Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya: East African Safari

If you had to choose just one travel experience before you die; one trip of a lifetime; the ultimate bucket-list experience; that choice should, without a doubt, be an African safari.

Chad and I have been lucky enough to have been on safari in Africa twice.  The first time was our honeymoon when we went on safari in South Africa in the private concessions of Kruger National Park.  The second time was this past December when we visited the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.  Having done two, I can tell you that it never gets old.  And, I think that is because the experiences are so different. More on that later.

After spending a couple of days in Nairobi, which I certainly recommend if you want to have a slumber party with giraffes and spend time with baby elephants, we boarded a small, regional propeller plane and headed to the Rift Valley Province.

We landed on the private airstrip of our home for the next three days: &Beyone Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp. Our guide for the next three days was waiting to greet us with a smile, cool towels, refreshing cold drinks, and snacks!

Once we were done munching, we loaded into our safari vehicle and began the short drive through the Maasai Mara to our camp grounds. What we didn’t expect was that our safari would begin right then and there.  As we crossed the Mara, we were greeted by a pride of lions, several elephants, and a large hippo.

On arrival, we got a tour of the camp grounds and were shown to our room.

We would be spending the next few days “glamping” in a luxury tent that overlooked the Mara.

Our meals would be served outdoors, shared with the resident warthogs and monkeys.

And, if you so choose, you could spend your afternoons lounging by the pool while elephants, zebra, giraffe and the occasional lion sauntered by.

But, Chad and I were here for the wildlife viewing, so we chose to spend our days on game drives. We were glad we did, because we got to see SO MANY animals!

Of course, the goal on safari is to see the Big Five: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalo. We saw the Big Five on our first safari, so we were determined to see them again. And, successful we were!

Buffalo and elephants are pretty common on both South African and East African safaris.  Even though there is a lot of elephant poaching going on, you still see a fair amount of elephants. One difference we noticed in Kenya versus our experience in South Africa – due primarily to the much flatter topography of the Maasai Mara plateau – is that we saw a lot more animals and with a lot less effort.

By far, the cats are the most exciting viewing.  We got to see a lot of lions with their baby cubs.  We even saw a lioness on the prowl, but thankfully, we didn’t have to witness a kill. That was due mostly to her terrible hunting skills.  I mean, it was  so bad that  it was almost comical. This female lion was stalking and even gave chase to a pack of warthogs, who are notoriously stupid.  Their stupidity is due to their lack of memory, specifically, short-term memory.  They are so forgetful that in the middle of running away from a predator, they forget why they are running and just stop. It would stand to reason that the lion should have easily been able to catch at least one dumb warthog.  But, no such luck.

We also got to see cheetahs, which was a first! This was probably my most favorite viewing because they were so chill and curious of us. they were also SO stinking cute! Our guide told us that it was not unusual for them to jump right on the hood of the jeep for a closer look.

There are more cheetah in Tanzania than in Kenya, so to see these two, we had to drive to the Tanzanian border.  And, since we came all that way, we sneaked into the Serengeti National Park.

The most difficult and sought after viewings are the rhinos and cheetah. Rhinos are difficult because, tragically, they have almost been hunted into extinction. If you are lucky enough to see a rhino, it will probably be a black rhino.  While black rhinos are still critically endangered, they are more numerous than the white rhino. We were lucky to spot just one black rhino.

The white rhino is more rare. There are two subspecies of white rhinos: the southern white rhinoceros, which are found in South Africa, and the the northern white rhinoceros, which were formally found in East Africa, but which are now functionally extinct. There are only two females left in the whole world, and they are guarded by around the clock security.

Most people miss the Big Five because they never get to see the leopard. Being the fastest land animal on earth, they are so elusive! They are also excellent hiders! While we saw three in South Africa, we only saw one in East Africa.

We spent so much time out on our game drives that we got to have picnic lunches out in Mara surrounded by nature.  We also stopped in the evenings for sundowners and to enjoy the sunset with cocktails and snacks!

Back at the camp in the evenings, members of the Maasai Tribe would come and visit us to perform traditional dances and to sell their handicrafts.

I love cultural immersion, so I asked out guide to take us to the local Maasai village.  The head tribesman took us on a tour of his village and of his personal home, which was a single room mud-hut with no electricity.  We also met the women of the tribe who greeted us with a welcome song, dressed in their beautiful and colorful traditional garb.  The Maasai tribe is well-known for its traditional and colorful handmade beaded jewelry.

We knew we would be visiting the tribe, so we packed with a purpose.  We brought educational supplies, crayons, coloring books, and toys for the village children.  They were so ecstatic to receive even the smallest gifts, and proudly raised their pencils in the air.

And so ended our second African safari adventure.  It was so nice to truly disconnect and be immersed in nature and in wildlife.  The experience really gives you a new perspective and a true appreciation for wildlife and for our environment. I can’t wait to go back to my favorite continent and go on another amazing safari adventure!

Seriously, if you ever get the chance to go on safari. Just go. It is pricey, but it is well-worth the money spent.  It really is an experience of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

Nairobi, Kenya: A Visit To The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Have you ever wanted a pet elephant? Just imagine if you could spend an evening with your baby elephant, petting it, feeding it a bottle, and tucking it in to bed. If ever you find yourself in Nairobi, you can! You can “adopt” your very own orphaned elephant at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (“DWST”)!

DWST was founded in 1977 and is the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world! To date, they have successfully hand-raised over 150 infant elephants and have reintegrated these orphan elephants back into the wild.

There are many threats to the elephant population in Africa.  But, the biggest of these threats are people.  Elephants face the loss of habitat due to human population pressures and conflict, deforestation and drought, as well as the threat of poaching of the elephant for their ivory tusks. It is for these very reasons that baby elephants become orphaned.

To add to the dangers that elephants face, in November 2017 Trump announced that he would be lifting the ban on importing elephant (and lion) trophies (i.e., heads and body parts) into the U.S., which will likely increase the number of people who will travel to Africa for the sole purpose of hunting elephants. Why anybody would want to kill any creatures, let alone such beautiful and majestic creatures, is beyond my understanding.

Luckily, organizations like DSWT exist to help in education and conservation efforts and to help combat some of the threats that face the elephant. In addition to the Orphans’ Project, DSWT has an anti-poaching project  which uses mobile desnaring units to free elephants caught in a poacher’s trap and patrol popular poaching grounds, an aerial surveillance unit that scans the region for poachers, traps, or injured animals, the saving habitats project, a mobile veterinary project and Sky Vets,  which deploy teams of vets to areas where injured animals are discovered for onsite care and/or transport, and community initiative projects, which educate local communities on the importance of conservation.

Needless to say, we were very eager to visit DSWT!  Everyday, DSWT offers visitors a chance to attend their public feeding from 11:00 a.m. until noon. During this time, the public watches as the baby elephants run in from the bush for their midday mud bath and feeding.  It costs $7 US dollars per person ages 4 and above, and payment must be in cash. Be sure to arrive early as there are A LOT of people who attend the public feeding.

Also, just so you don’t have your dreams crushed, you don’t actually get to do the feeding.  Instead, you stand around a large roped off mud pit, and watch as the babies splash around in the mud and get fed by their handlers from giant bottles.  It is so stinking cute.  Sometimes they run by and shake mud all over you or stop to be pet, so be sure to wear something you don’t mind getting dirty. Also, that mud soaks in deep, and is VERY hard to get out of your clothing, even after washing.

You can foster a baby elephant while you are there or before you come by visiting their foster page online where you can see all the elephants and read about their stories of rescue. By the way, a fostered elephant makes a GREAT gift for the animal lover in your life. It costs $50.00 a year per foster.  Chad and I selected two cuties that we fostered on the spot: Maisha and Luggard.

