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Here I will be sharing my photos of landscapes and wildlife from around the world along with helpful travel tips. Please follow my journey and check out my photo galleries. All images have been taken by myself and are available to purchase as prints and photo products. All of which are available to purchase from my Etsy Shop: https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/CarmenGreenPhotos
 

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Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, Madagascar

October 07, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Situated only about 150km to the east of the capital of Antananarivo (Tana), Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is one of the most visited National Parks in Madagascar. The drive takes 3 to 4 hours form Tana, depending traffic, meaning that a visit can be carried out as a day trip from Tana although it is recommended that you spend at least 2 or 3 nights here to fully enjoy the amazing wildlife that Andasibe-Mantadia has to offer. The main attraction at this National Park is the indri and this is the main reason I wanted to visit. Known locally as the babakoto, the critically endangered indri is the largest lemur in the world and a frequent sight at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. The National Park itself covers an area of approximately 154km² and consists primarily of two main areas: the smaller and more accessible Analamazoatra Special Reserve and the significantly largely Mantadia National Park. In addition, there are several other smaller reserves within the area including Réserve de Torotorofotsy and the locally run Parc Mitsinjo which are also worth visiting if you have the time.

The nearby town of Andasibe is quite small with few amenities but interesting to wander through. You'll pass various stalls selling a variety of items such as rice, beans, meat, beer and electronics. Later in the day, farmers herd their zebu through the village back to their pens and we even stopped to watch part of a football match between two local teams. Take note that there are no ATMs here so ensure to withdraw any money you will need for your stay in advance. If you are looking to go shopping for gifts, there are several little stalls selling crafts made by the local women. They sell the exact same products as the gift shop at the park office but at about half the price and I suspect the profits also go directly to the local people. There are numerous hotels to choose from in the area, all very accessible to the parks. I highly recommend staying at the relatively new Mantadia Lodge. Located at the top of a hill, the hotel offers stunning panoramic views of the surrounding rainforests and its proximity to the National Park means that you will can wake up to the sounds of indris calling in the distance.

Diademed sifaka, Analamazoatra Special Reserve, Andasibe-Mantadia, MadagascarDiademed sifaka, Analamazoatra Special Reserve, Andasibe-Mantadia, Madagascar Indri, Analamazoatra Special Reserve, Andasibe-Mantadia, MadagascarIndri, Analamazoatra Special Reserve, Andasibe-Mantadia, Madagascar

Analamazoatra Special Reserve

The park office for most of the reserves in the area can be found approximately halfway between the RN2 and Andasibe. There is also a decent information centre providing background information on the national park and its wildlife, particularly the indris as well as general information on Madagascar. You can choose from a small range of trails depending on what you want to see and the amount of time you would like to spend there. It is advised to head out in the morning (between 7 and 11am) to get the best sightings of the indris.

Not long after embarking on the trail we could already hear indris calling in the distance. Shortly after, we stumbled upon a couple of common brown lemurs, including one mother with her baby. There was an abundance of other wildlife including the birds: Madagascar bulbuls, magpie robins and the stunning paradise flycatcher as well as lesser vasa parrot, blue coua and common newtonia. Lined day geckos could often be found on the endemic Pandanus plants that are common in these rainforests and a group of colourful Diademed sifakas lept through the trees right past us. Then, after about an hour of walking, we finally encountered our first indris. After seeing so many photos and videos of this lemur, they were actually a lot smaller in real life than I imagined, not much bigger than a sifaka. This group of indris stayed with us for quite a while, leaping elegantly between the tree trunks and feeding. We were even lucky enough to have them call right in front of us! It was amazing; the volume of that call is just unreal! After only about 30 seconds the calling suddenly stopped and they resumed feeding. Despite being renowned for these booming calls, each group only actually does this for about 4 to 5 minutes a day.

Indri, Analamazoatra Special Reserve, Andasibe-Mantadia, MadagascarIndri, Analamazoatra Special Reserve, Andasibe-Mantadia, Madagascar
Towards the end of our hike, our guide also spotted the elusive mossy leaf-tailed gecko on one of the tree branches. This species is so well camouflaged, there is no way that we would have seen this without a guide! We were also fortunate to find a couple of funky looking giraffe-necked weevils, so named because of its elongated neck, much like that of a giraffe. After only a couple of hours at Analamazaotra Special Reserve, you will be sure to have a decent species list and fantastic encounters with the wildlife who inhabit this park. For me though, the indris were, without doubt, the highlight of the day, and in fact the entire trip.

Mossy leaf-tailed gecko, Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, MadagascarMossy leaf-tailed gecko, Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, Madagascar Giraffe-necked weevil, MadagascarGiraffe-necked weevil, Madagascar


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Mantadia

This National Park is located a good 1.5 hour drive away, depending on which trail head you start at and can only be reached via a bumpy dirt road so a 4x4 is essential. Bear in mind that you will still need to go to the main park office first in order to pay the park entrance fee and pick up your guide. Ideally you will need your own vehicle to transport you to the park, otherwise it may be possible to arrange transport with the park office. Although Mantadia National Park is slightly less accessible than the other parks in the region with trickier terrain to traverse, it definitely worth visiting in order to observe pristine primary rainforest that is home to additional species that have more specific habitat requirements and cannot be found in secondary rainforest. In addition, there are significantly fewer visitors to this park which improves your wildlife encounters. Even on the way up to the trail head, we observed an indri who was just chilling in a tree by the side of the road.

The highlight of the day here though was seeing black and white ruffed lemurs which can only be found in the Mantadia section of the national park. Having heard previously that they are difficult to locate in the forest since they have a large home range, we were pleasantly surprised to find two feeding high up in the trees above us. Other new species that we observed at Mantadia National Park included blue vanga, red front coua, Madagascar buzzard and our first snake of the trip: Liophidium rhodogaster. We also got to see another highly camouflaged mossy leaf-tailed gecko (although we still need a guide to point out this elusive species)!

