Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Sri Lanka


As our first stop during an extended sabbatical multi-country trip, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) turned out to be one of our favourite travel destinations. We've never been to a country of this size with an equivalent diversity of attractions - including remnants of former colonial centers, incredibly rich history - ancient capital cities, the cultural heart of Kandy, wide ranging wilderness areas - including safaris and elephant rescue centers, mountainous interiors and vast tea plantations. Oh and they have beaches too! As well, Sri Lanka boasts 8 UNESCO world heritage sites. To put this in perspective, Vietnam, a country over five times as large as Sri Lanka has the same number of UNESCO sites.

You can also hear about our travels to Sri Lanka in episode #667 of the Amateur Traveler Podcast, or click on the link below to listen to the podcast direct from this site:

Amateur Traveler Episode 667 - Travel to Sri Lanka



The Route

We flew into Bandaranaike International Airport just north of Colombo in early March 2019, the entry point for most international travelers. Our first stop was in Bentota Beach where we were able to relax on the beach for a couple days - a great way to adjust to the time change, considering we had flown in from Toronto.

From there we followed a clockwise track along the coast to the far south of the island, to the Dutch colonial city of Galle with its ramparts and fortifications. We continued along the southern coast to Yala National Park where we stayed in "glamping" accommodations and ventured into the Park on safari. Then it was a climb up the mountains to Hortons Plain, and through the tea plantations. Continuing north we entered the cultural triangle starting in Kandy, and continuing on to Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura.  Finally we returned back along the coast to Colombo where we enjoyed the hospitality at the English colonial Galle Face Hotel.

Because we were on an extended sabbatical trip, we were able to move at a leisurely pace, and spent just over two weeks in Sri Lanka. And the drive time was actually quite reasonable. Excluding side trips, our total drive time between major destinations was only 28 hours over this two week period - or an average of about 2 hours per day. I would recommend trying to devote two weeks for Sri Lanka, although you can certainly pack in many of the highlights in a condensed week long trip.





Highlights

We originally planned to hit the beach as our first stop to help get over the jet lag after the long trip from Toronto. And it was nice to relax on the sand and not feel any pressure to visit the sites, although we were keen to do so. We were also looking forward to some warm weather after departing Toronto in about -10C weather. We didn't realize though that our entry to a climate that was consistently over +30C would be a bit too much of a good thing. So having the cooling ocean breeze nearby was pleasant to say the least.

                Traditional Sri Lankan Oruwa fishing boat near Bentota Beach

                Pool and gardens at the Taru Villas - Rock Villa

While the primary focus of a stay along the south western beaches is for rest and relaxation, there are a few other worthy diversions along the coast. During our drive from Bentota Beach to Galle, we made a few stops - Ariyapala Mask Museum, a family run gemstone operation and Tsunami Memorials. 

The Ariyapala Mask Museum is a quick stop off the highway where you can take short guided tour of and watch the craftsmen at work making the masks, and pick up a souvenir if inclined. 

                Ariyapala Masks Museum in Ambalangoda (our souvenir inset)

Sri Lanka is well known for its gemstones and in spite of its relative size is one of the largest producers in the World, mining of 50 varieties of gemstones. We stopped at a small family run operation Meetiyagoda Moonstone Mine to have a look at the small scale mining operation and their jewelry. The operation consisted of a 30-40 foot cave where they dug short tunnels removing buckets of soil in hot humid caves, brought it to the surface, and then used a sieve to find the gemstones. 

                Mining gem stones at Meetiyagoda Moonstone Mine

We stopped at two Tsunami Memorials near Peraliya commemorating the tragic loss of live during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Peraliya was devastated by the tsunami, and the location where a train was lifted off the tracks with 1,500 people perishing - the World's worst ever train disaster.

                Peraliya Tsunami Memorial

We were able to visit 7 of Sri Lanka's 8 UNESCO world heritage sites, with our first stop being the historical Dutch colonial town of Galle. It was actually originally a Portuguese outpost before the Dutch took it over in 1638. Galle is a popular tourist destination today, with the major draw being the historic walled section of the town on a peninsula jutting out into the Indian Ocean. We joined the crowds for a view of the sundown along the ramparts.

