Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Life is Beautiful - Canary Islands

Life is Beautiful.

Life IS beautiful but sometimes you need to look a little harder for the beauty. This happened a little on our recent holiday to the Canary Islands.

The plan was to fly to Gran Canaria, stay there for a few hours overnight and first thing the next day, fly to La Palma and hike around the island for a week. The route were we planning to walk was called the GR130 and it circumnavigates the island. The photos of the island were beautiful although information on the route was hard to come by. But we figured that it must be just undiscovered by the masses and therefore unspoilt, and that would be a good thing.

While researching, I had gotten in touch with a lovely English lady Anne living on La Palma with David for the last 14 years and they gave us lots of great information on where to stay around the island. We even booked into their B&B for 2 nights along the way. Everything was planned, we were ready for the sunshine, all we had to do each day was get up and walk to the next place while enjoying the views. Easy right?

The flight to Gran Canaria was uneventful and once we landed we headed to our hostel for the night in Ingenio, a small non-touristy town close to the airport. The hostel was lovely and with some broken Spanish and pointing we ordered a nice meal and drinks.

The taxi driver picked us up at 6am the next morning for our flight with Binter airways to La Palma. He blasted some Pink Floyd on the drive and we thought what a great way to start our day. We checked in and were sitting at the gate with our fellow passengers when they made an announcement that that fight was cancelled. As the only non-Spanish speaking people on the flight, we only realised this as everyone around us groaned, got up and walked away. The winds were too bad on La Palma so the flight wouldn’t be going. We found out the earliest we could get out was the next evening, meaning we’d lose 2 full days in La Palma. Without much choice, we changed our tickets and figured out a plan. We had to forfeit our accommodation that night on La Palma unfortunately but decided to book a nice hotel on Gran Canaria about 20 mins north of the airport with a free airport shuttle and a rooftop pool, so off we went. Thank goodness for mobile phones and Booking.com! Neither of us are ‘lie by the pool’ people but over those 2 days we soaked it up!

Saturday evening we were back at the airport and we headed off to La Palma. Since the islands are in the Atlantic off the north west coast of Africa, there are always some winds and it was a bit of a bumpy incoming. It didn’t help that it was dark so we couldn’t see where we were landing, or that the young local woman behind was continually blessing herself on approach. After landing and when we had stopped shaking, we found a taxi to take us an hour north to where we should have been by now had we been walking, Barlovento. It was a lovely hotel outside the town so the stars were really bright. It was quite late but the restaurant was just about still open so we had some food and chatted to an English man there who either ran the place or owned it. We told him where we were planning on walking the next day and he said it would only be 3 hours or so if we were fast, maybe closer to 5 if we really took our time. This sounded great. Unfortunately I had left our book with maps and routes at home but we knew that it should be sign posted. We slept in a little since we figured it was only a shorter walk the next day and hit the road just before 12. We found the route and felt like the holiday was finally beginning the way we had planned.

The views along the the trail were stunning, we were high above the coast with the sea on our right. The trail was very underused however and quite steep. It didn’t seem like a trail that would be safe to do solo and we only passed a couple of people. After a tasty packed lunch under a tree with rainbows in the sea due to showers just off the coast, we headed deep into a barranco (ravine) and then up the other side. We had been walking about 3 hours at this stage so felt we must be close to the B&B we were staying at run by the English couple. Unfortunately, as we came into the village (1 closed cafe and about 10 houses) we saw a map that showed us we had another 2.5 hours of walking at least, and that there was another barranco we had to climb down and up which was twice as big as the last one. We were a bit gutted at this point. Obviously the guy from the previous hotel had been talking nonsense, and now there was a village dog following us and barking at us to leave. We could see the rain coming in but had no choice but to trudge onwards with our full backpacks.

We were nearly at the bottom of the ravine when Gav saw another dog in front of us, totally out on his own, stalking something. He was quite big and we were away from any of the villages so it seemed odd that he was out here. He actually spooked us a bit, despite both of us being very used to dogs so we decided to retrace our steps back to the small village. At this stage the rain starting pummelling down so once we got to the village, we found shelter behind a wall and called the B&B in Franceses for a lift. Very kindly, David came to pick us up and told us we made the right call as the weather was really starting to come in. Anne was so nice and had prepared dinner for us and for some other guests at the B&B, 3 Swedish people. Our room was a little stone shed on the side of the mountain with a small kitchenette and bathroom contained within.

