Walking Malta In A Day: Sites Worth Visiting

Malta is so small, you can walk it from head to toe in a single day. Here are some of the interesting sites you can stop and explore along the way. 

Most of us locals know the islands through our car’s windscreen. Even though distances are short, they’re never short enough, and we drive everywhere. So when I was presented with the challenge of walking across my country, I couldn’t resist. It was a crazy idea, but nonetheless doable, all in a mere 8 hours.

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The route from Għarb (Gozo) to Birżebbugia (Malta), with a ferry in between.

Walking from the western village of Għarb in Gozo to Birżebbugia, the south-east point of Malta, provided an alternative perspective, lots of blisters and a chance to connect with my surroundings on a deeper level; walking across my entire country from point to point was a way to appreciate how diverse and accessible Malta is.

If you have the luxury of replicating this walk, these are some of the sites you should definitely spend more time in:

Island 1: Gozo

  • Time: 2 hours
  • Distance: 13K
  • Terrain: Easy / downhill elevation

 

1. Ta’ Pinu Shrine, Għarb

Ta' Pinu.

Malta’s national shrine attracts pilgrims from all over the world. It is unlike most of the churches you’ll see in Malta and Gozo, which are planted in the heart of the village — Ta’ Pinu stands strikingly at the edge of a cliff, surrounded by the countryside in Għarb. No matter what your faith is, you will be sure to marvel at the sense of serenity this Basilica holds.

2. Victoria, Rabat

Get lost within the maze of the Gozitan capital’s narrow roads and tight alleys until you arrive in Pjazza San Ġorġ. Have a seat at one of the bars and relax over a pint of ice-cold Cisk, before emerging back into the Main Square where the market is usually set up. Across the road, you’ll find the Citadel, a majestic fortress boasting a view of the entire island of Gozo and on a day with good visibility, even Comino and Malta.

3. Mġarr ix-Xini

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Nestled between the villages Sannat and Għajnsielem, the once forgotten bay called Mġarr ix-Xini recently rose to fame after featuring in an Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt movie titled By the Sea. It is a romantic place, and if you’re not brave enough to have a dip in January, you can go for a lovely hike around the watchtower until you reach Fort Chambray.

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Island 2: Malta

  • Distance: 32K
  • Time: 6hours
  • Terrain: Mainly elevated

 

1. Mellieħa

The Secret Garden.

Perched on top of a hill, the village most frequented during the summer season is renowned among locals and tourists alike for the largest sandy beach in the country, Mellieħa Bay (or as the locals call it, l-Għadira, literally, “the pond”). One of the most beautiful views you can get is from the little park tucked behind the cemetery. From there, you can admire the beach’s turquoise waters, the silhouette of Gozo and the enchanting Red Tower.

2. Manikata

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Malta’s farming hamlet is the country’s main source of genuine local products, such as potatoes, water melon, strawberries, artichoke, honey — depending what’s in season. If you’re interested in hiking, you will definitely appreciate Malta’s rural landscape here. Eventually, you’re bound to come across a small unusual building, inspired by circular stone huts ubiquitous in the region, where farmers store their tools. The building, is actually a chapel dedicated to St Joseph, and was designed by Maltese architect, Richard England.

 

3. Chadwick Lakes

Malta’s only freshwater stream, Chadwick Lakes, is situated between Rabat and Mtarfa and flow all the way to the limits of Mosta. They were built towards the end of the 19th century by a British engineer, Osbert Chadwick, to preserve rainwater and create a niche for biodiversity. Nowadays, the reservoir system doubles as a natural park where locals enjoy walking and trekking during sunny winters. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot tadpoles in the stream!

 

4. Birżebbugia

Located deep in the southeast, Birżebbuġia houses the earliest evidence of human presence on the Maltese Islands. Għar Dalam (meaning ‘dark cave’) contains artefacts dating from as early as 7,400 years, of which experts believe Malta was once connected to continental Europe via land bridge, which broke off during the ice age. History buffs should definitely visit the cave and its adjacent museum.

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Originally appeared on Il-Bizzilla, Air Malta‘s inflight magazine.

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24hrs in Ometepe — Nicaragua’s Volcanic Island Paradise

Floating on the largest freshwater lake in Central America, are two conjoint volcanos forming a tiny island called Ometepe. It offers a remote escape from Nicaragua’s bustling cities, where life is stripped down to its simplest form.

I arrive on a rickety boat from Rivas after sundown. Luckily, I am accompanied by two Spanish-speaking backpackers, the type who easily spark up conversation, and while socialising with a local on the ferry, secure us a place to spend the night.

Click here for the ferry schedule

The three of us squash ourselves and our backpacks into the backseat of The Local’s van, and gaze out in wonder at the vast emptiness. Night falls like a heavy blind and our drive to Merida is illuminated by millions of stars darting across the sky.

Ometepe roads are primitive. There is hardly any fixed source of light or markings on the road, save for the van’s headlamps wresting against the blackness ahead. Locals rattle on their unlit bicycles or scooters, and it’s only a local driver’s intuition that spares their life.

READ Nicaragua Travel Guide

And an hour of ferocious driving along the unpaved trail leads us to our destination. The last two beds available are snatched up by my travel companions, and I agree to spend the night swinging on a giant hammock, hung beneath a bridge by the lake.

With the aid of my iPhone torch, I pull out my baggy grey T-shirt and shorts from the outer compartment of my backpack, create a pillow out of a compact pile of clothes and tuck myself to sleep — feeling one with the elements. I close my eyes to nature’s orchestra: beatboxing toads, hooting birds and the whistling wind.

Colours of dawn wash away the darkness and by 6am, I am awake and feeling energised. Sleeping outside and on a hammock was more comfortable than I imagined — no mosquitos, and the weird noises become part of the soundscape that lull you to sleep.

