Barbuda & Antigua

I wanted to go to Barbuda the first time I went to Antigua in 2012, but the ferry was broken down and Barbuda wasn’t accessible within the 5 days I was there. Then hurricane Irma screwed things up in 2017 so badly that Barbuda was completely deserted for months. The island was in shambles, everyone had evacuated, and noone was sure if it or when it would get rebuilt.

Two Foot Bay Cave

Now in 2020 people have returned home, rebuilt their 300 roofs that blew away, and some still have the emergency shelter tents provided by the US government… I guess as it works well as a spare room. I finally got to go there on a new ferry that sails from the end of the airport, and booked a day tour to get from A to B and on a boat to the bird sanctuary without a headache.

Frigate Bird Sanctuary

We went to the Frigate bird sanctuary to see the puffy red necks, one guy got shat on, visited a pink beach at the edge of the lagoon and another guy lost his sand-coloured flip-flops. We went to some old caves and Two Foot Bay, had lobster lunch on the beach, and ended our day at Princess Diana beach, also slightly pink, beside an ocean so blue no picture could do it justice.

the perfect beaches were endless in Barbuda

Im glad I made it to Barbuda, but Im happier that everyone else that calls its a home made it back first. Its also great they’ve opened their lives to tourism again, slowly building up with the return of ferries and flights. I hope the wild donkeys and dirt roads never change, but that everyone gets to finish rebuilding their homes. I’ll certainly come back, for the peace and quiet, and wouldn’t mind keeping those beaches to myself next time either.

Montserrat: The Pompeii of the Caribbean

Like Saba, Montserrat is also very green, and used to be known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. But since the 1995 eruption of Soufriere Hills volcano, the airport and port town of Plymouth were buried in ash and turned into a modern Pompeii. The capital city was abandoned, much of the island was evacuated, but 19 lost their lives, and hundreds upon hundreds of buildings were either buried under ash or washed away with one of many pyroclastic flows, which kept occurring until as recently as 2009.

the panoramic view of Soufriere Hills from the Volcano Observatory

So why would a tourist want to go there? Well for one, I´m Icelandic and we have volcanic eruptions all the time, so that wasn´t a deterrent. Secondly, driving around Plymouth (which requires an escort and police clearance) was tons more moving than Pompeii – these were people´s homes that are still alive today!

black sand tropical beach

I was supposed to take a ferry to Montserrat from Antigua, but the one day I had booked they decided to dock the ferry for maintenance. I was lucky enough to have pre-booked, so they offered to fly me instead, in a charter, and I was only one of 4 passengers going out to John A. Osborne airport, newly built in 2005 to replace the devastated Plymouth airport. I was even luckier flying back – as the only passenger in an 8 seater plane, I got to play copilot instead!

I helped fly myself back to Antigua

I walked down to Brades and Little Bay, saw black sand beaches that reminded me of home, then hitchhiked south to the Montserrat Volcano observatory. There I met a couple of nice Americans that invited me to Plymouth – all I had to do was add my name to the police registry when passing the no-travel zone!

A building still visible in Plymouth

We saw an abandoned hotel, what was left of the grocery store, and the new harbour they´ve built to export sand. The economy still relies heavily on British aid, but the future is bright: green energy from Icelandic technology should tap into the island´s geothermal power by 2024, and tourism has started increasing again. The mountainous hiking and black beaches around the island are still an attraction, although Soufriere is still an active volcano. Some daredevils have even rebuilt their homes in the no-go zone, because who knows, maybe it will be dormant for another 2 or 3 hundred years, as it was before 1995.

St. Martin & Sint Maarten

I lucked out more than once with accommodation on the island. First, I found an amazing couchsurf host on the French side that had a car and an interest in running on beaches, dining out and gambling for free drinks. I stayed with him at the start and end of my trip, and only had to pay for one night in a hostel which turned out not to be a hostel, but a crew base for yachtees. If I wasn’t working boats, I was a tourist, and was supposed to pay for the expensive hotels and resorts, but I accidentally snuck thru the cracks to pay $40 a night for a bed instead.

feasting on the beach

I did a bit of kayaking, beach lazing, swam with horses, watched planes land and take off at SXM and got lost amongst the cruise ship crowds every once in a while. I tasted some rum, rented a few beach chairs, and enjoyed pampering myself without having to drive anywhere (the island has great public transportation).

