 42.95$. The Cafeteria in there served the best Soy Latte that I had ever tasted! They also offer Free Shuttle service all year round, from the city.
  3. Google Maps suggested every single route with timings and mode of public transport; they were all valid and updated.
  4. Yellow Taxis can be seen everywhere and are very reliable. They do not allow prior bookings though.
  5. No Uber in Vancouver!
  6. DoorDash delivery was widely available, but I never used them.
  7. Buses run all through the city. A combination of the Skytrain, Bus and SeaBus can get you all around the city. But one would need to set aside the waiting time for each of these, especially during weekends.
  8. Ferries run between some places in Vancouver to the Granville Island Public Market for 3.50$.
  9. SeaPlanes fly too for daily commute.
  10. HappyCow app and some tips from travel groups proved helpful in finding out good restaurants.

Brazil and Argentina

Brazil and Argentina- the two famous Latin American football aka soccer kings; the names that have always been chanted by football fans all around the world. A trip to South America would definitely be incomplete without visiting these two beautiful countries. After months of planning and contemplations, we finalized our itinerary. The blog would end up being exhaustingly long if I were to jot down every single thing that we did. It was one of its kinds, a for-sure do-again kind of trip.

We flew in to Rio De Janeiro from San Francisco via Atlanta. The first leg of our flight was slightly short of 5 hours and the second leg was a tad over 9 hours. We were jet-lagged for sure, but we didn’t want that to impede our pace during the trip. After arriving at our Golden Tulip Regente Hotel in the renowned Copacabana, we simply changed in to a pair of shorts and tanks and headed right to the beach. The clean coastline, the lively music around, bustling street vendors with plenty of merchandise, people playing football, the night lights, the sand sculptures, street food vendors, the roads that were closed one-way during weekends to traffic so that people could walk, and even the mind-blowing Rainbow parade; the list could go on and on. We were strongly impressed by that side of the city on the first day itself. The water was blue and warm, even though the weather was overcast all through our trip. It was hot and sultry during the day and there would be thunderstorms during the nights. Finding vegan food wasn’t tough at all, and the people were nice enough to patiently listen to us and modify the food accordingly. With help from Google Translate, we were able to talk in Portuguese and manage our way through as well.

 

Ginga Tropical was a show hosted by Marriott and took us on a 2 hour journey through the various sub-cultures and dances of Brazil. Besides Portuguese, there were many indigenous languages spoken as well. Majority of the population was Afro-Brazilian and hence Samba, Lambada and the music was peppy and groovy too.  The children had a fun time dancing with the artistes on stage to the vibrant music. At slightly past midnight, we walked back to our hotel on the streets of Copacabana and we felt safe.

During the 6 days that we were there, we visited the Corcovado/Sugarloaf Mountain through the cable car, Christ Redeemer (Obviously), Rio downtown (Churches, Cathedrals, Music shows, Cultural Center, Imperial Palace, Las Etnias on Graffiti Street, Escadaria Selaron (Tiled Stairs)), Fort Copacabana and the Tijuca Rainforest (Urban- on an open top jeep on a rainy day); and of course the Copacabana beach (literally, every day). As we traversed through the city’s nooks and corners, we learned a lot about the Favellas or the slums. Rio has plenty of Favellas and the people there were content with their lifestyle. The huge disparity in the Socio-Economic statuses of the people could be the reason to why Rio isn’t being considered safe for anyone, especially the tourists.

But the highlight of our Brazil trip was the day trip to Paraty- a colonial town, 3 hours’ drive from Rio. The coastal town was quaint and picturesque; its solid and bold colours added to its beauty. Although there was nothing at all to do there besides the walk through the cobbled streets and boat-rides, we really fell in love with the place’s ambience. We even chanced upon a lovely little restaurant where we had the best vegan food, even though the restaurant wasn’t vegan. And the best part- they gave the children some crayons and big sheet of paper for them to scribble on. Who would’ve expected that now?

