Category: caves


We considered hanging out in Rotorua after our trip to Te Puia – there was plenty to do there (although it’s all fairly expensive), and since we didn’t plan anything in advance we were pretty flexible.  In the end, though, we decided to move on to the Coromandel Peninsula, and I’m so glad that we did!  The Coromandel Peninsula is one of the most famous places in New Zealand, and since this was the off season we got to enjoy it in relative peace and serenity.  Plus, this leg of the trip we actually had lovely weather, instead of having to constantly run away from the rain like we were doing for most of the rest of our time in New Zealand, so we had the luxury of taking our time and enjoying the beautiful countryside and little towns and attractions along the way.  We also stayed in a truly wonderful AirBnB place…it’s billed in the description as a “French-inspired cottage,” and it was really a wonderful way to end our travels in New Zealand.

Our first main stop in the Coromandel Peninsula was the hot water beach, which has been rated one of the best beaches in the world – although I suspect that that’s more for its uniqueness than its beauty.  Hot water beach is famous for its underground hot springs that can filter up through the sand at low tide.  Visitors from all over the world bring shovels and try to time their digging so that they’ve built up their little pool right around the time that low tide is reached, so that they can sit and enjoy their very own homemade sauna.  The pictures in the tourist brochure definitely promise big things – dozens of symmetrically shaped pools scattered all around this one little place on the beach, with steam drifting up from the hot water and people relaxedly sitting in the water enjoying the warmth.

The reality for us was a bit different.  We were in New Zealand at the beginning of winter, so it was definitely very chilly – Michael made several comments about the ludicracy of going to the beach when there was frost on the windshield, lol.  Once we got to the beach, it was actually quite hard to find places that had hot water close enough to the surface that it could be reached with a shovel, so everyone who was there ended up collaborating and trying to work together to build one big pool in the single place where we could find hot water.  Except that area was too close to the incoming tide, and kept getting washed away…it didn’t help that we really weren’t very good at collaborating, either :).  In the end, after about 2 hours of digging, we had successfully built several pools, and we had been able to feel the hot water under the sand, but we were never quite able to do both and get the hot water into a pool.  So, rather than us all relaxing in our own saunas like the brochures had promised, we all ended up huddling together in the sand, with our poor abandoned pools lying neglected in the background.  Apparently even at low tide, the tide was too high to really get the desired effect.  But it was still fun – I got to say I’ve been to one of the best beaches in the world, and got an upper body workout on top of that!

That afternoon, we decided to go exploring.  We ended up finding a path up to the top of a place called Shakespeare Cliff.  It was a lovely walk, but at the top was a very unexpected and pleasant surprise.  Rather than a simple lookout landing, we found a huge expanse of beautifully manicured lawns and gardens, with fearless birds flitting in and out of the shrubbery, and a breathtaking view that completely surrounded us.  We spent a whole lot longer there than we meant to, but it was time well spent.  I have become such a fan of traveling with no plans!  There is so much that you miss out on when you are rushing to hit the next tourist destination on the schedule.

The next day we went to see the other main attraction in the Coromandel Peninsula, Cathedral Cove, which is part of the larger Mercury Bay area.  Like the hot water beach, this is only accessible during low tide and by foot, but unlike the hot water beach, it took about 45 minutes of hilly walking to get there, as opposed to 10 minutes on a flat beach for the hot water beach.  But luckily, low tide was about an hour later the second morning, so we didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn ;).  Even if we had had to do that, it would have been worth it.  A popular site for kayaking, snorkeling, and other water activities, the cave and beach is also used as the tunnel through which the Pevensie children first re-enter Narnia in the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.  And it’s absolutely breathtaking.  I could have very happily spent the whole day there.

There were several other little side trips along the way to the cove, such as Stingray bay and Gemstone cove (I just love the names of the places in this area!).  We spent at least a little time in all of them, but the majority of the time was spent in Cathedral cove.  And then, just like that, our trip down under was drawing to a close, and we had to begin making our way back to Auckland to return to the states.

