Colca Canyon descent

Colca Canyon – Independent trekking guide

Located about 6 hours from Arequipa in the south of Peru, Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world with the sides of the valley reaching 1000m above the river below. Within the canyon are a number of small villages, many of which are only accessible on foot which makes for a great adventure if you’re willing to hike into the canyon in order to stay overnight in one of the villages.Colca Canyon massive

Orientation

The jumping off point for the Colca Canyon is the small town of Cabanaconde which is located at the top of the cliff overlooking the canyon below — it’s a 6 hour drive from Arequipa and is accessible by regular public bus. All the towns in the Colca Canyon are on the opposite side of the canyon from Cabanaconde meaning if you want to visit them, you are going to have to hike down to the river and back up to your chosen village.

What are the options for trekking in Colca Canyon?

There are 2 main options for trekking the Colca Canyon. On your own or with a tour. If you take a tour from Arequipa, you will be given the option of 1 or 2 nights with costs ranging greatly, but nothing coming close to as cheap as doing it independently. Most people we saw in the Colca Canyon were on a tour, but we think it is unnecessary and too restrictive.Colca CanyonSo the second option is to do it all in your own. When you visit the Colca Canyon independently, you allow yourself to pick and choose the villages to visit based on what you want to see, how tired you are and other recommendations you might get while on the trail. It is slightly cheaper to do it independently, but the freedom you get is by far the biggest benefit. And honestly, it is not complicated to do on your own. The main thing people worry about is how to get to Colca Canyon.

How to get to Colca Canyon from Arequipa

The first thing you need to do is get a taxi from your guesthouse in Arequipa to the main bus station. There is only one bus station and it’s the same bus station as you arrived to Arequipa in. The cost of a taxi should be 7 soles, but this can vary depending on the type of car and the time of day.Colca Canyon IndependentlyBuses at the time of writing depart Arequipa for Cabanaconde at 1am, 3:30am, 9:30am, 11am, 3pm and 7pm. The journey takes 6 hours, so you need to select a bus that will get you to Cabanaconde at a time that is suitable for you. If you want to trek immediately after arriving like we did, you have to catch the 3:30am bus because the 9:30am bus arrives too late to be able to trek to the bottom of the valley before it gets dark. We met a lot of people who caught the bus from Arequipa and stayed overnight in Cabanaconde first and this is a good idea if you have a lot of time.

The cost of the bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde is 17 soles and there are multiple bus companies running along the route including Reyna, Andalucia & Señor de los Milagros.

What are the most popular routes?

Most people who trek independently in the Colca Canyon choose to trek for 3 days and 2 nights. The most popular villages for tour groups are San Juan and the oasis town of Sangalle, so you might want to skip those (although we really enjoyed San Juan). Most of the independent travellers we met decided to trek from Cabanaconde to Llahuar, which takes about 4 hours and is straight down the side of the valley. It’s brutal. At Llahuar there are 2 choices for accommodation. Virginia’s or Llahuar Lodge which are essentially the same price — 20 soles per person (only 15 at Virigina’s if you don’t use the hot springs). We stayed at Llahuar Lodge, but the food was awful so we’d recommend Virginia’s. The main reason independent trekkers come to Llahuar is to bathe in the hot springs. The springs are located right next to the raging river and are an awesome way to relax your stiff and tired muscles at the end of the day.Colca Canyon hotAfter Llahuar, most trekkers we met either tried to go to Fure, an abandoned village with no guarantee of accommodation or the oasis town of Sangalle. Some people we met did trek all the way to Tapay as well and we think this is a great idea because Tapay doesn’t get so many visitors. It’s a long trek to Tapay from Llahuar, so allow about 8 hours inclusive of a stop for lunch at Malata. San Juan is 7 hours or slightly less if you’re fast. Sangalle is 5 hours or slightly less if you’re fast, but doesn’t include a stop for lunch because you actually bypass Malata.

Wherever you end up on night two, you have a hell of a hike up the mountain back to Cabanaconde. Either from San Juan or Sangalle, it’s up up up! If you’re coming from Tapay or Malata, it’s obviously even more difficult because you have to come down from a high elevation first before climbing up again. Allow at least 5 hours of punishment for this.

There are so many more options for trekking around the canyon and that’s the beauty of doing it independently. Make sure you grab a map at the tourist office in Arequipa and always have at least 2 litres of water per person at all times. Seriously. It can be brutally hot and you will be sweating profusely. Minimum of 2 litres!

The route we took

We caught the 3:30am bus from Arequipa and arrived at Cabanaconde at 9:30am. We had some breakfast at a local eatery and began to walk to Mirador San Miguel which is the starting point for the descent to San Juan. Unfortunately we took a wrong turn. We were supposed to follow the main road to Arequipa until the mirador, but we decided to take a short cut through the farms… Bad idea. We ended up taking one and a half hours climbing a massive hill filled with terraces before we got to the mirador. By the time we got there, we were so so tired and we hadn’t even started the trek.

