Cruise through the Fjords of Patagonia, Chile and Argentina

In April of 2010 Don and I did the 5 day/4 night Fjords of Tierra del Fuego cruise with Cruceros Australis. The one way cruise starts in Punta Arenas, Chile and passes through a beautiful region of glaciers with a visit to Cape Horn before arriving in Ushuaia, Argentina. The trip includes various shore visits to explore the local flora and fauna with great sighting of elephant seals. October through March you can also see penguins at Magellan Island.

The photos below, taken in 2010, will give you a taste of what this area has to offer. I refrain from adding more of a review of services, food and accommodations as it was so many years ago. I will say that at the time we were quite pleased with the quality of the trip.

First Sunrise

 

Cruise Punta Arenas to Ushuaia

Elephant Seals at Ainsworth Bay

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Ainsworth Bay

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Cruise Punta Arenas to Ushuaia

Brookes Bay

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Pia Fjord and Glacier

 

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Cruise Punta Arenas to Ushuaia

 

Cape Horn

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Wulaia Bay

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Morning Arrival in Ushuaia

Cruise Punta Arenas to Ushuaia

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A day in Punta Arenas, Chile

February 10, 2018

Punta Arenas, a full-on Patagonian seaside town best known for penguins and it’s A-class cemetery, is worth a day or two before taking the 2.5 hour bus ride on to Puerto Natales, gateway to Torres del Paine. It is also the starting point for cruises headed south through the fiords to Ushuaia, Argentina at the tip of South America.

Flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas

Sky Airlines was significantly cheaper that Latam for the 3.5 hour flight to Punta Arenas. If you are trying to make a same day connection from the States through Santiago see the previous post for information on our arrival into Santiago. During the current renovation project it took nearly 2 hours from the time we landed to clearing customs.

The queue for Sky Airlines baggage check went relatively quickly. We had originally wanted to carry on our backpacks and had done so on the international flights to Santiago, but Sky wasn’t letting any backpacks on as carry-on. In fact they were checking at the gate most of the larger carry-ons and backpacks that had slipped through.

Punta Arenas (1 of 1)

If you are lucky enough to have clear skies, past Puerto Montt it’s a beautiful fight.  From the left side of the aircraft you see most of the famed natural landmarks, Mt. Fitz Roy, Lake Argentina and Torres del Paine, however, even on the right you pass amazing snowy peaks and glaciers that flow into lakes.

We finally arrived in Punta Arenas about 30 minutes late, I’m guessing due to winds, as we weren’t delayed at takeoff or during our brief stop in Puerto Montt. Despite the small size of the airport, just 4 gates, baggage was slow to arrive.

We took a taxi into town for 10,000CLP ($15USD) arranged at the desk before exiting the terminal.

Penguins The Seno Otway Penguin Colony is near the airport but was closed at the time of our visit and may be closed permanently. I can’t find anything definitive on-line. Tours to Isla Magdalena generally leave in the morning and require a full day.

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Punta Arenas is tidier than I remembered from our 2010 trip. That or it’s gentrified in the last decade due to inflow of petrochemical money. Nonetheless, huge cypress-type trees line certain avenues and the Plaza Gamero in the center of the town.

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The cemetery, touted as “among the most interesting in South America” in Lonely Planet, is a highlight of the town. The lines of large manicured gum drop trees set the stage for myriad tombs, mammoth familial tombs as well as smaller individual graves.

 

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Many are lavishly decorated while others have been forgotten.

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Of special interest are the rows of individual tombs stacked in a grid fronted with a diorama of mementos commemorating the life of the person. The colorful display glows in the late afternoon sun.

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A walk along the beach. On a beautiful afternoon the sun was shining and the air so clear the horizon out to the sea formed a crisp line between the sky and the water. The beach, however, was dirty with seaweed and trash.

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Bernardo O’Higgins Monument

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Imperial Cormorants

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Imperial cormorants sun themselves on the remnants of a former dock making use of every available post.