Black and white ruffed lemur at Mantadia National ParkBlack and white ruffed lemur at Mantadia National Park Madagascar wagtail at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, MadagascarMadagascar wagtail at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, Madagascar

Night walks

Do not leave the rainforest without going on a night walk. While you are not allowed to enter any of the national parks in Madagascar at night, you can see plenty of wild nocturnal animals outside of these protected areas. Parc Mitsinjo for example offer night walks, otherwise you can carry out your own night walk along the roadside. We brought our own high-powered headtorches so drove down to Mikalo Hotel and walked a couple of hundred metres down the road in search of nocturnal wildlife. We were in luck - we saw several pairs of bright eyes staring back us belonging to two Eastern woolly lemurs; one was just by the side of the road and another slightly further back in the rainforest. In addition, we spotted several chameleons, colourful frogs and numerous Madagascar nightjars and bats flying overheard.

Fork-nosed chameleon at Andasibe-Mantadia National ParkFork-nosed chameleon at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is a fantastic patch of rainforest and home to a huge diversity of wildlife. Being so close to Tana, there really is no reason why you shouldn't visit. The amazing indris alone makes the drive over there worthwhile. I don't think many things would beat having a group of them calling right in front of you!


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Things to do within an hour's drive of Dubrovnik

August 10, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Aside from the obvious main attraction of the Old Town, Dubrovnik, there are plenty of other worthwhile destinations to visit if you have enough time, all of which are within an hour's drive of Dubrovnik.

Ston & Mali Ston

View of Ston looking down from the city wallsView of Ston looking down from the city walls View of Ston looking down from the city wallsView of Ston looking down from the city walls
Take a scenic coastal drive to the small towns of Ston and Mali Ston located south of the Pelješac peninsula and just under an hour away from Dubrovnik (approx. 50km). Less known than Dubrovnik with far fewer tourists, this area is famous for three main things: oysters, salt and the impressive medieval city walls extending up to 5.5km in length making it the longest defensive fortress system in Europe that was built to defend the city and its salt pans. Park your car at the town of Ston where you can also visit a number of shops and choose from a selection of cafes and restaurants to dine in before making your way to the city walls. Here you can go up and walk along the whole length of the city walls to Mali Ston. From here you can either turn around and walk back along the walls or take the quicker option; descend and walk back along the main road. From the top of the walls you can observe amazing views of the mountains, salt pans and bay of Mali Ston with its stunning clear blue waters. Make sure to wear appropriate footwear for the climb (there are many steps) and bring plenty of water with you as it can get very hot and there is little to no shelter. Listen out for nightingales singing in the trees surrounding the wall and keep an eye out for huge violet carpenter bees and butterflies including the spectacular swallowtail foraging on the wildflowers. Being less touristy than the nearby Dubrovnik, we barely saw any other people on our walk. Our visit to Ston was a real highlight of our trip to Croatia.

Beautiful clear, blue water at Mali Ston, CroatiaBeautiful clear, blue water at Mali Ston, Croatia


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Cavtat

Only a half hour drive from Dubrovnik lies the harbour and coastal town of Cavtat. Like Dubrovnik, it is quite touristy with multiple restaurants, bars and hotels but is a lot quieter and peaceful. Take a leisurely stroll along the promenade with a ice cream, relax on the beaches, rent a kayak or visit the museums. This is a great place to visit if you just want to relax, unwind and soak up the scenery.

Promenade, Cavtat, CroatiaPromenade, Cavtat, Croatia Cavtat, CroatiaCavtat, Croatia

Konavle region

Visit this agricultural region to the south of Dubrovnik, just before the border with Montenegro to enjoy beautiful scenery and delicious food. We didn't spend much time here other than driving through on route to Montenegro. However, we did stop at a small restaurant, which was recommended in our guide book and was, without doubt, the best meal of the holiday! Konoba Koraceva Kuca is a small, family-run restaurant specialising in traditional Dalmatian cuisine. It is situated just off of the main road in the village of Gruda with an outdoor terrace that gives stunning views of the fields, vineyards and mountains of Bosnia. Make sure to book a table in advance and sit outside to enjoy the sunset over these mountains. The staff were very friendly and attentive, even offering customers to take a tour of their kitchen to show how their meats are slow-cooked. In addition, they serve a delicious aperitif; a homemade, pomegranate liqueur which we enjoyed so much that they even brought us a second helping!

 

Trsteno Arboretum

Fountain at Trsteno ArboretumFountain at Trsteno Arboretum King's Landing gardens, Trsteno ArboretumKing's Landing gardens, Trsteno Arboretum

The botanical gardens form another famous Game of Thrones filming location (King's Landing gardens where Lady Olenna speaks with Sansa about Joffrey, but more on the various GoT filming locations in a later blog post). It's not a huge place so only an hour or so is really needed here and is best done in combination with another trip out; I don't think it would be worthwhile to visit on its own unless you really love botanical gardens (we visited on our way back from Ston). The gardens contain a diversity of plants from all over the world including a huge 500 year old plane tree. Another highlight of the arboretum is an 18th century fountain overlooked by a statue of Neptune flanked by two nymphs. Also, from the arboretum you can take a wander down to the coast where you can find the GoT filming location for where Bronn and Jaime train.
 