Hamilton and Waitomo

Upon leaving Auckland, we decided to follow up our trip to the Winter Gardens with…you guessed it, a trip to another garden.  One of the most incredible gardens in the world – at least, so says the International Garden Tourism Network, who rated the Hamilton Gardens as the international garden of the year in 2014…and who am I to disagree with that? 🙂

In all seriousness, though, Hamilton Gardens is truly a unique experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to go.  What started out in the 1960’s as a desolate city dump has been transformed into a several acres-wide series of gardens that celebrates the history, concept, and meaning of gardens over the ages.  It consists of several separate gardens, each one honoring the uniqueness of the traditional gardens of that specific place and era.  There is an English Flower Garden, Tudor Garden, Japanese Garden of Contemplation, Chinese Scholar’s Garden (one of our favorites!), American Modernist Garden, Italian Renaissance Garden, Indian Char Bagh Garden, Herb Garden, Tropical Garden, Te Parapara Maori Garden, and several others, as well, plus numerous other enclaves and walkways, all meticulously maintained.

Even in the middle of a rainstorm, with light sneakers that quickly got soaked through all the way to my poor little toes, it was a stop well worth making.  The umbrellas that we borrowed from the visitor’s center certainly helped, so I was grateful for those.  Bonnie and Nancy, the ladies who were working at the desk when we arrived, were lovely old ladies who were absolutely delighted to find some young tourists willing to stop and listen to them for a while.  That was a trend I noticed throughout our trip – it’s amazing how often you can find people who are willing to talk and listen to you, if you are willing to slow down long enough to engage them in conversation.  I resolved yet again, as I often do when I travel and have the chance to slow down, to make the effort to slow down in my normal life back in the States, as well.  It’s always worth the effort.

But Hamilton was just a side trip on our way to Otorohanga.  Once we decided we had gotten wet enough by traipsing through the gardens, we got back into the car and finished our journey to our next Air BnB’s house, Liz.  Liz was certainly not the same level of host that Vee was, but she wasn’t a bad host…my biggest complaint with Liz was that she kept the windows open in her house, even though New Zealand is pretty close to winter by the end of May.  It was always so frigid in her house, that Michael and I mostly kept to our room while we were there, trying to huddle by our little space heater and conserve body heat.

The next day, we made our way to the Waitomo Caves, about 15 minutes from Liz’s house.  We wanted to go to Waitomo to see the famous glowworm caves, which house a unique glowworm that does not live anywhere else in the world.  These insects live on the cave ceilings and emit a bright blue light, which in some places makes it look like the ceiling is covered with brilliant twinkling little stars.  It was truly breathtaking.

Of course, you always get bonus points if you get to mix a little action and adventure with your beautiful sightseeing, so we elected to see the glowworms by going tubing through the one of the caves, the Ruakari Cave.  Just getting into the wetsuits was a harbinger of what was to come – the water still in the suits was bitingly cold.  By the time we finished our tubing adventure, my feet were painfully numb to the point where I almost could not walk on them.  But the wetsuits did their job – the rest of me was relatively warm, so I was definitely grateful to have them.

Although tubing certainly isn’t on the top tier of activities as far as adventure activities go, it was still tons of fun.  On several occasions we did have to jump backwards down a waterfall in pitch black, and just trust our guides (Vaungh and Rachel) that we’d land properly on the bottom, so that was pretty scary.  Awesome, though, as scary things often are :).

We finished our tour of Ruakari Cave in early afternoon, so once we had warmed up a bit we decided to do some more exploring.  We had a couple of duds at first – went to see a museum that had been recommended to us by Liz, but wasn’t open; then we went to a Kiwi House around the corner, but decided we didn’t want to pay $24 a person to try to see nocturnal birds in the middle of the day.  In the end, we went for a drive to try to find Mangapohue, a natural bridge that one of our guidebooks recommended.  The long, twisty mountain road we found ourselves on almost gave us pause for concern, and we probably would have turned around had we not finally seen a sign that reassured us that we were on the right track.  We didn’t spend long there, but it was a fun little side trip.  Definitely an amazing sight to see this huge natural bridge in the middle of seemingly nowhere.