From the mirador we took 5 hours to reach San Juan when most things we’d read say it takes 3 hours. We did walk quite slowly, but it was incredibly hot and we easily drank 4 litres of water between us. The final small ascent to Posada Roy was punishing.

Posada Roy was amazing. The rooms we got had private hot water bathrooms and only cost 20 soles each. We could have got simpler rooms for 10 soles each. Dinner was 15 soles each and so so delicious. Chicken, soup, rice, dessert… Breakfast was 10 soles and consisted of pancakes and coffee. Water at Posada Roy is a rip off at 7 soles per litre. You’ll have no choice but to buy it there unless you are biggest tight arse going and you cart down an extra 5 litres from Cabanaconde to save a few soles. Just buy it at Roy’s and grit your teeth.Colca Canyon San JuanFrom Roy’s (9am) we climbed for a couple of hours up to Cosñirhua and then along the flat road to Malata (11:13am) where we ate a fantastic but simple lunch at a random shop. At 12pm we continued our walk towards Llahuar and we basically didn’t stop walking for the next 4 hours until 4pm. In all it took us 7 hours from San Juan to Llahuar and it was honestly quite brutal. Lots of uphill at the start and lots of downhill at the end. The middle section was only a slight uphill, but it was in the blistering sun, so it just sapped all our energy. Thankfully the hot springs at Llahuar were totally worth it.

We stayed at Llahuar Lodge for 20 pesos per person which included a shared ice cold water bathroom and access to the hot springs down near the river. Dinner was 10 soles per person and was honestly very disappointing. Probably our least favourite meal in Peru, not that we’ve been too enamoured with the food in Peru anyway. Breakfast the next morning was 2 barely edible slabs of half cooked dough resembling pancakes. Really poor. There is one other accommodation option in Llahuar called Viriginia’s and we’d try that next time.

The next morning we slept in and instead of hiking up out of the canyon, we joined a couple of French girls we met and hiked up to the main road and waited for a bus. Yes! There is one bus per day which swings past the Llahuar turnoff at 12pm and costs 10 soles to Cabanaconde. The journey in itself is an awesome experience along an extremely narrow road which winds its way out of the canyon. Even though it sounds like a wimpy option (it is), it’s an option which gives you a different perspective of the canyon and a different adventure. I’d definitely do this again next time.

The bus will get you to Cabanaconde just in time to catch the 2pm Reyna bus back to Arequipa. There is also a bus at 1pm if you decide to walk up earlier.

What you need to bring

The key to trekking in the Colca Canyon is bringing as little stuff with you as possible. I brought:

  • 1 x pair of trekking pants
  • 1 x pair of shoes
  • 1 x pair of thongs
  • 1 x pair of socks
  • 2 x underwear
  • 1 x tshirt
  • 1 x long sleeve tshirt
  • 1 x set of winter pyjamas (not needed as lots of blankets provided)
  • 1 x sunglasses
  • 1 x deodorant
  • 1 x towel
  • 1 x sunscreen
  • 1 x phone + charger
  • Random crap in my day pack (like wallet and passport)
  • 1 x small daypack

That’s it. Your clothes will get dirty in the Colca Canyon because it’s so dry and dusty, but if you had to bring a clean change of clothes with you for every single day, you’d end up carrying 5kg more than I did and I just don’t think the extra weight is worth it. Just go a little dirty for a couple of days and have a good old shower every night. It’s fine.

Costs

The cost of visiting the Colca Canyon independently vs with a tour is something most people consider. And honestly, it’s probably similar in terms of cost going with a tour (maybe slightly more expensive). We saw a two day tour for 150 soles which included pretty much everything except the national park entry fee & water. Here is what we paid per person for 3 days/2 nights:

  • Bus Arequipa – Cabanaconde: 17 soles
  • Bus Cabanaconde – Arequipa: 17 soles
  • Cab hostel – Arequipa bus station: 3.5 soles
  • Cab Arequipa bus station – hostel: 3.5 soles
  • Bus Llahuar – Cabanaconde: 10 soles
  • Accommodation @ Roy’s in San Juan: 20 soles
  • Accommodation @ Llahuar Lodge: 20 soles
  • Meals @ Roy’s: 25 soles
  • Meals @ Llahuar Lodge: 18 soles
  • Water: 14 soles
  • Lunch @ Malata on day 2: 8 soles
  • Breakfast on day 1 in Cabanaconde: 8 soles
  • National park entry fee: 40 soles (should have been 70 but they sold us a Latino ticket)

Total: 204 soles

Total minus water & park entry to equate with tour: 150 soles

So if you do things like we did, you will basically get a 3 day trip to Colca Canyon for 150 soles per person.

So it’s absolutely clear. You do not need to buy a tour to visit Colca Canyon. In fact, I’d recommend against taking a tour. That way you’ll have the ultimate flexibility to see the valley the way you want and will avoid the worst of what mass tourism has to offer.

Colca Canyon is one of my favourite places in Peru. Let me know in the comments if you need more info!

salento main street

Two days in Salento, Colombia: Coffee Farms and Cocora Valley

After visiting Medellin, Cartagena and Bogota it was time to leave the cities behind and check out some of the villages of Colombia. And Salento was the perfect choice. Here’s what we did in two days.

