But I really get inordinately excited when we ride by others on Big Bikes that are obviously on an extended journey like us. It’s especially exciting when we actually get to stop our motorbikes, meet and talk!
Meeting other riders while having coffee in a gas station in Argentina
I might have mentioned it before, but Big Bikers usually acknowledge each other on the road. With a nod, a wave or a thumbs up, we show our respect and communicate that even though we’ve never met we are “brothers” on the road.
Sometimes our paths take us along the same stretch of road for a while. And when this happens, further along the road (perhaps after riding “together” for 15mins or so) we usually find a way to stop and have a little chat.
This has happened to us a few times and it’s been one of the highlights of our journey.
Crazy Gas Station 2 hour Convo with Leco Bezzi and Friend from Brazil
To be honest riding around Argentina was sometimes boring. It’s a huge country with looooooong straight roads with nothing on either side except fields of hundreds of cows or the desert.
Crazy Brazilians Dudes traveling the Pan Americana on ONE motorbike!
So it was quite fun to meet Leco and guy friend (so sorry, I forgot your name) who were 2-up on an 800cc BMW. Seeing 2 guys on a small-ish motorbike without any riding or winter gear in the middle of Patagonia was fascinating.
We talked for about 2 hours in the gas station where we saw each other.
They explained that their trip was very spontaneous and that they only had 6 months to travel through both South and Central America. This was also why they had no proper gear. No motorbike boots. No winter clothes etc.
They kept warm by wearing their rain suits and insulating it with pieces of cardboard.
We wouldn’t recommend their method but they seemed quite happy and were eager to share with us what they learned on the road.
They were literally zooming through, traveling 500-600km per day so that they could visit all the places they wanted to visit in such a short amount of time.
We kept in touch and last we heard they had crossed back into South America (shipping their motorbike on a fishing boat across the Darien Gap) en-route back home.
On earlier trips they rode through North America and Africa so we’ll definitely ask them for tips when we get to those places.
Meeting Modesto and Ale from Quito, Ecuador
First time meeting Mo and Ale in Rio Tranquilo, Chile
After crossing the border from Argentina to Chile we ended up in a little town called Rio Tranquilo.
It was cold and rainy but we were excited to be on the Chilean side of Patagonia.
To our surprise, when riding around looking for groceries in this tiny town, we saw a bike almost identical to ours parked by a restaurant.
This was exciting, our BMW GSA1200 Triple Black 2017 model is somewhat a rarity here. And we really wanted to meet whoever was riding the “twin” to our bike.
It might seem frivolous to those who don’t travel on Big Bikes but meeting someone riding a Bike Bike is fun, but meeting folks who ride almost the exact same bike as you is doubly so.
There is so much to talk about! Learning about how folks pack their gear on their bike or how they maneuver the non-paved roads, where they are from, how long they are traveling for etc.
We wandered around the front of that restaurant for a while, hoping to meet them, but we started feeling a bit “stalkish” so we rode off and decided to finish our grocery run.
Later on, we went back into town to look into doing the Marble Cave Tour and guess who we bumped into? Our twin bike and the couple the that was riding it!
It’s always thrilling to meet other couples 2-up on a motorbike. We feel like long lost friends almost immediately!
We chatted about everything and anything in a bit of frantic way as we had no idea how long the other couple had to stop and talk.
We learned from them that going further down south into Patagonia, during that time, was not so convenient when on a motorbike because it was really getting too cold and rainy. Being cold while riding on a motorbike is one thing but being COLD AND WET is miserable.
So we took their advice and headed north instead of continuing down south. And I believe we haven’t regretted that decision.
We had to wait almost a week until the weather was good enough for the glacier hike so this confirmed our decision to go north instead of trying to reach Ushuaia which is the final stop for most travelers traveling the Pan Americana.
The best part about meeting Modesto & Ale is that we managed to stay in touch and when we reached Quito, Ecuador (several months later) they invited us to stay in their beautiful home.
Spending a week with them, as part of their family, was truly memorable.
HU meeting with loads of other wonderful riders in Ecuador 2018
We got to attend the Horizon’s Unlimited meeting with them, Stefan and Modesto had fun fixing and adding new gadgets onto our motorbike and we even hosted a dinner party together where I got to practice my slightly-rusty cooking skills (I made Pad Thai and Chicken Adobo as we couldn’t decide if we wanted Thai or Filipino cuisine) …and Ale made Stefan’s favorite Blueberry Cheesecake which was absolutely delicious!
Mo and Ale, if you are reading this, THANK YOU again from the bottom of our hearts for everything!
Riding with Juan and Carlos to Medellin, Colombia
Riding behind Juan and Carlos 🙂
Riding in Colombia is CRAZY! But what makes matters worse is that there are hundreds of motorbikes weaving in and out of the traffic.
I think besides Thailand, Colombia has the most motorbikes/scooters on any given road.
What makes Colombia extra crazy is the fact that they have only 1 two-way road connecting the big cities of Cali to Medellin and most of it is getting repaired or under construction.
