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Posts Tagged ‘Tours’

Going Solo

I made the decision to go to Jordan about six months into the trip.  I figured that if I was ever going to visit the middle east, this was the time to go…I’d be a $350 plane ticket away in Turkey v.s. a $3,000 plane ticket from the States.  Jordan’s a pretty expensive country, so Kelly decided it wasn’t in her budget and headed off to Prague to meet up with an old friend.  Since I would be traveling alone in a region I knew very little about (and to ease my boyfriend and parents’ worries) I decided to do an organized tour through GAP Adventures instead making the trek solo.  It would be nice to not have to worry about planning where to sleep, where to eat, and how to get from Point A to Point B myself…I was happy to pay someone else to do it for a change.  I’ll discuss the specifics and compare an organized tour to traveling independently in my Jordan wrap up, so I’ll skip over those details for now. 
 
I arrived in the capital city of Amman and caught a taxi to my hotel, checked in, and headed downstairs to meet the other members of my group, which consisted of 1 Brit, 2 Americans, 4 Belgians, 2 Irish, and 5 Canadians (most of them married couples…yay).  Our guide, Haymen, was a half Jordanian, half Croatian guy in his forties who smiled, laughed, and smoked A LOT of cigarrettes.  Our first full day, we traveled to check out the ruins of Jerash, one of the best preserved Roman cities in the Near East. 
 

Arch of Hadrian - One of the main gates to the city

The Forum

The Temple of Artemis

 
We then made the hour or so drive to the Dead Sea, one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world that lies between Jordan and Israel.  It’s so salty, that no life can thrive in it (thus, the name) AND this makes the water so buoyant, you literally float on top of the water.  Seriously, you’d have to try REALLY hard to drown in it…I tried diving down to touch the bottom with no luck.  Ladies, a word of advice:  DO NOT shave the night before/morning of your visit…the salt will make your skin burn like hell. 
 
We spent hours floating around, taking photos, and lounging on the beach.  Several of us also rubbed the black sand all over our bodies for a spa-like treatment, which felt nice, but was a pain in the ass to wash off.  Overall, a very cool day.
 
 
 
 
 

 

The Dead Sea

 

Floatin'

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With another overnight bus ride under our belts, we arrived in Fethiye, a town located in the south of Turkey along the Mediterranean coast.  We would stay here a full day and night before catching our boat for a 4 night Blue Cruise along the coast over to Olympos. V-Go’s, our hostel in Fethiye, was super nice; they had a great swimming pool, wonderful staff, fantastic view of the bay, and hosted BBQ’s just about every night. 

View from the deck of our hostel

The first day we arrived we  checked out the neighboring resort town of Oludeniz.  We heard the beaches there were absolutey stunning (despite being full of European tourists) so we hopped on the local mini-bus and took a 20 minute ride to catch some rays.  We spent the day lounging at a bean-bag beach bar, sipping beers and admiring the gorgeous water and surrounding cliffs.  It’s also a hot spot for paragliding and “luckily” the landing strip was right behind us.  Fortunatley, most landings were pretty good and no one ate it.

Beach at Oludeniz

That evening for dinner, we visited the fish market in the center of Fethiye where you choose and pay for your fish, shrimp, etc. and then bring it over to one of the surrounding restaruants that will cook it up for you as desired and provide salad and bread for only $5!   Talk about fresh!  We all agreed that it had to be one of the best seafood meals we’d all had in our lives.  I think Seth still dreams about that fish market!  After dinner, Kim headed back to the hotel and Seth and I had some beers at the pier and caught up on what each of us had been up to over the last 7 or 8 months.  We ended the evening having beers at V-Go with the staff and headed to bed.

Seth and his delicious salmon

The next morning we were up and at em’ quite early to catch our bus to the bay where we would be shuttled out to the boat for our gullet cruise along the Mediterranean coast.  We picked up a handful of people that would be joining us on the cruise and spent the short ride getting aquainted.  Once on the boat, we and met the other passengers and our captian, Ahmet, and headed out.  Even though the ocean and landscape were incredibly beautiful, I had a little trouble that first day.  I’m not sure if it was the quality of the Turkish motionsickness medicine or what, but I was seasick for the first 4 or 5 hours on the boat.  Luckily, I found my sea legs later that afternoon and could relax and enjoy myself. 