Day 1 – Visiting the Coffee Farms of Salento

Salento is a famous coffee growing area and it’s possible to visit the farms to see the process from growing to roasting. While a couple of places sell tours to these farms, it’s easy enough to walk to them from Salento and that’s exactly what we did.walk to coffee farm in salentoThe two farms which are most advertised are El Ocaso and Don Elias. El Ocaso is the main one people go to as it’s the one most set up for the tourist trade and even has a guesthouse on site. Always looking for something a little different, we chose Don Elias which is a family run organic coffee farm. Simply walk 5km to the west of town down Carrera 5 and you will reach the farm. It’s actually just past El Ocaso and you will see signs all along the way so you’ll know you’re on the right road. The views along this road are excellent and it is such a pleasant walk!

Upon reaching the farm you pay your 6,000 pesos and the young English speaking guy will take you around the farm for 20 minutes showing you the organic coffee process from growing to roasting. You’ll even get to taste the coffee.coffee cherries salentoWhen you’re done at the coffee farm, you can either walk back the way you came or walk up the driveway of El Ocaso and just before you enter their main compound, follow their fenceline on the right. Don’t turn down the road on the right. Just follow their fenceline down to the river and across the bridge. After crossing the bridge, turn right and follow that road along the river all the way to the main road. From here you can flag down a bus back into Salento. All in all a great day out. Some people also continue from the main road until a waterfall in the hills (Cascada Santa Rita), but that was way too much for us.bridge salento

Day 2 – Cocora Valley

The Cocora Valley is a highlight of many people’s visit to the area and we have to agree that it’s pretty awesome. Again, tour agents in town sell tours of the valley, but you can easily do it independently.

First of all, catch a collectivo jeep from the main square (there is a woman there selling tickets). You’ll be dropped off next to a big gate with a sign. Most people enter through this gate and begin their loop this way. We chose to walk past the gate straight into the Cocora Valley itself thus doing the loop the opposite way to most people.Cocora ValleyAfter about 1km, there is a small farm gate with a guy sitting under a sun shade. Enter here. From here you will pay the guy, start climbing up out of the valley and get great views of the spectacular trees. We initially missed this turn off and ended up 1km down the road and next to a river — wrong turn!

The going is tough and you will be climbing steadily up go about 2800m. The altitude definitely makes things more difficult even if you’re already acclimatised like we were. After a few hours you will reach a national park hut with a couple of dogs. It’s here where you’ll rest and maybe even have a bite to each from the food you brought with you. Hint: Bring food and drinks with you!Cocora Valley cowsAfter a rest, start your descent. At this time you will meet other trekkers coming the other way. Keeping trekking until you reach a fork in the path and turn left (there is a sign). This path through the forest leads to the hummingbird sanctuary called Acaime. After a 20 minute walk you’ll reach the sanctuary, pay your 5,000 pesos entry fee and receive a cup of hot chocolate. The hummingbirds are awesome to watch and we actually spent about an hour there photographing them and eating our lunch.hummingbird acaimeAfter the hummingbirds, take the same path back but instead of heading back up hill at the fork, continue along the river, crossing numerous bridges. This part of the walk dragged on and on for us and took about 2 hours.

Finally, you reach the entrance gate at the main road and wait for a return jeep to Salento. A punishing yet highly rewarding day out. Definitely do it on your own and definitely ask for a map from you guesthouse. It’s actually not complicated at all.

We stayed in Casa Borbon guesthouse in Salento and found it to be an excellent base especially because the staff were so helpful with how to do all these activities on your own. Check the price of Casa Borbon guesthouse now on Agoda.
Check the price of Casa Borbon guesthouse now on Booking.com.

While in town, we also recommend having coffee at Jesus Martin. Easily the best coffee in town.coffee Jesus MartinApart from that, there’s not a whole lot else to do in town except wander around and enjoy the small town vibe. We loved it and I hope you do too!

Wizz Air Flight Review

I’d already booked tickets to Iceland with Wow Air when I decided to look for a flight to take us to Poland. Cheaply. And it didn’t take long before I stumbled across a Wizz Air flight to the northern Polish city of Gdansk.

Wizz Air is a super budget carrier based in Romania. They’re the type of airline which models itself after Ryan Air where custom service is priory number 700 and stinging you on extra fees is priority number 1. Knowing this, I planned our flights accordingly and booked appropriate baggage including paying to upgrade hand luggage (you only get 5kg as standard) and ensured that our boarding passes were printed before we arrived at the airport.

Checkin for Wizz Air was fast. The line wasn’t too short anyway, but the 3 staff burned through check in no time. Staff weighed the checked in luggage, but didn’t weigh our hand luggage.

Despite being the middle of the Icelandic winter and there being a lot of spare aerobridges, Wizz Air chose to bus its passengers to the aircraft.

Once on board, it felt almost like a party flight with a large portion of the passengers loud and all the overhead lockers chocked full of stuff. Legroom was surprisingly good and my knees weren’t jammed into the seat in front. Far better than Wow Air anyway.

