January 5th. 8am. Somewhere between Cairo to Aswan.
I’m sitting on the overnight sleeper train, a few hours away from our destination of Aswan in southern Egypt. We (wisely) decided to upgrade from seats to a private sleeper, which includes two bunk-style beds, two meals, our own sink, and total privacy.
It was an investment well worth it! Aside from being a little chilly (as Egypt is this time of year), it was a very pleasant way to pass the evening. And now that the sun’s up, we’ve got a never-ending view of palm trees, barren hills, rural villages, and the occasional lake.
It’s stunning, really. Don’t get me wrong – I love beaches and mountains as much as the next person. But there’s something about the desert, too, a sense of quiet and tranquility I don’t experience in any other setting.
Its beauty is its starkness.
But anyway. I’m not a poet, especially not this early in the morning. Let’s move on.
After our epic day touring Saqqara, Memphis, and the Pyramids, it was time to explore the city of Cairo. Makmud once again picked us up, this time with a lovely Egyptian woman, Fatima. Having spent four years studying inside the Egyptian Museum – among her other education – Fatima, I believe, knows everything about everything relating to Egyptian history!
We spent a starry-eyed two hours wandering the famed Egyptian Museum, hearing stories of pharaohs, mummies, hidden tombs, and buried treasures. We saw Tutankhamen’s gilded funerary mask and all the treasures buried in his tomb. We saw canopic jars, ancient jewels, alabaster sculptures, and dozens of sarcophagi.
The museum even has a section dedicated to mummified animals, which included birds, dogs, a horse, and a 22-foot-long Nile crocodile.
Why anyone would want to mummify a crocodile is beyond me, but hey…it was kinda cool.
Our next stop was Coptic Egypt, where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus supposedly stayed during their exile here. The narrow, partially underground streets are a veritable maze connecting centuries-old churches, synagogues, and Roman fortresses. There’s even a secret passage from the Hanging Church all the way to the ancient Citadel, which was used as an escape route for persecuted Jews and Christians.
After lunch and a quick stop at a perfumery/essential oil shop, we braved the city traffic and arrived late afternoon at the mighty Citadel. Perched high atop a hill in central Cairo, this was the seat of the Egyptian kings for over 800 years. Today it houses a military academy, several military museums, and the beautiful Mohammed Ali mosque.
Through the sunset and the sand, we even caught a glimpse of the Pyramids off on the horizon.
But time was slipping away, and we still had a train to catch. We bid farewell to Fatima and Makmud delivered us at our hotel, promising to return in an hour to pick us up. We stocked up on goodies at the local grocery store and snagged a quick bowl of koshary for dinner before heading over to the train station.
As you might imagine, the train station in Cairo is sheer chaos. Fortunately for us, Makmud escorted us all the way through security and to our platform and waited with us until the train arrived.
But that was last night, and this is this morning. In a few hours we’ll arrive in Aswan to continue our tour to Philae Temple, Aswan Dam, and Abu Simbel.
Stay tuned – our tour of Egypt is just getting started!
Saqqara, Memphis, and the Pyramids – Touring Ancient Egypt
I’m listening to the call to the prayer (the first of five for the day) from the nearby mosques. Through the walls of the hotel room, the beautiful, haunting sound reverberates loudly, assuring everyone is awake.
Well, not to worry – with the jetlag, I was already wide awake anyway.
I’m sitting in what’s arguably the softest, most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. The funny thing is that the 3-star hotel we’re staying at, across the river from downtown Cairo, has definitely seen better days. The shower is so small I barely fit inside it. The bathroom door doesn’t actually latch shut, and, like everywhere else in Egypt, there’s no heat in our room. (Granted, most of the year it’s scorching hot here, but the first week in January? Not so much).
Anyway, I digress. My favorite feature of this old-but-charming hotel? The elevator doesn’t actually have any doors. You step inside, press a button, and watch the floors go by as you ascend or descend. (Don’t get your fingers caught!)
And yet, despite its humble appearance, this rundown hotel has the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. This hotel seems to be a tiny representation of Egypt as a whole – ancient, rundown, yet strangely and surprisingly comfortable.
Let’s face it – Egypt has always been a wild card on the world scene. From Biblical times all the way up to the 2011 Revolution, Egypt has been a major player. For over 4,000 years it’s flexed its mighty muscles, exerting a powerful influence on the politics and social structure of the Middle East.
To be fair, most of what we hear of this ancient country – one of the oldest civilizations on earth – is negative. We hear that it’s dangerous, dirty, crowded, and unpredictable.