As a foster parent you can also visit the nursery by appointment at 5:00 p.m. when the elephants return to the stockades for the night. The evening visit is for foster parents only, and it must be booked in advance of your intended visit by contacting DSWT directly. While there are quite a few people who attend, it is A LOT less than the public feeding.  During this visit, you will watch them run in from the bush again, except this time, they run right into their assigned pens.

Somehow they know where they are supposed to go and know that their handlers are waiting to feed them from the giant bottles again.  Some are so talented that they hold their own bottles.  I literally couldn’t contain myself.  It was cuteness overload.

Once they have eaten, it’s time for them to get ready for bed. They lay in their hay beds next to their handlers who sleep right in the pens with them and wait to be covered with their blankets! I mean, c’mon! How can you even resist such cuteness?!?!

Some like to play with toys before bed. While others want to suck on their handlers fingers and cuddle!

As a visitor, you can walk around to all the pens and visit the elephants or just visit your fosters. The handlers are there to answer questions, let you pet your elephant, and take photos for you.

DSWT doesn’t just save elephants.  They help all creatures! On property there is also a giraffe and a blind black rhino.

This really was a unique and special experience, and I HIGHLY recommend it.  In fact, this and our stay at Giraffe Manor were the reasons for our visit to Kenya!

If you can’t make it to Kenya to see the elephants in person, you can still support DSWT by fostering an elephant or donating to their efforts.  When you foster, you get a monthly email about the progress of your foster with photos. You can foster baby elephants , adolescent elephants, adult elephants, giraffes, and rhinos!  It really is a great cause, and, after visiting and following them on social media for a few years, it seems like they run a great program that really supports the precious wildlife for which Africa is so famous. #BeKindToElephants

 

Giraffe Manor: The Most Magical Hotel In The Whole World

Tucked into 140 acres of indigenous forest in a quiet suburb of Nairobi, Kenya stands an old colonial manor.  It is a place where a herd of resident Rothschild giraffes roam freely, poking their heads into your bedroom windows eagerly looking for a treat, to share in a sun-downer, and then reappearing once more in the morning to share in your breakfast. Giraffe Manor offers an unparalleled experience to its guests.  It is pure magic.

Visiting Giraffe Manor has been on my list for quite some time.  If you have ever seen Instagram photos of the place, you’ll understand why.  In fact, we built our entire trip to Kenya around a stay at this incredible property.

Upon arriving in Kenya, we were greeted by one of the manor’s friendly drivers who told us all about the history of the manor before delivering us to the charming little manor of my dreams.  We had arrived just in time for afternoon tea!

Tea time is quite the event at the manor. Off in the distance, just as the scones and cookies are set out by the friendliest staff, a herd of giraffe emerge and make their way to the manor’s patio. They know you are there, waiting to feed them pellets, and they will happily pose for pictures and even give you kisses for a treat.  Don’t worry, their saliva is antiseptic, so it’s totally safe (and highly recommended) to kiss a giraffe.

As the African sun sets, the giraffes turn in for the night and guests of the manor prepare for a gourmet meal in the manor’s dining room. While dinner is being prepared, you can relax by the fire with a cocktail in hand or roam around the manor and admire the beautifully appointed rooms.  We visited the manor just after Christmas, and the fire place was still draped with Christmas stockings, one for each of the resident giraffes.

In the main house, dinner is served in three courses on a long table shared by all the manor’s guest.  You will want to turn in early for the night because you will have an early wake up call in the morning by the resident giraffes who poke their heads into your suite’s bedroom window, inviting you down for the most incredible breakfast experience you will ever have.

Breakfast is quite the affair at Giraffe Manor! In the main house, the breakfast room is framed by large picture windows.  The resident giraffes poke their heads in, waiting to be fed. The breakfast experience is really the reason to come to Giraffe Manor.  It is truly incredible, and the food is also fantastic.

After breakfast, at about 9:00 a.m.., the giraffes make their way to The Giraffe Center, located a short three-minute walk from the manor, to greet the waiting public who has come to visit (and feed) them for the day.

The Giraffe Center is a non-profit conservation education center that is open to the public, but free to guests of the manor. It provides visitors the opportunity to meet, learn about, interact with, and feed the giraffes.  While it pales in comparison to the personal giraffe encounters offered by the manor, it is worth a visit to learn about the different types of giraffes (the others being the Maasai and reticulated giraffe), the distinguishing characteristics  of each (each type has a unique and easily identifiable patterned marking), and the conservation efforts in Kenya through African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW).  You will also learn a few facts about giraffes.  In addition to learning that their saliva is antiseptic, we learned that giraffes barely sleep (less than two hours per day) and have such powerful legs that a giraffe kick can be lethal.  I also learned first hand that some giraffes are head-butters.

So, how do you plan a stay at the manor?  Well, you plan WAY in advance.  Giraffe Manor only has 12 rooms split between the original house, called the Main Manor, and the Garden Manor which is a replica of the original manor.  The property typically books up a year in advance. The Garden Manor is  reserved for guests who are staying at more than one Safari Collection property.  We were lucky enough to snag a cancellation in the Main Manor. You can check their availability right on their website.

While your stay includes all food and drink, it is still pricey at approximately $1,400 a night.  However, a one-night stay is plenty to enjoy the property, and, in my opinion, the experience was worth the price tag.  Just think of this as your vacation splurge, and maybe stay at more modest accommodations for the rest of your trip. Make sure you arrive in the early afternoon so you can really enjoy all that this the magical property has to offer.

The property is family friendly, but honestly, I wish it wasn’t. (Sorry, kids! It’s just too much going on with the giraffes and kids running around) There is an on-property spa and cute little gift shop as well. In addition to visiting The Giraffe Center, you can also schedule a visit to the nearby David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), an orphan-elephant rescue and conservation project.  At DSWT, you can attend the public feeding of the rescued orphaned elephants and even foster your own elephant. More on that in my next blog post!

For now, it’s time to bid adieu to this magical hotel, and its beautiful resident giraffes!

 

Bwindi, Uganada: A Wonderfully Mysterious Forest of Gorillas

Seeing a gorilla in the wild, so close to you that you can reach out and touch it, it is one of the most electrifying experiences you will ever have.  It was this very moment that brought us to Uganda – one of only three places in the world where you can have such an experience.

Sadly, there are only two populations of mountain gorillas left in the world, and there are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild. The first population lives in the Virunga volcanic mountains. The second lives in Bwindi in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  That means that in order to see these gorillas, you must visit either Uganda, Rwanda, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC”).

Gorilla trekking has been on the top of my bucketlist for several years. This is certainly not a spur of the moment trip. A trip like this takes a lot of planning.  Planning through a travel agent is almost a must. Also, a trip like this takes a bit of saving, as it is not a cheap trip. But, this was Chad and my Christmas gift to each other, because seriously, what better gift can one get than face time with wild gorillas?

So, how does one get their trek on?  Well, first, you must get visa to visit Uganda.  You can purchase one for just Uganda or, for a few bucks more, an East Africa visa that is good for Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.  Next, you will need to get vaccinated for yellow fever, among other things, and have proof of vaccination to present at customs on arrival.  Finally, you need to obtain a permit to trek. There are a limited number of permits that are released each year. The tour operators buy up about 80% of them, so they can be difficult to obtain on your own.  They are also pricey.

Trekking in Rwanda costs $1,500 PER PERSON PER TREK.  Trekking in Uganda is $600 PER PERSON PER TREK.  Trekking in the DRC is $400 PER PERSON PER TREK.  Most people do two treks during their visit. So, you are looking at $3,000 for one person to trek twice in Rwanda, $1,200 for one person to trek twice in Uganda, and $800 for one person to trek twice in the DRC.  Ouch!  The only good news is that part of the permit fee supports the parks and local villages. Again, this is a priceless experience, so don’t let the relatively pricey permit fees deter you. It is WELL WORTH it! We chose Uganda because it was cheaper than Rwanda and more (politically) stable than the DRC. We were also able to obtain two permits to visit two different gorilla families.

