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Iceland on a budget

Stunning waterfalls in IcelandIceland “The Land of Fire and Ice” is quickly becoming Europe’s worst kept travel secret!  After their devastating economic crash in 2008, Iceland put large amounts of funding into promoting Iceland as an outdoor adventure paradise. Incredible raw nature and awe-inspiring landscapes guaranteed that once the word was out it did not take much to get people talking.  A simple image search of Iceland will instantly have you champing at the bit to buy your plane ticket and visit this outstanding country.  That being said the prices have been steadily rising and it is now considered a pretty expensive place to visit. However a trip to Iceland can still be done relatively cheap if you stick to these few essential guidelines.

First and foremost

Oftentimes visitors opt for just visiting a few days, which is mostly free when flying local airlines going across the Atlantic. Give Iceland the justice it deserves and make it your main destination. We stayed for 12 days and it felt right, of course you can always stay longer but it felt like an appropriate length and it was enough time to see a lot of the sights.

Freedom is renting a car

Consider this a must! Public transportation is infrequent, very time-consuming and staying around Reykjavik you will limit yourself to the sights most frequented by tourists. Consider renting a car from SADCARS. Their cars certainly live up to their not so flattering name. All their cars are around 10 years old, which makes the price (around half of other rental companies) totally worth it!  IMG_0237Be aware that going off-road is very illegal and that F roads are for 4WD only. Most other gravel roads are fine as long as you take it slow. We took this old beast up some pretty formidable mountain passes and besides a flat in the middle of nowhere we survived.  There is no mileage limit, which is really nice if you plan to go around the ring road, a total of 828 miles without any detours. We ended up driving around 2000 miles total but that included seeing the remote Western Fjords, a final frontier that should not be missed.  Keep in mind that they do not accept debit cards in Iceland when you rent a car, only credit cards. Some places even require the pin code. If you are dead set on not renting a car plenty of people (including many single females) hitch hike, which is considered safe as Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

Camping is Key

Wild camping in IcelandAlmost every town or city has campgrounds; most of which have hot water, a cooking area and often even hot showers and laundry facilities.  Pretty luxurious!  Campsites are roughly $10 per person per night.  If this is too much for your budget to handle it is legal to camp in the wild as long as you are not in a national park or on somebody’s private land.  Anywhere else goes and seeing that once you get out of the main cities Iceland is scarcely populated. It is very easy to find some pretty spectacular places to camp.  If you are not camping you can easily blow your budget on a few hotel rooms. Hotel rooms in Iceland are fairly expensive, somewhere around $200 for a shabby bungalow style room.  However we managed to get a screaming last minute deal through Expedia in the center of Reykjavik for the last night.

Pick your food battles

Eating out can quickly become quite expensive.  Lunch for two people in a decent restaurant can easily cost you $50 or more. However the quality of food in Iceland is generally really good and something you should not miss. Especially the locally raised lamb and the fresh fish will make your mouth water. There is no shortage of local fast-food joints, which are of course much cheaper if you are tight on cash. Subsidize eating out with cooking a lot of ”gourmet” meals on the camping stove, which can really save you a ton of money.  Make up for the camping food with the breathtaking surroundings. There is a local budget supermarket called Bonus in all larger towns, easily the best priced groceries in the country. Whatever you do don’t buy bottled water as Iceland has some of the cleanest and tastiest fresh water in the world. Stop by any stream and fill your bottle with ice-cold and refreshing water straight from the glaciers.

Tours Tours Tours = $$$

PuffinTours are a great way to have foreigners spend copious amounts of money while visiting Iceland. Pick a few and don’t go overboard. I found tours to be totally overpriced and borderline outrageous as far as price goes. Sometimes you just have to bypass certain things to stay on budget.

There is an endless array of exciting tours we would have loved to experience but had to skip. Instead we preferred to travel to the more remote spots and spend the day photographing birds and enjoying being out in nature instead of going on a tour.

Top Tip!

No matter how small the town is (and I mean small) they will most likely have a Sundlaug (it literally translates to swimming pool).  These pools cost about the same as a shower at a campground (around $3-5) and although they vary a little in price and quality they are absolutely amazing.  After driving all day it was a lifesaver jumping into the pool, and even more importantly the hot tub or sauna.  For us prude Americans you have to get used to gym style showers but no one really cares that you are naked.  Drop “trou” and you will get over being naked with the locals in no time.  One of the best parts for me was that all these “Sundlaugs” had hair dryers, which is outstanding because even in summer it’s pretty cold and for those of us with long hair this was an unexpected luxury.

I hope that these tips will come in handy on your next Icelandic adventure!

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

IMG_4526With only a few days of our trip left, it was hard to not feel greedy for more time. A feeling of sadness came over me that next week we would back to the “real world”. With our departure date drawing nearer, we decided to give those elusive cats one last chance. The unlucky break of our first few safaris in Bandhavgar must have been a fluke. We were headed for Ranthambore National Park!

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A White Palace in Peril

IMG_3241As the sun starts its descent on the horizon, the young boy scrambles to launch his kite a few more times before it becomes too dark. It’s his favorite toy, and every chance he gets he is on the roof testing his new creations. His parents are struggling and he built all of his own toys. He imagines what the life of the Maharaja must have felt like, and if the emperor’s children also built kites as he diverts his gaze towards the majestic white marble palace only a stone’s throw away.