Is it true? That’s what we came to find out. And yet – like this deliciously comfortable bed in an old hotel – we’re already discovering there’s a lot more to Egypt than meets the eye.
Arrival in Egypt
If you know us at all, you know we’re typically very independent travelers. Given the uncertainty of the times and the enormous scope of the country, we opted to use a tour company this time around. I gotta say – it was awesome to step off the plane in Cairo and find a smiling Egyptian man holding a sign with my name on it!
We breezed through immigration and hopped into a private car (no taxi queues here!) to be whisked away to our aforementioned hotel. The driver was lovely, pointing all sights along the Nile and downtown Egypt along the way – in perfect English, I might add.
When we reach the hotel, we’re greeted by a pretty blond Hungarian woman named Emily who now calls Egypt home. She sits us down to review our 14-day itinerary – every tour, every flight, every train ride. She explains we’ll have a private driver and guide each day (with the exception of Petra, where we’ll join up with a larger group). Then she shows us to the local supermarket, ATM, and Vodafone store, where we got Sim cards for our phones. She wished us well and made us promise to call if we encountered any issues.
After that, we were officially on our own. Since the tour didn’t start until the following day, we had the afternoon to ourselves.
Cairo: Day 1
Item number one on our list (shockingly) was getting some lunch. Since you know we’re major foodies, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
We took the locals’ advice and sat down with two big bowls of koshary, the unofficial comfort food of Egypt. Prepare for a carb coma, because you’re getting a bowl layered with pasta, rice, more pasta, lentils, and tomato sauce. Garnish with a few fried onions, zesty vinegarette, and a dash or two of hot sauce, and you’ve got a delicious meal for about $1.
RIP, my low-carb diet. See ya in two weeks!
Our jetlagged bodies were begging for rest (especially after consuming 19 pounds of rice and pasta), but we knew better than to give in. To combat our drowsiness, we grabbed an Uber and sat in traffic for over an hour (welcome to Cairo) to go get a late afternoon glimpse of the Pyramids.
A few fast facts about Egypt:
100 million people, 90% of which live along the fertile Nile River.
25 million in Cairo, making it the largest city in all of Africa.
NO TRAFFIC LIGHTS.
Yes, you read that right. 25 million people, no traffic lights. I’ll let you imagine what the roads look like.
But you know what? With the horns honking and the horses and donkeys clip-clopping and the Arabic music blasting over the taxi’s speakers, it’s kind of awesome. All the dust you inhale because the windows are down? Not so awesome – but hey, that’s what showers are for).
Along the main road through Giza leading out to the Pyramids, you’ll pass A LOT of police checkpoints. In fact, even our humble hotel greets guests with a massive metal detector. Roadblocks are set up everywhere to slow traffic down (not that you’re moving fast) so heavily-armed police can keep an eye on things. At one point, close to the Pyramids, they even had dogs sniffing all the vehicles and trunks.
A little unnerving? In a way. But in a place like this, I’d rather see them take extra precautions than not enough.
Our Uber delivers us at the historic Mena House Hotel, a 5-star gem that’s sat in the shadow of the Pyramids since 1869. If Disney World had an Egyptian themed resort, this is what it would look like. 40 acres of lush green lawn, fountains, gilded ceilings with glass lanterns, colorful archways, and a too-good-to-be-true backdrop of the Pyramids in their backyard.
Once we’d retrieved our jaws from the floor, we took a seat at Terrace 139, their beautiful outdoor restaurant. Over pots of Egyptian mint tea, meze platters, and a tandoori platter, we drank in the sight of the only-remaining Ancient Wonder of the World.
Then the sun started to go down and the temperature plummeted, reminding us that our Thai blood and flimsy coats weren’t doing us much good. We sat in our first Cairene traffic jam on the way back to “our side” of town and succumbed to jetlag at the ripe ol’ hour of 7:30 pm.
Mint tea and in bed before 8 pm. We’re a couple of real party animals!
It’s okay, though, because we needed some energy for the day that lay ahead.
Cairo: Day 2
We awoke stupid early (thanks to jetlag and the aforementioned call to prayer). Eventually, the breakfast buffet opened and we headed downstairs to find nothing less than an Egyptian feast spread out before us.
We’re talking falafel, freshly baked bread, soft Egyptian white cheese (similar to feta), crisp veggies, boiled eggs, fried potatoes, and our personal favorite: ful (pronounced “fool”), a savory dish of cooked fava beans, cumin, garlic, lemon, and other spices.
