Sunday, August 30, 2015

We've moved!

We've moved to our own space now - looking forward to writing more about our travels while we're based in the San Francisco bay area - especially with a young child.

Please visit us at 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A week in Bhutan - An Overview

Bhutan, India's landlocked neighbor on the north east is slowly and cautiously edging its way into modern life. Its a norm to see boards in front of public offices and monasteries that all Bhutanese citizens be dressed in their national attire in order to enter. A busy office goer in Thimphu on the way back home will make a quick stop at a roadside temple and hug and gracefully rotate the prayer wheels a few times. The streets are clean, there are no power cuts (they export hydro electric power after all), chilies are eaten as a vegetable, the king and queen make a fairy-tale, handsome couple and are much loved and the cities are surrounded by the lush and verdant beauty of the lower Eastern Himalayas and no one honks or yells! The dazzling monasteries perched in exotic locations will leave you feeling awestruck. 

To top it off, due to India's good relations with Bhutan and being their primary trade partner, Indians do not need a visa or prohibitive tourism fees to enter and visit Bhutan, while the rest of the world (barring just a couple more countries) have to pay the steep fee of $280 per day to visit as a tourist.

Geographically, north-east India or nearby Sikkim are just as beautiful with vistas of the majestic snow capped Kanchendzonga, but if you just step past the Bhutanese border, you will get to experience their culture and lifestyle which is quite different and that in my opinion, makes Bhutan a must-see for the Indian traveler.

Tiger's nest monastery - a good 3 hour climb to a monastery perilously perched on top of a mountain cliff, with no road access


While Bhutan is small, please be reminded that its incredibly mountainous and there are only two or three airports in the whole country. It takes a day by land to go from Thimphu to Central Bhutan, so if you have just a week, its best to limit your travel to Western Bhutan. Western Bhutan has a lot to see - Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and the Jomolhari trek for those interested. Central Bhutan is well known for the Bumthang valleys, a collection of 5 valleys well known for their scenic beauty and slow paced lifestyle.

Entering Bhutan (entry permit for Indian travelers)

Indian citizens do not need a visa, but do need an entry permit which is available at the India-Bhutan border town of Phuentsholing or at the airport in Paro for those who fly in. Phuentsholing (or Jaigaon on the Indian side) is about 4-5 hours drive from Bagdogra, the nearest airport in West Bengal, India, close to the city of Siliguri. Siliguri has a train station in nearby New Jalpaiguri which has frequent trains from Kolkata. Its also possible to go up to Hasimara by train, from where Jaigaon is just 1/2 hour away by public transport (easily available). From main town Jaigaon, the India Bhutan gate is a short walk away and just beyond that is main town Phuentsholing.

Downtown Jaigaon has at least 3 to 4 decent hotels, some with air conditioning. We stayed at the newly opened Ibis hotel, which has sparkling clean A/C rooms for Rs.1800 and a restaurant that serves up very tasty food. Hotel Devi and Prasant nearby are good choices too, though a/c is not available everywhere. Check before you check in.

Siliguri to Jaigaon/Phuentsholing

Its not very easy to find a bus from Siliguri to Jaigaon. Either you have to go to the bus terminus to get a WB bus to Jaigaon or catch the Bhutan Transport Corp bus (BTC) that leaves at 12 and 2 in the afternoon. From 'Siliguri Junction', the BTC buses are a 10 minute walk away, and most cops know the way. Seats fill up very quickly and are quite cramped. The BTC buses go all the way unto Phuentsholing. You do NOT need a permit to stay overnight in P'ling. Crash for the night and get early to the permit counter to apply for yours. En route from Siliguri to the border, all buses stop at Hotel Bhutia, which has excellent veg momos. Freshen up here, as it gets really hot and stuffy. 

Entry Permit for Indian Citizens

Entry permit office is located very close to the India-Bhutan gate. Ask the guards at the gate and they will point you. The gate is only for vehicular traffic. All pedestrians will be directed to a pedestrian entrance which marks the border between the two countries. Please carry two passport size photos, copies of your Indian passport or Voter ID card. You will be photographed and the permit will be issued in as little as 10 minutes if there is no traffic. We went on a Sunday and maybe thats why we didn't see folks who go to work in Bhutan. No one will check your permit until you leave P'ling and there is a checkpost outside town. Permit is valid for 7 days only and can be extended up to your date of departure in Thimphu's immigration office. If the permit is valid up to 22nd, but you leave on the 24th, you can get it extended up to 24th immediately…its not a seven day extension. Make sure you add a day or two in case plans change.


