Ourika Valley, High Atlas Mountains

by Karen
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Ourika Valley is nestled within the heart of the High Atlas Mountains, about 45 mins east-ish of Marrakech. Most people usually visit as a day trip, then return to the city. It’s mostly hiking trails, beautiful (lush!) scenery, picturesque villages, and waterfalls that draw tourists to the area.
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We pretty much spent our 1.5 days hiking up mountains and enjoying the scenery. The afternoon we arrived at our hotel, we decided to check out the waterfall. It was a bit underwhelming (and overcrowded), having already seen magnificent waterfalls in Iceland.
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The hiking was strenuous, but good, it was about a 3hr hike roundtrip. Our guide from the hotel, Ahmed, didn’t speak any English at all, but we managed to be able to understand each other.
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To get to the trail, we had to catch a local “bus”, which was essentially a van with as many people squeezed in as possible. It was a fun adventurous ride, albeit watching your driver take sharp turns along cliffsides and driving onto oncoming traffic can cause quite an adrenaline rush.
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At the bottom of these cliffs was a large riverbed, which at the moment is quite dry. The river usually fills up during the winter rains. But for now, the dry river provides for nice cafe seating.
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Our second day was the big hike. The hotel owner recommended us to take this trail, which would give us excellent views of the valley, and allow us to visit a Berber village. He was right; despite the altitude sickness and heat, the valley was gorgeous, and not something we’d expected to see in Morocco, land of deserts and dried-up rivers.

It took us approximately 4 hours to reach the village. We took many breaks along the way, and I was quite embarrassed about how out of shape I was (our guide was 60, and he was running up the mountain!)
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The owner of the hotel had even arranged a cooking lesson for me from one of his chefs, since I mentioned that I loved to cook. I was able to eat the result, a tasty tagine of kefta meatballs.
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In all, we enjoyed our stay in Ourika Valley. It was a nice mixture of relaxation and hiking, and wish we could’ve stayed an extra day.
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Iceland, Day 5 & 6 Recap – South Coast Tour, Hallgrimskírkja, Sundhöll

by Karen

(Note: finally getting around to posting an old draft! Originally written Oct 2, covering Sept 29 & 30, 2013)

To briefly summarize, we took another Sterna Tour to Iceland’s South Coast (a part of the famous Ring Road).

We saw:
– Seljalandsfoss waterfall (we could walk behind it, or as the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland says, “the backside of water!”)
The volcano that caused massive flight traffic across Europe in 2010
– Reynisfjara beach (with black sand and basalt columns)
Skógafoss waterfall & the Skógar Folk Museum
– a giant glacier that we could walk on

Volcanoes in the distance

This time around we had a different tour guide, she was young, and didn’t really interact much with the group, but she knew a lot of history. Although at the very beginning of the tour, she picked up the wrong people from a hotel and drove for an hour before realizing this! We had to drive back towards the city and meet up halfway with another bus that had the other tourists, and made a swap.

Our first stop was the Seljalandfoss waterfall. It looked gorgeous, and it was pretty neat to be able to walk behind it.

The backside of water!

Miraculously the weather was amazing that day. The sky cleared up, and we could see three volcanoes in the distance:
Hekla, which is Iceland’s main volcano;
Eyjafjallajökull (I’ll just call her “Eyja”), which threw up so much fine dirt and ash into the sky, it canceled a ton of flights across Europe for days;
– and Katla, still active

We went to a little museum that showed a short documentary about how the Eyja volcano affected farms and families that lived under it, and showed the aftermath of its eruption and the cleanup.

“Eyja”

Reynisfjara Beach was probably my favorite stop of the day, which had black sand beaches and impressive-looking basalt columns and caves. There were also rock formations in the water. Folklore states that the colums were trolls that got caught in the sunlight and turned to stone.

Trolls in the distance…?

Reynisfjara Beach

Basalt Rocks

Once we left the beach, we headed towards a glacier. This was probably the most exciting part of the day, because our driver took our minivan off-roading! I didn’t think the van was properly suited for such driving, but I buckled my seatbelt and threw my hands in the air. After about 15 minutes of driving on rocky terrain, we arrived at our destinaion, and took a short hike to the base of the glacier. There were a few groups already there in their full hiking regalia, but our merry crew was content with just touching the glacier, lest we fall into the cracks and face certain doom.