Great Bay beach, where the big cruise ships dock

I wanted a manicure and pedicure at the same time, and found a salon in Philipsburg where two latina girls were free to do both at the same time. I cringed in my seat as the cut, shaped, filed and exfoliated every digit, drawing blood a couple of times, but they were so into singing along with the Spanish gospel music playing from their phone that they didn’t notice me holding my breath.

swimming with horses

Whether you’re on the Dutch or French side, it’s a hit or miss what language to approach people in. Most spoke to me in English, Spanish or French, but drivers would also answer in Dutch and Creole, so it’s a wonder how much must get lost in translation, or never said at all. The French side had more exclusive Frenchies, white and wrinkled, sunkissed Metropoles who can’t speak a word of English and never let a dollar pass thru their hand – they live in a mini France, in French, with Euros and their Carrefour supermarkets, filled with delicacies and wines only from France.

Maho beach under the airplanes

The island is still re-developing from the disaster of Hurricane Irma, and dozens of buildings remain roofless and abandoned. Entire hotels have literally blown away, at least substantial bits of them, and parts of the facades or building frames stand like haunting reminders of the power of mother nature. Debris and dirt are still scattered anywhere that doesn’t matter, since people have seemingly given up trying to clean up all the mess – it barely seems possible, especially knowing the hurricane season will come back again and again.

yet another perfect beach

Saba, the unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean

Saba was my favourite, not surprisingly, but unexpectedly. It’s tiny, with one road going thru it, which has to go up and over from the two main coastal entry points: the airport on one side, or the ferry port on the other.

I loved Saba

The rest of the island’s coast is barely reachable, as Saba is basically a massive mountain rising straight out of the sea. Cliffs all around it’s edges keep the inhabitants inland and uphill, and the two major towns are simply ‘Windward’ and ‘The Bottom’, which is more like the only flat-ish part in the middle.

panoramic of Saba’s typical hilltop, red-roofed villages

Hiking trails circle the mountain, connecting towns and parishes and the few accessible shores. There’s no beaches, so jumping in the water can be done at the bottom of the ‘The Ladder’ trail (if you dont get swept away by huge waves on the rocks) or the harbour where boats share the port. The only thing resembling a beach was beside the airport, but the tide pools in the rocks below the runway were more appealing.

playing the conch shell by the airport cost to start our cross-island walk

We did a cross island walk, nearly 10km, one morning, which is just up up up for the first hour and a bit, then another hour just cruising back down, with a stop at the ‘top’ of Windward side. The top top of the island is Mt. Scenery, which marks the highest point in the Dutch Kingdom at 887m. You can hike to it in just under 2 hours from Windward side, but I stopped short at Mas’Cahone’s hill viewpoint since the peak was covered in misty clouds.

tidepools

Saba was clean, green and full of trails, an absolute hikers paradise. My favourite trek was the Sandy Cruz trail, which wraps halfway around the mountain from Upper Hell’s Gate to Troy’s Hill. Just after you reach the trail end, you’ll pass Queen’s Gardens Resort where you can opt for a $27 gin and tonic to cool down, or you can carry on down to ‘The Bottom’ and start hiking back up and over along the Crispeen Trail.

Mas’ Cahone’s viewpoint

The biggest highlight I missed out on completely – Saba is a diver’s dream. If you like underwater adventuring, this island has even more there than on land, at least so I’ve heard, so dont only go there for the landlocked nature.

Statia, aka Sint Eustatius

St. Eustatius is the second smallest Dutch Island in the Caribbean island, at only 20sq. km with 4,000 inhabitants. Once upon a time, it used to be the center of commercial trade in all of the colonial Caribbean, and flourished in the late 18th century with 20,000 inhabitants. It’s a volcanic island between St. Kitts and St. Martin, but part of the Netherland Antilles, along with Bonaire and Saba.