There are public buses between cities, but for most other tourism, taxi is the main way to go. All cities/towns have shared taxis, which are considerably cheaper than renting one on your own. Buses from Phuentsholing to Thimphu fill up very quickly. Its best to buy the ticket the earlier day and leave soon as getting the entry permit. Shared taxis, Mahindra Boleros are everywhere, but they are not the most comfortable as they will only leave if they are full. Only Thimphu has public transport within the city. For tourists it will be efficient to hire a taxi for the day for sightseeing. You can negotiate with any taxi for the day or go through your hotel. Rates are expensive!

Vegan Food

Bhutanese people eat a dish called ema datsi in copious amounts. This is a dish containing chilies and cheese. You can also find Potato + cheese and mushroom + Cheese combos. Obviously not vegan, but vegans can survive very well here. All lunch meals include rice, dal and some side (mixed veg curry or meat) along with a sauce containing chilies. Indian food is widely available, so are snacks from India. Many nice restaurants have veg momo. Its very normal for a meal for two to run unto 400 rupees, even in a small restaurant. We may have paid tourist prices!

Dzong/Monastery Rules

Dzongs usually close at 5 pm, as they are administrative offices just as much as they are monasteries. Wear full pants and shirts that are not sleeveless. Guides recommend full sleeve, but Dzong security at Punakha told me 1/2 sleeve is okay, its sleeveless that is not okay. Carrying a thin jacket helps. Photography is not allowed in any of the temples, but the courtyard should be okay. Taktsang Monastery in Paro is stricter, as they ask you to leave your bag outside.


Really depends on the time of the year. In June, we were supposed to see a lot of heavy rain, but we rarely saw them. Still, we are glad we packed our rain coats and a light jacket. Thats all we really needed. Punakha and Phuentsholing are hot! Thimphu and Paro are pleasant in June. I didn't use any of my winter clothing, so I should have packed thin layers and one jacket and a scarf (instead of the two I took). Winter is supposed to be very cold, but really beautiful.


Easily available in the June off-season. I highly recommend all the hotels we stayed in.

  • Thimphu - Hotel Namgay Heritage Hotel, Hotel Wangchuck (the former is more expensive, but the rooms are luxuriously appointed, the latter less expensive but very comfortable and full of foreign tourists. The former is an uphill walk from the center of the town while the latter is right behind the clock tower.)
  • Paro - Hotel Holiday Home (close to the airport and 20 minute walk to town through the University. Very peaceful and comfortable. Its better to book a taxi for day sightseeing)
  • Jaigaon - Hotel Ibis
  • Phuentsholing - Hotel Yeobar - Very new and run by a former school principal. Inexpensive, huge rooms. No a/c.
  • Bagdogra - Hotel Marina - Ideal if you have a plane to catch the following day.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Travel Logistics - Money

Our plan to manage money on the road was really quite simple.

We had a joint account with Charles Schwab, which has a great international debit card where all ATM fees are reimbursed. We love banking with Schwab. We used our Schwab ATM card in nearly every city in South America and faced absolutely NO issues. Having a card with ATM fees would have changed things significantly and this post would be a lot longer!

The card was once swallowed by the ATM machine in Yurimaguas, Peru and we had to go to the bank the next morning to retrieve it. It was swallowed again in Uyuni, Bolivia and we did not get it back. Schwab froze the card for us, but we were still able to use mine. We maintained a small running balance in our checking account so that if our card were ever to be misused, we dont loose all our travel savings.

Travel Logistics - Packing List

In an earlier post, I wrote about the backpacks we took with us on this trip. We've often been asked how we packed for four months. Packing for four months is really no different from packing from 1 month or for 10 months. You're likely to get really bored with your clothes, but hey! what are shops for? I went shopping in Santiago and picked up a few things when I got really bored of what I was wearing.

Instead of a his and her packing list, I am going to write this list by category. We were still packing up our house until the previous day, so we really didn't have a lot of time to pack our bags well.

23 Days in Bolivia - an Overview

Our stay in Bolivia was rather relaxing - we didn't hit too many cities or do a lot of activities. We had to deal with getting our transportation letter from the US embassy, which was needed to enter the US as our Green cards were stolen. This required a lot of documentation and as a result we spent a lot of time at internet cafes getting everything together (our laptop was stolen too).


- Booked three day Salar De Uyuni tour from San Pedro De Atacama. Cross the Bolivia border on day 1 and ended the tour at Uyuni, Bolivia on Day 3 after visiting the salt flats of Uyuni.


Salar De Uyuni - magical salt flats

I remember the first time seeing a blog post about Salar De Uyuni and being absolutely smitten. I think it was one of those few images that stuck to my head and eventually propelled me to want to go travel for an extended period. White salt fields that seem to stretch to infinity and the crazy photography tricks that nature lets you play as a result.