Naval and Maritime Museum – I did not make it back to this museum on this trip, however, I do recommend the museum for those interested in the Shackleton expeditions to Antarctica.

Sleeping and Dining

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Hotel Chalet Chapital is located about a ten minute walk from Plaza Gamero and just a block and half from the Fernandez bus station where buses to Puerto Natales depart. The rooms are clean and comfortable. It’s a good option for those looking for a triple with 3 single beds and a private bathroom.

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The property has an office atrium and a cozy lounge. Breakfast is served in a woodsy chalet style dining room and includes a small buffet with cereal, yogurt, cake, pie, fresh fruit salad and juice. Bread, both white and wheat, is brought to your table along with a plate of cold cuts and cheese. Coffee is instant.

We had one mishap at the hotel. A power surge shattered the light bulb of one of the bed side lamps knocking the power out to the entire room. Although it was after 11PM the night manager got the problem resolved within a half an hour including replacing the light bulb.

Dinner at El Fogon de Lalo located about a 10 minute walk from Plaza Gamero. The convivial owner greeted our friend who dined here once before with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, then greeting us with the same enthusiasm. The dining room is open and warmly decorated.

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While a typical steak house type menu with various steak options and sides, portions are well prepared and huge. My steak, ordered medium rare, was cooked as I wanted, a little on the rare side of medium rare.

Café Tapiz serves mains, sandwiches and cakes. Decorated in an old-style general store theme, it’s a quaint place to stop for an impromptu lunch or snack. The sandwiches are huge and easily serve two if you are not too hungry. We shared a melted goat cheese and tomato sandwich and a slice of a lemon raspberry pie, washed down with a beer. Just perfect for a late afternoon light lunch.

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A Day in Santiago, Chile – The Start of a Patagonia Adventure 

February 9, 2018

This post starts a series on a 3 week Patagonia hiking trip hitting the highlights of Torres del Paine in Chile and Mt. Fitz Roy in Argentina. This is my second time to the region having hiked both these areas independently with Don in April of 2010, unfortunately before I started blogging.

As one of my favorite hiking regions in the world I jumped at the chance to explore it again. This time I would be traveling with three other women on guided private treks. But first we needed to get to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. To break up the long journey we spent a day and night in Santiago and the following morning flew to Punta Arenas, the closest airport.

Arrival at Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport (SCL), Santiago, Chile

After a long flight through LAX and Lima, Peru we landed in Santiago at 6:30 in the morning. It took another 45 minutes to get to the gate, first waiting for the bus and then a longish ride past the cargo area to the gate. It should be noted that at the time of writing the airport was undergoing major renovations.

Immigration went fairly quickly and the hefty reciprocity fees have been suspended for Americans and Canadians.

We only had carry-on luggage so there was no waiting for bags and passing through customs went fairly quickly as well. Still, for those thinking about a tight connection through Santiago, it took us about 2 hours from the time we landed to clearing customs.

As recommended by the guide book, we stopped at the official taxi desk near the airport exit and took a metered taxi into town. To Bario Bella Vista the clerk told me it would be about 18,000 to 19,000CLP. It actually cost something under 15,000CLP ($23USD).

Sights around Bario Bella Vista

Bario Bella Vista is a bohemian neighborhood of tree-lined streets with mural covered buildings. It is especially pleasant in the late afternoon and into the evening when the harsh midday light softens and the street livens up with tourists and locals hanging out at the many eateries and bars.

It really hasn’t changed much since I last visited the area in 2008. Maybe more murals and more lively, but still a seedy feel that diminishes in the fading light.

La Chascona, the whimsical house located at the top of Barrio Bella Vista, is one of three homes of Chile’s beloved poet Pablo Nerudo. Arriving around 2pm it wasn’t too crowded. They now do self-guided tours with a hand held audio guide instead of the mandatory guided tours of the past. The small rooms, however, can still get quite crowded.