The Quill volcano crater from the sky

Arriving at the old shack that is the EUX airport is somehow very welcoming, and being able to walk from there to anywhere on the island makes things comfortable, but the casino across the street was weird to see. The most memorable feature of Statia is The Quill crater, visible from St. Martin and St. Kitts and anywhere in town, and hiking from Oranjestad up to the top of it is an easy climb doable without a guide. Just don’t forget to pay the $10 park fee at one of the National Park or Dive center offices in town.

charming colonial Oranjestad

Other charming sights were the new, blue street signs, marking even dead end, gravel driveways with names in bold, caps font. The names ranged from Basil, Rosemary and Oregano to Stinging Thyme Road, Papaya and Watermelon Road, some names of men, and my personal favourite – Fatpork Road. Only the streets near the old town had Dutch names ending in ‘weg’, and I heard Dutch-looking people speaking Dutch there, but mostly everyone else spoke English or Spanish. The ruins and history were rich close to Oranjestad, with roads, forts and colonial buildings dating back to the 1700’s.

the fort at Oranjestad

Statia is the kind of town where everyone says hello in passing, wither with a wave or a good morning. Some men even yell from their cars, adding in a ‘beautiful lady’ to the salute. St. Eustatius is actually famous for what America calls the ‘first salute’ – back in 1776 during the American Revolution, not only did Statia trade arms and weapons to strengthen the rebellion, but they were the first country to recognize the 13 States as their own country!

sunset from Statia

There are plenty of cocks and bull dogs, both nice enough from afar but the cocks start competing their morning cockadoodle at 5 and the dogs are kept tied up, probably because they’re dangerous enough to be used in dog-fights. Cock fights probably happen behind closed doors, but the island was going through an awareness campaign against domestic violence and child abuse. There was also a Center for Common Sense, where people of all ages can drop in to discuss life or philosophize, so maybe an animal rights movement can start there to help the cocks and bull dogs.

at the top of the Quill

The mosquitos are tiny, almost too small to see or hear, but they bite just the same and damn do they itch. I always noticed the bite after it was too late, and swelled up like I had chicken pox all over. There weren’t many tourists, but the ones I saw were probably divers. There wasn’t much of anything going on, but the café Para Mira was a popular lunch place with top notch food. Other hotels and restaurants were mostly empty, and tourism was a lazy pastime for locals to entertain only once in a while. My airbnb host, who I never met, was one of two people who rented on the island, and they probably affect the few hotels and their competition in a big way… but during Carnival they all fill up for sure.

trail markers in Quill National Park

If you need an excuse to visit Statia, don’t let it be for the chinese corner stores and american cars, but the abundance of hiking trails up, down and around the Quill. Bring your camping gear and mosquito nets if you want an off-the-beaten-track adventure!

Alto Ongamira, horses & Jesus Maria

A group of 5 friends went to Dos Lunas, a horse riding lodge in Alto Ongamira, Cordoba province of Argentina, in March 2019 and we all fell in love. It only took a few weeks for Michael, a riding friend from Germany, to plan a second trip back, and I couldnt help myself but to tag along.

just another day in the life of a gaucho

This time, we would be hosted by the managers of Dos Lunas, at their own ranch down the road, with horses and cows in the backyard and 3 dogs and one cute cat to call company.

 

Ruben and Malu at polo lessons

Malu and Ruben had just gotten married, so we invited them on a second honeymoon to Pompeya Polo club in Aschochinga for 3 days. There we took polo lessons and practiced our swings at full speed, all the time trying to look the part but failing miserably in being liable polo player candidates. So, instead we watched the owners and his family play a real game whiles cuddling Australian shepherd puppies.

Pompeya Polo club meet

We rode all around Alto Ongamira, to Dos Lunas for rides with guests, to the local bar for empanadas, to waterfalls and to round up cattle. We saved a horse and a cow from some flesh-eating bugs and tried to break in an orphaned foal, and felt special to be able to help, but those were all just everyday things for them.

Festival Nacional de Doma y Folklore

It was also the time of year for the Doma festival, a rodeo and folklore festival in nearby Jesus Maria. Hundreds of cowboys compete in different categories, either bareback or with tack, for different times they need to stay on a wild, bucking bronco. We wanted to go 5 of the 10 nights, but sadly on our first night there, a gaucho fell under a horse and passed away that night, so Doma was cancelled the next night. Its only the second rider to die in 10 years, but horses also get seriously injured, so this may have been one of the last Doma festivals since social pressure for safety is rising.

