Johannesburg - Lion Park

cheetah, ostrich, jiraffe and cub interaction at Lion Park, Johannesburg

Game parks are a lot of fun, but probably Lion Park stands out in the crowd for providing one of the most varied experiences among all the places we visited. In one day, you get to walk with a Cheetah, feed ostriches and giraffes, watch zebras pass by and lions eat the main meal on their week. All this packed in one Sunday morning, before lunchtime. So let's get started! If you can, try to visit the park on Sunday as it is the day when lions get fed, so it's pretty exciting to watch them walk in circles waiting impatiently for their horse legs.
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Johannesburg - Elephant Sanctuary

elephant sanctuary

Elephants are one of the 5 species called "the big 5" which appear featured in the different South African notes. With a weight of up to 7000kg, they are the largest and probably the most intelligent. Elephants are known to show empathy for dying or dead individuals of their species as well as self-awareness, with an intelligence comparable to primates and cetaceans. Besides using their trunk, ears and noises to communicate,they also rely on infrasound and seismic waves created by stomping their feet - then propagated through the leg and into the ear bones. This may alert elephants up to 30km away of an individual rushing away from a predator. They are native from Asia and Africa, but the largest species is based in Africa.

While ivory trade and habitat destruction poses a significant risk to these amazing animals, parks like the Elephant Sanctuary we visit today make a significant impact when it comes to creating consciousness and derailing crazy expectations over ivory. It shall however be noted that wild elephants with cubs can be extremely violent and should never be approached during game drives. Actually, Enrique had some scary experience in Kruger when mom elephant chased their car while they drove for 5min on reverse. Turn back if you see the babies...

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Johannesburg - Walk with Lions, play with cubs

cub interaction at Ukutula Lion Reserach Center in Johannesburg, South Africa

Our first post about Ukutula Lion Research Center provides directions and a comprehensive overview of their activities, vision and research against bovine tuberculosis that causes a huge amount of lion casualties in the wild. This post is about the cub interaction and an activity that Enrique didn't try during his first visit, the walk with lions.


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Cape Town - Penguin Colony at Boulders Beach

African penguin colony in Boulders Beach, Cape Town, South Africa

Boulders Beach is located half an hour ride away from Cape Town. Its pristine waters and amazing granite boulders are home to a colony of thousand endangered African Penguins that established a nesting colony there, back in 1982. 

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Top 10 Wildlife Encounters in South Africa

cheetah close-up

South Africa offers a unique opportunity for first hand wildlife interaction. Most of the game parks have interaction activities where you can pet cheetahs, lions, tigers, hyenas, elephants, ostriches, jiraffes, while having a unique opportunity to learn more about their behavior, society, treats and challenges. In addition, you have the National Parks, beaches and dives, where you get to observe the big 5 as well as some cool marine fauna (penguins, seals and white sharks) in their natural environment.

Therefore, it strikes me how few of the people in my circle decide to visit South Africa, as a majority favour the pack Tanzania and Zanzibar. Sure, it might be an awesome place but when one of the most seasoned travellers I ever met chose SA as safari destination, it got me thinking... Maybe is it just that SA remains like a hidden pearl? 

To raise some awareness, here comes our summary of the top wildlife encounters in South Africa. The list combines experiences from Enrique, who has spent so far a total of 5 months in Joburg and my own during the 2 week Easter visit.

Detailed posts on each one, to be linked from the list when ready.

1. Ukutula Lion Research Center [WEB]
WHERE: 90min away from Johannesburg
WHY GO: Interaction with baby lions, tigers, hyenas, cheetah; walk with lions and learn about the park's research focused on finding vaccines against bovine tuberculosis that kills wild lions.
WHAT: Possible to visit as a day trip from Johannesburg. 3 hours for the package including park visit, cub interaction and walk with lions. Book in advance. Small children may not be allowed to interact with cubs because if the kid is too small, the 3-5 month old feline could take it as prey and attack.
baby tiger in Ukutula

Find out more about Ukutula visit here, interaction and walk with the lions videos here.

2. Lion Park [WEB]
WHERE: 30min away from Johannesburg
WHY GO: Interaction with cheetah, ostrich, jiraffe and lion cubs. Game park tour, either guided or with your car. Watch lion's feeding time for some scary memories. This is the park where a Game of Thrones editor was mauled to death by a lioness.
WHAT: Possible to visit as a day trip from Johannesburg. Cheetah interaction is at 9AM, lion feeding time tour is Sunday at 12, so you can interact with the rest in between.
lion cub in Lion Park, Johannesburg

Find out more about Lion Park visit and videos here.