Good thing we were hungry!
At 8 am, our guide for the day, Abdul, and our driver, Makmud, arrive to claim us. Both men speak impeccable English and are warm and friendly. We’re feeling very good about our upcoming day!
First Stop: Saqqara
We head south out of Giza about 45 minutes to the ancient complex at Saqqara – both the oldest and the largest archaeological site in Egypt.
It’s kind of surreal driving along the relatively green Nile Valley, where palm trees and tall grasses abound. Then, all of a sudden, you come up over a rise and there before you is the great Sahara Desert. It’s nothing but you and sand for almost 3,000 miles – a distance greater than the width of the entire United States!
But don’t worry, Mom – we’re not venturing out into the desert (not this trip, anyway). For now, we passed through three more security checkpoints (lots of big guns and bigger dogs – these guys are no joke) before we parked at the nearly deserted entrance to Saqqara.
Perhaps the biggest surprise so far is how EMPTY everything is! From what we hear, prior to the 2011 Revolution, you’d be jostling through these sites with thousands of other tourists.
But these days? It’s like a ghost town – a little eerie considering the sites are full of crypts, tombs, and mummies!
I’m not complaining, though, because empty historical sites make for fantastic pictures. (Do we really want to see a Chinese tour group in every photo?) Abdul leads us through the columned entryway and over to the Step Pyramid of Djoser, believed to be the oldest pyramid in Egypt.
Next, we got to climb down an ancient shaft beneath another burial mound to see an (empty) sarcophagus and hieroglyphs from floor to ceiling. The passageway was maybe four feet high, so you’re crouched pretty low – recall my morbid fear of caves? – so I dove right in before I had the chance to change my mind.
Next Stop: Memphis
After touring a few more tombs, we climbed back in the car and headed next to the Memphis Museum. This open-air museum contains artifacts that remain from the ancient capital city of Lower Egypt (remember that the Nile flows from south to north, so the southern half is “Upper Egypt” while the northern part is “Lower Egypt”).
Highlights here are the fallen statue of Ramses II, the second-largest sphinx in Egypt (believed to be Queen Hatshepsut), and an alabaster mummification table.
On the way to lunch, we stop briefly at a papyrus shop to see first-hand how the world’s first “paper” is made. Then we pull up the stables near the Pyramids, down a quick bowl of koshary, and prepare for our ride.
Horse Riding Around the Pyramids of Giza
We’re introduced to Horus and Aziz, our fearless mounts of the day. Our ride takes us through the crazy streets of Giza, up a tall sand dune, and across the open desert south of the Pyramids.
Since a picture’s worth a thousand words, I’ll let my photos do the talking here:
Words cannot describe how monumentally SMALL you feel gazing at these magnificent structures. It was also incredible to be almost the only ones there, save for a few other tourists riding camels and horses nearby.
If you’ve ever wondered if the Pyramids are overrated – they’re NOT.
In fact, I can’t think of a more perfect introduction for our trip to Egypt!
It was our last day in Bali, and we still had a few things to check off the bucket list. The volcanoes and rice terraces were spectacular, no doubt. But we still hadn’t found Bali’s best beaches.
Truth be told, we hadn’t found any great beaches. The famous backpacker haven of Kuta Beach was quite the disappointment. And while the volcanic backdrop of Amed was stunning, the actual beach was nothing but rocks and stones.
There was no way we could leave this island paradise without finding at least one amazing beach.
So, over a delicious breakfast of buckwheat crepes at Le Moulin in Ubud, we scoured Google one final time. We knew there was a black sand beach somewhere – a beach that was actually made of sand.
Finally, in an old TripAdvisor forum, I saw a recommendation for a place called Keramas Beach. Google maps said it was 32 minutes away. That was good enough for us!
We checked out of the charming Kamandhandi Hostel and headed south out of Ubud. Approximately half an hour later, we hit the southeast coast (north of Denpasar) and made a comical U-turn to find this “hidden beach.”
We turned off the main road and onto a completely deserted, bumpy dirt road. We were surrounded on both sides by rice fields, one of which held the remains of an abandoned cargo plane.
Sure enough, the road dumped us out right on the coast. And, as promised in the forum, we were the only souls in sight on the stunning black sand of Keramas Beach.
I can’t say how cool it was to have the entire beach to ourselves – especially a rare black sand beach! If you want to get away from the crowds, this is definitely the beach to visit.
