Iceland is a country that is on many photographers wishlists, including mine. In February, we landed at Keflavik airport to a gentle snowfall, ready for ten days of photography, based on the Southern half of the ring road.
That night, Reykjavik was treated to it biggest snowfall in 80 years – 50 cm (20 inches) laid down overnight.
As our itinerary had us in Reykjavik for two nights, this wasn’t an issue. The council had brought in multiple snowploughs from out of town and were working tirelessly to get the city cleared.
Reykjavik is not a big city, although it is the most Northerly capital city in the world. Being so compact, it was trivial to walk from place to place (icy footways notwithstanding), and what a place it is! Great architecture and sculptures scattered all over the city.
Highlights for us were the Harpa concert hall and the Hallgrímskirkja church.
Moving out of the city, we headed for the coastal town of Vik. This is most well known for its black sand beach, and the Reynisfjara sea stacks. A short distance away is Dyrhólaey, with its quaint lighthouse and stunning views.
In Vik, we were treated to a good display of the Northern lights. A period of high solar activity was occurring, and when there was no cloud, the lights looked good.
Moving on to Hofn, we first paid a visit to Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon, with its nearby iceberg beach. Crystal clear lumps of ice set on the black sand, sculpted into various shapes by the elements, it is an ideal place to play with techniques such as long exposures.
In Hofn itself, we spent some time at the Stokksnes peninsular, cold, windswept, and bleak, the standout subject is the imposing Vestrahorn mountain. Once again, we were treated to a good display of the Northern Lights. The howling wind made photography very tricky, as the tripod was shaking. I had to time the photos in between gusts of wind.
We came back via “The Golden Circle”, a popular tourist route taking some of the most iconic attractions, including the Gulfloss waterfall, Thingvellir national park, and the Geyser (which was so crowded we didn’t stop for a photo).
The scenery is just stunning. Quite otherworldly. It is also the cleanest place I have ever visited. The Icelandic are very proud of their country and take great pride in its appearance. They are very geared up for tourism, with good signage and parking.
By staying in apartments, rather than hotels, we were able to self-cater for a lot less than eating out costs.
I was quite surprised by the number of tourists. This is great for Iceland, as tourism brings money, but trying to find time away from the crowds is tricky. Thankfully, as we were spending a few days in each location, if somewhere was busy then we could return later when the tourist buses have moved on.
Iceland is also expensive, very expensive. A couple of burgers and a few beers in a bar came to around £90.
The tourist’s buses on the Golden Circle sometimes use “super-taxi’s” – they look like a mini-bus on a monster truck chassis. The worst driving we saw in all of our time, there was from these. They speed everywhere and act as if they own the road. They do not like people doing their own thing, as it means they are not making money from them. In our ten days there, the only bad driving we saw from them.
Iceland is a photographers dream. Stunning vistas, good light, the chance of seeing the Northern Lights, it does have a lot going for it. It’s quite a big country, and our ten days there flew by. I’d love to go again, maybe in summer to experience the midnight sun, possibly heading North to see a different part of the island.
It’s getting busier al the time, so I would go sooner rather than later if you want to see the unspoiled natural beauty before it is ruined by hordes of unthinking tourists.
As ever, I will be brutally honest, I paid for this out of my own pocket and I have certain expectations.
Great scenery, good infrastructure, lush jungles, and an abundance of wildlife makes this a photographers dream destination.
We hired a small 4×4 and whilst the standard of driving was worse than the UK (in Costa Rica nobody gives an inch), it was much better than we expected. I was quite comfortable driving everywhere, the roads were generally in good condition (other than the occasional massive pot hole). Unfortunately, we ended up taking a wrong turn and went through the centre of San Jose – not recommended!
We decided to spend the first couple of nights nearish to the airport, to avoid driving too tired.
We had the hotel collect us, and had the hire car dropped off at the hotel – this worked well.