This meant that traveling the mere 430+ km from Cali to Medellin would take around 8-9 hours and we had to complete it in ONE DAY due to our container appointment in Cartagena.
We were dodging incoming trucks, potholes, other motorbikes and getting stopped for 15-20mins at a time due to road repairs. At one point we had to stop at a roadblock for about an hour due to an accident.
We were despairing that we would ever make it to Medellin but then we saw these 2 other bikes weaving in and out and we thought why don’t we stick with them!
This is how we met Juan and Carlos and riding with them absolutely cheered us up.
We thought we’re pretty daring riders, due to our experience with Bangkok traffic. But Juan and Carlos were a step above. They weaved in and out, overtook everyone and almost everything, and probably helped us cut about an hour off the torturous ride.
We did have a pit stop on the side of the road due to Carlos needing his motorbike chain fixed, but between all 3 motorbikes, we had the tools to get everything fixed up enough to make it to the city.
Stefan lending a helping hand 😀
And when we found a place to stop for lunch, Juan invited us to stay overnight at his farm right outside Medellin.
Lunch with Juan and Carlos
That was a treat. No need to look for a place to stay. No worries about secure parking etc. He even gave us his room and electric blankets to use as it was cold up in the hills.
Thanks Juan for being our Guardian Angel that day!
Yup, I admit to having a pretty severe case of writer’s block. And definitely not due to a lack of amazing things and awesome experiences to write about…
Maybe it’s because our internet connection has been awful…
Maybe it’s been because my laptop was hi-jacked by Stefan due to his Mac crashing on him…
Maybe because…well honestly, I could come up with a million of excuses and no-one but me is interested in hearing them…
Or maybe I’ve just been plain lazy…
Oh well, enough introspection… I’m just happy I have now found some writer’s juice…
So yes, without further ado, I’m ready to share what’s been happening with us for the last little while…
Bare with me, it’s been 3 months so I might take a while to refresh my memory ?
My last real post was about our “Cash Crisis in Argentina” so I’ll pick up from there.
After enjoying city life in Buenos Aires, we headed north, towards the famous Iguazu waterfalls.
Tango in the streets of Buenos Aires during Carnival season
Colorful street art gives Buenos Aires extra character (this piece of street art features oil paint, bits of cardboard and plastic bottle caps)
At the Illustrious La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aries
Sadly, it was a very wet and rainy day, so our video footage and pictures were less than optimal, but the sight of the massive Iguazu waterfalls did not disappoint.
We even saw our first “wild” crocodile! The other crocs we had seen were either at the zoo or at the infamous Thai crocodile farms.
I know it isn’t the biggest croc around, but it was special because he/she was our first “wild sighting” ?
We also saw our first over-friendly coati. They act a bit like the monkeys in Koh Samed, Thailand. They have no fear of humans and will do their best to steal your food!
Another first wild sighting for us. The coati!
Sadly we didn’t get to experience a wild sighting of a puma…but there was the hope!
No pumas to be found 🙁
The Iguazu waterfalls create a natural border between Argentina and Brazil so it didn’t take us long to decide to hop across and enter Brazil. After chilly Buenos Aires and rainy Iguazu, we wanted some sun and beach time, and Brazil was looking like the place to be.
Not the best picture, but these are the Fabulous Iguazu Falls
This is how we found ourselves “Illegally” entering Brazil.
We had no intention to do any wrong, and we tried our best to legally cross the border, but we found ourselves at a loss when we got into Brazil.
This is how it went…
The border crossing between Argentina and Brasil near the Iguazu area is in a tiny little village called Porto Soberbo. After getting stamped out at the little Argentine Immigration office you travel about 3-5mins down the road to a little boat powered ferry to cross the Iguazu river.
Getting stamped out of Argentina went without a hitch. We tried to get our temporary motorbike import paper canceled (like they told us we needed to do every time we crossed a border) but no one seemed interested to help us with this.
This should have been Red Flag #1…
But since everything was going quickly and smoothly we went with the flow.
We arrived at the little ferry, rode our bike on, chatted in embarrassing Spanish and lots of sign language with the locals crossing and in 10-15mins we were across the river and in Brazil. There were no other foreigners were on the ferry, only Brazilians, and Argentinians…
This should have been Red Flag #2…
We again traveled down a small road for about 5mins and stopped when we saw what we thought was the Brazilian immigration desk. It looked like a road toll booth, but no other building in the area had any government or immigration signs so we figured this was it.
There was a guy sitting at a computer in the little booth and we stopped by his window and showed our passports. He waved us through.
Hmmm, perhaps this isn’t the immigration booth? We asked the locals around and they pointed right back at the booth we had just visited.
We were very confused. We were in Brazil and we knew we had technically crossed the border, but no one was interested in getting our passports, stamping us in, checking if we needed visas etc.
Back to the “toll looking” immigration booth we went. This time, I got off the motorbike and I pushed our passports and our papers through the window to make the guy look at them.