To be honest, when I think of “glacier,” I usually think of a giant chunk of ice just floating in the water. This glacier was receding into the mountains, slowly carving a valley into the rock. It was also very dirty, and covered in ash and dirt from previous eruptions. Once you brush off the black soot, you are greeted with a bright blue solid layer of ice.

Black glacier

Afterwards we headed towards a folk museum of Icelandic culture, Skógar. The history goes, some guy just randomly started collecting old items one day and eventually hoarded so much that he decided to make his collection into a museum. There were many quirky artifacts and tidbits of history taught inside. For example, I had never known that Iceland was once invaded by Turkish pirates(!!!) and many Icelanders were captured and forced into slavery in parts of the Middle East and northern Africa. The folk museum also had several recreations of old farmhouses, and they looked like Hobbit holes to me.

Old whaling boat

Hobbiton

Near the folk museum was a waterfall, Skógafoss, and you could either hike up to the top, or walk up to its base. We decided to walk to the base of the waterfall and, unsurprisingly, got drenched from head to toe.

Puny waterfall…

On our last day, we decided to take it easy again and just walked around town again. We finally decided to try some whale and puffin meat. We went to this restaurant on the Main Street, and although they only served puffin at dinner time (we got there at 3pm), we were able to convince the waitress to put in an order for us.

Puffin

…and whale

We came across Hallgrimskirkja, a large Lutheran church. Its architecture was inspired by the basalt columns of Reynisfjara. It’s at the top of a hill in Reykjavik, and supposedly has good panoramic views of the city. It looks great at sunset!

Hallgrimskirkja

Afterwards we checked out Sundhöll swimming pool. Not as fancy as the other one we went to, but much closer to our hostel (15 min walk, as opposed to 40), and had pretty much the same facilities. Along with more hot dogs, it was the best way to finish up our final night in Reykjavik!

Hot dogs and beer!

On an added note, we discovered a Filipino-Icelandic restaurant that served only one Asian-related dish.

Iceland, Day 5 Photos
More Iceland Day 5 Photos
Iceland, Day 6 Photos

Iceland, Day 3 – The Golden Circle, Northern Lights

Our first official tour of Iceland, and first day out of the city! The Golden Circle is probably the most famous touristy thing to do in Reykjavik, which is a day tour outside of the city where you get to look at geysers, waterfalls, geothermic hot spots, and nature. There’s probably at least a dozen bus companies in the city that run this tour daily, and they have different variations of the tour as well, like an afternoon-only or evening-only tour (cheaper, but subsequently less to see).

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Our happy little bus!

We decided to go with small group tours, since we previously experienced being herded around like cattle in 50-person buses in Washington & Hawaii. We chose a company called Sterna Travel because they had small groups and good reviews on Trip Advisor. Honestly, we wanted to book with IC Highland since they had the cheapest prices around (kr7900 per person) and they were a small company. However, they were fully booked through Monday.

Sterna Travel was actually a pretty good tour group, it was kr9800 per person, not including lunch or tip. The tour we chose was Golden Circle & Green Energy. The group ended up being 4 people, and we shared the bus with a cute elderly couple from Alaska. Our driver, Beggi (pronounced “Becky”) was quite personable and took us to pretty much the 3 main attractions:

Gulfoss waterfall
Geysir (dormant) & Strokkur (active) geysers
Thingveller National Park (tectonic plates, forests, rocks, old Parliament)

Those are pretty much the basics for any Golden Circle tour. Depending on your company, you might see other stuff too. We also got to check out:

– Hellisheioi Power Plant (admission included)
– Kerio crater (the sneaky ghetto & free entrance that smaller buses can go through)
– feeding horses! (the driver knew some of the farmers and they let us pull over and feed horses)
Faxi waterfall (smaller than Gulfoss but still pretty)

We learned that Beggi was from Akureyri, a town in northern Iceland, worked 2 jobs, and that he has a summer house on the Golden Circle.

