May 26, 2009

#29 - Wake Up On Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

At 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa and one of the Seven Summits. Final ascents usually start at midnight in order to see the breathtaking sunrises over Uhuru Peak, one of its three inactive volcanoes. Sadly, the glacier near the peak is expected to melt by 2040, as a result of global warming. It takes about a minimum of five days to climb up it quickly.

Best Time to Go: In the dry season (August to October) and plan it around having a full moon on summit day.
How Long to Stay: 6-10 days
What To Do: Climb and camp out or stay in huts alongthe way
General Costs: Medium to High
UNESCO World Heritage Site? YES
Weather: Warm at the base, cold and sometimes snowy at the top
Language: English and Swahili

May 22, 2009

#27 - The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

The Pyramids, like the Taj Mahal, are amazing but also way overpromoted and overcommercialized. Take the one tour inside the pyramids, but note that it sells out quickly. We unfortunately think about the Kentucky Fried Chicken directly across the street from them. The Cairo Museum is excellent and probably the only museum in the world worth mentioning in a blog like this. You can be led around on a camel (above) which is interesting only if you have never ridden a camel.

Best Time to Go: Winter when it is slightly less hot
How Long to Stay: 2 days
What To Do: Visit the pyramids, tour inside them, visit the older Saqqara pyramids and the Sphinx, the light shows at night are a little cheesy but probably worth seeing, visit the huge Khan al Khalili market to shop for some great artifacts (with a guide or you will never get out), Cairo Museum, a felluca sail boat on the Nile at night, try a sheesha tobacco water pipe at the Cairo restaurants.
General Costs: High
UNESCO World Heritage Site? Yes
Weather: Very hot
Language: Arabic

May 21, 2009

#26 - Machu Picchu, Peru

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Machu Picchu was built by the Incas around 1462, abandoned less than 100 years later, and found in 1911 by Hiram Bingham on a National Geographic sponsored expedition. It was the only major Inca settlement not found by the Spanish conquistadors and it is still being excavated.

We were able to find and hire the local shaman named Kucho as our guide. (above) He meditates over the ancient Inca ruins with condor feathers, Pisco liquor and incense. The great thing about having a shaman as your guide during the day, was that he was allowed to bring visitors in at night and perform his rituals.

One of the lessons learned from extensive traveling is to always plan to always see a site with the right people and at the right time. We could have just gone at any time but we planned to be there with the a shaman and during a full moon. The Shaman performed rituals for us and a few new friends, and the experience was great as a result. We were very fortunate that there was a visible full moon and a lightning storm with no rain at night. We fell asleep in the ruins and left around 6AM as it started to lightly rain.

We would add that many people consider Machu Picchu to be one of the top 10 sites in the world but it is just too crowded and overpromoted to rank higher than here. Discovering a stunning world class site without hundreds of people, adds another dimension to your travels.

There is one hotel at the ruins called the Sanctuary Lodge, just steps from the entry to Machu Picchu. All of the others are a long drive down the hill in the small city of Aguas Calientes. Regardless of the higher cost, you should stay at the Lodge. It used to be a step above dorm room quality but its now run by the Orient Express Hotels and is much nicer and more expensive. Apparently they pump oxygen into the rooms at night to help visitors better adjust to the altitude (8000 feet). All of the German and French tourists leave at 4pm on the last bus, to go down to Aguas Calientes, and you more or less have the park to yourself and few other visitors until it closes. You used to be able to bribe the guards, even without a guide, to go in at night, but we are not sure that still works.

Cuzco is one of the great cities and traveller meccas of the world. Its like Katmandhu in central Asia or Bangkok in souteast Asia. Spend at least two days there going to the markets and visiting the old conquistador hotels and buildings. Sacsayhuaman is the the wall of giant perfectly carved stones and is worth seeing, but a bit overrated as it is not very long. The winding train and helicopter from Cuzco to Machu Picchu are both great, but the aerial views are definitely better. Many travellers we respect, walked the Inca Trail to the ruins and really liked it, so if you have 4 days, you should consider it.

