Flores and Corvo, February 2017

Flores and Corvo, February 2017

6 days on Flores and 2 days on Corvo

Getting there

We booked 3 separate tickets by SATA Airlines (recently rebranded Azores Airlines) – Lisbon-Horta-Flores; Flores-Corvo and Corvo-Horta-Lisbon. We managed to get about the cheapest possible fares for each leg of the trip and paid ca. 44 and 47 euros for the flights between Lisbon and the islands. The Flores-Corvo flight was ca. 35 euros – much more expensive than the ferry (10 euros) but we opted for it as ferry schedules are quite uncertain in February.

Our flight from Horta to Flores was cancelled extending out planned stopover in Horta from 1 to 2 nights. Apparently it’s a common occurrence in winter as Flores airport in Santa Cruz is prone to side wind. Not that bad experience – Horta is a nice place (see more information below in the 2014 report) and for the additional night we were accommodated by the airline in one of the best hotels in Horta with full board.

While on Flores we found out about an interesting possibility – anybody reaching Sao Miguel by a flight by another airline (including Ryanair or Easyjet) from continental Portugal (Lisbon or Porto) is entitled to a free connecting flight by SATA to any other Azorean island, subject to availability. More information: http://encaminhamentos.sata.pt/en/Home

Information

As during our previous trips, we used the same map and guidebook (see below), free maps from the tourist information office and the MAPS.ME off-line smartphone application. We have also seen a very good topographic quality 1:25.000 map of Flores in one of the guesthouses but I have no idea where to buy it.

Weather

Flores and Corvo are the most rainy islands in the Azores and February is one of the most rainy months. It turned out to be true – it did rain quite a lot and most hiking trails were very muddy and slippery. Definitely not a good idea to hike with big backpacks! During our 6 days on Flores we had one day with perfect sunny weather, 2 days with some sun and some rain and 3 days with clouds almost all the time but still only some periods of rain, so hiking was possible. The plateau inside the island had considerably more rain and clouds than areas near the coast – in particular the Fajã Grande area was sunnier than most other parts of the island. The rain actually gives Flores much of its charm, as it feeds its many waterfalls. A rainbow over Lagoa dos Patos (Poço da Alagoinha) was pure magic.

The weather was also quite windy, meaning it can feel much colder than the actual temperature suggests, so having good trekking gear (waterproof jacket and shoes) is recommended.

Transport

Our initial plan was not to rent a car on Flores and rely partly on hiking with our luggage, partly on buses, taxis and hitch-hiking. Because of the rainy weather and slippery trails (hiking with big backpacks is definitely bad idea in such conditions) it turned out only partly feasible and finally we rented a car for the last 2 days.

Bus – the connections are very rare, actually 1-2 per day. See schedules here: http://www.utc.pt/client/skins/geral.php?page=27&cat=12&top=12

Taxi – there are a few taxis on the island and they meet arrivals at the airport. We took a taxi to our first accommodation at Fazenda das Lajes, the cost was 13 euros. The ride from Santa Cruz to Fajã Grande apparently costs 17 euros.

Hitch-hiking – works out incredibly well on the island, as locals are really friendly. Each time we tried it, we were given a lift by one of the first passing cars and sometimes even passing drivers stopped to ask if we needed a lift when we were just walking along a road. The only problem is that sometimes there is very little traffic.

Car rental – we rented from Autatlantis (http://www.autatlantis.com/), an Azores-wide company. We did not succeed paying through their website, so we needed to book in their Santa Cruz office (in the airport building) – the price was 28 euros per day, calculated as full 24 hrs from the hour the rental starts. Good experience, fair fuel policy, no hidden charges or tricks. A local company Rent Ocidental (contact: rentocidental@yahoo.com, also in English) had cars for 29.50 euros per day at the same time.

Even if you plan to get around by hiking, hitch-hiking and buses (like our intial plan), it is a good idea to rent a car at least for a day and drive across the central plateau and especially towards Caldeira Rasa and Caldeira Funda. Another great drive was the mountain road between Lajes and Lajedo, south of the main road.

Accomodation

We stayed in two places on Flores and one on Corvo. All of them are highly recommended.

A Barraka (http://www.abarraka.com/Home) – located in Fazenda das Lajes in the southern part of the island. They are on Airbnb but it makes more sense to contact them directly by e-mail avoiding Airbnb fees. Simple but nice rooms, clean shared bathrooms (there are two bathrooms currently shared between two rooms in use but apparently four rooms will be in use in the future), washing machine, a very nice common area and kitchen with full cooking facilities (perfectly possible to cook your own meal). Run by very nice French couple who settled on Flores after travelling around the world. We paid 25 euros per room (high season price is 35 euros). There is a snack bar with good inexpensive food just below the guesthouse and a supermarket within short walking distance. Walkable to Lajes but that’s already quite a long walk.

Palheiro da Assomada (https://fajagrande.jimdo.com/, booked via booking.com) – an old barnhouse renovated and transformed into a lovely self-catering apartment in Fajã Grande, probably the most picturesque corner of the island and a really great place to stay a few days or possibly longer. Fully furnished (again with full cooking facilities) with remarkable attention to detail to make the guests’ stay as comfortable as possible, with a terrace and grill area. We paid 35 euros per night (it costs up to double that in high season). Perfect location in a very nice village, within short walking distance to a few shops (including one small supermarket) and snack bars. A perfect place for hikers, short walking distance to hikes in all directions. Owned by friendly British expats. Added bonus: the instructions received from Neil after booking were extremely useful and could easily serve as a practical guide to Flores.

We found Fajã Grande a bit short on restaurants during low season – in the central area only one, Jonah’s Snack Bar, was open in February. It was nice and very friendly but a bit more expensive than average (we paid 38 euros for a dinner for two that would probably cost some 25-28 euros elsewhere). There is another snack-bar called Denesi a bit lower in the village, towards Ponta da Fajã, and it might be worth checking out for travellers on a budget (it also offers cheap accomodation).

Comodoro (http://www.comodoroazores.com/, present also on booking.com) – one of few places to stay on Corvo. More expensive than other places where we stayed (50 euros for a double room) but very comfortable and with generous breakfast included. Actually it was place with comforts of a good hotel combined with personal touch of a family-run guesthouse. The friendly owner would happily give you a lift from and to the airport and even to the crater (if you don’t want to walk). As we wanted to hike to the crater she encouraged us to use breakfast stuff for taking a packed lunch. Added bonus for Azores fans – the lounge has a small library with a great collection of books on all topics Azorean. Located within walking distance everywhere in the little town of Corvo.

 

Hikes on Flores

1. Fajã Grande – Fajãzinha – Mosteiro – Lajedo. This hike took about 4 hrs along old paths between villages (extremely slippery and muddy in wet weather!). The initial part near Fajã Grande (trailhead is just near Casa da Vigia restaurant) was marked as closed because of an instable cliff a little farther on but it was still safe to pass, taking a reasonable distance from the cliff edge (the situation may change though, so caution is needed – cliff edge should never be approached in such areas!). There is a small shop and café in Fajãzinha but no shops nor cafes in Mosteiro and Lajedo. An afternoon bus from Lajes passes Lajedo on the way to Fajã Grande, so this hike is possible as a day hike using public transport. We did not need to wait for the bus as an English hiker kindly gave us a lift.

As this hike goes through lower altitude areas, it can be accessible even if the central plateau is completely covered by fog. Map (description in the opposite direction): http://www.azoren-online.com/flores/tipps/ausfluege/pr2flo.pdf

2. Lajes to Fajã de Lopo Vaz. A short hike to the southernmost fajã – some 200 m down a partly steep path. The trailhead is some 3 kms from central Lajes along an asphalt road. Map: http://www.azoren-online.com/flores/tipps/ausfluege/pr4flo.pdf

3. Fajã Grande to Caldeira Negra/Lagoa Comprida. Our biggest hike on Flores, ca. 700 meters ascent. Took ca. 5 hrs. First part was a steep ascent to the edge of the plateau, then across the central plateau towards the crater lakes. Spectacular views. Extremely wet and muddy – at least in winter the central plateau functions basically as a giant sponge holding enough water to feed all those spectacular waterfalls around Fajã Grande. Map (description in the opposite direction): http://www.azoren-online.com/flores/tipps/ausfluege/pr3flo.pdf

4. Fajã Grande towards Ponta Delgada. We walked only the first part of this hike – from Ponta da Fajã along a spectacular cliffside path half way up the cliff. Completing it would require arranging a lift to or pickup from Ponta Delgada. On another day we drove to Ponta Delgada and walked to the Farol de Albarnaz on the other end of the hike. Great views. Map (description in the opposite direction): http://www.azoren-online.com/flores/tipps/ausfluege/pr1flo.pdf

5. Short walks around Fajã Grande. There are several great places within short walking distance from Fajã Grande (anywhere between 15 minutes and 1,5 hrs). Vigia da Baleia (old whalers’ lookout), great waterfalls at Poço do Bacalhau and even more spectacular Lagoa dos Patos, the “end of the world” village of Ponta da Fajã.

Hikes on Corvo

  1. Hike to the crater (Caldeirão). The longest hike on Corvo – 7 kms and 700 meters up along an asphalt road with views gradually changing from great to spectacular. The descent into the crater and the trail around the central lake is marked by wooden stakes with painted signs. For most of the way inside the crater there is no path and the terrain is very muddy, to the point of being outright dangerous in case of being lost in the fog.
  2. Cara dos Indios. A nice hike up the hill directly above Corvo town, to the cliffs on the western edge of the island. We did it as an afternoon hike on the day of our arrival.
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Tamil Nadu, February 2016 (3 weeks)

Tamil Nadu, February 2016 (3 weeks) (with start and finish in Kochi, Kerala)

Route: Kochi Airport – Kochi – Madurai – Rameswaram – Trichy – Thanjavur – Chidambaram – Pondicherry – Tiruvannamalai – Mahabalipuram – Chennai – Coonoor – Kochi

General

We travelled mostly by train, sometimes by bus. Most train tickets were booked in advance on https://www.cleartrip.com/. Since then it became possible to book Indian train tickets directly on the official railway site https://www.irctc.co.in/. See http://www.seat61.com/India.htm for information on Indian train travel, including setting up a booking account from abroad. As usually, http://erail.in/ was perfect for looking up train connections, fares and tickets availability.

Travelling by bus did not require booking tickets in advance.

Guidebook  

We used Rough Guide’s “South India” and Lonely Planet chapters on Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The RG was much better on sights and cultural context while the LP a bit better on practical information.

ROUTE:

Kochi Airport

We flew to Kochi airport by Air Berlin (partly operated by Etihad) for a bargain price of less than 400 euros from Krakow, Poland. The airport is located in Nedumbassery, 1,5 hrs by bus from Ernakulam and Fort Kochi. There are facilities for the arrival with e-Tourist Visa and the immigration control went smoothly.

We stayed the first night in nearby Nedumbassery: Sapphire Inn, booked via booking.com, 1450 Rs./dbl ensuite, 15 min walk from airport. The place is non-descript and would cost less than 1000 Rs in other places but it is clean enough and good for late arrival or early departure. There is a restaurant on the premises.

Airport to Fort Kochi – 1,5 hrs by a regular comfortable AC bus, 80 Rs.