The Hellisheioi geothermal power plant was pretty cool, we were given a short guided tour by a hip-looking fellow, and watched a few videos (reminiscent of a scene from Jurassic Park) about how they converted geothermal energy into heating for homes & other uses. One really cool fact we found out was that all the hot water (the smelly sulfur water) that gets used in people’s homes gets flushed down pipes that run throughout the streets of Reykjavik. This heated water then warms the sidewalks, meaning that people never have to shovel snow, because it all melts from the heat.

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Nefarious smoke in the distance…

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Nice building

We also found out that the plant is insanely efficient and generates so much cheap energy, Icelanders can’t even use it all. For example, even when being wasteful (which the guide admitted himself), like leaving lights on, or leaving heaters on, Icelanders only use 10% of all energy generated. So where does 90% of all energy go? It’s sold to foreign corporations. One of the major foreign companies established in Iceland is an American aluminum-production factory, and they use 90% of all Icelandic geothermal energy. Somehow this all sounds like the beginnings of a plot device for a James Bond movie. Our driver said he pays about $500/year for his entire heating bill.

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Totally right out of Jurassic Park

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Tour guide explaining how Reykjavik consumes energy

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Only 18 people work in this gigantic plant.

After that we went to a rest stop. It’d be your typical rest stop if it weren’t for the giant gaping trench running through the center of the building from a recent earthquake. There was an art exhibit on furniture destroyed by earthquakes, but it wasn’t very impressive.

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Giant crack in the earth! (Lights are fake)

The next place we went to was a red crater. I’m not sure how it was a crater (looked like a giant construction pit to me), but the dirt was bright red. It looked cool though, it’s what I’d imagine a Martian landscape to look like.

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Mars!

Faxi Waterfall was our next stop. “Faxi” means “mane” in Icelandic apparently, so the waterfall looks like a horse’s mane. It was a pretty small (or distant?) waterfall, but it was empty except for our group, so it was nice to have a look. I should probably note that it was raining and cold for a majority of our day, and it didn’t really hit me that it was going to be so cold until we got to Faxi.

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Faxi Waterfall (note the salmon stream on the far left)

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Faxi Waterfall

After that, we drove a bit along the countryside, with Beggi telling us about life in his summer home (which he actually visits every weekend when he can), and telling us stories about the people that lived in the houses we drove past.

Eventually we arrived at Gullfoss Waterfall, which is two waterfalls in one (combined height of approx 100ft). It definitely reminded me of Niagara Falls, but it supposedly generates more force altogether. It did look pretty majestic. It was formed by a bunch of flash floods ages ago, and there’s a pretty deep and long canyon at the base of the falls.

There was a pathway where you could walk all the way to the top of the falls, and it was freezing. I remembered that parts of Prometheus were shot in Iceland, and wondered how the actors were able to stand in such cold weather on the waterfall (check the deleted scenes).

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Gullfoss

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Gullfoss & gorge

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Top of Gulfoss

Aside from the waterfall itself, there was a cafeteria at the top of the gorge where we had our first bowl of lamb soup. It consisted of vegetables and chunks of lamb in a salted, savory broth. Unfortunately, we were both so hungry we forgot to take pictures. Fortunately, we had free refills! The soup was about 1490 isk, which is pretty pricey, but it was a really big bowl.

Next stop was the Geysir geothermal area. The whole area is a giant hot pocket of geothermal activity, and made up of little hot springs, pools, and two geysers. Geysir is the grandfather of the bunch, and the 2nd largest geyser in the world, back when it was spouting (up to 263ft). Eventually the government (or some agency) decided to keep it under control and poured a ton of soap into its chute, so it now longer spouts (but it still boils and bubbles). Poor fella. At least that’s what I think the tour guide said (I should really cross-check this on Wikipedia, but not right now).

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Sad, inactive Geysir

Deadly hot tub

Deadly hot tub

Steamy!

Steamy!

The only actively spouting geyser in the area is Strokkur, and it spouts every 6-8 minutes, which is pretty often. You’ll see a bunch of tourists in the area holding their cameras up, waiting to take that perfect shot (I’m guilty of it too), but it definitely is a sight to behold. The way it tries to break the surface and bubbles and shoots up is a pretty neat-looking process.

