#travelhacks to Bali

I am launching a new category on A Girl with Geography: #travelhacks. Travelhacks are the most useful travel tips I got before taking off to my new adventure – or the things I wish I knew before I went. All gathered in one place, a shortcut to your greater travel experience.

I will start with Bali, a place I put on my travel map a few weeks ago. I loved my time in Bali, and largely thanks to the great travel advice I got from all of you before going (and while being) there.

  1. Fit in between. The second best travel advice I got on Bali was to go there mid April: just after the rain season ends and the main tourist season starts. From Google maps, Bali seems like a pretty manageable place distance-wise, with some 15-50 km between the key sights. Only that it might take you more than 1h to make these 15 km, and that’s outside of the main tourist wave! If you don’t want to spend much of your time stuck in traffic, come before everyone else does. The prices are better, too. Which leads me to the next point.
  2. Don’t even think of driving there on your own, especially with a car. That was the best advice I have got, and I am forever grateful for it. Not only there are traffic jams that can only be cut through some 1 lane path through the rice fields for both ways traffic, not only the driving is on the left side of the road, not only the cars compete with scooters which all the foreigners think they can ride. Not only the roads are narrow and live by its own rules. They are often closed because of the religious ceremonies which happens all over the country in its numerous temples, leaving you the rice field road or the mountain road as an alternative option. So really, don’t. Instead, take a driver for as much as 45 EUR/ day, tolls, car fuel and pathways knowledge included.
  3. Bluebird is the only legal taxi company in Bali. So if you need to take a cab (for example, when you are going to a restaurant in a city you are staying), ask for this one. (Do the same to come back from that restaurant.) Everything else might charge you wildly. There is a Bluebird desk in Denpasar International Airport, so take it from there. Uber works, too, but is not accessible in all the areas: for example, in Jimbaran, the beach with the most stunning sunsets, the closest you can get with an Uber is a 10 min walk from the beach. But then, you can’t get there with the Bluebird taxi, too. The only way to get out of Jimbaran is its own hijack taxi – so negotiate. And be tough. P.S.: Uber is charging 26,000 IDR, or something around 3,5 EUR for 1 hour of waiting: an option you might want to use.
  4. You don’t need a visa for a stay less than 30 days. Even if the official websites, slightly outdated, say that you do. I have diligently passed by the Visa counter on arrival to learn that. Just go to the Immigration.
  5. Chose location to chose experience. There are two main resort areas in Bali: Seminyak and Nusa Dua, both with the beaches. Most of the familiar hotel names are concentrated there, with the exception of the Four Seasons, stashed on the slopes with boutique hotels and small villas, away from the sea. Unless you surf, sea is not really the reason to come to Bali and pools are usually a better choice (never thought I would say that). However, Nusa Dua and Seminyak provide for spacious green areas with increased security (and fountains on every corner), which cater to tourists only. Arguably, you won’t experience the real Bali (think little cozy streets with street side cafes, bars filled with music and locals, massage salon on every corner) there, but you will also be free from everything that comes with it (think traffic jams, compromised air conditioning and no pools/ small pools). Your call.
  6. For fruit juices, go for local and ask for no sugar. Apparently, Bali people think that life is better with some sugar in it (a lot of sugar in it, actually), and generously add it to the tea, coffee and fruit juices. (Sort of how the Americans feel about ice.) Ask to free your juice from it to feel the flavour, and go for the local fruits: mangos (depends on the season), coconut, melon, watermelon, papaya (if you like papaya, of course). Orange is not a local fruit, and orange juice might well be not what you have expected. Fruit smoothies are great, too. A personal favourite is mango.
  7. Stock on wine. In general, alcohol is a doubtful substance in Bali, as everything foreign to locals and catered mostly to tourists is. Cocktails can be pure ethyl and wine… At best, wine will be very expensive – think 4-5 times the price you would pay in Italy or France (for Italian or French wine, if you are lucky enough to find it). Australian wine is usually ok, even though even Australian wine starts at around 30 EUR/ bottle (in a supermarket that is). We found a decent local white wine for 20 EUR (from the winery shop in Bali Collection, a shopping complex in Nusa Dua). You get the idea.
  8. Pet the Luwak. Luwak wild cat, the main source of the expensive coffee in Bali (and probably the most expensive coffee in the world because of the way it is made, more on that later) is pictured as a savage animal at coffee plantations where it is kept in a cage (though the owners promise to rotate Luwaks and keep each animal locked for no longer than 3 months). However, the sunset temples, especially Tanah Lot, offer you a different picture: fat and happy Luwaks the pets, sleeping all over the small cafes and letting you touch their coffee smelling fur. Still go to the plantation for the coffee and tea tasting sessions, they are great, reasonably priced and often offer fantastic views. But to cuddle the Luwak, look elsewhere. And don’t trust the image of a fierce animal.
  9. Believe in sun burn. Bali sun really burns. Even before the main tourist season. I am generally very sun resistant, tan quickly and never burn, but a few hours on the first day (with 30-50 SPF) got me waving good bye to my skin a few days later. So bring your strongest creams (a small bottle of Nivea would cost you 25 EUR from a local store) and apply generously.
  10. Do mental accounting. As in the U.S., the prices you see in Bali are never final and are subject to a local tax and service fees, which, unlike in the U.S., vary wildly (from 11 to 30%) even in the same geo location. So plan for that when spending (or planning what to spend on) – and read the fine print.

