Tag Archives: caves

A Rainy Porto and Guimarães….Northern Portugal

Portugal was supposed to be our sunny and warm winter retreat from cold and gloomy Zurich.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different idea and we were treated to 9 days of rain, punctuated by a few minutes of sun here and there.  And no warmth.  But we donned our rain coats and warm shoes, covered our backpacks and used umbrellas to block the wind.  And Riki still managed to take a couple thousand pictures.  I spent a lot of time holding two umbrellas up so he could snap the perfect pic.

Being a pretty well-seasoned budget traveller, this trip was no exception.  I snagged $50 round trip flights a few weeks before and booked the cheapest shared accommodation I could find in the neighborhoods I wanted.  This kind of budget travel has its downsides, as one of our flights left from Basel (an $8 hour train trip from Zurich) and didn’t include a checked bag.  But we travel light anyway so this only affected us in that we couldn’t bring home the bottle of port we would have liked.  And the shared accommodation, well that could have been better, and warmer.  But the price was right and we don’t travel to see the inside of someone else’s apartment anyway.

We arrived in Porto to a leaky airport roof, an omen for the remainder of our trip.  Determined to explore despite the heavy downpour, we dropped off our bags and bee-lined for some food.  Our first meal exposed us to the hearty potato or bean and kale soup that we would be served at almost every meal to come.  We found the food to be cheap ($5 three course meal) and plentiful, especially at the places the Portuguese were eating.  And very good.

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and is situated on the Douro River.  Its historic area is a UNESCO site with parts dating back to the Celtics, Romans and Moors.  One side of the river is populated with narrow streets and tall skinny buildings.  Across an amazing two story bridge, though technically in a different town, are much lower buildings, and the wine cellars where you can try all types of port wine.  And since it was raining, we did a lot of tastings.

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Porto @ night
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Two story bridge with pedestrians and cars on the bottom and trams on the top
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Favorite balcony in town

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Porto streets
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Train station disappears into a tunnel

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Amazing Azulejos tiles in the São Bento train station

Day 2 had a little better weather forecast in Guimarães than in Porto so we hopped on a suburban train for the one hour trip.  And this is where we discovered the madness that is Portugal’s public transportation.  The metro, bus and trains are all operated by different organizations.  So despite buying the reusable paper card for 50 cents, loading it up for 8 zones of use, paying the amount we had seen quoted online and validating the ticket at the TRAIN station, we still had the wrong ticket.  Which we discovered halfway through when the conductor came around.  We had a metro card and had to buy a whole new ticket.

Guimarães is a UNESCO site for its medieval settlement and it is believed Portugal’s first king was born here.  We wandered the old town until a miraculous break in the clouds occurred and we high-tailed it up a hill to see the remains of a medieval castle and any views it may offer, which were mostly of the incoming rain storm.

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Medieval castle and a break in the clouds
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Palace of the Dukes of Braganza and its many chimneys
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Palace and pigeon

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We wandered the streets some more in the gloom, but soon realized we had over an hour until the next train left, which resulted in the discovery of some old waterways that go under buildings, and some cats.

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Back in Porto, we caught a brief moment of the sunset from across the bridge.

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Porto beyond the cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia

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That evening we walked into a near empty restaurant and were told they were probably full.  But somehow they managed to squeeze us into our own 6 person table and serve us amazing pork cheek and Bacalhao (cod) cheesy omelet-like concoction.

The next day we walked to the Crystal Palace, a giant dome we had seen from afar.  Expecting more from the walk than the destination, we were pleasantly surprised to discover a free book fair inside the dome and a nice garden.  And since we have a history of wandering into random gardens and seeing peacocks, Riki said, “I wonder if they have peacocks.”  Not 10 seconds later, we saw the most beautiful peacocks, with their feathers up and everything.  And roosters.

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Crystal Palace
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Inside the Crystal Palace

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Videos @ Peacock fight and Peacock Dance

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The males shake their feathers which makes an incredible noise, like a metallic hum – see video above

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Walking back, we stumbled upon the interesting Mercado do Bolhão, which was a mix of tourist crap and plentiful produce.

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Mercado do Bolhão

The gloom continued and we were forced to cross the river to Vila Nova de Gaia to do some port tastings.  First, we did a tour/tasting at Cálem where we were told the history of port and given a look at the caves.  Many people coming to Porto opt for a Douro River cruise.  As it was January and the weather was rough, we decided to stay in town.

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Cormorants on traditional port delivery boats

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Huge barrels for tawny port making

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Getting artsy with our tastings, who knew they had white port?

On our last full day, it was raining harder than ever.  After the unnecessarily difficult task of finding the right bus (lack of maps and information), which never showed up anyway, we made it to the Foz do Douro, right on the Atlantic Ocean.

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Me with the double umbrellas

We took the historic tourist tram back rather than figure out the bus.

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Back in Porto and completely drenched, we continued back to our favorite spot, Ramos Pinto cellars to taste some more port.  They had the most casual set up and reasonable prices – 2 Euro and up per tasting.  We even splurged and tried a 6 Euro port.  Since they closed at 6 and we were still wet, we continued to another spot, Quevedo, where we tried a few more ports.  Disaster ensued as we were leaving though, as we discovered someone had traded umbrellas with Riki at the door, and left him with a rather floppy replacement.  And it continued to pour.

I’m not proud of our last meal in Porto, as we came across a Steak & Shake on our way home.  But considering that its been years since we ate a meal of burgers, fries and chocolate milkshakes – its ok.

Next up: First class train trip to Lisbon

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Phong Nha Cavernous Caves….Vietnam

Warning: There are lots of pictures of rocks. Lots. But they are pretty cool.

We crossed into Vietnam via Cha Lo, which is not a common tourist crossing we found out.  Our bus was full of 20-something Vietnamese guys presumably returning from working in Laos or Thailand, as their wallets were stuffed full of cash.  40 guys with stinky feet and me, and absolutely no English.  It took us 2 hours to get through the border, which was full of hand gestures, confusion and shuffling bags back and forth between inspections and the bus.  The whole time, we had a glimmer of hope that they could drop us off in Phong Nha (our destination) as it was in the direct path between Thakhek and Dong Hoi.  So we kept saying Phong Nha to the driver and the ticket guy and the other guy who was in charge of something.  Eventually they started calling us Phong Nha.

But we didn’t stop in Phong Nha, though we got within 20 km or so.  We got dropped off in Dong Hoi and found out the last bus to Phong Nha had already departed and we could take a taxi for an exorbitant amount, or wait til the next morning to catch the local bus at just over $1.  So we found a nice guesthouse along the ocean and ate some delicious beef soup.

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The next morning we woke up early and went out on the main street, hoping to find a bus marked with our destination.  After 20 nerve-racking minutes, we spotted one, got on and discovered other tourists headed the same way.

We spent that afternoon researching and talking to people coming back from the caves.  The national park here has the world’s largest cave and it was only discovered in the last few years.  Hence, tourism has just started to pick up and people are flocking to the area to see the caves.  The largest cave is $3000 to visit and has a waiting list, so that was out.  We opted for a few of the other, also spectacular ones instead.
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The next morning the power was out (something we would come to discover happens quite a lot).  There are tour companies in Phong Nha who offer day trips to see multiple attractions.  We asked around, thought $60+ was too much and decided to do two caves on our own.  The roads are good and the scenery is gorgeous, so we rented a motorbike for the hour drive to Paradise Cave.

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The ride up the cave was beautiful, more karsts, little towns and lush, green foliage.  It rains quite a lot at this time of year.  We parked the motorbike and climbed about a kilometer up a mountain to reach the entrance to the cave.  This cave has been open to the public for awhile and they have sunk a lot of money into the infrastructure here.  Everything outside is paved and the whole walkway inside the cave is wooden and appears sturdy.  I was pretty impressed.  For being so remote, this cave was really well taken care of and tastefully lit up.

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We spent about two hours at Paradise Cave, walking the 1 kilometer path and back.  The stalactites and stalagmites were massive and had such character.  You could see where some had fallen thousands of years ago and more had formed on top of them.  We arrived at lunchtime and all the tour groups were gone so we were able to enjoy a few minutes of complete silence in the cave (besides the dripping water).  The pictures don’t really do it justice.  It was hard to capture the scale of the cavern with the camera.

Next stop, the Dark Cave.  This is more of an adventure cave, not as big and has no lights.  This cave is more expensive, but includes all necessary gear – headlamp, hard hat, life vest and safety harness.  We were strapped into our harnesses and ziplined across the river to the mouth of the cave.  From there, we swam into the cave, waded through chilly water and mud.  We removed our lifejackets, flipped on our headlamps and trod through mud toward our destination, slipping all the way.  By the time we reached the end of the trail, we were all covered in mud and having a grand time.  I had a mudstache – courtesy of our guide.

The finale of the tour is sitting in a thick pool of mud in complete darkness.  The mud is so thick that you can float on it, but still swim.  It was much warmer deep in the cave and the mud felt great on my skin.  We headed back the way we came, rinsed off and kayaked back to the start, where they have two small ziplines dropping you into the water.  Despite the chill of the water, this turned out to be my favorite thing in Phong Nha.  It helps that they serve you hot soup, tea and rum by a fire at the end.

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We dried off and headed back to town in time for sunset.  Driving at night is dangerous, as there are no streetlights and when we got back to the hostel, there still wasn’t any power.  So no hot showers for us, which was disappointing.  Apparently, they are working on the electric lines all the time, probably updating them to accommodate the huge influx of tourism in the area in the last few years.  It would be interesting to see the development that happens in this area in the next ten years.  The caves are really incredible and its no wonder why people are already flocking here.

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The following day we met in the lobby of our hostel to join a bunch of people to visit the cave that is closest to town.  Ten of us split the cost of a boat and we headed for Phong Nha and Tien Son caves.  The little dragon boat took us down the river about half an hour to the entrance of the caves, leaking all the way.  our wooden boat had seen better days.  At the entrance to Phong Nha cave, the boat driver switched off the motor and he and his helper removed the top of the boat, so we could look directly above our heads.  They pulled out their paddles and we spent the next hour or so moving silently through the cave.

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The dragon boat returned us to the entrance of the cave and we disembarked for the walk up to the next cave, Tien Son.  We walked up some very steep steps, with ladies selling ice cream all the way up.  In my opinion, this cave was better than Phong Nha cave.   There is wooden loop way down into the cave, lots more steps.  More beautiful formations and tasteful lighting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We took the dragon boat back to town, where the power was out again.  Saw some interesting boat uses along the way.

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The next day we took the local bus back to Dong Hoi, where we were dropped at an intersection and told to wait for the next bus to Hue (no time table).  Luckily, one arrived about half an hour later, we flagged it down and headed south on the dustiest and bumpiest  bus/road we have encountered thus far.

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Colonel Mustard and Mr. Tabasco are a long way from home.

Take a road just to see where it goes….Thakhek Loop, Laos

Thakhek is a small town on the Mekong River with a border crossing to Thailand.  There’s not much going on here, but it seems to be a base for people doing the ‘Thakhek Loop,’ like us, and for a large cave.  Our plan included the loop, a 400+ km (250+ miles) tour through incredible karsts with stops along the way with breathtaking scenery and caves.

We arrived by bus from Vientiane (about 5 hours) and wandered town to find a hostel.  Slim pickings here as there are only a few roads and many of the guesthouses don’t really look open.  We spent the next day walking the town.  The whole town.  Which wasn’t tough.  Only took a few hours.  There’s a small market and a riverfront.  We reserved our motorbikes that evening and packed our small bags with just enough stuff for our four day trip.

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Day 1:

We set out around 10 am, after running some errands around town and eating breakfast.  First stop, Xieng Liab cave.  Only about ten minutes outside of town, we pulled over at a sign pointing down a tiny dirt path.  A local tried to offer his guidance, but we declined and walked about 10 minutes into the woods.  A huge opening in the vertical karst greeted us and we spent the next ten minutes climbing over rocks to get a good view of the inside.

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Then we headed a bit down the road and found the Falang watering hole (means foreigner).  The water was beautiful and enticing, but a bit cold for our taste.

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As the road turned more rural, we came across incredible flooded forests, as this area was purposely flooded for a hydropower project.  Sixteen villages were relocated.  The locals were given bigger and “better” houses and moved just out of the flooded area.  95% of the power is sold to Thailand.  All this we learned when we encountered the dam’s visitor center and a man working there who has the best English we’d found in awhile.  He was very pleased to meet some Americans, as his English teacher when he was a monk was American.

We ended our first day at a guesthouse that caters to most of the people doing the motorbike loop.  They had a bonfire all evening, a cute puppy and a delicious BBQ buffet for the ten or so guests.

 

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Day 2:

This is the day we had heard was a bit difficult.  The road turns to dirt about 20 km from where we stayed (though they are working on paving it, so this number is ever increasing).  We stocked up on gas, which is kept in liter bottles and topped off by the  local women, occasionally with a child or two on hip or in tow.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The road wasn’t as bad as we had thought, but we went pretty slow.  We had seen some rough cases of road rash back in town and a motorbike that came back rather wrecked with its passenger still in the hospital.  The scenery was breathtaking as we descended the hills.

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Unexploded ordnances are still a problem in this area as well.

Having passed the worst part of the road, we made our way through a larger town and onto an area of the map where there was supposed to be a cool spring.  This cool spring eluded us (and most people we spoke to as well), but we found some amazing views off little dirt roads in the same general vicinity.

We tried almost every promising road off the main road to find these cool springs.  It was at the end of one of these little dirt roads that I vowed to change this blog name to “The cow came out of nowhere” when, well, the cow came out of nowhere.  A little road rash, some bruises and a lot of dust later, I was back on the bike, but done looking for cool springs.  The cow looked at me like she’d never seen such a pale person on a motorbike before, and maybe she hadn’t.

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Day 3:

This was my favorite day of the loop.  We had stayed in a town at the end of a 40 km road to Konglor Cave.  We could probably have made it all the way to the cave on day 2, but after the cow incident, I was ready to be off the bike.  The 40 km to the cave is completely flat with karsts on either side.  People were farming the land on either side of the road and there was hardly any traffic.  We passed through quite a few little villages, where the children yelled and waved hello.

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We stopped for brunch right outside the cave and Riki changed his camera lens to the fish eye. Hence, these two gems.

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At Konglor cave, you hire a boat (max three people), are given a headlamp and then head for the entrance.  We had a driver and a guy in the front with a paddle and a cup.  His job was the avoid the rocks and scoop water out of the ever flooded boat.  We had to get out at one point and walk over the rocks because it was very shallow.  During the wet season, this must be a very different place and we heard some days you can’t even go in because the water is too high.

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7 kilometers later, you emerge at the end of a dirt road (presumably there is a village 4 km up the road).  We spent 20 minutes walking around the area, though it was mostly just women hawking their scarves.  Then we returned the way we had come.

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We hopped back on our bikes and went the 40 kms back to the town we had stayed in the night before.  Some people do the loop in 3 days, but with all the flat tires we heard about and the fear of driving at night with no streetlights, four days was definitely the way to go.  There’s not much to do in Kuon Kham, but we found a viewpoint above the town with a great view of the mountains.

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8 kms west of the town is a great spot to rest between all the curves and hills.

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These cows were on their way home, but made a pit stop at the pharmacy and market to check out the goods in the trash cans.

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Day 4:

This is the ‘boring’ day, or so we had heard.  It’s 140 kms of mostly highway, which is flat and there is more traffic.  Highway is a loose term though.  We were passed by only a few cars and the scenery was still really nice.  Lots of little towns and tons of children yelling and waving at you.  We arrived back in Thakhek in time for a late lunch and checked back into our hotel.

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We managed to be about 75% sure of the bus schedule to Vietnam, so we had one extra day to wait until we could catch the bus.  Lucky for me, as I became very sick and was in no shape to get on a 9 hour bus that day.

But I didn’t hit the cow.

Next stop: Central  Vietnam and more caves!