24 mag 2015

Discovering Machu Picchu - Peru

My trip to Peru, two years ago, could not miss one of the new 7 wonders of the modern world: the Machu Picchu. A place that excites curiosity to million visitors from around the world not only for its beauty, but also for the veil of mystery that still surrounds it.
Built in the fifteenth century in the rocky promontory at 2500 meters above sea level which combines the two mounts Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, Machu Picchu is a granite city that was house to an ancient Andean Inca population. This lost city remained hidden in the heart of the Andes for 400 years, until in 1911 the American explorer Hiram Bingham discovered it "officially". And from there, the lack of written records about its origins and history still left many enigmas and mysteries that archaeologists from around the world are still trying to solve: temples, altars, houses ... Machu Picchu was a sanctuary, a royal residence, or what? How could a population who ignored the use of the wheel create such a work of engineering and architecture, in such a narrow place? Even today, these questions continue to fascinate us.

How to get to Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu is located in the department of Cuzco and is about 130 km from Cuzco, which is the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, then considered the navel of the world - A visit in this beautiful city is highly recommended!! at least a couple of days. The ways to get to Machu Picchu are essentially three:
* In helicopter, from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, the village with tourist facilities located at the foot of Machu Picchu. - fast but expensive!
* By bus and train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, which takes about three hours. This is the way that
the majority of visitors chose, mainly for reasons of time (and cost, compared with the helicopter).

* By train from Cuzco to the "82 km", from which you can start a hike towards Machu Picchu, along the fascinating and challenging Inca Trail. In three or four days you can walk along the steep paths along the gorgeours valleys of the sacred Inca Urubamba River, arriving in the early morning of the 3rd/4th day, in front of this wonderful hidden city, and stare in front of the sunrise.

The train to Aguas Calientes
Te small town of Aguas Calientes, below the Machu Picchu
Once you get to Machu Picchu, for access to which you have to pay an entrance fee (for tourists it ranges from US$74 to US$84 depending on what areas you want to visit - you can check the latest prices on this site, Ticket Machu Picchu), you get the impression of going back in time. The view is simply breathtaking, and the lovely llama strolling quietly within the walls of the village just add to the site an idea of ​​"far".

Recommendations: I recommend using comfortable shoes, drink plenty of water, use insect repellent and sunscreen. Alos, don't forget to bring a swimsuit, since in Aguas Calientes there are thermal baths where you can relax after the trek up the mountain! The best time to visit? From July to September is the ideal, but also the spring-autumn are good. Instead, in January, February and March should be avoided because of the rains!
Peru is a unique country and Machu Picchu is one of the things that you should visit sooner or later in life. Happy travel to those about to venture into this beautiful country!

14 mar 2015

Day-trip from Paris: from Monet's house to the Champagne motherland

Although Paris has a LOT to offer within the city, especially during spring/summer time, there are several options if you want to spend a day out of the city.
Here some day-trip ideas that you will love (you probably visited at least one of these places!):

1. GIVERNY - The house of Claude Monet!
At 75km west and slightly north from Paris, stands the famous garden and home of the impressionist painter Claude Monet. He noticed this village while looking out of the train and fell in love with place, where he soon decided to move. Some of his most famous paintings represent his garden, with the japanese garden, the pond with water lily and azaleas, and climbing plants and wisteria, and when you visit it you can immediately recognize these spots!
How to go there? If you don't have a car, take a train from Paris station Gare de Saint-Lazare to Vernon. Once in Vernon, to get to Monet's house you can take the shuttle bus/taxi or walk the 7-km gorgeous path in the beautiful Normandy country fields (highly recommended, it's just 1 hour and you really feel out of the city).
When to go? You can go whenever you want, but in order to have the best weather and also to visit the Museum, house and garden of Monet, make sure you check online when it is open, because it's not open during winter period. For more updated information please click here :)

Walking from Vernon to Giverny! (7 km)
The pond with wisterias in the japanese garden - photo credit: Tripadvisor. I have been there on early spring and I didn't have the possibility to see all these flowers!
2. CHARTRES - The unique gothic Cathedral