I mimed stamping my passport, I tried to converse with him about what papers were needed for the motorbike and nada. He refused to do anything.
It was obvious we were foreigners. It was obvious that our motorbike was a foreign vehicle but nope, he didn’t care. He just gathered our passports and stack of papers and pushed them back at me and waved me away…AGAIN.
I had absolutely no idea what to do next. I jumped back on the bike and we thought perhaps there was another “more official” immigration desk down the road. We rode around town again, asked the locals again about where to get passports stamped, got referred back to the same place…
We had enough, we felt like we were going around in circles. We were hot, hungry and tired and we were already stamped out of Argentina so we decided to go forward.
We had inadvertently entered Brazil illegally :/
We later learned that the border we crossed was mainly a border for locals (Brazilians and Argentinians) crossing back and forth. The few tourists that do cross that border just cross for a day or two to see the “Brazilian” side of the Iguazu waterfalls. So while the Argentine side has an official immigration office, the Brazilian side does not.
This is why the guy at the Brazil checkpoint (I really shouldn’t call it an immigration desk) refused to look at or stamp our passports.
Fortunately, both of us have visa-free entry into Brazil so no “real” immigration law was broken. But it was a certainly disconcerting experience.
We stayed about 3 weeks in Brazil and got as far as Florianopolis when we decided not to go any further as we had no idea how crossing back into Argentina through another border would work with no stamps and no motorbike papers etc.
We retraced our steps and found ourselves crossing the same border again. This time the Brazilian checkpoint logged us out of Brazil on their computer. I have no idea how their system works as we were never logged in when we originally entered Brazil, but they didn’t seem to think there was a problem. Again, they gave us no exit stamp, they just handed us back our passports after logging in our info.
We crossed with the ferry and it was at the Argentine immigration desk that we found ourselves questioned. They saw their own exit stamp but could NOT see where we had been for the last 3 weeks. Of course, it was easy to figure that we had been in Brazil as that tiny border was specifically for crossing into Brazil, but it was a bit of a dilemma for them.
They did admit that it happened before and that we probably shouldn’t have crossed this border if we wanted to stay in Brazil for more than a few days, but there was no big consequence.
They eventually stamped us back into Argentina, explained that this border had no official Brazilian immigration (why let us cross in the first place???) and gave us a bit of grief that our temporary import paper for our motorbike was not canceled. We tried to explain that we tried but couldn’t find where to do it the last time we exited Argentina. Fortunately, one of the immigration guys took pity on us and decided to help the confused foreigners out.
He went with Stefan to get our original temporary import paper canceled and helped get a new one sorted out.
We are very happy for Happy Ending to this story…
But the lesson to be learned from our experience is DON’T CROSS INTO BRAZIL FROM PORTO SOBERBO!!!
We were lucky and very grateful not to have had any serious problems. Apparently, the worse case scenario would have been having our motorbike confiscated in Brazil due to not have the proper temporary import papers.
We definitely pushed our luck by staying in Brazil for 3 weeks without any legal status. In hindsight, we probably should have crossed back into Argentina the following day and found another proper border to cross into Brazil.
But this is what makes overland travel exciting. We never know what is going to happen next! ?
Our short foray into Brazil went smoothly after our questionable border crossing.
Our first stop was to wild camp near Lagoa da Fortaleza, a sweet water lagoon right next to the coast. These are the GPS coordinates of where we set up camp https://goo.gl/maps/8D4biadxvzL2. You can search IOverlander for reviews about the spot. We thought it was cozy and pretty safe, but during the weekends some motocross/ATVs do drive around the nearby sand dunes to party and have a good time. Their music can get pretty loud, but during the week the spot is pretty quiet and secluded.
The blue flag is where we camped. We found a spot a little bit away from the lake surrounded by pines.
Our Wild Camp in between the Pine Trees
Brazilians are so friendly… ?
Folks would go out of their way to talk to us and even though we spoke pretty much no Portuguese, we would have full on conversations using Google Translate. TIP: make sure you download Spanish/Portuguese so you can use it while offline!
Here is a list of the places we stayed at and some of the amazing activities we did.
Florianopolis ⇒ we stayed in this beautiful coastal town for almost 2 weeks. We stayed at Camping Rio Vermelho most of the time. Check out our video to see the beautiful campsite and their almost private beach.
Things to do in Florianopolis:
Take the Trilha Barra Galheta hike up to the mirante (viewpoint) and then enjoy a few hours of sunbathing at an unofficial nude beach called Praia da Galheta
Go fishing and try to learn the local style of fishing with many hooks (up to 3-5 hooks) staggered on one line. Each of the hooks is loaded with some squid or octopus. We only ever got one fish at a time, but the locals would sometimes pull out 4-5 in one shot. It was quite amazing to see them flinging their fishing line in and 2-3 minutes later see them pulling it out with numerous fish hanging from their string of hooks. Needless to say, we a bit green with jealousy that they could fish so easily, but we were happy we got 3 fish within an hour, which was enough for our dinner!