I’ve always loved the Pablo Nerudo houses filled with his collections of a wide range of curiosities along with collections of art by famous friends, including Diego, Leger and the Italian designer Piero Fornasetti. A short film shown at the beginning of the tour covers his life and is also a good introduction to Chilean history during its troubled years of the mid to late 20th century. No photos are allowed inside.

Cerro Santa Lucia

Cerro Santa Lucía is a pretty city park about a 20 minute walk from Bella Vista. A little crumbly but with an interesting collection of plant material and hardscape, mostly dating from the early 20th century, that winds up the hill with views overlooking the city. In the middle of summer it was not the clearest day with the mountains in either direction cloaked in brown haze. Although the Santiago skyline is a collection of non-descript tall buildings, if you are looking for a pleasant walk in a green space Cerro Santo Lucía is a good destination.

Sleeping and Dining in Bella Vista

Bella Vista Apartments with a decent location at a reasonable cost this is a good option for those who are budget conscious but don’t want to sleep in a hostel.

 

The apartment has a small kitchen including a refrigerator, cooktop, microwave, minimal cookware and a water boiler with instant coffee and tea. We didn’t try cooking, however.

The bathroom is average sized but has a slight moldy smell. The living area, bedroom and furnishings are fine but the place is in need of fresh paint and a good scrub. There is also a balcony, but those sensitive to noise will find the city too loud to sleep with the balcony door open.

The apartment is located on a relatively quiet street two blocks from the center of the Bario Bella Vista action on Constitution. I say relatively as there were loud drums playing as we were getting ready for bed that suddenly stopped at 10PM.

With the long overnight flight from LAX, we were especially pleased with apartment’s offer of an early 9AM check-in for an extra $28. We also arranged with the apartment office for our taxi departure, leaving at 7AM on a Saturday morning. Taking the expressway we arrived back at the airport in 15 minutes.

Dinner at La Piccola Italia is a good option for vegetarians with several meatless pasta options. Food was tasty but not exceptional and the service friendly and efficient. Portions are large and can easily be shared. We split a ensalada primavera followed by a pasta pomodoro and the cannelloni stuffed with spinach and topped with half bolognese sauce and half cream sauce. We could have easily shared one salad and one pasta. Located on a quiet street it was pleasant dining on their sidewalk terrace.

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Thinking about a Trip to Madagascar?

For our complete itinerary and list of posts to specific destinations check out the Madagascar page.

Grand Tsingy de Bemaraha

Never on a trip have I asked myself more times, “What on earth am I doing here?” Yet never have I had so many stories to write in my journal every night. If you are looking for adventure, Madagascar is a good place to find it.

Wildlife

Those looking for exotic animals and birds will not be disappointed. Without trying very hard we had numerous sightings of various species of lemurs and chameleons. Although, unless you are knowledgeable on how to track these animals it’s best to go on walks with local guides.

Infrastructure and Roads

Infrastructure and transportation remain the biggest challenges on the island. With the heavy rains every year, other than those near the capital the roads for the most part are not well maintained and go downhill from there. In the hinterland of Western Madagascar we were on the worst dirt tracks I’ve ever seen in my life, the taxi brousse crawling up and down the deeply scarred track.

Even in the North, which is more developed for tourism, the guide asked me not to tell people how bad the roads were as it would make tourists not want to come. If you can’t tolerate bouncing around on rough roads Madagascar is definitely not the place for you.

Deciding where to go

My original intent was to try to see the whole thing, but Madagascar is a very big island and travel is very slow. I therefore decided to concentrate on a couple of areas with the intention of going back some day if we really liked it. Spending more time in two areas, the West and the North, we got a more in depth feel for the region and had a more relaxed itinerary. The Western river excursion was definitely the most rugged and adventurous part of the trip.

Using Travel Agencies

While we didn’t have our trip completely organized by a travel agency (I booked most of the hotels and flights myself), we did use local agencies to arrange multi-day excursions as well as day trips – Remote River Expeditions in the West and le Paradis du Nord in the North. In order to maintain some level of comfort you will need to work with travel agencies to organize ground transportation.