After 3 days in a row in Rio and the surrounding places, we boarded our flight to Foz do Iguacu, the home of the Brazilian side of the Iguassu falls. Due to some ‘unknown’ issues at the airport, our flight was rerouted to an airport in Curitiba, where we had to wait for few hours until the flight resumed its haul to Foz do Iguacu. Once there, we took a cab to Puerto Iguazu, the Argentine side of the Iguassu falls and that’s where our stay was. We stayed at the Loi Suites, which was an ecolodge located right off the Brazil- Argentina border. The border crossing and immigration were time-consuming but not difficult. We crossed the border at least two times each day for three consecutive days. The bridge that marked the border of the two countries was painted yellow-green on the Brazilian side and blue-white on the Argentine side. The mighty Rio Iguazu over which the bridge was built, was just a mile and a half’s hike from the hotel. The hotel had a kids’ room and a swimming pool which was more than enough for the kids to outlet their pent up energy. Puerto Iguassu was a small town with nothing much to boast about.

The Iguassu falls, comprising of approximately 350 waterfalls, passing through Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, was a mighty wonder. We spent two days on either sides of the falls, walking through many trails, catching different views of the waterfalls- from far and up close, viewing the wildlife and also visiting the Parque de Aves or the Bird Park where we loved the Pygmy Marmosets and the Toucans. We even got wet from the waters on the Brazil side. We even visited the Tres Fronteiras or the Three Frontiers, from where the 3 obelisks by Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, were visible. The pictures and my words will not do enough justice to the actual experience.

At the end of our trip, just as we were headed to Rio airport to fly back to Atlanta, we received an update on our phone saying that our flight was cancelled. After spending around 3 hours at the airport figuring out what to do next, the Delta staff gave us coupons to stay at the airport hotel overnight. We were also given coupons for the food. And roughly 14 hours later, we embarked on our return journey to San Francisco via Atlanta. It was a memorable, learning, loving and a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. Muito Obrigado Brasil. Muchas Gracias Argentina. Until we meet again-Ciao, Adios!

 

 

 

Christmas in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful destinations in the world. Known for its love for nature, wildlife and waters, it is indeed nature’s playground. That is precisely why we had decided to visit the country. When travelling with two young children, we would always look for destinations that are kids-friendly. Costa Rica was definitely in the list.

Our flight was to San Jose, the country’s capital from San Francisco. Duration of the flight was slightly over 6 hours; 5 hours to San Salvador and an hour to San Jose. The flight onward was on the 25th of December, at just past midnight. The moment we entered the aeroplane, the Captain played the ‘Feliz Navidad’ song which just pepped up the kids’ moods and we began to get in to the groove of our holiday!

By around 10:30 am local time, we arrived at San Jose Juan Santamaria Airport. The time zone in San Jose is Central Standard Time, 2 hours ahead of the Pacific time of San Francisco. After passing through the immigration and other formalities, we headed out of the airport to look out for the Avis rental car shuttle. We had made a reservation online for our car rental. The rental car office was a 10 minute ride in the shuttle. The staffs were kind and courteous to help us with the luggage and car seats. With an additional charge for an upgrade and the quick pass toll card, we were given an SUV. With the help of Google Maps, which was our savior for the entire trip, we arrived at our hotel, Hotel Park Inn by Radisson, which was in San Jose downtown.

There were hardly any people on the streets. Most of the shops and restaurants were closed. We realized that Christmas was purely a family affair. Walmart was one among the few big supermarkets that were open. After taking a nap in our room, we freshened up and headed to Walmart for our snacks, accessories and milk shopping. However, the Walmart there was very different from the Walmart here. But we were able to find our way through what we wanted. That is how our day 1 was.