Chartres has been a lovely surprise. I went there with an Italian friend also living in Paris at the time, and we had a great day! Located 95 km southwest of Paris, the city is famous for its Cathedral Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres. Interesting facts about the stunning gothic cathedral, one of the most emblematic of Europe: its rose window is one of the biggest in the world (diameter: 13.36 mt, bigger than Notre-Dame de Paris!), with an exemplary beauty of colours and preservation; it has the biggest stained glass surface of the XII-XIII centuries (about 180 windows for 2500 m2), its two towers in the main facade have been built in different decades and are therefore different in style and size; it contains 3500 statues; etc ! Besides the cathedral, the city is tiny and you can have a very walk along the little river and see many nice typical houses. Also, I suggest that you stop by the Crêperie "La Picoterie", right next to the cathedral, where you can have delicious crêpes and gallettes !!!
*Sorry for the quality of pictures, they were taken with a mobile phone! :(
The beautiful Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres
The famous stained glasses of the Cathedral

With my friend Flavia!

Walking in Chartres
3. REIMS - For wine & champagne Lovers
Reims is located a bit farther than the places I mentioned above, but still it's a very nice day trip. At about 130 km north-east from Paris, it is a beautiful spot for wine and champagne lovers: any of the largest champagne-producing houses, known as les grandes marques, have their headquarters in Reims, and most open for tasting and tours. The city itself and its famous impressive Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims are also a must-see.
The rose window of the Cathédrale de Reims
More interiors of the Cathedral
Deserved Champagne for us ;)


4. CHATEAU DE VERSAILLES - The residence of the Kings of France
If you have passed through Paris, you have already probably visited the Chateau de Versailles, the royal chateau at some 20 km southwest of Paris. The court of Versailles was the center of political power in France, from the late 1600s to the French Revolution. It is therefore famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of the system of absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime. To see is not only the King's main palace, but also the the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, and in general the beautiful gardens spread on an area of over 65000 m2.
With my cousin =)

The Gardens

The Trianon

Other day-trip destinations can be the Chateau de Fontainebleau (but I have never visited it!) or DisneyLand Paris. Also, another post with weekend trips ideas will come soon including Normandie, Bretagne, Lyon, Strasbourg, etc..!

7 mar 2015

10 reasons to travel to Bolivia

Bolivia is definitely one of my favourite countries in the world.

Those who know me, know that I always apply "this is one of my favourite..."/ "one of the best..." to pretty much every situation, but this time this is particularly true! Here's at least 10 reasons why you should go to Bolivia in your life, especially if you are young (but not only!):