The rain continued fairly consistently for the next 2 days so we had to abandon our plan to walk the GR130 and found a more sedate route instead for the day. We were a bit deflated but got a bus to La Zarza to see some rock carvings, then did a 10 mile along the roads back to the B&B. We felt the rain had made the proper trail too dangerous as it was now both steep and wet, and again we had been charged at by another farm dog. Hearing barking in the distance was beginning to make the walk unenjoyable as once you heard barking, you had to be super aware in case the dogs jumped out at you, quite unnerving.

After our second day of walking in the rain, we decided that was enough and one of the German guests at the B&B gave us a lift to where we should have walked to in Puntagorda and where I had already booked our accommodation. After a dreary start, the sun came out for a little bit and it was nice not to be wearing wet rain gear. A lot of our clothes smelled like damp :( We stayed at a great hostel/B&B run by a couple of Germans. Apparently Germans make up 10% of the population of La Palma! We checked out a small art gallery, had really delicious pizza from a brick oven made by a long haired rocker blasting out Creedence Clearwater Revival, and then had a tasty evening meal across the road from where we stayed.

I had been able to cancel the rest of our accommodation from this point onwards, so the next day we just got a couple of buses across the island to Santa Cruz, where we needed to fly out on Sat morning. Since our flights home from Gran Canaria were also on Sat in the evening, we had been checking the winds all week in case the La Palma airport would close again. We tried changing our tickets to Fri instead but since they weren’t changeable, we forked out for new tickets. Not ideal but it gave us peace of mind.

We hopped onto Booking.com again and found an apartment to stay in at Los Concajos, just a couple of miles outside Santa Cruz by the beach for the next 2 nights. We walked around the city, ate, paddled in the sea (it was a bit too rough to swim when we wanted to), and even did a small day walk. We got totally off track though as again, the trails are so underused that the signs to follow are either hidden by trees now or the paint markings have faded. Of course it rained some more. Of the 9 days we were there, it rained for 8 of them. Even the locals seemed surprised by the weather and some floods on the other Canary Islands were on the news.

After changing our flight, we had a night to spare in Gran Canaria so we booked into the hotel with the rooftop pool again (who had we become! :) )
Thankfully this time, due to the rain, we walked in a different direction for dinner that night and found an amazing little neighbourhood where all the locals go for great food.

For pretty much the whole trip, instead of just walking every day in the sunshine, we were constantly on the phones, checking the winds, rain, flights, where to stay, buses etc. So on our way to our meal that night in Gran Canaria, an older Spanish man got in the lift with us and just turned to Gav out of the blue and said ‘Life is beautiful, you must enjoy it’. We all laughed and said thanks very much and it was just the thing we needed to hear. If our flight hadn’t been cancelled, we wouldn’t have stayed in the nice hotel with the pool which is probably what we needed more than launching into a big strenuous walk. If we hadn’t seen that scary dog in the ravine and retreated, we would have been stuck in some serious rain for 2.5 hours, instead of getting a lift to the B&B. If we hadn’t gotten the buses when we did, we’d have missed the few hours of sunshine that came out, and would have arrived into towns each day soaking wet.

The places we stayed at were fantastic, all the meals we ate were delicious, the people we met were so nice, and the scenery is stunning. I think we just got unlucky with the weather and it seemed like every day there was a new challenge to figure out. Despite all that, it was good holiday, not at all like we had planned, but it was still beautiful.

Here's a link to the photos

Jen x

Friday, June 26, 2015

Trekking in Morocco

This was a short adventure by my usual standards, just a week in Morocco where we were to walk for 5 days in the Atlas Mountains summiting Toubkal (highest peak in North Africa at 4167m), followed by almost 2 days in Marrakesh.

We set off from Dublin to Marrakech on Sunday afternoon and 3 hours and 15 mins later, we were in Africa! At the hotel we met the group we were spending the week with, as well as the guide. Apart from myself and Gav, there was another Irish guy, two people from Northern Ireland, one from Germany and the rest were English so a nice mix ranging from 26 years old to mid 60's. We also met our guide Abdellah who briefed us on the week ahead.