Go surfing or body surfing
Walk around and enjoy the live music played on the beach
Sample the delicious seafood available
Colorful Florianopolis, Brazil
Torres ⇒ Another coastal town with amazing beaches and unique landscape.
We stayed at Camping Das Furnas, a small campsite right beside the beach and near several restaurants and small shops. Check out our video below to see more details about the campsite.
Things to do in Torres:
Take a hike along the cliffs and enjoy the views
Have a wine and cheese picnic on the cliffs and enjoy the magnificent sunsets
Enjoy a private sunbathing spot on one of the warm black rocks
Serra Do Rio ⇒ A “Must-Ride Road” for motorbikers! A fun and challenging road with many switch-backs, sharp curves, blind turns and narrow passes. Be prepared to squeeze in-between trucks and the cliff face. It can also get very foggy, so ride this road with caution and extra bright fog lights.
Serra Do Rio drone view
Enjoying the company of other motorbikers at the Serra do Rio viewpoint
It’s always great to meet other bikers!
We stayed at a unique “indoor campsite” called Camping Ronda. We chose to stay inside one of their rooms as it’s hard to set up our style of tent on the cement floor. Watch our video to have a closer look.
Riding out of Camping Ronda
Things to do at Serra do Rio:
Enjoy the twisting and challenging road
Take close up pictures of friendly coatis
Sip on a hot coffee at the viewpoint
Visit Ronda Canyon
Cute and over-friendly coati at Serra do Rio viewpoint
Gramado ⇒ A clean and orderly little town up in the mountains. After the Portuguese founded the town there came a large influx of German and Italian immigrants so the houses and town layout will remind you of a ski village in Europe, albeit minus the snow ?
We stayed at Caso do Juliano, a cozy and private 2 bedroom cottage with our own grass lawn. We felt completely at home, watch our video below to see why…
What to do in Gramado:
Enjoy the cool weather
Go window shopping at the many boutique stores
Have a taste of high-quality Brazilian chocolate
Visit Lago Negro and marvel at the trees imported from the Black Forest in Germany
Lago Negro Plague proudly stating how it’s trees are imported from the Black Forest in Germany
Let’s backtrack a bit and step by step I hope to fill you in and (update this lazy blog) about what’s been happening with us for the last month since we started our “Americas Adventure”…
Step 1: Landed in Buenos Aires, Argentina (7 Feb 2018) and checked into a cute and comfortable apartment in the city center. We stayed there till the bike arrived from London.
We scheduled our bike to be flown into Buenos Aires a bit later than us, to minimize any possible airport storage fees. We also wanted to make sure it avoided arriving during the weekend or Carnaval holiday which of course would have equaled extra storage fees.
Step 2: Cash Crisis!! We did a bit of research about whether to withdraw cash at the ATM in Buenos Aires or to bring a bunch of Euros/Dollars with us. We read that Cash is King in most of South America, and specifically Argentina, so we intended to bring a stash of Euros with us.
But due to me being quite ill and our excitement about finally starting our “Americas Adventure” we ended up checking into our flight and walking past all the ATMs in Schiphol airport. By the time we remembered ‘Oh yes, we need to get our hands on some Euros’ the only ATMs available were charging some ridiculous ATM fees.
We decided to ignore the advice we read about bringing a good amount of cash, and learned the hard way that Argentina has EVEN MORE ridiculous ATM withdrawal fees/withdrawal limits—much MUCH worse that in the “Checked in” area of Schiphol airport…
Argentine ATM fee (for foreign accounts) is a flat 200 ARS (8 euros) no matter how little you withdraw….
Argentine Withdrawal Limit (depending on your bank) is 3,000 ARS which amounts to a meager 120 euros. Obviously, this would last 2 people only a couple of days…and if you are staying in Argentina for any amount of time this will get frustrating.
We had some pretty hefty fees to pay to get our motorbike out of customs, to get our motorbike import papers, to pay our customs agents and of course the airport fees. There was no way we were going to spend hundreds of euros just on withdrawal fees.
A couple of the fees we managed to arrange to pay by card, but the rest needed CASH! US of A Dollars preferred!
If we had brought Euros with us we would not have had any problems because we could have easily exchanged our Euros to Dollars or just paid with Euros. But because we were naive and didn’t believe that in this day and age it would be a problem, we were really stumped about how to get a hold of enough cash in time to get our motorbike on the day it arrived (yes, we didn’t want to leave it in the airport any later than necessary)
And oh, did we mention they have a daily withdrawal limit? Even if we used both our cards and withdrew from different ATMs–the maximum amount allowed–we would have had to visit the ATM a minimum of 10 TIMES, over the span of a week, to get approximately 1000 euros out of our accounts and of course spend a minimum of 8o euros in the process….
Add on our apartment, food and transport fees and of course we needed more than 1000 euros so our dilemma was QUITE ridiculous!