Hotels

Upscale hotels are generally in good condition and offer the services you would expect.

Cost

Travel in Madagascar is no bargain. I’m sure if you live like a local you could travel, eat and sleep fairly inexpensively, but this is a very poor country and basic conditions are quite rough.

Western Madagascar River Trip

While there are more options on the Tsiribihina River we chose a canoe trip on the Manambolo River to the Tsingy of Bemaraha National Park. While a fascinating cultural experience, it was not the picturesque setting I had imagined. The other detraction was the fact that the rivers run low at the end of dry season (October) and the canoes frequently had to be pushed through the low sandy spots. The weather in October was also quite warm to hot.

Diving on Nosy Be

Diving with French owned Scuba Nosy Be turned out to be a great way to improve our diving skills as the company is very professional and safety conscious. Although I don’t have enough diving experience to compare the diving sites to other sites around the world, we were happy with the range of underwater life we saw.

Safety Concerns

A poor country plagued with bouts of political unrest, it’s wise to keep track of the local political situation. At times there are warnings that certain regions of the country are unsafe due higher levels of crime, especially in the South. There are also roving bands of zebu rustlers who make their living stealing zebu, the local cattle. While I haven’t seen reports of zebu rustlers harming tourists, you should be aware that they are out there and avoid any conflicts.

Final Thought

The best advice I can give is be prepared for the unexpected and allow a little extra time in your itinerary for Plan B. As we all know it’s the unexpected that makes the best stories.

If you have traveled in Madagascar or have a question please leave a comment.

 

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Diving with Scuba Nosy Be, Madagascar

October 6-8, 2016

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Highly rated on Trip Advisor Scuba Nosy Be is French run and does good business with a mostly French speaking clientele. As such, most of the guides are also French speaking but they do have English speaking guides as well.

They are located just a 3 minute walk down Ambondrona Beach (10K north of Hell-ville) from Nosy Lodge.

I had made arrangements online for 3 days of diving. Erwin, the owner, stopped by the lodge at 6PM the night before our first dive to meet us and briefly tell us the next day’s schedule. He also asked about our diving experience and wanted to see our PADI cards.

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They have 3 boats, all of which went out each of the 3 days we were with them. There is a maximum of 8 persons per boat with generally 1 instructor for every 4 divers. Boats are small but in good shape and comfortable. Basic conditions on board with no shade and no toilet, shared dry space for your clothes and such, and just enough room for the tanks and a bench in front of them to gear up. Equipment was also in good condition with the BCDs looking brand new.

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Boarding and disembarking is in the surf along the beach in water as high as mid-thigh.

The boat is set up with the gear when you arrive and they bring the gear back after you disembark. The boat captain and a French speaking assistant were friendly and helped with basic gear donning and removal but didn’t fuss with all the buckles and releases.

We were impressed by their certifications and that they went over their safety equipment on board. In addition, there is a decompression chamber on the island.

They only provide a bottle of water and 1 banana for each person. They try to get you back by lunch but 2 days we ran over until nearly 2:30PM – once because we spent time with a whale shark between dives.

Our guide Etienne spoke good English and was very professional and safety conscious. They take excellent care of you, especially if you have less experience and still need a little extra guidance. However, it’s still important to check your own gear. One young woman found out after she had already started the descent that her tank was not fully open. When she ran out of air, she had to use Etienne’s octopus.

Dive Sites

We haven’t been diving long enough for me to judge the conditions of the dive sites.

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We did 2 dives at Nosy Tanikely Marine Park (entrance 20,000 ariary/person), a protected area popular with snorkeling groups.

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The island has beautiful crystal blue water and white sand beaches but plenty of sharp shells and coral making walking difficult.

The first dive was much clearer than the second. The reef was in good condition with lots of live coral and a wide range of fish. It was just us, Etienne and 1 other experienced diver.

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We were about an hour at 12.5ft with pretty good visibility and an abundance of colorful fish, some sizable, sea turtles and a great view of a leopard shard just lying in the sand while 10 divers tried to photograph him. My camera battery unfortunately had died.

