Pamukkale: A Cotton Castle in the Sky

Pamukkale: A Cotton Castle in the Sky

After a walk back in time through the ancient streets of Ephesus, it was time to move on to another famous UNESCO site. I never would have guessed but our visit to Pamukkale-Hierapolis was one of the most unexpected delights of my time in Turkey.

I honestly had never even heard of Pamukkale until I saw it coupled with a 2-day tour to Ephesus (both sites are relatively close) and really had no idea what was in store for us. We woke up bright and early to stop by a lovely viewing spot at the base of the cliffs near a gorgeously colored lake. I was mesmerized by the “snowy” mountains and very curious to get up close and personal.

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Before we could head to the terraces we made a pit stop at Cleopatra’s Pool (Antique Pool of Pamukkale). Legend has it that this artificial pool was a gift from Mark Anthony to Cleopatra. After an earthquake in the 7th century, the remains of the surrounding structures ended up tumbling into the pool. Today you can swim among the massive marble columns while enjoying the thermal hot springs. We skipped out on the extra 30 Lira price tag to spend our time in the much cooler (and FREE) terrace pools.

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Cleopatra’s Pool

On our way to the terraces we passed by the ancient city of Hierapolis, which was founded in the 2nd century as a thermal spa. Many people believed that the waters had healing powers and the city became known as a healing centre. We casually walked by but again… the cotton castle was waiting…

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When we finally approached the edge of the 200m cliff, we were instructed to take off our shoes. Giddy with excitement we carefully tip-toed our way over the rocky terrain before reaching the springs. The landscape before us was surreal. Created by flowing hot springs and travertines (limestone deposits), the natural phenomenon here has resulted in mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and a series of terraced basins. The 17 hot water springs range from 35 – 100 °C and have been bathed in for 1000s of years. We spent the better part of an hour photographing every angle, dipping our feet in the pools, and even swimming.

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It’s easy to see why Pamukkale garnered the nickname of Cotton Castle. Other descriptors we used included glacial, lunar, and cotton candy! I’m so glad that we added this to the itinerary at the last minute (okay… it was still like 3 months prior… who am I kidding?) because it should be on every traveller’s Turkey bucket list.

Halong Bay: Where the dragon descends into the sea

Legend has it that the mystical islands of Halong Bay were actually formed by a great dragon from the mountains. The ancient story says that when Vietnam was newly formed, its people had to fight fierce invaders from the North through the sea. The Jade Emperor felt sorry for the country and sent Mother Dragon and her children descending into the sea to defend them. The dragons helped to defeat their enemies with divine fire and giant emeralds (now the famous islands of Halong) that formed an invincible defensive wall. Thousands of years later, we now have one of the most beautiful bays in the world.

Halong Bay

Whether you believe the legend is true or not, no one can deny that Halong Bay is a remarkable place. Awe-inspiring. Breathtaking. Magical. None of these words can really describe the image implanted in my mind of countless limestone pinnacles jutting out of the sea. It was instantly clear why this beautiful place was selected as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in 2012 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

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My time in Halong Bay was short and sweet. At the Bay Chay wharf I boarded a junk boat at noon on Canada Day just in time to avoid a torrential downpour. Initially worried that the rain would ruin the scenery, I was quickly distracted by the enormous seafood lunch provided on board. With the weather quickly forgotten, I devoured course after course of squid, crab, shrimp, fish, and more dishes than I could handle. After I was thoroughly stuffed I realized that the rain had subsided and the sun was even breaking through the clouds (cue squinty eyes). We cruised the bay and visited a small floating village where I was able to capture some of my favourite images of the trip.

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Our final stop before heading back was the famous Thien Cung Grotto. The cave rises 20m above sea level and covers over 3000 square meters. Inside the cave you could wander up many levels where multi-coloured lights are projected onto the walls to illuminate the varied stalagmites and stalactites. That definitely conjured up some precious Geography 12 memories from high school.

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Although everything about Halong Bay was impressive, it wasn’t the highlight of my trip. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe it seemed too obvious or possibly the overt tourism has diminished the wonder. I suppose that sometimes it is the simple and surprising that makes the biggest impact in the end. No matter, it was lovely, and I am grateful to have seen it for myself.

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Charming and Picturesque Hoi An

The only place in Vietnam that I knew about before deciding to come here was the lovely UNESCO heritage city of Hoi An. I had heard of it from friends and travellers and knew it was famous for its European feel and small town charm. Well… Now that I’ve seen it for myself, I can confidently say that it’s my favourite spot in Vietnam (even with the skyrocketing temperatures).

