Southeast Turkey: Planning Your Trip

Deyrul Zafaran, Turkey

When To Go

Southeast Turkey is dry and hot with mild winters and scorching summers. Avoid the summer months (June – August) at all costs. For ideal temperatures, visit in April or October.

Suggested Itineraries

Situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the cradle of Western civilization, the southeast corner of Turkey contains a plethora of ancient cities, each distinguished by its unique cultural, culinary and linguistic heritage. It also boasts extraordinary ruins from the world’s oldest temple, Göbekli Tepe, to the colossal head statues of Nemrut Dagi to the dazzling mosaics of the Roman ruins at Zeugma.

With so many important sites, the region requires time to appreciate. For trips of a week or less, I recommend choosing to make either Mardin or Sanliurfa your base and limiting your travels to the immediate vicinity of each. With two weeks, you will have time to visit all of the important sites in the region.

Below I have outlined two recommended itineraries of five days each.  If you have more than five days, simply select your favorites from each itinerary or combine the two.

Five Days: Mardin, Midyat, Hasankeyf

 

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Day 1: Arrive by plane to Mardin. Stay at Gazi Konagi or Reyhani Kasri. For dinner, go to the rooftop terrace at Seyr-i-Merdin, where you can take in breathtaking views of the Syrian plains below. Order the Kaburga Dolmasi, slow-cooked leg of lamb shredded and served with rice, fried almonds, and spices.

Day 2: Wander the narrow, sloping streets of Mardin, exploring its bazaar, mosques, courtyards and caravanserais. Visit the Sakip Sabanci Mardin City Museum for a fascinating introduction to Mardin’s history and culture. If you have time for excursions beyond the city, arrange for a driver or guide to take you to the extensive Roman ruins at Dara or the former seat of the Syriac Christian Church, Deyrul Zafaran Monastery.

Day 3: Travel by bus or taxi to Midyat, an ancient Syriac city about an hour from Mardin where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken. Stay at the exquisitely remodeled Kasr-i-Newroz, our favorite hotel in all of Southeast Turkey. Discover the city’s Syriac Christian churches and beautifully preserved honey-colored homes.   When you have finished exploring Midyat’s historical center, visit Mor Gabriel Monastery, the oldest Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world, set among the olive groves and rolling green hills beyond the city.

Day 4: Take a 30-minute bus or taxi-ride to Hasankeyf, a bewitching city on the Tigris River that will soon be flooded by the Ilisu Dam.  The only drawback to visiting Hasankeyf is that hotel options are very limited.  If you are not concerned about comfort, stay at the Hasbahce Guesthouse, which offers basic rooms at inflated prices.  Alternatively, you could visit Hasankeyf as a day trip from Midyat, though be warned that if you plan to travel by bus you will miss the late afternoon and early morning light that is ideal for photography.

Once in Hasankeyf, walk to the bazaar and ask for the rug dealer, Arif. He speaks perfect English and can help you find a guide to take you to the expansive cave city and castle above the city, where residents of Hasankeyf lived until the 1960’s. At sunset, stop for tea at one of the many teahouses perched above the Tigris River and enjoy views of the ancient stone bridge, minaret and Zeynel Bey mausoleum beyond. For dinner, eat fresh fish from the Tigris at Ramazan restaurant and chat with the friendly English-speaking owner, Rustem.

 Day 5: Return to Mardin (1.5 hours from Hasankeyf) for your flight home.

Five Days: Sanliurfa, Homestay in Kurdish Village, Nemrut Dagi/Gaziantep

Manici Hotel, Sanliurfa, Turkey

Day 1: Arrive by plane to Sanliurfa. Stay at Manici Hotel or Cevahir Konuk Evi. Walk to Urfa Castle at sunset for stunning views of the Great Mosque and city below.