Our friend Valentina enjoying the great views and fresh air of Ongamira

The highlight for me this trip were all the small moments, when I found myself bareback on a horse on a road that didn’t lead to anywhere familiar, and traveling down gravel roads to unknown destinations and always finding something magical. I made friends, beastly and manly, and don’t think it will take another year before I find myself back in Ongamira

Winter season in Iceland

I’ve been working with Backroads for a couple of summers now, and this was my second winter. It’s been a good winter – snow storms, minus 10 degrees and plenty of northern lights. The day light is short, with sunrise after 11 and sunset before 4, so there’s a small window of opportunity to be active outside. We’re meant to hike, snowshoe, glacier walk or horseback ride, and the weather doesn’t always cooperate. But when it does, its a winter wonderland out here.

Ion Adventure Hotel, the first night of our Northern Lights trip

I had a week of trip preparation, where me and the trip expert practiced all the hikes and visited all of our vendors. Hotels, restaurants and farms took us in with open arms and we had luck with weather almost every day. Once the first trip started, we lucked out with northern lights 5 out of 5 nights, and the trip couldn’t have gone better.

our hike at Skalakot Boutique farm comes with free dog company

The second trip ran over the worst storm Iceland has seen in years, with power being cut off across the north of Iceland, and up to 4 meters of snow burying horses alive. We were on a small spit of the south coast where the only open road in the whole country was a 10km stretch of highway 1 exactly around us. It was incredible to be able to stick to the plan, hiking and glacier walking despite the rest of the country being on lock down, and our only inconvenience was staying an extra night at Hotel Ranga since we couldn’t get to Umi Hotel.

a nearly completely frozen Oxarafoss, a special site even for Icelander’s

The third trip was over New Years, and we rang in the New Year together at Hotel Ranga with our group and the staff that have become more and more like family after so many nights at the hotel. There were two guests with birthdays on January 1st, so there was plenty to celebrate, and we saw Northern Lights in the morning before sunrise on our way onto Solheimajokull.

Thorsmork covered in White and a sunrise turned sunset to make it even more beautiful

The next trip won’t be until March and April, when the daylight hours are triple what they have been so far. It’s better for flexibility and certainly makes driving thru snowstorms easier, but there’s a certain charm in visiting Iceland in its darkest hours, and the feedback from guests has always been rewarding – what a magical country we live in to be able to enjoy it in the midst of horrible winter storms and still come home smiling.

Icelandic Winter Traditions

New Years eve, and the few days leading up to it, are very explosive, literally. Icelanders buy hundreds and hundreds of tons of fireworks and explode them downtown, in backyards, harbours, farms, you name it. Reykjavik is the only city in the world where I can actually hear midnight coming, as the fireworks get more and more intense around Hallgrimskirkja, the loudest climax is the moment when the New Year has arrived.

The Christmas Market in Hafnafjordur

With 26 days of Christmas, there are a lot of traditions that Icelandic people keep up to fill the dark winter season. There’s even a small Christmas Market ´Jólaþorpið´started in Hafnafjordur, and free ice skating in Ingolfstorg downtown for all the days in December. Then of course there are the famous, or infamous, Yule lads, the 13 Christmas elves who each have a special, mischievous role to play. There´s the hungry ones: Sausage Stealer, Skyr Gobbler, Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Meat Hook, who loves smoked lamb, and Stubby, who likes eating pan crusts.

There´s the creepy ones, Sheep harassing Sheep-Cote-Clod, Door Sniffer and the Window Peeper. Then there’s the annoying ones: the noisy Door Slammer, Gully Gawk who likes to jump out and scare people, and Candle Sneaker, who’s also hungry because they’re used to stealing candles made of animal fat and eating them.

ice skating in Ingolfstorg

These fine examples of Icelandic folklore are the sons of a large, ugly, child-eating troll named Gryla, and her black cat eats Children who don’t receive any new clothes for Christmas. The Yule lads are not all bad – they bring down a present to put in your shoe, one by one, for the 13 days leading up to Christmas, unless you misbehave – then you get a potato or a piece of coal. Then 13 days after Christmas, the Yule lads return back to Gryla in her mountain, and the last day of Christmas is Jan 6, but its only a few weeks to wait until Thorrablot, Icelands other, rather unappealing, winter tradition.