Fittingly, getting to Uganda to trek was, in itself, a trek.  To get to Uganda, we flew from Miami to Amsterdam and then from Amsterdam to Entebbe, Uganda.  We spent an overnight in Entebbe, before boarding an early morning regional flight in a prop plane (not Chad’s favorite) to Bwindi. From the regional airport, we had about an hour long drive on a dirt road to our lodge, Mahogany Springs. This drive gave us some great insight into local life.

Mahogany Springs is considered a luxury lodge.  However, “luxury” in Uganda is different from luxury elsewhere.  If you have been on safari, especially in South Africa, you may want to adjust your expectations.  Don’t get me wrong, the property is very nice, but it’s not the Ritz Carlton.

Mahogany Springs is located in the Munyaga River valley, so the property is very lush.  The nice part about the lodge is that it is very close to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

The rooms are like elevated tree houses, with wood finishes and mosquito netting draped over the beds.  They are basic accommodations, but clean and comfortable.  There is no A/C, but you can request a fan (and trust me, it is needed, even in the “winter”). The shower water was hot. The Wi-Fi is very spotty (in all of Bwindi). You can sometimes catch a signal in the common areas, but hardly ever in the rooms.

The staff is very friendly. They go out of their way to make you comfortable.  The meals are included in your stay, and the food is decent.  We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day there, and the lodge was decorated for the holiday.  The staff made a special holiday meal and had Christmas music playing.

On our first day in Bwindi, we took a walking tour of the local village.  We had to do this with an armed guard, but honestly, we probably didn’t need him. We met local artisans and visited a school house in Uganda where we donated school supplies and toys that we had brought for the children. We even got to see a special traditional dance performance by the local children.

On the second day, we went out for our very first gorilla trek. This trek originated from a part of the forest that was about an hour drive from the lodge.  We woke up early for our breakfast, and by the time we were done, the lodge had packed our lunch and provided a walking stick. We then made the hour long drive to the park where we would start the trek.

We were first briefed about what to expect, and then we were divided into groups of about 8 people.  The park service tries to pair people up based on your age and their perceived level of your fitness. You will be assigned a particular gorilla family.  We met our guide who explained that the trackers were already out finding the gorillas for us. We were offered the option of hiring a sherpa to carry our things.  Remember you have to carry at least 4 water bottles per person, your lunch, and your camera for several hours through rough terrain.  Trust me, hire the sherpa. It was a worth the $20. Not only do they carry all your gear, but they will also help you trudge through the forest, which turned out to be a very important! Also, you employ a local for the day, which is important to the community and conservation of the gorillas!

The hike through the forest can be pretty challenging, and can last anywhere from 2 to 6 hours before you find the gorillas.  Each group is lead by a trekker in front with a gun, one in the rear with a gun, and a ranger with a machete. Our guides had to machete a path through for us.  You should have a reasonable level of fitness to go on the trek.  There is no marked path way.  You will, at times, be knee deep in brush.  You will have to sometimes crawl or slide on your butt, due to the relatively steep inclines of the forest.  You will get a little muddy and very sweaty.

After about 4 hours of hiking (mostly uphill), we found our gorilla family. Our family was one of the largest in the area, at 19 gorillas.  Our trekking guides and rangers  prepared us for what to expect and gave us the ground rules before we got close to them. The trekkers lead you in with guns and tell you where to sit and how close you can get.  They communicate with the gorillas by making certain grunting sounds. On that particular day, our gorilla family was active, on the move, and little aggressive. We literally had to chase them as they moved around, but we did get very close to them on the rare moments that they stopped for a break. At one point, too close. We accidentally cut the family off as they were crossing the river such that half the family was on one side of the river and the other half on the other.  This agitated the silver-back.  And, the next thing you know, we got charged by a silver-back!  More on that below. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but you could tell that the trekkers and the guides were worried! At the time, it was terrifying, but looking back, it was absolutely exhilarating.

In case you were wondering, don’t: You WILL know when you are getting near the gorilla family. How you might ask? Well, there is no graceful or witty way to put it, so I’ll  just say it: Mountain gorillas smell like piss. Apparently, this is primarily thanks to the patriarch silver-back/head of the family, and it is unmistakable. It’s one of those things where, you’ll know it when you smell it! With that said, let’s move on, shall we? You are not allowed to touch the gorillas, but sometimes they touch you.  In these moments, you have to sit extremely still and look down, do not make eye contact.  You get to spend about an hour with the gorilla family.

We later learned that all the other groups had found their families pretty early on and got to spend a chill hour observing them as they lazily laid around posing for pictures.  Not our group. We were the last group back. The gorillas charged at us at least two times.  One of those times, the silver-back male – all 500+ pounds of him – brushed past Chad and knocked over another member in our group who went flying into a pile of leaves. He later said that it was the hardest force he had ever felt, like being hit by a boulder. These gorillas are super strong. They can literally kill you with their bare hands.  The first thing the rangers told us was to not run away if we were approached by a gorilla.  Everybody forgot that rule! So, needless to say, we were all on edge.

After our hour was over, we hiked about another hour until we could find a place to stop for lunch.  It was an exhausting day, but absolutely exhilarating. Truly one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Back at the lodge, everyone traded trekking stories.  Ours was by far the worst (or, in hindsight, the best!).

The next day, we were scheduled for our second trek.  This time, we would be visiting part of the forest that was a close 10 minute drive from the lodge. Chad and I didn’t know what to expect.  We sat through another briefing and got assigned to trek the M family. We began our trek, but about 2 hours in our rangers and guide aborted the trek because it was reported that the M family was literally in a territory skirmish with another pack of wild gorillas, making it unsafe for us to visit them.

Our guides decided to re-route and found us the R family. I was elated to find the R family.  The R family is what trekking dreams are made of.  They are a pack of about 12 to 15 lazy and friendly gorillas.  They had a super-chill silver-back leader and 4 of the cutest babies I ever saw.  They could not have cared less that we were there. They laid around eating, while the babies played with each other and climbed the trees.  It was pure bliss! I felt like we were being rewarded after the trek we had the day before. The experience lived up to all the hype!

At the end of each trek, we were awarded with our trekking certificates! After that much physical activity, the least you deserve is an award!

So, what does one wear to trek gorillas?  Well, I’ll tell you.  Here’s a little hint: you are going to look ridiculous while you are trekking.  But, the good news is, so does everyone else. Relax. This is not a fashion show.  It’s a jungle.

Anyway, you will need a good, lightweight pair of breathable pants (preferably with pockets) and a breathable long sleeved shirt.  You MUST wear hiking boots with a sturdy pair of long socks. If you have boot covers, bring them.  Otherwise, you MUST tuck the bottoms of your pants into your socks.  If you do not, you will get ants in your pants.  Big, fire ants.  In your pants. You should bring a lightweight rain jacket and probably a hat or some other head covering. You MUST bring a sturdy pair of gloves, like gardening gloves.  If you do not have them, the park’s visitor center will rent or sell them to you.  During the trek you will be grabbing on to branches, vines, and plants, many of which have thorns. Finally, you will need a backpack that can hold your lunch, some snacks, your water, baby wipes (for when nature calls; you may also want to bring a Ziploc bag for your waste) your rain gear, and your camera equipment.

I am so glad that Chad and I got to check this one off the list.  It was really an incredible experience.  If you have ever though about doing it, go.  Just go. It was amazing. It was worth every dime we paid, and all the soreness we felt afterwards. It truly was an awesome way to close out a year of remarkable adventures!