Day trips to Bosnia & Montenegro

Since Dubrovnik is so close to the borders with Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro, why not take a day trip to both of these countries and add some more stamps to your passports. Like Croatia, both countries have beautifully stunning landscapes, culture and history with many attractions to visit that are quite near to the border. As we hired a car for the week, we took a short road trip to Mostar and Kravice Waterfalls in Bosnia on one day and a road trip to Kotor, Montenegro, on another day. Just make sure you inform your rental car company so that you are covered under their insurance when you leave the Croatian border. There will be separate blog posts with further details on visiting each of these countries shortly.


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A day in Dubrovnik Old Town, Croatia

June 20, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

An old medieval town in southern Croatia, situated between tall mountains and the Adriatic Sea and well known for its distinctive Old Town, Dubrovnik is a stunning place filled with history, culture and stunning views. We stayed just outside of Dubrovnik, in the small village of Soline where we were able to enjoy beautiful views of the Adriatic sea while escaping the hustle and bustle of Dubrovnik Old Town. When visiting the Old Town, make sure to check the cruise timetable in advance and pick a day when there are few/ no cruise ships in the harbour; the Old Town is a surprisingly small place with many narrow streets and can get extremely crowded with tourists over the summer months. Therefore, plan ahead in order to make the most of it and avoid the crowds.

Dubrovnik Old TownDubrovnik Old Town

A real must when visiting Dubrovnik is walking the city walls. Do not leave this place until you have done so! When I was reading up on the city prior to visiting, everywhere stated that the city walls is the number one attraction in Dubrovnik, and they were not wrong. These walls are well preserved, encircling the entirety of the Old Town and include a number of fortresses/ towers. The main entrance is at Pile Gate but you can also get in at Ploče Gate and the Maritime Museum. The whole route is approximately 2km long with various scenic stops and photo opportunities. It takes about 1.5 hours to walk, depending on how often you stop. When visiting, it is recommended to either go early in the day to beat the crowds and avoid the heat (it is very exposed with little shelter and the sun can get extremely hot during the summer months). Alternatively, you can visit later in the day, as we did, when it is cooler and most tourists, particularly those from cruise ships are leaving. As the sun starts to drop, it also gives the Old Town a beautiful pre-sunset glow, enhancing the colours of those iconic orange roofs. It is also much easier to take good photos at this time of day, without worrying too much about overexposed photos due to the bright sunlight.

Dubrovnik Old Town and the island of Lokrum looking down from the city wallsDubrovnik Old Town and the island of Lokrum looking down from the city walls


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There is so much else to see and do in the Old Town. Walk the Stradun, the main street through the Old Town stretching from Pile Gate to the port, and stop off at sights such as Rectors Palace, Sponza Palace, Dominican Monastery and St Blaise Church. Also, not forgetting that Dubrovnik is one of the major filming locations for the successful Game of Thrones series, make sure to visit the various locations that are featured. I will post a blog shortly with a complete Game of Thrones tour of King's Landing so look out for that. Rectors Palace, Jesuit Stairs and Pile Gate are among the main locations where iconic scenes such as Cersei's walk of atonement were filmed. There are also many stores selling official HBO merchandise throughout the Old Town (however, you can probably find most of these gifts online for half the price).
Narrow street in Dubrovnik Old TownNarrow street in Dubrovnik Old Town Bell tower in Dubrovnik Old TownBell tower in Dubrovnik Old Town

Stradun, Dubrovnik Old TownStradun, Dubrovnik Old Town

You will be spoilt for choice for places to eat and drink in the Old Town. We went to Mea Culpa, a pizzeria tucked away down a short alley, not far from the Stradun. The pizzas here were delicious, however, just to warn you it might be worth sharing a pizza as they are very big! If you do struggle though (as I did), the waiter will kindly put the rest in a box to takeaway. Then, if you have room for dessert, grab an ice cream from Dolce Vita - Croatian ice cream is similar to soft Italian gelato and everywhere we went there was a huge selection of flavours. At the end of the day, pop into D'Vino Wine Bar to try a drop of Croatia's finest wines. They have a large menu for you to peruse but, if you are unsure of what to order, just tell a friendly member of staff the wines you like and they would be happy to recommend one for you. Tastings are available all day and they can also provide tours, although we did not have time to do so on this occasion.

End the day by watching sunset up Mount Srd and enjoy stunning panoramic views of the Old Town, island of Lokrum and the rest of the Dalmatia coastline. There is a cable car that runs from the Old Town up to the top, however, it was not running during our stay there. Alternatively you can drive or walk up (the walk takes approximately 45 minutes and worth doing if you have the time). Take care if you are driving; it is a one way road most of the way with few passing points and can get very busy with impatient taxi drivers. There is also a restaurant and war museum at the top so can you spend a bit of time up here while admiring the views.

Dubrovnik Old Town and the island of Lokrum looking down from Mount SrdDubrovnik Old Town and the island of Lokrum looking down from Mount Srd I hope you enjoy your stay in Dubrovnik as much as we did!


 


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Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

May 30, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Located just outside the town of Quepos, Manuel Antonio National Park is the smallest and one of the most-visited national parks in the whole country. With its stunning white sand beaches, beautiful forest and abundance of wildlife (with 109 species of mammal and 184 species of bird), it is not hard to see why it is so popular. This national park is probably one of the best places to go if you want to see sloths (and let's face it, who doesn't?). Almost as soon as we had we arrived and gotten out of our car, a friendly local called us over to point out a three-toed sloth within a tree outside of the park. The first of many sloths that day!