The Hotel Buena Vista had nice grounds, with lots of planting that attracted a range of bugs and insects, and was a fine place to relax for a couple of days and let the body clock adjust to Costa Rica time.
Hire car was from Vamos, I took the super insurance so absolutely everything was covered. Not needed thankfully, but for peace of mind it was worth it.
The drive up to Arenal was nice, the traffic not too heavy, and our next hotel, Arenal Observatory Lodge and Spa was decent enough.
More importantly it was situated next to the Arenal volcano, which although is now pretty much dormant, was still emitting some gas.
The lodge has several miles of well-maintained trails around the property, and some resident coatis, which were on the list of ‘things to see’.
We did the evening frog walk, and whilst we had spectacular success seeing various species of tree frog, including the red-eyed tree frog (another target species) the 2 hour forced march in near 100% humidity was a bit much!
Staying at the Monteverde Lodge & Gardens we were spoiled by the on-site nature walks, on-site butterfly house, great food and nice surroundings.
Visiting the Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve was not quite as spectacular as hoped, mainly because it was quite busy, and all a bit too ‘manicured’. This is understandable, people visit because it’s accessible. We were fortunate enough to see a sloth, mainly because we overheard a guide pointing one out, although it was a long way off, and sleeping.
Nearby however was a much smaller reserve, Curi Cancha – well recommended. We had a good guide, and saw spider monkeys, the resplendent quetzal, green toucan, and a variety of other life.
Avoiding the crowds, we went back to Curi Cancha for a night walk, and it was fantastic. Frogs, tarantulas, wandering spiders, all were targets for the macro lens.
On a map, Monteverde to Tortuguero isn’t that far, unfortunately the trip involves going down to San Jose then right across the country. It was a solid 6 hrs of driving, the last hour on unmade roads. It’s than an hours boat ride down river to the town of Tortuguero, followed by another boat transfer to Tortuguero Lodge.
Despite being on the coast, if the wind dropped the humidity was pretty high, but manageable.
A boat tour through the canals was well worth it – sloths, monkeys, caiman and kingfishers were all sighted. We were also fortunate enough to have great sightings of a couple of different sloths, which are on everybody’s must-see list.
The grounds also had plenty of strawberry poison dart frogs, tiny, but beautiful.
Having seen what we wanted to see, we left here a day early, preferring to stay near the airport for our last night, rather than risk the drive against the clock.
We found most of the staff at the Tortuguero Lodge pretty unfriendly. Receptionists and bar staff rarely smiled, and my cheery “buenas dias” was met with a mumbled reply. One notable exception was one of the waiters, Manuel. He was always friendly, and exceptionally helpful.
British Airways – more specifically the state of the cabin and the whole experience with BA.
We cashed in a bunch of Avios (frequent flyer points) and decided to go business class. Pretty much none of the experience was ‘premium’, the lounge was awful as it was a shared lounge – they are having a new one built. The plane was filthy – wine stains up the wall, seat and floor covered in crumbs, the divider between the seats needed wiped as it had food on it still and every single plastic surface was grubby. It was the same both ways. Couple this with a fairly poor (for business class) seat, poor food (no choice of starter) and surly staff on the way home, it was definitely not what one expects of a ‘premium’ product.
Costa Rica is reasonable value, but if you are used to paying $1-2 for a beer in Asia, be prepared to pay double that. Same went for food. Granted, we were staying in mid-range places, but when lunch is costing $40 for 2, it’s definitely not a budget destination. I have no doubt you can eat and stay much cheaper, but given the camera kit I was travelling with we wanted a reasonable level of comfort and security.
That said, as a destination for a photographer, it is fantastic. We only went for 2 weeks, so restricted our travels to 3 main areas. I would gladly go back and visit Monteverde again, Tortuguero was OK, and Arenal is worth going back to if the volcano kicks off, unfortunately they think that may not be for over 100 years while the magma chamber refills. There are other parts of the country I would love to go and see, plus, I still need to see a properly active volcano.