Our gullet

For the next few days,  all we did was lounge around, work on our tan, eat, drink, swim in the coldest water EVER and check out the scenery.  I also learned how to play backgammon!  We had perfect weather the whole time.  Our first stop was the small town of Kas (pronounced “cash”) for a short walk around and some souvenier shopping.  In the days that followed, we cruised by the former town of Dolikisthe, also known as the ‘Sunken City’, as it was ruined by an earthquake in the 2nd century.  We were able to see one of the Greek Islands from the boat one day as well! 

 

Part of the Sunken City

Kim jumping in!

Swimmin'

Chillin' on the deck

The food that Ahmet and his mate prepared for us was delicious.  Normally they have a cook that is on board but they were a little short staffed.  I even helped out with dinner one night!  Another evening, we docked the boat and the guys BBQed for everyone on a small island. 

Seth, Kim and I spent every night sleeping on deck under the stars.  It was awesome. We had such a great time and couldn’t have asked for a better cruise.  Great people, food, sights, Efes beer….it’s all you need!  Our last night, we hung out in the bay near a town called Demre.  Our whole group would be shuttled to the dock the next afternoon to catch a mini-bus to Olympos.  We all planned to stay Seth’s last night there in ‘tree houses’ next to more beach and old ruins.  Can’t wait!

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After a great time in Istanbul, Kim, Seth and I took a 12 hour bus ride to Cappadocia, a region of central Anatolia characterized by rose colored mountains, caves, underground cities, and giant rock ‘fairy chimneys’, which were formed by the erosion of volcanic peaks. To be honest, no one can deny what the fairy chimneys actually look like.  I know we are probably too old to be cracking jokes of this sort, but we couldn’t help ourselves.  Seth didn’t help the situation either.  Childish joking aside, this was definitely one of the most unique and beautiful places we have seen on the trip so far.  We spent the next 3 days in the town of Goreme checking out the surrounding areas.      
 

Seth, me, and fairy chimneys!

 
We arrived super early in the morning and took a short walk to our hostel, Star Cave.  It was so nice! Definitley more like a hotel than a hostel.  And we got to sleep in a freakin’ cave!  Ramazan, the owner and a true caveman (really…he was born in a cave!), made us feel right at home.  After enjoying the best breakfast spread of the trip, we took a nice long nap to catch up on sleep. 
That evening Ramazan took us up to an amazing view point of Goreme. We took some photos and then headed back to the hostel to meet up with some friends we met in Istanbul and on the bus for dinner.  Ramazan recommended a very authentic and affordable place that included a traditional Turkish band that played right next to our table.  The chef even came out and passed out belly dancing belts and finger symbols and danced with us all night! Of course I took full advantage and got out there and shook my stuff.  Afterwards, we headed back to Star Cave for some cold beers and a sheesha pipe (remember, it’s just flavored tabacco). 

Us at the Goreme viewpoint

Me belly dancing!

 
The next couple days we were good little tourists and hopped on a bus to see some sights.  We saw tons of rock carved churches and caves that housed many of the first Christians that had to escape from the persecution of the Roman Empire in the second century B.C.  They also built many underground cities to hide from their enemies for up to 3 months at a time!  There are so many in Turkey, no one actually knows how many there are.  We took a tour of Derinkuyu, the largest underground city that has been discovered.  It had 8 floors and 85 meters deep that includes chapels, kitches, bathrooms, wine presses and cellars, stables and even schools.  This city could hold up to 50,000 people! It was so interesting to see how intelligently they constructed each floor for certain purposes and why.  We also went to the Goreme Open Air Museum.  We toured many of the monasteries and churches there as well.  On our way, we stopped at Pigeon Valley for some wonderful views.

Inside one of the cave churches

Caves!

 

Beautiful

The next stop was a tour and demonstration at a ceremic plate and pottery factory.  They showed us how many of the items are still made by the original method of foot pedelling.  Then they chose a person from the audience to do a demonstration as well.  Of course, guess who they picked?  Before I made a cute little bowl, they had me make one of the phallic shaped rocks.  I’m sure you can imagine the motions I had to go through to make this.  Needless to say, Kim, Seth, I and the rest of the crowd were crying with laughter!  It was embarrassing and hilarious all at the same time.  Our final activity on the tour was a 2-3 hour hike through a valley surrounded by caves and a beautiful river.
 