                The ramparts of Galle at Sundown

Galle has a variety of guest houses, restaurants and shopping - particularly known for gemstone jewelers. We also came across Embark in Galle, a chain of about a dozen retail stores in Sri Lanka whose profits support charitable work supporting the country's street dogs. And they certainly could use the help with an estimated half million street dogs wandering the country. While travelling across the country we stopped frequently to give out dog food to the ones we came across.

                Embark's Galle retail store in support of street dogs

Enroute to our next destination, Yala National Park, we passed through the somewhat strange town of Hambantota. After traveling along a small two lane road we suddenly entered a broad four lane highway seemingly in the middle of no where - with virtually no traffic. With funding primarily from the Chinese, this area not only had a brand new highway, but a large seaport, international airport, conference center and a new hospital. Oddly though, the area seemed almost deserted.

In fact, the international airport built at a cost of $200M opened in 2013 with just two daily scheduled flights, which has now dropped to none. There are claims that 300 soldiers and police were brought in to keep the elephants from entering the airfield as the airport. They have used the hangers for storing rice, and there is talk of converting the airport to a pilot training facility and storage area for mothballed aircraft - certainly not the original plans...

I only found out after our passing through this area that we could have actually visited the Airport as a tourist - not your typical sight-seeing tour, but would have liked to check it out. Wade Shepard has written an interesting piece in Forbes about the "World's Emptiest International Airport".

As we drove past the Convention Center, there was absolutely nothing going on, and apparently it too sits empty most of the time. Equally, the seaport has been a white elephant. The unfortunate reality is the development was approved as a vanity project by former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa who grew up in Hambantota. Burdened with heavy debt that the government could not pay back, Sri Lanka has turned the Port over to the Chinese for a 99 year lease. Seemingly the Airport is also now on the block with India, fearful of the growing Chinese influence, is seeking to secure the airport in a long term lease.

                Highway and International Airport at Hambantota

Sri Lanka was not top of mind as a safari destination, so we were intrigued when we learned about the wildlife at Yala National Park. Having never been on safari, we thought we may as well give it a try, admittedly having low expectations. And we were happy we did, our safari excursions here turned out to be a highlight of the trip.

We stayed at a small family run lodge just outside the park - Camp Leopard Safari. Staying in a semi-luxurious "glamping" accommodation, the safari started a little early than expected with a troop of monkeys clamoring across our roof top at about 3am.

We went on 3 half day safaris to Yala National Park and were never bored. Just when we thought we'd seen everything, something new would pop up behind a bush, tree or rock. Although we don't have great photos to support all our sightings, we did see some of the more noteworthy animals in the Park - including a leopard sunning itself on the rocks, elephants, Water Buffalo and perhaps rarest of all the Sri Lankan Sloth Bear. We also saw lots of birds and waterfowl, including Hornbills, Kingfishers, Eagles & Hawks and the Sri Lankan national bird - the colorful Junglefowl.  In total, we counted over 70 wildlife sightings - thanks in large part to the sharp eyes of our guide Noyel.

                Wildlife in Yala National Park - Grey Langur and Mongoose

There are three entrances to the Park - Palatupane (southern), Katharagama (middle) and Galge (northern). The southern entrance is the most popular given its location closest to the ocean and near many of the resorts - however it is also the busiest. While researching I had heard the vehicles lining up to enter the park in peak season could be excessive. We went in via the middle gate on two of our safaris and both times there were no mare than a half dozen vehicles. I would suggest this might be the better choice to steer clear of the competing vehicles.

The scenery around Yala was varied and picturesque and was worth the price of admission even before all the wildlife sightings. The large water tanks, or reservoirs, helps sustain the varied wildlife in this semi-arid area. The morning sun against the rock outcroppings was also a popular area for leopard sightings.

                Scenery in Yala National Park

From Yala, we headed north into the mountainous interior through vast tea plantations enroute to Hortons Plain, our second UNESCO world heritage site. We stayed at Hill Safari Eco Lodge just outside the Park with an incredible view from a steep mountainside overlooking tea plantations below (contrary to the lodge's name, don't expect to see elephants or leopards up here!). Hortons Plain is a great destination for hikers, having a popular loop route over a few miles that passes through montane grassland and lush montane cloud forest before reaching the highlight - World's End - a vantage point at the top of a vertical cliff almost a kilometer high. The trail continues along a small stream and past a waterfall and small ponds before reaching the dusty museum at the trail head. Keep an eye out for Sambar Deer - we also saw a Giant Squirrel foraging in the trees.

