Monday, 14 August 2017

The Galapagos Islands - one of the foremost wildlife experiences on the planet

Photos and story by Brett Goulston

All the documentaries I’d seen on the Galapagos Islands inferred that it’s one of the foremost wildlife experiences on the planet. Friends and family members who had travelled there only reinforced this. It was time to experience these famous islands for myself so, along with my family and some friends, we took at Galapagos cruise,  joining National Geographic Lindblad’s Islander, an expedition ship with a capacity of just 48 guests.

These isolated volcanic islands are a province of Equador, lying about 1,000kms off its coast. Whichever way you come at it, it’s a haul. From Guayaquil, Ecuador, we fly to Baltra Island, board the ship and before too long, head off on our first adventure – North Seymour Island via zodiac. The wildlife’s impact on us is strong and immediate. Just minutes after hitting the shore, a blue-footed booby poses for us on a rock, fur seal pups bask in the sun, land iguana’s are everywhere and we see dozens of bird species – too many to name. Special mention to the frigate male with its red chest puffing out to attract a female!

There’s a general rule on the Galapagos that tourists are not allowed within 6 feet of the wildlife. Problem is, the wildlife didn’t get the memo and doesn’t abide by the rule so expect to get close … real close … to many different and extraordinary species.

Over the week we snorkel, trek, paddle and witness the very best this archipelago has to offer. The list of wildlife we see first hand is extensive and brings with it the best possible boasting rights! There is no single highlight to mention – every activity or viewing brought its own wow factor.

We couldn’t fault any aspect of the cruise either. The staff’s knowledge, enthusiasm, and willingness to assist were simply outstanding. A real plus was their genuine passion for conservation and that care-factor can’t help but rub off on you. The food on board is varied, healthy and good quality. Our basic level cabin was more than comfortable. The activities, the planning, overall organisation and logistics all worked seamlessly. I could go on and on… and on… but the best thing to do is to go see this special part of the world for yourself.

The Galapagos Islands is one of the greatest places on the planet to get your fix of wildlife. Just remember the 6 feet rule – even if the wildlife doesn’t!   

Blue Dot Travel
is an authorised agent for Lindblad Expeditions - National Geographic and can book you on any one of their Galapagos Islands tours or other itineraries.  Click here for details. 

The Galapagos Islands lie nearly 1,000kms off Equador

Heading out on a zodiac to  meet the wild life

Easy does it for this old tortoise - who could be a century old!

Want to see unusual critters? Galapagos is the place!

Galapagos abounds with iguanas and reptiles ... kicking back in the sun for all to see

Lots of seals and sea lions to be spotted too - hard to get isn't in their vocab!

The famouse blue-footed booby - not to be confused with the red-footed equivalent!

The dramatic landscape that is home to some of the world's most unusual creatures

Bird life abounds

It's tough being out there all day in the equatorial sun

Told you the red-footed booby was different to the blue-fotted one!

Monday, 7 August 2017

Cartagena’s Old City – an up-and-coming destination

Photos and story by Brett Goulston

I’d heard and read a lot about Cartagena, Colombia’s UNESCO-listed old capital on the Caribbean coast. My travel friends kept telling me I had to travel to Columbia and when I finally got there, I was not disappointed and now understand why Cartagena’s popularity as a destination is on the rapid rise. It certainly offers great contrasts having been described as elegant and crumbling, sexy and scruffy, colonial and modern. And if you like colonial architecture, this city is a must-visit. In my view, it’s equal to Antigua, Guatemala, which is generally regarded as Central America’s best-preserved colonial city.

There are three sections to Cartagena’s Old City contained within some 9kms of Spanish fortified stone walls, which are in a continual state of maintenance.

First, there’s fashionable San Diego where boutique hotels, trendy restaurants, bars and cafés and intriguing shops are to be found amid a maze of cobbled streets and winding lane ways. Don’t be put off because it’s touristy – it has a fabulous atmosphere and there’s a photo to be taken around every corner. Dinner in a nice restaurant will cost about $US20 – including a beer – so it’s good value. Over the years it has become very expensive to buy in this area where, so I’m told, properties rarely come on the market and a small house can cost millions! Drop the sightseeing routines and be sure to get lost in this area or you really won’t experience the alluring atmosphere. My personal view … spend at least a morning plus an evening visiting this part of town. Better still, repeat the exercise on another day and you’ll feel like you know the place!