The food service on board is not too bad. Prices are around €2 for a soft drink, €5 for a sandwich. When coming from Iceland, prices like that seem cheap.

Aside from the strange mood of the passengers, everything on board was fine. We arrived slightly before our scheduled arrival time in Gdansk and picked our luggage up without any hassle.

Tips:

Make sure you checkin AND print your boarding pass before arriving at the airport. There is a €30 “fee” (it’s basically theft) per passenger if you need them to print your boarding pass out.

Check the luggage policy for your flight as they charge a fortune if they catch you with an overweight bag. For our flight you got 1x5kg piece of hand luggage for free. This includes handbags and laptop bags! Almost everyone will need to buy extra luggage.

Bring your own food on board to save cash — they don’t seem to care and everyone else was doing it.

Norwegian B787 Wing Shot

Norwegian Airlines review – Oslo to Los Angeles – DY7083

Flying from Europe to the USA has always been one of those things you only do once per decade due to the prohibitive cost of flights and until recently, only full service carriers flew the route. But with the advent of airlines such as WOW Air out of Iceland, flying between Europe and the USA doesn’t have to expensive anymore.

I recently flew Norwegian Airlines from Oslo (OSL) to Los Angeles (LAX) in one of their brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliners and learned that cheap doesn’t have to be nasty.

I bought my wife’s ticket for this flight 3 months before departure for a mere €186 (US$205). She has a perfectly sized carry on bag and because Norwegian are so generous with their hand luggage weights, it easily fit within the cabin baggage limits.

I on the other hand have a beast of a backpack which always has to be checked. And on Norwegian, this is the beginning of where you get stung. I bought my ticket 2 months before departure for €265 (US$296) which is still an absolute bargain. This included a €33 (US$37) fee for checked baggage. They also offer free meals onboard for an extra €33 (US$37) and seat selection for a further €33 (US$37)??? You can bundle these 3 addons for an extra fee of €66 (US$74) which is a little steep in my view. In the end, I chose not to preorder meals or seating and everything worked out fine.

Norwegian Airlines Boeing 787

By now, everyone knows that the Boeing 787 is a state of the art aircraft with large windows which don’t have window shades – rather, adjustable dimmers.Norwegian B787 windowBut the problem with the 787 is that airlines love to pack passengers in like sardines even more than they usually do. The legroom I had was more than adequate and I’m 5″11′ (181cm). But it’s the fact that airlines including Norwegian insist on a 9 abreast seating configuration when 8 abreast is ideal for economy cabins. The means seats and arm rests are extremely narrow. I’m a normal sized guy. Maybe on the light side of things. But when I sit next to another man on a 787, my shoulders touch his. This is torture on long haul because you’re constantly fighting for shoulder space. Luckily for me on this flight to LAX, the guy next to me was short with narrow shoulders. I actually felt comfortable for the entire flight! But your luck certainly can vary. If you’re next to a big person or you yourself are big, this will be a nightmare flight.Norwegian B787 cabin 9 abreastEach seat has an entertainment unit which also serves as your online shop for the snack bar.

There was a reasonable selection of recent movies as well as documentaries, TV shows and classic movies. The games selection is as it is on every other airline these days. Sudoku, backgammon and chess.Norwegian Airlines review entertainmentBut the interesting part about the entertainment system is the snack bar. You simple scroll through the list of items they have for sale, pick what you want and scan your credit card. About 5 minutes later a hostess will deliver your order to your seat. I’m sure they get lots of orders this way.

You can even keep track of all your orders during the flight.

The selection of snacks went way beyond what I had expect and prices weren’t too bad and certainly cheaper than much of what’s available in Oslo airport. Tip: eat on the plane, not at Oslo Airport.

A large selection of spirits, liqueurs and wines are available plus some beers, soft drinks and water. As a general rule, non-alcoholic drinks (330ml) were US$3.50, spirits (50ml) US$8, beer (330ml) US$6, coffee/tea US$4 and wine (187ml) US$7. That’s pretty reasonable in my book. Of course if you want to get smashed on the plane, it’s going to cost you a lot.Norwegian Airways review foodSnacks included muffins for US$4, Pringles US$3.50, hot snacks (like a panini) for US$7, vegetarian sandwiches US$7, chocolate bar US$2.50, salad US$9 and noodle pot for US$4. Again, not cheap, but not so bad if you got a great deal on the flight. And besides, if you want cheap, you simply bring your own food and don’t buy theirs.

And on that note, I wanted to comment on how much food you’re going to need for this 10hour flight. For two people, I brought along with me 2 massive sandwiches, a packet of chips, a block of chocolate, 2 cheese rolls, 2 apple pies, a bottle of water, 2 bananas and a muffin. Let me tell you, it was enough. I could have left off the apple pies and cheese rolls and had been fine. But we ate them anyway so we didn’t have to declare them on arrival at LAX.Norwegian food order processOne last comment on the aircraft itself. I don’t think there are enough toilets onboard. There was a line for the toilets for the entire flight. The red light indicating the toilets were occupied never went green. It’s really odd because I’d never seen that before. Ah well, if you’re desperate, you just have to wait 15 minutes in line. And maybe you need to stretch your legs anyway.