Its best to arrive at the trailhead around 8am so you have time to reach World's End before the clouds start to roll in obstructing the view.

                Views from Hill Safari Eco Lodge and Horton Plains World's End

                Waterfall at Hortons Plain

The highlands provide the perfect conditions for Sri Lanka's extensive network of tea plantations. We stopped into the historic Dambethenna Tea Factory which was purchased by Thomas Lipton in the late 1800's. He bought up a number of plantations in the central highlands after a coffee blight devastated the coffee plantations of the time, and converted them to growing tea. We toured the tea factory still in operation today using equipment that is over a hundred years old.

                Dambethenna Tea Factory and Plantation

The drive through the tea plantations continue through the British colonial hill town of Nuwara Eliya which many also use as a base to explore Hortons Plain. We did stop in at The Grand Hotel for lunch and a stroll through the town and market before heading on to Kandy, the cultural heart of Sri Lanka located in the center of the country.

Kandy is a picturesque town centered on a small lake where the big draw for tourists and Sri Lankans alike is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) which holds a tooth fragment of the Buddha. While you can't see the actual tooth, you can stand in line for a chance to see the small gold casket shaped stupa where it is held. If you follow the walkway that leads behind the tooth relic chamber, you'll reach a large hall with a series of depictions and explanations (in English) showing the lengthy history of the tooth relic as it passed through various Kings and holy men who hid and relocated the tooth a number of times across the centuries.

In July/August, the 10 day Festival of the Tooth is held. They used to parade the tooth relic through the town on an elephant, but had to replace the real tooth with a replica. If you miss the Festival, you can still see the stuffed remains of Raja, one of the more famous elephants who carried the tooth during the Festival for about 50 years.

               Kandy

                Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy

We took in the cultural dance at the Kandyan Art Association building along the lake next to the temple complex. The troupe puts on an entertaining, acrobatic performance, capping it off with fire breathing and fire walk towards the end.

                Cultural Dance at Kandyan Art Association

Just a little to the west of Kandy we visited the Pinnalanda Elephant Orphanage. The elephants here are primarily free roaming in a large zoo like enclosure, and appeared to be in good health. A few of the younger elephants were chained as a safety precaution. We did notice some smaller family run elephant riding outfits along the road to Pinnalanda. The ones we passed seemed to have very small enclosures for the elephants, and some were chained as well. Not ideal, and if you ride one of these elephants, just be aware that the owners often use negative reinforcement to train the elephants.

On the return to Kandy we also stopped in at the Royal Botanical Gardens. While the gardens are extensive, it was the flying foxes, or large fruit bat that really caught our attention. There were literally thousands of flying foxes passing over the park in the late afternoon.

                Pinnalanda Elephant Orphanage, Flying Foxes at the Royal Botanical Garden

There have to be hundreds of small temples and historical sights scattered around Sri Lanka. You'll never have a chance to see them all, but it can be fun to stop at a few relatively lesser known sites as you never know what you'll find. One of the more interesting ones we stumbled across just north of Kandy is the Aluviharaya Rock Cave Temple. Through twists and turns, you'll pass through narrow passageways and around large rocky outcroppings, and into narrow caves. While the Buddhist temples we visited were typically tranquil and peaceful, this temple had a different theme all together. It held many gruesome paintings of sinners being punished in hell. It was a bit much for us, although the large group of young innocent school children that passed through seemed relatively unphased.

                Aluviharaya Rock Cave Temple

Kandy is the southern most point of an area called the Cultural Triangle, which includes Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura as the other two anchors. This area contains Sri Lanka's remaining five UNESCO world heritage sites - Kandy, Dambulla Royal Cave Temple, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura.