3. Boulders Beach [WEB]
WHERE: 60 min away from Cape Town.
WHY GO: Ultra close views of an African Penguin colony since they settled in 1982. Watch them walk, walk; watch them nae nae, breed and fight predators (like seagulls)
WHAT: Bring comfortable attire, you may have to climb a bit. Combine this with Hout Bay and Cape of Good hope in one day. SELFIE STICKS ARE FORBIDDEN as they stress the penguins.
Penguins at Boulders Beach in Cape Town
Find out more about Boulders Beach visit and videos here.

4. Duiker Island (boat from Hout Bay) [WEB]
WHERE: 60 min away from Cape Town.
WHY GO: Tiny island (77 x 95 m) where a Cape Fur Seal colony lives, so you can observe these rare animals in their natural environment.
WHAT: Tour 40-60min. Boats leave on morning time, but there is a risk of the tour being cancelled if the sea is rough that day... Which was actually our case.

5. Pilanesberg [WEB]
WHERE: 2 hours away from Johannesburg
WHY GO: Malaria free National Game Reserve, expect sightings of the big 5 in this unique landscape - the park is kind of round and surrounded by mountains, it started as a volcano 1200 years ago
WHAT: Possible to visit as a day trip from Johannesburg. Explore the park with your car in the morning and join the sunset guided tour. Bring warm clothing. Book in advance.
zebra eating grass at Pilanesberg safari

Find out more about Pilanesberg visit here.

6. Kruger [WEB]
WHERE: 8h by car from Johannesburg, short flight from all main cities in South Africa (safer and more convenient if you can afford it)
WHY GO: The largest game reserve in South Africa
WHAT: Budget a weekend for this, bring warm clothing as it gets chilly at dawn and sunset, when tours are scheduled. Mosquito repellent and Malarone might be needed, as park is not Malaria-free. DO NOT APPROACH AN ELEPHANT WITH BABIES
Guided safari at Kruger

Find out more about Kruger visit and videos here.

7. Ostrich farm [WEB]
WHERE: Middle of nowhere*
WHY GO: Ostrich interaction, guided tour to the farm and opportunity to ride one.
WHAT: *Enrique visited Highgate as it was on the road from Johannesburg to Cape Town, but this location is not convenient for anyone not driving down that road.
ostrich ride at highgate farm

Find out more about Highgate Ostrich Farm visit and videos here.

8. Elephant sanctuary [WEB]
WHERE: 3 locations, close to Johannesburg, Kruger or along the Garden Route (Western Cape).
WHY GO: Elephant interaction and guided tour.
WHAT: Open 7 days a week, 2 tour with interactions start at 8, 10 and 14. Book in advance.
elephant interaction at elephant sanctuary

Find out more about Elephant Sanctuary visit here.

9. White shark dive [WEB]
WHERE: Cape Town
WHY GO: Caged dive with white sharks right in front of you
WHAT: Careful with scams - some of the top results in google will steal your money - and consider that in some cases sharks might not show up - Enrique tried twice with no success due to these issues.

10. The rest
WHERE: Anywhere
WHY GO: South Africa is a wild country with more than you think to offer...
WHAT: Jackals and rabbits in the golf court around the apartments where we stayed, dassies in Table Mountain, tortoises and cows along the road
tortoise in a side road in South Africa
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Singapore & Boracay - The Budget

credit card

We have received many requests about a post of this kind. I do not like to talk about money, but I can understand the request. Some may be getting inspired by some of our travel guides but they wonder, how much money do I really need to invest on an adventure like this? Is it really so expensive? Or can I make it?

RULE #1: The worst offender when it comes to cost are the plane tickets

This is the cost where you will have a really hard time trying to bargain for. You can eat 7/11, but you cannot bargain with an airline. As you can see in the practical case below, they account for nearly 50% of the total cost of a 2 week vacation. Then it comes the hotel, so traveling as a couple or with a friend who can share the room with you, will essentially cut down the lodging costs quite dramatically.

While considering a new destination, try to address these 5 key questions:

1) Is the place safe? Can you go sightseeing on your own? We generally get by on our own, simply because we like to explore things freely and prefer to invest in other activities, rather than guided-anything. Again, some places (e.g. Ha Long bay) require a boat trip or are only accessible with a guide (e.g. townships in Johannesburg) so that is extra money. Is it possible to walk around, take public transportation, etc? Safe places are generally cheaper to explore (e.g. you can spend easily one week in Tokyo and spend very little money, if you go for the cheapest dining & transport options) while dangerous / non-pedestrian places (e.g. Johannesburg, Curaçao) imply the added cost of a rental car / driver upfront.