Best Time to Go:
April to November is the dry season with many people preferring April or May before it gets overrun with tourists. November to March is rainy but much less crowded. June 24th is the very colorful, annual Inti Raymi solstice festival at Sacsayhuaman.
How Long to Stay: 2 nights with lots of hiking
What To Do: 2 days at Machu Pichu hiking and learning the history, 2 days on Cuzco
General Costs: High
UNESCO World Heritage Site? Yes for Machu Picchu and Cuzco
Weather: Rainy in winter and warm to hot in the summer
Language: Spanish

May 20, 2009

#25 - Temple of Jupiter and Beirut, Lebanon

Some of the best Roman ruins are far from Rome, like the twenty-story high columns of the Temple of Jupiter. They are absolutely huge and were built from the 1st to 3rd centuries with some of the blocks used, weighing over 80 tons. Imagine a twenty story building in major city, with single columns that went from the first floor to the roof. There are also some great Roman ruins in Libya, called Leptis Magna near Al Khums, but Libya's on again - off again visa policy has made them difficult to see.

We arranged with a Lebanese friend to have someone pick us up in Damascus and drive us to Beirut. We were told he was a businessman and when he picked us up at the Omayaad Hotel and loaded our luggage into his Mercedes, we saw two AK-47's in the wheel wells. We asked him what he did and he said he was state security for the President Hirari of Lebanon - that is why we can not show his face (above). He was taking a few days off to help us out in our tour of Lebanon - unfortunately his boss was later assassinated in a huge car bomb tracked to Syrian intelligence.

When we travel, we are always looking for unique and interesting situations so we can learn about the people and the culture, regardless of popular opinion. We don't really shy away from much and Lebanon is one unique experience after another. When we travel in any area, we always hire very well connected guides and bodyguards when needed. In the past, we would do a great deal of research and then travel anywhere without fear of anything.

We stopped in the Bekaa Valley on the way to see the Temple of Jupiter for four hours which was a couple of miles from Hizbollah headquarters. In Beirut, we purposely stayed in the Mayflower Hotel where many of the western hostages were kidnapped in the previous years. The guys at the front desk looked at our passports for quite a while and laughed that they had not seen American passports for a long time. We knew nothing would happen to us because of our bodyguard's connections, but we don't travel like this as much as we use to.

There was the Green Line, which was the demarcation line between Muslim West Beirut and Christian East Beirut during the fifteen year long civil war. It's a five mile strip of buildings that were completed shot up and massively scarred by RPG and tank rounds. Imagine every time you moved in your apartment, your neighbor across the street shot at you... And every time you saw your neighbors across the street, you shot at them.

We went to a Hizbollah barbeque in South Beirut where they cooked fish over 4 x4 oak building posts. We heard extreme stories from our friends at the US embassy where the previous three ambassadors had been assassinated. Embassy staff only went out with 10 white Chevy Blazers with roof mounted M60s machine guns. They stopped for nothing, not even stop signs or stop lights, they just rammed cars and had the drivers show up with receipts for repairs. They would be reimbursed and this has to be one of the more unique uses of American tax dollars.

Today Beirut is again one of the all time great party and food towns in the world. We went out all night one Saturday, to a famous nightclub called B0-18 which was named after the code for an apartment complex 18 kimoters north of of Beirut. During the long civil war, a DJ named Gebran lived in the unit and was famous for his "musical therapy" sessions held in his apartment. It eventually became an all night and sometimes all day, nightclub - the Lebanese did not lose their culture during the civil war.

The ruins of Byblos on the sea, should definitely be checked out. There were many civilizations including the Phoenicians, in this northern Lebanese city over thousands of years, and you can just wander among them.

Best Time to Go: Anytime, but you want to make sure it is safe, as there has been a lot of bombing from Israel and others in the last few years.
How Long to Stay: 3-5 days, but maybe combine with a 10 day trip to Jordan with stops at Petra, Aqaba, Dead Sea, Red Sea, Jerash and Wadi Rum.
General Costs: Medium to high
What To Do: Beirut nightlife, Byblos ruins, Temple of Jupiter, make sure you have local guides who are connected
UNESCO World Heritage Site? Yes for Byblos and Baalbeck's Temple of Jupiter
Weather: Mild to hot
Language: Arabic