As we headed north away from Kandy, our first stop was the Dambulla Royal Cave Temple. This ancient monastery dates back to the 2nd Century BC. It will take about 30 minutes to hike up the stairs leading to the entrance. You'll enter a large rock ledge that will take you to the cave temple. Just be aware that as with all Buddhist religious sites, you will need to remove your hat and shoes on entry. But you will be allowed to wear socks if you have any, an important consideration on the sun drenched rocks. So unless you want to join the other tourists on a dance across the rocky ledge, I'd highly advise bringing a pair of socks!

Either way, the walk (or dance) to the cave temple makes it worthwhile. The caves are adorned with colourful intricate religious paintings, some of which UNESCO staff could be seen repairing. You'll also find over 100 Buddha statues as well.

                Dambulla Royal Cave Temple

In our opinion, Sigiriya is not to be missed on a trip to Sri Lanka. This ancient rock fortress dates back to the 5th century, although there are differing opinions on the history of the site. A common belief is that King Kashyapa moved the capital here after murdering his father. He was the son of a lesser Queen, and was fearful that the rightful King and his half brother Moggallana would invade and take revenge. So he built his fortress on Sigiriya with its 200 meter high near vertical cliffs. Eventually his half brother did return and defeat him in battle, and the short lived capital was returned to Anuradhapura. Sigirya became a monastery for the next thousand years before being abandoned.

Keep in mind there is some climbing involved to get to the summit - about 1,200 stairs. Try to get an early start so you can hike in the shade while climbing up the steepest portion along the cliff face. You will enter through the western entrance through the water gardens, leading through the boulder gardens before reaching the cliff face. Part way up the cliff face you'll have a chance to view well preserved ancient frescoes followed by the Mirror Wall. The Mirror Wall is covered in highly polished white plaster and contains graffiti from bygone travelers, some over a thousand years old.

                Sigiriya showing entrance via Water Gardens and Rock Garden

A little more than half way up you'll reach the Lion's Paws Terrace named for the two gigantic Lion's Paws which is all that remains of a full sized Lion that guarded the final ascent to the summit. On the summit you'll see the remains of the Royal Palace, a larger water tank and incredible views in all directions.

                Final ascent through the Lions Paws to summit

                Sigiriya summit

There are plenty of places to stay near Sigiriya, but I would highly recommend staying at the Heritance Kandalama which is about a 20 minute drive away. This hotel is like no other we've stayed at in our years of travel. The hotel is seamlessly integrated with the local setting and natural environment.

On arriving, your first view is actually that of a giant green wall of vegetation encircling the hotel. Our driver Chanaka, who seemed to know everyone wherever we visited, introduced us to the manager on duty. Expecting the simplest room based on the rate we payed, we were pleasantly surprised to be led by the manager to a spacious suite overlooking the Kandalama Reservoir. Although he would not admit it, we are sure it was Chanaka's natural charms that got us the upgrade. Chanaka was also pleased as this was his favourite hotel to visit. In Sri Lanka, many hotels have a separate areas in or near the hotel for the drivers to stay, and he especially enjoyed the hiking he could do near the hotel.

We wandered along the entire length of the hotel checking out the views of the surrounding forest and mountains, with the Kandalama Reservoir below. Geoffrey Bawa, the well known architect who designed the hotel, had taken full advantage of the natural setting. I especially liked the entrance to the main lounge area via a tunnel that constantly had a cool breeze. Sections of the hotel's walkways wound around large boulders. And everywhere, including the rooftop dining area were surrounded by greenery and wildlife. One morning, I saw monkeys, a Hornbill and a Giant Squirrel outside our room window.

                Heritance Kandalama Hotel near Sigiriya

                Eternity Pool and view over Kandalama Reservoir

                Window wildlife at the Heritance Kandalama

On the entrance to the hotel, we saw a large concrete foot on the top of a rocky hill. Our driver claimed that Geoffrey Bawa was flying around in a helicopter seeking a spot to build the hotel, and when he came across the site at Kandalama he dropped his boot out of the helicopter to mark the spot. Great story, although on closer inspection the foot marks the spot of the Kandalama Millennium time capsule place there in the year 2000, to be opened in 2999.

                                                    Kandalama Millennium Time Capsule

On separate days we visited the nearby historic former capitals of Sri Lanka - Polonnawura and Anuradhapura. Polonnaruwa was the capital starting in about 10th century and the ruins here are younger and generally in better condition than the older capital of Anuradhapura.