It’s very easy to get there from the UK as there is a direct flight from Gatwick to San Jose (10.5 hrs), many people speak English (lots of American visitors) and with my reasonable Spanish we had zero communication problems. Everything generally felt safe.
All in all it was a great 2 weeks. I came back with some fantastic images and good memories.
At the moment (end of 2015) Sri Lanka is in the grip of a construction boom. Everywhere you look there are new guest houses and hotels being thrown up. I do mean thrown up, the construction looks downright unsafe and working practices are lethal – sledgehammer vs flip-flop is going to end badly.
What is the reason for this sudden rush of new buildings? Tourism – and every man and his dog jumping on the band wagon. Someone builds a guest house, and rents out rooms. Next door neighbour sees this, so decides to the same. Then his neighbour sees they are both making money and decides to do rooms as well. Eventually the whole street is doing the same thing, but nobody is making any money as there are not enough tourists to go around, so buildings sit half constructed, the area starts to look a bit worse for wear, and the tourists stop coming altogether.
On speaking with many Sri Lankans, and a few ex-pats, this seems to be a common theme. The ideas are good, but the execution is poor, and the maintenance and upkeep is non-existent.
Take for instance the Hotel Glendower in Nuwara Eliya. This small hotel was surrounded on 3 sides by different construction sites, 2 of which involved major works with piling rigs. Given the small handful of tourists we saw in Nuwara Eliya, I struggle to see what demand they are trying to fill.
Of course, this rampant construction needs plenty of materials moving, which means there are hundreds of massive dumper trucks crawling along on the steep, twisty mountain roads, belching out vast quantities of fumes. Couple this with the multitude of buses also spewing fumes out, and the fresh hill country air is anything but! We could not drive with the windows down as the pollution was incessant.
We found some of the beautiful Sri Lanka we had imagined, it was on the road from Nuwara Eliya back to Colombo, but as ever there was nowhere to stop and enjoy the view, owing to having the buses try to bully you out of the way, and any available space filled with construction traffic.
I so wanted to enjoy Sri Lanka, but after 10 days I had had enough of the pollution, traffic, construction and general state of the place. It’s a shame, but it seems the rush to make money is having a detrimental effect on what was previously a stunning place to visit.
Where to start? There were many things that just were not to my liking in Sri Lanka, it is far from the quaint ex-colonial paradise that it is made out to be. It’s horrifically busy, disorganised, and it feels that you are just a walking cheque book to the locals.
We decided to self drive as we have driven in many different countries, and you get more of a feel for a place than when you just get bussed from one tourist trap to the next.
It is a hair raising experience driving yourself around Sri Lanka, road signs are ignored and the general rule of the road is ‘biggest vehicle wins’. Death defying double overtakes on blind mountain bends are a common occurrence, and if you don’t overtake the vehicle in front of you, whoever behind is instantly leaning on their horn.
Pedestrians take their lives in their hands to get across, although there have been some half hearted measures to provide crossing points. As with many thing we experienced in Sri Lanka, the idea is good but the execution is poor.
There are painted pedestrian crossings everywhere in the towns, however they are universally ignored by all, both motorists and the pedestrians. The police will wait on these crossings to stop motorists, but they ignore the fact that even when people are on the crossing vehicles will sound their horn to make them get out of the way, lest they have to slow down a fraction. A good idea, but the lack of enforcement makes it worse than useless.
Like many independent travellers, the Lonely Planet guide books are my first port of call when planning a trip, and used to help determine where to go, where to stay etc.
Our edition was published in January 2015, so not old, but I am dubious as to whether it has been actually updated in years as some of their descriptions are a little misleading, to say the least.
Let us take their description of the town of Ella, in the hill country;
“Welcome to everyone’s favourite hill-country village and the place to ease off the travel accelerator with a few leisurely days resting in your choice of some of the country’s best guesthouses.”