Wild birds flap their wings on top of my resting spot as I stretch my legs, wipe my eyes open and hop off the hammock to absorb this special moment.

In what was an impulsive act, I splash into the warm and murky waters of Lake Nicaragua, completely alone and without a care in the world. I had never swam in a freshwater lake before and for someone growing up in the Mediterranean, the absence of the distinct taste of salty water against my lips needed getting accustomed to.

The lack of salt makes it harder to stay afloat so I paddle faster, my legs as if on an invisible underwater bicycle steering uphill. Two fishermen silently row their way in to shore gawk at me, making me realise it was naive to be swimming in such a vast lake, without even stopping to consider what could lie beneath.

I wade up to my hammock, towel dry and have breakfast with the other two backpackers — a plate of gallopinto, consisting of red beans, white rice fried cheese and scrambled eggs — providing sufficient nourishment for the day ahead.

My aim was to reach Ojo de Agua, a natural spring pool off San Domingo Bay, which is approximately 12-km away from where I was. Time is arbitrary in Ometepe, and taking the bus on time is a bit of fluke, so I go on foot.

After an hour’s walk in the deserted dusty roads, the sun on my face and the ropes of my drawstring   bag cutting like blades through my shoulders, I spot a hand-painted sign on a wooden plank nailed to a tree saying ‘Juice Naturais’ and followed.

Locals on Ometepe are very business savvy, opening their doors to travellers and providing whatever they can offer, whether it’s a guided tour up a mountain, a hammock to sleep in, or an informal restaurant in their backyard.

A teenage girl takes my order, rushes quickly to her kitchen and switches on some music for ambiance. Ten minutes later, I’m sipping an icy-fresh melon jugo (juice), completely alone beneath the natural shade, entertained by an unobstructed view of the Conception volcano and a reggae version of Adele’s Hello.

It is past 10am. I continue walking towards the ‘city centre’, taking pictures through people’s open farms, plantain fields and oxen ranches of every free-roaming horse, chicken and grouchy pig.

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Wherever I look, there’s something that takes me by surprise. An old bus tyre planted in the ground to signal a bus stop, cows crossing the road unaccompanied, carefree men lolling up and down on their rundown motorcycles.

I knew it would be a long road to the springs. Every time I stop to ask locals for directions, all I get are heads shaking and an arm waving ‘derecho’. I was constantly challenged but I couldn’t care less. I was on a mission. And walking alone makes me happy.

It’s the only way I could be part of the island, to observe how the locals lived, admire the clouds, speak to the horses, meet the cows, spot a family of white-faced monkeys at the top of a tree and discover a souvenir shop tucked at the back of a house from where I stop to buy my (souvenir) Nicaragua T-shirt.

Three hours into the walk, I arrive at my destination feeling deeply underwhelmed and in an almost culture shock. Since everything is so raw in Nicaragua, the natural springs in my imagination took the shape of literally a hole in the ground I’d take a refreshing dip in.

My imagination was a bit off: A sparkling pay-to-enter resort, filled to the brim with deckchairs lined with Italian, French and English-speaking tourists, sipping rum out of a coconut. I discover the Ojo de Agua is a natural spring pool filled with crystal clear water from an underground river that comes from volcano Maderas.

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The Ojo de Agua swimming hole.

The swimming hole is actually rimmed with cement and forms two separate swimming areas, where the water gets renewed constantly by the spring that emerges from the bottom of the upper pool. Overall I wasn’t really amused by the ‘clarity’ and ‘purity’ of the water.  I spend two hours there relaxing, to get my walk’s worth.

By 2pm I start feeling hungry, so I pack my things, walk to the main road and thumb for a lift. A couple of minutes later, I’m sat at the back of a local’s scooter to San Domingo, around 3km away. I sit straight, hold on for dear life and cough ‘aqui’ for him to stop.

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Lunch at Santo Domingo, the only sand beach on the island. 

He drops me off right outside this vegetarian eatery called ‘Natural’, where I treat myself to some Toña — the crisp local beer — and a plate of stir-fry with veg with pineapple drizzled in soy-sauce. Lunch is served with a spectacular backdrop of Maderas volcano, with horses grazing on the beach.

I couldn’t muster the energy to walk back. So I stop to gather some melons and bananas for dinner and hitch a ride to Merida. I arrive back to base a little before at 6pm. The sun transforms into a crimson ball as it slowly starts to inch closer and closer towards the horizon, growing larger and larger. The tide is low and I wade into the lake, ankle deep, to savour the last minutes of the day.

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Sunset view from Los Chokoyos, Merida. 
  • Stay: Los Chokoyos, Merida
  • Eat: Natural, a vegetarian restaurant at the edge of the sandy beach in Santo Domingo, on the eastern side of the island, enjoying a view of the smaller volcano, Maderas.
  • Hike: Maderas Volcano (smaller of the two, elevation of 1,394 m, famous for its lake crater at the top)

Rafting In The World’s Coldest River

Bosnia Herzegovina is one of Europe’s most underrated travel destinations for outdoor lovers. Christine Spiteri uncovers the equally enchanting and haunting environment that surrounds River Neretva, as it carries her beyond her comfort-zone in an unforgettable 24km rafting adventure.

If it were for me, river rafting would not have featured in the itinerary. Our Balkan road trip was already a whirlwind of adventure, featuring overnight cross-border train and bus journeys, trudging through the rain looking for a hostel which didn’t exist, and kayaking in the middle of a bay filled with jelly-fish the size of a human head: all I wanted to do on our last Monday abroad, was to sit in a quiet café and while away the time with a good book.

“I’ll get seasick,” was my sorry excuse. But I wasn’t travelling alone, and had to compromise.