Ramazan also talked us into going to Turkish Night.  It was about $15 for all you can eat and drink along with a show of all the typical Turkish dances.  We all really wanted to see authentic twirling Dervishes and belly dancing…however, I’m pretty sure it was the “all you can drink” that convinc.ed us.  We had such a good time!  Ramazan got Seth a little tipsy by constantly toasting him with Roki shots (the local Turkish liquor).  Little did he know, Ramazan was pouring water into his own glass since he was our driver and all!  And since we seemed to have such luck, Seth also got chosen out of the crowd to join the lovely bellydancer on the dance floor.  Once again, we were crying laughing as Seth created his own dance moves to show up the bellydancer.
 
Another common activity in Cappadocia is hot air ballooning.  We would have loved to do this, however, it was about $100 a person and we just couldn’t afford it.  We’ll have to do that next time.  Our last day in Cappadocia, we rented mountain bikes and rode over to Rose Valley to explore.  All was going well until 45 minutes into the ride, Kim got a flat tire.  We ended up having to walk the bikes back to a closer village to get the flat replaced.  We had a nice lunch and decided that we would go ahead and head back.  We would be catching an overnight bus down south to the coast for our Blue Cruise! 

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While in Chiang Mai, Kelly and I had two of our most memorable experiences of the trip thus far — a visit to Tiger Kingdom and Baan Chang Elephant Park.

Tiger Kingdom, located ten or so miles outside of the city, is a park where visitors pay to interact with tigers; the money collected pays for the park’s upkeep and tigers’ care.   After deciding which age group you would like to see, you are escorted to a holding pen, where two or three people at a time are allowed to enter (with the tiger’s handlers, of course) and you can then sit with, lay with and even PET the tigers.

How is this possible?  A lot of people insist that the tigers MUST be sedated in order for a strange human to get so close to such a deadly animal.   The park staff were quick to assure us that none of the tigers are sedated and that no chains are ever used to restrain them.  We learned that tigers are actually pretty lazy animals.  They sleep about eighteen hours a day and only hunt at dawn and dusk out of necessity.   Visiting hours at the park are between these feeding times and since the tigers are well fed and have no need to hunt, they mainly just lay around all day.   Surprisingly, they are pretty indifferent to the people around them that are scratching their bellies and stroking their coats.

Kelly and I sat with the young 3-5 month tigers and then spent some time with the adults. I’ll admit that it was a little scary to be sitting next to a 300+ pound carnivorous cat, but so cool to be that up close and personal with a FRICKEN TIGER. Everyone should be happy to know that no Siegfried and Roy mauling took place, although the thought did cross my mind.

3-5 Month Olds

 

The big guy...please don't rip our faces off.

Cuddlin'

 Kelly forked over the extra dough to play with the newborns while I snapped photos. The babies were much more playful and it was cute watching them pounce and nip all over Kelly. We left the park that day with huge smiles on our faces, in awe of our time spent with these incredible animals.

You know you want one

Chiang Mai is also a great place to have an ‘elephant experience’, something that I really wanted to do. Most travelers achieve this on a two or three day trek to the hill-tribe villages, in which an hour or so elephant ride through the jungle is included.

Unfortunately, most of the trekking companies have you ride in a wooden ‘chair’ strapped to the elephants back and the trip culminates with a ‘show’ where the elephant paints pictures for its audience. We wanted no part of this scene and really wanted our money to go to an organization that was concerned with the well-being of the elephants and not the exploitation of them.

After doing some research, we settled on a day visit to Baan Chang Elephant Park. Owned and operated by a Thai family, the park is home to twelve elephants (two babies!) and provides a safe and healthy environment for the animals to live long happy lives, without having to perform in shows or act as beasts of burden. The park does not believe in separating babies from their mothers or using chairs for riding. Visitors fees help pay not only for the upkeep of the park and food/care for the elephants, but also goes towards the purchase or rescue of other exploited elephants.

Upon arrival at the park, we immediately changed into our stylish mahout clothes.  A mahout is basically a trainer that is assigned to an elephant for life, thus developing a very close relationship with the animal. We made friends with the elephants by feeding them bushels of bananas and sugar cane. You can place the treat right into their mouth or hold it out for them to scoop in with their trunk.   It was so much fun and Kelly and I even got a kiss from one of them!