Day 2- Toucan Rescue Ranch and Jaco

After having a quick breakfast in our hotel, we started off our day 2 with the ‘Breakfast with Sloths’ at Toucan Rescue Ranch. Toucan Rescue Ranch is a wildlife facility with not only the feathered friends but also sloths and wild jungle cats that were rescued from different circumstances. We are so glad that we decided to visit the place- it is one of the best places to see wildlife being safe and cared well. By around 7:45 am, after a 25 minute drive along CR-32, we arrived at the Rescue Ranch. Entry tickets were 60$ per adult, which included breakfast as well. As promised, our breakfast of fruits, gallopinto (rice and beans), eggs and coffee were served. While having breakfast, the staffs brought out a wooden play structure and placed it right next to us. And finally, the moment that we were waiting for arrived. The sloths were brought over in a tiny, cozy basket. The two sloths that were brought first were hardly 2 months old. We watched them climb and hang around for some time. The staff told us that they were the two-toed sloths. After the first few minutes, the staff brought over few more sloths that were slightly older. We spent the next few minutes clicking plenty of pictures of the sloths. The kids were overjoyed. The fun continued with the ranch tour. We saw few toucans, an ocelot, some owls and few other birds as well.

The tour lasted for around 3 hours. At around 11 am, we headed out to Jaco, a town on the Pacific Coast of the country, roughly 110 kilometers away. The drive did take more than 2 hours 30 minutes because of the number of trucks on the roads and due to the speed limit of a maximum of 80 kmph. By around 1:45 pm we were at Jaco beach. After parking our car, we walked over to ‘The Green room’, which was a restaurant with vegan options. We ate some local style Tacos and Quesadillas for lunch. A short 2 minute walk took us to the beach. As beautiful as it can be, it was totally worth the drive. As expected, we spent the next 2 hours enjoying ourselves in the warm pacific waters. The beach wasn’t crowded at all. However, there were many locals loitering around pretending to be helpers and waiting to extract money from the tourists.

We then called it a day and headed back to our hotel, which took about 3 hours.

Day 3- Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Monteverde Cloud Forest is an impressive cloud forest; one of its kind, nearby to Monteverde, which was approximately 150 kms from San Jose. When we did our research, we realized that the road to the Reserve wasn’t laid properly and it was gravel road for a very decent distance. Since we were on a rental car, we didn’t want to take the risk of driving it up there. Hence we booked a private taxi service for that day. The drive was fine up to about the last 30 kms, beyond which the road became windy and was gravel. Right before that, we stopped at Café Macadamia for some typical Casada breakfast.

Monteverde Forest didn’t live up to the expectations to be frank. The day was too sunny to be a cloud forest. We couldn’t even spot a single animal. We walked roughly 6-7 kms that through 5 different trails and spotted not a single animal/bird. The trails were well paved and marked though. The weather was perfect to be walking that far. We walked over the Continental divide where the Pacific and Atlantic plates meet. We were told that the Hanging Bridges were closed, but they were open when we walked past it. We then kept walking through the trails as indicated in the trails map. The hike only became steeper; the trail had plenty of fallen trees and even some landslide marks that had destroyed the trails. It kept getting mysterious and we were the only people on the trail. At the end of the trail, we saw a sign board that said that the trail was closed due to landslide. We really felt strange at that moment for having walking through a trail that was closed due to danger! Overall, we were highly disappointed with the reserve.

On our way back, we stopped at Pasaflores restaurant for lunch, which is in Monteverde. And then we headed back to our room, to call it a day!

Day 4- La Paz Waterfalls and Doka Coffee Estate

Roughly around 50 kms from the hotel, was the location of this beautiful, privately owned waterfalls garden which is also a combination of rain/cloud forest. The drive was peaceful with not many cars and was surrounded by coffee estates. We spent close to 3 hours over there- walking through the butterfly garden, aviary, hummingbird garden, wildcat jungle and of course, 5 mesmerizing waterfalls. The cafeteria in there offered a buffet Casada lunch. After walking around for some more time, only because the kids wanted to see more, we headed out to the Doka Coffee Estate. We also wanted to visit Poas Volcano, but it had erupted just 2 days ago. Just in about an hour, we were at the estate. The estate also had a vegetable garden, butterfly garden, bonsai garden and a coffee room, of course. The entire place just took an hour and we sample around 4 cups of coffee. Calling it an early day, we headed back to the hotel.