Adventures in the jungle of Chachapoyas

We left Cajamarca for Chachapoyas at 4:30 in the morning. Mind you, we are not intentionally masochistic – there’s only one bus a day that leaves for Chachapoyas, and that’s the time it leaves. Apparently it leaves that early in the morning because the road is so dangerous that they have to do the entire route in the daylight.

At first I thought that was silly, but after riding that road I realized that they were totally correct. You know you’re in for a treat when they hand out barf bags to everyone before the journey begins.  Almost the entirety of the 13 hour ride is a single lane road. And not only is it incredibly windy, but one side of the road has a mountain that butts right up to the side and goes straight up, so there is zero visibility around the corners, and the other side of the road is a sheer cliff that falls away hundred of feet below. Oh, and of course there are no guard rails or street lights. That would just be silly :p. At first I wondered why the bus driver was honking his horn so often, and then I realized that was the only way to warn any potential oncoming cars that we were right around the corner. Yikes. Needless to say, I was QUITE pleased when that ride was over.

We found a hostel with Alies and Willem, a young couple from Holland who had been on the same buses and tours with us since Cajamarca. Although I saw them a lot, I didn’t really start talking to them until the bus ride to Chachapoyas. But they turned out to be really interesting; I’m glad I made the effort. Anyway, even though Caro and I were tired from the trip from Cajamarca, we decided not to take a rest, and jumped right into it the next day. We started with a tour of Kuelap, called by some a second Machu Picchu. Although it was super cool, I’m not sure I would agree with that assessment. Not because it wasn’t incredible in it’s own right, but the two are just so different it’s difficult to compare the two.

Kuelap is a pre-Incan settlement that is known for its circular buildings. They were eventually conquered by the Incans, and in some places you can actually see where the Incans imposed their own rectangular buildings over the preexisting circular structures. That was pretty cool, although it was also a stark visual image of the brutality that comes from a people conquering and imposing its own culture on another people.

The jungle-like atmosphere of Kuelap gave it a sort of eerie, otherworld sensation. Chachapoyas is considered to be a part of the amazon jungle, and the tropical plants had well overtaken the parts of the ruins that had not been excavated and taken care of. It gave the entire complex a muffled, almost dream-like quality. I really really enjoyed it. Even more so because, unlike Machu Picchu, Kuelap is not well known, and so there were very few people there.

The next day we went to Karajía and Quiocta. Karajía is a group of sarcophagus that were carved into the side of a mountain, while Quiocta is an enormous cavern about an hour outside of Chachapoyas. I really really enjoyed Quiocta. I’ve always loved rocks and caves and things underground, and Quiocta has all three.  The bats definitely freaked me out a little bit, but lucky for me bats are generally more scared of humans than the other way around :). And the mud!! Oh my word. We all had to rent knee high boots to help us trek through the thick, icky mud that was often well over a foot deep. But the closest boots they had to my size were a size and a half too big, so I kept slipping out of them. My poor feet were left with blisters that I expect will leave permanent scars. But that’s ok. It was totally worth it :). Scars show that you have lived, right?

After Quiocta, I must admit that Karajía was a bit of a disappointment. The pictures make it look fascinating, but what they don’t tell you is that the pictures were all taken with high-res and long-zoom cameras. The tombs of Karajía in real life are wayyyy up high on the side of a mountain, difficult to see and impossible to get closer to. Karajía for me was really just a scenic walk. But that’s ok, Caroline was happy, so I was happy :).

Our last day in Chachapoyas found us heading to Gocta, the 3rd largest waterfall in the world. That was by far the most exhausting of the three days – getting to Gocta requires a trek of nearly 3 hours each way, and it’s not a flat, easy trek, either. Huge inclines, steep slopes, jagged stairs, and slippery mud were all part of the package. But, while it was definitely an exhausting hike, the group we were with made it all worth it. There was Kate, the adventurous Australian with the fiery red hair who was traveling all over South America by herself. And Maribel, a native of Chiclayo who was just the sweetest thing you’ve ever met. And Javier, who was born in Lima but has spent the last 14 years in Miami. And of course, Robert. By happenstance, Robert was on the same tour as us all three days that we were in Chachapoyas. The first day I hardly spoke to him at all, but by the last day we had become friends and were talking up a storm. Aside from being just a swell guy, he was also super encouraging. By the end of the return trip from Gocta I was REALLY struggling; if it wasn’t for Robert’s encouragement I probably would have given up and asked for a horse to be sent for me. But thanks to him (and, of course, the jugo de caña, a sweet drink made from pure sugar cane that is sold on the way to Gocta to give travelers energy), I can say that I made it there and back without a horse!  Hooray!!