And so, beneath patched up skies and a typical September drizzle, we rolled our way from Mostar to Konjic in a rented car. The early-morning sky started to open up as we drove out of the battered city and onto the spectacular highway. A chain of misty mountains, covered by tall trees huddled closely together, as if to protect the snoozing Neretva River, unfolded before us. The river, still like glass, was a mysterious alpine greenish-blue and a part of me, although hesitant, romanticised the idea of being on it soon.

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Driving from Mostar to Konjic on an early Monday morning. 

 

Ner Etwa — “Flowing Divinity” — is what the Celts called her, and where the name ‘Neretva’ originally derives. The clear river is frigid all year round and twists its way down the Dinaric Alps for 210 km, flowing through Croatia for another 20km before finally meeting the Adriatic Sea. Our rafting trek was scheduled to be 24 kilometers long which, translated into hours, tallies up to an approximate half-a-day on water.

The packaged tour we booked catered for breakfast, lunch and also included transport to and from Konjic. We were escorted down to Bukovica, our starting point, in a Rafting for You branded van with the entire crew: a British couple and a professional Skipper, all clad in full-body wetsuits, boots, bright-yellow helmets and red life-vests.

Upon arrival, our Skipper threw the raft into the calm river and gave us a quick pep talk. We were instructed to sit in pairs on each edge, with our backs straight and feet securely fastened. His instructions were simple: “When I say ‘right’, you paddle; when I say ‘left’, you paddle; when I say ‘together’, all paddle!” And in the unlikelihood of falling off, “don’t panic – don’t try to swim, your vest will float. Any questions? Off we go!”

The river carried us gently downstream, along steep gorges, astonishing slopes and untouched scenery, the silence interspersed through the sound of the rapids. Light diffused naturally through the trees, reflecting the distinctive green that is so characteristic of the region; an ethereal layer of fog making it equally haunting and charming. I paddled absent-mindedly, taking it all in.

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River Neretva, “Flowing Divinity”

Rafting on Neretva was surprisingly relaxing. It didn’t require the same amount of upper-body strength and coordination in comparison to kayaking, as I initially thought. Our Skipper passed round plastic cups for us to scoop up and drink the water.

“River water, Class 1 purity,” he said. “Very cold, often 7 to 12 degrees in the summer months.” 

We stopped at a pebbly beach and while our Skipper fired up the BBQ, we followed his advice to ‘walk on water’ and hike into the canyon, until we found a bridge.

“Don’t worry, Bosnian Bear lives high up in the forest, not down here.”

Waist deep, we waded through the nippy waters. It was hard to swim because the water is so fresh, and difficult to walk because pebbles are so slippery. But trampling down the path of uncertainty, at times against a current, proved exciting. I wasn’t nervous any longer, I stopped overthinking and just let go.

After almost half an hour and no sign of the bridge, we followed the chain of white smoke back to the pebbly beach. Our ćevapi were ready to be served. These minced-lamb sausages, tucked inside pockets of thin and fluffy lepinja (Bosnian bread), are so typical in the Balkans, we’ve eaten them almost everyday. But these were by far the juiciest. 

Replenished, we hopped back into our raft, ready to take on the ‘rapids’ — instances where the river moved faster down mini-waterfalls, or adrenalin-packed descents. I waited for our Skipper’s instructions: “Right, paddle!” at which point we gave our all, until the current picked up and we were obliged to pull our oars out of the water and enjoy the ride. It felt like being on a rollercoaster with no seatbelt on. But after feeling the momentary thrill of surviving my first rapid, I couldn’t wait to experience the next.

In between the rapids, we floated deeper and deeper through the steep gorges, forests lined up high on top. We even stopped at a couple of jumping spots, but the cold waters numbed my ability to feel anything at all, so I sat at the edge of the crag, watching the others enviously. 

02 - The crew on the Neretva River - image by Sanel Koric
The crew towards the end of its journey. Image: Sanel Koric (neretvarafting.com)

Skipping the weekend crowds meant we had the river all to ourself. The five of us had the luxury of sitting together, but alone, cocooned in our own thoughts, savouring the natural beauty. Upon arriving nearer to civilisation, the rubbish picked up and the purest water became undrinkable.

Towards the end of our journey, my hands were numb, toes cold and teeth chattering — I was rowing for the sake of keeping warm. We had spent almost 6 hours on water and was more than relieved to dive into my thermal socks and fleece zip-up upon reaching land. Despite freezing in the world’s coldest river, this experience shook me out of my comfort-zone and exposed me to one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, without getting seasick.

Minimalist Artists’ Guide to Malta

Design duo Andrew & Craig translate symbols of our archipelago’s eclectic culture and unique identity in their one-year old project, Te fit-Tazza. Their contemporary pieces of art set out to document iconic elements of Malta.

“Malta is changing at a rapid pace, and we’re here to document it in our own way,” says Andrew. “We wanted to create a visual archive of all things Maltese. All of our prints celebrate the island’s charm, but some in particular also add a dose of nostalgia.”

 

 

“Our aim was to capture and document these attributes in the form of minimalist depictions. Taking away as much detail from our subjects as is possible, while keeping the subject instantly recognisable.”

In their first series, Te fit-Tazza takes us on a visual trip around the island’s intriguing landscape:

South Tour: Filfla & Marsaxlokk

Filfla

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Image: tefittazza.com

One of the smallest islands in the archipelago, Filfla floats calmly in the middle of the Mediterranean, serving as a home to a protected ecosystem and marine species. She is best appreciated during a picturesque coastline drive from Wied iż-Żurrieq to Għar Lapsi, where one can absorb its silent beauty awash with the colours of sunset.