Fort Kochi

We stayed in two places in Fort Kochi:

– Lazar Homestay, in a lane off Njaliparambu Junction, 5 min behind Santa Cruz Basilica ,1000 Rs for a very comfortable ensuite double (booking recommended, they were full when we tried to stay there on our way back);

– Beach House, a homestay on, KJ Herschel Rd, opp. Armed Forces Tribunal. Contrary to the name there is a military area between the place and the beach. Next door there is a more visible “Tag und Nacht” sign. Walkable distance from St Francis Church, enter the road turning south at the Old Bristow Hotel and walk some 400 meters. A basic small room was 500 Rs for multiple days, 600 Rs for one day + 100 Rs for late checkout at 5 p.m. A nice balcony with seating area. The owner’s wife cooked us a great dinner – much better and cheaper than in Fort Kochi restaurants, incl. fresh seafood.

Fort Kochi turned out to be a tricky place to change money. There are several moneychanger shops in the touristy central district but some of them offered bad rates. Shop around and compare.

As it was our second visit to Kochi (the first ones was back in 2010), we were rather selective in visiting sights. We took a ferry across the strait to Vypeen with its old Portuguese-style church and went to Ernakulam to look for the less-visited Kadavumbagam synagogue (recognizable by the big sign of “Cochin Blossoms” shop operating on the premises). On the way back we shopped for spices in Mattancherry district.

Practicalities:
– rickshaw from Fort Kochi to Ernakulam Junction railway station was 250 Rs

– the airport bus departs from the corner of River Rd and KB Jacob Rd, near the bus stand and opp. Vypeen jetty. There is a sign with bus schedule there. Last afternoon buses: 4 pm, 5.30 pm, 6.15 pm, 7 pm. Takes ca. 2 hrs to the airport, comfortable and AC, 80 Rs.

From Kochi we went to Madurai by overnight train. Tickets booked in advance on Cleartrip.

Madurai

Accomodation: Hotel Keerthy, walking distance from the train station and to the temple, 1400 Rs for a decent AC double, breakfast included. Clean. Wifi at the reception only, nearby Chentoor had wifi on the roof terrace.

The main sight of Madurai was obviously the famous and truly impressive Meenakshi temple. Entry is free for visitors, no cameras are allowed, only mobile phones. There is a 50 Rs photo fee

From Madurai we did an interesting half-day trip to the nearby town of Tiruparankundram (8 kms, 170 Rs by rickshaw, 9 Rs by local bus). Apart from the main temple in the town centre we climbed a hill with the Sufi mausoleum Sikander Dargah on top of the rock and the Shiva temple somewhat lower on the rock (signposted by a sign in Tamil with a fish).

Madurai to Rameswaram – 4 hrs by passenger train, 35 Rs, tickets bought at the station before departure. Seats are taken on the first come first served basis, so it is a good idea to arrive to the station at least half an hour before departure or even earlier to grab a window seat. The train has toilets, chai, water and snacks are sold at some stations.

Rameswaram

Accomodation: Sri Saravana Lodge on Middle Rd, near west temple entrance. 900 Rs non-AC, clean, good restaurant on the premises.

Rameswaram to Trichy – by passenger train, 7 hrs, 55 Rs.

Trichy (Tiruchirappali)

Accomodation: Hotel Ashby, 750 Rs for a standard room (non-AC), 950 Rs for a much better “de-luxe” room. Dilapidated but has some old time charm. Bar (beer 216 Rs), wifi. Walking distance from the train station and central bus stand.

Useful city bus no. 1 linked Trichy central bus stand with the Rock Fort (get off at the big neo-Gothic Lourdes church) and the Srirangam temple complex.

Trichy to Thanjavur – by passenger train, 15 Rs, 1 hr 15 min.

Thanjavur

Accomodation: Hotel Yagappa (http://www.hotelyagappa.in/), close to the railway station, 990 Rs for an AC double room, small room but very clean and nice. Bar with beer for 200 Rs.
Thanjavur Palace all-in ticket was 200 Rs + 100 Rs camera fee.

Thanjavur-Chidambaram – by train, sleeper class, 2 hrs, 140 Rs, no problem getting tickets at the station just 1 day in advance.

Chidambaram

Accomodation: Hotel Saradharam (http://www.hotelsaradharam.co.in/), opp. bus stand, 1100 Rs non-AC double, incl. breakfast, comfortable room with a balcony. A busy restaurant on the premises and bar upstairs.

Chidambaram – Pondicherry, by bus, 2 hrs, 42 Rs.

Pondicherry
Accomodation: after seeing several places in the budget category being quite overpriced, we settled for a bit more upmarket Hotel Park Sun (www.hotelsunparkpondy.com), corner Rangapillai str and Ambour Salai (the border between European and Indian parts of the town), opp. BSNL. Priced 2000 Rs for a very large and comfortable room, 1500 Rs for a smaller one, both very clean. A nice French-themed pastry shop with cafe and croissants on the ground floor.
Rickshaw from the bus stand cost us 100 Rs down from initial ridicilous 300 Rs, but still too much.

Pondicherry – Tiruvannamalai, bus every 30 min or so, 3 hrs, 47 Rs.

Tiruvannamalai

Accomodation: Hotel Arunachala (http://www.hotelarunachala.in/), 990 Rs non-AC room, nice and clean, right at the temple entrance, good south Indian veg restaurant on the premises.
An alternative on the main road – Nala Residency, 1200 Rs non-AC room, from 1800 AC room, bar, multi-cuisine non-veg restaurant.

We started hiking up the holy mountain of Arunachala but failed to reach the top. From Skandasraman there are signs “way to top” and a signposted path but it’s hard scramble on the rocks (shoes definitely required, not to be done in sandals). There is a great view of the city and temple after first 50 m or so from Skandasraman.
There is a very nice walk on the slope of Arunachala between Skandasramam cave and the Sri Ramanasram ashram. Further from the ashram the inner Pradakshana (a path circumambulating Mount Arunachala) was sadly closed and no more signposted/accessible. Only the outer Pradakshana along the main road remained accessible at the time of our visit. A good English language guidebook to the Pradakshana was available for 60 Rs at a bookshop right next to Arunachala hotel.

Tiruvannamalai to Mahabalipuram

Tiruvannamalai to Chennai Mofussil bus stand, by bus, ca. 100 Rs, 4 h 15. The bus bypasses Chengalpattu, so reaching Mahabalipuram by getting of earlier would be complicated.
Chennai Mofussil to Mahabalipuram 2 hr 40 Rs. Plenty of departures, any bus marked “ECR” going to Pondy. Drops off at a junction some 1 km from the center of Mahabalipuram.

Mahabalipuram

Accomodation: Bob Marley’s Café, 800 Rs for a simple room with a balcony directly facing the beach.
Beer 250 Rs, seafood mostly 300 Rs up for dish, with catch of the day costing often ca. 1000 Rs for 2 persons (negotiable), annoying hidden extra – 100 Rs for plain rice.
A better place to eat nearby was Luna Magica, straight on the beach, less expensive than other restaurants we tried – beer 200 Rs, seafood portions more generous.

Sea Shore Temple + 5 Rathas – entry 250 Rs (official Archeological Survey of India site).

A remarkable sight near Mahabalipuram is the Madras Crocodile Bank & Herpetology Centre (http://www.madrascrocodilebank.org/) with most species of those cuddly creatures displayed and explained in an informative way. Attached is a place run by local snake catchers’ cooperative displaying venomous snakes used for farming venom for antiserum.
Entry fee 40 Rs. Take any brown bus (green buses don’t stop at the entrance) along the ECR towards Chennai, 12 or 15 Rs.

Mahabalipuram – Chennai
There was much confusion at the Mahabalipuram bus stand. We were informed on buses to Chennai the previous afternoon only to be told that there were “no buses” when we arrived with our luggage on the other day. Presumably it was a deal with rickshaw drivers as one of them was standing just over the guy in the bus enquiry office and offered us a ride to the junction with ECR for 50 Rs.
Finally we gave up, went to the next corner and took a rickshaw to the ECR junction for 20 Rs. A passing bus arrived within 5 min. The bus was going to Koyambedu (40 Rs) but we left at Guindy (some 2 hrs from Mahabalipuram) and took a local train to central Chennai from there.

Chennai
We got off the train at Park station and first tried to find accomodation near the Chennai Central station. Bad idea, as almost all hotels there were unwilling to take foreigners and the only one willing (Sri Balaji) offered a very dirty non-AC room for 600 Rs. We went to the Egmore area where hotels opposite the bus station were more willing to deal with foreigners. Finally we stayed in Raj Residence in Kennet Lane, opp. Egmore station. It turned out to be a very bad idea. Pretended to be “de luxe”, charging ca. 1300 Rs for standard and 1550 Rs for “executive” room. “Standard” was very dirty, “executive” seemed a bit better and larger, so I talked them down to 1300 Rs for the “executive”.  The bed sheets were dirty and the whole room turned out to be infested by bedbugs. Stay away!

In Chennai we visited Mylapore by suburban train (direction  Velachery, get off at Thirumailar), alternatively bus 21G goes there from Broadway bus stand. The San Thome Cathedral, Kapaliswara Temple and Luz Church are longish walking distance from each other, otherwise bus 12B plies between them.

Chennai – Coonoor
Reached by the night train (Nilgiri Exp) from Chennai to Mettupalayam and the famous Nilgiri toy train from Mettupalayam. We even went as far as Ooty and then back to Coonoor to cover the whole toy train route. Booked tickets much in advanva via Cleartrip.

The first class on the toy train was not much better than the second. If possible, seat on the left side for best views. There was toilet on the toy train but it took several long breaks at small stations to water the locomotive and toilets were available at the stations.

Coonoor
Accomodation: we decided to take something more upmarket and stayed at the Vivek (http://www.hotelvivek.com/), near Bedford Circle. Standard rooms 1300 Rs (hot water only in the morning, no breakfast), de luxe from 2060 Rs (hot water 24 hrs, breakfast included). Very clean and nice.A few of the cheaper de luxe rooms have great views of the town. Good restaurant (mains 200 Rs, including non-veg) and bar attached (beer 200 Rs). 80 Rs by rickshaw from the train station, short walk to the Bedford Circle.

From Coonoor we did a great walk across tea estates, along a motorable road but with not much traffic. From Coonoor to Dolphin Nose via Lamb Rock, ca. 12 km + 2 km detour to Lamb’s Rock. Plenty of beautiful views and great tea plantations all over the way. The best place to enter the plantations and walk among tea fields is at Glendale sale point, some 1 km before Dolphin’s Nose.
The bus back to town does not reach Dolphin Nose but stops at Adderley tea pluckers village some 200 meters earlier. Bus timings back from Dolphin Nose were 3.45 and 5.30 p.m.

We also identified a hike to consider next time: the Droog Fort Trek (Bakasura Malai) – some 13 kms from Coonoor, to the very prominent peak on the opposite side of the access valley, as seen from Lamb’s Rock. Mostly through Nonsuch tea estate.

From Coonoor we took a taxi to Coimbatore Junction (1400 Rs, 2 hrs+, arranged on previous evening at the taxi stand on Bedford Circle) in order to catch our train to Ernakulam (previously booked on Cleartrip) for our flight back from Kochi airport.

South China, July-August 2016 – Guizhou, Guangxi, Fujian

 

duration: 41 days, incl. 29 days in mainland China

Route: Hong Kong – Guangzhou – Guiyang – Zhenyuan – Kaili – [Congjiang] – Basha – Zhaoxing – [Sanjiang] – Chengyang – Longji Titian – Gulilin – Yangshuo – Xingping – Guangzhou – Xiamen – Kinmen (Taiwan) – Xiamen – Guangzhou – Macau – Hong Kong

Information on HK, Macau and Kinmen is posted in the relevant section.