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa RicaManuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
The main tip for visiting Manuel Antonio is to arrive early to beat the crowds. Being such a popular destination, it soon fills up and the beaches in particular can become very crowded. Therefore, try to arrive in the morning to make the most of the peace and quiet within the park. If you're driving in, there are several options for parking. If you get there early enough there is some parking directly outside of the park, otherwise, you can park quite cheaply at the side of the road by the beach, just down the road from the park. Also, there are no shops of cafes inside the park so make sure that you bring sufficient food and drink for the day.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa RicaManuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica


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Despite its small size, there is still plenty to see and do here and you could easily spend a whole day wandering along the many trails through the forest and relaxing on one of several beaches. The trails vary in length and difficulty from nice, flat trails suitable for all ages to steeper inclines that take you to some high up lookout points. The Miradores Trail in particular leads you up a series of inclines and steps to some fantastic view points including one that looks out at Punta Serrucho, a narrow strip of jagged coastline jutting out into the ocean (above).

White-headed Capuchin Monkey, Costa RicaWhite-headed Capuchin Monkey, Costa Rica Three-toed sloth at Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica,Three-toed sloth at Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica,
There is so much wildlife to be seen in such a small space. In addition to the many sloths that we saw, the highlights would probably have to be the cheeky White-headed Capuchin Monkeys that were in abundance around the beaches. They are not shy of humans so keep a close eye on your food and drinks! Other animals around the beach included Raccoons as well as Iguanas. Deeper within the forest, away from the busy beaches, White-nosed Coatis scurry through the undergrowth and we even saw a Central American Squirrel Monkey climbing through the trees. Also, look and listen out for the noisy Mantled Howler Monkeys who's loud howls can be heard throughout the forest. To increase your chances of seeing wildlife, you are able to hire an experienced guide at the main entrance of the park. However, as there is so much wildlife around, you're bound to see loads anyway, especially as most people within the National Park are very friendly and will point creatures out to you as you walk around. Although a guide would be useful if you were interested in spotting less obvious species such as insects, amphibians and reptiles.

Raccoon at Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica,Raccoon at Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica, White-headed Capuchin Monkey, Costa RicaWhite-headed Capuchin Monkey, Costa Rica
If you want to go somewhere to relax and spot a huge amount of wildlife without going very far, then Manuel Antonio National Park is the place to go. Despite being significantly busier than all of the other places we visited in Costa Rica, it is certainly well worth a visit, particularly if you are hoping to tick seeing a wild sloth off of your bucket list.


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Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica

April 27, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

 

Monteverde is a spectacular place to visit while you're travelling in Costa Rica. Home to the impressive cloud forests formed by dense, low-hanging clouds, there are eight different biological reserves to explore with an abundance of flora and fauna. Located over 1,400 metres above sea level, it is a long drive along bumpy, narrow roads but it is definitely worth it when you get to the top!

Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve

At Monteverde, the main attraction is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve. Here you can either choose a guided tour available in both Spanish and English or explore the forest by yourself. We chose the latter. There a number of trails that you can follow around the reserve of varying distances and difficulties and cross a large suspension bridge leading you into the clouds as well as a number of viewpoints and waterfalls. Keep an eye out for colourful birds darting through the trees. I think a highlight for me was the Black Guan, an arboreal, turkey-like bird that is endemic to the cloud forests of Costa Rica and Panama. However, we also saw many other birds including Collared Redstart, Black-faced Solitaire and Sooty Thrush as well as the very cute Central American Agouti and White-nosed Coati.

Monteverde Cloud ForestMonteverde Cloud Forest Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve suspension bridgeMonteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve suspension bridge Monteverde Cloud ForestMonteverde Cloud Forest

After visiting the cloud forest preserve, make sure you stop by the hummingbird garden just outside the entrance. It is a little bit hidden out of the way and we almost missed it, but I am so glad that we didn't. The numbers and species of hummingbird that the feeders attract are incredible and it was amazing to sit amongst them. I could have easily spent hours there watching these colourful little birds whizz around going about their business.

Hummingbirds feedingHummingbirds feeding


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Night tours

Much of the wildlife that can be found at Monteverde scarcely makes an appearance during the daytime. Therefore, make sure to take a night tour while you are staying in Monteverde to observe all the weird and wonderful animals that inhabit this unique environment. We booked a tour with a local guide called Michael Leiton-Bello of Monteverde Nature Tracks. He was fantastic at spotting wildlife and knows exactly where to look. I recommend booking a private tour with him; it is well worth the money and means that you can go around at your own pace and focus on the wildlife that specifically interests you. He came to collect us from our hotel before taking us to the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge. On route, he told us he had heard from a friend that a sloth had been spotted not too far from where we were; he took us straight there where we observed amazing views of our first ever two-toed sloth.

Two-toed slothTwo-toed sloth

At the reserve, we saw so much more than we ever expected to be able to: Violet Sabrewing, Mottled Owl, Side-striped Palm Pitviper, Brilliant Forest Frog, Orange-bellied Trogon, Emerald Toucanet, Orange-kneed Tarantula, Giant-banded Anole, Stick Insects and even a 9-banded armadillo scurrying off into the night. Also, Michael was very skilled at photography and used our iPhones to capture brilliant photos through his telescope of all this stunning wildlife. Be prepared for a lot of walking - we spent the entire time moving about the forest trying to see as much wildlife as we possibly could within the few hours we had. The night tour at Monteverde was one of the many highlights of our trip and perfect for getting great encounters with animals you wouldn't normally get chance to see.

Violet sabrewingViolet sabrewing Mottled owlMottled owl Side-striped palm pitviperSide-striped palm pitviper Orange-bellied trogonOrange-bellied trogon

Zip lining

Monteverde is also the perfect place for adventure lovers and thrill seekers. With a multitude of zip lines running through the forest, there are plenty of opportunities to explore this unique habitat from a different angle - high above the canopy. There are many companies who run zip lining tours, we chose to go with 100% Aventura who gave an excellent tour. Our canopy tour consisted of 12 zip lines across the forest of varying heights and distances (including the longest zip line in Latin America extending about 1 mile long) that offer a completely different view of the cloud forests.