The afternoon was slipping away, and we still had a few more stops on our list. Reluctantly we bid goodbye to Keramas Beach and continued south, past Denpasar and Nusa Dua to the very bottom of Bali.
Our earlier internet search had yielded another hidden gem: Green Bowl Beach. Tucked away at the bottom of South Kuta, this beach is not marked and only accessible via a steep 300-step stone staircase.
Was it worth the effort of driving all the way to the bottom of Bali to a basically unknown beach? HECK. YEAH.
There were a few stragglers lounging around in the late afternoon sun, but once again we almost had the place to ourselves. The water was warm and clear as glass, providing a perfect view of the colorful coral rocks.
My only regret is that we didn’t find this gorgeous spot until about 4 pm! Bali travel tip #27: Head to Green Bowl Beach EARLY and plan to spend the day there, because you’ll never want to leave.
But alas, we did have to leave, because we still had one more stop to make. We climbed the 300 steps and got back in our trusty Honda Brio, heading west to Uluwatu. Uluwatu is ranked the #4 surf destination on earth, and it’s easy to understand when you see the ENORMOUS swells rolling in from the open ocean.
Uluwatu is ranked the #4 surf destination on earth, and it’s easy to understand when you see the ENORMOUS swells rolling in from the open ocean. We didn’t go to Uluwatu to surf, though. We went to visit the famous 11th-century Hindu temple, Pura Luhur Uluwatu.
Our goal was to watch the sunset, as this spot supposedly has the best sunsets in Bali. However, due to a sudden rainstorm and one of the worst traffic jams I’ve ever seen, it didn’t exactly work out that way. I jumped out and walked a good distance to the temple while Jeremy tried (and failed) to find a parking space in the chaos.
I got drenched and a monkey nearly stole my camera (literally) but I did manage to snag a few shots of the Uluwatu sunset.
My advice if you want to see an Uluwatu sunset? GO EARLY. The crowds were insane, even in the downpour.
After sitting in more rain and more traffic, we arrived at the lovely Mahogany Hotel in South Kuta. It was a last-minute find, and it turned out to be the nicest place we stayed all week. They even have a ban on durian, which was just fine with us!
Overall impressions of Bali? I’m very glad I went. There are definitely some beautiful sights to see.
Am I dreaming of the day I get to go back? No, I can’t honestly say that I am. I think it’s an amazing island to visit once…but there are so many other places to explore, too!
What’s the next destination on our hit list? That remains to be seen!
It was another beautiful morning in Ubud, Bali. Today was sure to be one of the highlights of our trip: a visit to the famous Tegalalang rice terraces and a drive around the still-active volcanic peak of Mount Batur.
Breakfast was at the fabulous little French cafe, Le Moulin, just a few minutes’ walk from Kamandhani Guesthouse. One of our favorite things about Ubud is the amount of truly stellar food you can find. On one little stretch of road near our guesthouse, you pass Greek, French, Italian, Mexican, and Turkish restaurants, not to mention the local cuisine!
Sufficiently stuffed and ready for the day’s adventure, we set off on the main road leading north out of Ubud. The sun was in and out of the clouds as we drove around half an hour to the tiny town of Tegalalang and their idyllic rice terraces.
We parked across the street and began winding our way down the steep hillside (lots of stairs!) towards the stunning rice terraces. Although technically free to tour, the locals have set up little “toll stations” with suggested donations (less than $1) for your visit.
We didn’t mind our first “toll” – these people do need to make a living, after all – but by the third “toll” we felt empowered to say no and continue on our way. Use your own judgment here, and do whatever your conscience moves you to do. It’s a minor annoyance in what’s otherwise a beautiful and awe-inspiring place.
As usual, we got so caught up in exploring and taking photos that we soon found ourselves off the beaten path…well off the beaten path! We started backtracking until we met a kindly old farmer who showed us a shorter (and more scenic) way back.
While I don’t recommend purposely getting lost, I must say it was nice to have the place to ourselves. While the rest of the tourists were jammed up on the main trail, we were the only souls in sight for close to an hour, save for a few hard-working locals.
Eventually we found our way back to the main path, where we joined the rest of the tourists in completing the circuit (granted, our tour was probably a tad longer than theirs was).
The Tegalalang rice terraces were stunning, but it was time to move on! We retrieved our car, consulted Google maps, and continued north towards the volcanic peak of Mount Batur.