General information

Visa: unfortunately this time the Chinese embassy in Warsaw did not issue a longer visa even though we requested 45 days and we had to adapt our trip to the maximum stay of 2 x 30 days.

Changing money: we changed some money in advance in Hong Kong’s Chungking and Mirador Mansions. Rates were so good that it was actually a little better to change money from USD to HKD to CNY than a simple USD to CNY change in China.

Once in mainland China, money is changed in banks. Only some branches are allowed to change money and they are usually marked by an English language sign. Many (but not all) bank branches are open on Saturdays and Sundays. Rates are very similar in all banks and they very little from the rates of the Bank of China (see: http://www.boc.cn/sourcedb/whpj/enindex.html). As seen in this table, it is much better to exchange cash in USD than EUR. Exchanging 100 USD costs ca. 5 yuan (ca. 0,75%), while exchanging 100 EUR costs 26 yuan (ca. 3,5%).

Booking train tickets: during our previous trips to China one of the biggest problems was hearing the notorious “mei you” at the train station and having to wait or arrange alternatives. Much has changed in this regard – Chinese train tickets can be now booked on-line from abroad and booking fees are reasonable.

The official Chinese railway booking site is in Chinese only and does not take foreign credit cards, so agencies are needed for booking from abroad. It seems that the most reasonable ones are Travel China Guide (https://www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/) and Ctrip (http://english.ctrip.com/trains/). Travel China Guide has a better search engine, showing the availability of tickets for trains, while Ctrip charges lower fees (20 or 30 Y per ticket). The fee paid to Ctrip is converted to “c-money” that can be in theory spent on hotels but in practice when we booked a hotel and paid by “c-money” the hotel refused to honor our payment (presumably they did not receive anything from Ctrip).

Tip: when booking through Ctrip search the trains while not logged in and log in only after you have found your connection. In such way the booking fee will be 20 instead of 30 Y.

After the booking Ctrip issues a confirmation number that needs to be exchanged for the actual ticket at a train station. Any train station in China can do it but stations different from the station of origin charge 5 Y per ticket. Passport and the confirmation number are needed. Allow plenty of time for picking up tickets, as there are always big queues in Chinese railway stations.

One more thing to consider when travelling by train in China – Chinese train stations are huge and crowded. They are organized like airports, with a ticket check (queue) and a security check (another queue) to enter the station and gates to the platform opening 15 minutes before departure.

Useful websites:

https://www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/ – for up-to-date practical information on several destinations (getting to and from the railway station, entry fees etc.)

https://travelcathay.com/category/guizhou/; https://travelcathay.com/category/guangxi/ – excellent resource on ethnic villages in Guizhou and Guangxi and on travelling in those regions

 Trip notes:

Hong Kong – Guangzhou: by MTR to Lo Wu (ca 40 HK$), across the border on foot, by train from Shenzhen to Guangzhou Dong (East) 79,5 Y, ca 1 hr
Door to door from our HK guesthouse to Guangzhou hotel it took some 4 hrs.

Guangzhou

We stayed in 3 places in Guangzhou during this trip

  1. Yecheng Hotel, near Ximenkou metro, 138 Y for a double (AC), comfortable but a bit worn down. Booked on booking.com. Nice central area with plenty of shops and restaurants nearby. Recommended.
  2. Guangzhou South Station No. 1 hotel (128 Y for a dark room, clean and with AC). We booked this one on booking.com, as we wanted to stay close to Guangzhou Nan (South) train station. It turned out to be a bad idea. The location marker was misplaced on the booking.com map. In fact the hotel is located in a small village-like neighbourhood ca. 1 km south-west from the station, across a small river, with some shops and restaurants nearby. Almost impossible to find by yourself, even the locals did not know the place. The location means it is not very practical to visit central Guangzhou from this place – it is ca. 20 minutes walk to the station (and metro), another 30-40 minutes metro ride to central Guangzhou. Our room was dark, as the only window faced a neighbours wall just 15 centimeters from it. To be recommended only if you plan an late arrival and an early start from Guangzhou South station and want to skip visiting the city completely. The owner gives free ride to and from the station.
  3. Jiamei Hotel, opp. the main mosque, near Gongyuanqian and Ximenkou metro, 178 y onbooking.xom. Very good location, nice clean and comfortable room. Recommended.

Guangzhou Nan (South) to Guiyang Bei (North) – CRH high speed train, 5 hrs, 267,5 Y, booked via Ctrip

Guiyang (alt. over 1000 meters, visibly cooler than most other places)

Accomodation: Guiyang Nande Youkong Youth Hostel, 128 Y for double room, ensuite, no AC. Location within walking distance to some sights and a night market specializing in seafood and crayfish. Washing machine and a rack for drying laundry. The whole hostel was an adapted ground floor apartment in a 1970s block of flats tucked into a small lane (difficult to find). Downside: the place has very poor ventilation, pervasive smell of mould, it was humid and hot in summer. There was no AC and not even a fan in our room. We slept with an open window and it was still far from comfortable. Not recommended.

Guiyang – Zhenyuan – by train, 41 Y, ca. 3 hrs, booked a day in advance at the station

Zhenyuan (alt. 450 m, hot and sticky like HK or Guangzhou)

Accomodation on the main street turned out to be quite pricey – most rooms facing the river were 250 Y or more. Finally we settled for 150 Y for a slightly shabby but large room with balcony over the river, a bit further from the old bridge (AC).

Bus no. 1 links the main street to both train and bus stations.

Entry fees: Qinglong 60 Y (30 Y discount for ITIC card), mountain above the town 30 Y (15 Y with ITIC card)
Zhenyuan – Kaili – tickets were sold also for a fully booked train with standing room only, as it was only 1 hr (15 Y).

Kaili (alt. 650 meters, a bit less hot than Zhenyuan)

Bus no. 2 from the train station into city.

Accomodation: New Mills Inn, (凱里新磨坊連鎖酒店), 26 Yingpan Dong Lu (營盤東路26號) 138 Y for an AC room. In a side lane from Yingpan East Rd but visible from the main road. Good location, walking distance to shops, restaurants and the main bus station on Wenhua Lu. Recommended.

We took a day trip to Miao villages around Langde (郎德) and Leishan. There are buses to Leishan from main bus station on Wenhua Lu every 1hr from 7.20, 8.20 etc. Last bus back from Leishan is at 6.20 p.m. Fare 22 Y. There are also buses directly to Langde 1 hr, 12 Y.
We walked from Langde to the villages of Baode and Nanmeng. The hike would have been great but unfortunately there is a paved road all the way now, so it turned out to be a bit boring even though there was almost no traffic. From Nanmeng we caught a bus to Leishan (10 Y) and from Leishan back to Kaili (22 Y).
Kaili – Congjiang (从江) – bus at 8.20 am from bus station on Wenhua Lu, 138 Y, 4 hrs

Basha (岜沙) (a Miao village near Congjiang, alt. 550 m, hot in summer)

From Congjiang we took a taxi to Basha for 40 Y. Entrance fee of 80 Y is charged at the village gate.
Accomodation in a big guesthouse on the right side of the main road, ca. 100 m after the ticket booth, between it and the main square. 100 Y for double with bathroom (no AC, fan only), great views from the window. Erratic water supply.

Basha was still mostly traditional and only a little touched by mass tourism, unlike many other villages in the area.
For the ride back to Congjiang we took a minibus hanging around the main square (40 Y for the whole car).

Zhaoxing (肇兴) (another Dong village near Zhaoxing, alt. ca. 400 m, hot in summer)

From Congjiang we first took the frequent bus to the Congjiang high speed railway station (gaotie zhan), located some 5 kms from Zhaoxing. Took 1 hr, cost 10 Y. Then a minibus from the railway station to Zhaoxing, 10 Y per person, 5 kms. There is a 100 Y entry fee for Zhaoxing.
Accomodation: we paid 150 Y for a nice AC room in a guesthouse, just behind Zhaoxing Hotel in a lane up to the right from the main street.

Zhaoxing was much bigger and more touristy than Basha, with a big choice of accommodation, shops and restaurants along the main street. Anyway, we found the village still nice and authentic. Somehow it managed to avoid the ‘theme park’ model of development.
We did a nice hike via Xiage to the village of Tangan (alt. 840 m), mostly signposted. 3 hrs one way during a heat wave, through nice traditional villages, forest and rice terraces. There are a few restaurants and places to stay in Tangan.

After Zhaoxing we wanted to get to Sanjiang, for Chengyang, another Dong village already in Guangxi. We hoped we would be able to hop on the high speed train for one stop from Congjiang to Sanjiang South (would take ca. 20 minutes). We took a bus from Zhaoxing to the high speed train station from the parking at the village entrance (8 Y). Unfortunately there were no tickets to Sanjiang for the next day or two and the cashier would not sell us tickets with standing room only, even just for one stop. We had to take a bus back to Congjiang bus station (10 Y). From Congjian to Sanjiang ( 三江) we took another bus (32 Y, 107 km, buses every ca. 40 min, last bus at 17.00 pm). It took 3 hrs of a bumpy ride, with walking across a landslide site and transfer to another bus at the other side. Arrived at Hedong (east) bus station in Sanjiang. There are regular city buses and minibuses to Chengyang from Sanjiang. We took a taxi for 60 Y, as heavy rain was approaching.
Chengyang (程阳) (a cluster of Dong villages near Sanjiang)

Entry fee of 80 Y is charged for the entrance to the most famous wind and rain bridge in Ma’an village, at a ticket booth the entry to the bridge from the Sanjiang road. Easy to avoid just by going to the next bridge along the road, some 100 m upstream. The main bridge can be then entered from the village side with nobody asking for the ticket.

Accomodation: Long Feng guesthouse in Ma’an, one of the first places after crossing the bridge. 100 Y for a nice dbl with AC and views from the window.

Chengyang is a very good area to spend a couple of days doing easy walks between traditional villages, across rice and tea fields, with several nice wind and rain bridges and drum towers. The next village, Yan, is barely 10 minutes walk from Ma’an and there are several other ones beyond it, mostly linked by footpaths avoiding roads with traffic. A useful basic map can be found in a leaflet distributed in guesthouses. There is some development for tourism (including useful signposts and public toilets) but the villages have mostly preserved their authentic character.
From Chengyang we took a minibus to Sanjiang (5 Y) to Hexi (west) station, walked across the bridge to Hedong (east) station and took a bus to Longsheng (龙胜) from there (1,5 hrs, 20 Y, every 30 min or so).

Longji Titian (Longji Rice Terrace)

There are two main villages with accommodation in the Longji Rice Terrace – Ping’an (平安) (alt. 800-850 m) and Dazhai (大寨) (alt. 810 m), with the smaller village of Tiantouzhai (田头寨) (alt. 1000 m) some 40 minutes walk uphill from Dazhai. We wanted to stay in both places and considered walking from Dazhai to Ping’an but finally decided against it to avoid walking with all luggage. Finally we stayed 2 nights in Tiantouzhai and then went by bus to Ping’an where we stayed another night. Both Tiantouzhai/Dazhai and Ping’an have splendid hiking opportunities across rice terraces. The Tiantouzhai/Dazhai area has longer hikes, with a walk around the main viewpoints and villages in the area taking a full day. A circular hike from Ping’an around main viewpoints can be done in leisurely 3 hours or so.