Stokkur

Strokkur

Geyser eruption

Geyser eruption

Hot bed of activity

Hot bed of activity

Dramatic steam photo

Dramatic steam photo

On our way to Thingvellir National Park, our guide pulls over next to a horse farm. He was friends with the owner of the farm, and wanted to make a pit stop to feed her horses (apparently this is something he does often when he does this tour). We fed horses! Icelandic horses are pretty stout-looking, their legs are a bit shorter than horses I’ve seen, but their coats are thick (and bellies are chunky). Horses were brought over from Norway by the first settlers, and they’ve been bred ever since. Icelandic horses nowadays are used for sport and export, rather than farming. Germany actually imports a good number of Icelandic horses. The driver mentioned that the horses were once shipped to the continent for a game ceremony (Olympics maybe?), but once the ceremony was over, Iceland refused to take them back (in case of parasites).

Feeding horses

Feeding horses

Photobomb!

Photobomb!

Stout horses

Stout horses

Once we reached Thingvellir, a miracle happened: the sun came out! We could finally see the blue sky! And it was perfect timing, because Thingvellir is quite breathtaking. The leaves are changing color, the rivers and lakes are pristine, everything is picturesque.

Looking at the countryside

Looking at the countryside

Pristine lake

Pristine lake

At one point, our driver pulled over again (he has a habit of doing this, but it’s for our benefit), and led us down a path towards a lake. He started taking plastic cups and scooping up water from the lake for us to drink. Mark was a bit hesitant because there was a duck swimming nearby, but the water was gorgeous and you could see the bottom, so I took a swig. We drank real water! From a lake! And we didn’t die or grow diseases! It was pure water, and it felt so weird to drink straight from a source. Quite refreshing! The driver also picked blueberries from a bush and handed them out. Real Icelandic blueberries!

Hiking down to the lake

Hiking down to the lake

Lakeside

Lakeside

Drink up!

Drink up!

Thingvellir sits on top of two tectonic plates, the American and Eurasian. The plates created so many deep trenches, that this park is considered a great place for scuba diving. The water is crystal clear!

Gorge created by tectonic shifts

Gorge created by tectonic shifts

So clear!

So clear!

It also happens to house the old Parliament, Althingi. Back in the day, chieftains and settlers would convene in this location and talk about laws. It used to also house fairs and booths, but I think those stopped after the 1800s.

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The tour was great, I’d highly recommend going with Sterna, or any small group tour. I think that definitely made a huge difference in our experience. Our guide genuinely seemed to enjoy showing us around (especially with the unplanned pit stops), like he was giving us a tour of his backyard. In hindsight, he literally was, since his summer house was on the tour route.

—–

As for our Northern Lights tour, unfortunately not much can really be said for it except:
– We went with Reykjavik Excursions (50-person bus)
– It was raining & cloudy at night
– We could barely see anything! We saw some faint glows, but they were covered by clouds
– You could only see the lights clearly through a camera lens, and since our iPods/iPhones don’t have high ISO, we couldn’t take pics
– We wanted to reschedule for tonight (since we get another trip for free if the first one fails), but they canceled the tour due to weather. It was clear and not raining tonight! -_-

Ah well, this further fuels our desire to visit Alaska.

As always, the rest of our photos are up (or will be) on Flickr. There were just too many great ones from today!

A Day at Big Basin

First we hiked the Redwood Trail Loop (approx. 1 mile), which was quite nice, lots of trees on display. That was a pretty short hike, so we decided to move along and hike the Sequoia Trail (approx. 1.7 miles one-way), which would’ve ended with a nice view of the Sempervirens Falls.

It was actually a disappointing hike. I guess I expected a nice walk through the woods, completely cut off from civilization, totally immersed in nature! The trail was actually bordering a paved driveway with lots of cars passing by. A bit distracting, and makes you tempted to walk alongside a nicely paved, flat road than a gnarly dirt path.

But, the payoff would be the nice waterfall at the end, right? Wrong! Turns out the waterfall was merely a stream, and mostly dried out. It was quite a letdown, but at least we got some decent exercise out of the whole deal.

On the way to Pescadero (small town next to the ocean), we drove along more winding forest roads, and saw beautiful vistas of the Bay Area, from San Francisco all the way down to San Jose.

Pescadero itself was very small, a bit of a tourist trap, and we ate at a small tavern (the only restaurant in town, actually). The food wasn’t very impressive.

All in all, a good day for a nature walk!