Day 2: Stroll along the tree-lined canals of Gölbaşı gardens and visit the Balıklı Göl, or Pool of Sacred Fish, where pilgrims flock to pay homage to the site where God intervened to save Abraham from his death. Explore the complex web of shops that comprise Urfa’s ancient bazaar. Within the bazaar, stop for coffee at Gümrük Hani, a courtyard filled with men in purple headscarves smoking from water pipes and playing backgammon. About 30 minutes beyond the city, visit Göbekli Tepe, an archeological site dating back to 9500 BC, which is believed to be the world’s oldest place of worship.

Day 3: Arrange to spend a night with a Kurdish family in a rural village outside of Sanliurfa through a local tour company called Nomad Tours. The family will spoil you with their gracious hospitality and fabulous home-cooked meals and you will acquire a first-hand look at life in a Kurdish village.

Day 4: Continue your cultural tour of the region with Nomad Tours by requesting the Sunset and Nomads tour. This tour includes a visit to an animal market in Siverek, tea with nomads, a boat trip across the Euphrates and finally a sunset hike to the head statues at Nemrut Dagi.

Day 4 Option 2: From the Kurdish village, travel about two hours by bus or taxi to Gaziantep, the largest city in the region. The main attraction here is the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, which recreates the ancient Roman city of Zeugma and showcases its exquisite mosaics. Gaziantep is also celebrated for its cuisine, especially its baklava which is considered the best in Turkey.

 Day 5: Fly home from either Sanliurfa or Gazientep.

Nemrut Dagi, Turkey

 

 

 

Bolivia: Choosing a Salar de Uyuni Tour Operator

Salt-cones-and-cloud-reflections-at-sunset-on-the-Salar-de-Uyuni-Bolivia1

Photo by Paul & Paveena McKensie from Wild Encounters 

For many years, I dreamed of visiting the Salar de Uyuni in Southern Bolivia.  At 12,000 square meters, equivalent to the size of Belgium, it is a the largest salt flat on earth, a vast expanse of blinding whiteness as far as the eye can see.  During the rainy season (December – March), it transforms into an immense mirror, producing an astounding reflection of the sky and clouds above.

When it came time to plan my trip, however, I found the process of selecting a tour operator so perplexing that I almost chose to skip Bolivia altogether.  Hiring an experienced guide and driver to accompany you to the Salar de Uyuni is essential to ensuring you remain safe.  Dozens of tour operators based in Uyuni offer tours of the Salar, but the challenge lies in identifying one that is both reasonably priced and responsible.

Two types of tours are offered: private tours, which are reliable but pricey and group tours, which are cheap but potentially unsafe.  The price difference between the two is significant.  While a four-day private tour costs about $1000 per person, the standard three-day group tour costs about $150 per person.  Many budget travelers opt for group tours and emerge satisfied with their experiences.  Others, however, return with horror stories.

In 2008, ten tourists died after two jeeps from competing agencies crashed into each other on the Salar and the gasoline each vehicle carried on its roof exploded.  Though no one is certain how this collision occurred, it is common knowledge that many tour drivers come to work drunk or deliberately fall asleep while traversing the Salar.  During my own trip to the Salar, I was alarmed to hear a rumor that some budget operators serve as fronts for drug trafficking gangs.  By posing as tour operators, these gangs are able to both launder their money and deliver drugs in the same jeeps used to transport tourists.  Not surprisingly, they often offer the best prices since they do not actually rely on tourism to finance their operations.

Given the risks that come with booking a group tour, and the fact that even the most reputable budget operators fail their clients on occasion, it is advisable to pay more and opt for a private tour.  This is undoubtedly the safest and most comfortable choice.  By booking a private tour with a reputable company, you will stay in the best hotels, eat well and be able to stop whenever you like for photos or bathroom breaks.  In contrast, even on the best budget tour, you will be crammed into a jeep with up to eight tourists and sleep in dorm style barracks with an outhouse.  If comfort is important to you, the private tour is the way to go.

If, however, you are on a tight budget and don’t mind sacrificing creature comforts, booking a group tour should be safe as long as you select a reputable company.  During my visit to Uyuni in December 2013, I heard consistently positive reports for two budget operators in particular: Cordillera Traveler and Red Planet.  Below I have included a list of reputable companies, recommended to me during my time in Uyuni, that offer both group and private tours.