Sunset over Monteverde, Costa RicaSunset over Monteverde, Costa Rica

Monteverde is a really spectacular place, home to one of the rarest habitats on the planet and a great diversity of plants and animals. Make sure to add it to your itinerary!


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Things to do while visiting Arenal & La Fortuna, Costa Rica

April 06, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

I know most of my blog posts have been about our travels in the States, therefore, I thought it would be good to share my experiences from our other travels around the world, starting with our trip to Costa Rica in 2017. Costa Rica seems to be rapidly growing in popularity with tourists and its not hard to see why. With beautiful mountains, rainforests and beaches, diverse and abundant flora and fauna, friendly locals, lovely weather, great food and the fact that the country is almost entirely powered by renewable energy, why wouldn't you want to travel here? And one place in particular that you really must visit while in Costa Rica is Arenal Volcano National Park, just outside the town of La Fortuna.

Arenal Volcano National Park

While visiting Arenal, the main attraction of course is Arenal Volcano. In fact, it is pretty hard to miss this huge, towering volcano. Being a perfectly symmetrical cone shape, it is extremely popular with sightseers and photographers, despite the fact that its top is quite often obscured by clouds. The large expanse of water that is Lake Arenal resides at the base of the volcano and actually generates about 12% of the country's hydroelectric energy. From the lake you will also see large wind farms at the tops of the mountains, generating even more renewable energy.

Arenal Volcano National Park, Costa RicaArenal Volcano National Park, Costa Rica


Start off at the Arenal Volcano National Park visitor centre where you can choose from several short hiking trails. These trails will take you through rainforest where you will pass enormous trees, beautiful orchids and an abundance of colourful birds. Also, make sure to go just down the road to the Arenal 1968 Lava Trails. This offers spectacular views of the volcano and follows the original lava flow from the huge eruption that took place here in 1968. This hike is really worth doing and leads you across lava rocks and boulders right up to the base of the volcano. We also encountered fewer people along this hiking trail than on the other trails we walked around Arenal and the more open habitats contain a different diversity of wildlife compared to that within the forest.


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La Fortuna Waterfall

This impressive, 200ft high waterfall is situated just outside La Fortuna and is a must-see during your stay. As its quite a popular destination, it may be worth arriving a little earlier in the day to beat the crowds and enjoy unspoilt views of the waterfall. There are various viewpoints to observe from; start from the top before descending just over 500 steps to reach the bottom of the waterfall. Here there are also opportunities to jump into the Fortuna River for a quick swim. Don't miss out on the orchid garden comprising a collection of up to 200 species that are native to Costa Rica. This is part of an important conservation project to raise awareness of the negative effects of deforestation and habitat loss on these beautiful flowers and highlights the important relationships these plants have with their pollinators.

La Fortuna waterfall, Costa RicaLa Fortuna waterfall, Costa Rica

Thermal Hot springs

Don't forget to stop at some thermal hot springs, naturally heated by bubbling underground lava from the nearby volcano. There are several places that you can visit including free, natural hot springs that any local could guide you to. We chose to go to Eco Thermales Fortuna which turned out to be a really good choice as it was lovely and quiet when we visited, with only a few other people there. Here there are several pools of varying temperatures between 37°C to 41°C as well as a cooler pool and waterfall, all surrounded by lush green vegetation. There is also a bar that serves delicious cocktails and sun loungers to relax on. All in all, we found our experience here very relaxing and a great way to unwind following a day of hiking around Arenal.

Wildlife

Social Flycatcher at Arenal National Park, Costa RicaSocial Flycatcher at Arenal National Park, Costa Rica Summer tanager at Arenal National Park, Costa RicaSummer tanager at Arenal National Park, Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano National Park is home to a great abundance of wildlife. In particular, there are some stunning birds such as the Social Flycatcher and Summer Tanager (shown above) as well as Montezuma Oropendola, Keel-billed Toucan, Crested Guam, White-fronted Parrot, Golden-hooded Tanager, Blue Dacnis and a variety of hummingbird and woodpecker species. Some of these birds we also observed around our hotel grounds (we stayed at Hotel Arenal Manoa). This hotel was fantastic and offered superb views of the volcano from our room and had lovely grounds including a lake that is home to some impressive Spectacled Caiman. When you look up closely at the palm trees surrounding the lake you will see several iguanas basking in the sun. Despite their large size, they can easily be missed as they perch motionlessly in the trees. Variegated squirrels scurry about in search for food while numerous small birds dart about. Turkey vultures soar overhead and, if you're lucky, you will see the striking Crested Caracara swoop over. It is a wildlife lover's paradise!


 

Costa Rica, in particular Arenal, is a beautiful place and somewhere that I highly recommend you visit. If you are like me and love wildlife and amazing scenery, you will certainly enjoy your stay here and will be desperate to return back again!


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Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway - Los Angeles to San Francisco

February 06, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

The Pacific Coast Highway is, without doubt, one of the most scenic drives I have ever been on. We began our drive at Los Angeles (although the road officially begins in San Diego) and followed the route right to the end, finishing in San Francisco. It stretches approximately 600miles along the stunning Californian coastline and passes towering mountains, beautiful beaches and dense, green forests. While we completed this drive in two days, it would be possible to do it in a single day. However, I would highly recommend spending more time to fully enjoy and experience all the fantastic sights the route has to offer. I would certainly love to return again one day, perhaps doing the route in reverse and spending more time at each of the places along the way, some of which are detailed below.

Santa Barbara

While Santa Barbara was only a quick lunch stop for us, you could easily spend much more time in this scenic coastal city. Referred to as the America Riviera, this small city lies between the Pacific Coast and the Santa Ynez Mountains, offering stunning views. There is something for everyone here: hiking trails, water sports, beaches, culture and a buzzing nightlife.