 

 

Luxor, Egypt: The World’s Largest Outdoor Museum

After the hustle and bustle of Cairo, we were glad to have landed in Luxor.  Luxor is much calmer and a lot greener. The pace in Luxor is a lot slower, and you feel at ease while you are there.

Indeed, no trip to Egypt would be complete without a stop in Luxor, known as the world’s greatest open-air museum.  Modern day Luxor was the ancient city of Thebes.  Today, the ruins of the temple complexes at Karnak and Luxor stand within the modern city.  Right across the River Nile lie the monuments, temples, and tombs of the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and the Necropolis or tombs of the nobles.  To really appreciate all the history and the sites, you need at least two full days in Luxor.

We hopped a short one-hour flight from Cairo to Luxor and immediately began exploring.  Our first stop was to  the Colossi of Memnon, which are two massive stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned in Egypt during the Dynasty XVIII. This site is a quick, free stop on the way to the Valley of the Kings.

The Valley of the Kings is basically a royal cemetery.  It is a valley where tombs were created by excavating deep into the mountainsides for the pharaohs and powerful nobles.  Ancient Egyptians were VERY concerned about their death.  In fact, they spent their entire adult lives planning for their afterlife, and these tombs are the proof.  Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death, the pharaohs were expected to become one with the gods.  As a result, they built elaborate tombs in preparation for their afterlife.

The underground tombs were well stocked with all the material goods a ruler might need in the next world, such as clothes, furniture, tools, weapons, and jewelry. The tombs were also stocked with food and drink for royal feasting in the next world.  Sometimes, when a pharaoh died, his slaves and pets were killed with him and put into the tomb to help the pharaoh in his afterlife. Mummification was used to preserve the body so that the eternal soul would be restored in the afterlife.

There’s an old adage that life doesn’t come with a manual.  That may be true; but, for the Ancient Egyptians, death did.  On the walls of the tombs, the Book of the Dead was painted or carved.  The Book of the Dead was a collection of spells to assist a dead person’s journey through the underworld and into the afterlife.

On arrival to the Valley of the Kings, you will enter a visitor’s center.  You can purchase your tickets from here.  The cost is about $11.00 per person.  The tombs (well, the ones that are open on the day you happen to be visiting) in the valley are accessible with your entrance ticket, except one — the tomb of King Tut.  To visit King Tut, the most famous tomb onsite, you must buy a separate ticket.

Just a heads up, all the tombs in the valley are not always open to the public, so you on any given day you can expect three to four tombs to be open. The tombs that are open rotate in order to minimize damage to them or because restoration work is needed.

Also, if you are going to take pictures inside the tombs, you MUST purchase a photo ticket for each person who will be taking pictures.  It’s only about $3.00, so it is worth it.  The moment you whip out your camera or phone, someone will demand to see your photo ticket.  If you don’t have it, they will take your phone or camera and delete the photo and/or kick you out of the tomb. There are NO photos allowed in King Tut’s tomb.

There is a tram that will take you from the visitor’s center to the entrance of the tombs.  It is about $.50 per person to ride the tram, and, in my opinion, worth the money.

Each of the tombs are different inside.  Some you can walk straight into, some you will need to walk on a ramp to get down, and some have stairs.  None of them were particularly strenuous.  We visited four tombs, including that of King Tut.

The first tomb we visited was the Tomb of Ramses VII. It is a small, unfinished tomb, and the artwork inside is not as impressive as the others.

The second tomb we visited was that of Ramses IV. This tomb has very intricate artwork and very vibrant colors. Speaking of the paints and colors, it’s incredible when you realize that they have not been restored; yet, in many instances, they remain almost as bright and beautiful as they were when they were first applied thousands of years ago.

Up next was the tomb of King Tut.  This was the only tomb for which we had to wait in line.  It is also the only tomb that contains a sarcophagus and the mummified remains, of the one and only King Tut!

We left the Valley of the Kings and made out way to the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This temple is dedicated to the sun deity Amun and is next to the mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II.  The temple is considered one of the incomparable monuments of ancient Egypt.  Also, the temple is aligned to the winter solstice sunrise, which makes it popular with spiritual people and yogis who come to the temple and sit there all day soaking up its energy and meditating.  The mortuary is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and costs $10.00 to enter.  It takes about an hour to visit.

After lunch, we hopped a river boat and crossed the Nile as we made our way to the Karnak Temple.

The Karnak Temple was one of my favorites in Luxor; and, considering it only costs $5.00, it is must! It is a large complex that is like is a vast open-air museum.  It is the second largest ancient religious site in the world, after Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It is believed to be the second most visited historical site in Egypt,the Giza Pyramids in Cairo being the first. Also, you can do this temple by day, which is magnificent, and by night, which, honestly, was kind of cheesy (but only $4.00).

From there, we visited the Temple of Luxor. Luxor is known as The World’s Largest Outdoor Museum, and together with the Karnak Temple, the Luxor Temple is the reason.  It is one of the best preserved of all of the ancient monuments with large amounts of the structure, statuary, and relief carvings still intact.  It too is one of the most impressive sites in Luxor, and it is only about $3.00 to enter.

We ended our day at the Luxor Bazaar where we stopped for a rest, some famous Egyptian coffee, and bought some beautiful spices.

At long last, it was time to check into our hotel.  If you are going to Luxor, there really is just one place to stay, and that place is the Winter Palace.  This hotel has a long history. It is a historic British colonial-era 5-star luxury resort hotel located on the banks of the River Nile, just south of Luxor Temple. It’s claim to fame is that it was the choice accommodation for Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter during their discovery and excavation of King Tut’s tomb. The hotel is a living antique, and the grounds are beautiful.

Day Two started with a trip to the Luxor Museum. This museum is often overlooked by visitors.  Most of the artifacts displayed at the Luxor Museum were discovered in the temples in Luxor. It’s a small museum that is open until 9:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. (depending on the season), and only costs $4.00 to enter. We got there just as it was opening for the day and basically had it to ourselves. Sine it’s relatively small, you can get through it in about  60 to 90 minutes. I highly recommend it.

Fun fact about the mummy below: It is the mummy of Ramses I. His tomb was robbed, and his mummy sold and re-sold on the black market.  By the time it found its way to Canada in the 1800s, its incredibly important royal pedigree had been lost, and it spent the next 140 years as an unknown mummy, unceremoniously housed with several others, some coffins, and other Egyptian artifacts as part of a “freaks of nature” exhibit. The museum changed hands, and crossed and re-crossed the Canadian border several times until it closed in 1999. Thereafter, the Carlos Museum at Emory University purchased the Egyptian collection for around $2 million USD.  They began testing the mummy for identification and after years of study,  the scientific community concluded that this is indeed the mummy of Ramses I. On October 24, 2003, Emory University returned the mummy to Luxor, Egypt, and it has been on display at this museum ever since.

Our second stop was to the Temple of Edfu. It is one of the best preserved shrines in Egypt.  It was also not as heavily visited by tourists. It had beautiful art work on the columns and ceilings with bright colors. It also has some of the deepest carvings in all of Egypt.  And, at less than $4.00 for admission, it is well worth a visit.

We ended our day with a trip to the Tombs of the Nobles. Unlike the funerary monuments for the kings and queens, these tombs are dedicated to administrators, governors, and other figures of minor nobility.  They are a cluster of tombs carved into a rocky hillside, and they are one of the least visited sites in Luxor.  In fact, when we were went, we were the only visitors there, which I loved. Also, there are active excavations going on here, and we got to see one in action!

While certainly smaller, these tombs were amazingly well preserved with the most vibrant color of any site we saw in Egypt.

But, before we headed to the airport, we made one last stop, and that was to get custom perfumes made using fine Arabic oils! These make great gifts, and they are so unique! The array of scents is dizzying, and they are made right in front of you using the bottle and size of your choice!