Perhaps for some, 8 euros per withdrawal isn’t dramatic, but we were used to ZERO withdrawal fees and very high withdrawal limits so this came as a shock!
After a day of stress and frantic Googling we decided to give Azimo a try. This was a bit of a risk for us as we never even heard of Azimo before. But we read favorable reviews, they have a 100% money back guarantee, and they had an easy connection with our Dutch ING bank.
Money Gram and Western Union was out of the question as they have pretty high transfer fees, and they would not have been able to get the cash to us in time.
We had only 1 day (due to the Carnaval holidays) to send our money from our Dutch account to Azimo, to be transferred to Argentina, and then be picked up by ourselves (with our passport and some other special questions to verify ID) at an Argentine bank which served as the Azimo representative.
To make a long story short. We downloaded the Azimo app. Made our Azimo profile. Connected it with our bank. Sent our money to ourselves. Waited a couple of hours for the transaction to go through (they do warn you that it might take 1-2 working days, depending on your bank) and fortunately our transaction only took a couple of hours…and wallah, we got the notification that our money was ready to pick up at any of their local bank representatives.
The notification email reminded us to bring the correct pre-arranged ID and gave us a list of banks we could pick it up from.
We chose the one that was in walking distance. There was que of a about 15-20 people also using Azimo services and with a bit of mumble-fumble, showing the correct ID and awkward sign language (the guy behind the heavily barred counter didn’t speak a word of English) we walked out with our bundle of much needed cash!
We say BUNDLE, because while they DO have 500 peso bills…they don’t seem to use them much, so we got stacks of 100s, 50s and 20s.
There was no way we were going to count our crazy amount of cash in front of all the people in the que (it was a bank, but it looked like more like a black market currency exchange) and we were so happy that so far, our risk taking was paying off, we decided to cut our loses and make a beeline to our apartment with our bulging bag of cash.
When we got to our apartment, we were pleasantly surprised that the amount we received was correct to the Peso.
A picture with a fraction of our Azimo transferred cash…
While the whole pick up the cash experience was a bit disconcerting, the actual process of using Azimo was rather smooth and we saved a lot of time potentially stalking numerous ATMs (they regularly run out of cash, so you have to visit a few ATMs to get the maximum withdrawal) and miserable ATM fees.
So please learn from our lesson. Bring Euros or Dollars with you when visiting South America–specifically Argentina!
Traveling around the world with a Philippine Passport is a Challenge!
For those that know us, you are aware that we are a Dutch/Filipino couple aka “Hollapinos” 😀
And while that nickname is cute and funny (thanks Russell Peters) our legal hurdles (particularity mine) are not so funny.
This series of blog posts will be about how I got and applied for my Schengen, US, Argentine & Chilean Visas all while my 5 year Filipino passport is aging closer and closer to it’s expiry date.
I hope the “process” I’m going to share will be a help to some of you. And if it’s not applicable to your situation, I hope it’s an entertaining/informative read.
My Schengen Visa:
Actually this was the easiest visa to apply for. I had gotten 2 Schengen visas for previous visits to Europe.
The first Schengen visa was valid for a single entry of 30 days. The second one was a multiple entry visa valid for 1 year with 90 days stay duration within a 6 month (180 days) period.
The third, and my current visa, is valid for 4 years with the same restrictions–90 days stay in the Schengen zone within a 6 month (180 days) period.
All my Schengen visas were applied for and received while we were living in Thailand.
Please note that I didn’t pay more, or apply for, the different lengths of validity of my Schengen visas. They just seemed to give me longer validity each time I applied.
I got my first Schengen visa when we were still dating and not legally married if that’s a comfort for unmarried couples. I did apply in the family and friends category, if you aren’t visiting family or friends then you can apply for a regular tourist visa.
The second Schengen visa I got was when we were already married but I had not changed my surname. I again applied in the family and friends category.
When I applied for my last one they barely looked at my papers, and when they noticed I visited Europe pretty much every year, the visa officer asked if I’d like a longer validity for my visa. I said “Sure, the longer the better, as that would save me the trouble of applying every year or so.” She then decided to give me a Schengen visa valid till my current passport expired.
Needless to say that was a pleasant surprise, and this has definitely been a help during the European leg of our Ride around the World.
But having a Schengen visa does have it’s limitations. We intended to travel through Europe over the span of 6 months. We had thought there was some way to “extend” my 90 days allowance in the Schengen zone, but we discovered this was not possible.
Because we had less than 90 days (we stayed a couple of weeks with Stefan’s family before we left) our journey through the Schengen countries was rather rushed and I had to quickly exit out of the Schengen area into Croatia a couple of days before my 90 days allowance were finished to make absolutely sure I didn’t overstay.
Fortunately, I had a multiple entry Schengen visa. And IF you don’t overstay your Schengen visa you automatically get visa free entrance into Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina.
The main difference was that there were border checks (some were a bit stressful and confusing with little bribes here and there) and I had to make sure I got stamped in and out of each country.
