A Sri Lankan Train Ride

We drove from Nuwira Eliya to Nanu-Oya and took the 2 1/2 hour scenic train ride to Ella. The train reminded us of the backpacker train we took from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. Instead of a lovely valley by the river in Peru, the Sri Lankan scenery was hill side tea plantations with workers picking tea. Instead of switchbacks, thankfully, the train hugged the base of the hills and passed under tunnels. The ride was a nice one, but became repetitive after the first hour.

There are several classes of seats on the train. Tourist class is open seating. First and second class are assigned seating, with the difference being that first class is air conditioned and the windows can’t be opened. As a result, first class is no good if for people who want to take pictures. And, the elevation makes the heat manageable so the AC is not really needed.

Ella: 98 Acres Eco-Friendly Resort

We stayed 98 Acres, an eco-friendly boutique hotel just outside of town. The location is ideal for those who want to climb Little Adams Peak. The resort consisted of 12 bungalows each housing 2 suites. Our unit was the one that was located at the very end, next to the spa and very close to the climb up to Adams Peak. After 315 steps to the top of Admas Peak, we were rewarded with 360 degrees view of the countryside and of Ella Rock. There was a small altar with a Buddha at the top of Little Adams Peak. Devotees climb the peak to make offerings especially on Poya days.

From the balcony in our unit, we had an unobstructed view of Little Adams Peak and Ella Rock. 98 acres is a resort that sits on – you guess it, 98 acres of tea plantation that belongs to UVA Greenlands. The room was rustic, one of the walls was lined with old wood taken from old tea crates, the king-size bed was huge, the largest we slept on and ever so comfortable. Instead of air conditioning there is a large ceiling fan. Even in the summer, there is no real need for air conditioning at that elevation. For privacy, you can lower these blinds or leave them semi shuttered so you can be woken by the sunrise rising behind Little Adams Peak.

The large bathroom is wonderfully equipped with a rain shower separated from the sink and toilet area by a clear glass wall. Natural ayurvedic soaps, shampoos and conditioners are provided for your use.

The resort is not wheelchair accessible – there are hundreds of steps, to your rooms, to the pool, to the reception and most importantly, to the restaurant. The resort employs golf carts that would bring you and your luggage up and down the narrow paths lined with tea bushes.

Cows and Cars and Elephants, Oh My: Driving in Sri Lanka

This cow is about to get on the highway

Driving in Sri Lanka is an endless adventure not for the faint of heart.  

Let’s start with the roads. Many roads are single lane and well paved. Outside the cities most of the side roads are dirt. 

But size does matter. 

Apparently any road large enough for 1 car is big enough for cars going in both directions. This presents some interesting logistical and geometric challenges when a car comes face to face with a truck traveling in the opposite direction. 

Then there are your companions on the road. At any given moment, you might find cows, lizards, dogs, water buffalo and elephants sharing the road. 


There are also bicycles, buses, trucks, tuk-tuks (or three wheelers as they are called here), motorcycles, people.  And there are fruit and vegetable stands everywhere with lots of people stopping to buy. 

Three-wheelers are like mosquitos. They buzz around and move into any empty space on the road. Zip. Zip. Zip. 


Now, three-wheelers and trucks drive slower than cars. That means that it takes forever to get to your destination…unless you pass them. How to do that? On a real two lane road (one lane in each direction), beep twice and then pass. This can be tricky on curvy mountain roads. And sometimes, there are three or four slow moving vehicles in a row. Some drivers will pass them all in one shot. Others pass 1 at a time. 

With all of this we saw very few accidents. Sri Lankans are very good drivers. Though we did almost have a heart attack a couple of times. 

And one last thing, schools let out at 1:30 causing massive traffic jams. Try to stay off the road during that time. 

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Opening of the Stupa​

Buddhists believe that a Tooth from the Buddha is being kept safe at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It is one of the holiest places in Sri Lanka and every Singhalese Buddhist is expected to make at least one pilgrimage in their life to the Temple in Kandy. Last night we joined many people and pilgrims for the opening of the Stupa to catch a glimpse of the place the Tooth is kept. Below is the performance done right before the opening of the Stupa. 

Ouch, Ouch, Ouch….visiting temple in Sri Lanka 

We spent the last two days visiting ancient temples and ruins in the northwestern part of Sri Lanka. Today we were in Anuradhapura at Jetavaranama–the first capital of Sri Lanka from 380 BC to 1200 AD–and then Minhitale Temple–one of the most sacred places for Buddhists in the country. The sites were very interesting and fun to see. 

We’ve been to temples all over the world and today brought some unique experiences. First, it was prayer day. Once a month, usually after the full moon, the government announce Prayer Day and everyone goes to the temples to pray. Second, it was 31 degrees centrigrade. Third, the Sri Lankan temples have a million stairs. Even the hotels have a ton of stairs. Today we walked the equivalent of 40 flights of stairs. And finally, you cannot wear shoes in the temples. That means most of the 40 flights we walked barefoot on stones that were very, very hot. While we hobbled along with our hot feet feeling every hot stone, pebble and grain of sand, Sri Lankan’s of all ages easily walked and climbed and prayed. 