They say all good things must come to an end, and such was the case with our short, but amazing time in Egypt.  I am glad that we ignored our friends and family and took this trip.  We had a great time, we never felt in danger, we saw some amazing historical sites, and we did it all for such a reasonable price! Seriously, if you have ever thought of going to Egypt, GO! You will not regret it!

Egypt: What To Know Before You Go

After vising in Egypt, I can tell you that we were happy we went.  But, there are some things we wished we knew before we got there that would have made our trip better.  Below if a list of those things, as well as some things we did that we were glad we had:

1.  You must purchase a visa when you land.  There are no signs that assist in this regard.  Our guide took care of this for us, but if you have to do it alone here is how: when you land you will be funneled into an arrival hall before you collect your luggage and go through customs.  On the right hand side, you will see a bunch of bank kiosks.  You can buy the visa there and also change money at the same time.  The visa must be paid in cash and costs $25.00 USD per person. Once you get the visa, you can proceed to passport control and then to collect your luggage.  The Cairo airport is a disaster when it comes to luggage collection. It takes FOREVER. If you can get away with just a carry on, that will be your best bet, and a HUGE time saver for the rest of your trip.

2.  Hire a local guide and driver.  This will be the best spent money for safety and peace of mind. Comparatively speaking, it’s not that expensive, and it makes navigating the sites and the city A LOT easier. Trust me, you do NOT want to drive in Cairo, and you also do NOT want to take what they call public transportation. It is little more than a mini van crammed to the brim with people. It is so full that they often can’t even close the door! People just jump on and off mid-traffic! Do you want to be stuck in that, in the most insane driving ever? I don’t think so. The photo above was borrowed from Mr. Google, but it is a pretty accurate representation of what goes on on the road: cars in every direction, livestock, and some pedestrians peppered in for fun.  Also, there is Uber, but again, it’s local drivers, with local cars, who likely don’t speak English. And, don’t get me started with the taxis.  All I read and heard about were horror stories of bait and switch pricing and not letting you out of the car until you paid. Plus it is a lot easier to have a local do all of the translating, hassling, and negotiating for you. Finally, with a guide, we rarely waited in line for anything anywhere.

3. Spend two days in Cairo and two days in Luxor and take the cheap and short flight to get between the two.  Everyone kept recommending a Nile River cruise; but honestly, unless there is a way to do it with a very small group or privately, this is not for me.  See those big ass boats, back there.  Those are the Nile cruise boats.  The boats are huge, kind of old, and they do not look that comfortable. As in,they did not look as nice as the lowest level cruise liner in the U.S. But, it is a great way to cover a lot of ground and see some beautiful countryside.

4.  You must change money into local currency (they prefer their own currency and USD and credit cards are not widely accepted), but be sure you have a lot of smaller bills because …

5.  EVERYONE expects a tip for every single little thing.  If a worker at a site takes a photo of you, their hand will be out.  If someone gives you directions to the bathroom, they expect a tip.  They are not shy either.  They will ask, hand out, and follow you around continuing to ask.  To avoid this, get your own guide and ignore everyone around you. Don’t let them take photos for you. Don’t let them show you a “special” place. Just ignore them and avoid them.

6.  This brings me to your bathroom experiences in Egypt.  Bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer everywhere. This was the best thing we did.  There will either be no toilet paper or paper towels in any of the bathrooms or they purposefully take them out so a person can hand two squares of toilet paper to you (like, literally two squares) for a tip. Also, sometimes you have to pay to use the restroom, so keep small bills with you at all times.

7.  On the other hand, it is very much a pay to play economy.  If you want to stay at the pyramids after they close, offer the guard some cash. If you want to enter a prohibited or closed off part of a site, pay the site keeper.  There is a price for everything here; and honestly, I am not so sure that they do not purposefully “close off” portions of sites just so people can pay to get into them.

8.  Negotiate. Negotiate. Negotiate.  Never pay the asking price of anything. Ever. Well, except in restaurants.  Everything else is up for negotiation.

9.  Often times you will see a no photo sign. In most sites, if you are caught taking a picture they will take your phone or camera and make you delete the photo and kick you out. This is, of course, sporadically enforced. However, almost every single site sells a photo pass.  If you buy the pass, snap away.  Keep the ticket on you because they will ask you for it, but once you buy it, take all the photos you want. Is it a scam to make more money? Probably. But the ticket is usually like $2.00, so it’s worth it to be able to take pictures.

10.  This one sounds obvious, but don’t drink the water anywhere.  Make sure you have bottled water to brush your teeth.  Also, make sure all ice is made from filtered or bottled water.  The better hotels will have free water for you.

11.  There is security everywhere so be prepared for that.  When you enter a site or the property of a nice hotel, there is a law enforcement stop.  They will question the driver and search the car and its trunk with dogs and under-car mirrors. Once you get through that, you will have to go through security again at the entrance of  every site and before you enter any hotel. You will go through detectors while your bags get scanned.  Sometimes they will open the bags and check inside. I didn’t mind this one bit.

12. The locals are fascinated by Westerners. They will whip out their phones and take photos of you.  They will even come up to you and ask you to take pictures with them. One word of caution: if they see you are willing to pose for a picture with them, they will line up for pictures, and you can be there all day taking pictures with complete strangers and sometimes entire families! What are they doing with these pictures?!?  Actually, I don’t want to know. My advice is to be nice and take a few photos, but then say no. Trust me, if you don’t, it will never end. Which brings me to my next thought, should I have asked for a tip for allowing them to photograph me?!? Just kidding.  Kind of.

So, with that, I hope that my primer here helps to make your trip more enjoyable and less of a hassle. Again, Egypt is a wonderful place that offers a multitude of unique opportunities to experience legendary antiquity, up close and personal, and I highly recommend that you go. I just prefer to know what I’m getting into before I get there and figure you do too!  Have you been to Egypt and have any tips to add?  If so, I’d love to hear from you!

Cairo (Giza), Egypt: Land Of The Pharaohs

“Egypt?!? Why would you go to Egypt?!?  Isn’t it really unsafe there?”  If only I had a dollar for every time I heard this (or some variation thereof) from every single person who learned that Chad and I would be spending Thanksgiving in Egypt this year.

Granted, the Egypt of today is probably not like what it was.  It is not the easiest country to navigate, and some of the locals can be a little overbearing by Western standards.  But that shouldn’t stop you from visiting Egypt. It is, after all, the home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, as well as numerous other historically significant and interesting sites.  There are fewer tourists, giving you a more personalized experience.  And, it happens to be a super affordable trip, even when it is completely privately guided and staying in the best and most iconic hotels that Egypt has to offer.  As for safety concerns, I am sorry to say, but those are concerns for everywhere in the world these days.

So, we set off over the Thanksgiving holiday to spend four action packed days in Egypt.  Unfortunately, only one of those days was spent in Cairo.  Hindsight being 20/20, I would have added an extra day in Cairo because I think you need half a day to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza and probably another day for the Egyptian Museum – especially starting 2018, when the new museum is slated to open! Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum will be the world’s largest archaeological museum when it opens in 2018, and it will have an expanded exhibit dedicated to King Tut.

We started our day off at the Mena House Hotel in Cairo, which I guarantee you has the best breakfast view in all of Egypt! It used to be a palace, so the digs are not too shabby!  Book a pyramid view room because there is nothing like a sunrise or sunset with a pyramid view!

We booked our entire trip, which was privately guided, with Memphis Tours. Their guides and drivers were excellent, which is important, especially in a city like Cairo which has the worst and most chaotic traffic I have ever experienced anywhere else in the world.  They were also very responsive during the booking process.

After breakfast, we headed to Coptic Cairo to visit Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, also known as the Hanging Church. The Hanging Church is the most famous Coptic Christian church in Cairo.  It named for its location above a gatehouse of Babylon Fortress.