Group Tours

Cordillera Traveler

Red Planet

Licancabur Tours

Private Tours

Fremen

Ruta Verde 

Hidalgo Tours

Northwest Argentina: Planning Your Trip

Cactus, Tilcara, Argentina

When To Go

The best time of year to visit Northwest Argentina is in April and May, when the heavy rains and intense heat of the summer months (December – March) have subsided and the foliage is at its finest.  April is also the month when red peppers are harvested and laid out to dry in the lovely mountain village of Cachi.  Do not despair if visiting during these months is not feasible.  Northwest Argentina enjoys a mild climate year round and can be visited comfortably at any time.

Suggested Itineraries

The distances in Northwest Argentina are immense.  To visit the three most important sub-regions– the Calchaqui Valley, the Quebrada de Humahuaca and the Puna— you need at least two weeks.  If you have less than a week, you will need to select only one of these places to visit.  In that case, I would suggest limiting your trip to the Calchaqui Valley, which has both spectacular scenery that can be enjoyed while driving and hiking and world-class vineyards and spas for relaxing.

Below I have included two sample itineraries.  They are deliberately brief with links to prior entries for you to obtain more detailed information about each place.

Five Days

Road from Cachi to Cafayate, Argentina

Day 1: Arrive in Salta.  Stay at Finca Valentina.

Day 2: Depart Salta for a road trip through the Calchaqui Valley.  Drive to Cachi and stay at Finca la Paya.

Day 3: Drive from Cachi to Cafayate.  Stay at Patios de Cafayate or Casa de la Bodega.

Day 4: Enjoy a relaxing day of wine tasting, hiking or massages in Cafayate.

Day 5: Return to Salta (3 hours from Cafayate) and board flight home.

Two Weeks

Red and Silver Mountains, Puna, Argentina

Day 1: Arrive in Salta.  Stay at Finca Valentina.

Day 2: Explore Salta.

Day 3: Depart Salta for a road trip through the Calchaqui Valley.  Drive to Cachi and stay at Finca la Paya.

Day 4: Drive from Cachi to Cafayate.  Stay at Patios de Cafayate or Casa de la Bodega.

Day 5: Enjoy a relaxing day of wine tasting, hiking or massages in Cafayate.

Day 6: Arrange for a local guide to pick you up from Cafayate and drive you to El Peñon in the Puna.  Though the drive from Cafayate to El Peñon can be done on your own, once in the Puna you will need to be accompanied by a professional guide in order to explore this region safely.  We had a fantastic experience with our guide, Pompon, from Socompa.

Day 7: Day trip from El Peñon to Campo de Piedra Pomez and Laguna Grande.

Day 8: Drive from El Peñon to Tolar Grande.

Day 9: Day trip from Tolar Grande to Mina La Casualidad or Desierto del Laberinto.

Day 10: Drive from Tolar Grande to Salta.

Day 11: Depart for Quebrada de Humahuaca.  Stop in Purmamarca for photos in the late morning and then continue to Tilcara to spend the night at Las Terrazas.

Day 12: Visit the Pucara (indigenous ruins) of Tilcara in the morning and return to Salta in the afternoon.  Stay at Selva Montana in the suburb of San Lorenzo.

Day 13: Enjoy a relaxing day of hiking and lounging by the pool in San Lorenzo.

Day 14: Fly home.

Northwest Argentina: Road Trip Through Calchaqui Valley

Calchaqui Valley, Argentina

The Calchaqui Valley is situated high in the mountains of Salta Province in Northwest Argentina.  A river cuts across this long and arid valley that is defined by its stunning variety of landscapes: lush oases, strange and colorful rock formations, snowy peaks and vast plains dotted by sand and flowering cacti.

The best way to see the Calchaqui Valley is by renting a car and exploring it on your own.  The starting point for this road trip is Salta, a busting city of 650,000 inhabitants and the capital of Salta province.  From Salta, drive to Cachi, a tiny mountain village with cobblestone streets and colonial style buildings in the shadow of a snow-covered mountain, the Nevado de Cachi.  The final stop is Cafayate, a larger town encircled by vineyards and red rock mountains, which is an ideal place to rest for a day or two before returning to Salta.