The morale of the story–train your feet and quads before going to Sri Lanka. 

More on the temples tomorrow. 

Top 10 things I learned at the New York Times Travel Show–Save $$ on Booking Flights

Top 10 things I learned at the NYT travel show:

When booking flights:

  • First step before booking check flights using aggregators (momondo, skyscanner, google flights – sign up for alerts when fare changes).
  • Most of these are not booking engines but search the internet for lowest fares
  • Aggregators do not include some low cost carriers like Southwest Airlines, EasyJet and Ryanair
  • Also check consolidators like flyinternational.com, cheapoair to compare
  • Don’t forget to check flyertalk for premium fare deals
  • You can predict air fare hikes by downloading hopper (app), airfarewatchdog, airfarespot, google flights
  • AARP members get 10% discounts on British Airways flights
  • Best time for fare deals tend to be mid-day Tuesday (when airlines release deals after reviewing weekend bookings)
  • Always clear your cache/cookies after each search, or use a different browser
  • Fares appear to be higher for Mac vs Windows users

New York Times 52 Places to Go in 2017

I always enjoy seeing the annual New York Times 52 Places to Go article. This year they have Canada in the top spot. The list is a mix of well-known and off the beaten track places.

Reggie and I have been to 15 of these cities/countries. How many have you been to? How are you putting on your list for this year?

Here’s the full link if the hyperlink above doesn’t work: http://nyti.ms/2j4t8E8

 

Santa Clara, Cuba—a Small Town with Big History: The Che Mausoleum

che-mas-comp-2che-mas2

We arrived on a direct flight from Miami in Santa Clara, Cuba. The flight—a mere 45 minutes.

Matt (detourswithmatt) and our driver picked us up at the airport and we drove the half hour into Santa Clara, the city of Che, a pretty town with a main square or Parque Vidal. Santa Clara is in the center of Cuba and was an important city during the revolution. President Fulgencio Batista fled 12 hours after Che and Camilo Cienfuegos captured Santa Clara.

A short ride on a motorcycle taxi brought us to the Che Guevara mausoleum. Che died leading an insurgency in Bolivia in 1967 and his remains (along with 29 of his guerillas’) were discovered and returned to Cuba in 1997. The expansive park features a huge statue of Che and several sculptural monument complexes that depicted the final battles of the Cuban revolution.

Sue went into the mausoleum and sighted the everlasting flame that burns in honor of Che Guevara. The mausoleum has a museum that showcases Che’s guns, uniforms, personal items and photographs telling the story of the revolution.

Be prepared to wait to enter the museum. It is small and people are let in at regular time slots. Since it is a frequent stop for larger tour groups, one group can take up the entire time interval.

There was a cemetery at the back of the monument which honors heroes of the revolution.

Getting Your Cuba Visa at the Airport

Due to Hurricane Matthew we didn’t fly down to Santa Clara until after the Hurricane had passed. On a flight to Miami with only an hour connection to the one departing for Santa Clara, we had little option but to only carry on our luggage. Proper documentation (license to enter Cuba, a letter of authorization by the tour operator and the Cuban visa) will be checked at the gate before you are allowed to board. Note that you can also apply for the visa at the gate prior to boarding by paying $100 – credit cards are accepted.

When you arrive in Cuba immigration authorities will ask for reason of travel, take your picture and should return your half portion of the visa after stamping your passport. In our case, the immigration office decided to keep Reggie’s half portion. we realized pretty quickly and went back to retrieve it but he would not give it to us. We were pretty worried about leaving the country and were prepared for hassles and another $100 fee. In the end, we had no problem leaving the country.

Cuba Trip Report-Getting There, Getting Easier….For Now

imageWith the Death of Fidel Castro, Cuba’s been in the news for the past 10 days. There are many changes happening in the country and now is a great time to go. Direct flights have begun to Cuba from New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis-St. Paul. JetBlue, American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Silver Airways, Southwest and Sun Country Airlines have all been authorized to fly directly to Cuba. We flew American Airlines from Miami on the way down and JetBlue from Santa Clara to Ft. Lauderdale on the way back.

There is some talk of flights being scaled back as there seems to be excess supply right now. That makes this a good time to snatch a cheaper fare. Travelocity is also beginning to do hotel bookings in Cuba. As you may know, President-elect Trump has threatened to cut back on the agreement with Cuba, so you might consider doing your trip sooner rather than later. See these New York Times Article on Last Minute Trips to Cuba and Is it Easy to Visit Cuba. We used Matt Smith (Detours with Matt) for our trip.

While it is easier to get a flight, restrictions still apply. Certification of travel to Cuba under a general or specific license is required. This license is the requirement of the US Treasury department. Approved categories include: people to people, family visits, professional research, professional meetings, educational activities, religious activities and public performances.

Most travelers go on People to People trips. These trips require 6 hours of meetings with Cuban organizations and people each day and are why most people use a tour operator for their trips. You can arrange a trip on your own, but it will take a lot of work before and during your trip.

Come back for our next blog post on Santa Clara, Cuba…..