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We spent 45 minutes on shore where more and more boats of snorkelers were arriving for the day.

For the second dive we went out farther from the beach and did a free descent. This time there were 2 more clients and another instructor. There was a surge as we descended and the water was not as clear.

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Here we saw several turtles, rays and the same types of colorful fish we saw on the first dive. However in the lower light and visibility my little Olympus Tough TG-4 didn’t work so well.

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The next 2 days we did 4 open water dives. All had some reefs and similar species of fish with frequent larger schools and bigger fish. Visibility was OK but not great. Highlights included a moray eel, octopus, and tons of large fan coral. As we were diving deeper I didn’t take my camera on these dives.

Of course the biggest get was swimming with a whale shark. We tried to find one on the second day of diving but came up empty. On the third day they made a special effort to find one as there were a number of clients eager to see one.

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We spent a good 15-20 minutes swimming with him, though it was a rugby match jockeying for a good photo position and my wimpy camera was not very good in the rough surf conditions.

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Although it’s the biggest fish in the world, this one was just a juvenile about 5 to 6 meters in length.

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Nosy Lodge, Nosy Be, Madagascar

October 5-9, 2016

Nosy Lodge

Nosy Lodge, located on Ambondrona Beach 10K north of Hell-ville, is just a 3 minute walk down the beach from Scuba Nosy Be. The small resort has 3 seaside bungalows, a few garden bungalows and a couple of rooms in the main house.

Nosy Lodge

The spacious seaside bungalows are a basic wooden structure with high ceilings, minimally yet tastefully decorated.  The comfortable foam bed has mosquito netting but the sheets were pilled. The waffle towels looked nice but were scratchy, especially against sun or wind burned skin. The outdoor shower had no amenities, i.e. no soap or shampoo. There was a safe in the room but the batteries didn’t work. You needed a key.

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The pleasant front porch with lounge chairs is just 50 meters from the beach. Heaven sleeping with the sound of the surf in the background.

Nosy Lodge

It’s not the nicest beach on the island, however, as it is brownish in color rather than the white sand at some other beaches and is covered in a fair amount of seaweed and washed up rocks. While the beach front is fairly developed mature plantings soften the buildings.

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The complex includes pleasant hang out areas and a pool.

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Amazing sunset views on the water

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Women going to market

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Family bathing the zebu on Sunday

Restaurant

The restaurant serves 3 meals a day and you can get demi-pension at a good price with a set menu at lunch and dinner – generally lots of fish. However, if you don’t like what is offered they will make adjustments.

For our first lunch we had a choice of salads –

Nosy Lodgeroasted vegetables and cheese or

Nosy Lodgesmoked fish followed by a choice of

Nosy Lodgefish or

Nosy Lodgeshrimp for mains.

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Nosy Lodge

Lounge with dining room behind

Nosy LodgeDinner begins with an amuse bouche served in the lounge if you are having drinks before dinner.

Nosy LodgeThe first dinner started with fish in a cream sauce followed by

Nosy Lodgefish topped with an herbed cream sauce accompanied by starchy mashed sweet potatoes and shredded vegetables. For dessert a dense brownie-like chocolate tarte – very chocolatey and not too sweet.

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The last dinner was Malagasy beef with greens in a green Sichuan pepper (ma) flavored sauce.

Nosy LodgeBreakfast included coffee, fruit plate, crepes, jam, butter and a bread basket with 3 types of bread.

Service

While the Belgian (French speaking) owner, Eric, speaks English, communication with the staff works much better in French, especially for any difficulties you may have.

While it feels more French here than Malagasy, some travelers complained that it was too French, with staff ignoring those who only spoke English. This is still Madagascar and things only work so well.

For example it took 3 days to get our laundry back. The lock to the outdoor shower door in the bungalow was broken. We pointed this out the first day but it was never replaced.

We were told in advance that we would have to change rooms for our last night. We made the change in the morning before heading down the beach for our last dive.