The second area is where locals live and it too is a must-see. Up-and-coming Getsemani is also filled with atmosphere but one vastly different to that of the tourist area. Just a few kilometres from San Diego, you’ll notice it’s significantly poorer and well-worn but also colourful and intriguing with lots of graffiti and street art. As you walk through the narrow roads, catch a glimpse into people’s houses and see how they live. This doesn’t bother the friendly locals who are more than likely to give you a warm “ola”.  You’ll notice back packers and cheaper places to eat and drink, including some trendy food vendors.

In between these two sections is La Metuna. Consisting government offices, a few higher rise buildings and local housing, there’s not much on offer for the tourist.

One final piece of advice – time permitting, head out at the crack of dawn for a mangrove tour in a wooden dug-out boat. The canoe owner will do all the hard work while you just pop on a life jacket, get your camera ready and enjoy. You’ll see amazing bird life, the locals fishing, amazing mangroves and serene scenery. Well worth the effort!

Keen to travel to South America? Blue Dot Travel offer small group tours of Columbia and Panama.  Click here for more information …

Cartegna lies in Colombia's far north on the Caribbean coast

Colourful and inviting street cafés abound

Tour the mangroves in a simple boat

The atmospheric Getsemani district with great street art

Fresh tropical fruit abounds

Colourful street-scapes

Cartagena brings together Spanish and colonial architecture

Monday, 31 July 2017

The Panama Canal

By Brett Goulston

Since I was a small kid, I’d always wanted to visit Panama and see the Panama Canal.  The notion of watching huge cargo ships glide through the nearly 80km of a man-made waterway in between the two Americas and linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans had always fascinated me.  I thought it was perhaps a boy thing but in reality, as one of mankind’s biggest engineering achievements it has broad and magical appeal.  The idea of creating a water passage across the isthmus (a very cool word indeed!) of Panama dates back to the 1500s.  At the time it was deemed impossible but the idea remained tantalising as a potential short cut from Europe to Eastern Asia. The French failed in the 1880s to build the canal and US commenced construction in 1904 and opened the canal a decade later.

I was fortunate to be in the region on a research trip for our travel business and took the chance to fulfill that boyhood dream of mine, with three days in Panama City and environs. Day One was all about the Canal.

Driving or taking the train in either direction between Colon and Panama City pretty much follows the canal. On the Atlantic side, the canal forms part of the man-made Lake Gatun which is very wide in parts. I’d always thought the Canal was one long, narrow passage – wrong! There are three locks over the 80-odd kilometres – Gatun, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores – which lift the ships up and down as much as 26 metres because certain sections of the mountainous landscape are not at sea level.  Ships take around 8 hours to travel the entire canal, making it nearly 13,000kms shorter and a whole lot faster than the 8 – 10 weeks it takes to go around the bottom of South America!

About 30 ships pass through each day in both directions. It now operates 24/7 so capacity has increased to the point the canal delivers more than half the country’s revenue!

We watched from the observation centre as a large cargo ship passed through the Miraflores lock with the entire process taking only about 20 minutes. The 10-minute educational video helped my understanding of how it all works – well worth enduring the freezing air conditioning! We also crossed the canal on a barge near the San Lorenzo National Park entrance. There’s an enormous bridge under construction nearby that will allow ships to pass under and vehicles to cross over much more quickly than our 40-minute barge experience.

The Panama Canal is an amazing sight that didn’t disappoint. You can’t help to be in awe of the engineering, the size of the project and its mind-blowing statistics, the huge ships passing through and its history.  Sadly I didn’t have the time for the 5-hour Panama Canal cruise experience so I plan to return one day and live that final part of the dream.

Keen to visit Panama?  Join our
Blue Dot Travel small group tour to Panama and Colombia, you won't be disappointed.  Click here for details.
The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
The observation deck at Miraflores Lock

The biggest of ships can fit comfortably through the canal

The train runs alongside the canal between Colon and Panama City

Three locks over the canal's 80kms lift ships up or down about 26 metres

Ships take about 8 hours to navigate the lengthg of Panama Canal

The new enormous bridge under construction near San Lorenzo National Park

Monday, 24 July 2017

Tehran – it’s not what you think

Photos & story by Brett Goulston 

I cannot recall visiting any country in any part of the world where the people are more welcoming than in Iran. This might sound like a big statement but it’s true. Within my first 24 hours in Tehran I was invited to play table tennis, asked where I was from on numerous occasions and frequently stopped with a smile, an out-stretched hand and a thickly accented and sincere, “you are welcome in Iran”. I had heard that the people were friendly but now I can confirm this is so very true and a key part of what makes travel to Iran so rewarding.  