The reality is that Ella is a single, badly maintained road through a proliferation of poorly constructed and often unfinished buildings. Yes, some of the views are nice, but it’s hard to appreciate them when breathing is difficult owing to the fumes pumped out by the constant procession of construction traffic and buses.
A further example, the town of Nuwara Eliya;
“Nuwara Eliya is often referred to by the Sri Lankan tourist industry as ‘Little England’. While most British visitors struggle to recognise modern England in Nuwara Eliya, the toy-town ambience does have a rose-tinted English country village feel to it, though it comes with a disorienting surrealist edge….. The dusty and bustling centre of town is a thoroughly Sri Lankan tangle, but scratch the surface a little to reveal colonial bungalows, well-tended hedgerows and pretty rose gardens.”
The entire town is dusty, busy, and filled with people who just stare at foreign tourists. One would have thought that by now western faces were not such a rarity, but having walked through town and felt like an alien I cannot help but feel unwanted. Where are the friendly Sri Lankans everybody raves about?
The hotels we visited in Nuwara Eliya were some of the worst in our short time in Sri Lanka. We visited several and viewed the rooms as we wanted to find somewhere clean and comfortable.
Teabush hotel – nice looking, reasonably hot water, but no alcohol because “It’s the law”. Really? I didn’t realise Sri Lanka had become abstinent, given their love of Lion lager.
Hotel Glendower – needing somewhere for lunch, and a quick peruse of the internet to find some accommodation, we popped in here.
Me: “May I have the WIFI code please”
Staff: “Of course, here you go”
Me: “Excuse me, this doesn’t seem to work”
Staff: “No, not working today”
So why even bother giving me the code?
The ultimate turnoff with the Glendower was the appearance of shark-fin soup on the menu. I refuse to eat in a place that encourages the destruction of an apex predator just to meet the whims of a certain subset of diners.
Grosvenor hotel –
Me: “Excuse me, there is no hot water”
Staff: “Run for 5 minutes”
(5 mins later)
Me: “Erm, it’s still cold”
Staff: “Run for 20 minutes”
Me: “No thanks, we won’t be staying”
Staff: “Please, we give you the suite”
Me: “No thanks”
Staff: “Please, we give you 25% discount”
Me: “No thanks, bye”
Ceybank rest – we finally elected to stay here as we were tired, and hungry, and fed up of looking elsewhere. Big mistake.
The place is filthy and mouldy owing to being permanently damp. The sheets were stained, the shower was caked in grime. The shower curtain was mouldy and help up with a piece of string. The curtain in the bathroom was going black with mould. Upon waking in the morning the condensation was running down the inside of the windows.
We went into the bar and I was concerned we would end up with Legionella it was so damp in there.
The food was just as bad, and unfortunately followed the pattern of your typical lazy small hotel – a buffet, half of which was cold.
None of the above are budget backpacker type places, they are described a mid-range. Is it too much to expect clean sheets, hot water and decent food?
The food was hit and miss. It was always tasty, but requests for ‘spicy please’ always went unanswered. Even when staying for a few nights, they would not up the heat level despite repeated requests.
Speaking of heat, oftentimes meals would come out barely warm, on one occasion (in a not so cheap hotel) it was stone cold.
Where were the street food vendors?
Where were the roti shops?
I adore curry and love street food, yet found very little other than restaurants who shared the same menus with all of their neighbours.
It seems that everybody in Sri Lanka is doing their best to extract as much money as possible from tourists. It’s understandable in a way, as to a typical Sri Lankan we must seem like millionaires given we fly half way around the world just to go on holiday.
It’s a little unpalatable however when I am charged 75 times (yes, seventy five times) what a local is charged to go into a national park.
Being made to feel tight by only tipping someone what is, in effect, half a day’s wages just for carrying a bag 100m, only to have them asking for more.
Having someone at a high end hotel grab my bags, carry them to reception, then demand money.
It all gets a little tiring after a bit, and just compounded our general bad feeling about the place.