This area is truly unique because the volcano is actually made of two calderas. The large inner caldera is now home to Lake Batur, while the majestic (and still active) stratovolcano peak rises over 2,000 feet (700m) from the water’s edge.
The rain and clouds that had chased us from Ubud cleared long enough for us to enjoy some breath-taking views of the peak and lake. Eager for a closer look, we started down the long, winding road towards the lakeside. Along the way we discovered Batur Natural Hot Spring, perched right on the edge of the scenic lake.
We weren’t prepared for hot springs (and the weather was a bit too warm, anyway), but we took the opportunity to stop for lunch and enjoy the unique scenery. Then we studied the map to determine if we would return to Ubud the same way, or take the more scenic route around the backside of the volcano.
As you probably guessed, we opted for the scenic route.
In an unexpected treat, we reached an area where the lava flow occurred during the most recent eruption in 1968. Not about to pass up the opportunity, we parked the car and hiked up to check out the dried lava.
It was like visiting another planet! The lava dries razor sharp and very uneven, so you definitely have to be careful as you traverse it. It was really incredible, though, to see plants pushing their way up and nature slowly restoring itself.
A steep switchback road led us up out of the caldera and back onto the road to Ubud. Dinner that night was at a funky little restaurant on Monkey Forest Road called De’Warung. We ordered a Balinese feast (literally) and washed it down with some amazing lemongrass mojitos (why has no one else thought of this?) as we watched the tourists go by.
Bali’s eastern beaches are lovely, but its central interior is TRULY spectacular. A visit to the Tegalalang rice terraces and Mount Batur are a must on any Bali road trip itinerary!
And in case you missed it, be sure to check out my blog on Ubud Horse Stables, too – definitely the best way to explore Bali’s lush interior.
Next up on our road trip…two of Bali’s most beautiful (and hidden!) beaches.
I don’t often wake up before my alarm. I’m not what you’d call a “morning person.” However, there are exceptions.
And one of those is when I’m about to go horse riding in Bali.
I awoke at 6am on the outskirts of Ubud at the charming Kamandhani Hostel. (A little gem of a place, tucked at the end of a very quiet street but only a few minutes’ walk from the liveliness of Ubud.)
A few cups of insanely delicious Balinese tea later, and I was ready to go when my driver arrived. We cruised north through Ubud and out into the endless green of Bali’s interior.
Where does one go for the best horse riding in Bali? I’d done my research ahead of time and decided on the 3-hour advanced ride at Ubud Horse Stables. This establishment has received stellar reviews, and rightfully so. No skinny, neglected Asian horses here. Their herd of imported Thoroughbreds and Appaloosas are beautifully cared for and professionally trained. The level of care, riding, and service are comparable to any reputable stables in the western world.
Upon my arrival, I met Duke, Raja, and Cola (the black, white, and chestnut horses, respectively). All were beautifully groomed and had lovely dispositions. After signing the appropriate forms and discussing my riding history, I was paired up with Cola for the day.
My only regret of the day is that it wasn’t sunnier. But hey, it could have been pouring rain, and that would’ve been worse! Despite the overcast and the stickiness of the morning, spirits were high as I set out with a French woman named Mathilde and our Balinese guide. We also had a photographer following us on his motorbike!
What’s horse riding in Bali like? It’s AWESOME. The trail wound through a local village and out into the rice terraces. All the greenery and water reminded me a lot of Florida, where I grew up and learned to ride. Once we were used to our horses and the landscape, it was time to open up and let manes fly.
A word of warning to those dreaming of galloping through rice fields: When they say “advanced ride,” they MEAN it. We hauled butt down these trails and up several very steep hills. If you’re not extremely comfortable in the saddle at all speeds and terrains, better stick with the beginner or intermediate rides!
For me, it was heaven. Cola behaved wonderfully all day, whether we were blazing along or enjoying a stroll through the flooded fields.
Our ride included a mid-morning stop at a local warung (restaurant) for breakfast and tea. After a few more gallops we stopped at an orange grove to rest the horses and enjoy some local produce.
My awesome day of horse riding in Bali was winding to a close. We gave our hard-working horses a nice long rein as we walked through the village back to the stables.
Having had the privilege to do a lot of cool rides around the world, I have to say that my experience at Ubud Horse Stables was one of the best! The staff was experienced, friendly, and spoke excellent English. Most importantly, the horses were well cared for and well-trained (always a concern in a foreign land). And we got to ride at all paces, which is always a bonus for advanced riders!