Pismo Beach

If you love watching the sun go down, make sure you time your trip well so that you can spend one evening watching the sunset at Pismo Beach. With stunning colours in the sky, impressive cloud formations and majestic brown pelicans soaring over the ocean like the Pterodactyls of Jurassic Park, it was probably one of the most beautiful and unforgettable sunsets I have ever seen.

Located roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Pismo Beach is the only stretch of coastline in central California where vehicles are permitted. Enter through the main entrance at Oceano Beach then feel free to explore the beach by car. You are also able to hire ATVs and dune buggys or go horse riding for a different experience. The beach is fairly flat and easy to drive on so a 4x4 isn't essential but may be preferable. Find a peaceful spot then sit back, relax and watch as the sun goes down.
Pismo Beach, CaliforniaPismo Beach, California Sunset and waders at Pismo Beach CaliforniaSunset and waders at Pismo Beach California
Pismo Beach CaliforniaPismo Beach California

Morro Bay

A coastal city known for Morro Rock, a large volcanic mound at the end of Morro Bay beach, is a place not to be missed on your drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. It is particularly good for birdwatching; it is an important stopover point for a number of waterbirds during the winter and Morro Rock itself supports breeding peregrine falcon which we were fortunate enough to see perching on the rocks. In addition, we saw various waterfowl, namely brown pelican, snowy egret, cormorants, western gull and Heermann's gull. A small group of adorable sea otters were also floating about in the harbour and are frequently seen from Coleman Drive.

San Simeon

Located at the top of a hill approximately 1,600ft above sea level lies the 20th Century mansion of Hearst Castle. It is a National Historic Landmark and California Historical Landmark and there are a range of tours available for visitors to attend. The "Grand Room Tour" is recommended for first-time visitors and gives a good overview of Hearst Castle. Unfortunately we didn't have time to take a look around the estate but just drove to the top of the hill to take a quick look at the buildings and the view before continuing our journey.

Just 5 miles down the road from Hearst Castle, be sure to make a stop at the elephant seal vista point to observe the colony of Northern elephant seals that live there. The viewing area is open all year round and gives you great views of these impressive animals. The huge males in particular are unmistakable with their large noses, giving the seals their name. They are the largest seals in the northern hemisphere and second largest species in the world (after the Southern elephant seal). They tend to come ashore twice a year; during the winter months to give birth to their pups and mate then again in late spring to early summer to moult and develop new fur. Numbers peak in October and November and the rest of their year is spent at sea in search of food.

Group of Elephant Seals along the Pacific Coast Highway, CaliforniaGroup of Elephant Seals along the Pacific Coast Highway, California

Big Sur

A long and beautiful stretch of undeveloped coastline, this section of the Pacific Coast Highway is considered one of the most scenic routes in America and a highly-ranked destination. Along this narrow, twisting road you will find plenty of photo opportunities; multiple laybys along the way allow you to stop and jump out pretty much whenever you want. A popular stop is Hurricane Point view where you can get great views of the Bixby Creek Bridge (pictured below).
Pacific Coast Highway, CaliforniaPacific Coast Highway, California

Whether you are travelling from San Diego to San Francisco or San Francisco to San Diego, you will surely have an amazing and forgettable journey along the Pacific Coast Highway and return home with an abundance of stunning photos. I am sure that, like us, you will be wanting to return again one day!


San Francisco - other things to do if you have more time

January 11, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

 

There is so much to see and do in San Francisco. Obviously make sure you go to the main highlights when you visit: Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island Pier 39 (as detailed in an earlier blog post). However, if you do have a bit more time to spend in this city, there are plenty of other things to keep you busy.

Cable Cars

While you are visiting San Francisco, you have to take a ride on the famous cable cars. These are the last manually-operated cable cars in the world and are a fun way to travel and explore the city. Rarely used by locals these days, you will find the vast majority of passengers are tourists. Three lines are currently operating: one runs along California Street while the other two routes both start at Union Square and head towards Fisherman's Wharf, passing the famous Lombard Street (see below) and offering great views of the city. While we were able to jump straight onto the cable car at Union Square, there was a huge queue coming back from Fisherman's Wharf so be prepared to wait. Then, once you're on, make sure you hold on tight!

Muir Woods

Escape from the bustling city of San Francisco and pay a visit to Muir Woods National Monument,  just a short trip across the Golden Gate Bridge and out of the city. Here you can walk amongst the tall, old-growth Coast Redwood Sequoia sempervirens trees that range from 400 to 800 years in age and reach heights of up to 250 feet tall. Named after the conservationist John Muir, the forest boasts a great diversity of flora and fauna including black-tailed deer, garter snake, sonoma chipmunks, northern spotted owls and winter wren, to name just a few. There are many walking trails throughout the forest suitable for all ages and abilities with multiple bridges that lead you across the Redwood Creek which flows through the wood and is home to Coho salmon and steelhead trout, both of which are keystone species in many Pacific ecosystems.

Whale watching in the Bay

Whether you're completely new to whale watching or have been numerous times before, you will not be disappointed if you go for a boat trip in San Francisco Bay. Humpback whale sightings are frequent throughout the year, occurring more and more regularly in the Bay and San Francisco Whale Tours offer exciting boat trips to go to see them. The guides are excellent at spotting the whales and really knowledgeable and informative, providing tourists not only with information about the wildlife but also facts on San Francisco itself including the Golden Gate Bridge as well as Alcatraz Island (more information on visiting Alcatraz can be found in an earlier blog post). When the guides are not taking tourists out into the Bay, they also carry out important research to understand whale behaviour in the Bay and work on various conservation projects. 