We also visited the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Segra).  The church is believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus Christ, rested at the end of their journey into Egypt.

From there, we made our way to the Egyptian Museum to explore the wonders of the pharaohs and of King Tut. Now, if you are really into museums (like my husband, Chad) or Egyptian history, set aside a full day to visit the museum.  It is uber-crowded and showing its age, so I can’t wait to go back and see the new museum.  This one will remain open, but all of the King Tut relics will be relocated to the new museum. Also, the museum is not very well laid out and the artifacts are not well marked at all, so I highly recommend you visit with a guide.

If you only want to hit the highlights of this museum then you should definitely go to the second floor where you will find the King Tut artifacts, including a room with his sarcophagi and the famous death mask, which can be found in room three.  Along the way, you will see all the items that were found in his tomb, which is located in Luxor in the Valley of the Kings.  These items include his bed, his chariot, his cane, his shoes (his sandal game was so on point), and his childhood games.

A couple of lesser known, but not to be missed pieces are the Seneb Statue in room 32 and Kaaper Statue in room 42. But other than Tut, the other MUST see in this museum is the Mummy Room. Now, the museum entry fee does not include a visit to the mummy rooms, which costs an extra $15 (and which must be paid in cash at the entrance of the exhibit), but it is probably one of the most fascinating exhibits in the entire museum, especially if you are going to visit the tombs of these mummies in Luxor! Each mummy occupies its own temperature-controlled case, and they are very well preserved.

We ended our day at the Giza Plateau, where we visited one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Great Pyramids of Cheops, Chefren, and Mykerinus, and, of course, the Sphinx. I would HIGHLY recommend a guide for this site.  Not because it is complicated and requires a lot of explanation.  I say this only because it reduces the amount of harassment you will encounter at the site by vendors who want to sell you crap, locals who want you to take camel and horse rides, and scammers who claim to work there and can show you around and take your picture.


Also, our guide showed us this pretty cool ancient ship exhibit, which we would have totally missed if it weren’t for him. It is located in the Solar Barque Museum, which is located behind the Great Pyramid. The ship was thought to transport pharaohs to the underworld.  You have to buy a separate ticket for this exhibit, but it is only a few dollars, and you get to wear these super stylish shoe covers!

In case you were wondering, it is now illegal to scale the pyramids. You can, however, go into them.  First, while you can visit the pyramids every day, all year long, you can only access two of the three pyramids each day- the Great Pyramid and then one of the two smaller pyramids.  Each requires the purchase of a separate ticket for entry.  Allegedly, there are only 300 tickets sold per day, the first 150 tickets are sold early in the morning and the next 150 tickets in the early afternoon.  We got there two hours before closing, and were able to get tickets without a problem.

So, what’s inside? Nothing really, but it’s kind of cool to be IN an ancient wonder. So, I definitely recommend going into at least the Great Pyramid, unless you have severe claustrophobia.  Chad is a little claustrophobic, but he was able to do it.  Also, when we went, there weren’t that many people coming in and out. If there were, I can see where it would be a little anxiety inducing.

Here is what you are in for. First, you climb up a brief way from the outside until you reach the entry way.  Once inside, you will go through a small two-way tunnel where you are able to stand up right.  It will take you about a minute or two to get through this tunnel. You will then reach another tunnel that is two way but looks like it should only be one way.  This tunnel goes up at an angle and has handrail on each side with wood planking on the ground, but you have to crouch to get through it.  It is about three to five minutes long. You will then come to an open space where you can stand up right.  On either side will be a make shift ladder that you climb so that you can walk upright at an angle into the chamber room.  This will take you another three to five minutes. At the end, you will step into an empty room with a vault in it. The pathway to get here is lit, but kind of hot.  The chamber room is dark and hot.

The treasures from inside the pyramids have been removed and can be viewed at world-famous museums around the world like the British Museum, Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, and Italy’s Turin Museum.

After exiting the tunnel, we were driven to a view spot where you can get a great view of the Great Pyramid.  From there, we took our camel ride around the complex to see the six pyramids.  This particular activity conflicted me. I discussed with our guide that I did not want to engage in this activity if the camels were treated inhumanely.  He assured me that while that was the case with some camels and camel herders, their company worked with locals who did not engage in this practice. Our camels looked healthier, but, honestly, I am not 100% sure that they were treated completely humanely.  In hindsight, I wish I would’ve asked if we could walk the trail or drive it instead because it is actually quite an amazing view and it is almost as if you are there alone as there are few other people around.


We stuck around for the sound and light show.  It is about 30 minutes, and it is kind of cheesy.  It explains the history of the pyramids in story format with lights and music.  We upgraded our tickets to VIP so we could be in the first row for about $4.00. It was pretty nice to see the pyramids and the sphinx lit up.  I wish they would’ve left them lit up after the show so we could get some pictures.

At the end of that action packed day, it was time to get back to our hotel to prepare for our trip to Luxor the next day. The one thing we did not have time to do was to visit Khan el-Khalili bazaar, and I am still annoyed by this. It is a major souk in the Islamic district of Cairo, and, from the photos, it looks beautiful!  The shops sell souvenirs, antiques and jewelry, but there are also still many traditional workshops that continue to operate in the surrounding area. There are also several coffeehouses, restaurants, and street food vendors, including one of the oldest and most famous coffeehouses, Fishawi’s, established in 1773. Until I can get back to Egypt to take my own, photos from Mr. Google are going to have to do to give you an idea of what the market looks like.

Anyway, if you’ve been to Egypt, I’d like to hear about your experience.  If you have always wanted to go, stop hesitating and book it!  Our entire trip, including international airfare, one in country flight for two people, private guides and drivers, all transfers, stays at two five star hotels, all breakfasts and lunches, and entrances to all sites for two people for four days was under $4,000.00 total. We probably spent an extra $500 in country on visas, tips, dinners, extra entrance tickets, and incidentals. And, we were surprised to see more Americans than we anticipated there, including families with children. So, fear not! The pyramids await you!

Amsterdam, Netherlands: An Accidental Adventure

After spending 10 days in Jordan, I landed in Paris to the news that my flight home to Miami was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma, and that it would be at least three days until we could get home. To some, this might have been terrible news.  To me, it was the best news! Two extra days of vacation courtesy of Delta?!? Yes, please!

The only problem was, Paris. I mean, let’s be honest, Paris is NEVER a problem.  But, I (and my travel companion) had kind of been there done that.  At least twice that we could each remember. So, what did we do? We decided that we would hop the next train to a city that neither of us had ever been. Hello, Amsterdam!

Admittedly, you probably need a little more than two days for Amsterdam. I mean, we didn’t even get to go out to the Flower Strip (the tulip fields) or to the windmills. But, two days was perfect to get a taste of the city.

We arrived via the high-speed Thalys train and took an Uber over to a little boutique hotel we booked on the ride over called the Hotel Banks Mansion. It is a cute little art-deco style hotel that had a great breakfast and a cute little happy hour every day for guests.  The rooms were a little dated, but decent and a nice size.  The hotel was literally two blocks away from the Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt).

In existence since 1862, the Flower Market is the only floating flower market in the world. The flower stalls stand on the houseboats and front a small pedestrian street. Today, the market is pretty touristy, but still cute and worth a quick stroll.  It is also a great place to pick up some souvenirs.

In case you didn’t know, the Netherlands is famous for tulips, and the history of tulips in the Netherlands is rich.  In fact, tulips were once used as currency and caused a crash in the market. In the market, you will find all sorts of tulips, narcissus, geraniums and many other types of flowers. While there are export services, there are plenty of terrible reviews from people who never received their orders.  If I were you, I would buy the bulbs and put them in your checked luggage.

I mean, you had me at flower.  So, naturally, we made a beeline for that market as we killed time before our FREE walking tour later that afternoon.