Elephant kisses. My face in this picture says it all.

So cute

We were then taught how to get on and off the elephants neck and several mahout commands for riding (bareback, of course)…how to turn left, turn right, stop, go, etc.

Kelly learning her mahout commands

After lunch, we were assigned an elephant and began our two hour ride through the jungle. Kelly and I were thrilled to be riding Mamoo, as she was a mother elephant whose baby walked with us the whole way. The ride itself was a little uncomfortable, but still pretty amazing.

Jungle Ride!

Once out of the jungle, the elephants were led into a large pool (with us still on top), where we were given brushes to bathe our elephants. We spent some time scrubbing Mamoo, getting sprayed with water from her trunk, and laughing at Mamoo’s baby splash and swim all around us. This was definitely our favorite part of the day!

When bath time was over, everyone took showers, said goodbye to the elephants, and were shuttled back to our respective guesthouses. It was a fantastic day and such an amazing experience to be able to spend time with the elephants.  It’s easy to see why people dedicate their lives to making a healthy home for these lovable animals.

Me, Mamoo, and baby

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After all the craziness in Bangkok and Phuket, Kim and I were looking forward to taking it down a few notches and relaxing on some of the small islands of the Krabi province. First stop was Phi Phi Island.  With some advice from fellow travelers, for the first time on this trip we arrived with no reservations for accommodation, as we were told that the island was quite small and we could easily find a place to stay just walking around a bit.  This was a big step for Kim, the planner!   But we found a home for the next 5 days without a problem.   It even had a TV with an awesome movie channel. Pretty Woman, Before Sunset, The Last Unicorn….it was so nice to lay around and watch TV before bed, something we hadn’t done since Buenos Aires.

One of the Ko Phi Phi Beaches

 

 We spent our week wandering around the tiny center, chowing down on delicious Thai food, and sunbathing on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  The island has two beaches — one side is mainly a pier where the ferries, longtail boats and private watercraft come in and out of the island and the other is the main beach where most people hang out.   Both sides are lined with cute little restaurants, bars, and shops.   We hiked up to the view point via the Tsunami evacuation route that gives a perfect overlook of both sides of the island.   A photo of Phi Phi just four hours after the tsunami hit is posted up on a tree…it’s crazy to see the difference between that photo and what it looks like today.

Boats lined up at the pier

Ko Phi Phi from viewpoint

Another day, we decided to do the “Seven Islands Tour” that was recommended by a friend we met on the ferry.   It was one of the best tours we have done on this trip.   Captain Dang (and his awesome sunglasses) took us on his long boat to an amazing lagoon with translucent water, surrounded by limestone cliffs, where we took turns jumping off the boat and did some swimming.   Then off to Maya Bay where they filmed the movie, The Beach, for lunch where we were able to work on our tan.   After lunch, we headed over to Monkey Beach to feed the monkeys and do some snorkeling.   For our last stop, we took a long ride to Bamboo Beach.   Kim laid around while I collected coral and sea shells for my friends’ kids back at home.   Because of the way Phi Phi Island itself is shaped, you can’t see the sunset from either coast. However, on the way home from our tour, Captain Dang stopped us right in the middle of the ocean to watch the sunset.   It was such an incredible day.

On the boat

Me swimming at Maya Bay

Kim and Captain Dang

Bamboo Beach

 

Sunset

 That night, we hung out with some Colombian girls we had met on the beach and their Spanish friends. Of course I loved the chance to use my Spanish all night. It’s been so long since South America! We had some of our first buckets—yes, they drink out of huge buckets in Thailand, and made our way to a Thai boxing bar. They were offering a FREE bucket to any girl that would get in the ring and “fight”. I was so close to gearing up and getting’ in there and then Kim reminded me how getting hit back may not be as much fun as getting to hit someone-which I’ve always kind of wanted to do:) She was probably right and it was probably for the best that I didn’t get in there in my current state. HA! But that sure would have been a good story… 

Kim and I both really loved Phi Phi.  There are a ton of tourists on this island, which is why some travelers claim to dislike it, but it’s definitely worth seeing in our opinion.   However, we did want check out one of the even smaller islands of Krabi.