Having to be out of the Schengen zone wasn’t a total loss, I did miss out on visiting Greece, the UK and Ireland, but I got to hang around the cheap Balkan states for 90 days and when I could enter the Schengen zone again, we completed the other Schengen countries we weren’t able to ride through on our first round.
So that’s the long and short of how I was able to tour Europe for over 6 months on a multiple entry Schengen visa. In hindsight, we probably should have found a way to apply for my Dutch residency, being that I am married to a Dutchman, and perhaps our Europe trip would have been that much less rushed and stressful. But because we were eager to start our journey, we skipped that step, and I suppose we are living and learning from that decision.
FYI: Being a Philippine passport holder means I need a visa for pretty much every other country outside of the SEA. And if I hadn’t had a multiple entry Schengen visa I would have also had to apply for visas for each of the Balkan states which would have meant a lot of wasted time and extra visa fees. Thankfully I did have a multiple entry Schengen visa which was valid for several years so I didn’t need to apply for individual visas in the Balkan area.
Here are the links to the visa application process in Thailand and the required documents.
The first was Pancharevo just outside of the capital city, Sofia.
Pancharevo is famous for its beautiful artifical lake and mineral water hot springs. But because it was cold, and we already planned to have a spa day in the next town, we decided to get some city time in Sofia. We even went Salsa dancing one evening 😉
The next stop was Sapareva Banya town to explore the Seven Rila Lakes. When we drove into the town the weather got noticeably colder. It was 5 degrees when we checked into our room and at night it drop below 0 degrees so we shouldn’t have been surprised that there was snow when we rode up the mountain to check out the Seven Rila Lakes.
There was ice and snow on the road leading to the lift. This was our very first “true winter” riding experience. Our Michelin Anakee III tire seemed to do ok, but we were very careful and Stefan made sure to use the brakes as little as possible.
When we got to the lifts, we were told they weren’t in service yet (ski season hadn’t officially started) but it would take around 3-4 hours to hike up to the first lake! We weren’t sure what we were going to do but an enterprising 4 wheel truck driver offered to take us up to the cabin for the same price as the lift–about 5 euros per person 1 way.
We had no idea what we were getting into! It the most scary, yet exciting ride of my life! I was hanging on for dear life and getting thrown off my seat into the truck ceiling every time the truck maneuvered over massive rocks or blocks of ice and snow. I really had no idea those heavy duty 4-wheel jeeps could even drive through that sort of terrain!!
Here a couple of videos to get an idea how it was. And what was even more crazy… there was a couple who brought their 2 year old and their 5 year old kids with them. There were no seat belts, child seat or anything they were just clinging on to them and trying to make sure their heads weren’t smashed on the windows or jeep ceiling. I still don’t know how they manged to keep their seats and keep their children from being injured…
***You can’t see the extreme condition of the road in our video, but believe me there were large rocks, cliffs, ice and massive ditches!!
So happy to have survived the extreme 4-wheel jeep ride!!
I decided to stay in the rest cabin as my feet were already too cold after only 20mins of hiking through the snow. Stefan pushed on and took a 4 hour hike to see some of the Rila lakes. Watch our video at the bottom of this post to see the Seven Rila Lakes during the winter!
Nesebar is a must-visit-destination if you are in Bulgaria. It’s an old town built on a peninsula and it has such an amazing ambiance. It feels like a coastal fishing village and an alpine village all at the same time.
“Caught in a fishing net” @Nessebar, Bulgaria
There was no snow (but it does get cold, it was around 10 degrees during the day and 2-4 degrees during the night) but what gave it an alpine feeling to me, was that the old town is built on rocky hills… so the narrow, winding cobbled roads with wooden houses, wood piles, chimneys and ancient churches made it “feel different” than most coastal towns I’ve visited. I really can’t explain it, so you’d have to visit the place to see for yourself.
How many ancient arches can you see? @Nessebar, Bulgaria
One of the many old medieval churches in Nessebar Old Town
Nessebar fortress wall ruinsIt’s also a World Heritage Site so you’ll get to see some exceptionally well preserved ancient and medieval ruins.
I can’t seem to catch up… so I’m just going to make a quick post about the latest country we passed through and then backtrack from there…
We are currently in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, but a couple of days ago we were chilling in Beautiful & Magnificent Budapest, Hungry.
This beautiful capital city of Hungry totally blew our minds and exceeded our expectations.
Perhaps near Christmas is the perfect time to visit Budapest as the whole city seems lit up by the most beautiful Christmas lights and decorations. If so, we count ourselves lucky.
The beginning of winter also seems to be the perfect time to visit the iconic spas, such as the Szechenyi Thermal Spa and walk around the many Christmas markets.
Fortunately winter seems to be moderate in Budapest hovering around 5 centigrade and -9 centigrade at it’s coldest.