Both Ping’an and Dazhai are linked by frequent buses with both Longsheng and Guilin. We took a bus from Longsheng to Dazhai (30 Y, 2 hrs). Entry fee to the whole Longji Titian area was 95 Y and was charged in a ticket booth at Heping (和平), right after the intersection from the main Longsheng-Guiling road. The entry ticket covers both Ping’an and Dazhai and is checked at the entrances to both villages. There was no problem with presenting the same ticket in Ping’an after 2 days since having it stamped in Dazhai.

In Tiantouzhai (alt. 1000 m) we stayed in a nice place (100 Y double with bathroom, great view, no AC but not needed) in lower part of the village, next building to a youth hostel. Water supply in the village was erratic.

Getting from Dazhai to Pingan involved a change of buses but was very easy. First we took a Longsheng-bound bus from Dazhai (found right on arrival at the Dazhai parking lot), telling the ticket inspector that we wanted to go to Ping’an. She dropped us at the Erlong bridge, where Ping’an road branches off (fare 10 Y). From Erlong bridge we took the first passing minibus to Ping’an (almost no waiting, 10 Y per person).

There were many buses to Guilin from Dazhai parking lot (no need to book in advance), priced at 50 Y. There were also ads of direct buses to Yangshuo for 70 Y.
In Pingan after checking several places which turned out to be quite pricey (300-900 Y for a room) we stayed in Caiyun Hotel in the upper part of the village, for  130 Y, negotiated down from 150 Y. The place was a bit shabby but friendly, room with ensuite bathroom and nice view.

Food was expensive all over Longji Titian, in average double the price of average simple restaurants elsewhere.

When continuing from Ping’an to Guilin we found no direct Gulin bus at the Ping’an parking lot. No problem at all – took a Longsheng-bound bus from Pingan to Heping (10 Y) and the bus ticket inspector arranged for us a transfer to a passing Guilin bus on the road a bit after Heping. Heping to Guilin cost 27 Y, took ca. 2 hrs.

Guilin

The bus dropped us at Qintan Bus Station out of centre. Autorickshaw from there to the main train station was 15 Y (according to the map, city buses 2 and 12 also ply this route).
There are plenty of inexpensive hotels around the railway station and the main bus station in Guilin. We stayed in Guilin Hotel, directly opposite the train station (128 Y for a large comfortable room with AC).

Great place for street food – a covered market near Zhengyang Jie, just north of the central square on Zhongshan Zhong (Middle) Rd. Just head into the biggest crowd to find it.

From Guilin we took a bus to Yangshou (30 Y, ca. 2 hrs). It seems that the main bus station has a deal with ladies hanging out at front of the train station – they refused to sell us a ticket while the ladies simply put us on the next bus.

Yangshuo

Arrived at the main bus station on the western outskirts. A city bus goes to the centre from there.
Accomodation: Hotel Indonesia (Oversea Chinese Hotel) on the waterfront. A nice room (AC, ensuite) with balcony and great view of the river was a non-negotiable 180 Y. Recommended. We asked at several other places nearby and they were either much worse or much more pricey.

From Yangshuo we did the Yulong river walk, taking the bus back from Baisha. The way was easy to figure out with the help of maps.me app.

Xingping

We moved from Yangshuo to Xingping after 2 days to stay in a less crowded place in the middle of the karst scenery. Travelled by local bus from Yangshuo south bus station, 1 hr, 7 Y.
Accomodation: Xingping This Old Place hostel, booked by booking.com, 150 Y for a nice AC double.

Xingping turned out to be a nice place in a spectacular setting, with a couple of atmospheric old streets and a relaxed feel once the tourist groups left in the afternoon. We liked it much more than Yangshuo. One drawback was mediocre food – in our 3 days in the village we did not manage to find a place which we liked. Everywhere the food was rather bland and geared to one-time visitors.

Xingping is a great base for longer or shorter hikes. We did the Laozhai hill hike, just 40 min from Xingping waterfront. Shoes are advised, as the upper part is pretty rocky and there are a few places with sheer drops. Views are spectacular.

Another short walk was from Dahebei village (across the river from Xinpging, by ferry, 2 Y) to a semi-deserted cave temple at the riverside some 1 hr downstream (maps.me app was useful to find the way).

We also wanted to do the long hike from Xingping to Yangdi along the Li river. Unfortunately we were told this hike was now closed, so we went as far as it was possible. The first part from the 20 Yuan View to the ferry crossing in Lengshui can be now done along a new path all the time along the riverside instead of following the road. Easy and pleasant. The ferry crossing in Lengshui cost 10 yuan. The hike was well accessible and pleasant up to Laocuntou, where there are a few basic restaurants and cold beer. Short time after Laocuntou things got complicated. The path along the river quickly became overgrown and on some places broken by small landslides. It is also completely deserted, we met no other hikers on this stretch. We followed it nevertheless up to the place where it joins a road coming from the village of Yaotou, on a plateau overlooking the valley. We were warned against going further to Quanjiazhou and towards Yangdi by staff at our hostel in Xingping. Apparently there is no ferry at Quanjiazhou and local bamboo boat owners are very unscrupulous, to the point of being dangerous, in demanding extortionate amounts for crossing the river. According to them, this part of the hike should be considered closed for tourists.We turned back to Yaotou then – it had great views but going there up on an asphalt road was quite a slog in the mid-day heat. Going from Yaotou back to Laocuntou was another tricky part, as there is no road, only some paths across fields, orchards and forests, and no signposts at all. We had to turn back 2 or 3 times before we finally found a path descending all the way to the bottom of the valley and reaching the Laocuntou road on the other side.

This website can be used to figure out the topography of the hike but bear in mind that it describes the hike when going all the way to Yangdi was still possible and easy, which is not the fact anymore: http://hiking-area-yangshuo.blogspot.fr/2015/07/yangdi-xingping-trek.html

Xingping is located very close to Yangshuo high speed train station (gao tie zhan) – just 15 minutes by minibus, 5 Y. The minibuses are coordinated with train departures.
From Xingping/Yangshuo station we took a high speed train back to Guangzhou Nan (South) station (2,5 hrs, 117 Y, booked much in advance via Ctrip).

After a night in Guangzhou we continued to Xiamen – by taking the train from Guangzhou Nan to Shenzhen Bei (75 Y, 40 min, booked a day in advance at the station) and then another high speed train from Shenzhen Bei to Xiamen (4 hrs, 154,5 Y, booked in advance via Ctrip). There are more trains to Xiamen Bei (North) station, linked to downtown Xiamen by BRT 1, a fast bus line on elevated road (a 50 minutes ride).

Xiamen

We stayed in Baijiacun Youth Hostel at Nanhua Lu 20, opp. Zhongshan Park (131 Y for the first night, 100 Y for subsequent nights). Bus 96 from Xiamen train station. Good location (walking distance to Zhongshan Lu) but notoriously unreliable. The ladies staffing the reception spoke absolutely no English and were quite difficult to communicate with even using broken Chinese and a translator app. Our first night was booked via Ctrip and pre-paid using Ctrip “c-money”. They refused to acknowledge it and just demanded a payment in cash without contacting Ctrip. Ctrip ignored our complaint e-mail as well. We were promised a price of 100 Y per night for our second stay a couple of days later, so we stayed there again. To our surprise on check-out they demanded 190 or so yuan per night. We refused to pay this amount, showing them a sheet of paper they themselves had written with the agreed price. Finally they had to accept the initially agreed price of 100 yuan but the whole issue left a bad impression. Not recommended.

Xiamen turned out to be a real haven for inexpensive seafood. The best area were side lanes from Zhongshan Lu, with our favourite spot just behind Nanzhan mall, in a lane accessible from Dazhong street. It was also a great place just to walk around and explore, with a lot of nice architecture in the centre, some lively walkable districts between Nanputuo temple and the centre (it was a good idea to walk this distance) and a great linear park converted from a disused railway line a short walk up from Zhongshan park towards the botanical garden.

The biggest disappointment of our Xiamen visit was trying to get to Gulangyu island. The ordinary ferry from central Xiamen (cost 8 Y) is now for local residents only and tickets can be bought only by showing a local ID. Tourists (foreigners and Chinese alike) are sent to the Dongdu international ferry terminal out of the city center (you need to take a bus or taxi to get there) where there are tourist ferries with tickets for 35 and 50 Y. Those ferries sell out – when we finally reached the terminal the nearest free slot was for departure in 1,5 hr. As it was already quite late, in result we dropped our plans to visit the island. Non-locals are allowed to take the ordinary ferry from the center only after 6.30 p.m. but still paying the ‘special’ tourist fare of 35 Y. There is little information in English, so not sure about that. Anyway, as it gets dark at 7 p.m., it’s too late for more than a short walk on the island.

For getting to Kinmen – ferries now depart from the Wutong ferry terminal, near the airport. It is reached by bus no. 6 from Xiamen train station. The bus stop for no. 6 is on Hubin Dong Lu opp. train station, not on the main bus stops on Xiahe Lu. The ferry ticket to Kinmen was 155 Y, the ride took less than 1 hr and departures are very frequent – no need to book in advance.

After a few days in Kinmen (see the Taiwan section) we returned to Xiamen and went to Macau via Guangzhou. First we took the Xiamen Bei to Shenzhen Bei train (booked a few days in advance, 155 Y) and Shenzhen Bei to Guangzhou Nan (75 Y). On the following day we wanted to take a fast train from Guangzhou Nan to Zhuhai Gongbei (for Macau border) but it turned out that trains from Guangzhou Nan were sold out 5 hrs in advance. We took an unofficial shared taxi from the opposite side of the street on the south-eastern side of the station. Going rate was 100 Y per person + a flexible commission for the touts hunting for customers at the station south-eastern entrances. The ride took less than 2 hrs, highway all the way. Probably taking a bus from central Guangzhou bus station would have been a better idea.
See the HK and Macau section for information on the remaining part of the trip.

Indonesia (Java and Bali), July-August 2015

Indonesia (Java and Bali), July-August 2015
route: [by Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur] Yogyakarta – Dieng Plateau – Solo – Gunung Lawu – Solo – Malang – Bromo-Tengger-Semeru NP – Malang – Jember – Banyuwangi – Kawah Ijen – Lovina – Munduk – Sidemen – Ubud – Ngurah Rai Airport [by Air Asia to Kuala Lumpur]

Very useful resource for travel around Indonesia: http://www.travelfish.org/country/indonesia Somewhat out of date but anyway much better than the current edition of the LP guide, especially for finding budget accomodation.

Whenever possible, we travelled by train on Java and our experiences were very positive, much better than when travelling by bus. The train stations are well-organized and much less crowded than bus stations, staff at ticket windows usually spoke some English and were very willing to advise the best option. There are large screens showing ticket availability at each big station. Usually it is enough to book a ticket 1 or 2 days in advance, sometimes there are available tickets right before departure. Tickets can also be bought online on http://en.tiket.com/ (quite user-friendly, in English, accepts international credit cards) but in such case they need to be printed from a special kiosks at any station (booking code needed), no later than 1 hour before departure.

Map: we used the Maps.me application on a GPS-enabled smartphone and it was very useful, showing even small paths in the hills and indicating exact position.

Yogyakarta

Yogyakarta airport does not offer visa-free entry and exit (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_policy_of_Indonesia for a list of eligible airports and seaports), so we had to buy visas on arrival for $35.
The airport is linked with central Yogya (Malioboro) by Transyogya bus 1a, 3600 Rp (the same bus goes to Prambanan). Transyogya bus routes go in loops, the same bus stop (“halte”) on Malioboro serves both directions.
Accomodation: Losmen Lotus, in Sosrowijayan, in a small lane between Gang 2 and 3, enter the lane opp. Tiffa Losmen. Price 180k Rp, ac, ensuite bathroom, small balcony, basic breakfast included. Nice place.