Thorrablot used to be a pagan festival, dedicated to pagan gods in the fourth month of winter, previously known as Thorri. It’s basically a midwinter party (end-Jan to mid Feb in the modern day calendar) dedicated to eating sour and fermented foods, the same ram testicles, sheep head, rotten shark, liver and blood sausages as the vikings ate before the modernisation or Christianisation of Iceland. Its also a drunken time, when farmers and fishermen and city folk alike gather in huge groups (a dinner for hundreds of people sometimes), organising with the next county or community to make sure they don’t hold the festival on the same night, so that everyone can go to more Thorrablots and drink enough beer and brennivin to wash all the sour food down and hangover away. Sounds like a blast, right?

midday in midwinter

My favourite Þorrablóts are happening around Feb 1st in the north of Iceland, be sure to check out Varmahlíð or Hunaver´s schedule, or just search Thorrablot in Facebook events to be sure to find the one closest to you. Or, if sour food isn´t for you, there´s always hottubs and the outdoor bathing culture we all love and need to get us through a long Icelandic winter.

The Christmas Markets in Munich

The last time I went to Munich was for Oktoberfest, which is a big tick on the bucket list, but Munich as plenty to offer during Christmas time – the markets around central Munich would take days to visit completely, especially if you need to try everyone’s gluhwein.

the New Town Hall in Marienplatz, Munich

The weekend we were there was almost as warm as an Icelandic summer. With sun and temperatures around 10 or 12 degrees celsius, the Christmas spirit was certainly not so cold or white, but the spirit was there nonetheless. Thousands and thousands of people, cramming every main street and square that had been turned into an outdoor mall, with roasted chestnuts and freshly made gluhwein on offer at every corner. The regular food markets and bars nearby were overflowing with people, but with such good weather, noone really wanted to stay indoors so the streets remained packed.

riding in the Bavarian countryside

Munich is also a destination for horses and food, so both had to be enjoyed. We ate at the Michelin Star restaurant Showroom one night, and I thought Iceland was expensive, but this place still surpassed my expectations. My friend Michael lives in Munich and boards his horse a short drive away, so I had an English lesson under his german instruction and came out with an open wound on the inside of my leg after trying to sit his horse’s trot.

the sunset being counterbalanced by the pink lights at the Pink Christmas Market

The weekend was short but sweet, and the highlight for me was simply the light. In the shortest days of an Icelandic winter, a German December day with 8 hours of daylight and warmth from the sunrays was like an exotic, faraway vacation. It was everything I needed to get through the next 3 darkest weeks in Iceland.

Bhutan: a dream come true

Bhutan is a country famous for being one of the happiest countries in the world, but for a country to measure its kind of GDP by a happiness index, there certainly is something magical going on.

Guðny, me and Togga

Bhutan was my 220th country, depending on how you count, but one I’ve been longing to go to, and perhaps I was saving the best for last. Its population is only 750,000, a kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between China and eastern India, and 75% of Bhutanese people are Buddhist. Those kinds of statistics already create such an unknown, a magical fairytale place only Tibet could challenge, but since I’ve never been to Tibet either, I didn’t know what to expect.

one of our most rewarding hikes to the Tiger´s Nest

Getting into Bhutan isn’t hard, but it isn’t cheap either. With the daily rate per tourist set at $200-250 per day, you have do dish out a thousand dollars for a short visit. The set up was reminiscent of North Korea, not in a negative way, but in the sense that our tour guide was with us nearly 24/7, driving and guiding us the whole time without any real free time or ability to roam independently. The difference was that he was trying to show us his best hospitality, not control our thoughts or experience, and we loved Phurba.

The Tiger´s Nest Monastery, aka Paro Taktsang

We visited multiple temples, monasteries and dzongs (forts and palaces), while staying in hotels filled with Indian tourists until we got to homestay in Punakha with a local family. We had some issues taking out and exchanging money, since a country rich in happiness doesn’t take a lot of visa or debit cards. Few people had much to do with dollars or euros so buying ngultrum (which I still cant pronounce) wasn’t easy, and they were always mixed up with Inidan rupees since they’re equivalent in value.

river rafting with Phurba

The highlight of the week was river rafting down the Mochu river, under an old iron bridge and the rice fields in Punakha valley. Bonding with our guide Phurba and partying with his friends was a perfect complement to having a professional host and well-trained hiking leader, and overlapping at Tiger’s Nest with a Backroads trip was a funny contrast to the kind of travel we were all experiencing, but in oh such different ways. I look forward to going back to Bhutan and trying yet another way, perhaps a horse back ride to Tibet. Apparently the locals do it regularily!