The flight touched down in LAX on time and without and dramas. Truth be told, this flight was so much more enjoyable than I had expected. We got seated together even though we didn’t pay for seats. We were never hungry despite not paying for meals. And our hand luggage had no trouble getting on board because of the Norwegian hang luggage limit of 10kg plus a small handbag or laptop bag.

So while long haul low cost carriers such as Air Asia can be a nightmare, Norwegian Air really show everyone how it should be done. I’d happily fly them again if the price discount was big enough compared to full service carriers. Because at the end of the day, many full service carriers feel almost the same once on board. Especially so called 5 star carriers such as Qatar who I also flew recently and who also have a 9 abreast seating configuration on Boeing 787s.

Buy your tickets early and get a great deal! Check prices now on Norwegian.com

Palenque, Mexico

Mayan Ruins of Palenque – Transport, Accommodation & Agua Azul

After recently visiting the stunning Mayan ruins of Palenque and the nearby waterfalls of Agua Azul, I just knew I had to share about how I got there, where I stayed (and why) and about a separate activity, Agua Azul.

First of all, it is possible to visit the ruins and Agua Azul in one day. I did it and it wasn’t too rushed, although you need to start early.Palenque

How to get to the Mayan Ruins of Palenque

When you exit the main bus station in Palenque (this is where you will arrive by bus), you will see a roundabout which leads in a bunch of directions. For the purposes of this post, the main road in Palenque refers to the road which runs directly away from the bus terminal. Collectivos (shared minivans) come down this main road looking for passengers and one will find you as you set off at about 8am. So just wait anywhere along this road and a van will stop and ask if you’re going to “ruinas”. If you really want to be certain, just look at the sign in the window which also says “ruinas”. But seriously, they’re so desperate for passengers that they will find you. They’ll pick you up, maybe do a lap of the town and then head straight to the ruins.PalenqueFirst stop is to pay the National Park entry fee which is MX$65. Get back on the same collectivo and you will be taken to the ticket office for the ruins (there is one ticket booth for the national park and one for the ruins in separate locations). Pay the driver MX$20 per person for his services and get on your way.

After buying your entry ticket for MX$65 (this is the second entry fee — 65 for ruins + 65 for national park), you can enter the ruins area. I read one post which said you can spin through it in an hour. And while that’s true, you will be missing a lot of the ruins because some of them are a fair hike up and down lots of steps. I think it took me about 2 hours and I was done by then. Collectivos returning to town are waiting where they dropped you off. Just hop on one and it will leave within 5 minutes and drop you wherever you want along the main road in Palenque.Palenque

How to get to Agua Azul

Because at this stage it’s just before midday, it’s a good opportunity to grab a quick bite to eat in Palenque itself. I thought Las Tinajas was good. Massive portions big enough to share between 2 people. Seriously. After this, head back down the main road and look for the collectivo station. You’ll notice a bunch of collectivos, a bunch of guys and lots of offers of collectivos to places like Agua Azul. Pick one guy (there are different operators), pay your MX$40, hop on the collectivo and wait for it to fill up with other passengers. The ride out to Agua Azul takes about an hour and a half along a road known for banditry at night. In the daytime it seemed pretty normal and safe.Agua AzulYou’ll be dropped off at the turn off to Agua Azul where there are pickup trucks waiting to take you to the entrance. Pickup trucks are MX$20 per person which is a ripoff, but walking isn’t really an option unless you arrive really early in the day, have heaps of time and no money. Entry to the waterfall is MX$40. The waterfall is a stunning blue and it’s worth having a dip in the pristine waters. Sadly, much of the area is off limits for reasons unknown, but rumoured to be related to safety.

Getting back to Palenque is exactly the opposite of what you just did. Pickup back to the top, wait for a collectivo to pass by and you’re on your way.

It’s actually worthwhile doing this as a one day trip if you don’t have that much time and don’t intend to spend hour upon hour at the ruins. That way you can catch the night bus from Palenque to some place like Tulum, Playa Del Carmen or Cancun. It all matches up quite nicely.

Accommodation in Palenque

One of the big decisions when in Palenque is to toss up between staying in the jungle near the ruins or staying in town. I decided to stay in town. Initially I had wanted to stay in the jungle because it’s cheaper and more towards my style of accommodation — something a little unique. But I read online story after story of countless hippies with bongo drums partying the night away. If you’re not a hippie, you are going to hate that. Nothing worse than a drum circle when you’re on the outside of it. Pretty sure there would have been fire twirlers, hoola hoops, lots of festy hair and plenty of weed.

I stayed at Hotel Maya Rue which was pretty expensive really. Most of the hotels in town are. But I think it’s a better option to stay in town. Especially because you then have a wide range of food choices which are miles cheaper than the monopoly in the forest. So yeah, you spend more on accommodation, less on food. Works out pretty similar in the end, especially if your hotels gives a free brekky.

Check the price of Hotel Maya Rue on Agoda.