Although we weren’t actually at the falls for very long, Gocta itself was actually really interesting. The tremendous force of the falling water creates a windy vortex of sorts at the base of the falls. It was wild. Thirty yards away it was warm and still, but then as soon as you got closer to the falls it because super windy and very cold. Was a very unique juxtaposition of weather within a very small area of land.

Since we planned on taking a night bus to Chiclayo that evening, we had already checked out of our hostel. However, after the trek to Gocta and back, a shower was not optional, so we paid the hostel owner 5 soles each (roughly $2) to let us take a shower in the bathroom in the back. I think it was actually the owners’ home and personal bathroom. Welcome to Peru, lol. And then, it was time to catch our bus to Chiclayo! I went to the bus station with mixed feelings. By this time, I knew that Chiclayo would be my last city with Caro – we had swapped out the trip to the jungle for a medical mission trip in south Peru for me, and a trip to Argentina for her, so after Chiclayo we were going to have to split up. While I was sad to leave her, I was also super excited about the mission trip. I’ll have to leave the details of just exactly how God got me there for another time, however. That’s a story in of itself :).

Machu Picchu – maravilla del mundo

(I have to apologize in advance…this is a very long post.  Not huge amounts of text, but there are lots and lots of pictures and videos ;])

We woke up at 5:00 on Monday morning, so that we could catch the first bus from Aguascalientes to Machu Picchu at 5:30.  Even at that ungodly hour, there was a huge line of people waiting to go the rest of the way up the mountain. And the line continued once we arrived at the entrance. Despite the unexpected amount of people, however, our timing was actually pretty good. We made it to the entrance gate by the time Machu Picchu opened at 6:00, which gave us a little bit of time to walk around the grounds before there were too many people, like there would be in the afternoon. We were a bit nervous at first – it had poured most of the night before, and we were worried that it would continue into the day.  But it turned out to just be cloudy, which helped with the heat and actually made it quite a nice day.

Here are a few videos from Machu Picchu itself:

So at 7:00, we made our way to the entrance of Huayna Picchu, a neighboring mountain. That was our entrance time to begin our ascent – they only allow 400 people on Huayna Picchu a day, and we were fortunate enough to snag entrance passes by buying our tickets over a month before we left. There were 2 options, an easy and a hard climb; of course we chose the harder one. I couldn’t come all this way and then take the easy way up the mountain! :-). While we waited to be let in, we struck up a conversation with a fascinating couple from California, Kim and Sally. Kim is a photographer, and he has been all over the world taking pictures of different news and travel stories. Together, they’re an intrepid traveling couple who has seen nearly every country in the world together. They became our buddies for the rest of the climb – when one of us got tired, the others would encourage them to keep pushing, so we all made it up to the top.

The encouragement was definitely needed. The climb was…challenging, to say the least. Thousands of stairs stood between us and our goal. And these were no ordinary stairs. Some were nearly two feet high, others so narrow that even my tiny feet couldn’t fit sideways on them. Often there were sheer cliffs that fell away just inches from where the side of the steps ended. My fear of heights was definitely kicking in with a vengeance. And of course, don’t forget to factor in the altitude – Huayna Picchu stands over 8500 feet above sea level. It’s truly amazing how much high altitude messes with your body when you’re not used to it. Caro and I are both in fairly good shape, but we still had to stop every few minutes or so just to catch our breaths.

Here’s an example of some of the stairs, tunnels, and ladders we had to climb to get to Huayna Picchu:

But getting to the top made all of the effort worth it. When we first got there the entire mountain was shrouded in fog, so we had to wait a while before the clouds cleared and we could catch a decent view. But it was truly gorgeous. And, although the clouds were a bit frustrating at times, I kind of liked them – they added to the mystery and excitement of the whole experience.