Car rental tip: Rent your car from Federico Ochoa at Marina Semisa Rent A Car near Plaza 9 de Julio in Salta.  I had read horror stories before my trip from travelers who rented cars from other local car rental agencies, but Federico came highly recommended to us by our hotel and was indeed extremely reliable and professional.

Recommended Itinerary:

Day One: Salta to Cachi

Distance: 98 miles on both paved and unpaved roads, allow up to six hours including stops for lunch and photos

From Salta, drive south along Route 68 for about 45 minutes and stop for lunch at the wonderfully rustic El Papabuelo in El Carril, a small roadside eatery specializing in empanadas made in a traditional wood-burning oven, as well as other regional favorites like corn-based humitas and tamales.

Tamal, El Papabuelo, El Carril, Argentina

From El Carril, turn west onto Route 33 and brace yourself for one of the most bizarre and spectacular drives of your life.  Past the grand estancias and tobacco fields of Chicoana, you will enter the Quebrada de Escoipe, a verdant ravine bordered by steep and winding cliffs with rock faces shaped like Venetian masks that will startle you unexpectedly at every turn.  From there, the road begins to ascend the famed Cuesta del Obispo.  The green vegetation slowly fades and gives way to arid rocks and parched mountains dotted with flowering cacti, known as candelabra for being shaped like antique candlestick holders with multiple arms.  After reaching the summit, Piedra de Molino at an elevation of 3348 meters (10,984 feet), you will descend onto a wide-open plain crowded with even more cacti, the heart of Parque Nacional Los Cardones, a park with informative signs and well-marked trails for seeing the cacti.

Oasis near Cachi

Your final stop for the day is Cachi, a village high in the mountains with cobblestone streets and white colonial buildings with green doors.  You will want to stop in Cachi for a walk around the village with your camera, before heading to your hotel, Finca La Paya (see previous entry), a nineteenth century farmhouse situated in a river valley about fifteen minutes south of Cachi with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.

Finca La Paya, Cachi, Argentina

Day Two: Cachi to Cafayate

Distance: 102 miles on an unpaved road, allow eight hours including stops for shopping, lunch and photos

From Finca La Paya, drive south along Route 40.  Take a detour between El Colte and Seclantes to visit the Camino de Artesanos, a country road that runs parallel to Route 40.  This road is home to Argentina’s finest poncho makers.  Here you can watch the artisans at work and buy ponchos and other textiles.  The road ends in Seclantes, a lovely village with colonial architecture and lush vegetation, an oasis in the desert that is the Calchaqui Valley.

Seclantes, Argentina

Stop for lunch at Hacienda De Molinos, the beautifully preserved home of the last governor of Salta Province under Spanish rule.  Dine under the shade of an enormous leafy pepper tree in the main courtyard of the hacienda and then take a stroll through the surrounding village of Molinos, another colonial gem along Route 40.

Molinos, Argentina

South of Molinos virtually all traces of vegetation and water disappear.  The road turns to sand and curves through a narrow maze of jagged rocks piercing upward like arrows, the aptly named Quebrada de las Flechas.  Be warned that the landscape here is so bizarre that you will want to stop every few minutes to take photos.

Quebrada de las Flechas, Salta Province, Argentina

Finally, you will reach the red rock mountains and vineyards of your destination, Cafayate.  Here there are many fantastic places to stay, including the ultra luxurious Patios de Cafayate and more affordable but highly recommended Casa de la Bodega.

Day Three: Cafayate

Take a break from the long days of driving and indulge in the vineyards, spas and incredible landscapes of Cafayate.  There are many fashionable and costly vineyards to choose from including Esteco of Cafayate, but those seeking a less pretentious experience will prefer San Pedro de Yacochuya or Bodega Nanni.  Spas can be found at the high-end hotels, including Patios de Cafayate.