I’m sure I have said this a lot over the past few months but Railay (or Rai Leh) was one of my favorite places we have been on this trip so far.   Ah!   It just keeps getting better!   This island is reknowned for it’s rock-climbing trails and has two sides of beaches as well.   On the west end, there is a fantastic beach and all the resorts, a hot spot for honeymooners.  Take a short walk over to the east side for the backpacker friendly accommodation and cheap restaurants and bars (obviously this is where we stayed).   The beach on this side is all mangroves and not suitable for swimming, but just head south about 10 minutes and a trail will lead you to the picturesque Tham Phra Nang Beach, perfect for laying out, taking a dip or getting a dirt-cheap foot massage right on the beach, which I totally took advantage of. Best $4 I’ve ever spent!

 

Tham Phra Nang Beach

Rock Climbers

We spent 3 days here relaxing on the beach, watching the rock climbers do their thing and hanging out at what might be my favorite bar in the world – Skunk Bar 2.   Great staff, great drinks, great music (most of the time) and a SUPER laid back atmosphere.   Every night we got our butts kicked in Jenga and Connect Four.   I don’t know what it is about the Thai’s, but they know their games…it’s like winning strategies are ingrained in their heads as a toddler or something.   Never bet money on Connect Four in Thailand. They will annihilate you!

 

Kim and Pat, our bartender. As you can see, he has a tough job.

The Universal Language of Jenga

One night we were having drinks and playing Jenga with the staff when all of a sudden, two men with plastic badges around their necks came into the bar.   Everyone got quiet, the music was turned off and it was obvious that there was something quite serious going down.   I looked around and everyone was putting out their “left-handed cigarettes” (that they purchased at the bar) and trying to act cool.   Of course all the conversation was in Thai, so none of us knew what was going on.   The two men went behind the bar and started going through…all their CD’s??   Yeah, they were some kind of pirated music police!!   They took all the copied CD’s they could find, had some words with the owner and left.   What?!!   The bartender, Pat, explained what had just happened and then assured everyone they had copies of the copies that were just taken and there would be tunes back on in no time.  It was hilarious!  Smoke all you want, drink all you want, but don’t get caught with pirated music in Railay!

After our chill days in this wonderful place, it was time to get ready for the madness that we knew was coming.   After an entire day of traveling by long boat, mini-bus, public bus, and ferry to the east coast, we would arrive in Koh Phangan for the infamous Full Moon Party….

Incredible Sunset on Railay

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Brisbane and Frasier Island

After Byron Bay, we made our way up the Gold Coast for a short stop in Brisbane, which would serve as the base for our trip out to Frasier Island.

Frasier Island is the largest sand island in the world (123 kilometers), home to a few hundred residents, a couple of ‘resorts’, and a bunch of dingos. There are two ways to explore the island: a) a tour agency organizes groups of eight or nine people and gives you camping equipment, a map, the keys to a 4-wheel drive, and you are free to explore the island on your own or b) you can do a tour with a guide who drives you around and drops you off at various cool spots. I knew immediately I did not want to do the self-drive tour, as I’m a freak about driving on rough terrain (all of the ‘roads’ on the island are sand), and since all of the 2 or 3 day tours didn’t align with our travel schedule, we opted for the one-day guided tour. It also happened to be Australia Day, which is basically their July 4th here. We’d be missing all of the parties in town, but really wanted to see Frasier and it was the only way we could do it.

We met our guide, Graham, at the bus station with the rest of our group, piled into a cramped Range Rover and made the three hour drive to Rainbow Beach. From there we took a short ferry over to Frasier and cruised along the 75-mile beach. Unfortunately, you can’t swim here, as the waters are breeding grounds for tiger sharks. After snapping some photos, we headed inland to check out Lake Birrabeen, a freshwater lake with a white sand beach.

75-Mile Beach

Driving inland on the sand roads was not pleasant for me. Most people get a thrill out of off-road driving, but it’s just not my cup of tea. The roads on Frasier are really rough and it amazes me that companies give a vehicle to any 21-year old with a drivers license and let them have at it. People constantly get stuck in the sand here, damage the trucks, or worse yet, roll their vehicle. Kelly and I did hear that after March, the government is no longer going to allow self-drive tours and I can clearly see why.