1. The highest capital in the world  
La Paz, at almost 4000 meters above sea level, is the highest capital in the world. That's why it is often called "la ciudad que toca el cielo", (=the city which touches the sky). When you land at the airport of El Alto, the view is breathtaking: the city itself is located in a sort of deep "hole" in the valley, and the contrast between the bricks of the houses and the white mountains of the Cordillera de los Andes behind the city is really unique.
La Paz
Plaza Murillo
2. The biggest salt lake in the world: el Salar de Uyuni
Bolivia would be worth a visit just to see this. El Salar de Uyuni, at about 40 minutes by 4 Wheel Drive from the city of Uyuni, is a 11-kmwhite salt flat which will leave you breathless. Go there in the dry season to see the salt white like snow and to do the 3-day camping tour around the whole Salar, or go there while it's wet to see the spectacular effect of the sky reflexed on it! Pictures will be amazing. Little curiosity: the lithium of your smartphone's battery comes from el Salar de Uyuni with most probabilities!!
It looks like snow - but it's salt!
4 wheel drive cars crossing the salt flats
Pink flamengos during the 4-day trip across the Salar
Heading to the volcano
3. The most dangerous road in the world: la ruta de la muerte
Just outside La Paz there is what used to start the most dangerous road in the world: Los Yungas, i.e. the Road of Death. The road has now been replaced by a larger, safer road, but in the past there have been several terrible accidents: the road is thin and made of soil, and buses literally slipped down the road and were swallowed by the deep amazonic forest. While it starts from the high and cold Ands mountains, it descends about 3500 down to arrive to the warm and humid amazonic area. Now you can do it by bike (and then come back with a little van) and enjoy the whole 57 kilometer road, passing through the mountains and then through the green, amazonic forest.
The amazonic part of Los Yungas road
Starting the 57-km road from the Ands
4. Cross the mine of Potosì
Only after visiting this city I realised why my Spanish grandma used to say "vale mas que un Potosì" (= "it is more valuable than a Potosì"). The mountain Cerro Rico host one of the country's richest mines, with silver and many other precious metals, and you can actually cross the mountain in a 2 or 3-hour hike entering from one side of the mountain and getting out at the opposite side. It is hard to see and realise how difficult it is for people to work inside the mine :( . Hard but unique experience!
Potosì, at over 4000 meters above the sea level, is one of the highest cities in the world. The air is really rarefied and you will realise how hard it will be even to do a 15 minute-walk!
The entrance to the mines
Walking inside the mines and crossing Cerro Rico mountain
5. Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca, right in the border between Peru and Bolivia, is the largest lake in South America (by volume), located in the Central Ands with an average altitude of 3800 meters. It is also often called the highest navigable lake in the world. If you visit it from La Paz, you should go to Copacabana (which is not the Rio de Janeiro beach, in this case!), a village in the Bolivian side of the lake from which you can go visit La Isla del Sol, an island in the middle of the lake. If you visit the Peruvian side, you can't miss the navigation through the floating islands ("Islas Flotantes"), and sleeping in indigenous' houses in the islands of Taquile and Amantanì!
View to the Central Ands from Amantanì island in Lake Titicaca
6. La ruta del "Che" - the road of a revolutionary
La Ruta del Che is a 800-km path that the Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara last followed with his men before being executed by the Bolivian Army the 6th of October of 1967. If you have the chance to pass through La Higuera and Vallegrande, you will find the place where he has been assassinated and buried (respectively), with a lot of history and many symbolic places. Really really interesting.

Vallegrande's central square

7. One of the most biodiverse countries in the world
Bolivia: the country which does't touch the sea, but still is one of the most biodiverse and beautiful in the world, with its various geographic areas such as the Cordillera de los Andes, the Amazony and many more. Moreover, the succession of the Aymara, Quechua, Inca and Spanish has made of this country a unique culturally diverse place.

8. Food
Bolivia is a land rich of Quinoa, potatoes (about 200 varieties!!), corn, chicken, rice and beans. Even if the country itself is really diverse, the cuisine (with regional differences, of course) is a little bit less diverse, highly based on those ingredients. Anyways, food is deliciouos. Try the empanadas salteñas, chicharron (pork-based), Pique Macho, fried chicken, quinoa/potatoes soups, Manì soup...

9. Pure & unexplored
If you are looking for a unique travelling experience and visiting a still quite 'unexplored' area out of the top touristic destinations, where you can mix adventure, culture, nature, history, Bolivia is the right place. If you are a backpacker, you don't even need to make reservations for a hostel: just get to main square of the city/village and look for a hostel around there - you will be surprised how many lovely hostels for how cheap you will find! 
Kids, in Samaipata
10. Unexpensive
...And the prices are really "affordable", especially if you come with euros or dollars. You will be able, therefore, to explore the country in a very complete way, and possible do all the activities worth doing.
Our lovely and cheap hostel in Vallegrande

...Buon Viaggio in Bolivia! Happy travel to Bolivia!

10 gen 2015

San Blas islands (Kuna Yala): a 365-islands archipelago in the Panamanian Caribbean

I could not imagine that at 2 hours driving distance from Panama City there would be a paradise.
When my family came visit me from Italy to spend the Christmas holidays together in Panama, I wanted to bring them to a special place, and San Blas turned out to be a really good choice: a paradise, yes, but unique, different from the typical comfortable beach resorts that we are used to.

The amazing "roller-coaster" road to get to San Blas!
It is actually a very spartan place, and some guys in the islands have asked me, incredoulous, "OMG, how did you bring your parents here?!". Why?