Day 5- Cahuita and Limon

Cahuita and Limon are two cities on the Caribbean coast of the country. Famous for their beaches, ports and the Caribbean lifestyle, we surely didn’t want to miss it.  It was a 3.5 hour drive from San Jose to Cahuita. We drove through another rainforest called Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo. The drive was totally smooth and the landscape and demographic change when we reached the Caribbean side was noteworthy.

Our first stop was at Playa Blanca in Cahuita. The beach boasts of its white sands and leaning almond trees. The waves were too strong for the children to play with safely. So we had to walk 1.5 kms in to the forest through a trail to reach some safe water area for playing. During our walk, we saw some animals in the wild. A three-toed sloth with its baby was climbing down a tree, of course for their weekly cleansing process. We even saw some iguanas and raccoons.

After our time at the Playa Blanca, we drove 2 kms on the gravel road for accessing the Playa Negra or the Black Beach. Not quite sure of the reason, but there were hardly any people there. There was a lovely swing tied to a tree there by the coast. The waves here were much calmer. The water on the Caribbean side was much cooler than the Pacific waters.

At around 3:30 pm, we had to force ourselves to move out of the beautiful beach. We were very reluctant because, you know, why would you want to leave such a nice beach and go somewhere else? The only reason was that we were hungry. We drove around and realized that the restaurants there closed after lunch time and only reopened during dinner time. So we had to drive all the way to Limon, which is the Port Capital of the country, roughly 40 kms away for some food.

The drive was calm. Limon was busy though; the streets were filled Reggae music and people all over. After having a food break at Gecko café in the downtown by the beach, we headed back to our hotel.

That drive was fine until we reached the forest which was covered with thick fog. Although the roads were paved well and wide enough, they didn’t have any railings. It worsened to the extent that everybody was driving at 15 kmph with flashers on for visibility. Trucks guided the cars for quite a distance. Luckily, we got back safe.

Day 6- National Crafts Market

My husband and I are usually the kind of people who love to go off route and do something very different from what most tourists or people would do. But when travelling with children, we always find ourselves confused as to what was adventurous enough and what wasn’t. To be frank, the kids loved the waterfalls and cloud forests. But we didn’t find it anything exciting at all. Instead, we found the drive to both the coasts really fun. We also wanted to venture up to the volcano, which was unfortunately closed and to Blue waterfalls, which was again too long a walk with young kids. That’s why on day 6, we decided to take a break and save energy for our 12 hour layover in El Salvador. All that we did was visiting the Crafts market in the downtown and returning our rental car.

Costa Rica is a beautiful country with so much to offer. The country is pricey and touristy for most of it and it is tough to find something that is off-beat. As I said earlier, I am not sure if it is because we travelled with children and had to compromise on what would be enjoyable as a family, Costa Rica didn’t live to our expectations. However, we enjoyed the place and had a memorable time. Pura Vida is indeed what Costa Rica is-Pure Life!

Things to know:

  • Driving was quite easy there since most people followed the traffic rules and it was left-handed driving.
  • Quickpass helped us with the innumerable tolls all over. It was available for an additional charge of 15$ for 6 days.
  • Parking wasn’t a hassle anywhere.
  • Although Colones is the currency, USD and Credit cards were accepted mostly everywhere.
  • Nightlife is pretty dull in San Jose; shops close early and there are hardly people anywhere on the streets except on the day of the Caranaval, which was on the 27th of December.
  • The country hasn’t had military since 1948!
  • The Coffee ( black) and the Chocolates there are to die for!
  • The language spoken is Spanish. Tourist places and guides do speak English very well.