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One of my favourite things to do in any new city is wander around without an agenda and that’s exactly how I started my first day in Hoi An. It wasn’t long before I came across the tailor recommended to me by a friend back home and promptly ordered a custom dress and skirt (not pictured). Hoi An has over 400 tailors and they can have clothes custom made the same day! I am obsessed with my two items and keep wondering why didn’t I order more?!! I have this overwhelming urge to make this an annual pilgrimage!

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The heat was almost unbearable at times but I still managed to enjoy walking along the Thu Ban river and sneaking a free photo in the Japanese covered bridge (I think I was supposed to pay…oops). It was fun to explore but it was more fun to sit in a cafe by the river sipping on mango smoothies and eating pho under the fan. Have I mentioned how hot it is here? Let me tell you that 35 degrees plus 100% humidity makes it hard to do much of anything other than lie in the pool… Which I happily did later as well!

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The must-do event of the trip so far was catching the sunset over the river. At around 6pm when the sun is going down, the town totally transforms. The light from the sky mixed with all the hanging lanterns and floating candles was absolutely magical. I can see why people fall in love with this place.

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Plitvice Lakes National Park

A picture is worth so much more than a thousand words. Every once in a while I see a photo of a place I’ve never heard of before and immediately add it to my bucket list: Bruges (check). Dubrovnik (check). Plitvice Lakes National Park (check).

This trip was fantastic for exploring lesser known wonders that deserve every bit as much recognition as the big seven. Plitvice Lakes is the oldest national park in Croatia, made famous for its 16 cascading lakes and renowned for the stunning range of colours from turquoise to green, grey or blue. The park was officially added to the UNESCO World Heritage register in 1979 and was one of the first natural sites to make the list.

We planned our trip to Plitvice on our last full day in Croatia. Our hired guide for the day, Mladen of Funky Zagreb, gave us a world class tour with all the history and local hookups to make our day a memorable highlight. Our first stop of the day was at the Croatian War Museum just south of Karlovac where we learned about the city’s role in the Croatian Homeland War from 1991-1995. It is still shocking to think that the bombed out buildings were destroyed less than 20 years ago.

From there we continued on to a dairy farm where the Novkovic family made us a delicious breakfast fit for a king: home-made cheese, jam, eggs, bread, organic apple juice, and even some morning liqueur (When in Croatia!!). We also stopped in the sleepy watermill village of Rastoke where we enjoyed a wake-up coffee and landscapes akin to scenes from Lord of the Rings. I was almost expecting to see hobbits emerging from the cute little houses.

By lunch we had arrived at the park and spent a magical four hours wandering along the wooden pathways and climbing beside waterfalls as we photographed the lakes from every angle. It was so tranquil and rejuvenating to be out in nature and simply appreciating the beauty of creation. Although, no single image was as impressive as Niagara Falls, it was the culmination of the colours, size, and sounds that contributed to such a beautiful sensory experience. I couldn’t think of a better way to end our trip. Until next time…

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A Modern Twist in Ancient Split

Croatia’s second largest city may be best known as a transportation hub for buses, ferries, and flights but that’s not the full picture. We didn’t do much more than pass through Split on our way from the islands to the North, but we did find a little piece of paradise along the way. The main harbour was buzzing with activity with tourists flocking to the beautiful promenade lined with palm trees, cafes, shops, and the UNESCO world heritage site, Dicoletian’s Palace. At first it seemed out of place to stumble across the beautifully preserved Roman palace at the epicentre of the city’s transportation network, but soon the old and new blended together in a perfect split that didn’t seem divided at all. One minute we were shopping in an upscale boutique and next we were climbing on a pile of 4th century ruins. Around every corner was a new discovery and the unexpected time travel felt oddly perfect.

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Next up: Heading Northwest to the capital city, Zagreb.

Dubrovnik: The Pearl of the Adriatic

Nearly 8 years ago, I received a book of the 100 most beautiful cities in the world. Croatia had never really crossed my mind until I opened the page to Dubrovnik – The Pearl of the Adriatic. One glance and I was sold. Someday, I told myself, I will go there! And now, after many missed connections, planes, trains, ferries, and buses, I’m finally there!

Dubrovnik is a tourism mecca. As a popular cruise port, throngs of visitors pour into the old town’s narrow streets in search of the quintessential European charm and coastal beauty that makes it a UNESCO World Heritage site and a top contender for the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

The city is steeped in stunning architecture and sculptural detail, boasting spectacular churches, monasteries, museums, and fountains. And despite past violence and destruction from earthquakes and war, the magnificent 13th-century walls that surround the Old Town still stand as the highlight of my trip so far.