There are good reliable moneychangers with very good rates in Yogya – Baruman and Mulia in Inna Garuda hotel in Malioboro. Their rates are comparable to best rates obtainable on Bali (see http://www.balibestrate.com/).
Borobudur and Prambanan can be visited on a combined ticket for 375k Rp (listed price is $30, so it is better to pay in Rp). The ticket is valid for visits on two consecutive days (it would be too overwhelming on the same day). This ticket is valid for daytime visits, sunrise is much more expensive (see http://borobudurpark.co.id/ticket-price).
In Prambanan we also visited the Plaosan temples a few kilometers from the main complex. We paid 50k Rp for the becak ride from the entrance to the main complex to Plaosan temples incl. waiting time and back to the bus stop.
For Borobudur we took Transyogya bus 2b from near Tugu station to Jombor bus station (alternatively a taxi would be 40k Rp). It was much easier to come back from Jombor station with bus 2a going directly to Malioboro.
From Jombor to Borobudur the cost was 25/30k Rp by a local bus (overcharged by the conductor, as a comparable distance to Magelang was only 12k Rp). After visiting the main temple we also took a long walk to two other minor temples Candi Pawon and Candi Mendut (the second one has also an an active modern Buddhist monastery nearby). We stayed in Borobudur until ca. 5.30 pm. At that time the Borobudur bus station looked already quite deserted, so we took probably the last bus back to Yogya.

Dieng Plateau

We went to Dieng Plateau by a combination of local buses. The departures were very frequent on the way, we never waited for more than ca. 15 minutes for the next bus. On the downside, the buses were sometimes crowded, always very slow (picking up and dropping passengers every 1km or so) and unreliable – when they decide that they don’t have enough passengers to continue, they would just drop you off, charging only a part of the fare, and you’d need to take another bus going in the same direction.

Yogya: taxi from the Tugu station to Jombor terminal: 40k Rp
Yogya (Jombor) – Magelang: local bus, 1 hr, 12k Rp
Magelang – Wonosobo: local bus, 2,5 hr, 25k Rp, very scenic route
Wonosobo – Dieng: local bus, 15k Rp, 1 hr

In Dieng we stayed in Bu Djono hotel right near the main intersection, 150k Rp for a large but basic double room with bathroom (reliable hot water). The manager gives reliable advice on trekking in the area.
From Dieng we hiked to Gunung Prahu (2565 m). A very nice and easy hike, 2hrs up from Dieng, starting from a side road going sharply up at the end of the village at the exit to Wonosobo. Shortly after the trail passes a school and a cemetery above the village (well recognizable by tall trees). The trail is very well marked by “puncak” signposts. Once on the top it is worthwhile walking along the wide ridge for another 30 minutes or so. Great views of the neighbouring 3000+ volcanoes! Total incl. descent 5 hrs. Before the hike we needed to register and buy entry tickets for 10k Rp in a booth a few steps from Bu Djono (apparently some insurance was included). The tickets were not checked anywhere on the trail. See also: http://www.gunungbagging.com/dieng/
We also did some walks around Dieng, including Kawah Sikidang and Arjuna temples (combined ticket for 25k Rp) and Telaga Warna (no ticket, as we went there in the late afternoon and there was nobody to charge entry fees).

From Dieng we went to Solo, which was possible in 1 day but exhausting. Buses via Wonosobo and Magelang (slow, unreliable, with an additonal change on the way) to Yogya, then a Transyogya bus to the Tugu station and a train to Solo. We wanted to catch a local Prameks or Madiun Jaya train (schedules: http://www.prameks.com/) but finally went with a long distance train for 40k Rp as Prameks was only in 3 hrs and Madiun Jaya was sold out.

Solo
We stayed in Cakra Homestay, an incredibly atmospheric place, a large compound full of artefacts, with a nice inside garden, looking like straight out of a nostalgic film set in a tropical outpost in 1920s. They also have a nice pool which was a life-saver after an exhausting hike to Gunung Lawu. Price 200k Rp for a basic AC room (ensuite bathroom, seating area with a nice view at front) with symbolic breakfast. On the downside, the staff was not reliable – we asked them to book a taxi in order to reach a morning train and finally they told us that there were no taxis available. Luckily we planned enough spare time to reach the station by becak.

Gunung Lawu (3260 m)

We used Solo as a base for a 2-day hike to Gunung Lawu, staying overnight near the summit.
First we went from Solo (Tirtonadi Terminal) to Tawangmangu by local bus: 1,5 hr, 15k Rp. From Tawangmanggu we went to the trailhead in Cemoro Sewu by chartered minibus for 80k Rp. Started from the Cakra Homestay in Solo at 8.30 a.m. and started hiking at 11.30 a.m.
The steep hike from Cemoro Sewu (ca. 1900 m) to the warung Mbok Yem (ca. 3150 m) in Argo Dalem area near the top took 5 hrs. Very well defined path, paved with stones. There is another warung some 300 meters before Mbok Yem on almost the same altitude, when the trail reaches the summit area. Both offer very basic accommodation (just a place on the floor with sleeping mats, free of charge) and simple meals and drinks. The place was not heated and it was very cold at night – the temperature was just a few degrees above freezing. There are also a few bigger buildings in Argo Dalem but they were either locked or totally deserted, so they are presumably only used for major pilgrimages.

In the morning we went up to the top (3260 m) for the sunrise, then returned to the warung for coffee and started the descent via an alternative trail, first crossing the northern side of the summit area westwards and then turning south-west and down to Cemoro Kandang. This trail had much better views than the ascent trail from Cemoro Sewu. It was well-defined but very dusty (a face mask would be a good idea) and must be extremely slippery in wet weather. The descent to the road at Cemoro Kandang took 5 hrs. After a lunch at a roadside warung we hitched a ride from local guys on motorbikes back to Tawangmangu, then took a bus back to Solo.

See also: http://www.gunungbagging.com/lawu/

Solo to Malang – 7 hrs by Malioboro Ekspres train, ticket bought 3 days in advance via http://en.tiket.com/  (we needed then to print it out from a kiosk at the station). Price 210k Rp for eksekutif class.
Malang

We found Malang to be a very nice city to spend some time – walkable and peaceful, very pleasant climate, with some nice places to explore including a pet market and a large Chinese temple complex. We stayed in two places:

Hotel Emma, on the main street opposite the train station, some 200 m northwards. Price 175k Rp for a double room, ensuite bathroom, no AC. Quite average.

Hotel Helios, on Jln Pattimura, some 10 min walk from the train station. Very nice room for 250k Rp, AC, breakfast included. On the roof there is a hostel and a bar – nice for beers, average for food.

Bromo – Tengger – Semeru area

We wanted to skip the typical Bromo tour experience including access from Probolinggo (famous for bus station scams), short sleep at an overpriced hotel in Cemoro Lawang and a very crowded sunrise from Penanjakan. After some reading we decided to spend 3 days in the area and access it from Malang via Ngadas on the south western slope of the Tengger caldera. Our plan was successful, albeit with some adventures. The Maps.me application was excellent for navigating the area by ourselves.

Day 1: In order to save time in the morning we decided to catch a taxi from Malang to Ngadas and ask the driver to go by the meter (the cost is 3600 Rp per 1 km). That was an error, as no taxi would go beyond  Gubukklakah – the road is simply too steep for sedan cars. To make matters worse, the taxi driver lost his way and dropped us in Poncokusumo in result, a village on a road parallel to Gubugklakah (we duly paid 110k Rp according to the meter). In Poncokusumo we negotiated with local ojek drivers who agreed to take us to Ngadas for 150k Rp for two ojeks (75k for one). They first took a nice back road between Poncokusumo and Gubukklakah and then continued along a spectacular steep road to Ngadas. The road was so steep that we needed to walk along the motorbike for a few steepest parts.  All this odyssey took us almost 3 hrs – started from Malang at 8.30 am, started walking from Ngadas at 11.10 am.

Alternatively, there are angkots (minibuses) to Tumpang and then onwards to Gubukklakah, but most probably no public transport to Ngadas.
Some 3-4 kms below Ngadas there is a ticket booth on the main road. Entry ticket to the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park for foreigners was a steep 217.500 Rp on weekdays, 317.500 Rp during weekend. The ticket said it was valid for one day only but according to some reports on the internet its validity is 3 days. Just in case we managed to avoid ticket booths on subsequent days.

[A warning to visitors visiting the Bromo area from the main access point in Cemoro Lawang – there were many reports that local guides in Cemoro Lawang were issuing some bogus slips of paper or fake receipts instead of real tickets, pocketing the money. This happened especially to people taking jeep rides to Mt Penanjakan for the sunrise. A genuine ticket has a series and a sequential number and is printed, not written by hand. Just refuse to pay as long as you don’t get a real ticket. It also seemed that in Cemoro Lawang nobody seemed too interested in selling or checking tickets of daytime visitors, concentrating on the sunrise crowd. There are also many paths into the Tengger crater and towards Bromo which avoid the ticket booth located just at the main road in upper part of Cemoro Lawang.]

From Ngadas (alt. 2100 m) we hiked to Jemplang (2350 m) on the rim of the large Tengger caldera in 45 min, some 2.5 kms on an asphalt road with some traffic. In Jemplang the road branches off – right to Ranu Pani, starting point of the hike to Gunung Semeru, left and down into the Tengger caldera and across the “Savannah” and then the Pasir Laut (Sea of Sands) to Bromo and Cemoro Lawang. [WARNING: there were big signs that the road between Jemplang and Bromo would be closed for reconstruction from mid-August to December 2015]
From Jemplang it took us 4 hrs to reach Cemoro Lawang (2200 m), hiking via the bottom of the Tengger caldera, named first “Savannah”, then Pasir Laut (alt. ca. 2100 m), including a visit to the Poten (Hindu temple under Bromo) but leaving Bromo crater for the next day. The walk was extremely dusty, face masks were very useful. Most parts of it were sand tracks rather than a proper road, passable to motorbikes and jeeps.
In Cemoro Lawang there were plenty of homestays of varying price and quality. After seeing a few places (easy to walk around, the village is small) we found a nice clean place for 150k Rp (large room, hot water, bathroom inside). There is definitely no need to stay at the overpriced Cafe Lava, no matter what the LP guidebook says. There are also a few places to eat with reasonable prices and acceptable food – we had a good dinner at a warung in the large building on the main road short distance up from Cafe Lava.

Day 2: We decided to skip the crowded sunrise jeep ride, slept until 7 am, had breakfast in the village and started hiking towards the Penanjakan viewpoint at 8 am. From Cemoro Lawang first we took a gently ascending village road going broadly parallel to the crater rim which eventually turned into a steep path. It took 2 hrs to reach the viewpoint near the summit (some 2700 m). Our plan was to continue descending to the other (western) side of Penanjakan and descend into the Tengger caldera from there,  crossing Pasir Laut towards Bromo.  We hiked only as far as the junction with the Wonokitiri road (ca. 2400 m). Seeing strong wind whipping up clouds of dust in Pasir Laut, we decided to take an ojek from the junction to Poten (Hindu temple under Bromo), paid 75k Rp per motorbike. We visited Bromo (a climb of ca 150-200 m up along stairs, up to ca. 2300 m) and then took another ojek ride across the Pasir Laut to Savannah for 50k.

