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An Amazon journey: Bolivia’s Madidi National Park

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

“This is why it’s called a rainforest”, said our guide Orlando Queteguari Apana, as the dark clouds broke above us and rivers of rain were unleashed. We regretted not choosing to take wellington boots on the hike, as pathways through the trees quickly turned into knee-deep rivers on our two-hour walk back to the lodge.

Getting drenched in the Amazon was more fun than it sounds. Just before the rain started, hundreds of frogs started croaking in a discordant, chimey chorus, and it felt like the forest was coming alive. I loved the intensity of walking through the rain, and the colours of the leaves becoming more saturated as they dripped water, and feeling totally immersed in this wild, intense environment.

It was one highlight of a four-day trip to the Bolivian Amazon – to Madidi National Park, one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Most people opt for Peru, Brazil or Ecuador for a trip into the Amazon, while Madidi remains undervisited and undeveloped (and much more affordable) – there are only a handful of lodges to stay at in the park.

We chose Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, reached by a boat ride up the Beni River from the small town of Rurrenabaque (reached by a bumpy but spectacular short flight on a tiny plane from La Paz). Our room had a bed draped in a mosquito net, mosquito nets covering the windows and a hammock outside on the veranda. There are only a few other rooms, and a dining area, where you have communal meals of catfish steamed in leaves, rice, salads,  fresh juices, and fruit. There’s no wi-fi, swimming pool or electricity in the rooms – at night you use candles. It was blissfully simple.

For our four-day stay, we hiked through the jungle for hours – virgin rainforest of giant trees, vines, creepers, flowers, mushrooms and moss – with Orlando teaching us about trees, birds, animals and insects. He’s always lived in the rainforest, so his knowledge is astounding – not to mention his amazing imitative monkey and bird calls. It’s hard to spot wildlife in the Amazon – the idea is not to come here with a checklist of all the famous animals you’d like to see (cats such like jaguars are present here but hardly ever seen), but we did manage to spot capuchin, spider and howler monkeys, a capybara, columns of leaf cutter ants, tiny poison dart frogs and successfully tracked peccaries – bush pigs – by following their distinctive sour smell and the sound of their teeth cracking open palm fruit. We saw parakeets, toucans and screeching macaws, and about twenty other species of birds I’d never even heard of, and ate some yellow fruit we collected off the forest floor. We also went on boat cruises, fished for piranhas with chunks of bloody beef, floated down the chocolate-brown river in tubes and went on a night walk, shining our headlamps at thousands of diamond glittering spider eyes and the yellowish orbs of a caiman in the river.

In the afternoons we’d lie on the hammock, spotting birds flitting in and out of the heliconia flowers planted on the edge of the forest, and at night we’d fall asleep to the most beautiful soundtrack I’ve ever heard – frogs croaking, insects chirrupping and rain falling on a thousand leaves.

Almost 20 000 square kilometres large, Madidi, which is part of the Amazon basin and home to 20 000 plant species, more than a thousand bird species, hundreds of mammals and over 120 000 species of insects, only became a national park in 1995, after decades of tireless campaigning by conservationists, who were trying to prevent the logging companies coming into the area. Part of the conservationists’ campaign had to do with the indigenous communities who live within the park getting rights to their ancestral land.

One of these communities is the village of San José de Uchupiamonas. Before 1995, the villagers had previously made their livelihoods from growing coffee and hunting animals – ocelots, peccaries and jaguars – for their pelts, but now ecotourism has replaced hunting. The community owns five lodges in Madidi, one of which is Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, which was started in 2010. All the staff at the lodge are from San José de Uchupiamonas, and the guides, such as Orlando, now use their skills in hunting animals to track them down on hikes with tourists. At a time when the term “ecotourism” gets applied to lodges and tour companies that are anything but eco-friendly, it’s hard to find places that are doing it right. I was thrilled to be in the Amazon, a place I’d always dreamed about visiting, but the best thing about travelling to Madidi, for me, was knowing that by being there I was helping to contribute in a small way to the conservation of this incredibly beautiful rainforest.

Birdwatching in Madidi National Park

Boat cruise Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Our guide at Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, Orlando

Column of leaf cutter ants in Madidi National Park, Bolivia

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Organic pastoral paradise at Dikencik Cottages

After spending a day on over-crowded Oludeniz Beach (spectacular as it is, a beach covered in loungers, inflatable pool toys and cafes is not my idea of holiday bliss) and getting lost in the fish ‘n chip shop flanked streets of the hideous tourist town of Hisaronu, it was with great relief when our little rental Fiat wound its way on gravel roads through pine forests and brought us to Dikencik Cottages.

A twenty-minute drive from Fethiye past the small village of Yesiluzumlu, Dikencik offers a blissful escape from the people-throbbing resorts on the coast. There are two cosy stone cottages here surrounded by pine forests and green views of mountains, a gorgeous huge swimming pool, an organic veggie and herb garden, some friendly dogs, a horse (and its foal, which was one month old when we were there) run by warm, chatty couple Ayse and Cengiz.