Travel tips:

  • Book four day tour from San Pedro de atacama or from Tupiza, Bolivia. From San Pedro, its a good way to get into the Bolivia part of your trip. You can also get to Uyuni via public transport from another city in Bolivia and take a day trip to the salt flats - cheaper and faster, but a tour group is fun.
  • Ask for prices at many tour agencies. Get to know your tour group members - variety in nationality makes for a more enjoyable time. If everyone is of the same nationality and speak a single language that you dont know, it wont be fun.
  • Get an itemized list of the services included in the tour package. Check with tourist office for reputed tour companies.
  • All tour companies are Bolivian as the tour begins only after you cross Chile border.
  • Pack in layers.

Early morning at Salar De Uyuni

Waiting at the Bolivian border for immigration and breakfast

Rather fancy immigration building 
Breakfast at the border

Snow capped vistas

Tour jeeps

Country love!

Altitude check - altiplano is really really high!

Flamingos and red lake

Train graveyard

We were excited that we'd get to take cool photos with our really nice DSLR (Nikon D7000 for the photo enthusiast) and our handy compact camera Canon S95. We lugged it around the rest of the continent and got great pictures, but as luck would have it, two things happened. Our DSLR got stolen with a bunch of other things, and our S95 got ruined thanks to a sandboarding event at San Pedro de atacama. We were thoroughly disillusioned that we were suddenly camera-less for the last one month of our trip and that too, in Salar De Uyuni.

All this happened in San Pedro De Atacama, really a small desert village in the atacama desert. So we had to go back to Calama (not our favorite city at all) and went to a really swanky mall there to buy a basic digital camera way overpriced than the rates at Amazon (we really missed

Sadly, the rest of our pictures, including those from Salar De Uyuni would be from this camera, though we should be fortunate for having one at all. We were not able to get those cool shots travelers get from Uyuni, but had to make do with some of these.

4-day trips to Salar De Uyuni can be arranged from San Pedro De Atacama from any tourist agency. The tour begins in Chile and can either end in Uyuni or you can return back to Chile. The four day tour costs 68,000 chilean pesos or ~USD 140 and includes food, stay, transportation and guide in a jeep that can carry 5-6 people. You will visit the salt flats on the 4th day, but the first three days are through a national reserve area at high altitudes (called the altiplano region).

Sunrise at salar

yummy breakfast

Our cook and her things make a pretty picture

Kiss time!

A Lazy Guide to La Paz, Bolivia

We spent a lot of time in La Paz, Bolivia. Nearly 10 days in all. We had to go to early to the US embassy to get our transportation letters (having lost our green cards) and our flight back home wasnt departing until 10 days later. We did take a side trip to Copacabana and Isla Del Sol, but we still had a lot of time to spare.

La Paz is incredibly hilly, cold, high, bustling with life and activity and a great place to walk around. We spent a lot of time in La Paz, Bolivia. Nearly 10 days in all. We had to go to early to the US embassy to get our transportation letters (having lost our green cards) and our flight back home wasn't departing until 10 days later. We did take a side trip to Copacabana and Isla Del Sol, but we still had a lot of time to spare.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Cajas National Park (near Cuenca, Ecuador)

For those visiting Cuenca, I highly recommend Cajas national park. Its just outside Cuenca, but offers excellent hiking and takes you a world apart. At the park entrance, you pay the fee and the park ranger will give you an excellent map and show you what hikes are available. The trails are very well marked and the scenery is simply beautiful.

Getting there

Get on a bus going to Guayaquil. It costs $2 per ride, even though its only 1/2 hour per ride (its roughly $1 for every one hour of bus rides) to get off at the entrance to the park. $2 entrance fee for maps and trash bag. Restroom facilities can be used here.

We walked the pink route which is clearly marked. This is a scenic and easy route. We packed our lunches at the hostel and stopped for lunch. Eventually you will hit the road back to Cuenca - flag any bus heading back and climb on. As easy as that!

El Cajas is beautiful and has a surprising mix of landscapes. Gentle meadows with creeks flowing through and stark mountain vistas abound. 

Cuenca - Ecuador's suave colonial city

Cuenca in southern Ecuador seems to have it all - cute colonial streets, a bustling plaza, good cultural scene, great restaurants and excellent weather. It was our last big city stop in Ecuador.

Cuenca is the sort of place to put on some comfortable walking shoes and just wander around. If you get bored and crave the outdoors, a 1/2 hour bus ride is Cajas National Park, which offers excellent and safe hiking. The towns of Chordeleg, Sigsig and Gualaceo are a convenient day trip to get in some small town culture. We were accompanied by our Chinese friend Bones while we were in Cuenca and we even managed to celebrate Pongal together.

A small photo tour of Cuenca:

A stopover at Lima, Peru

Lima was mainly a stopover for us to connect between Iquitos and Cuzco. We were running short of time and had to quickly see Machu Picchu as our time to enter Chile was running out. We were even contemplating dropping Chile out of our itinerary.

Lima had really tasty veg food, starting from the 6.50 sole meal at Govinda's and corn from street carts.