From Savannah we wanted to check out an old path up to the Tengger crater rim, joining the road from Jemplang to Ranu Pani at the top. The path is shown on maps.me but it is overgrown and barely recognizable in the lower part. It starts near a visible group of trees, becomes very visible in the steeper part where the path is carved into the slope. Anyway, it is overgrown with tall grass all the time, so it may be unsafe if there are poisonous snakes in the area. Starts at ca. 2150 m, goes up to ca. 2500 m on the crater rim.

From the crater rim there were some 3-4 kms down along the road to Ranu Pani. The upper part of the village has no accommodation. The lower part located at the lake (ca. 2100 m) has Pak Tasrip homestay (170k Rp for a basic dbl room, shared bathroom, hot water, nasi goreng for breakfast included) and all tourist infrastructure at the Semeru trailhead. There are some shops with trekking gear, “base camp”, places for renting tents and sleeping bags. A guide to Semeru can be hired for 500k Rp according to Tasrip.

Day 3: We hiked to Ranu Kumbolo, the first part of the trail to Gunung Semeru. Took us 3hrs 15 min there and 2 hr 30 back. It was a very nice hike across a primordial-looking forest, with some spectacular views of the puffing Mount Semeru. No steep ascents, from ca. 2100 m to a pass on 2500 m and down to Ranu Kumbolo lake at ca. 2400 m, with a distance of 10,5 km or 13 km (according to various signs).

After the hike we managed to get to Malang in the same day. From Ranu Pani we took ojek to Tumpang (150k Rp per motorcycle, 1hr 10 min ride). From Tumpang we took angkot to Arjosari bus station and another angkot from Arjosari to central Malang. Altogether we started the Ranu Kumbolo hike at 8 am and arrived to Helios hotel in Malang at 5.30 pm, with some hurry (skipped lunch) and a dose of luck, as we did not wait for transport.

Malang to Banyuwangi

From Malang we first went to Jember by train (Tawang Alun 210, 65k Rp for ekonomi class ticket, dep. 15.45, arr. 20.32). The same train goes on to Banyuwangi (arr. 23.30).
In Jember we stayed a night in hotel Ria near Matahari Department Store. The choice was between 198k Rp “executive room” which was acceptable, and somewhat cheaper but much worse run-down “deluxe” and “superior” rooms.

Jember – Banyuwangi: Mutiara Siang train, 65k Rp for bisnis class, dep. 13.00, arr. 15.30. A very scenic ride, taking a daytime train was a good choice.

Kawah Ijen
In Banyuwangi we stayed in Permata Indah Permai hotel (77k Rp for a basic but clean room, bathroom, no AC). The hotel is located on the main road between Banyuwangi and B. Baru train station, literally in the middle of nowhere. It was extremely noisy during the night as traffic noise resonates all around the building. Taxi from the station was 25k Rp. There is a simple restaurant and a shop on the hotel premises. We went for a short walk along the main road and soon found a simple roadside warung some 100 m in the direction of Banyuwangi, on the opposite side of the road, serving delicious crab (40k for a big serving).
We chose Permata Indah Permai just because the owner arranges shared car trips to Kawah Ijen for 150k per person. Add 100k Rp for entry ticket (150k on weekends and holiday) and that’s the total cost of Ijen visit.
The jeep left the hotel at 1 a.m., allowing us to see the famous “blue fires” in the crater while still in the dark. The way from Paltuding (where the car stops) to the crater rim and down to the crater is very obvious. Then we had plenty of time for seeing the crater after sunrise or seeing the sunrise from the crater rim. On the way back short visits to a coffee and rubber plantation and a waterfall were included. We were back at the hotel before 10 a.m., allowing us to take a shower and short nap before checking out at 12 noon and proceeding to Bali by ferry.
There are a couple of other places to stay nearby (within walking distance) which may be of a better standard. Visitors staying in other hotels can still use Permata Indah Permai for the Kawah Ijen trip – one person in our jeep stayed in a more upmarket hotel in a city center.

To Bali

We took a bemo from the hotel to the Ketapang ferry terminal for 15 k for 2 persons. Ferries to Bali are very frequent. Cost 7500 Rp, 1 hr.
On the Bali side the bus station in Gilimanuk is located right next to the exit from the ferry terminal. Unfortunately the Gilimanuk bus station was infested by annoying scammers. When we entered the bus to Singaraja (for Lovina), two of them went straight to us and demanded 55k, then 50k per person. We refused to pay, as the scam was obvious – they did not ask any local passengers to pay. They insisted that we leave the bus but we simply ignored them. I asked a local passenger for the correct price in broken Indonesian and he told me that it would be 30k. Finally we paid to the conductor once the bus was underway and he collected fares from all passengers. The conductor demanded 40k per person, probably also overcharging us.

Lovina
In Lovina we stayed in the central Kalibukbuk area in Puri Bali hotel (http://www.puribalilovina.com/), a very nice place located in a large compound with a beautiful garden, with a small swimming pool. The rack rate of 350k Rp for AC room with balcony (breakfast included) was very easily discounted to 800k Rp for 3 nights. The place was maybe 5 minutes walk to the beach but the beach was not so great – the water was a bit murky and some places in shallow water were muddy.

The best place to eat by all accounts was Warung Ayu, on the street between Puri Bali hotel and the beach. Great local food, fresh grilled fish and cold beers for very reasonable price. The place is small, so it can get full. In such case it is worth waiting for a free table!

We had to change money in Lovina. All moneychangers there are small places operating in shops or hotels, not inspiring much confidence. After asking on Tripadvisor forum, we used Tip Top, a shop on the main street near the ATMs – the rate was decent and the transaction was honest.

Lovina to Munduk

We hired a car with a driver for a full day to combine getting to Munduk, our next destination, with some sightseeing. We booked it for 600k Rp in an office near the dolphin statue.

Entry fees:
Pura Beji in Sangsit: 10k Rp
Pura Ulu Bratan: 30k Rp
Pura Batukaru: 20k Rp
Jatiluweh village: 20k Rp per person, 5k for car
Parking at temples was usually 5k
In Jatiluweh we found a dish definitely worth trying for carnivores: babi guling, assorted pork meat.

Munduk

Contrary to what can be found on the internet, there is plenty of inexpensive accommodation in Munduk. The central area of the village is quite compact, so it is easy to walk around and look. We stayed in Taman Ayu homestay, paid 200k Rp for a very nice room with balcony with a spectacular view (breakfast included). They also have a good warung with inexpensive dishes, on a terrace upstairs with views. The location is very good for hiking, as it is right on the starting point of the trail to the waterfalls, overlooking nice coffee and cloves plantation. The owner gave us a hand-drawn map of the trails. They were also shown in detail on maps.me, so the hike was perfectly possible without a guide.

After Munduk we went straight to Sidemen, hiring the same driver for the day for 600k Rp.

Sidemen

Sidemen is a more upmarket destination, as there is virtually no cheap accommodation in the village. From what we have seen there might be just one or two basic places in the centre of the village. All other places charge at least 350k Rp for a double room.

We stayed in Embang Homestay, paying 350k Rp for a very nice bamboo cottage with almost de-luxe facilities and breakfast.
We took a round walk to the temple on the top of the hill opposite Sidemen, than along the hill to the southern side and down back to Sidemen. A full loop took 7 hrs. Jero from Embang Homestay gave us a basic hand-drawn map. Together with maps.me it was enough for orientation.

From Sidemen we went to Ubud by a shuttle minibus for 95k Rp per person.

Ubud
We stayed in Ubud Tude Family Homestay located in Gang Menda off Jalan Sugriwa. Price 200k Rp with breakfast, no AC (but not needed).

Ubud has some reliable places to change money with very good rates. We used Dirgahayu Valuta Prima (http://www.balibestrate.com/).

We can recommend two places with excellent food: Warung Dicarik in the ricefields, some 20 minutes walk from the Ubud palace (follow the signpost to the ricefields from the main road ca. 200 meters to the east from the Ubud palace) and Warung Laba Laba on Jalan Hanoman.

We made several walks nearby Ubud in nice landscapes of rice paddies and villages.

One walk that I have to warn against is the Penestanan and Sayan walk, described in the LP Bali & Lombok guidebook. Some seedy would-be-guides started harassing us as soon as we started descending to Sungai Ayung valley from near the Sayan Terrace hotel. They demanded 100k Rp per person. After some time we got rid of them, refusing to pay anything but then we realised that the path along Sungai Ayung has been obstructed in several places by locals putting up improvised gates and extorting money for letting us pass through them. They all started from 50k Rp per person but each time they finally settled for 10k after some unfriendly negotiation. They all had large sickles or machetes – maybe local farming tools but they definitely used them for the threatening effect. It all looked quite uneasy and I wonder whether they would soon resort to mugging tourists passing along the path. Furthermore, the path was very narrow and slippery in places, with several places where falling several meters into the river was quite possible.

Ubud was our last place in Indonesia. From Ubud we took a taxi to the Ngurah Rai International Airport for 300.000 Rp. Took 2 hrs in heavy traffic even though we skipped the worst part of it by giving the driver additional 10.000 Rp and asking him to take the toll road to avoid the most congested part near Kuta. Alternatively, there is also an airport shuttle from Ubud for 60.000 Rp per person. Plan at least 3 hrs, possibly even more, if it does not take the toll road.

São Miguel, Azores, February 2015

A week stay on the island.

Flight

Currently only TAP Portugal and SATA airlines serve Ponta Delgada airport. We managed to get tickets from Lisbon for the cheapest fare possible at ca. 90 euros for return flight. This situation will change very soon, as both Easyjet (from Lisbon) and Ryanair (from Lisbon, Porto and London Stansted) will start flying to Ponta Delgada from April 2015.

Getting from and to the airport

Taxi ride between the airport and anywhere within Ponta Delgada costs a fixed 10 euros. There is also an aerobus, cost 5 euros per person, return included.

Accomodation

We stayed in Ponta Delgada in Residencial Sete Cidades (http://residencialsetecidades.blogspot.com/), booked via booking.com. Their walk-in prices are rather on the expensive side but on booking.com we easily found a deal for ca. 32 euros per night for a double room with bathroom, breakfast included. The guesthouse is simple but has anything to make it a good base to exploring the island – clean and comfortable room, friendly service, quite good breakfast, good location (in the centre, yet easy to drive out of central Ponta Delgada), free parking with plenty of space, free wi-fi. Very recommended.

An alternative place in similar price range: http://www.residencialsaomiguel.com/. There are also several others on booking.com.

Transport

Bus

In difference to previously visited “Triângulo” islands (Faial, Pico and São Jorge, see below), São Miguel has a much better bus system that can be used to explore the island with some degree of patience. Scheme and schedules are available here: http://www.smigueltransportes.com/. However, it would require a very early start each day, long commutes (some bus rides take 2 hrs, while by car it is possible to get almost anywhere on the island in less than an hour from Ponta Delgada), and possibly long wait for the infrequent buses back. There is no bus to anywhere near Lagoa de Fogo, in my opinion the most spectacular place on the island. We opted for a rented car, like on other islands.

Car rental

We rented a car from Flor do Norte, a small local agency in Ponta Delgada (http://www.flordonorte-rentacar.com/). Recommended. Cheap price (we got our car for 20 euros per day, cheapest category, off-season), fair fuel policy (full to full), no hidden charges, no dirty tricks with alleged damage etc. that make renting a car in continental Portugal or Spain so annoying. Easy booking by e-mail, friendly service.

Their office is just behind the corner from Residencial Sete Cidades but they can also deliver the car to the airport at no additional charge.