These are my travelhacks to Bali (some of them are really hard won!). In my next post, I will share my travel route and places to see in Bali. What are your travelhacks?

🙂

Cherry time in South Korea

It has been almost a year since I have this blog, and I am realising (now, looking for tags) that it does not have a single post on South Korea. Which is surprising, really, because for 13+ years South Korea remains, together with Paris, another constant in my life, a place where I always come back to. All this time it has been a home to my parents, but it is a long story, and I should tell it in one of my Chapters. For now, I’ll just say that I am in love with this place – madly and for so many good reasons. Since more than a decade, I am witnessing its rise, its growth and, now, its glory. Sometimes I even feel myself part of Korea’s success – and I am very proud of this small country and grateful for all the moments of happiness I have shared here with my family.

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Cherry blossom in South Korea

For all the 13 years (and counting), I came to experience cherry blossom for the first time this April. Cherry (in Korean, 벚나무 or “kotkot”) blossom is a narrow window of opportunity that opens up once a year for a week, sometimes two. God forbids to call it sakura here: even though, I suspect, it was planted by the Japanese, any reference to that time of military occupation of Korea spurs anger even more than half a century ago. (Another enemy is China: every sand wind or storm blows from there, as do hacker credit cards attacks). Cherry blossom is a magical time in Korea: the entire country stops working and starts taking pictures. There is a train station is a small city where my parents live, which is attracting crowds these two weeks: it literally stands in cherry trees, and every time a train is passing by, flower rain starts – to the delight of the crowd and fireworks of camera flashes. This train station was closed this year – to avoid accidents with the most enthusiastic photographers, waiting for the magic at the train rails.

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Cherry blossom in South Korea

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Cherry blossom in South Korea: the creek

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Sea and The City: Le Malecon and El Morro

The city is still Havana, of course. My fascination with the Cuban capital continues far beyond my trip there end of last year. As I am going through the pictures I took at Le Malecon, the 8 km of tamed seaside, I see it again: spacious, wild and free. The sea plays such an important role in Havana’s history: the city owns its very existence to it. Grateful, Havana leans towards the sea. The real heart of the city – and it’s center – is here, with its night bars and breakfast cafés, Internet hot spots, parades and magnificent built at scale hotels, reviving the glorious images 30s when Havana was the mafia heaven.

Today Malecon is for everyone: Havana locals come here to sunbathe, swim, fish (birds do as well), play music and kiss on the parapet. Tourists flock for the stunning panoramas of the city (and for a morning run, a notion that remains foreign to most Cubans). I walked all the 8 km of Malecon and that made me feel part of this city, tune to its rhythm and want to stay more.

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Le Malecon pier in Havana, Cuba

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Havana’s Must Dos: Old Town, Classic Cars, El Prado

Most guidebooks, blogs and tour guides advise to carve out two to three days to discover Havana. WRONG. Three days is the sheer minimum to explore its Old Town, Havana Vieja. And maybe to take a ride in a classic car around the city – the entire city, cruising through Miramar with its doll houses of embassies wrapped in fantastic posh forest, pausing at the panoramic spots to take some gorgeous shots, parading through the Revolution Square. That’s what you can do in three days. And Havana is much more than that. Fun fact: the Old Town has never been the actual city center, nor it is now. Intrigued? More on that later, in the post about Malecon.

I was mesmerized by Havana Vieja. To me, it justified the entire trip to Cuba: 10h+ of flying, staying in casas particulares of doubtful quality, struggling to find the food I normally eat (the food part turned out to be not bad at all). I wanted to come back to this part of town again and again, day and night, until I learnt by heart all its curves, its smells, its treasures. The Old City is Havana’s birth place and its raison d’être: its narrow harbour is the only place along the long coasts where the vessels can approach the shores, otherwise protected by reefs. The single city entrance is guarded by nine fortresses (La Fuerza and del Morro being the most famous). The fortifications made Havana at the time the most protected city of the Caribbean, “the key to the New World”. As well as the major trade post and the most lucrative asset of Spain for other empires.