The experience here is getting a taste for Turkish country life – falling asleep to owls hooting and waking up to the sound of birds tweeting, sitting on the poolside deck drinking wine as the sun sets, hiking in the surrounding forest, bird watching, orchid spotting (there are numerous species on the property) and wild mushroom hunting.

We had a whole three-bedroomed cottage to ourselves, adorned with Turkish rugs and comfortably worn-in furniture, which felt like staying in a home rather than a hotel. It also had a fully-equipped kitchen which we never had the occasion to use, because as we arrived we were plied with delicious food with veggies, herbs and fruit from the garden prepared by Ayse (if you ever wanted to know what Turkish hospitality is, this is it). From the cake made with wild strawberries, sundowner snacks of dried apples and nuts, three-course candlelit dinner of local red wine, mezze, salad, vegetables and apricot parfait and the multiple-mezzed breakfast (a veritable feast of rose and cinnamon sweet pastries, fried chillies smothered in yoghurt, herby sundried tomatoes, eggs, cheese, olives and fried potato wedges) it was all incredibly flavourful and fresh.

Slipping into the gentle rhythms of the country for a short while (we left wishing we’d been able to spend weeks here) was the perfect way to end an amazing trip.

Rates from €60 per person (bed and breakfast) or €75 (half board), www.yesiluzumlu.com

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Escaping the crowds on Turkey’s Turquoise Coast

In two weeks of travelling in Turkey, I marvelled at some pretty spectacular vistas, from the minaret-encrusted skyline of Istanbul to panoramas over Cappadocia on a hot air balloon ride. The pinnacle of my viewing pleasure came at the end of a  tiny winding road through a countryside seemingly devoid of tourism: hamlets of a few houses and miniature mosques, terraced fields of olive trees, some donkeys and the occasional farmer. At the end of a bumpy gravel track we reached the edge of a towering cliff to find Yediburunlar Lighthouse and its magnificent perch overlooking rocky mountains plunging into the sea several hundred metres below.

With only eight rooms and nothing else for miles around, Yediburunlar (which is not, in fact, a lighthouse) turned out to be just the kind of place we were looking for – a remote, off-the-beaten track homely, intimate spot with none of the tacky package tourism look of the resort towns on the coast an hour’s drive away. People come to Yediburunlar to hike in the mountains (there are guided walks on part of the famous Lycian Way), yoga retreats, or like us – to escape the crowds.

Our wood-panelled room in a stone cottage was comfortable and cosy, with a fireplace for winter and Turkish carpets (with the magnificent views from both the room and the bathroom – my best shower view ever), and the grounds were lovely – a terraced garden filled with fragrant fig trees, herbs and flowers and a swimming pool flanked by hammocks and couches.

It didn’t matter that there were no restaurants around to eat at because the food at Yediburunlar was fantastic. Dinner was a buffet of delicious homemade vegetarian food – we loved the aubergine moussaka, purslane salad with pomegranate and walnut dressing and homemade pasta with yoghurt and tomatoes, as well as the creamy backed rice pudding for dessert. Breakfast was a similarly gourmet affair of cheeses, fruit, yoghurt, honey, eggs, olives and halva (my absolute favourite).

It was hard to leave – we wish we’d had a week to do nothing here except eat, sleep, read, hike and stare out at the views from a swinging hammock.

Double rooms from  €85, www.yediburunlarlighthouse.com

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A hobbit’s cave fantasy

Hezen Cave Hotel made me want to become a troglodyte if it meant that I could live in one of their cave suites (rather than the damp, dark, musty, cold algae-covered hovels I’d always associated with the word ‘cave’). With a massive lounge area, sleek glass-walled bathroom, huge airy bedroom and funky, bright modern-retro decor and furniture – think white wooden floors, splashes of bright red and circular prints, it was like a stylish hobbit’s dream dwelling.

The boutique hotel, which was renovated a few years ago from three former backpackers jointed together, has 14 cave rooms and suites spread out on small manicured lawns linked by a tunnel. There’s a cosy breakfast room, large reception with comfy couches (and a laptop which you can borrow to use the internet) a terrace with tables and chairs, and a rooftop bar area with big white couches all overlooking magnificent views of the rocky village and castle jutting out above. The best afternoons were spent sitting on the outdoor couches drinking tea, listening to the afternoon call to prayer ring out in the silence and watching dusk fall over the tiny castle and the hundreds of abandoned caves beneath it.

The managers and staff were fantastically helpful, attentive and knowledgeable (it came in TripAdvisor’s top 25 of all Turkish hotels for service) – giving us a full rundown of 2000 of Cappadocia’s history on our arrival, but what I loved about Hezen were the special touches that you don’t get at many hotels – the banana, cinnamon and cream pudding on arrival in reception with a cup of Turkish coffee (instead of the standard sugary welcome drink), the honesty bar, where you can help yourself to tea, coffee, wine, raki and other drinks, and the self-service laundry where you can wash and dry your clothes (great if you’ve been on the road for awhile and don’t want to pay the usual exorbitant hotel laundry prices).