Weather

Before opting for an Azores trip in February we were aware that it could be a hit or miss with the weather, as winter is the most rainy season on the islands. However, we were apparently lucky. From our seven days on the island it rained much only on one day but even then it was not raining all the time and the northern side near Ribeira Grande was better than the southern side. It was OK to skip hiking for one day and just to drive around and visit villages and towns. Another day with intermittent rain was just enough to visit Ponta Delgada. The remaining 5 days the weather ranged from good to fabulous, with perfect views, clear air, plenty of sunshine and mild temperature of ca. 16 degrees Celsius.

Information

We used the same map and guidebook that during previous trip to Faial, Pico and São Jorge – see below. In addition, we found the free map from the tourist information office (available from guesthouse reception) useful – not for the map of the whole island but for plans of Ponta Delgada and other towns. We have also used the MAPS.ME smartphone application and it was very helpful – it’s basically a more basic clone of Google Maps but the big advantage is that it works off-line.

Places to see – a few recommendations

The most spectacular sight of São Miguel are the “lagoas”, big or smaller crater lakes scattered around the island. In our opinion the best one was Lagoa de Fogo. There are several “miradouros” (viewing points) on the road above it, so it can be seen also without hiking. The best experience is hiking down from the lowest miradouro to the lake and then along the shore almost to the other side. The landscape seems sometimes like tundra somewhere in polar areas, sometimes like scenery to “Jurassic Park” (minus dinosaurs).

The most famous lagoa is Lagoa de Sete Cidades. We did not do the hike around it along the crater rim – it is possible but requires walking some parts along roads. What we can recommend is the less-known viewpoint near Lagoa do Canario, from the side of road from Ponta Delgada. It offers a view of the crater rim with the lake below and the ocean above, just a small round bagel of land lost in endless water. The miradouro is a 1-2 kms walk from the main road. The approach road is also accessible by car but the gate is closed at 4 or 5 p.m. (exact hour on the warning sign).

We also did a nice hike between smaller lagoas in the Serra Devassa, near the road between Ponta Delgada and Sete Cidades. There is a marked trail there for a circular hike.

A somewhat less expected upside of our São Miguel trip were the “fajãs”, small flat areas on the seaside under the cliffs, with semi-deserted villages, accessible usually only by a walking path down the cliffs. They were less spectacular than the more famous fajãs of São Jorge but nevertheless made very nice half-day hikes. We can recommend especially two fajãs:

–  Rocha da Relva, accessible from Relva or from a miradouro further up the main road. Relva is quite close to Ponta Delgada, just behind the airport, and this trip should be very easy also by bus from Ponta Delgada.

– even better – Fajã do Araujo and Praia do Lombo Gordo, accessible from Pedreira near Nordeste on the easternmost part of the island. Spectacular views, rather secluded place in February – we had the whole beach to ourselves and it was warm enough for a quick dip in the ocean.

A recommended website for hiking in Azores (all islands): http://trails.visitazores.com/en. It shows official hiking trails, with maps and descriptions. Note: there are many more nice hikes beyond official trails, so a good map and a guidebook with some hiking ideas (see below) is very useful as well.

Israel, January 2015

ISRAEL, JANUARY 2015

A short trip limited to Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, with day trips to Akko and Bethlehem.

Getting to/from the airport

To Tel Aviv – by train (http://www.rail.co.il/EN/Pages/HomePage.aspx), running even at nighttime at least once every hour (except Shabbat). Price 16 shekels.

To Jerusalem – the cheapest option is by Egged bus (http://www.egged.co.il/HomePage.aspx) but it includes a change of buses at an interchange close to the airport, with possibly long waiting time. Alternatively, Nesher shuttle service (http://www.neshertours.co.il/taxis-from-ben-gurion) costs 64 shekels per person and should be booked a day in advance for trips from Jerusalem.

Because of strict security it is important to be at the airport at least 3 hours before departure.

Changing money

There are many moneychangers offering very good rates for EUR and USD in central Tel Aviv (e.g. Ben Yehuda St) and along Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. Those in Jerusalem Old City are in general less trustworthy.

In smaller places cash can be always changed at the post office. Exchange rates are not so great – see here for current ones: http://www.israelpost.co.il/postcurrency.nsf/WebDisplay/$First?opendocument&l=EN

Accommodation

Accommodation in Israel starts from relatively expensive and gets to more expensive :). Anything under $100 for double room with bathroom is considered cheap. Prices are usually quoted in US dollars but then charged in Israeli shekels. It is recommended to ask the hotel for the exchange rate applied for currency conversion before taking the final decision, as sometimes the rate is inflated. In our case the places in Tel Aviv and Haifa where we stayed used a fair market exchange rate but the place in Jerusalem, which otherwise gets very good reviews, overcharged us by ca. 2,5% by applying an inflated exchange rate.

Tel Aviv – Hotel Lenis (http://www.hotellenis.com/, bookable also on booking.com), on Allenby St, near the corner with Ben Yehuda St, $79 for a clean and comfortable room with ensuite bathroom, even if a bit small. Very good location in an interesting part of the city, close to the beach and within a walking distance (quite long) even to Jaffa. Nice terrace on the roof. Recommended.

Haifa – Puah Street Studios on Puah St, $65 for a self-catering studio with a kitchenette and a bathroom. Bookable on booking.com. Close to Bahai Gardens, within walking distance (but uphill) from the German Colony and Wadi Nisnas.  It is linked by direct bus line to both train and bus stations. With a bit of effort walkable from Haifa HaShmona train station but uphill! The friendly owner gives very detailed and helpful information for anything you may need while in Haifa. Recommended.

Jerusalem. In my opinion it makes best sense to stay in West Jerusalem somewhere along Jaffa Road, for example near the Machane Yehuda market. The area is very well-connected by the Jerusalem Light Rail and still within easy walking distance to the Old City. The Old City itself gets all but deserted after dark, so going out after evening may be not very pleasant experience.

For staying in East Jerusalem, the area immediately north of Damascus Gate (Nablus Road, Salah-ed-Din St) seems the best location. Easy walking distance to the Old City and to West Jerusalem and well connected by transport. I would not recommend hotels on the Mt of Olives, even if on the map it seems very close to the Old City. The area has some safety issues, especially after dark, and the walk from the Old City is steep uphill through a deserted area.

We stayed in Eliyahu Mani studio by Allenby2 B&B (http://www.dahliaandnirbnb.com/, bookable by booking.com), $85 (+2,5% on inflated exchange rate) for a self-catering studio with a kitchenette and a bathroom. Great location very close to the Machane Yehuda market and still within walking distance (ca. 20 minutes) to the Old City. Breakfast included, served in the main building at Allenby 2 (some 10 minutes walk).

Some links to alternative budget accommodation in Jerusalem (not checked personally):

http://hotelnoga.com/ , West Jerusalem, close to Machane Yehuda, 260 shekels for double room when I asked in autumn 2014.

http://www.kaplan-hotel.com/, Jaffa Road, 60 euros for double room when I asked in autumn 2014.

– http://www.citadelyouthhostel.com/, a hostel in the Old City, short walk from the Jaffa Gate.

Transport

Israel has good public transport, reasonably priced compared to otherwise high price level, with information on schedules and prices easily available on the internet. Almost all public transport stops running on Shabbat (before sunset on Friday until after sunset on Saturday). An exception is city transport in Haifa, sheruts and Arab buses.

An aggregate transport website: http://www.bus.co.il/otobusimmvc/en

Railway (http://www.rail.co.il/EN/Pages/HomePage.aspx) is very useful for travel between Tel Aviv, Haifa, Akko (and further north to Nahariya) and Ben Gurion Airport. Free wi-fi is provided in trains and in stations. Almost useless to Jerusalem, as it uses an old track, the trip takes much longer than bus and the train station in Jerusalem is quite far from the centre. Exception: in rare case of snow, when roads between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are closed for traffic, railway may be the only transport connection between Jerusalem and the rest of the country. In such case additional trains are provided.

Buses – there are several companies, but Egged (http://www.egged.co.il/HomePage.aspx) has the biggest network and most connections. Free wi-fi is provided in buses and in stations.

Sheruts – shared minibuses, running on fixed routes but not according to fixed schedules. Sometimes the only option during the Shabbat.

Car rental – we did not use it but Eldan (http://www.eldan.co.il/en/index.aspx) gets good reviews and seems reasonable priced.

City transport costs 6.90 shekels per ride in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Tickets can be bought on the bus, exact change is not required. For Jerusalem light rail there are ticket machines at each stop.

Map of Tel Aviv bus routes: http://telaviv.busmappa.com/p/bus-map.html and schedule: http://dan.co.il/english/schedule/default.asp?adsCatId=-9.  Strangely, the only printable version of the map is available in Russian: http://www.dan.co.il/russian/Download/ru.pdf

Food and drinks

Israel is an expensive country, so expect Western European prices, more like in the UK and France than in Germany. The cheapest fast food is usually falafel, for 15-20 shekels. Some more elaborate fast food will set you back ca. 30 shekels. Anyway, even simple street food is usually delicious and something definitely different from the usual globalized fare. For carnivores: try meorav yerulashmi (Jerusalem mixed grill). A meal in a sit down restaurant with a drink will be at least 120-150 shekels for two persons.

Beer costs 10-15 shekels per 0,5 l in a shop. In a bar or restaurant it costs anything from 15 shekels (often for 0,3 l) up, quite often in the 30 shekels range for 0,5 l. The most common Goldstar is very pleasant and the Palestinian Taybeh beer (available in East Jerusalem and the West Bank) is also decent.

On the other hand, very decent wines can be bought for 25-35 shekels per bottle in a shop. Our favourite reds in this price range were Shell Segal and Derech Eretz.

Some visiting tips

Haifa – consider walking some parts of the Haifa trail (http://www.haifatrail.com/haifa-trail-main-eng.htm). Most of it is not yet signposted in the terrain but good maps are available free of charge in the main tourist information office in the German Colony district.

Akko – a nice day trip from Haifa. We had a choice between Friday and Saturday, opted for Friday and it was a good choice. The bazaar was mostly open and it was also possible to visit the main mosque (entry 10 shekels) after the prayers ended.

See here for hours and price of most sights in Akko: http://www.akko.org.il/en/Old-Acre-Visiting-Hours

In addition to the usual sights in the old city, we also visited the Or Torah Tunisian Synagogue and would definitely recommend seeing its mosaics. Apparently it is not open all the time but there was a group of visitors there, so we luckily managed to visit without any appointment. It is located a very short walk from the entrance to the old town, in a side street named Kaplan Street.

Transport – Friday morning by train, 16 shekels. On our way back on Friday evening trains did not run because of Shabbat, so we took a sherut that departed almost at once with only 4 passengers, cost 14 shekels. The sherut dropped us in Hadar district of Haifa.

Jerusalem – a decent city map can be obtained free of charge from the tourist office at the Jaffa Gate. They also have a very useful flyer listing opening hours of most religious sites in Jerusalem – definitely recommended, as the hours can vary wildly and are sometimes quite erratic.

Bethlehem – a day trip from Jerusalem into Palestinian Autonomy. We got to Bethlehem by taking bus 21 from the Damascus Gate bus station in Jerusalem. Price 8 shekels, the bus passed a highway checkpoint without any control and dropped us in Beit Jalla, some 20 minutes walk to the center of Bethlehem.

As we wanted to see the “separation wall”, we chose to go back by another checkpoint. Walked some 40 minutes to the end of the Manger Street. The street reaches a gap in the wall with Israeli soldiers visible on the other side but this is NOT the actual pedestrian checkpoint which is located up a side street to the left. We were directed to the correct entrance by friendly locals. There were a lot of heavily armed Palestinian policemen near the checkpoint, much less Israeli soldiers on the other side – in fact it looked almost deserted in the afternoon.