Luzzu by Day

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Image: tefittazza.com

The colourful fishing boats, dating back to the Phoenicians, can be admired rocking gently at Marsaxlokk. They are now considered a symbol of Malta, lending to years of tradition and history, with the iconic eye as a protector from evil and sign of good health. If you visit on Sunday morning you can observe fishermen at work.

Artist’s note: These were the two first artworks we created. We spent months refining the style, removing and re-adding details, until we achieved a result that was both modern and minimalist but is still local and recognisable.

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Gozo Tour: Qbajjar & Wied il-Għasri

Qbajjar

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Image: tefittazza.com

During the sweltering summer months, one can witness locals scraping up the salt-crystals in what is a century-old Gozitan tradition of sea-salt production, passed down families, for many generations. The scenic salt-pans stretch about 3km of the the north coast of Gozo, west of Marsalforn,

Artist’s note:We’re amazed by how people interacted with this natural beauty and used this place for their salt production. This print represents a healthy and respectful interaction between the land and her people.” 

Wied il-Għasri

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Image: tefittazza.com


Just up the road from Qbajjar salt pans, you’ll find Wied il-Għasri — a hamlet on the western part of the sister island famous for its picturesque valley. Tucked between its high cliffs, at the end of the valley, is a secluded little pebbly-beach, like a natural sea-corridor, which is quite remote, but well worth the effort to get to.

Artist’s note:We still remember the first time we walked down the narrow stairs to discover this hidden bathing spot. The way the valley flows out to sea protects it from rough seas making it one of the most peaceful gems in the Maltese archipelago.”

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North Tour: Mellieħa

Torri l-Aħmar

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Image: tefittazza.com

Majestically perched on top of a hill, the Red Tower — built in 1647 by the Order of St John to strengthen northern coastal defences — is an iconic part of the northern landscape, famous for surrounding country walks as well as its history.

Artist’s note: “This print comes with a lot of unforgettable childhood memories that we can treasure for years to come. As a watchtower it is definitely the most iconic on the island: its colour and the aesthetic of this unique tower tie in as an illustration, lending perfectly to the beauty that we try to capture in our prints.” 

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Image: tefittazza.com

Te fit-Tazza has recently unveiled five new portraits to celebrate Maltese summers, and will soon be releasing a new style of prints later on this year. 

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Also published in il-Bizzilla – Air Malta’s inflight magazine.

Driving around the Iceland Ring Road in December

Visiting Iceland in December and taking on the Ring Road has its challenges: four hours of daylight and increased chances of encountering deadly snow blizzards and forceful winds. 

However, the plus side of visiting during low-season is respite from the crowds, cheaper prices in accommodation and car rental. 

Here’s how we covered 1,400km in eight days:

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Day 1: Keflavík to Reykjavík

Total distance: 49km

We flew easyJet via London and landed in Keflavík airport a few minutes after 10.30 on a foggy Sunday morning. We got the keys to our white VW Polo and headed off to our first destination: Reykjavík.

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We drove straight into the oldest commercial streets in town, Laugavegur. Parking is free on Sundays.

The street is lined with typical Iceland shops selling typical Icelandic stuff (such as the iconic Icelandic Sweaters – Lopapeysa – made from Icelandic sheep’s wool and sold complete with a signed hand-written note from the maker), quaint cafés, street art and colourful houses.

Icelanders’ timber dwellings are equipped for their climate, coated in a curvy outer layer of corrugated steel. Houses are kept warm using geothermal energy, and all their resources are 100 per cent renewable.

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Walking around in the faint glow of a typical Icelandic morning in 8 degrees (heatwave by Icelandic winter standards), we observed women in their empty shops knitting away at the counter, a handful of Asian tourists posing in front of their selfie-sticks and young Icelandic couples calmly push their babies in buggies.

But most notable of all was how quiet the most vibrant street in the capital was. It felt almost as though silence was a presence that filled the streets of Reykjavík, such that one is almost obliged to break into a whisper when speaking.

Svarta Kaffið: Home-made bread-bowl of reindeer soup.

For lunch, we sat ourselves at the last vacant table of a family-owned café, Svarta Kaffið. There was no menu, but a choice of either vegetarian soup or reindeer home-made soup. We opted for the latter. It was the warmest welcome one could ever receive in a country, taking the shape of a cosy bread bowl of reindeer soup (1850 KR).

  • Sleep: Red Door Hostel (basic amenities, round the corner from Laugavegur)
  • Eat: Reindeer Soup from Svarta Kaffið (1850 KR) and try a hot dog (860 ISK) from Bæjarins beztu, Iceland’sand now possibly the world’smost famous hot dog stand.
  • Shop: Bónus (Iceland’s answer to LIDL)

Day 2: Reykjavík to Vík—City Walk & Golden Circle

Total Distance: 218km

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The next morning, we went on a City Walk with our Icelandic guide, Martin, and a sizeable group of tourists from all around the world.

Side note: The walking tour is free, but donations are encouraged. 

Our comprehensive walkabout gave insight into the Icelandic culture and background stories of important sites. Our tour was concluded at around 2pm, with this sunset.

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We then checked-out of our hostel, booked the last room in Vík and start our anti-clockwise journey round the Icelandic ring-road (or Route One), taking on the popular tourist route in the last hour of daylight.

Around the Golden Circle, we visited Þingvellir National Park (which lies in a rift valley marking the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plate), witnessed a gushing geyser hurl boiling water up to 70 metres in the air and felt the cold spray of the roaring Gullfoss waterfalls before darkness fell at 4pm.

Side note: If you’re travelling in winter, plan days well and research times the sunrises and sets before heading out to explore. Unfortunately, most of the sites along the Ring Road couldn’t be appreciated due to the lack of daylight. 