We hired a guide and started at the archaeological museum in Polonnaruwa to get an overview of the history and site. The remains of the Royal Palace give hints of what must once have been a massive 7 floor building with 50 rooms. The Sacred Quadrangle nearby has a series of impressive ruins, including the Vatadage which once housed the Buddha's tooth relic.

                The Royal Palaca and King's Chamber at Polonnaruwa

                Polonnaruwa Vatadage

We happened upon the Gal Potha, a large stone slab with a former King's inscriptions. It is about 27' long by 5' wide - weighing 15 tons, and was carried about 100 kilometers to its current location 800 years ago. Good thing they had help from some elephants!

                The Gal Potha stone slab inscription and King Parakramabahu Statue

At Anuradhapura, we took a different approach and explored the ruins by bicycle as they tended to be a little more spread out. There are a number of large stuppas to visit, including the Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba containing relics and a sacred site for many Buddhists around the world.

                Stuppas in Anuradhapura

While Colombo typically doesn't get rave reviews from the Guidebooks, we found there was enough to keep our attention for a couple days. We stayed at the historic Galle Face Hotel which certainly made the time easier to pass. While it might be considered expensive by Sri Lankan standards, we thought it was a relative bargain compared to prices back home in Canada.

                The Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

Its a great place to spend  the evening watching the sun go down, and they even have a little flag lowering ceremony with a Sri Lankan bag piper in kilts - drawing inspiration from the hotel's English colonial past. There is an air of nostalgia as you wander through the Verandah and Travelers Bar that has hosted many famous people over the years - including a lot of writers - Mark Twain, Arthur C Clarke, George Bernard Shaw, DH Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling and Hemingway to name few. The hotel even has its own resident historian and museum.

                Sundown at the Galle Face over the Indian Ocean

There are a few sights in and around Colombo depending on your likes. We had the most fun wandering through the Pettah Market in central Colombo. Its a crazy hectic place catering to locals. The area is a few city blocks wide and is packed full of thousands of vendors, both along the street, and tucked in narrow passageways that lead through the surrounding buildings. Vendors were tucked into every conceivable corner of space, we even saw two industrious Sri Lankans running a cell phone repair shop underneath a narrow stairwell. Full of inexpensive goods - you know its probably too good a deal when the packaging reads "Apple Original Product". There is street food for the adventurous - although we passed when we saw workers delivering large blocks of ice to the food vendors for refrigeration.

                Pettah Market, Colombo

While in Colombo, its your chance to try McDonald's "Chicken Big Mac", and I must say it was delicious! We also had a chance to try the local Sri Lankan "hoppers" made out rice flour either shaped as a bowl, or in spaghetti like strands.

                                                    McDonald's Chicken Big Mac

One final thought - as you plan your trip we would suggest hiring a driver. Renting might be an option, although information on rental options seemed to be scarce... Driving can be a little hectic especially on the narrower two lane roads. Thankfully our driver was quite patient and didn't try to overtake vehicles around blind corners as we witnessed far too regularly. We found our driver through Tripadvisor, and can recommend Aerizo Tours - request Chanaka if available.

                Confused? Hire a driver!

Postscript:
It was just following our trip that the devastating Easter bombings rocked the country, and was a set back for the country still healing from its long civil war. This may cause concerns over safety, and may have you questioning whether to visit. I can only say that while traveling in Sri Lanka, we personally felt very safe, wandering on our own in cities and towns, and never feeling threatened in any way. No question, the Sri Lankan people are extremely friendly and hospitable. We hope you will consider visiting Sri Lanka. We met many locals who rely on the tourism industry, and it would be a shame for them the remain idle too long. 


Friday, 21 June 2013

Morocco

Morocco has long been high on our list of places to go. We even booked a flight there a few years ago which we had to cancel last minute due to work. So it was nice to finally make it here, and the wait was definitely worth it! 

So what can I say About Morocco? It's a little difficult to explain Morocco in some ways given the contrasting cultures and geography. True it physically resides in Africa, but Morocco is a unique place that to me seems to have more in common with the Middle East than Africa. A predominantly Muslim country, although more moderate and open to Western influences. It's coastline has abundant agriculture, but cross over the Atlas Mountains and you enter the barren Sahara dessert. 