Check the price of Palenque hotels in general on Agoda.

Check the price of Hotel Maya Rue on Booking.com.

Check the price of Palenque hotels in general on Booking.com.

So there you have it. My mini guide to Palenque and Agua Azul. It’s a pretty nifty spot well-worth a visit on your trip through southern Mexico.

Common Grounds Bandung

Common Grounds, Bandung

And the great cafes in Bandung keep springing up. This time, it’s Common Grounds. Common Grounds originated in Jakarta and became an instant success. I went there when it first opened and to be honest, the food offering was poor. But on subsequent visits, they’ve refined their service to the point that I think it’s a fantastic place to go and have brunch and a couple of coffees.Common Grounds Bandung inside

Which brings us to Bandung. I guess the main thing to question is whether Common Grounds Bandung lives up to its successful sibling in Jakarta. And for me, it does. Actually, I prefer the Bandung branch because the fitout is so freaking awesome whereas the Jakarta version is in a crappy old mall.

The coffee at Common Grounds is first rate. Equal to the best in Bandung, but to be honest, there are so many great coffee places in Bandung now that this level is the minimum required in my view. I expect excellent coffee in every cafe I go to and Common Grounds Bandung does deliver. Next is food. The menu here is diverse and includes the usual brunch style items such as pancakes but also heavier savoury things such as burgers and baked eggs. The cake selection is small, but the chocolate souffle cake I tried was awesome. So over-the-top rich, but I liked that. Apparently they ship the cakes in from Jakarta rather than make them in house, but I think that’s OK as long as the taste is good. And anyway, the souffle cake I tried was nothing like a souffle… Not sure what that is about.Common Grounds Bandung Cake

Next, we turn to whether this place is suitable for working from. One of the biggest gripes I have in all of Bandung (aside from the traffic) is the lack of decent work spaces in cafes. Mainly the issue is to do with WiFi. Indonesia does have super fast wifi in many areas. Bandung has it throughout the city. I even have quite fast wifi at home. The problem is that in most cafes the connections are usually shit and Common Grounds is no different. For me, they shouldn’t bother offering wifi at all if they can’t give you something that is even barely usable. With a cafe filled with about 10 people, the internet worked about 25% of the time. And even at those times it was on and off. In other words, completely frustrating and better off if they didn’t have it. This is pretty similar to most cafes in Bandung, to be fair. I don’t know why it’s always so bad, but it needs to be fixed.

One last point is about pricing and it’s something that raises its head time and time again in Indonesia. It’s the issue of charging for an extra shot of coffee. Now some places such as two hands full don’t charge for an extra shot as the coffees come standard with 2 shots. Noah’s Barn does a magic which has 2 shots for 28k plus tax. But I’ve been charged up to 60k in the past for double shot coffees as they often charge for 2 separate coffees. Common Grounds doesn’t do this. But the do charge 10k plus tax and service for an extra shot which probably costs them 2k in beans, absolutely nothing in labour and saves them probably 500 in milk. It’s a rip off. So yeah, I would be OK with an extra 5k, and even then the total price of the coffee would be 37k plus tax. But as it stands, I’ve to pay 47k for that double shot coffee which by world standards is a rip off. By Bandung standards it’s criminal.Common Grounds Coffee

So the final verdict? Awesome. One of my new favourite cafes in Bandung. Just don’t go there expecting to use the wifi.

Qatar Airways Review

Qatar Airways Flight Review

Back in November there was this crazy sale on Qatar Airways where you could get an open jaw ticket for and incredible price. All you had to do was start your journey in Malaysia, end it in Jakarta and enter Europe through one city and return via another. We had no plans to go to Europe, but when we plugged in some dates to the website, we couldn’t believe the price. US$350 for the entire trip inclusive of all taxes and fees — we just had to buy it.

Our flight was from Kuala Lumpur to Copenhagen with a 2h30m transit in Doha. Both flights used brand new Boeing 787 dreamliners and it was our first time flying in them. While most aspects of the two flights were great, the planes themselves were substandard for a full service for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. First, the inflight service.Qatar Menu

On each flight we were offered package refresher towels not long after take off and the meal service started soon after. The food out of Kuala Lumpur was below average for a full service carrier, but quite good out of Doha. A second fairly heavy snack was served out of Kuala Lumpur and a light snack served out of Doha. Both meals out of Doha were far far better than out of KL.Qatar inflight meal

Drinks were offered several times throughout both flights, staff were very friendly and attentive and the overall level of service was good.Qatar snack box

For those of you who haven’t flown on a Dreamliner, the windows are the star of the plane. No window shades — just this dimmer function which can create an incredibly dark cabin electronically.Qatar B787 Window

The seat configuration in economy on Qatar 787s is 3-3-3 and it should be outlawed. The seats are extremely narrow to the point where my body was twisted sideways for 7 hours straight out of KL because I was next to another man. Not a big man. Just a man. And because men often have broad shoulders, it means there is not enough room if two normal sized men sit next to each other. There was no fight for the armrest — we were fighting to see whose arm could be on top of whose. We weren’t just rubbing shoulders, our shoulders were overlapping at times. Eating a meal like this is very difficult. I would hate think how it would be with two bigger people sitting next to each other.Qatar seat space