  • Sleep: Puffin Hostel (Vík)
  • Do: Reykjavík City Walk – Professional local guides share curious facts about the city, its history and Icelandic culture. Requires booking via website.
  • Do: Golden Circle Tour – This is pretty doable for independent travellers renting their own car. Main attractions are all located on one paved road and highly accessible from Reykjavík.

Day 3: Vík to HöfnHikes, Glacier Lakes & Langoustine Soup

Distance: 272km

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We woke up in the creaky attic of The Puffin Hostel, a mere 10-minute walk from the Black Beach in Vík. It was already 10 in the morning, but the lack of light made it feel as though it were still 10 in the evening.

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After having a quick breakfast, covered ourselves in thermals and stuffed the rest of our belongings into our backpacks, we embarked on a mini-hike to explore the southern village of only 300 inhabitants.

Our exploration was short-lived. From the ravenous waves of the deserted Black Beach, we ended up trudging up a very steep hill in an icy drizzle that was so cold, it felt like needle darts against our cheeks. And when we almost reached a layer of thin clouds, we headed back to the warmth and shelter of our car.

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On the remote footpath behind the Vík church.

Our eastward drive towards Höfn (literally: harbour), was probably the most spectacular part of the entire ring road  lined with majestic snowcapped mountains and a luminous icy-blue lake huddled between them.

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The light was very faint by the time we arrived at Jökulsárlón lake. At 4.30pm, clouds hung low, allowing the light to diffuse magically, creating a piercing blue contrast with the grey.

Giant icebergs floated silently and at a glacial pace in the glass-like lake, as if in deep sleepI felt as though I had to tiptoe along the promenade to avoid waking them up.

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That evening, we treated ourselves to a lovely meal at Pakkhusas recommended by the kind lady upon checkin-in at the Höfn Hostel.

Höfn is known as the Langoustine Capital of Iceland, and we had the privilege of sitting by the window overlooking the very boat that goes out in the morning to catch the ten-legged shellfish in our humarsupa.

The home-grown duck breast and lamb shanks that came later were so tender, you could cut them with a spoon.

Even spreading plain butter on bread was an event at the table. Smjör Butter is so fluffy, it tasted like clouds on freshly warm bread! 

  • Sleep: Höfn Hostel (Höfn)
  • Eat: Pukkhus (Höfn)
  • Shop: Nettó Supermarket (Höfn)
  • Do: Walk along the Black Beach (Vík) & Meditate in front of Jökulsárlón Lake (Ring Road)

Day 4: Höfn to Akureyri — The Mammoth Journey

Distance: 451km

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The most perilous part of the journey.

During our trip, we never had any hostels booked or fixed itinerary to follow. Stable internet connections and the flexibility of booking.com made it possible for us to plan according to circumstance.

There was nowhere to spend the night between the two major towns of Höfn and Akureyri, so we were obliged to embark on a mammoth journey that saw us cut across half the island.

Google Maps predicted it would take us 6 hours to reach north. So before hitting the road, we stopped at Nettó Supermarket to stock up on suppliesmost importantly, the velvety protein-rich Icelandic yoghurt, Skyrwhich we kept naturally refrigerated in a cardboard box at the back of our car.

Side note: Expensive food and drinks was a recurring theme in our Icelandic experience. An average sit-down meal for two (incl. an alcoholic beverage, such as beer or wine) could easily tally up to €100. And to overcome the challenge, we compensated by cooking our own meals or stopping for an Icelandic hot dog (€6.50) at gas stations. Water is free in Iceland, and among the purest you’ll ever drink. We kept an empty bottle handy and often stopped to refill from fresh-water streams along the Ring Road. 

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This was by far, the most perilous part of our journey. We took on gravel roads (bear in mind, our vehicle was a modest VW Polo, and not a 4×4), gushing rain bursts and misty mountain roads covered in a carpet of thin ice.

At a point it was so dark and foggy, it wouldn’t have made a difference if we drove with our eyes closed. We had no idea what lay ahead of us.

Side note: In our attempt to reach our first pit-stop in Egilsstaðir, our sat-nav advised us to drive up the shorter inner-route via Oxi, but common sense prevailed, and we stuck to the Ring Road, which wasn’t any less adventurous but safer nonetheless. 

Night began to fall, outside temperatures started to drop, and the visibility became worse. I had to lower the volume of the radio which by then had become distracting, and could hear the car tyres crunching against the icy road paving, as it abruptly changed to gravel and slowly started to incline.

Our wipers were swishing to and fro, headlamps blaring. We were literally driving up a mountain, the fog becoming thicker and heavier as we ascended deeper into the clouds. At a point, the visibility was so dense we couldn’t see a metre ahead of us.

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En route: Driving to Akureyri via Egilsstaði, the most remote part of the Ring Road.

Fingers curled tightly round the wheel, our eyes both wide as we both tried to make out this surreal experience. All I could imagine was what would become of us if we missed a sharp turn and tumbled off the crumbling edges into nothing.

Icelandic roads are totally isolated, unlit and unbarred. Our fog lights couldn’t keep up. We rolled the windows down, leaned our heads out into the arctic air hearing echoes of our car’s engine as it roared into second gear, pushing us higher and higher in a constant zig-zag of blind-corners on the narrow road.

We eventually peaked at almost 500 metres before the gravel turned into tarmac again, securing the tyre’s grip. The path took us lower and lower and we started to see again.

Click here for the official Icelandic road safety guides.

  • Highway Emergency: 112
  • Road conditions: +354 563-1500
  • Search and Rescue: +354 570-5900

We had been driving for hours, bend after bend, and still the amount of kilometres on our sat-nav seemed to remain unchanged. Mobile service was still limited and never a soul in sight.

I had heard stories of how you could drive for hours in Iceland and never encounter any cars or people – but you have to experience it to actually understand what it means.