Tehran is a thriving metropolis. The Tehran population is around 10 million people with another 2 million coming in to work each day. I’m told the city is most famous for two things – pollution and chaotic traffic – but don’t let this put you off. It’s a gem of a city for travelers with so many things to see and do … way too many to list here so I’m not even going to try! 

Nestled against the lower slopes of the towering snow-capped Alborz mountains, Tehran is in fact Iran’s most secular and liberal city but nonetheless, I was expecting it to be ultra-religious, a little backwards and perhaps even scary. This is certainly what our media will have us think while a certain US president would also have us believe the place is full of terrorists but this could not be further from the truth. Apart from the head coverings which all women must wear in public, Tehran could be any other modern cosmopolitan city with its shops, cafés, fast food outlets and international brands everywhere you look … but in this case, all set against more than 250 years of fascinating Iranian history.  

The city is clearly divided into two. The north could be Toorak or Woollahra with beautiful streets lined with trees and expensive houses and apartments. And I mean really, really expensive – our guide tells us some of the apartments have lifts for the cars so the owners can get into their car on their own level! The south of the city is closer to what I expected but certainly not down and out. Tehran is not immediately the country’s most inviting city but those who tour Iran and take a closer look will be well rewarded.

Blue Dot Travel offers escorted three-week Iran tours for small groups. Click here for more details about our itineraries.  Get in touch if you would like to register your interest in our next tour in 2019.  

 Tehran lies in Iran's north, near the Caspian Sea

One of the many characterful faces to be seen in West Asia's most populous city

 The decorative art work is stunning and tels many historic tales

Interesting and beautiful architecture abounds 

 East meets West as two Blue Dotters mix it with the locals

The city's south is very densely populated 

 Brett simply can't go by a coffee shop without stopping!

 Some local students on an art excursion

Monday, 17 July 2017

Why you simply must visit Israel

The Western Wall, Wailing Wall or Kotel is an ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem

Story and photos by Brett Goulston
Israel has many unofficial names including The Jewish State, The Promised Land and the Land of Milk and Honey. But it could also be called Iswowl! There is so much packed into this small country.

Jerusalem’s Old City an ideal starting point for any and all Israel tours. The city has an ultra-rich heritage from its role over the centuries as a spiritual home to Jews, Muslims and Christians. A trip to the Western Wall is nothing less than fascinating. You’ll witness hundreds of Jews at any time, from the Secular to the ultra Orthodox (and every sect in between) praying vigorously. It’s a sight to behold and it’s been going on for thousands of years!  You need at least three days to see the city’s best. Make sure you organise a guide - I can’t think of any city where such knowledge is more essential.  

Close by but so very different is Tel Aviv. If Jerusalem is the spiritual home and capital, Tel Aviv is the “happening” and modern city. Fabulous hotels and beaches line the Mediterranean, cafés and restaurants abound and fast cars and fashionable young people are everywhere. It’s kind of like Santa Monica meets the Cote d’Azur if that makes sense.  A walk from the hotel area to the old port city of Jaffa (pronounced Yafa) is a highly enjoyable and must-do experience if you wish to experience the local Tel Aviv way of life. 

I’d read about how the Israelis turned much of their arid land into lush, green, orchards and vegetable farms. I’d seen it in documentaries too but nothing prepared me for witnessing it first-hand. Thousands of acres in every direction see Israel move well beyond self-sufficient to being a major exporter. The result is fabulous, fresh food wherever you go (except for the holy days).

Most people travel to Israel for the history and with dozens of ancient sites around the country you simply can’t be disappointed. Tourism is one of Israel’s largest industries but leading-edge technology is its most important. Technology hubs with many start-up companies have appeared across the country. Today, many countries around the world use Israeli-born technology across dozens of categories including agriculture, science, medicine, engineering and computers.

Anyone who loves to travel simply must visit Israel. Its hundreds of villages, towns and cities not only deliver on the history front but across so many other dimensions as well. To join one of Blue Dot Travel’s small group tours of Israel and Jordan click here for more information.

Map of Israel & Jordan

Dinner in Tel-Aviv

Brett samples the “best ever” baklava!

     Tower of David and the walls of Old Jerusalem

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem     

     Ultra-Orthodox children

     The fascinating ancient ruins of Beit She'an

Israel’s flag flies high on Masada

Palestinian man in Old Jerusalem     

     The Negev desert covers much of Israel’s south

 The Bell Caves   

 The Dead Sea