After bidding farewell to Cola, I returned to Ubud and enjoyed a much-needed massage at the fabulous Spa Bali Ubud. Then it was time to meet up with hubby for some happy hour cocktails at Mingle Cafe & Bar.
My day of horse riding in Bali was awesome, but it was time to get back on the road. Stay tuned for our next adventure!
The gentle sound of lapping waves stirs you awake. Warm sunlight pours through the balcony doors, illuminating the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean. The scent of salt and blooming frangipani drift in through the windows. And right in your backyard, the towering peak of a still-active volcano casts a long shadow.
Welcome to Amed Beach, Bali.
This beautiful little beach town is truly one of Bali’s hidden gems. Set way off the beaten tourist trail, it will take you several hours to get there from the southern cities of Kuta and Denpasar. If you want to take the scenic route, turn off at Amlapura and drive the narrow, winding coastal road. If that’s too daunting, you can take the main road north through Tirta Gangga.
Either way, you’re on your way to a true island paradise.
We awoke to the opening scene at the lovely Beten Waru Bungalow. After a hearty breakfast of banana pancakes and Balinese tea (seriously…my favorite tea EVER), we rented snorkeling gear, hopped in our rental car, and backtracked a few miles to Amed’s Japanese shipwreck.
Scuba diving is one of the main draws to this side of Bali. But even if you aren’t certified (we’re not), there’s an incredible site to explore just a few feet offshore. The Japanese wreck is about 65feet (20m) long and lies at a depth of 10-30 feet (3-10m). Apparently, this was a Japanese patrol boat which sank during the island’s occupation in World War II.
It’s covered with countless soft corals and a huge variety of fish. The sea floor is sometimes sandy, in other places covered with black coral, sponges, and gorgonian sea fans. Besides the typical varieties of tropical fish, you might also spot scorpion fish, ghost pipefish, seahorses, white-tip reef sharks, or sea turtles!
The wreck is easily accessible from the beach. Look for the parking lot and sign between Baliku Dive Resort and Eka Purnama Cottages. You can also access the beach from Kawi Karma Beach Cottages. Head down the steps onto the tree-lined coast, where you’ll find divers and snorkelers getting ready to wade into the water.
(Tip: GO EARLY! We arrived around 9am and had the wreck to ourselves for about 20 minutes. By the time we headed back to shore around 9:30, there were dozens of divers arriving.)
The wreck did not disappoint. The water was clear and fairly warm (I’m a Floridian, so take my temperature gauge with a grain of salt). It’s an easy swim from shore, no more than 50 feet (15m) to the first part of the wreck, and plenty of coral and fish to see on the way!
The best part? Aside from 10,000 rupiah (75 cents) to park your car, snorkeling this beautiful wreck is absolutely free!
We enjoyed a yummy brunch of nasi campur on the beach, settling in to watch the divers head out to the wreck. Then we headed back to our bungalow, soaked up a little more sun, and reluctantly bid farewell to Amed. There was still so much more of Bali to see!
I’d love to tell you that the 3-hour drive from Amed to the far northern shore around Lovina Beach is a scenic wonder. But compared to the mountain road between Amlapura and Amed, it was kinda boring. The one cool sight was the peak of Mount Batur, partially obscured by passing clouds.
We passed through Singaraja and Lovina on the north central coast. Again, not much of note. After a relaxing evening at Lovina Beach (including Balinese massages in a beachside bungalow), we awoke early and continued our scenic road trip.
Turning south from the coast towards the central highlands, we climbed steadily towards the hilltop towns of Gobleg and Munduk. Both towns sit around 2,000 feet (600m) in elevation and offer 360 views of Bali’s majesty. Distant volcano peaks, vibrant green rice terraces, towering palms and banana trees – it’s a dizzying palette of color.
We regretted only passing through this stunning area. I actually felt quite jealous when we passed a few tourists with day bags, on their way to a nearby trailhead. On our next trip to Bali, we’ll definitely set aside a few nights to explore the surrounding area, which features scenic hikes to hidden waterfalls.
As we descended towards the twin lakes of Danau Tamblingan and Danau Buyan, we passed a roadside viewpoint. Not only was it an awesome photo of the lakes and mountains, but we got to meet some of the local wildlife. One species, in particular. While Jeremy kept a very safe distance, I stepped right up to meet Petrie the Giant Fruit Bat.
Okay, I don’t actually know what his name is. But he reminded me of Petrie from The Land Before Time (the pterodactyl), so that’s what I called him. Petrie was friendly, calm, very much alive, and HUGE – easily 4 or 5 pounds!!