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Havana: Winds of Communism and Love

Havana is a city which is very much alive. Like the other cities that leave their mark on you forever – Paris, New York, London, Moscow, – it is a city of contrasts. Buildings of breathtaking architecture falling apart. People on the street, asking sincerely whether you like their city. Classic designs in brightest colors ever invented, gorgeous antiques in palace-like apartments where rooms are rented at 50 EUR per night. Family details, left for tourists to observe, share and make part of their own story. Pictures on the walls with the owner’s father energetically shaking hands with every political leader of the last century, from Fidel to Nixon. Smiling triumphantly, full of confidence and national pride. Tiny pizza stores, where you as a tourist you can still buy food in local currency (and at local prices), seller helping you out sort out CUCs and pesos. A very honest city. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was right when he said that Havana had been and remained one of the most beautiful cities of Earth.

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Prepared to explore Havana, Cuba on my first morning there: thrilled, untanned, not sure what to expect

You can love Havana or hate it, what you absolutely can’t do is stay indifferent to this city. I had heard many contrasting opinions before I went, from astonishing delight of people comparing it to Paris and Rome, to bitter analogy with St Petersburg of the 1990s, the early days of post-communism in Russia when classic architecture, food supply and confidence in tomorrow were all falling apart.

Communism is still strong in Havana but it doesn’t have this larger than life feeling it had in the Soviet Union I remember. As I wrote in 10 Facts About Cuba You Did Not Know, adherence to communism was more of a forced choice for Cubans and has never been absolute. Love for Cuba, on the other hand, was – and still remains the dominant feeling on the island, in Havana as well. Love for the country was the link between the Cubans and their leader and kept Fidel popular for 64 years (and still popular even after his death). His secret? Even though Castro controlled all of the important decisions in the country’s life, the revolutionary genius made Cubans part of them. For example, once a Mexican president was not sure whether to invite Fidel or not to the event with the other political leaders. In the telephone conversation, which Fidel had recorded and later played on the national television (I love the term, as if Cuba ever had any other television), he told the Cuban President to show up to the earlier part of the reception, quickly eat and then tactfully disappear before the American politicians arrive. Did Fidel do it? Absolutely not. And his country backed him up, every one of them. This national unity is still felt on the streets of Havana.

And at the same time, Havana was the last city that fell for Fidel and his movement of 26th of July. While Cuba was suffering under the endless Batista rule, its capital flourished. Those close to power could always enjoy the perks of the Olympus, and Havana was offering plenty at the time. Generous support of the U.S. to maintain the political power they could control together with more than generous cash flows from the Miami gangsters turning Cuba into the land where all illegal dreams come true, created a privileged class. A class enjoying the wonders of the imperial world, a class building new Havana and effectively shifting the city center towards Malecon with its pompous hotels and casinos. A class nourished by politics, vice and entertainment, dancing the nights away and living the life just 10 min car ride away from the Old City with its colonial good manners, Art Deco and antiques. Havana was a city of contrasts already then.

I let the pictures of Havana speak for this city, each capturing one of the million things that makes it city so magically special. Each telling a part of its story.

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10 Facts About Cuba You Did Not Know (And You Should)

Cuba is one of those places everyone knows something about. And, most of the times, this something is wrong. Coming from an ex-Soviet country myself, I felt like I knew it all as well. Cold War between the West and the East, ideological battle of capitalism and socialism, Fidel, classic American cars, deficit, Cuba Libre. However, Cuba surprised me, more than once. Here are some key facts: I have collected them from the Museum of Revolution in Havana and Julia’s Sweig’s book “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know” (to counterbalance the official view of the Revolution and a rare sympathetic American reality check).  The tales of Juan Carlos, our Cuban guide, spice up the facts and build a bridge between imagination and reality.

1. Cuba does not equal Fidel. For everyone Cuba means Fidel, and Fidel means Cuba. Even now, after his death, Fidel Castro remains a symbol of Cuban Revolution and the main force that has shaped up the life of 11 million Cuban people for the last 64 years. However, there are surprisingly few public images of Fidel around the country, and when there is one, it is usually to illustrate some motivational revolutionary quote. Che is, on the contrary, all over the place. My first guess was that that’s because Che is so much better looking, – but in reality, Fidel avoided self-canonization on purpose. Unlike pretty much any other powerful political leader before or after him, he was aiming at building a state which would function irrespectively of him and, eventually, without him. He was controlling every aspect of Cuban life during his period of political power from 1976 to 2008 and, de facto, even afterwards until he died. Yet Fidel’s dream was to have Cuba owned by its people and independent of anyone’s will, including his own.