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In the Presence of the Elusive Tiger

IMG_3107The silence is deafening. Every muscle in our bodies is tightened, trying not to make a sound. The unmistakable noise from the alarm call of the barking deer breaks the silence, and we become even more alert. You will most likely be warned of the tiger’s presence before you actually see it. The forest works together to warn all creatures and all creatures listen. I can feel my heart beating, the adrenaline pumping, there it was, the alarm call once more. The jungle is silent, holding its breath, you can feel the tiger is close, there is stillness and all the animals are waiting for the king of the jungle’s next move. He could be just feet away without you knowing. If we could only catch a glimpse.

We sat in the jeep hoping and praying that the alarm call of the deer and the monkeys would continue, but the forest turned silent. All the creatures in the jungle were happy, except for maybe the humans. Continue reading

Holy Filth!

Dirty, loud, chaotic, crowded – these are all stereotypes that you will encounter when you think of Indian cities. If you take the time to look around the old city, even while dodging the piles of excrement, Varanasi is quite the magical place.

IMG_2771We wandered around the tiny streets and alleyways and arrived at 8 o’clock in the city, the sweat was still dripping down our face. “Not much further Sir, not much further”, our Tuk Tuk driver kept promising. With every bend in the narrow streets, our senses were overwhelmed with the scent of spices, fruit, rosewater and street food, along with the unmistakable smell of urine.  Our eyes widened with every street stall merchant selling gold, saris, silk and more. The driver finally pulled over the noisy Tuk Tuk and pointed down the endless maze of alleys. “Just ten minute walk Sir”.  I guess we were on our own. After aimlessly wandering and getting hopelessly lost in the tiny alleys, we eventually arrived at our hotel, exhausted, dirty and dehydrated. We were at the mercy of Varanasi.

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Eco-Engineering!

IMG_1890As we exited the hustle and bustle of the mountain city of Shillong, we continued onward on the seemingly endless mountain road towards Jaintia hills. With every twist and turn, honk and jolt my stomach twisted in knots until finally I made my breakfast offerings to the mountain gods. After a fifteen minute break with some fresh mountain air and a PepPod to restore my energy, we were off again. As we whisked past every domestic animal known to man, our presence was barely noticed. One beep is usually enough to send a dog, cat, pig, goat and of course the whole cow sauntering off to the side of the road. Driving in India is not for the faint hearted, but it is a necessary evil that you better get used to. “Almost”, definitely does not count in India.

As we headed downward on this unforgiving mountain pass, it was as if we were driving into a sauna, with the Himalayas trapping the ever persisting heat from the flat plains of Bangladesh. This causes a buildup of moisture and makes this the wettest place on earth. We were in for some steamy weather!

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A Visit to the Largest Organic Farm in Asia

IMG_1735Today we had the opportunity to visit one of the leading tea producers in India, Hathikuli Tea Plantation. Hathikuli is the biggest employer in the Kaziranga area and as we soon found out, the largest organic farm in all of Asia. The management of this massive tea operation taught us a lot about tea and what an operation of this size means to both the local community and the environment surrounding it. The plantation covers 470 hectares and employs more than 3,000 workers, the majority of whom are working as tea pickers, which they have done for generations since the plantation opened more than 100 years ago.

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Kaziranga, a True Garden of Eden

IMG_1597No words can truly describe the magic of Kaziranga – it’s like you have walked into a Garden of Eden.  Nestled between the Brahmaputra River and the Himalayas, this slice of heaven is one of the two last remaining strongholds of the Indian Rhino. With less than 3000 Rhinos left in the world, this is truly a place worth all of the efforts that are going into saving this haven.  Kaziranga was made a World Heritage site in 1985 but remains mostly under the radar from typical tourists.  The lack of infrastructure and tourist development makes getting here a bit of an adventure, but completely worth it once you arrive.

“In an age of conservation reverses, this is one of the Indian subcontinent’s most significant successes”
Bittu Saghal

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Sanctuary Asia, Kids for Tigers and an Amazing Dinner With new Friends!

As we got dressed to have dinner with one of the most important people in conservation today, there was an overcoming feeling of excitement.  We had been introduced to Bittu and his lovely wife Madhu Saghal, who have been on the forefront of Indian wildlife and nature conservation since the early 70’s. Let me start by saying that describing this amazing couple in a simple blog post is somewhat of an impossible task.

IMG_0966We pulled out the crinkled piece of paper where we had scribbled down the directions.  Something along the lines of, go to this church, turn right after the large wall with flowers and then a left at the single yellow streetlight …mind you we are still in the sparkling city of Mumbai, a city where there are few street signs and a maze of alleys that could engulf anyone.  With some help from our taxi driver who barely spoke any English,  we arrived at Bittu’s 30 minutes later.

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Welcome to Bombay

As I walked the streets of Mumbai, a kind of peace came over me. It has been four long years since I traveled abroad. The dirty crowded streets, with people and cars crisscrossing each other’s paths was not as overwhelming as expected, but rather I felt a sense of calmness -almost as if I had returned home.

IMG_1496With a deep inhale you could smell a blend of the various scents that come with a crazy city like Mumbai. More than 16 million people live in what used to be Bombay. The smells range from the captivating smell of spices and street food to overwhelming smells of trash, urine, fish, and pollution, and if you really looked for it, a hint of Jasmine. I don’t know if it was the area we landed in, Colaba Mumbai, or the time of day, but it didn’t seem nearly as chaotic as expected. We walked the quiet alleys in the early Sunday morning hours, as the city slowly woke up and we just enjoyed getting lost in a new city.

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