Also, if you go on this trip and do not see any whales, then you will be invited back free of charge until you do see a whale. We were very unfortunate when we went on this boat trip in 2015 - we must have picked the worst possible day for whale watching; with strong winds and very rough water, it was almost impossible to see anything at all. In fact, it was the first day that year that there had been no whale sightings! Although we didn't manage to make it back out again in 2015, I emailed the tour company prior to our 2018 trip and they were more than happy to let us join again for free. The weather was considerably better on this occasion and we were lucky enough to see two humpbacks in close proximity and stayed near the boat for quite a long time.

As if seeing these impressive animals wasn't enough, we also saw harbour seals, California sea lions and glimpses of the elusive harbour porpoises briefly appearing at the waters surface to take a breath of air. An abundance of seabirds also passed by the boat. Species included: brown pelican, Brandt's cormorant, common murres and elegant terns and a full species species list is written up on a whiteboard at the end of the trip. It really was an amazing and worthwhile experience and I highly recommend going to seeing these incredible animals!

Lombard Street -"the crookedest street in the world"

Stop off at Lombard Street and admire this unusual steep road comprising eight hairpin bends. It is said that the road has been designed in this way because the hill would otherwise be too steep for vehicles (despite many other streets in the vicinity being of a similar gradient). We started at the top of the street where you can observe nice views of the city and the Bay before zigzagging down to the bottom, watching the cars slowly wind their way around each bend. While only a short visit is needed here, it is certainly worth passing by.

Mrs Doubtfire's house

Finally, if like my partner you are a fan of the film Mrs Doubtfire, make sure you pay a visit to the house that features in the film. The address is: 2640 Steiner Street, CA 94115-1142. Bear in mind though that people do actually live there so try not to linger too long. However, we noticed we were not the only visitors to this house so residents must be used to plenty of visitors.

 

I really hope you enjoy your time in San Francisco and have chance to visit all the fantastic sights it has to offer! :)


San Francisco - the main highlights

September 22, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Our final stop on this years USA road trip as well as our road trip back in 2015 was San Francisco, home of the famous Golden Gate Bridge. There is a lot to see and do in this city but I have listed the main highlights below; the places that you really do not want to miss if you are visiting San Francisco.

Golden Gate Bridge

You cannot visit San Francisco without stopping to admire one of the most internationally recognised symbols of California and the USA. This impressive suspension bridge, opened in 1937, was the tallest and longest bridge at the time and spans the Golden Gate, a one mile wide strait connecting San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Golden Gate Bridge, San FranciscoGolden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
There are various viewpoints that enable you to observe the Golden Gate Bridge at all angles. My favourite spot (where the photo above was taken) is at Battery Spencer; where you can take in spectacular panoramic views of the bridge with the city of San Francisco in the background. Another good location is just to the north of the bridge, near the lonely soldier statue. Make sure you drive, walk or cycle across it to see the bridge from another perspective. At the end of the day, head down to Torpedo Wharf to watch the city of San Francisco glow as the sun sets behind the bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge, San FranciscoGolden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge, San FranciscoGolden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
 

Alcatraz

A must stop for anyone visiting San Francisco. The only way of visiting this intriguing island is through Alcatraz Cruises. Head over to Pier 33 to catch the boat across to this island of wonder, history and infamy. Ensure you book tickets well in advance; the first time we visited San Francisco, we thought purchasing tickets a week in advance would be fine, but we were wrong. All tickets had already sold out and we unfortunately had to miss out. However, we did not make the same mistake this time round and instead purchased our tickets several months in advance.

We got a day tour ticket to Alcatraz which includes a return ferry trip to the island and audio tour. Other tour options are also available on the website - you can even book a night tour if you're feeling brave! Once on the island, you are free to explore and stay as long as you like; I would recommend staying for at least 3 hours to take everything in. As if it wasn't exciting enough just to explore this former military fortification and prison that held notorious criminals such as Al Capone (Scarface), George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert Stroud (the Birdman), but the visit was further enhanced by their award-winning cellhouse audio tour. Simply grab a device, plug in the headphones and follow the audio guide, exploring the cellhouse at your own pace. It will guide you all around the prison, stopping at various points of interest along the way while you listen to stories of life inside which is narrated by both former inmates and correctional officers. It was fascinating to hear all about life on Alcatraz Island as well as the various escape attempts including the Battle of Alcatraz and the famous escape in June 1962 which was later made into a Clint Eastwood film. To this day, it is still unknown as to whether or not this escape attempt was a success since these prisoners were never seen again.

After exploring the cellhouse, there are various other landmarks on the island to view including the water tower, warden's house, lighthouse and guard tower. In addition, we also learnt about the importance of the island in the American Indian rights movement. Take notice of the abundance of nesting birds on the island including gulls, cormorants, night herons and egrets, as Alcatraz Island is now designated as a National Park and bird sanctuary.

Alcatraz warden's house, San FranciscoAlcatraz warden's house, San Francisco

Pier 39

Make sure to stop by Pier 39 after your trip to Alcatraz for great food, shopping, entertainment and, most importantly, the famous California sea lions that took up residence on this pier in 1990 and have not left since. I personally could have spent all day watching these strange animals; while many of them were asleep, others were gracefully leaping in and out of the water, often clambering all over each other to find a space on the floating rafts. They really have no concept of personal space! They also make such a racket that you can hear them from the shore.

From the pier you will also get great views of the bay, Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island State Park and Alcatraz. Just down the road from Pier 39, you can visit Fisherman's Wharf, another popular tourist destination with a huge choice of eateries. Stop by Boudin Bakery Cafe to try their delicious chilli bowl; hot chilli con carne topped with grated cheese and served within a sourdough bread bowl. Alternatively they serve clam chowder and soup within these bread bowls. Don't forget to actually eat the bread bowl once you have finished your meal within; we saw so many people just throw away their bread bowl when they had finished, but this is actually one of the best parts of the meal!