The scenery and natural environment was amazing. We enjoyed crossing over the Atlas Mountains with stunning views of the valleys below and the snow capped peaks above. The rivers that flowed down the mountains cut through reddish rock to carve out deep canyons and other interesting rock formations. And a ribbon of greenery followed the rivers paths and nourished the small villages along the way. Eventually the rivers flowed out into the Sahara, along the way supporting ancient civilizations that flourished for centuries along the Draa Valley, with its many kasbahs. Walking through the large date palms that grew along the river valleys made us feel like we had gone back in time to biblical times. 


The Route

We landed at the international airport just outside of Casablanca and drove straight to Marrakech getting in quite late. Was exhausted but it worked out great because we slept well that night and when we woke up the following morning, were already adjusted to the time change from Canada. 

The route I'd planned out took us through some amazing variety, from the historic medina of Marrakech, over the high Atlas Mountains, past ancient kasbahs, into deep river canyons, out into the Sahara, through small date palm villages, to the package tourist town of Agadir, and to the old ocean-side walled city of Essaouira. 

Every day brought a new adventure. It was a fair bit of driving, a little more than we would have liked, but then again I can't see myself taking anything off the itinerary. And even the driving was always through scenic and varied terrain. So we can recommend the route, maybe just a few more days if you can afford the time. 



 
Day  1-3      Marrakech
Day  4         Ouarzazate
Day  5-6      Dades Valley near Tinghir
Day  7-8      Merzouga in the Sahara
Day  9         Zagora in the Draa Valley
Day  10       Agadir
Day  11-12  Essaouira
Day  13       Casablanca

The timing of the trip was December, the weather was fine - just a bit cold crossing over the Atlas Mountains, and also got chilly in the dessert in the evenings and night. 
 

Highlights

Pretty much everyone whose been to Morocco has visited Marrakech, and we were no exception. And for good reason, it is an amazing place, even if spots can be overly touristy. Amoung it's simplest pleasures is to wander through the medina and get hopelessly lost. So it's best to have plenty of time, and an exploring mindset. If you had a dozen people walk along the same path through the medina, they would each have a very different experience. There is so much clutter, people and distractions along the path to draw your attention, no matter what your interests are. 


      Street side stall, medina style
 

            
      Mederssa Ben Youssef 16th century school


      Courtyard in our riad


While we enjoyed Marrakech, I must admit that heading out over the Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara piqued my travelers spirits even more. The thought of following along ancient trade routes once used by the trading caravans made me wonder in awe how they managed to cross the high mountain passes, let alone the route through the barren Sahara. Like many of the old caravans, we stopped at Ait Benhaddou Ksar, a Unesco World Heritage site and old town perched on a hillside with many of the ancient original builindings still standing. 


      Ait Benhaddou Ksar, Uneso World Heritage Site


      The Atlas Mountains viewed from the inland Sahara side


Continuing into Ouarzazate for a night, we toured the Atlas film studio, Morocco's version of Hollywood, albeit a very small version! But we were surprised to learn how many scenes from famous movies were filmed here, including much of Lawrence of Arabia and parts of Patton - one of my favourites. We wandered through sets from the Gladiator, Kundun and Ben Hur amount others. Our young tour guide had studied film in Morocco, and seemed disappointed to be putting his knowledge to work taking tourists around the film sets. But I'm sure one day he will have a chance to help make the films of the future.


      Atlas Film Studio


Beyond Ouarzazate the road passed along the date palm growing areas with some of the best kasbahs in the country, and incredible views of the Atlas Montains. Eventually cutting back towards the mountains, we drove into Todra Gorge, a deep river valley cut through reddish-pinkish rocky terrain. 


      The Todra Gorge, may look familiar from automobile tv commercials






We stayed at the Chez Pierre overlooking the gorge, and can definitely recommend this inn. Run by two Moroccan brothers, one being an amazing cook, and the other taking us for a day long 4x4 excursion through some remote mountain territory. When he said we would meet "cave people" I thought he was either joking, or it would be some staged exhibition for tourists. But we really did meet a family of cave dwellers. It turns out there are still a fair number of nomadic Berber people who mostly tend goats high up in the Mountains in summer, and then drop down to the valleys in winter and literally live in caves that have been carved out over the centuries. They don't even necessarily stay in the same cave each year as it's first come first serve approach. Our Guide was a Berber whose grandfather still lived this way by choice. 