Vineyard near Cafayate

At sunset, take a drive with your camera through the terracotta colored rocks of Quebrada de las Conchas, the third in a series of stunning ravines you will have encountered by now in the Calchaqui Valley.  Those staying at Casa de la Bodega can hike to the Quebrada from their hotel.

Quebrada de las Conchas, Cafayate, Argentina

Day Four: Cafayate to Salta

Distance: 115 miles on a good paved road, allow four hours including stops for lunch and photos

Return to Salta along Route 68, a good paved road, which will get you back to Salta in less than three hours if you make no stops.  The main attraction along this road is Quebrada de las Conchas, which I recommend those interested in photography visit separately the day before so that you can enjoy the intense colors of the rocks at sunset.

Quebrada de las Conchas

Just past the town of Alemania, stop for lunch at La Posta de las Cabras, a dairy farm with a delightful restaurant specializing in homemade goat cheese, sumptuous olives, salads and desserts.

Goat cheese, La Posta de las Cabras, Alemania, Salta, Argentina

End your trip in Salta.  For hotel recommendations in Salta, see previous entry.

Argentina: How to Save Money by Avoiding the Official Exchange Rate

Argtine100Pesobill

Probably the most frustrating and overwhelming aspect of traveling to Argentina these days is navigating the exchange rate.  Usually, when traveling abroad, this is not an issue that requires any advance planning.  You simply arrive in a new country, compare the rates offered by various banks or official exchange houses and select the one that gives you the best rate.

However, in Argentina, if you are looking for a bank or official exchange house, you are already on the wrong track.  That is because these sites use the official exchange rate, but everyone else in Argentina uses the black market, or “Blue”, exchange rate.  The difference between the two is very significant.  Currently, at the official rate, US $1 equals 6.5 pesos, while at the Blue rate, US $1 equals 10 pesos.  Accessing the Blue rate, or at least one that is close to it, will save you hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars during a single trip to Argentina.

The problem is that, in order to access the Blue rate, you must sell your dollars on the black market.  And while it has become commonplace to find black market buyers, known as “arbolitos”, huddled like drug dealers on street corners throughout Argentina, fraud is rampant and the risk of getting scammed very high.  So, how can you, as a foreign tourist, obtain a favorable exchange rate without becoming a victim of fraud?  Here are two ways:

1)  Sell dollars to a trusted Argentine acquaintance

If you have friends in Argentina, or if you have friends who can put you in touch with their friends or family in Argentina, you should have an easy time finding a buyer willing to exchange your dollars at a favorable rate.  Though Argentines must pay a higher price to buy dollars on the black market, they are willing to pay this price because recent policies have severely restricted their ability to buy dollars through official channels.  In addition, they are eager to buy dollars because rising inflation makes it nearly impossible for them to save money in their own currency.  As a tourist, you can benefit from this situation by selling your dollars to a trusted acquaintance at a rate that is equal or close to the Blue rate without taking the risk of selling to a stranger on the black market.

2)  Transfer dollars from a U.S. bank account using Xoom.com

Fortunately, if you do not have friends in Argentina, there is another solution for you.  The money transfer website Xoom.com allows you to transfer up to US $2000 in a single transaction from a U.S. bank account to yourself at one of their pick up locations in Argentina.  The advantage of this method is that Xoom, unlike a bank, converts your dollars into pesos using an exchange rate that is significantly more favorable than the official exchange rate.  Currently, at the Xoom exchange rate, US $1 equals 8.8 pesos.  That is not as high as the Blue rate, which would give you 10 pesos, but is significantly better than the official exchange rate, which would give you 6.5 pesos.

Xoom charges a small fee for each transaction, but as long as you transfer a large sum of money, the loss in minimal.  When I was traveling in Argentina about a month ago, I was able to save US $1200 on a single transaction (a five day tour and several nights at a hotel) by using Xoom compared to what I would have spent using the official exchange rate.  The savings are significant and, therefore, Xoom is a fantastic alternative for travelers unable to access the Blue rate.

For more tips on exchanging money in Argentina, refer to two excellent Argentina based expat blogs: Gringo in Buenos Aires and Discover Buenos Aires.