Coming down, though, while physically easier, was wayyyyy harder for me. Fears of heights are much more applicable when you are going down instead of up. By the time we got to the bottom my poor legs were like jello from having been shaking the entire way down. But I did it!! I was really proud of myself :).  After the climb, we spent a few more hours at Machu Picchu itself. We learned a ton about it without even having to pay for a guide – the advantage of understanding both English and Spanish is that you can sidle up to pretty much any tour and hear what the guide is saying without having to pay for anything ;).

To head down the mountain back to Aguascalientes, there are of course buses available for a small fee. But there is also a stairway, hewn out of the side of the mountain, for those hardy souls who didn’t endure enough punishment climbing Huayna Picchu. Guess which route we chose? Oh yes. The stairs. Only ten minutes into the trip, we were regretting our decision.  But by then it was too late. So we shouldered on, and finally reached Aguascalientes about 2 hours later. It made for a very long day. But it was fun. And totally worth the hassle. Worth the multiple bus rides, the train ride, the hike, the money, the sore muscles, the bug bites on steroids (I was left with scars from the bugs of Machu Picchu)…everything. All throughout Peru, the sort of unofficial slogan for Machu Picchu is “maravilla del mundo” (marvel of the world).  While it is admittedly a somewhat cheesy slogan, it is undoubtedly true.  I don’t generally like super touristy places, and Machu Picchu is one of the most touristy places in the world, but Machu Picchu is indeed a marvel, and definitely worth putting up with the tourists.  I ended that day a very happy camper, indeed :).
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Personas, playas, y Portugal

Whew!! What a week!! It actually hasn’t even been a week since I’ve written, but it feels like it’s been ages. A ton has happened, but I will try to fill you in on as much as I can remember.

Thursday night we had a party with our “intercambios” – native Spaniards whom we are paired with when we get here who are learning English. We’re supposed to hang out and help each other with our respective languages. So most of the Americans went, and many of the Spaniards, as well. Mine did not go, but I went anyway, because I really want to meet some Spaniards. I met 2, called Javi and Manuel, that were really cool. I’m really hoping to make some good Spaniard friends while I’m here. I haven’t really clicked with most of the students (although I have with a few of them), and anyway, no offense to the Americans here, but if I’m spending a third of a year of my life in Spain, I want to hang out with Spaniards, darn it!! 🙂

Friday I got lost (semi-intentionally). I just started walking, looking for a good place for lunch. I finally found one, and had a “tapa” (a Spanish appetizer) of meatballs in some sort of sauce while I watched people rush by. I honestly had no idea where I was, but I had my handy-dandy map of Seville, so I wasn’t worried. That map has pretty much all of the streets in the city on it, and I’m good at reading maps, so I haven’t gotten lost yet, much to the surprise of my host parents. They were very worried about me getting lost when I first got here. They actually sat me down and drew the exact route to the school that I should take my first day here. Now they seem to understand that I’m probably going to be fine :). Speaking of my host parents, though….have I mentioned that they’re AWESOME??!!?? I had an assignment on Friday for class on Monday in which I had to rewrite a fairy tale in a modern-day context, set in Seville – all in Spanish, of course. I mentioned that assignment to them at lunch on Friday, and they spent the rest of the meal brainstorming what sorts of stories I could do, and how I could change the story to fit the assignment. I finally settled on Cinderella – her evil stepmother is now a business partner of her father’s, her fairy godmother is a random woman she meets in church, she wants to go to the parties of “Semana Santa” (Holy Week), and her handsome prince is now a store clerk. Oh, and then today, after I got home from dance class, my mom asked me how it went, and I told her that we had learned an entire section of the dance…and she started flamenco dancing right there in the kitchen!!! I love them, they’re super awesome 🙂 🙂 🙂

I went shopping on Friday with Sarah and Silvia. I got some “Spanish” sandals. My plastic Old Navy flip flops were killing me, and I also stood out like a sore thumb, lol. So now I look like a legit Spaniard… 😀 That night a student who lives across the street from me, Zack, asked me if I wanted to go out for a walk, cuz he was bored. It was already like 10:30, but I told him I’m go for a little bit. We ended up running into some other students, Agustine and Matt, and went out for a drink. I tried some alcohol, but didn’t like it (which didn’t surprise me – I’ve never liked the taste of any alcohol I’ve ever tried), and then I just sat and talked with them for a while. Finally I had to leave, cuz I was super super tired. On the way back, though, I was able to get a picture of the city from the top of a building…it was beautiful. I’ve now officially completed my first week’s assignment from Jon :).