This is where we found ourselves after a leisurely dinner in the main square observing three joyful wedding parties on their celebration marches. The 2km city walls that wrap around the Old Town provide the most beautiful panoramas of the city including Lokrum Island nestled near the harbour mouth and beyond… the Mediterranean Sea. We spent more time than we care to admit wandering around the walls on this warm summer evening, drinking in the picture perfect vistas and filling our cameras with complimentary souvenirs. Every turn led to more ooh’s and aah’s and I really never got sick of photographing those red-tiled roof tops. Trust me, I have evidence. And isn’t it curious how laundry hanging to dry somehow becomes magical in a foreign land? In the end, our one  night in Dubrovnik was all too short but worth every bit of effort.

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Exploring Quito & The Mindo Cloud Forest

Greetings from the Southern Hemisphere!

After two days in Ecuador we are starting to get a real sense of the adventures that are before us. We are staying at a wonderful hostel (Travellers Hotel) in the northern part of the city where most of the tourists stay. We have met many great people at our hostel from all walks of life. One older lady is staying by herself in Quito for 5 months!!! That makes our trip seem like a weekend getaway.

On our first full day in the city we decided to be really adventurous and take the trole bus. Up until this point we had been taking cabs but for 25 cents the Menno in me decided to give it a chance. We made it to the Plaza Grande in the old part of Quito just in time for the weekly procession of guards on horseback and parade of music. We weren’t sure at first if we had simply lucked into some special occasion… but apparently this happens every Monday. However, we were also able to wave at the President of Ecuador from our front row perches. We felt pretty fortunate and the hundreds of guards also made us feel extra safe. Unlike at home, we love seeing police in the city.

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Quito

The day was simply beautiful: clear skies, 23 degrees, pretty much paradise. We ended up just wandering around the old town for a while until I spotted some high steeples in the distance. To get there we had to walk up some steep hills that would rival the streets of San Francisco, but we made it. We are definitely wishing we had spent the past semester mountain climbing. Machu Picchu should be very interesting. The basilica was magnificent. It was only “finished” in the 1980s so it is much newer than most of the churches in Quito and was modeled after Notre Dame. We paid the $2 fee to climb up a series of steep ladders until we were standing at the top of the steeple. The views were simply stunning. During our time at the top we chatted with various travellers and eventually made friends with Jenny from New Jersey. She is doing a study abroad in Quito and was travelling solo that day. She asked if she could tag along with us and together we walked back to the main square. We eventually started discussing our future travel plans and we told her that we planned to go to Mindo the following day. We were more than happy when she asked if she could once again tag along.

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Sitting on the Top of the Basilica

After our full morning in the city we headed back to our hostel to relax. Instead I ended up having one of my typical panic attacks. The bus situation for our next trip was causing problems and I was stressing out as per usual. But, fortunately our hostel is the best ever. Diego (who speaks English fluently) was taking us on a night tour of the city and drove us to the bus depot first. There, he did all the talking and got us booked on our bus. We officially love the Travellers Hotel!!! From that point we were perfectly content. Our tour consisted of Diego driving us around in his SUV so that we could see and stop at all the major sights for pictures, and finally learn some of the history. We had a great time and since travelling at night is not advisable for tourists… we knew we had lucked into a great opportunity to see this beautiful UNESCO city.

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Today was one of my favourite days so far. Our new friend Jenny met us outside our hostel at 9am and we walked to the nearby bus station. Together we took a 2ish hour bus to the town of Mindo, which is located in the Cloud Forest. We hopped off the bus on the side of the busy road and were immediately greeted by a staff member from Mindo Ropes & Canopy. We drove deep into the jungle where Jenny, Laura, and I met our four fellow tourists and suited up for the day. We then spent a good two hours ziplining on 10 different lines through the canopy. It was AMAZING! Our guides let us experiment with many different positions such as Superman (face first, no hands, basically just like Superman) and the Butterfly (upside down, no hands, with your feet in the air). Don’t worry… I have photos and videos to prove it. This was such an exciting experience for me since I not only worked on a challenge course in Texas but also because my favourite travel show (Departures) went to this exact same place.

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After our day of flying through the trees at speeds of 65km/hr, we boarded a bus back to Quito. After a second city bus and a short walk… the three amigas decided to break for an actual sit down dinner. We ate at the coolest restuarant called Azuca Latin Bistro. We sat on a rooftop patio with a sand floor and ate fantastic food. It would definitely be a trendy place to go in Vancouver. After dinner we walked back to our hostel and said farewell to our new friend.

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Tomorrow we are leaving Quito behind and boarding at 12 hour bus to Cuenca that departs at 5:30am. We are hoping that the scenery is mind blowing so that we are semi-occupied for the day, but we do have fully charged Ipods and some snacks that should carry us through. Let’s hope Cuenca is worth the trip.