Even though sitting the entire time, driving is mentally draining, let alone in those chaotic conditions. It was almost 8pm by the time we started to see a faint flicker of golden lights, like candles, on the black horizon. And it was such a wild relief.

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Akureyri on the horizon: The last part of the 6 hour journey.

Day 5: AkureyriVisual diary

Distance covered: 0km

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Early morning in Iceland’s fishing centre.
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Midday in Akureyri.
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Street Art in Akureyri.
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Lamb Burger and sweet potato fries from Hamborgarafabrikkan.

  • Sleep: Our Guesthouse (Akureyri)
  • Eat: Lamb Burger at Hamborgarafabrikkan
  • Drink: For those who like to tipple, Iceland may not be your favourite destination. Beer prices average at €8 per pint. However, there is a way around it: Happy Hour. While in Akureyri, indulge in beer for half the price during Backpackers Hostel‘s famous Happy Hour. (Try: Brennivín—Iceland’s signature liqueur (€13) & Einstök—White Ale Beer (€8)).

Day 6: Akureyri to Fossatún—Northern Lights Sighting

Distance: 316km

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After approximately an hour sliding across pot-holed roads, crawling over intimidating single-lane bridge and an unscheduled meeting with the Icelandic horses, we checked into Fossatún at 03.00pm sharp on Friday.

It was literally in the middle of nowhere, just on the top of a waterfall. The grounds are run by a lovely couple who are acclaimed children’s authors, famous for their folk stories about trolls, which are inspired by the hiking trails around the grounds themselves.

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As we were given the key to our sizeable pod, and charged an extra €11 each for a pillow and a duvet, owner Steiner Berg said it was highly probable we would encounter the northern lights that night.

Download your Aurora Forecast app here.

They usually come out on clear nights in winter (September to mid-April) and visible in places away from light pollution, peaking between 11.00pm to 2.00am. 

At 10.00pm, with the clouds swept away and the northern star shining brightly for the first time since we landed in Iceland, we set out for a little hike away from the camping grounds to experience the enchanting Icelandic nightlife.

Would we hear the northern lights approaching? Would we actually feel them sweep through the skies? It was an inconceivable notion for us, so we stood there as though we were little children waiting for Christmas.

Read: In pursuit of the Northern Lights

After almost an hour and a half standing there, looking up, toes completely frozen, we witnessed the first signs of the northern lights. 

Completely isolated from everything, the raw skies opened up to a pathway of shimmering emerald particles, dancing gracefully through the darkness. 

  • Sleep: Fossatún Camping Pods (linen pack not included)
  • Eat: The Settlement Centre Restaurant in one of the oldest houses of Borgarnes
  • Drink: Grýla beer (made from glacial waters, sold only here)

Day 7: Fossatún to Reykjavík 

Distance: 99km

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The last hurdle!

The next morning, we headed west along the coast towards Reykjavík. For the first time we could see the sun setting over the horizon, staining the pale blue sky with pretty pink and orange tints, as though a celebration for completing our road trip.

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Conclusion: Is it worth visiting Iceland in winter?

Visiting Iceland in winter isn’t for the faint-hearted. Fortunately, we were there during a ‘heat-wave’ so the temperatures and weather conditions were much better than expected.

However, it was a constant race to pack as much into our itinerary, given the limited amount of daylight we had. Plus, most of the country is hibernating: there’s no whale-watching, no puffins, no chances of camping outdoors and could be too cold or dark for long treks.

Having said that, winter in Iceland means freedom and the flexibility. You can book a room for the night a couple of hours before your visit, eat at restaurants without having to wait or making a reservation, and of course, the chance to encounter the northern lights in their full glory.

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In pursuit of the Northern Lights

We ventured to Iceland on a whim. All it took to convince us were a couple of ill-referenced blog posts illustrated with a collage of pretty pictures. It was only weeks later, when our Lonely Planet guide arrived, that the reality of what we were about to experience on the fringes of the Arctic, in December, started to seep in: four hours of daylight and a probability of driving through deadly snow blizzards. But at least we had greater chances of encountering the rare and unpredictable Northern Lights.

My travel buddy and I are the adventurous type who travel on a budget, with no more than 10kg strapped to our backs while sleeping in stuffy hostel dorms. The only thing we had booked prior to landing was a rental car, a place to sleep on our first night, and a return flight six days later – what happened in between was basically us winging it. So as you can imagine, our pursuit of the Northern Lights was as unpredictable as their actual sighting.

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We drove counter-clockwise across the empty and secluded Icelandic ring road in our modest VW Polo. Even though the ring road is considered as the main road round the entire island, where goods are transported from one remote town to another, what struck me most was how you could drive for hours, wherein the only signs of life were wild Icelandic horses and grazing sheep.

Bend after bend on Route 1, a procession of snow-capped mountains would morph into jagged black rocks covered in patches of green moss. It was so unreal that, at times, we were obliged to roll down the windows, let the Arctic air in and lean our head out to be part of the view rather than a mere spectator.

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Don’t call the Icelandic horses, ‘ponies’

Driving in Iceland made me think about how architecture shapes not only spaces, but also our minds. As humans we’ve evolved so much since our hunter-gatherer days in the savannah that looking into a screen feels more real to me than being out in the wild. It took a while to get used to the untouched landscape that panned out before us, and as clichéd as it may sound, the majestic views were often perceived like a movie-set or a painting.

It was the perfect mental detox, for I could be alone with my thoughts and, as we saw the authentic landscape unfold through our windscreen, I questioned what Malta would look like if it weren’t so heavily built up.

The route from Keflavík International Airport to Reykjavík transported me back to my childhood in Naxxar, treading through ix-xagħri in my denim dungarees and steering my bright pink bicycle across fields that are now mega-supermarkets and concrete blocks of houses.