The hotel is in Ortahisar, a quiet and untouristy tiny village in comparison with nearby busy Goreme, which is where most people stay when they visit Cappadocia. There’s just one restaurant in Ortahisar (a rustic little place with simple food and a scenic setting on the edge of a cliff looking back towards town), and a hilltop castle, which has recently been opened to tourists. If you want to be within walking distance of bars and souvenir shops, this isn’t the place for you, but if you want to relax after a busy day of sightseeing and get a feel for Cappadocian village life, then it’s perfect. Urgup, with its gourmet restaurants is a short drive away (the hotel can organise a taxi), and the Goreme Open Air Museum, usually a first stop on the tourist itinerary, is also close by.

Doubles from €140, www.hezenhotel.com

Hezen boutique cave hotel, Cappadocia, Turkey

Hezen boutique cave hotel, Cappadocia, Turkey

Hezen boutique cave hotel, Cappadocia, Turkey

Hezen boutique cave hotel, Cappadocia, Turkey

Hezen boutique cave hotel, Cappadocia, Turkey

Hezen boutique cave hotel, Cappadocia, Turkey

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Luxury cave living in Cappadocia

What most excited me about visiting Cappadocia, in central Turkey, other than hot air ballooning over fairy chimneys with a hundred other balloons littering the sky, was the prospect of staying in a cave hotel. Cappadocia’s landscape is covered in surreal volcanic rock towers, gorges, villages with rock castles perched above them, and thousands of caves, many of which have been converted into tourist accommodation ranging from hostels to luxury hotels.

In the hilltop village of Uchisar, a short drive away from the more touristy Goreme down in the valley, Taskonaklar Rocky Palace was an amazing introduction to the world of the boutique cave hotel. Perched on the edge of the hill, it has expansive views down to Pigeon Valley below (get up at dawn if you want to spot the hot air balloons going up from the terrace) peppered with fairy chimneys and with the snow-capped Mount Erciyes in the distance.

At Taskonaklar, rooms are cut into the rock with constructed facades made of natural stone. Our beautifully decorated, elegant room, made up of a cavernous (excuse the pun) bathroom, bedroom and lounge, managed to be both modern and traditional, with sleek bathroom fittings, a flat-screen tv and wifi, as well as a cosy fire place, kilm carpets, antiques and old wooden furniture. The thick cave walls meant that it was pretty warm and cosy on chilly nights. While we didn’t have a view (there are pricier rooms with valley views), we had our own little terrace area with table and chairs overlooking the terraced lawns and valley beyond.

Apart from the luxurious room, the view was really the highlight at Taskonaklar, and you get to take it in at breakfast in the dining room (which is a delicious feast of borek pastries, eggs, cheese, olives, fresh fruit, honeycomb, yoghurt and bread), or at afternoon tea (with complimentary cake) on one of the comfy umbrella-shaded couches on the terrace. One evening we ate dinner in the hotel instead of in the village, and feasted on piles of garlicky aubergines, yoghurt, dill cakes and roast vegetables washed down with a local red wine and were glued to the view, while dusk turned the rocks and caves below us from golden apricot to bruised purple and the evening call to prayer echoed across the valley.

Doubles from €120 including breakfast, www.taskonaklar.com

 

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Finding Istanbul’s perfect boutique hotel: Peradays

Peradays ticks all my boxes for the perfect urban boutique hotel: chic, modern interiors, well-designed rooms, a great location close to bars and restaurants, friendly hosts and special touches that set it apart from soulless chain hotels. It’s easy to see why it won Trip Advisor’s Traveller’s Choice award last year for Istanbul’s top B&B.

Down a side street off Istiklal (Istanbul’s main shopping street) and close to the lively Nevizade Street in trendy Beyoglu, Peradays is housed in a 19th-century building but is entirely contemporary inside, with stylish modern furniture, grey walls with splashes of colour in rugs and cushions and a metal staircase winding its way to a rooftop terrace.

There are nine rooms over several floors, each designed differently. Ours had minimalist decor in neutral colours, wooden floors, high ceilings, big windows, a glass-walled bathroom, a flat-screen TV, bookshelf full of books and magazines and a small red geranium-framed balcony with table and chairs.

Three retired friends, Bora, Murat and Murat started the hotel because they love people, and they’re hands-on with its running. It’s clear that Peradays is a labour of love for them, rather than just a business. They were so helpful, organising an early-morning breakfast when we had to catch a taxi to the airport at 6am, and letting us leave our bags in reception when we came back to Istanbul for a few hours in between flights. It was great to talk about Turkish politics with Murat #1 over glasses of raki, and feel like we were staying with a cool uncle rather than in a hotel.

Doubles from €100, which includes breakfast (you also get an 8% discount on your rate if you quote this blog). www.peradays.com

 

 

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