No electricity. Some islands had a self-generator which ran only a couple of hours a day, but only to light up some few light bulbs...anyways forget about internet!
No private bathroom. There were actually only two shared showers and two shared toilets, in our island. And there was no flush - to flush them you had to collect water with a small bucket and through it to the toilet!
You sleep in cabañas (cabins) or tents. The cabins are made of wood, cane sticks and palm leaves, with obviously many holes and open fissures from which little animals could enter. And some materasses are not the most comfortable in the world! Alternatively, you can chose the cheaper option of a tent, rented by them, or bring your own one.

The menu is fixed. So if you have too particular tastes in food, you don't have much choice: you eat what they cook!!!

So, for all these reasons it may not be completely indicated for older people who are looking for a comfortable place. But if you are looking for relax, and disconnection from the world, this is the right place! I could really enjoy my family with no other distractions, I could finally read that book that I wanted to read, I snorkeled in those cristal clear waters, I took a lot of sun, visited the neighboring islands, I watched the stars, I relaxed on the hammocks, caught coconuts from the palmtrees...how regenerating!!! Basically you wake up with the sun and go to bed when it goes down ^^
Isla Aroma
You also have the opportunity to stay in touch with the local culture: these 365 islands (of which only 80ish are inhabited) are owned and run by the indigenous Kuna people ("Kuna Yala" in fact means "land of Kunas"), who live on the islands during the summer months (December to March approx.). You will be able to see how they live and how they dress, with their peculiar coloured materials.
My mom and I with a Kuna woman
Which island to chose??
I stayed in Isla Aroma (also called Isla Anzuelo), which I really liked. Not too small and not too big, many palmtrees, beautiful cristalline water and nice Kunas. I had some feedbacks that the Isla Iguana (right next to Isla Aroma) was maybe even better. During your stay there, they will bring you with boats to other day trips to other beautiful islands: Isla Perro Chico (where you can also sleep), Isla Pelicano (my favourite!!! very small, but a real paradise) and Piscinas (o Isla Estrella), which is a sandbank with many sea stars. If these tours are not included in your package, arrange directly with the boat drivers and negotiate for 10-15$ each for the whole morning trip.

Isla Perro - Dog island
X-mas tree!
Isla Aroma
Isla Pelicano
In gorgeous Isla Pelicano

The three siblings, in Isla Estrella
Us three in Isla Aroma

A sea star in Isla Estrella

Prices are reasonable!!
Prices vary depending on how many intermediaries you use and which island yo chose. The best way is always to call directly the island and arrange with them by yourself, knowing already more or less the price range. What they do is normally ask for a price which includes food (beakfast, lunch and dinner, but not drinks--> I suggest that you bring your own water, fruit and snacks from Panama City, because they have limited stock at high prices) and sometimes transportation from the port. The price at Isla Aroma(isla Anzuelo), for example, as at beginning of 2015 is around 36 US$ per person per night in the cabin, and much less for the tent (food included). For transport, the boats to bring you around the islands cost around 10-15$ maximum per person per tour (they can ask you more, but negotiate!), and about 10$ per person to/from the port. Moreover, consider that when entering the region, you will be asked to pay 20$ per person (or 5$, if you are Panamanian resident) as taxes + 2$ per person as port taxes.
Transport from/to Panama City is 50$ per person go and back. I always went with Pepe who is a very nice Kuna. His number is +507 60890657 and you can tell him that Sofia "la italiana" has given you the contact! Otherwise, when you book the cabins on the islands, the owners can organise
Other useful contacts:
Isla Aroma/Anzuelo: +507 67025842/65191305/60871887 (contact: Ruso)
Isla Iguana: +507 67359510 (contact: Erubey Diaz)
Isla Perro Chico: +507 60600640/65394940 or mail assudub@gmail.com
Isla Pelicano: +507 60750703/67616101

When to go?? 
Sunny months in Panama are from end of November to March included, so this is the only period when it is worth going the San Blas - Kuna Yala, in my opinion.
The best is to spend there 1, 2 or 3 nights....You will feel regenerated!!