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The Icelandic Ring-Road

In fact, it isn’t a country you’d visit for its bustling city life or architectural landmarks. As we hopped from one town to another, manoeuvring through potholed gravel roads and single-lane timber bridges, hoping to stumble upon ideal conditions for Aurora sightings, we would stop to stretch our legs and walk along the most surreal natural wonders.

Fortunately, we were in Iceland during a ‘heatwave’, when thermometers stood at an average of eight degrees Celsius, which wasn’t as cold as we had predicted. This meant there was barely any ice on the majority of the ring road, making it easier for us to explore independently.

Around the Golden Circle, a few kilometres outside Reykjavík, we witnessed a gushing geyser hurl boiling water up to 70 metres in the air, visited the roaring Gullfoss waterfalls and the bubbling geothermal pools nearby. My favourite part of the journey was when we meditated in front of the famous Jökulsárlón, the glacial lake in the southeast.

Days are short and nights are long there in winter. The sun hovers on the horizon, making the panoramic views a photographer’s paradise. We arrived at the edge of Vatnajökull National Park late in the afternoon, and clouds hung low. Most of the Asian tourists were making their way to the parking area, where engines of big white coaches were humming, ready to whisk them away, giving us the privilege of exploring the lake in solitude.

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Jökulsárlón is the deepest lake in Iceland and one of the country’s prominent natural wonders.

Everything was at a metaphorical glacial pace, almost at a standstill, distinct echoes of the ice breaking off at a distance. The light catching the ice that crashed off the glacier during its final journey into the Atlantic reflected a luminous blue on to the still water, like a mirror.

In fact, I found the lagoon to be more magical than the overrated Northern Lights. We had been tailing after them for almost five nights, constantly monitoring the Aurora forecast and, on a clear Friday night in the remoteness beyond Borgarnes town, our chances looked promising.

The sky was clear, moon shining brightly. Everything seemed perfect, except that we were both freezing. I, in particular, was getting impatient. Teeth-chattering and arms crossed, we stood there in complete darkness, waiting for the Aurora to emerge. I remember that by midnight, all the thermal and fleecy underlayers weren’t enough to keep us warm.

We had read how the lights were formed when the Earth’s magnetic field drew the sun’s flares towards the North Pole. Albeit special, it was an underwhelming experience, possibly because the photos I had seen online had raised my expectations. The Aurora visible to the naked eye was a thread of faint emerald green specs, shimmering across the sky. But on camera, the very same vision appeared to be much brighter and definitely more spectacular. Perhaps the ones we saw weren’t strong enough, we remarked the next day.

Actually, the photo published has a story behind it. We were convinced we were alone on top of the little hill at the Fossatún camping grounds. But just a couple of minutes after witnessing the lights, a faint flashlight approached us.

It was an Asian man with half his face concealed in a black bala­c­lava, carrying a DLSR on a tripod. He showed us a remarkable image of the same Northern Lights we had just witnessed –  which on the screen of his camera seemed much more luminous – and, in the bottom left corner, a silhouette of two people: “Iz you!” he said enthusiastically.

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And that experience brought our road trip to full circle, flying back home with our backpacks laden with more memories than dirty laundry. Indeed, travelling to the fringes of the Arctic in December was a bold idea, but it was what made it special. Challenged by treacherous mountain roads, lack of daylight and unpredictable weather, our quest to drive around Europe’s most sparsely populated country was an eye-opening experience, realising there’s so much more to Iceland than the Northern Lights.

Originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta. 

Nicaragua: Escaping into the unknown

I had never heard of Nicaragua, let alone spell it or pin it on the map. It was the idea of escaping into the unknown that lured me there last March. Here I expose the Pacific Coast of the largest country in the American isthmus.

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I jet off Nicaragua without doing any research. I simply booked a return flight and left the rest up to fate. I wanted to go on a relaxing adventure, without any check-lists of what I could eat, see or do. That way, I could be a blank canvas, and paint my Nicaraguan experience according to mood and instinct.  

Travel Itinerary: Madrid > Panama City > Managua via Iberia Airlines.

I visited three cities during my ten-day trip: Granada, León, Masaya and Ometepe Island. If you’re a nature lover looking for an uncharted destination on a budget, Nicaragua’s the place for you. 

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Travelling to Nicaragua was like travelling through time. Chickens, oxen and donkeys accompany pedestrians through the bustling streets. Locals work tirelessly and end their day relaxing on colourful handmade hammocks. There’s a strong culture that works to live, rather than lives to work. 

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Walking in the bustling streets of Granada. 
In Nicaragua, it’s perfectly legal to transport your entire family at the back of the car. 

The country is still emerging from the civil unrest of the late 1970s and natural disasters that hit it, but tourism is flourishing. 

Most backpackers I met while trailing Central America said they much preferred Nicaragua to Costa Rica; both are geographically similar, but Nicaragua is less discovered, less developed and easier on the pocket.

Hike: Mombacho

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Sloth-ville.

Climbing up the layered Mombacho Volcano, our young guide, Jose, who grew up on a farm in the area, could navigate his way through the dwarf forest blind-folded. His English was grammatically perfect, punctuated with a Latino accent.

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Our enthusiastic guide, Jose. 

He was knowledgeable in geology, chemistry, botany, detailing the smells, sights, creatures and pretty views with a deep sense of pride. “This is my office,” he said as he introduced our tour, “and all the trees and animals are my colleagues.”

I never imagined I could encounter such biodiversity beyond the pages of my childhood encyclopaedia. We met huge and colourful butterflies, sloths and sociable capuchin monkeys.

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A camouflaged butterfly. 
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An exotic plant nicknamed “monkey-tail”
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View from the top of the Mombacho. </em>

Architecture + Nightlife: Granada

The majestic colonial city of Granada, sits between Mombacho and Lake Nicaragua. It is one of the oldest cities in Latin America boasting an ever-growing expat community, complete with its own Irish Pub.