Saturday I went… Portugal!!!! It’s so bizarre to me to think that I can just hop on a bus and be in another country within a few hours’ time – without even having to pass customs. So anyway, we went the first day to a big beach in Algarve. It was actually an island that we went to – we had to take a boat to get to the beach. That was pretty sweet. That was just a normal day at the beach. I went swimming some (the current was crazy strong! It was a red flag day, which basically means you can swim, only if you accept that the lifeguards are not responsible for your death), walked around a lot, played some volleyball and soccer on the beach (have you ever tried running and kicking a soccer ball in sand?? It’s way hard), and read and talked with friends. The majority of the students here drink and party a lot. As that is definitely not my scene, I have not really found very many people with whom I want to spend a lot of time with. But this weekend I found several other students who would prefer to do some similar things as I, as opposed to drinking. So that was encouraging.

After the beach, we went to the hotel and cleaned up. Then we hopped back in the bus and went to the end of the world!! Did you know such a place existed? It does!! It’s a series of enormous cliffs that Europeans believed was the end of the world before Columbus discovered the Americas. And it truly looks like the end of the world. The cliffs drop hundreds of feet into the water below, and there is nothing beyond them except ocean for as far as the eye can see. It was sooo cool.

After we got back from the cliffs, everyone went out. Most people went bar hopping, but myself and five others – Sarah, Alice, Allyx, Virginia, and Greg – went to an Italian restaurant, instead. It started out as just Sarah and I, and then our group grew as word spread on the bus that we were forming an alternative group that wasn’t planning on getting plastered. So we walked around, saw some really cool outdoor bands playing, and then ate yummy Italian food (I was craving pizza :]). I struck up a conversation with our waiter – he spoke 7 languages!!! I was thoroughly impressed. We got back by 1:30 (which, I found out later, was a good 4 hours before the rest of the group returned), I showed Sarah a few of my favorite dance videos (cuz I’m a nerd :D), and then we went to sleep. It was a lovely evening.

The next day me pasó la bomba! (which basically means it was a blast.) After breakfast, we checked out and headed to another beach that was literally in the hotel’s backyard. I got there a little later than the rest of the group, though – I found a ping-pong table in the hotel, and challenged Agustine to a match. I beat him all 4 games, but I still think he was going easy on me…regardless, it was fun. I hadn’t played in ages; I missed it :). The beach was surrounded by gigantic caves and rock formations. You can check out pictures of them here. When Agustine and I got to the beach, Virgina told us about this awesome cave we could explore. You had to climb over a rather precarious wall of rock to get to it, but we managed just fine. So Agu and I went in there to explore, too. It…was…incredible. I feel like I’m running out of positive adjectives that fully express the amount of emotion I’m trying to convey :). (oh, by the way, apparently I’m “obsessed with the smileys in a drug-addict sort of way”. Someone told me that today…it made me giggle :]). There is normally boats that can take you on tours through the caves, but the waves were too strong this time. But it’s ok, cuz I still got to explore them on my own.

So after our tiempo de exploración, we went back and played volleyball and swam and just chilled until it was time to go. I was very grateful that night for being a good student. Everyone else was moaning about how tired they were, and how much homework they still had to do for the next day, but I had already done all of mine on Friday. I was the only one with any energy in class on Monday, lol…

So anyway, Portugal was awesome. I almost didn’t go, cuz it was expensive, but I’m really glad I did. Oh, and speaking of foreign countries, today I bought a ticket to Paris in November. It’s official, I’m going to France!!!! I also convinced 2 other friends, Allyx and Silvia, to go with me. It’s gonna be a blast. I also signed up for a 4-day trip to Moroccos in December, right before we leave. That’s gonna be insane…. So I have 1 more 4 day weekend to fill up…where should I go???? 🙂