This will be a quick overview of what we did in Budapest and then later (with another post) I will try to fill in the details. I am just so tired of being so behind with my blogs about the places we visited and traveled through that I’m going to just go ahead and post something and then revisit each city/country later.
I don’t think I am a fabulous writer, but I find that writing does help me relive each experience in a new way. I suppose this might be why “blogging” is so popular. It adds a new dimension to travel and they way we “experience” our lives…
So back to Budapest…
One important place to start is to find the perfect accommodation for your style of travel and/or holiday to each and every city/locale you are planning to visit.
The second is to plan your trip so that you can visit/experience the top 3-5 things you want to do while you are there. If you are going to at a place longer than 3-4 days then of course you can make a longer list.
Stefan & I have made travel our NEW way of life, so our requirements might be a bit different from others, but we’ll share with you our requirements for when/where. And yes, WHEN and WHERE are major factors.
Another major factor is BUDGET…
But for us budget is flexible. Because when we feel we are getting a good value (more perks/facilities) we are more than happy to up our budget…does that make sense?
When we first started our trip in summer of this year (June 2017) we wanted to camp as much as possible for two main reasons.
We wanted to experience “nature” as much as possible.
We thought it would be the cheaper option.
Our first reasoning was valid…but found out to our surprise…that camping during the peak of summer doesn’t mean cheaper.
We found out that a basic BnB was actually cheaper than staying at some of the popular and perfectly located campsites.
Yes, pitching our tent, blowing up our air mattresses, unfolding our chairs, unpacking our sleeping bags and cooking on our cute portable BBQ in a popular campsite (with good facilities) was MORE expensive than a basic Bed and Breakfast or an average 2-3 star hotel room.
So when the summer turned to autumn, and then winter, we were ready to stay indoors.
[Note: When?– Winter Season | Where?– Bustling Capital City of Budapest, Hungry]
This is our “City Wishlist” for a perfect location in a major city.
Within 10-15km drive of the sights we are hoping to see.
Kitchen (we are personal fitness trainers so we try to eat/cook healthy as much as much as possible)
Washing machine (traveling on a motorbike and being fairly active means we need to wash our clothes often and making a trip to a laundromat is something we want to avoid as much as possible)
Near a grocery store/mall
Clean facilities (bedding, bathroom etc)
Fraser Residence Budapest ticked off everything on our list. We’ve stayed at much simpler places before, but when staying 3-4 days in a metropolitan city just “a good view” doesn’t cut it.
What are your “must haves” when booking a hotel or a place to stay?
Please remember that we aren’t “on vacation” and that some of our requirements might not be necessary for you as you might NOT want to cook for yourself or take care of laundry.
But if our “City Location Wishlist” seems similar to yours, check out the video we made and you can see for yourself if Fraser Residence in Budapest is what you are looking for.
Our Review for Stay in Fraser Residence, Budapest:
Comfortable and Warm Fully Serviced (24/7) Apartment in downtown Budapest
Our 1 bedroom apartment had:
Fully equipped kitchen & dining utensils
Spacious living room
Ample cupboard and drawer space
Separate bathtub and shower area
High quality toiletries (L’Occcitane) and the list could go on…
The staff and management are very helpful and attentive and we were welcomed with a delicious fruit platter and cold drinks in the fridge. Small extras like these made our stay memorable.
The top 2 things we wanted to see/do in Budapest was visit their world famous Thermal Spas and have a Beer Spa.
Which empire/country do you think of when someone mentions Alexander the Great?
Ok, actually both are correct as Alexander the Great became king of the Grecian empire. But, he was actually born in the country we know as Macedonia today.
Statue of King Phillip II of Macedon the father of Alexander The Great
And Macedonians are Macedonians…not Greeks…though their history seems rather entangled in most of our minds.
Check out our video below to get a quick overview of our journey into Macedonia…
Crossing the border from Albania into Macedonia was interesting because we ended up staying at a campsite owned by a proud ethnic Albanian family. Yes, we were in Macedonia, and their nationality was technically Macedonian, but they still referred to themselves as Albanians. And immigrating was not the case here…they actually believed that Macedonia should be part of Greater Albania..which at one time or another…it was…and I guess that’s how they ended up where they were.
But Macedonia was also part of Greater Greece..so this gets rather confusing…
But it really doesn’t matter, whether they considered themselves Greek, Albanian, Slavic, Croat or whatever… they were all wonderful folks EXCEPT WHEN WE MET ON THE ROAD…
This was another story all together! Driving in “the Balkans” is EXCITING…
And definitely dangerous in the sense that it’s nigh impossible to predict what they are going to do as they don’t use their signal lights and reversing on a main road to “catch” their missed turn is perfectly acceptable.
They are also usually driving one handed as they are almost always on the phone. Holding a phone while driving is illegal in most of Europe so it was rather fascinating and a bit scary to see everyone from taxis to massive trucks managing their hectic roads one-handed while on the phone.