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…leave as friends. Partying beneath the full-moon at Reilly’s Tavern, Granada. 
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Catedral La Merced: The view from the bell-tower.
Whimsical architecture. 

It’s architecture is distinct for its jarring coloured walls, which blend in beautifully with the tropical weather and bustling rhythm. Granada’s apricot-coloured cathedral, and possibly it’s most notable landmark, is prettiest at sunset.

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A panoramic view of Granada, with Lake Nicaragua on the horizon and Mombacho to the right. 
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Known colloquially as “La Iglesia Bonita”, the Cathedral dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption is Granada’s most prominent landmark with a total area of 3,614.87 m².
  • Sleep:Hostel De Boca En Boca, walk-ins welcome. It’s located right in the city centre, next door to the Cathedral.
  • Eat:  Run by people who are deaf, Cafe de las Sonrisas offers a unique social experience by encouraging customers to converse in sign-language through the visual-aids providedWe went there for a fresh smoothie but also serves food.
  • Do: Climb up the La Merced Cathedral’s bell tower at sundown, so you can admire the city and Mombacho views awash with pink

Transport: The Chicken Bus

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It’s apparently called a ‘chicken bus’ because locals actually transport chickens on this bus. 

There are no trains, trams or metros connecting any of the cities or neighbouring countries. Busses are the main mode of transport here, and are extremely cheap, plus a goldmine for anthropological observation.

The number of seats available doesn’t determine how many passengers get on board, and bus stops exist only as a formality — the driver might slow down (never a complete halt), and in a perfectly synchronised manoeuvre, the conductor would either jolt you off or hurl you up, depending on where you wanted to go.

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Our bus driver for Granada to León on Easter Sunday. 

Change is given out completely from memory. Upon payment, the conductor will neatly organise the money into a fan of notes between his five fingers, arranged based on where you are seated, and passes it on when he has the right amount, before the journey ends.

Nicaraguans won’t miss out on a business opportunity, and bus trips are often entertained by street-vendors who are strategically placed at traffic lights, where they would either sell you readily shaved and sliced mangos in transparent plastic bags through the bus window, or would intimately squeeze in to sell their beverage or snack. Who needs a Drive-Thru when the food can come to you?

Cuisine: Gallo Pinto

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Gallo pinto: rice, beans and scrambled egg. 

Nicaraguans pride themselves for their famous gallo pinto breakfast, a well-balanced mix of rice, beans and scrambled egg, usually served during breakfast. 

My most adventurous meal was some pork, yuca and veg on a leaf from a resto in Calle La Calzada, a famed touristic street lined with restaurants in the beating heart of Granada. Yuca was super filling and tasteless, in a good way, if that makes sense.

If you’re into beer, Nicaragua’s most popular cerveses are named after two women: Toña and Victoria. As you’ll realise from the images, I developed a stronger relationship with Toña she’s crisp, golden and quite the thirst quencher.

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A selfie of my most adventurous meal.
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My most memorable fried chicken was eaten at a bar, curiously named El Hong Kong, León. 
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Some chicken breast and beans, rice and salad. 

Overall, Nicaraguan cuisine left much to be desired. It could be my limited Spanish vocab which forced me down the fried-chicken-diet route I could not read the menu to save my life. But I’ve had every imaginable variety of chicken, rice and beans.

Adventure: Volcano Boarding

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Feeling badass: Surfing down an active volcano in Nicaragua. 

León lies at the collision point between two tectonic plates, boasting some of the highest volcanic activity on earth. And an hour off the city centre, lives the youngest active volcano in the region, the Cerro Negro (literally: black hill).

Adventurists would be glad to know that upon hiking up this 728m giant, one can surf down. Volcano Boarding has become a thriving business among tourist agencies, who supply wooden planks of wood, protective gloves, suits and glasses and ample water as part of a tour.

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On top of the Cerro Negro, León. 

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The colourful volcanic dunes. 

Hiking up to witness this vastness all around me made me feel dwarfed, in a humbling way. My senses were in overdrive: intense heat, an overpowering smell of sulphur and beating winds. Climbing up carrying that flak of wood and the equipment on my back was tiring (mostly because of the heat), but doable. Terrain was very unstable due to the gravel, so good shoes and thick socks are both highly recommended.

Religious Culture: León

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The Risen Christ Statue leaving the Church in León on Easter Sunday. 
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An old lady watching the procession passing by her house. 
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Following Jesus. 

Nicaraguans are very religious and when speaking of “the church”, they automatically mean the Roman Catholic Church. Over half of the population is Roman Catholic and the remainder Protestant.

León is less touristic and feels much poorer than Granada. We were there on Easter Sunday and spent our afternoon marching round the entire city behind the statue of the Risen Christ, doubling as a free walking tour.

Take home with you: Hammock & Eccentric Art

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Hammocks in Masaya. 
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If anyone knows the story behind these eccentric art pieces, please do get in touch.

I’m not usually into souvenir-buying but I couldn’t leave Nicaragua without a hammock. In Masaya, you’ll find plenty of woven hammocks and other handy crafts. You’ll probably also come across plenty of brightly painted artefacts, most notably, the ones featuring a woman doing her business. If anyone knows the story behind these eccentric art pieces, please do get in touch. I couldn’t find the answer on the Internet.

Conclusion

Not setting any goals meant I could travel at my own leisure, day by day. And I wasn’t disappointed. Being spontaneous was the best way to discover Nicaragua, making the experience truly mine. 

If you’re a frugal traveller looking for a mix of adventure and relaxation, act quick, because Nicaragua is fast becoming a magnet for nature-loving tourists and it’s charm lies in how unfrequented it still is.