We set off Monday morning for the Atlas mountains. Abdellah had told us the night before that due to snow on one of the passes, we were to take a slightly alternative route whereby we would just follow the valley to the Toubkal base camp. This meant staying in a gite in Aremd on Tuesday instead of a tent. 

We only had to carry our day packs so the rest of our bags, plus the tents, food, cooking equipment etc was all carried on just ahead of us by 4 mules and their muleteers (including the chef Hussein). Hassan followed our group closely and was our backmarker. He also walked with a mule who was weighed down with less gear than the others. I wondered if this was in case one of us needed the mule to carry us! Thankfully we never had to find out. 

Each day we walked between 5-6 hours (except summit day which was 9) at a lovely leisurely pace and Abdellah would often stop to give us some history, point out towns, peaks, trees, or anything he thought might interest us which was great. The temps most days were pretty good too, around 26C and in the evenings it would drop to where you might need a fleece and jacket if you were sitting around outside. Inside the tents were cozy though.

The food was amazing! We would catch up with the muleteers and chef for lunch and they would have the most delicious picnic laid out for us either under a tree, beside a river or on the side of a hill with stunning views all around. We never managed to finish all the food despite some serious efforts. 

In the evenings when we reached our camp or gite, we would have mint tea and biscuits/cookies and then dinner a little while later. Again, it was fantastic food which we could never get all the way through. 

Sleeping well seemed to depend on the position of the tent. We lucked out at the 2 nights at base camp thankfully after a sloped one the first night where we both almost ended up in a ball at the front of the tent several times in the night! At the gite sleeping depended on whether you were woken by the call to prayer at 3am from the mosque in the village. 

The summit day was a little longer than we thought but still enjoyable. It was really steep, probably steeper than anything else I had done. I can walk up all day but I'm not a fan of coming down so that was the part I found the hardest. It was all worth the views from the summit though and we got really lucky as there were only 2 other groups there who left not long after we arrived. 

As long as we though the summit day was, the guides must have felt it was a lot longer. Ramadan began on Thurs (summit day) so they had to get up at 3am for their breakfast, sleep a little till we left the camp at 5:30am and they couldn't eat or drink until 7:45pm that evening. I don't know how they managed without any food or drink as we were thirsty and ravenous all day. They just keep going as usual with a smile and encouraging words to those who were tired...

We had the choice of doing another 4000m peak the next day but most people were tired and we were told it was a 12 hour walking day which no one was really keen on. Instead we settled for 4 hour walk and a few people tried out a local steam bath instead. 

On the Saturday after breakfast we had a short walk before heading back to Marrakech for a city tour. We visited the Bahia Palace as well as another royal house and then got a tour of the famous Souks where we could do some shopping. By the end of the tour, a few of us were hungry for lunch so we just sat by the Djemaa el Fna square for a bite. 

We were all due to meet at 7 that evening for dinner so we decided to do some shopping at night instead when it was cooler. It was a humid 39C in the city during the day. By the time we got back to the hotel that afternoon, a few people were unwell. There seemed to be a bug going around the group all week and unfortunately Gavin and I were hit with it Saturday evening so we didn't get to enjoy Marrakech by night. 

After staying in to sleep it off we felt much better on Sunday and hung out by the hotel pool for the day until we had to leave for the airport that evening. That seems more appealing than going shopping. In the end 9 of the 11 people in the group were ill at one point or another during the week. We were just happy it didn't happen to us in the mountains as it did for others unfortunately. Nothing like being ill and having to sleep in a tent!

On our descent of Toubkal, I had a funny 'small world' moment. I had put a message on Facebook before we left Dublin about our trip and randomly someone I met on a volunteer project in Namibia in 2013 said she was also summiting Toubkal a couple of days later. We found out we were with the same tour company but with different summit days so on our descent down the valley on Friday we bumped into Mansi who was on her way up. She was also staying at the same hotel as us in Marrakech so we were able to catch up properly for a bit there on Sunday. What a lovely chance meeting!

Despite only being away for a week it felt much longer in a great way. While Marrakech was interesting my favourite part of the trip was the mountains and walking through the berber villages where unlike Nepal, you still seem like a bit of a curiosity, with the kids shouting 'stilo' after us looking for pens. I wish I had brought some for them. Another thing to add to my packing list in future! 

Till next time here are the photos