The safe in the new room was low on batteries. It finally opened with the help of a staff member. I asked her what happens if it doesn’t work again. She assured me that someone could open it for us. Sure enough when we returned the safe wouldn’t open and our room wasn’t made up. We had left the room key in the door – this room is right off the main lounge area. Their excuse was that there was only one key, the key that we had left in the door.

To their credit they quickly got someone to clean the room. Still there was the problem of the safe. Only Eric, the owner, could open it and we would have to wait as he was not on the premises at the moment. At nearly 3PM we hadn’t eaten lunch and the lodge restaurant was already closed. We were planning on going to a snack bar down the beach but all our money was in the safe. The staff kindly suggested that they could make a sandwich for us. Problem solved.

When Eric returned he did get the safe open as the batteries still occasionally worked. Shortly afterwards a young woman showed up with the key explaining that it was the only one and we needed to take care. Great, but when I try it afterwards it didn’t work. In the end we decided not to use the safe as we were not sure we could get our stuff out if the batteries failed for good.

All in and this is a relaxed and convenient place to stay, especially if you are diving with Scuba Nozy Be. Just don’t expect a European level of service.

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Antsiranana (Diego Suarez) to Nosy Be, Madagascar

October 5, 2016

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Today we drive from Antsiranana (Diego Suarez) to Ankify where we catch a boat to the island of Nosy Be for a couple days of beach and diving before heading back to Johannesburg. We arranged the transfer to the port at Ankify with Eric at le Paradis du Nord, the same outfit that arranged our day trips to the Red Tsingy and the Three Bays.

Eric explained that the drive would take six and half hours and cost 390,000 ariary ($120 USD) for the both of us as they also charge for the return trip back to Diego. We were to leave at 6AM so the driver could get back to town the same day.

Our driver Tony was on time and a fast but safe driver. The vehicle was in good condition and our first car in Madagascar to have working seatbelts.

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Loaded down pickups going to market

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The first part of the drive, the drive from Diego to Ambilobe, is rough for most of the way, passing through villages and markets, with numerous people and animals on the road. This is the same road that passes by the turnoff for the Red Tsingy and the Ankarana Reserve.

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Tony stops for the occasional chameleon.

A teenage girl wearing only blue striped underwear throws rocks at a zebu who was encroaching on her bathing hole by the side of the road. Sorry no photo.

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Two boys try to coax their zebu cart to the side to let the on-coming truck pass. The zebu, however, are reluctant to move sideways.

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Ambilobe is a bustling crossroad town and like Diego comprised of colorful crumbly colonial era structures.

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Surprisingly there are many more bicycles here than we have seen anywhere. The bicycle traffic continues along the way to Ankify.

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From here the landscape becomes greener with mountains in the background and more mature trees than we have seen anywhere except for in Amber Mountain National Park.

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Just outside of Anikfy the route is a pretty shaded lane that is in much better condition.

In Ankify Tony drives us straight to the port and hands us over to a boat captain. I’m suspicious at first but it is one of the collective boats that Eric suggested we take to Nosy Be. We’re charged the 12,000 ariary Eric said it would cost and get the last two spots so it leaves straight away.

On the way to the boat an official looking sort wanted to check our passports, forcing me to dig out my money belt in the middle of the open port.

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Once on board the small boat which accommodated about 18 passengers we were given life jackets that we were expected to put on as everyone else had. The wind had picked up and the sea was rough, bouncing us across the waves. If I didn’t hold on I would fly up and crash back down hard on the seat.

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The trip to Nosy Be took about 40 minutes including a stop at another island where a young woman and man took off their shoes, climbed over the side of the boat and walked to shore.

At the port in Hell-ville on Nosy Be the porters were eager to carry off our bags before we had decided on a taxi. Only one young man offed us a taxi service, asking the same price to Palm Beach that the folks at Nosy Lodge advised me it should cost, 25,000 ariary. We reach the lodge by 1PM, 7 hours from Diego.

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