Aside from the narrowness of the seats, I also found them to be very close together when the person in front reclines their seat. You always get up personal when this happens in economy, but this flight felt more like Air Asia in this regard than any other full service carrier I’ve flown on.Qatar economy cabin

The positives were the entertainment unit which has a large sharp screen, USB port and lots of movies. Each seat also comes with a power socket, but there’s no way you’ll be working on a laptop — there’s just not enough room unless you’re lucky enough to have no one sitting next to you.Qatar seat back entertainment

So what’s the verdict? If I’d paid US$1000 for these flights, I’d be disappointed at being crammed into the the seats like we were. But given that we only paid US$350, I just can’t complain.

But we learned a lesson. Do not fly on a Boeing 787 if it’s fitted with a 3-3-3 configuration. It’s just too uncomfortable for a long haul flight.

How to Make Money Blogging and Why Focussing on Fam Trips is Bad

This is another post for my Indonesian readers. If you’re not Indonesian, it might not be so relevant. 

Terjemahkan dengan tombol ini.

A few days ago I wrote a big rant about how familiarisation trips (fam trips)/media trips in Indonesia were a big deal and everyone seemed to want to be a part of it. It makes sense. You enjoy writing. You enjoy travelling. Some big company or government agency wants to give you a free trip so you can enjoy the two things you love doing anyway!

It all sounds great until you figure out that you can’t pay your bills with free trips. And that means if you’re focus is on getting free trips, you’ll never really travel to where you want. You’ll always be travelling to where they want. And what do you get from it? A lousy free trip and a lot of homework. So I wanted to discuss today why I think focussing on free trips is a bad idea and what alternatives there are.

Everyone loves free things. Free trips, free food and products. Bloggers get this stuff all the time. The problem is that you can become a slave to the corporations giving those free things and you lose a lot of the flexibility that blogging is supposed to give you. So while take free trips and accepting free products is OK, I wouldn’t recommend this being the focus of your blogging efforts. If you really want flexibility while blogging, you should look at how to make money. (In other words, don’t suck up to tourism Indonesia, go out on your own and find new ways to make money)

There are few ways to make money blogging, but most of them also tie in with a big social media profile and a lot of visitors to your blog. With this in mind, you need to work on your personal brand, building a big following and getting the attention of lots of people (more on this in another post)

Sponsored Posts

Sponsored posts have a bad name in the blogging world because it basically means brands are paying bloggers to advertise their product in an editorial way. It’s often an endorsement. It’s sometimes just about getting backlinks.

In the old days of SEO, companies used to pay bloggers a lot of money to buy backlinks on their blogs. Why? Because google uses links as a signal to ranking websites. The more links pointing to your website from someone else’s website, the higher your ranking. But because this system was being abused by brands buying links on people’s sites in order to boost their rankings, google cracked down a few years back (by tweaking the algorithm). Paid links on people’s blogs have almost stopped, except in Indonesia. Lots of brands in Indonesia still buy links on people’s blogs in the disguise of a sponsored post. I don’t know why they still do it here, but they do.

So if you’re comfortable with doing these sorts of posts for brands, you need to decide how much to charge. We have had some brands offering as little as Rp. 100.000 for a post. We would never accept this. Why? Because when you accept these low offers, you are telling the world that you are a low class blogger. If you accept Rp. 100.000, you will be known as a blogger willing to accept anything. It’s a bad image. And once you have this image, it’s very difficult to then start charging Rp. 1.000.000

So what should you charge? I recommend to people to start at between Rp. 1.500.000 & Rp. 2.000.000 and negotiate. Sure, most brands want posts for Rp. 100.000, but I’d much rather have 1 sponsored post on my blog for Rp. 2.000.000 than 20 sponsored posts on my blog for Rp. 100.000. And the brand gets a lot more benefit from me if I’m only putting 1 sponsored post on my blog every few months rather than lots of them.

My best advice is: Don’t undersell yourself. Don’t be tempted by small amounts of money. Value your blog and your work much higher and people will also value you at the same level.

Advertising

There are all sorts of different advertising options for blogs, but Google Adsense is the easiest to implement. You will be paid based on how many visitors your blog gets, what sort of visitors they are (rich/poor), the type of website you have. You need a lot of visitors on a travel blog to earn Rp. 1.000.000 per month with ads. But most of the top Indonesian travel bloggers will easily get Rp. 1.000.000 from google ads, but they have a lot of page views per month.

Affiliate Sales

Affiliate sales is basically the system of getting a commission when someone buys something through your site. There a lots of affiliate programs you can sign up to, but you’ll have to experiment to see which one is the best for you. Again, it’s difficult to make a lot of money on this, but it is possible to get a little bit of side income. You should aim for Rp. 1.000.000 per month on this, but everyone’s results vary. It’s tough to earn good money here. Many online shops in Indonesia offer affiliate programs — just google “affiliate Lazada” or the name of an online shop and you can find out more.