We said goodbye to Petrie and continued down to the lakefront, stopping briefly at the abandoned Pura Ulun Danu Buyan temple.
Then we drove the short distance into Bedugul and the much more popular Danau Bratan (Water Temple). This beautiful Shaivite temple dates all the way back to 1633!
It continues to be used for ceremonies and offerings to the water goddess Dewi Danu. And at almost 4,000 feet (1200m) above sea level, Bedugul enjoys a cooler climate than the lowlands.
(Side note for ladies and gents: If you show up at a temple in Bali wearing shorts or a short skirt, you’ll be given a sarong to wear for modesty.)
After jostling through the crowds for the best photo ops, we continued south on the main highway out of Bedugul. Our plan was to drive straight to Ubud, but we couldn’t resist another roadside stop along the way. “Pure luwak coffee” jumped out at us in big bold letters – and like any good foodies, we couldn’t pass it up!
We received a little tour of the roadside coffee plantation, where we saw coffee beans at all stages of processing. Then we took a seat and prepared to sample their many specialty teas and coffees – including kopi luwak.
And what is kopi luwak, you may ask?
To start, I’ll tell you what a luwak is. It’s a catlike creature (similar to a mongoose) that lives in Southeast Asia. What does this have to do with coffee? Well, luwaks are particularly fond of coffee beans. In fact, they eat them all the time.
And somewhere along the way, someone decided it would be a great idea to pluck the undigested coffee beans from the luwak’s excrement and make coffee out of it.
Yes. Kopi luwak is, in fact, made from coffee beans that have passed through an animal’s digestive tract.
Before you start gagging, let me assure you that this is no tourist gimmick. Kopi luwak is the most expensive coffee on earth, selling for hundreds of dollars per pound. Why would anyone pay that much for coffee made from – well, cat poop?
Because it’s delicious.
Let me add that I actually hate coffee. Won’t touch the stuff. It’s way too bitter for my taste. But kopi luwak doesn’t have that bitter taste. It reminded me more of roasted nuts. It was smooth, nutty, and utterly delicious. I totally understand the price tag now. (Although in Bali, you can sample a roadside cup for just a few dollars.)
The plantation also offered coconut coffee (like drinking a Mounds bar), and a dozen varieties of tea. Sufficiently hyped up on all the caffeine, we got back in the car and continued on to Ubud.
What adventures awaited us in Ubud? Stay tuned to find out!
Ah, Bali. The famed island paradise. The stuff postcards and honeymoons are made of.
If you’re planning a visit to Bali, you’re not alone. 2016 saw a record 4.4 million foreigners descend on the tiny Indonesian island!
So where can you go to escape the masses? If you’re feeling adventurous, why not explore one of Bali’s less-traveled routes – the coastal road from Kuta to Amed Beach.
Arriving in Kuta
Bali Tip #1: SKIP KUTA. (Note: This does not apply to South Kuta or Nusa Dua, which we’ll get to later).
Unless you’re an aspiring surfer or you want to party all night with thousands of drunk Aussies, there is absolutely zero reason to go to Kuta.
There. I said it. (In case no one else did.)
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the place. There are lots of cheap little restaurants (warungs) where you can get delicious Indonesian food. As soon as we checked into our guesthouse, we headed for the closest one and had a phenomenal meal for less than $3US.
I’ll write a separate post about the food in Bali, but for now, suffice to say it’s superb. Thanks to its strategic location along the trade routes between China and India (and 350 years of Dutch rule), the Indonesian food has claimed the best flavors from around the globe and combined them in ways that are truly magical.
Our intro to this wonderful world of flavors consisted of nasi campur (mixed meat and vegetable dishes with rice and plenty of spicy sambal chili) and ayam pedas (chicken and fragrant rice steamed in banana leaf). No joke – each dish cost about $1. And they were insanely delicious.
But wait, aren’t I supposed to be talking you out of Kuta?
Yes, for the aforementioned reasons (#1: You’re a surfer. #2: You like drunk Australians. Or #3: You’re a drunk Australian surfer). That’s pretty much all you’re going to find in Kuta. So if this describes you, you’ll be right at home. If not, you’ll be bored and annoyed in about 20 minutes.
Sadly, Kuta is the beginning and the end of most people’s visit to Bali. All they see of this incredible island is a mediocre (dirty) beach, shady massage parlors, rundown nightclubs, and endless touts selling cheap souvenirs. Add in maniacal motorbike drivers and terrible traffic jams, and you’ll quickly be wondering where all those idyllic rice fields are.