California sea lions, Pier 39, San FranciscoCalifornia sea lions, Pier 39, San Francisco  

Whatever you are doing during your stay in San Francisco, do not leave until you have visited all of these places at the very least. If you have a bit more time in this city, there is also plenty more to do and I will be writing another blog post shortly on a number of other things you can see and do in this great place so keep an eye out for that. Otherwise, have a fantastic trip and I hope you enjoy San Francisco as much as we did! 


Yosemite National Park, California

August 16, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

One of the most highly ranked National Parks in the States, make sure to add Yosemite National Park to your USA itinerary. With spectacular granite cliffs, great waterfalls and giant Sequoia trees, you will soon understand why it is so highly rated.

An important tip when visiting Yosemite is to make sure that you arrive early. Not only so that you can have a full day to make the most of this beautiful National Park, but also because it can get very busy, particularly during the summer months. We made the mistake of going on Memorial Day, however, fortunately we managed to arrive there early enough to beat the queue into the park and get a parking space. Although there is a car park near the visitor centre, this fills up very quickly and you will see many cars circling round and round waiting for a space. You may get lucky, but it is best to get there early. Alternatively, you can park a little further away (there are car parks all along the road towards the visitor centre) and get the free shuttle bus that runs throughout Yosemite Valley and stops at all the main viewpoints, lodgings and stores.

Tioga  Lake, Yosemite National ParkTioga Lake, Yosemite National ParkSnowy mountains surrounding Ellery Lake, Yosemite National Park

Bear in mind that if you are travelling in from the east of Yosemite, the main road to get to the National Park, Tioga Pass, tends to be closed during the winter due to snowfall. There is no set date for when it opens again; it is usually late Spring but can vary depending on the time it takes to clear snow off the roads. Therefore, it is advised that you check this website prior to your trip to avoid disappointment. From Lee Vining (the start of Tioga Pass), it takes about 2 hours to get to the Yosemite Valley visitor centre. While this may sound like a long drive, the time will fly by as you gaze out across snowy mountains, beautiful clear blue lakes, alpine meadows and dense pine forests. If you have the time, there are so many lovely places to stop at on route to Yosemite Valley such as Ellery Lake (above), Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows.

There are a number of places to stay at in Yosemite, however, these tend to get booked up quickly and are expensive due to the high demand. Therefore, we decided to stay in Mammoth Lakes before spending the day driving right across Yosemite, stopping at all the major sights then exiting at the western side of the park at Yosemite Forks and spending the night in Chowchilla.

 

The Tunnel View

No trip to Yosemite would be complete without stopping at one of the most iconic and probably most photographed viewpoint in the whole of the National Park. This spot provides an excellent overview of the park's towering granite cliffs including the Half Dome and El Capitan, cascading waterfalls and lush green pine forests.

Tunnel View, Yosemite National ParkTunnel View, Yosemite National ParkThe famous tunnel view, Yosemite National Park, California

Waterfalls

Yosemite National Park is home to thousands of waterfalls. One of the main ones you have to see is Yosemite Falls (left). Comprising three separate waterfalls (Upper Yosemite Fall, Middle Cascades and Lower Yosemite Fall) and at a height of 2,425 ft, this is one of the highest waterfalls in North America! A short walking trail (approximately one mile loop) leads you from the shuttle bus stop right to the base of the waterfall. You can also hike to the top of this waterfall where I expect you would be rewarded with fantastic views. However, unfortunately we did not have enough time to do this.

Another spectacular waterfall to see is the Bridalveil Falls (right), so named due to the way the water falls; resembling a bride's veil blowing in the wind. This is one of the first ones that you will see as you enter Yosemite Valley and is only a short hike from the car park.

Yosemite FallsYosemite FallsYosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California   Bridalveil falls, Yosemite National ParkBridalveil falls, Yosemite National Park

Glacier Point

Despite the hour long drive from the visitor centre, it is well worth the journey up to Glacier Point. At a much higher vantage point than the Tunnel View, it offers an amazing panoramic view of the National Park and is also probably the best location to see the famous half dome. In addition, there are toilets at the top as well as a gift shop and cafe where you can buy much needed refreshments before descending back down the winding road. Bear in mind that due to heavy snowfall over the winter, the road up to Glacier Point is only open during the summer months.

Glacier Point, Yosemite National ParkGlacier Point, Yosemite National ParkGlacier Point, Yosemite National Park, California

Wildlife

You are bound to encounter an abundance of wildlife while visiting Yosemite. Turkey vultures and ravens can be spotted circling high over the park for much of the day while numerous squirrels scurry in and around the visitor centre, mule deer creep through the forests and yellow-bellied marmots that burrow under piles of granite rock. Also, keep an eye out for bears! We were extremely fortunate to see a Black bear while on the trail back from Yosemite Falls. It was surprisingly very close to the paths, probably within 20ft of the many visitors that were passing by that day and completely oblivious to this large mammal. Despite seeing so many signs warning of bears in the park, we still cannot believe that we were lucky enough to see one of these fascinating animals.

Yellow-bellied marmot, Yosemite National ParkYellow-bellied marmot, Yosemite National ParkYellow-bellied marmot, Yosemite National Park

   Mule deer, Red Rock State Park in SedonaMule deer, Red Rock State Park in SedonaCurious mule deer peeking through the trees

It isn't hard to see why people rave about Yosemite National Park so much. As long you carefully plan out your trip, you'll be rewarded with stunning scenery, fantastic hiking trails and unforgettable wildlife encounters. There is so much to see and do here - we will definitely be returning one day!