Sponsored Tweets and Instagram

This is a big one in Indonesia. When we first started our website, we were told to offer our sponsored tweet services for Rp. 150 per follower. Back in 2012/2013, this worked so well and we earned a bit of money from this. But today, the situation is different and sponsored tweets earn a lot less money. Still, a lot of people are earning between Rp. 100.000 and Rp. 1.000.000 per sponsored tweet (some a lot more than this). The trend nowadays is to buy a packet of 10 tweets and you give the company a bunch of free tweets as well.

Instagram is similar, but the problem is that buying 10 instagram posts is impractical. Most people charge a lot more for an instagram post than a tweet. Maybe double or 3x.

You need to work on boosting your social media profiles. It’s hard to do, but it’s worth putting effort into.

Freelance Writing

Now we move onto earning money outside blogging. Freelance writing can really earn you enough money to give up your full time job, especially if you combine it with the money you earn above. The problem is, getting paid freelance writing work in Indonesia requires you to have a high profile. This means you need to increase your following on social media, get a lot more views on your blog and start pitching your articles to editors of magazines and newspapers. If you’re successful, it wouldn’t be unusual to earn Rp. 5.000.000 per month doing this.

So, there you have it. Another English language rant for my Indonesian followers basically throwing out there some ideas on how to make money from your blog rather than taking free trips all the time.

If you are earning money through your blog and no full time job, you can still go on lots of trips. It’s just that the trips will be to places that you choose, not to places some company or tourist organisation chooses.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments! You can write in Indonesian and I will understand it. 🙂

Yellow Fever in Colombia: Free Vaccination in Bogota!

One of the problems with travelling in South America is the number of vaccinations that you should get before you go. There are so many diseases which are endemic to many South American countries that it really is wise to see a doctor before you travel.

I recently arrived in Colombia without a Yellow Fever injection. No big deal because I don’t expect that I will get it, especially because I don’t have plans to visit the jungles. But the problem is, Yellow Fever is endemic in Colombia. That is, it is prevalent in many areas of the country and if you catch it, there’s a good chance you will die from it (I read somewhere like 10%).

The main problem for most travellers visiting Yellow Fever endemic countries is that if you want to visit a non-yellow fever country afterwards, that country will usually ask you to prove that you are vaccinated against Yellow Fever. If you can’t prove it, they may deny you entry, especially if you are not a citizen of that country. So in order to avoid any hassles on my future travels and to protect against the low chance of actually getting Yellow Fever, I decided to get vaccinated against it in Bogota Airport.

How to get vaccinated against Yellow Fever for free in Bogota Airport

Located on the second floor of the Bogota Airport is a vaccination counter. You’ll see it right next to the tourist tax refund counter and it is signposted. It is open between 7am and 7pm daily and is operated by Fontibon Hospital. All you need to do is visit the clinic, take a number, fill in a form (which is in Spanish, but they give you a translation) and they will immediately vaccinate you against Yellow Fever for free. No questions asked. After vaccination, they give you a yellow booklet which is your proof of Yellow Fever vaccination.

It took me about 10 minutes from when I took a number to when I left the clinic. It was so quick and efficient that I recommend that absolutely everyone does it, no matter what your nationality. You’re going to need that booklet at some point in your future travels in order to avoid a hassle with the immigration authorities.

Fontibon Hostpital
Level 2
Bogota Airport
7am-7pm daily
FREE

So there you have it. A quick an easy way to get vaccinated against Yellow Fever in Bogota Airport.

I Used SkyPicker.com (kiwi.com) and it Wasn’t a Scam

Recently during my trip around the world I was faced with a number of flight routes which simply could not be booked on the site of the airline itself and other routes which were inexplicably cheaper through an agent. So like any cheaparse traveller, I booked my Avianca flight from Bogota to Cartagena with an online travel agent, Skypicker.

I’d never heard of them before, but they were listed as the cheapest option by 50% on SkyScanner. I didn’t even think twice about booking my flights through them.

And then I got a confirmation email from them and it was kind of odd. Just not as professional looking as I had expected. Also, the booking wasn’t made immediately. In other words, they had taken my credit card details and not yet booked my flight. Just a confirmation email saying they were going to do it later.

So I searched online and I found post after post about Skypicker being a scam. And I was scared. So I contacted their online support and demanded they send through my airline reference number. They refused. The guy on online support was hopeless and said that I would never get that booking reference number because I wasn’t allowed to checkin online.

Because I had no other options, I just waited. And then a couple of days later they sent an email with a confirmed airline booking reference number and I was actually able to use the official Avianca website to see my booking in the system.

Everything seemed OK. So when I arrived at the airport, I expected everything to be smooth as well. And it was.

So while Skypicker’s customer service leaves a lot to be desired and their English is poor, they aren’t a scam company. My only advice would be to make sure you fill in everything correctly during booking and that you make sure you don’t have any complicated requests such as name changes, date changes, odd transits, etc.

Would I use them again? Definitely if the price was right. Have you had a good or bad experience with them? Let me know in the comments.