…This also made us wonder, what sort of phone plan they all had. They seemed to be able to have unlimited phone conversations for unlimited lengths of time…
Macedonia was also the last country we camped in–as winter was fast approaching. Our last few camping nights were spent around our campfire for warmth and we had to borrow thick blankets from the kind owners of our campsite (Camping Rino on the shores of Lake Ohrid)
From a comfortable 15-20 degrees during the day it would drop to 3-1 degrees during the night. And because our sleeping bags are rated for 15 degrees anything under that temperature is uncomfortable–this was the main factor to deciding to end our camping for the year.
Free Coffee and Raki (local moonshine) given to help with the cold weather @campingrino
Watch our video about our stay at Camping Rino below…
After a few days near Lake Ohrid and visiting the nearby towns of Struga and Vevchani we decided to check out the capital, Skopje.
Holy Mary Perybleptos in Struga, Macedonia
Inside the Church of the Holy Mary Perybleptos
Inside the Church of the Holy Mary Perybleptos
Inside the Church of the Holy Mary Perybleptos
Unknown tomb in front of the Holy Mary Perybleptos
Hiking in the Vevcheni countryside
Most of the capital city is new but some of the old sites have been maintained and left unchanged. Our favorites were the Old Bazaar, the Kale Fortress, the Church of Panteleimon and the Skopje Aqueduct. ***Sorry we don’t have many picture of some these sites please watch OUR VIDEO to get a better look…
Beautiful but Abandoned… @the Skopje Aqueduct
Beautiful but Abandoned… @the Skopje Aqueduct
Beautiful but Abandoned… @the Skopje Aqueduct
The main highlight for me (Marie) was our paragliding experience off Mt. Vodno. It was very easy to organize (booked and scheduled over Whatsapp!) and I think probably THE cheapest place to go paragliding in Europe. It cost us 65euros each, but got it discounted to 120euros for the both of us since it was a week day and not too busy.
We flew with http://www.2glide.com/ and appreciated that they offered to take GoPro footage/pictures of the experience and promised to send them to us within 24 hours. The other para-glide companies didn’t offer this service for free, so we chose them specifically for this reason as we had lost our GoPro a few weeks back.
in the cable car on the way up to the Millennium Cross
How big the para-glide packed is
Para-glide set up
Paragliding off Mt. Vodno in Skopje, Macedonia
Watch how the para-glide harness is put on… 😀 😀 😀
We also got to stay at 2 beautiful hotels in Skopje. If you want to take a look and see whether they would be good for your trip to Skopje watch our videos and decide for yourself…
Our last stop was at Saint Joachim Osogovski Monastery. Even though we have seen many churches and cathedrals during our Euro trip it was still breathtaking seeing this small ancient Orthodox church in the middle of a quaint mountain town.
The only sound we heard was the wind and the prayers being read/chanted over the speakers. The energy we felt, while sitting on one of the many outdoor benches surrounding the church, made this religious site special and somehow more alive than some of the other larger places of worship we have visited.
Saint Joachim Osogovski Monastry, Macedonia
If there’s one lasting impression that we were left with when leaving Macedonia it would have to be it’s rich & overflowing religious heritage. From paragliding off Mt. Vodno with the 66 meter Millennium cross in the background (watch our video to see the Millennium Cross during the sunset) to entering numerous ancient holy places (Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim alike) filled with devotion and reverence so sincere you can almost feel it…
Once you have visited Macedonia you will understand why it sometimes called the Jerusalem of the Balkans.
Albania was a country that I knew next to nothing about (before visiting) and I am forever grateful that I was able to visit it.
It is an ancient land and people and they have somehow been forgotten or annexed by popular history.
Original Albanians can trace their lineage to the proud Illyrians, who were cultured and organized even before their more well-known neighbors, the ancient Greeks, came into the picture.
I learned from every Albanian I was able to meet and talk to that they consider themselves a unique and different ethnic community. They declare that they are their own ethnic “people” as they did their best NEVER to mix with those outside and there is proof that they are “older” than the Greeks, the Romans, the Slavs and all those surrounding them.
They were so determined to stay purely Albanian that they have a legend about how 2000 Albanian women committed suicide after being raped by Romans. I have not found any historical reference of this, but their purity and their unique ancient ethnicity is something they all are very proud of.
Being in the Balkans and hearing the conflicting stories of the Croats, the Serbs (the Slavs) and the Albanians is confusing. Human nature wants to take sides and “decide” who is in the right, but I realized first hand that opinions can easily change depending on the perspective that is being shared.
If you want to enjoy your time in the Balkans, keep an open mind and respect all perspectives. If you can, stay away from any political discussion, but I have to admit hearing them share their view of “history” is fascinating.
Our favorite places in Albania were:
Shkoder (mountains and lakes)
Ksamil (stunning beaches)
Watch our videos to get a better idea of what Albania looks like:
(Please note that some of our videos are especially made for the places we stayed at. These hotels or campsites gave us accommodation free of charge or at a discount.)
Here’s a compilation of our Adventures in Albania: