Ecuador in 4 days

Day 1

I landed in Quito and started the journey with Mitad Del Mundo which apart from being a monument near the equator line has some nice short scientific demonstrations. Expect to spend about 2-3 hours there.

Mitad Del Mundo

View from the top of Mitad Del Mundo monument

Then I headed to Telefrico (“aerial lift”). The ride is nice and gives a beautiful view of the Quito city. Highly recommended.

A view of Quito from Teleferico

A view of Quito from Teleferico

Lastly, I headed to Quito Old Town. Overhyped. There is nothing special about it. In fact, I would recommend the readers to start early in the morning and go to Mindo Cloud Forest first. I had an overnight bus journey from Quito to Lago Agrio afterwards.

Day 2

I wanted to make a single day visit to Amazon. Therefore, Yasuni, being too deep inside the forest, was out of the question. Cuyabeno was a good choice. Since it is deep enough and at the same time accessible enough for a one day trip. I reached Lago Agrio early morning where the manager of Cuyabeno River Lodge (not Cuyabeno Lodge) picked me up. This lodge is deep inside Amazon but not close to Laguna Grande. Therefore, the lodge management can adjust for your pickup-dropoff time, most other lodges which are close to Laguna Grande would charge a lot extra for that. I would highly recommend this if you want a custom itinerary.

Caiman Lodge

Caiman Lodge

I reached the lodge at about 6AM and after having a nice vegetarian breakfast, I joined a few other travelers and went for a boat tour of the Laguna grande (“grand lagoon”) starting at 8AM.

Boat tour

Laguna Grande

We saw a lot of native animals like  serpiente (“snake”), tortuga (turtles), and pajaros(birds) during the journey. After Laguna Grande, we headed to a native Amazon community, where we learnt the process of making Yuca bread by extracting Yuca roots, followed by peeling, grating, drying and baking them.

Yuca roots

Yuca roots

Grated Yuca

Grated Yuca

Drying of Yuca

Drying of Yuca

Baking Yuca

Baking Yuca

Yuca bread

Yuca bread

While returning, we encountered a baby caiman (“alligator”).

Customary selfie with a baby caiman

Customary selfie with a baby caiman

At night, we headed out for a night hike. If you are planning to do this, then I would recommend carrying an insect repellent. Amazon rainforest is full of small crawling creatures.

Day 3

The third day started with a Pirana fishing session. The goal was to just catch, take pics and return them to the water. They are really fast at eating the food before the hook is pulled in. While I failed to fully get hold of any, another guy on the boat succeeded.

Pirana

Pirana

From there, I headed for another long bus journey from Lago Agrio to Baños De Agua Santa with a transfer via Coca. I later came to know that there is a direct overnight bus from Lago Agrio to Baños. In the hindsight, I would say that leaving at night would have been a better option then wasting the third day traveling.

Day 4

The day started with a visit to Thermal hot springs Therma de La virgen (“The virgin hot springs”). They are good but don’t spend too much time here since there is a lot to do later.

Thermal hot springs

Thermal hot springs

Then I headed for a Bungee jumping session. 20$ for the jump and 5$ for the photos. Wow. Compare this to 150$ jump offered in the San Francisco bay area.

Sugarcane candies

Sugarcane candies are a must try. Canna in Spanish. Ganna in Hindi, who copied whom?

Conical pizza

Conical pizza

Post-lunch, I headed for a paragliding session. At 55$, it’s a no-brainer.

I had to skip Le Casa Del Arbol due to the lack of time. Baños is an amazing backpacker heaven. While I only spent a day there, I would strongly recommend, at least two days to fully enjoy it.

 

Here is the overall map.

Note:

  1. Public transport is pretty good for both short and the long distance travel. So one can skip taxis.
  2. US Dollar is the accepted currency. Carry cash, credit/debit cards might not be accepted everywhere.
  3. Cuenca is a nice French town but I could not check that out due to the shortage of time.
  4. Always carry papel de higienico (“toilet paper”). A lot of places simply don’t have it. And they don’t have water either ¯  \_(ツ)_/¯

Seattle in 2 Days

Day 1

We started our journey with Chihuly Garden and Glass, it consists of amazing glass sculptures of various sizes. Worth every penny. Highly recommended for everyone.

Yes, this is all glass

Yes, this is all glass

 

From there we continued to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center,  half of it feels like a publicity stunt but the other half is insightful and worthy of a visit.

Anti-bacterial business cards

Anti-bacterial business cards

We skipped the Space Needle and did the Space Wheel, instead. Grab to-go boxes and eat them while having a nice view of the city’s skyline.

Space Needle

Space Needle

A view from the Space Wheel

A view from the Space Wheel

The Gum Wall is weird but worth a quick visit.

The gum wall

The gum wall

We headed to Chittenden Locks  next. While I have read about how locks are used for moving ships from one water body with lower water level to another with higher water level, this was the real life demo of the same. Recommended but don’t spend too much time here.

Chittenden Locks

Chittenden Locks

We headed to Fremont Troll afterward. I think it’s overhyped and if you don’t have time, skip it.

The Fremont Troll

The Fremont Troll

Gas Works Park is nearby and worth an evening walk.

Gas Works Park

Gas Works Park

Underground tour was the highlight of the day. We went for the late night 21+ only show. The guide was hilarious and we got a chance to learn about Seattle’s history in the context of cultural norms of the Victorian era, relations with native Americans and US-Canada border demarcation.

Seattle Underground

Seattle Underground

Day 2

We started the day with Bruce Lee’s grave. Overhyped, don’t spend more than 15 minutes there.

Bruce Lee's grave

Bruce Lee’s grave

From there we headed to the Museum of History & Industry which gave us a nice overview of  Seattle’s role in the World Wars. Recommended if you are into history. Expect to spend a few hours if you are planning to do it in the full. At 14$ per person, it’s inexpensive.

IMG_20140518_121646

We followed it with Frye Art Museum, it’s a nice museum if you have any interest in arts. We missed Last Resort Fire Department since it was closed. We continued the trip with Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park which is actually a museum. It provides a window into the Klondike gold rush era which started in 1896. Must do for history lovers. Being short on time, we skipped the Public Library and Alki Beach.

Seattle was the final stop for the gold diggers

Seattle was the final stop for the gold diggers

We took Washington State Ferries which was OK but not great. I would recommend Denny Creek Trail instead.

Seattle seen from the ferry

Seattle seen from the ferry

Choosing a Travel Backpack

Choosing a travel backpack is a topic of several online debates. Here are some of my learnings. The final decision depends on your preferences.

Size

First, start with the size, usual sizes are around 25L, 45L, 65L. The 25L is OK for a day or two and you can stretch it for a few days. It is almost what a good office backpack looks like. 45L can last for a few week-long urban trips. Of course, it cannot contain things like sleeping bag etc. Both of these are good choices for urban travel or travel not involving sleeping outdoors. For travel involving carrying sleeping bags or tents, a 65L backpack is unavoidable. But here is the flip-side. Not only, it is bulky but also, you cannot carry it in most airlines. You have to do a check-in which even if free, can be time-consuming. Here are some images from Google illustrating the sizes.

Weight distribution

The second most important aspect is the weight distribution. Some bags don’t provide hip or chest support straps. I would highly recommend choosing one which provides both.

A photo illustrating chest and hip straps

A photo illustrating chest and hip straps

Loading

The third important aspect of choosing a backpack is whether it is top-loading or front-loading. A top-loading backpack can only be loaded from the top while front-loading one opens up like a suitcase. Moving from top-loading to front-loading made my life much easier.

Front loading backpack

Front loading backpack

Some others concerns

  1. Don’t choose a bag with rollers. They are useful only at airports and hotel lobbies. Everywhere else, you are just carrying extra weight on your shoulders.
  2. If you travel with a laptop then ensure that the bag has a well-protected laptop sleeve.

What I decided on

I narrowed down my choices to following five 35L-45L backpacks since that is within the carry-on limits and can easily last for weeks.

  1. Tortuga Travel backpack  – 200$ for 44L
  2. Osprey Farpoint – 140$ for 40L. This seems to be the most popular backpack among the traveling community
  3. Minaal Carry-on bag  – 300$ for 35L
  4. Soot Electropack  – 280$ for 24+10L, a daypack can be pulled out of the bag – website dead as of Nov 2018
  5. Chrome Excursion  – 160$
  6. Venturesafe anti-theft backpack – 200$ for 45L. This bag definitely seems to have some good anti-theft and security features.

Eventually, I decided to go with Tortuga.

A secret which professional bloggers won’t tell you

I read several blogs while choosing a backpack and no one recommended a really simple trick for getting an inexpensive high-quality backpack. And that’s probably because this trick does not make money for the bloggers or the sellers. The trick is CraigsList. As of this writing, there are about 900 backpacks available to buy in my area. Most of them for about 50$.

Further reading

  1. Nomadic Matt
  2. Eastern Mountain Sport’s Guide
  3. Women’s backpack guide

 

Thailand in 4 Days

Day 1

Post-immigration clearance at about 6 PM, I took the Airlink Train to go to Patpong market. One can try a wide variety of local cuisines or a Thai body or facial massage there. There are tons of stalls selling unbranded goods of all variety. Overall, a good start the journey. From there, I headed to Khao San road which is the backpacker’s paradise of Bangkok. The area is on party 24-hours a day. I did some window shopping and felt that goods being sold on Bangkok streets were significantly expensive than Amazon and Dollar Tree in the US. I stayed at Rainbow Hostel at the end of Khao San road to avoid the noise during the sleep time. The place was good but not great. Thailand, just like India uses water in the toilets, if you are a westerner who has never used water before then carry your own toilet paper around.

Patpong market

Patpong market

Day 2

I started my day with Wat Pho temple, crossed the river via a boat and did Wat Arun and then returned to do the Grand Palace. I would actually recommend doing the reverse since Grand Palace was crowded by the time I reached there. Grand palace was definitely impressive but compared to Hindu temples, Thai Buddhist temples felt a bit bland and underwhelming. Finally, I headed to Khao San museum, it is a good (and free entry) museum to check out the history of Khao San road. Then, I took a mini-van to Kanchanaburi, which is the city closest to the Tiger temple.

Wat Pho

Wat Pho

Wat Arun

Wat Arun

Ramayana depiction at The Grand Palace

Ramayana depiction at The Grand Palace

Day 3

I wanted to do Erawan Falls followed by Tiger Temple and some caves in a single day. Public transport is not efficient enough for that. So, I took a 200 Baht a day moped rental.

Gasoline is sold in bottles

Gasoline is sold in bottles

I started with Erawan falls (~60 km drive from Kanchanaburi). The entry is a bit expensive at 300 Baht and additional 20 Baht for the vehicle but it is impressive inside. There are 7 ponds (7 levels). The best part about the ponds is that the fishes will come and bite dead skin off of your feet. It does not hurt, just tickles. I would recommend swimming in the levels 7, 4 and 2, in that order. The water at Level 7 is crystal clear and looks mesmerizing. Post Erawan falls, I wanted to check out some nearby caves but was getting late for Tiger temple whose entry stops at 3:30 PM. So, I skipped the caves then.

Level 7 pond at Erawan Falls

Level 7 pond at Erawan Falls

Level 2 pond at Erawan Falls

Level 2 pond at Erawan Falls

Entry fee for Tiger temple is 600 Baht and the experience is worth it. Do bring a camera. It has several tigers and the guides will take several pictures with them using your camera. Later, in the evening, stay back for cub’s milk feeding event which starts at about 5 PM.

Tiger temple

Tiger temple

Very few caves are open at that time and Krasae is the only one in the vicinity. Therefore, I headed to Krasae caves after that. It was underwhelming. But there is an amazing local market on the way to it and unlike the usual markets in Bangkok, they don’t try to rip off the foreigners. I took a night mini-van to Bangkok and reached just in time for 11 PM bus from Bangkok to Pattaya. Skipping the caves and taking an earlier direct bus to Pattaya would have been a better choice.

Day 4

I started the day with Big Buddha and it was underwhelming enough that I decided to skip Buddha Mountain. I headed to Pattaya floating market, despite its reviews online being overwhelmingly negative. One has to pay 200 Baht to enter a market (where s/he is going to buy stuff !!!). The staff at the entrance would not even tell you about the 200 Baht option, and will push for 800 Baht/900 Baht full tours. A part of the market was accessible without paying the fee and it was underwhelming enough that I decided to skip the rest. I then took 30 Baht ferry from Bali Hai Pier for Koh Larn island. It takes about 30 minutes to reach the island. I took a 100 Baht/2 hours bike rental on the island. Checking out all beaches was a bit waste of time since Naul beach is undoubtedly the best. Do check out the vista point which is at the top of a mountain providing a breath-taking view of the island and the surrounding ocean.

Vista point - Koh Larn

Vista point – Koh Larn

I took the 5 PM ferry back and had an amazing vegetarian meal at Five J’s restaurant. The last item I wanted to check out in Pattaya was Art of Paradise. The 400 Baht fee might feel steep but the place is fantabulous. They have beautiful art structures which when photographed produce 3-D illusions. A lot of them require the person to be a part of the photo. This is one of the few places where going solo really hurts. While I spent about 1.5 hours at the place, I would recommend reserving 3-4 hours to enjoy all structures.

Art in Paradise - Pattaya

Art in Paradise – Pattaya

This was the end of my sojourn in Pattaya. In the hindsight, taking a bike rental at Pattaya for a day would have been a good choice. I took a direct bus back to the Airport and that was the end of my journey.

Overall, I felt the Bangkok and Pattaya to be acceptable and not amazing but this could  just be the result of comparisons to cities and islands in the USA. On the other hand, I would strongly recommend Kanchanaburi which has Erawan falls as well as Tiger Temple.

Tips

  1. Thailand drives on the left side of the road, like UK and India. They use “gasoline” and not “petrol” though.
  2. People use water instead of toilet paper.
  3. Most places try to charge an excessive price to foreigners.

Philadelphia in 3 days

Philadelphia is a historic city on the east coast of the United States. It was the capital of the U.S. before Washington D.C. I spent two and a half  days in and around Philadephia in January 2016.

Day 1

I started the day with Indepence Hall National Historic Site. Liberty Bell Center gives a good overview of this historic American cultural icon.

Liberty Bell, Philadephia

Liberty Bell

From there, I continued onto the tour of Independence Hall. Only a guided tour is permitted inside and it is really good.

Independence Hall

Independence Hall

Then, I checked out the National Constitution Center which shows the history of the evolution of the US constitution, including giving blacks and women right to vote and American civil war. Highly recommended for history lovers.

Whitehouse replica at Constitution Center

Whitehouse replica at Constitution Center

I wanted to check out US Mint but unfortunately, it was closed that day. Betsy Ross House, the house of Betsy Ross, who made America’s star and stripes flag, is located in the vicinity but it was a bit underwhelming. So, if you are short on time, better skip it.

Betsy Ross House

Betsy Ross House

I decided to skip Eastern State Penitentiary and Franklin Institute but others might be interested in them. The last activity of the day was Philly Magic Gardens. It is highly rated on TripAdvisor but I felt the art quality was a bit shoddy. I stayed at Econolodge Conference Center, Allentown since it was close to the Appalachian Trail, I wanted to do the next day. This was the end of my first day.

Day 2 

I started the day with a hike along the historic Appalachian trail route (Lehigh gap). It was a slightly strenuous but enjoyable hike.

Lehigh Gap Appalachian Trail

Lehigh Gap Appalachian Trail

Post-lunch, I followed with a journey to Cornwall Iron Furnace. It’s a hidden gem in inner Pennsylvania. The guided tour of the furnace gives a glimpse into the history of the Iron and Steel industry of the U.S.

 

Cornwall Iron Furnace

Cornwall Iron Furnace

Day 3

I started the journey with Philadephia Museum of Art. It’s a big museum and it can take up to 6 hours to see all the artwork.

IMG_0443From there I headed to Mutter Museum which contains an impressive collection of medical specimens ranging from the tallest skeleton found in North America to slices of Albert Einstein’s brain. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited inside.

Mutter Museum

Mutter Museum

This was the end of my Philadelphia trip.

Puerto Rico in 4 days

Among all islands in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico (“Rich Port”) is among the few to have historical and geographical places of interest, alongside the beaches. It is a U.S. territory. Flights from the mainland United States are treated as domestic flights. It has tropical weather, so, a visit in the later part of the year is recommended. Public transport is poor outside of the main city of San Juan, so,  if you want to explore the island, a rental car is highly recommended. Here is a recommended four-day itinerary.

Day 1

San Juan National Historic Site consists of two Spanish castles which illustrate the History of Puerto Rico since the Spanish invasion in the 15th century. Entry fee is $5 and a free shuttle not only connects the castles but will also give you a tour of the old city. It will take 3-4 hours to do a full tour of the site. Visit the birthplace of Piña Colada afterwards for a dinner. They do have virgin Piña Colada which is non-alcoholic. Spend rest of the day in the old city.

 

San Juan National Historic Site

San Juan National Historic Site

An old Spanish cannon at El Morro Fort

An old Spanish cannon at El Morro Fort

Pina Colada at birthplace of Pina Colada

Pina Colada at birthplace of Pina Colada

San Juan old town

San Juan old town

Day 2

Drive west and do two underground caves at Rio Camuy cave park and Cueva Ventana (“caves with a window”). We did La Parguera afterwards but I would recommend against it. One, it is too far and second, it is not as good as the Bioluminescent bay in Fajardo. The boat trip in La Parguera is definitely cheaper (7$ per person as compared to 40$ Kayaking in Fajardo) and one can swim in the water but the quality of bioluminescence is much better in Fajardo.

Rio Camuy Caves Park

Inside the cave at Rio Camuy Caves Park

Cueva Ventana

That’s why it is called “cave with a window”

Day 3

Drive east and do El Yunque National Park, it is the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system. We did the El Yunque trail. It took us about 4 hours round-trip. It was raining badly but even despite that, I think the experience is average, nothing bad but nothing awesome either. After that, we did Charco Frio (“The cold pond”) which I would highly recommend. It is a bit difficult to find, so, I would highly recommend reading the trip advisor entry in detail before heading there.

A view from the top of El Yunque National Park

A view from the top of El Yunque National Park

Day 4

Drive further east and take a 9 AM ferry to Culebra island. The round trip ferry is for $5 and is totally worth the journey. The island has amazing beaches – Flamenco for swimming, Rosario and Tamarindo for snorkeling. The water is live, that is, it has Jellyfish but its sting is not that painful. Finish the day with Bio bay Kayaking at Fajardo. I had nice vegetarian food at Ocean View restaurant afterwards. For vegetarians, I would highly recommend vegetarian Mofongo.

An old World War II tank at Flamenco beach at Culebra Island

An old World War II tank at Flamenco beach at Culebra Island

Flamenco Beach at Culebra Island

Flamenco Beach at Culebra Island

Tips

  1. You don’t really need snorkeling gear, good swimming glasses work as well.
  2. If you are a vegetarian, be careful while ordering arroz (“rice”), they are sometimes laced with grasa de cerdo (“pork fat”). Ask explicitly for the same.
  3. Compared to mainland United States, driving is a bit rough here, people change lanes without giving turning indicators on.
  4. Puerto Rico is also famous for Zip-line tours. As I had done it, elsewhere, in the past, I skipped. If you have not done it, it might make sense to check it out.

Alaska in 4 days

Alaska is vast, in a 4-day trip, one can either do the northern Arctic part or the southern part. We did the latter. Here is the itinerary we followed.

  • Day 0 – Land in Anchorage, drive four hours to Denali national park.
  • Day 1 – Take Kantishna bus tour of Denali national park.  Driving inside the park is not allowed.

Denali National Park

 

Bear spotting in Denali

Moose in Denali National Park

  • Day 2 – Hike to Mt. Healy. Hike on Matanuska Glacier. If you have never walked on ice before, I would highly recommend hiking on the glacier.

Matanuska glacier

  • Day 3 – Hike on Harting Icefield trail. It is a fantastic hike next to a glacier.

Harting Ice Field

  • Day 4 – Take a day cruise at Whittier to Blackstone Bay. Do check the weather, when we did it snowing heavily, and that spoiled the sail a bit. It is unquestionably overpriced compared to other cruises I have done in the United States.

Otter in Whittier

 

Blackstone glacier

Few tips

  1. Public transport is almost non-existent. Rent a car right from the airport.
  2. Vegetarian food can be a bit hard to come by, but thankfully, Subways are everywhere.
  3. Carry pepper spray or walk in groups to avoid bears.
  4. Do carry a good jacket since rainfall/snowfall starts arbitrarily.
  5. The tunnel to Whittier in one-way and switches direction every 30 minutes. Do check it’s schedule.

Winter Trip to Mt. Whitney (Feb 2015)

Hiking up Mt. Whitney

  1. Day 1 – Reach the Outpost Camp (3.8 miles, 10.4K ft)
  2. Day 2 –
    1. Started at 8 AM
    2. Reached consultation lake at noon
    3. Reached trail crest at 2:20 PM
    4. Reached summit at 6 PM
    5. Returned to Outpost Camp by 11:35 PM
  3. Day 3 – Head back to Whitney Portal

Conditions

  1. It was all snow covered – knee-deep snow in some places.
  2. 99 switchbacks are not possible under such conditions, so, we climbed up the chute.
  3. The trail is dangerous beyond trail crest, don’t go alone.

Do

  1. Start early, preferably by 5 AM (we were late).
  2. Take hiking boots, hiking poles, gaiters, and crampons – I had microspikes (instead of crampons) and was without gaiters, it worked.
  3. Practice walking the ascents (~10% or more) on hikes or treadmill.
  4. Carry a stove and mug to heat and drink warm water.