Other than Nuwara Eliya, and especially the decrepit state of the Ceybank Rest hotel, there was not really any major problems or disasters that made us cut short the trip, instead it was just a multitude of smaller aggravations and annoyances.
We have travelled extensively and never have we considered cutting short a trip, even when caught in a week of solid rain in Vietnam.
Our plan after Nuwara Eliya was to head into the cultural triangle, and then further North into Jaffna. Knowing that the cultural triangle would be another tourist trap, complete with excessive entry fees to the sites did not fill us with hope. Neither did the thought of heading to a region that is basically new, having been extensively rebuilt following civil war.
Because of this, we just did not feel like continuing. There was no point in us trying to force ourselves to enjoy a trip that had so far provided more downsides than good bits, so flights were rearranged and we flew home after just 11 days of a planned 28 day trip.
Our lasting memory of Sri Lanka will be one of constant construction sites, and I’ll cover that in more detail in Part 3.
I wanted to like Sri Lanka, in fact, I wanted to love Sri Lanka. The country has always conjured up images of great food, amazing beaches, stunning scenery and friendly people. So why did I leave after just 11 days of a month long trip, totally dejected and feeling let down by everything I saw?
Read on for the first of a 3 part trip report to see what was good, and what wasn’t.
The wildlife in Sri Lanka, particularly the bird life, was fantastic. We were fortunate enough to see everything from blue whales and Asian elephants, to the small stuff such as green pigeon and more peafowl than you could shake a stick at.
Our first port of call was Mirissa, a small town that has become much busier in recent years because of whale watching. There is now a plethora of boats to choose from, we opted for one of the original operators to head out into the blue and search for one of the largest animals ever to have lived – the blue whale.
Our chosen operator, Raja and the whales, was a slick, well run operation with a good boat and helpful crew. Within an hour of leaving the harbour we found a pair of blue whales which we followed at a comfortable (for the whales) distance. They would surface for 2-3 minutes then dive for anywhere up to 10 minutes.
One unfortunate consequence of going with the best operator is that many of the others simply wait until they see Raja’s boat slow down then head over to see what we had found. Fortunately as we went out very early (6am) we had the whales to ourselves for the first half an hour after finding them. When we left, there were a half dozen other boats all jostling for position.
Accommodation in Mirissa was in the Bon Accord guest house – highly recommended. Keith and Prasad run a nice, very homely little place to stay. It was the most comfortable place we stayed in Sri Lanka. As ever in the tropics, there were plenty of additional visitors, such as this nice little lizard.
Leaving Mirissa we headed along the busy roads to Tissamaharama (Tissa) which is where most people looking to visit Yala National Park tend to stay.
Our first park was actually Bundala National Park, which is famed for its bird life. The scenery was very nice, large wetlands, lakes and coastline, and the wildlife was prolific.
The following day we made the 5am start for Yala National Park, in the hopes of finding a leopard. Torrential rain meant our chances of spotting a leopard were slim to none, so it was no surprise we didn’t see one. We were fortunate enough to see a bear, although it was head down and bum up as it tore apart an ants nest.
There were plenty of other animals to make up for it, and the scenery was again very nice.
Tissa itself has several dagobas and stupas, plus an enormous number of fruit bats who take flight over the lake every evening.
From Tissa, a short drive North brought us to Udawalawe, where we would be heading for the national park of the same name.
The town itself is not a place to linger, but the park was great. Whilst we didn’t see any herds of elephants we did see several individuals, as well a large number of eagles, and the nicest scenery out of all the places we visited on this trip.
We stayed at LeGreen Udawalawe, a comfortable little guest house, where we had the best curry and rice of our entire trip. The food was proper home cooked and there were piles of it.
Leaving Udawalawe to head North into the hill country was the beginning of the end for this trip, it brought to a head many of the issues and annoyances we had encountered so far, as such that will be in part 2 of the trip report.