      A nomadic Berber, at home in his summer time "cave retreat"


The route then took us further into the Sahara and to the impressive sand dunes near Mergouza. This was about as far as the runoff from the Atlas Mountains could make it before simply disappearing and being absorbed beneath the Saharan dunes. We spent one night sleeping out among the dunes in a traditional Berber tent, with our guide cooking up a traditional Moroccan tangine that was truly tasty, especially given we were not expecting the best food at a tent site! 


      The dunes at Mergouza with runoff from the Atlas Mountains


Continuing on to the next stop Zagora, took us through some more amazing and remote dessert scenery. We stayed at the Sahara Sky hotel in the middle of the dessert. It was in a remote location away from any city lights, and they catered to hobby astronomists mostly from Europe. A couple of friendly Finnish amateur astronomers showed us some pretty cool stuff, and we managed to get a few photos of the moon and some distant galaxies the names of which escapes me.

      The Sahara Sky Hotel, intentionally located n the middle of nowhere!


      Galaxy somewhere in the universe, complements of the friendly Finnish
      amateur astronomers


The next day we left at 6am as it was the longest driving day of the trip, and I wanted to leave at least a few hours to explore the walled town of Taroudannt. And glad we did as we made it to Taroudant in great time and found a local guide who took us through the souks, along the historic ramparts and through the soothing gardens of the Palais Salam Hotel. Only wish we had a couple extra days to spend here. 

After the quick walking tour of Taroudannt, we were back in the car for a couple more hours until we reached Agadir, a coastal package tourist destination for Europeans seeking some warmth in the winter. While a pleasant enough place, it really didn't have the same Moroccan charm experienced elsewhere. So we were satisfied to take a walk along the beach and next day headed off early for Essauoira. 


      Walled seaside town of Essaouira



      Goats climbing an Argan tree near Essaouira


If I was forced to pick one and only one place to come back to in Morocco, I think it would have to be Essaouira. An old walled city and Unesco world heritage site, Essauoira is a seaside fishing town with its own little medina. A more laid back place, the souks had all the variety of Marrakech but more concentrated, and easier to navigate. The vendors were not aggressive, and life seemed to go on here at a relaxing pace. The one exception might be the row of about a dozen fresh seafood stands that lined the entrance to the port. In a friendly spirit they competed aggressively for every tourist that walked by. And eventually just about everyone would stop in for a fresh cooked seafood dish - how could you resist...


      A varied and colorful menu! 


Our accomodation was a little riad in the medina, Riad Chbanate, run by a young Frenchman who was a carpenter at heart. He had taken a fallen down decrepid shell of a building and created an incredible four storey riad with an interior courtyard. Each room was uniquely designed. His work is so good that other expats in the town had hired him to construct their riads. 


      Riad Chbanate 


Essauoira is a lively place even in the evening. Even with a fair number of tourists wandering about, the town still felt authentically Moroccan. 


      Main walkway throug Essauoira medina


It's always difficult to leave at the end of a trip, but what better way than to watch the sun going down over the Atlantic from the ramparts of Essauoira...


      Sunset from Essauoira


We were able to stop over in Paris for three days on the way back to Canada. It was my first time there and the city does live up to its reputation. But three days was just a teaser of a trip and we will have to make it back one day. Our travel blog on Paris will have to wait until then as we can't possibly do justice to describing Paris on just a three day stay. 



A Few Poetic Portraits

Inspired by the great Brazilian poet Raimundo Gadelha.



      A grand entrance impresses all, except those that peer down from on high



      The complex patterns date back to simpler times, a perplexed face yearns
      to understand 





      Clothed in tradition, hidden by inhibition, treading lightly into a world unknown



      Two best friends, a trusting dog, what surprises await us this carefree day


      When stresses grow, I seek my solice, alongside a silent pool in a sea of green


      Nature is patient, abiding the time, but when will the balance that permeates all 
      come tumbling down?



      A gnarled tree in a bed of stone, the simplicity is truly astonishing