Hint: They’re not in Kuta.
If you want to party in Kuta, by all means…do so. Get your drink on, practice your fake (or real) Aussie accent…and then GET OUT to see the rest of Bali. The real Bali.
Bali Road Trip 101
This may seem like a strange piece of advice in an article about road-tripping, but here it is: Unless you’re already very experienced in driving in congested third-world countries (on the left), I DO NOT recommend attempting to drive here.
Repeat: DO NOT attempt to drive in Bali unless you already have experience driving someplace like Vietnam, the Philippines, or Malaysia. The roads in Bali are more like…bicycle paths. With an endless flow of cars, trucks, buses, and motorbikes competing for space that doesn’t exist.
Or, if you do manage to get out of the city, you enter miles and miles of hairpin turns with no lane markings, no guard rails, and no one to save you when you go careening over a cliff. (Okay, maybe that was a tad dramatic.)
Still, the warning needs to be given. Travel agencies are eager to rent you cars (or, God forbid, motorbikes) for your “relaxing, fun-filled holiday” in Bali. Let me be the first to say that driving here is ANYTHING but relaxing and fun-filled.
Is it impossible? No. Obviously, people (like us) manage to do it – although we’ve lived and driven in Asia for two years so we’re kind of used to it. If you do decide to rent a car (only rent a motorcycle if you have a death wish), then please be prepared for the most exhausting, intensive driving you’ve ever done.
If this is all sounding a little intimidating, don’t despair. You can still have an amazing road trip by hiring a driver who’s used to the chaos. There are also plenty of buses and shuttle companies that will haul you to the most popular parts of the island.
Okay. Lecture done. Onto the adventure.
First Stop: Candidasa
Let’s assume you’ve hired a driver or have mentally prepared yourself to drive in Bali. Leaving the chaos of Kuta behind, you’ll drive through an unremarkable stretch along Sanur and Bali’s southwest coast. The only real place of note here is the Safari Park (if that’s your kinda thing).
If not, drive straight on to the delightful seaside village of Candidasa.
Once you’ve dipped your toes in the water and marveled at the volcanic rocks along the shore, hop back in your car to continue your Bali road trip.
Next Stop: Ujung Water Palace
If you’re following Google Maps to Amed, it will lead you inland through Tirta Gangga along the main road to Kubu. Since your goal is to explore Bali “off the beaten path,” ignore Google. Instead, when you reach the town of Amlapura, follow the signs south to the seaside Ujung Water Palace.
We stumbled upon this place by accident, having never even heard of it. As it turns out, the complex dates back to Bali’s Dutch colonial days and was built between 1909 and 1921. Once a playground for Balinese royalty, these days it serves as a beautiful park for locals and tourists alike to enjoy.
Bali Road Trip: The Scenic Route From Amlapura to Amed Beach
Okay, now we’re getting to the good stuff!
Once you leave the Water Palace and start heading north, your Bali road trip really kicks into high gear! The road begins twisting and turning its way up the twin peaks of Gunung Seraya and Gunung Lempuyang, both reaching about 3500 feet/1050 m in elevation.
What does this mean for you? Aside from the sensation that you’re driving along a jungle go-kart track, each new hairpin turn offers a new breathtaking view of the Indian Ocean.
For an hour or two (depending on how fast you dare to drive), you’ll wind through lush forest, tiny villages, and roadside markets. Chances are you’ll be the only vehicle on the road – this is definitely the path less traveled! If you’re looking to carve out your own little private chunk of Bali, this is the place to do it.
As a small aside, the east coast of Bali is renowned for its “black sand” beaches. We didn’t find too many sand beaches (black or otherwise) – instead, these beaches are actually composed of smooth, black volcanic stones. Awesome.
At last you arrive in the seaside village of Amed, where you really feel like you have the place to yourself. We chose to stay in the Beten Waru Bungalows. With an incredible view of the pool, frangipani trees, and a huge balcony that opened up over the ocean, it was awesome!
With the remaining daylight, walk the short distance to Waeni’s Sunset View Bar & Restaurant. Do not go anywhere else in Amed for the sunset, or else you’ll miss this:
Order a cocktail, sink into a bean bag chair, and watch the sun sink behind Bali’s largest volcano, Mount Agung. Not a bad way to end Day One of your Bali road trip!
What’s next on your Bali road trip? Click here for Days 2 and 3!