Amsterdam is pretty well known for its free walking tours.  We took the tour as a way to orient ourselves with the city. Now, if you read this blog, you know that I am NOT a fan of group tours. I made an exception here because it was our only option.

We booked with Free Dam Tours. The tour was decent, but it reinforced my dislike for group tours.  All the regular cast of characters was present: the Americans whose first time it was in Europe (or out of the country really), the friendly Canadians, the German couple wearing short sleeved shirts in the pretty crisp temperatures, the couple who doesn’t speak/understand English that well (I mean, why? Why take this tour?), the weird couple who seemed to hate each other, the annoying guy who asked too many (stupid) questions, the couple who was still wasted from the Red Light District the night before (hell, maybe even from earlier that day), the solo female traveler, and the young backpackers.  Check.  Gang’s all here, let’s get this tour on the road.

The tour lasted about three hours.  It actually starts in the Red Light District and makes its way through the city in one big circle. During the tour, we learned about the dark history of city, particularly during World War II and how freedom and tolerance transformed a simple fisherman’s village into the center of a vast trading empire. We also learned about the city’s liberal attitudes in modern day life, particularly when it comes to sex and drugs. Exhibit A: A man in a long trench coat with stocking and heels walking around the city in the middle of the day.

At the end of the tour we got vouchers to take a reduced-priced canal tour (which you should do, but we just didn’t have time for). Also, etiquette dictates that at the end of a FREE tour, you are supposed to tip. People are so savage!  Most did not tip at all. I felt so bad for this poor guide who relies on tips to earn a living. One guy actually told her he was not tipping because he didn’t like the tour! I was so shook! I mean, he stayed until the end.  Why stay if you hate it? Others were tipping 5 Euros. Really?!?! For three hours? That’s barely a Euro per hour! So, of course, my friend and I over-tipped to save this poor girl from humanity. And that, my friends, is another reason why I despise group tours.

But, I digress.  Let’s be honest, all anyone cared about during the tour was the Red Light District, the sex workers, and the coffee shops, a.k.a the places that sell weed and weed-based products.

First, let’s talk about sex (baby… you have to be a witty child of the 90s with a flair for Salt-N-Pepa to understand what I did there). Here’s what you need to know: the sex workers enjoy a lot of protection in Amsterdam.  They have their own union and are frequently tested. Whatever you fancy you can find.  There is a row of “Big Mommas” as  they are called in Big Momma Alley.  These are the plumper ladies. There are the typical young, hot girls of all races. If you are looking for men, you can find that too.  There is even something for the LGBTQ community. Here is a good rule of thumb: red lights for straight activity, purple lights for gay activity. The Red Light District is littered with store fronts that have big picture windows.  In the windows sit ladies in waiting, sometimes on stools, sometimes, standing, sometimes lying down.  They are usually dressed in lingerie, but sometimes partly nude.

But there is one very, very, very important rule:  you are NOT allowed take photos of the women.  This is strictly enforced, not just by the police, but by the women themselves.  They will literally come out of the establishments, chase you down, and demolish your phone or camera.  Like stomp on it. Break it. Maybe even keep it. Also, the area is under 24-hour video surveillance. Lastly, you have to be super vigilant about pickpockets here.

Otherwise, it is a bustling area full of tourists, restaurants, and shops. In fact, at the end of Big Momma Alley is a kindergarten. The children pass by he windows, which are open 24/7, as they head to school because real Dutch people live in this area. Next to the kindergarten is the Prostitute information Centre (or PIC). Founded by a former prostitute, visitors can stop by for information on the district or for tours.  It is also a resource for sex workers who can get advice and information on how to get in and out of the business.

But the most interesting thing you will find in the Red Light District, again in Big Momma Alley, is a huge Catholic church, called the Old Church. In the 1500s, sailors used to go to the red light districts and sin and then go and absolve their deeds by begging for forgiveness from the church. In order to get forgiveness, the sailors had to pay an indulgence fee, which went straight into the church coffers. Lots of sin = lots of indulgence money = BIG church. By the way, if you like churches, you may want to make time for the Secret Catholic Church or Our Lord in the Attic.

It is no coincidence that the Red Light District is adjacent to the coffeeshops. No, not Starbucks. Marijuana. If you are going to partake in this sort of thing there are some things that you should know.  First, weed is tolerated, but not legal in Amsterdam.  In fact, the suppliers that the coffee shops get the cannabis from aren’t supposed to be growing or selling marijuana at all (go figure that one out). So, you are supposed to consume it only in the coffee shops.  I didn’t find this to be strictly enforced. Also, apparently, you are only allowed to visit the same coffee shop twice in one day, but there are over 200 coffee shops in Amsterdam so fear not!

The most important thing you need to know is which establishments sell and tolerate marijuana and which don’t. A licensed seller of cannabis products is always referred to as a coffee shop. A koffiehuis (coffee house) or a cafe does NOT sell marijuana.  These are places you go to for light meals or a casual restaurant and/or bar. Do not post up in here and spark up a joint. If you’re still confused, look for a green and white sticker in the window, a license which designates the establishment as a coffee shop. Also, if you are looking to get high and buzzed at the same time, sorry about your luck. The coffee shops do not sell alcohol. I mean, it’s only fair.  The other businesses need to make some money too! I have no other guidance for you on getting high in Amsterdam, but lucky for you, the internet is a blaze (see what I did there?!?) with such information.  You can start here or here.

Okay, enough debauchery! There are other things to do in Amsterdam other than get high and get laid. You could, for example, visit one of their many museums. We had limited time, so over the span of two days, we visited three museums. The first was the Anne Frank Museum. Do not miss this museum. Honestly, I was both fascinated and haunted by it. I am assuming that you know who Anne Frank is.  I mean you literally would have had to be living under a rock your entire life to not know.

The museum is located in the actual house (the Secret Annex) that Anne Frank, her family, and four other people hid from Nazi persecution during World War II. The lines to get in are incredibly long.  It takes about an hour to go through the home, so I recommend visiting a few hours before it closes when the lines are significantly shorter. There are a lot of stairs to climb and narrow hallways to walk through, so keep that in mind when choosing your footwear. The most interesting part about the museum is the bookshelf that blocked the entrance to the Secret Annex. Also, the original diary is kept in the museum, which to me was the coolest artifact.

The second museum we visited was the Van Gogh museum. I am huge Van Gogh admirer, so I loved this museum.  We got there right as it opened and did not wait in line.  However, soon after, the museum was a mad house.  It is a pretty well-laid out museum with a tremendous collection of Van Gogh’s work throughout his life. Pack your patience for this one, though.

The Van Gogh museum is located in the museum district, so as we were walking out, I saw a sign for a Banksy exhibit. Banksy is an anonymous England-based graffiti artist.  His work consists almost entirely of political and social commentary and has been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world. I am a huge fan of his work, so we made an impromptu stop at the Moco Museum. This turned out to be my favorite art museum because the exhibition space is so uniquely perfect for art. The museum is modern art, but it is exhibited in  a beautiful, old 1900s townhouse.

The only reservation I made in Amsterdam was to De Kas, a Michelin starred restaurant located inside a greenhouse. The restaurant is located in a beautiful park and features a tasting menu only, which changes weekly and features the garden produce that is cultivated on site. The restaurant was beautiful and the food was delicious. The dishes focus on the veggies, but it is not a vegetarian menu.  Also, for a Michelin restaurant, it is not that expensive.  The lunch tasting menu ranges from 33 to 43 Euros and dinner is 53 Euros.

And, that my friends, is how we spent two unexpected days in Amsterdam. If there is one thing you take away from this post, I hope it is an appreciation for the long or unexpected layover in a new place.  It is a gift. A chance for an accidental adventure.  Stop complaining and enjoy it!

Jordan: The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea. It’s dead. The End.