2. Che Guevara, whose portrait has been going viral on all sorts of media for more than half a century, is not even Cuban. Technically speaking, he was proclaimed “a Cuban citizen by birth” in February 1959 for his instrumental role in the Cuban Revolution. However, Che, whose real name, by the way, was Ernesto, was born in Argentinian city Rosario (now a randomly bought Starbucks mug from there suddenly has a meaning!). A chronic asthmatic and a doctor by education, Che was introduced to Fidel by his brother Raoul in Mexico, where Fidel was regaining his forces after his first unsuccessful revolutionary attempt (and Che, the first blogger of his time, was just chilling on his romantic exploratory route through Latin America, which he later documented in a book). According to the legend (or Juan Carlos, in this case), Fidel and Che talked for the entire night, Fidel going strong with his revolutionary view, and at the dawn Che famously said “I am in!”. And in he was.

3. No one will ever know whether Fidel was a true Communist at heart, but it is a fact that with the U.S. around the corner he effectively had no choice. I found a great quote in the book of Sweig. It dates back to 1823 and pretty much sums up the U.S. take on the Cuban policy (and, in fact, the merely existence of the Cuban policy).

“There are laws of political as well as physical gravitation; and if an apple, severed by the tempest from its native tree, can not choose but to fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its unnatural connection with Spain and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only toward the North American Union, which, by the same law of nature can not cast her off from its bosom”.

As pronounced (proudly, I suppose) by John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the U.S. and at the time the Secretary of State, in 1823.

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Cuba-Mexico 2017: Latam Love Affair

After our epic trip of 2016 to Brazil and Argentina, we were supposed to change continents and for 2017 pick something more to the East. That was the promise I gave to Louveteau who sacrificed his (booked) trip to Australia to stay and set out the nets to catch me when me met. We were toying with the idea of Thailand, or Beijing, or Hong Kong… But here is the thing with Latin America: you leave your heart to it the moment you set your foot in there. And after not seeing it for a year (which is, if you think about it, is a terribly long time to spend without a heart!), you just have to go back.

So we did. Luckily for me, Louveteau was harbouring some politics-inspired dreams to visit the last 100% Soviet country in the world. As for me, anything Latin would do (though I preferred Peru, drooling over the pictures of Machu Picchu). We did not know much about Cuba then but overwhelming sentiment of friends who went there circled around the conditions of hotels and casa particulares. With my birthday around the corner (and our general tendency to combine several countries in one visit and to explore them on steroids), we have added the neighbouring part of Mexico as the second leg of the trip. It promised gorgeous beaches, more civilized hotels and some down time to enjoy it all. (To be completely honest – Louveteau, I hope you are not reading this part, – I chose Yucatan partly because it was promising a few, but not many, architectural monuments, to free up some time for the sun and the beach, which I LOVE and Louveteau, well, not so much.)

Why Cuba, Why Now?

Cuba is unique. It is the only place on Earth, which is completely isolated from time and globalization, and which is also a home to some of the world’s finest art – especially architecture. The gorgeous silhouette of Havana matches in its elegance and sophistication the best streets of Paris, London and St Petersburg. Only that Havana has not been renovated for the last half century, and all this architectural luxury slowly but inevitably sinks in the past.

Cuba will never be like it is now, and there are two main reasons for that. Now, with Fidel gone, and Raoul rounding up his second, and final, Presidential term in 2018, things are bound to change. With Raoul, the members of the government loyal to the ideals of the Revolution – many casting these ideals side by side with the Castro brothers, – will likely go as well. Maybe not all of them, but many, it is hard to dispute with age. At the same time, maybe, just maybe, the heritage of the President Obama, who did a lot to bridge Cuba and the U.S., will continue to develop and open the borders to more American tourists and to more American companies. And once done, it is only a matter of time for Cuba to become another cosmopolitan city with Starbucks on every corner, shopping malls, hotel chains and Chinese taxi cars, all properly air-conditioned. Just like its neighbour across the Gulf of Mexico. So go now: time will never run backwards again.

Also, make sure to check out my 10 Facts About Cuba You Did Not Know (And You Should).

The Itinerary

That’s what our 2+ weeks looked like: Paris -> Havana -> Cienfuegos -> Trinidad -> Havana -> Vinales -> Havana -> Cancun -> Chichen-Itza -> Cancun -> Tulum -> Akumal -> Coba -> Cancun -> Havana -> Paris 

By the way: which map view do you prefer, this one or that from the last year (you can click to change the scale on both of them)? Do you find them useful in following my adventures and building up your travel routes?

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Me at the Hotel National of Havana, contemplating over the map of Cuba

Now, in a good not-so-old tradition of 2016, it is time to share some brief, very brief impressions about every of the key destinations of this trip. 

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