At first driving on the sand roads was ok, but after 20 minutes of all of us getting jostled around, I began to feel a little woozy. It was also around this time that our vehicle started to overheat and we would have to stop every so often to let the engine cool down. Great.

Once we finally reached the beach, our jaws dropped. It was absolutely stunning. The water was clearer than any I’ve seen and we spent an hour or so swimming and lounging before having a picnic lunch.

 

Yes, that's a lake

Whoa!

Chillin'

Since Graham was concerned about the vehicle overheating again and us missing the last ferry back to the mainland, we skipped our next stop on the tour and made a brief visit to Central Station to do a quick walk through the rainforest. Once again, we made our way back to the 75-mile beach and had to stop on several occasions to let the engine cool down.

 

Our guide, Graham, showing us a cool tree

Car Troubles

Another tour bus happened to be driving past, so to lighten the load in our vehicle (which would in turn help with the engine overheating), we all piled into the other bus for a ride back to the pier. Long story short, Graham made it back to Rainbow Beach with the car and we made the long drive back to Brisbane. Being Australia Day and all, Kelly, Graham and I celebrated with a couple of beers at a nearby bar and called it a night.

Brisbane

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Penguins! Whales!

Puerto Madryn, located on the east coast in the Patagonia region, was not on our original itinerary for Argentina. However, when we learned of all of the wildlife we could see here, plus the fact that it is prime whale-watching season, we decided to make a very long detour (24-hour bus ride) to walk among penguins, see elephant seals and hopefully spot some whales.

Our first outing was a day trip to Peninsula Valdes. This national park is HUGE and is home to penguins, whales, seals, guanacos (basically, llamas), rheas (like an ostrich), armadillos, and other creatures. We drove around the park and checked out some of the elephant seals lounging on the beach, saw some Magellan penguins from afar and finally, arrived at the port to wait for our boat. June through December, Southern Right Whales mate, give birth, and the mothers are with their calves so we had high hopes of seeing them in their natural habitat.

On Peninsula Valdes

Elephant Seal

Standing on the shore, we knew we would not be disappointed, as we could see whales jumping and spraying out in the ocean from the beach! I could hardly wait to get on that boat and see them up close. Once we were out into the water, the real show began. We could see whales popping up all around us, spraying and showing off their tails.  At one point, we had four or five whales about 10 feet from our boat (I think one or two even swam under it) and we saw a mother and calf together.  It was truly an incredible experience and one that I will never forget. I’ve done some whale watching in the past and seen a couple from afar, but nothing compared to what we saw in Peninsula Valdes.

Whale tail! This was right next to our boat.

Up Close

Showing off

The next morning, we took a drive to Punta Tumbo, the largest Magellan penguin colony on the continent. I hate birds, but penguins are cute and therefore okay in my book. In this park, you can actually walk among the penguins, which is pretty fricken cool. There are boundary markers that you cannot cross, but the penguins walk anywhere they please, including on the trail with you. This time of year, all of the mother penguins are in nests with their eggs and we were told that if we were lucky, we may be able to see a baby penguin. Fingers crossed!

We spent around an hour and a half wandering through the penguin colony, giggling at how they waddled, peaking at their eggs, watching them swim, and even witnessed two penguins getting it on. It was so crazy to be standing mere inches away from these birds. Although they are cute little things, you don’t want to touch them or get too close, because they will peck your eyes out.  Not kidding.

Cute

Don't get too close!

On the beach

Finally, on our way out, we saw a guy crouched down, peaking into a nest and snapping photo after photo. We moved closer to get a look at what he was photographing and we saw it…a baby chick! The mother would raise up every now and then to reveal the fuzzy little guy and let him squirm and chirp for a bit.  A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.

Can you see the baby chick? Look closely...

Kelly took a couple of videos of the penguins walking around and swimming if you want to check them out on our Flickr page…see the ‘photos’ tab for the link!

We spent our last day in Puerto Madryn strolling along the beach pier and getting tipsy with our new friend Sarah from Belgium before we had to catch a bus to the ‘Swiss’ mountain town of Bariloche. Was Puerto Madryn worth a 24-hour detour and the money we lost out on with the bus ticket fiasco? Absolutely!

Puerto Madryn from the pier

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