Just kidding. Kind of. I mean, it IS dead. And, you should save it for the end of your trip.

After 10 days of action-packed touring in Jordan, we decided to end our trip with a little R&R.  Because, after all, is it really a girls’ trip if there is no pampering? No, it’s not.

We were fresh out of the desert and covered in sand. We had spent hours walking and climbing in Petra. We had taken a biblical journey. What we needed now was naps, pools, beaches, and icy cold drinks. So, we headed to the Dead Sea to do nothing. To play dead. It was perfect!

I bet you are thinking that the Dead Sea area is some kind of resort town.  I know I was. It’s not. It’s kind of, well, dead. There are a bunch of resorts around, but not much else. No real restaurants or shops other than what is in the individual resorts, which have pretty tight security. So, it’s important that you pick a good resort, because you will be staying there for pretty much your entire stay.

We chose the Hilton Dead Sea Resort and Spa. It is the newest property in the Dead Sea area. The property is nice with two pools, a beach, and seven dining options.  There is an adult pool and a kids’ pool, but they are kind of joined.  In fact, they are only separated by a rope, so if you want to be kid-free, sorry about your luck.  There is a swim up bar on the adult side, and there are a lot of pool chairs, but they fill up VERY fast. The crowd is mostly young Arabs from surrounding countries.  The pool plays pretty loud electronic dance music, so it’s not exactly the pinnacle of relaxation. Also, because there are so many people, the food and beverage service is kind of slow. It is also VERY hot. Like dry desert hot.

However, this property is one of the only ones that has a sand beach with chairs, but the beach is a LONG walk from the pool.  There is an elevator to get you there quicker, but that was not operational when we were there. There is also golf cart service to get you down quicker. Once by the beach, there is an elevated deck with chairs,chairs on the sand with umbrellas, towel service, a beach bar, and food and beverage service by the beach as well.

The water in the Dead Sea is extremely salty. It is actually the second saltiest major body of water in the world. Because the water is so salinated there is literally nothing that lives in the Dead Sea. Hence the name.

The Dead Sea also has no outlet streams, and the Jordan River is its only major source. Like many other bodies of water around the globe, the Dead Sea is also shrinking, and the loss is evident as you drive through the region. The high evaporation rates of the Dead Sea is due to the man-made reduction of the Jordan River.  Today, all the shallow waters of the southern end of the sea have been drained and are now salt flats. As a result, measures are currently being proposed to siphon water from the Red Sea through a series of tunnels or canals in order to replenish the rapidly shrinking waters and provide water and electrical solutions to the surrounding countries.

Because it is so hyper-salinated, it is nearly impossible to sink in the Dead Sea.  But, you can still drown. This typically happens when people do not obey the only rule for the Dead Sea, which is to only float on your back. The water is uber greasy due to the amount of salt.  If you have a cut, it is going to sting when you get in (so don’t shave on Dead Sea day!), but it will probably heal up pretty quickly after being submerged in the salt water. If it gets in your mouth or in your eyes, you are basically screwed, so try to avoid that.

While it is rocky and jagged on the shore line because of crystallized salt (water shoes are recommended for entrance, but I would take them off after that), once you get in, it is very muddy.  Almost like quicksand. In fact, you will see that the hotel staff actually collects the mud to do the Dead Sea treatments.  The Hilton is a resort and spa, but the spa was not actually opened when we were there.  Instead, they offered mud treatments free of charge down by the Dead Sea.

First you will have the mud rubbed all over your body. You need to let it dry for about 20 minutes.

Then you get into the Dead Sea to soak and wash all the mud off.  You finish off with a nice fresh water rinse and a dip in the pool!  Your skin will be SO soft after this treatment.

But the best part of the Dead Sea visit was the beautiful sunset over Israel, which is visible just across the sea.

I personally think that one or two nights spent at the Dead Sea is plenty.  If you are going to stick around for longer, here are some cool day trip options for you.  The first is a visit to the Mujib Biosphere Reserve of Wadi Mujib.  It is the lowest nature reserve in the world, located in the mountainous landscape to the east of the Dead Sea. It is dissected by several river-filled canyons that offer the best river and adventure hikes in Jordan. The Mujib valley is being developed for adventure tourism, and a number of facilities have been established including a Visitors’ Center and a beach area on the Dead Sea. Another popular spot are the Ma’in Hot Springs or Hammamat Ma’in. This is a remarkable series of natural hot springs and waterfalls, some of which have been channeled into pools and baths.

No trip to Jordan would be complete without at least a day-trip to the Dead Sea.  It is truly remarkable to float on top of the saltiest water on Earth, and your achy muscles will also thank you.

 

 

Wadi Rum, Jordan: The Valley Of The Moon

No visit to Jordan would be complete without a visit to Wadi Rum Desert. And, honestly, if ever you thought of glamping, the desert is the place to do it!

About an hour away from Petra lies a valley cut into the sandstone and granite rock.  It is the largest wadi in all of Jordan.  Wadi Rum lies on an ancient camel trading route to the Arabian Peninsula and Rum has been inhabited for over 2,500 years.  In fact, many Bedouins still live there today in traditional goat-hair tents.

Once inside, you make your way through the desert until you reach your camp. We chose SunCity Camp, which is located in the heart of Wadi Rum’s majestic desert. The experience of living in the desert and living the simple Bedouin life is unmatched. But, that being said, one night in Wadi Rum is enough to enchant you. After all, it is the desert, and there is not that much to do.  But, if  you are looking for some quiet R&R time where you can walk barefoot and bury your toes in the warm sand, there is no better place.

There are two types of accommodations available at SunCity. The first are basic black tents with no air conditioning. You can see them in the background of the photo above. These are the traditional Bedouin tents. Let’s digest that for a moment. Black canvas tents. In a desert. With NO air conditioning. Um, no thanks.

Or, you can splurge a little and live the Martian experience in the fancy martian domes, which DO have air conditioning. There really is nothing to think about on this one. The domes are luxurious and comfortable, and the views are unbeatable. I mean, how many times in life are you going to sleep over in the desert?!? Might as well make it a memorable experience!

During the day, you can draw the shades to keep your dome cool.

Inside, the rooms are nicely appointed with comfortable beds and linens.

The domes come with a pretty decent sized, western style bathroom with hot and cold water.

And the starry views at night are not too shabby either.

There is a common area where meals are served and with WI-Fi.

At night, they serve a delicious buffet style dinner.

And the after-dinner tea service comes with a show, singing, and dancing.

Also, every single person who works at this camp is delightful. They really went out of their way to make sure we were having an unforgettable experience. And, that started as soon as we arrived.

After whisking away our luggage, we were met by our driver who would be taking us out into the desert to enjoy the views and watch the sunset.

The landscape is really otherworldly with warm pink sands, red rocks, and miles and miles of solitude and silence, except for the occasional camel herd that you encounter.

Because it is so unique and scenic, Wadi Rum has been the back drop of several movies, including Lawrence of Arabia, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Martian, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The landscape and views are truly spectacular.

Wadi Rum has been inhabited by many human cultures since prehistoric times, with many cultures–including the Nabateans–leaving their mark in the form of rock paintings, graffiti, and temples.

After playing in the sand for a few hours, our driver took us to a spot where we kicked off our shoes and sat in the warm sand as he prepared a sweet, warm tea for us to enjoy while we watched the sunset.

The next morning, we were up way before the sun was to rise so that we could meet our guide and our camels.  On the agenda was a sunrise camel ride through the desert and some play time with our camels.

Those lashes tho…

Nothing beats a camel kiss.

We came back to our camp to eat a hearty breakfast before we set off to our next stop, the Dead Sea.  While it was a short little visit to the desert, it was so memorable. It is moments like these that remind me why I fell so in love with travel and with this amazing little planet we call home.