From the Israeli side of the checkpoint, bus 24 took us back to central Jerusalem for 5,50 shekels.

Both buses 21 and 24 are very frequent – we simply hopped on the waiting bus and it started right afterwards.

Azores / Açores / Azory, May 2014

Faial, Pico and São Jorge

Info

Map: 1: 50.000 Freytag & Berndt, also sold in Portugal by „Turinta” ed., basically a road map but good enough for hiking, even if trail markings were not always taken into account

Guidebook: „Azoren” by Michael Bussmann, Micha­el Mül­ler Ver­lag, http://www.michael-mueller-verlag.de/de/reisefuehrer/portugal/azoren/index.html. A very good, informative guidebook, including hike descriptions for every island. The only drawback – you need to read German to use it 🙂

A very informative website on Azores (but for German speakers too) is http://www.azoren-online.com/. it is especially useful for finding cheaper private accommodation (under “Unterkunft” for each island). Warning: some information, including bus schedules, is out of date.

 

Accomodation:

Horta: Casa Buganvilias (no sign on the house), http://msvieira.no.sapo.pt/, private rooms for rent in a new part of the town, 5 minutes walk to Porto Pim, a lot of free parking space, 40 minutes walk to the ferry terminal. 25 euros for a comfortable double room, fridge, shared bathroom (but we were only guests in the house). No wi-fi.

Lajes do Pico: Apartamento Lajes, found on booking.com. No sign on the house, in the same building as a driving school. A fully equipped apartment (kitchen, fridge, bathroom, access to washing machine), 35 euros per day. Located in a very center of Lajes, across the corner from whale watching agencies. Free parking ca. 50 meters away in near the port. No wi-fi but the city authorities provide wi-fi in some locations nearby. Note: in order to book I had to send a bank transfer with part of the price, which might be difficult for visitors from outside the EU.

São Roque: Sportfish.pt, found on booking.com. A large comfortable bedroom with bathroom in a vacation home (access to common part with fully furnished kitchen and a swimming pool), 30 euros. Wi-fi and free parking. Located in a side street near Oasis car rental office (handy for returning the car) close to the road towards Lajes. Some 20 minutes walk to the port but the owner kindly gave us a lift for the morning ferry.

Velas – Hospedaria Australia (http://www.acores.com/australia/), Rua Drº Teófilo Braga, in the very center, no parking. A traditional  basic guesthouse. 35 euros for a room with bathroom (no hot water in one room, low pressure in another), modest breakfast in an attached snack bar included. Free wi-fi.

 

Transport

Getting there: we took a flight from Lisbon. Only two companies fly to the Azores from Lisbon – TAP and SATA. At the time of booking our tickets TAP had very rare special offers priced below 100 euros for return flights, with very limited dates. Otherwise their prices started from 150 euros. SATA had prices starting from 120 euros, with much larger choice of dates. Cheaper flights were available to Horta (Faial), Ponta Delgada (São Miguel) and Terceira, flights to other islands were much more expensive. Finally we bought a ticket to Horta for 128 euros by SATA. Taxi from the Horta airport to the town was 12,50 euros.

Between the islands: Faial has the advantage of being one of the “Triangulo”, three islands linked by regular and relatively inexpensive ferry link by Transmacor (http://www.transmacor.pt/). Their website is not easy to navigate. Usable schedules are somewhat hidden under „Informacoes uteis” –> “Downloads”.

Ferries ply between Horta (Faial), São Roque (Pico) and Velas (São Jorge) twice daily. There is also a more frequent link between Horta and Madalena (Pico) 5-7 x daily. Prices: Horta – Velas 15 euros; São Roque – Velas 10,10 euros; Horta – Madalena 3,40 euros.

It may be difficult to believe but from the regular ferry between Velas and São Roque we saw as many as three whales and four packs of dolphins, some coming just below the board of the ferry.

On the islands: probably the main drawback of moving around Azores is the very limited practicality of local bus transport. On Faial buses are completely useless for any hikes or trips out of Horta. On Pico buses can be used in a limited way from Madalena (schedules: http://www.cristianolimitada.pt/horarios_cristiano_limitada.html) but they are useless from any other town and do not reach anywhere in the interior of the island. On São Jorge there are two possibly useful bus connections (Mo-Fri only) from Velas – to Rosais on the western tip of the island and to Calheta, passing by Norte Pequeno and Norte Grande, allowing for a hike to the central mountains. Schedules are available in the tourism office in Velas.

In view of the above, for any serious exploration of the islands the choice is between renting a car, hitch-hiking or taking expensive trips by taxi. We rented a car on all three islands. We found our experience with rental agencies on all three islands to be fairly similar – they are not cheap compared to prices in mainland Portugal (30-35 euros per day for the cheapest small car, with no insurance) but they were straightforward, did not try any dirty tricks with fuel or alleged damage to the car. We used the following agencies:

Faial: Auto Turistica Faialense (http://www.autoturisticafaialense.com/), ca. 30 euros/day (prices on their website do not include VAT), booked by e-mail.

Pico: Oasis (http://www.rentacaroasis.com/), 30 euros/day, no additional charges for pick-up in Madalena harbour and return in São Roque. Altogether they were the best agency during our trip. They also have cars on Faial. Booked by e-mail.

São Jorge – Auto Turistica Velas (http://www.velasauto.com/, opposite big hotel Sao Jorge Garden), 35 euro/day (walk-in rate for one day), 33 euro/day for two days or more. Walk-in (their website shows higher prices for internet booking).

All above prices were without insurance. Typically the insurance was 7-9 euros per day for limiting the liability to ca. 900 euros or 20 euros per day for limitation to 50 euros.

 

Hikes and things to do

All three islands are simply amazing for nature and hiking and they are quite different, so not easy to compare. If asked to make a ranking, I would probably give Pico number one, with São Jorge a close second. We did following trips on foot and by car but there are many more interesting possibilities!

Faial:

1. By car from Horta to Capelo, walk from Capelo along a marked trail across two older volcanoes (Cabeço Verde and Cabeço do Canto) to the amazing new volcano of Capelinhos (emerged from the sea in the 1950s). There is a very informative interpretation center near Capelinhos (entry 6 euros), much helpful to understand how the volcano emerged. Back to Capelo by dirt roads above the seaside cliffs, starting in Porto Comprido. Altogether it’s a day trip, taking into account time needed to visit Capelinhos volcano and for a picknick lunch. A map is available for download here: http://trilhos.visitazores.com/pt-pt/trilhos-dos-acores/faial/capelo-capelinhos

2. Around the Caldeira, the central volcano, climbing Cabeço Gordo (the island’s highest point, 1043 meters). There is a road to a parking just below the crater rim, from there the full circle took us 3,5 hrs, plenty of photo breaks included. The problem with this hike is that it is very often in the middle of the clouds. When the clouds allow for that, the view inside the Caldeira seems to show a strange lost world. Sometimes the clouds cover the crater rim but allow for a view inside, so it is worth trying even in cloudy weather. Map available: http://trilhos.visitazores.com/pt-pt/trilhos-dos-acores/faial/caldeira

Pico:

1. Climbing Pico (2351 m), the highest mountain in Portugal. The starting point is Casa da Montanha (http://parquesnaturais.azores.gov.pt/en/pico-eng/what-visit/interpretation-centers/mountains-house) on ca. 1250 m, accessible by road (no public transport). All visitors are registered and get a GPS device with connection to the rescuers for the case of emergency. [UPDATE 2017: after our visit a fee of 10 EUR has been introduced for climbing the summit. I have no information whether it is actually charged in practice.] All visitors are registered and get a GPS device with connection to the rescuers for the case of emergency. The trail is very clearly signposted by numbered wooden poles. The actual peak is a smaller volcanic cone located inside the larger crater. In order to reach it one must descend a bit to the crater (almost no altitude loss in this place), cross it and climb some 100 meters across “frozen” lava flows and volcanic rocks. This last part is the only part with some slight difficulties – orientation for finding right passage in the rocks and balance in scrambling using all-fours is needed in two or three spots. Altogether the climb and descent took us some 8 hrs, including a lunch break and plenty of photo breaks.

2. Car trip through Lagoas on the ridge inside the island. Very recommended. Landscapes are amazing, sometimes right from an African savanna, then after a few meters like from a Scandinavian saga. There is an acceptable paved road all along the ridge, passable even in a small car.

3. Westernmost tip of the islands. Parking in Piedade, walk to the lighthouse in Manhenha (easy, along paved or dirt roads), then along the coast northwards. The part along the coast is a marked trail (map: http://trilhos.visitazores.com/pt-pt/trilhos-dos-acores/pico/porto-calhau-manhenha-ponta-da-ilha) but it is not at all easy, as it requires jumping across huge lava boulders, sometimes unstable, and for several parts there is no path at all, just signs painted on the boulders. We found it more difficult than the Pico climb and finally gave up and returned to a village path inland at the first possibility.

4. Whale watching! It was a highlight of our Azores trip. We took a 3 hrs trip with the very professional Espaco Talassa from Lajes do Pico (http://www.espacotalassa.com/ (departures in the morning and afternoon). Not cheap at 54 euros per person but definitely worth it. Pico is probably the best place in the world for seeing whales and May was about the best season in the year. The trick with Espaco Talassa is also that they use an ancient lookout above Lajes (previously used by whalers) and their whale-spotter calls the boat skippers to direct them towards the whales. During the trip we saw three species of whales, including sperm whales and the world’s largest – blue whale, as well as a pack of dolphins. The guys from Espaco Talassa are a treasure-trove of information on marine mammals, provide very informative explanation and keep an exact record of their sightings (available on the website).

Afterwards we also saw whales and dolphins from the São Roque – Velas ferry and dolphins from the coast near Velas.

São Jorge:

1. Rosais and down to Fajã de João Dias. We took a bus from Velas to Rosais (9.45 a.m., weekdays only, starts near the Compre Bem supermarket), walked along local paved roads to the starting point of the 400 m descent along an old trail to the fajã (or a small flat area under the cliffs). There is a small village in the fajã, still inhabited by some people, and provisions are brought in by horse. After slogging the 400 m back uphill we went back to Rosais by taking a round walk via a forest park and another viewpoint to the northern coast, missing the only bus back to Velas at 3 p.m. in result, so we needed to walk the remaining 6 kms to Velas.

2. Fajã dos Cubres to Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo. We have reached the first fajã by car, by a quite adventurous narrow access road carved in the steep slope. Fajã dos Cubres is linked to Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo by a very nice trail, sadly frequented by quad bikes, taking ca. 1-1,5 hrs in one direction. Both fajãs are inhabited, there are quite large villages there including snack bars and even some accommodation.

3. Pico da Esperança (1053 m, highest mountain on São Jorge). An easy and beautiful walk from the highest point of the trans-island road between Urzelina and Norte Grande. Altogether it took us 3 hrs there and back, mostly along a dirt road, only the top itself was accessible by a grassy path.

There is also a hardcore version of this hike accessible by public transport on weekdays – 07.25 a.m. bus from Velas to Calheta goes through Norte Grande and Norte Pequeno. From either of the Nortes there are some dirt roads allowing an easy ascent to Pico da Esperança (ca. 700 meters up) and then it is possible to walk along dirt roads and then side paved roads to Santo Amaro and Velas. All should be doable in a day but it would be a long hike. It seems to be worthwhile only when the central ridge is not shrouded by clouds.