2) What is rock bottom for you? What is the minimum hotel facility you can stay at and still have a good experience? Enrique and myself are very different. Personally, I am absolutely not into shared dormitory, preferably not shared bathroom either. So I can do a backpacker's place provided we have our own room and hot water (do NEVER take the latter for granted). I am saying this because typically, we aim to a certain lodging cost per night (e.g. 80€) but the same money will buy you VERY DIFFERENT THINGS depending where you are in the world and when you are planning to go - the deviation can be huge.

3) How open minded or flexible are you, when it comes to food? Can you try the local cuisine? Or do you have a sensitive tummy that does not accept huge changes? In general, local food is the cheapest but if that does not work for you... Then you need to think about paying for international cuisine (usually more expensive than local) or about buying fresh things at local markets, 7/11 and the likes (this means eating while walking or sitting on a bench or similar). After some trips to Asia, what works best for me is to have a large breakfast of things I am used to (eggs, vegetables, fruit, müsli, etc), light lunch and some dinner I can stomach (sometimes at a nice restaurant, room service o simply from 7/11).

4) Planning to do some special activity? Many people go to South Africa for skydiving, to Thailand for a diving license or come to Spain for rock climbing. The cost of the same activity with a trustworthy partner may vary heavily from one place to the next (e.g. cost of one dive in Polynesia is not the same as in Thailand) so if this is one important part of your trip, keep it in mind when planning for the budget.

5) How flexible is your agenda? In Japan, everyone takes vacation at exactly the same time, which is why prices skyrocket and why you don't see many Japanese doing overseas trips that often.  In Sweden, people take vacation more or less whenever they want. Ever wondered why are there Swedes anytime and anywhere you go? Shitty weather, flexible vacation and a strong currency are behind this. So if you can, learn from the Swedes. Try to avoid the high season and explore alternative moments when the country may also offer a perfect experience (e.g. visit Japan in November, instead of trying to catch the sakura)

As a practical example, I prepared a cost summary of our New Year detour to Singapore and Boracay. Of course it can be done cheaper or differently, we are just sharing here a ballpark figure for those of you considering this type of trip. This post just intends to be useful for those of you planning.

Flight ticket:
[1] Madrid - Doha - Singapore (return for 2 people, with QATAR) : 1800 EURO
[2] Singapore - Boracay (return for 2 people, with TIGERAIR) : 460 EURO

We typically check options in skyscanner and then buy the most suitable one directly.

[1] Singapore (6 nights, double room at M Hotel with breakfast) : 720 EURO
[2] Boracay (7 nights, double room at Isla Kiterusfing, Bulabog Beach - not resort but kitesurfing spot) : 500 EURO

We typically book through booking.com

[1] Singapore (taxi from/to airport, mandatory with the kitesurfing equipment) : 45 EURO, so 90 EURO in total
[2] Boracay (taxi+boat from/to airport, they are quite far away from each other) : 20 EURO, so 40 EURO in total

[1] Singapore (dinner for 2 - we did not have proper lunch due to the large & nice breakfast at hotel) : 60 EURO / day, so 360 EURO total
[2] Boracay (light lunch, like 2 smoothies) : 10 EURO, so 70 EURO in total
[3] Boracay (dinner for 2) : 30 EURO / day, so 200 EURO in total
[4] Boracay (kitesurfing lesson) : 43 EURO / day, maybe 120 EURO in total

If we add everything up, we come down to 1800 + 460 + 720 + 500 + 90 + 40 + 360 + 70 + 200 + 120 = 4360 EURO in total. As result of this rough analysis, we come to the conclusion that... The cost of 2 weeks in paradise during the week of new year is about 2000 EURO per person (half of it being the long haul flight from Spain).
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Singapore - Gardens by the Bay

Singapore Gardens by the Bay

Durante mi primer viaje a Singapore, sólo tuve la oportunidad de observar los Gardens by the Bay desde arriba y en la distancia. Pese a la lluvia que nos tocó en este segundo viaje, conseguimos subir a los puentes colgantes que unen unos árboles con otros y permiten explorar los jardines desde un ángulo inusual. Los supertrees están cubiertos de unos cuadradillos donde crecen viñas y orquídeas. Recubiertos de tecnología que imita las funciones de un árbol, como placas para capturar la energía del sol o la posibilidad de recolectar de agua de la lluvia que se usa para regar el resto de los jardines y en las fuentes, exactamente igual que un árbol absorbe agua de la lluvia para crecer. Adulto o niño, se trata de un paseo agradable por una naturaleza futurística que trata de convertirse en un icono de Singapore.

Hay varios invernaderos que visitar, pero tras lo escocidos que nos quedamos con el zoo (en mi opinión no merece la pena ni el dinero ni el tiempo que inviertes para ver cuatro cosas, con suerte) decidimos pasar el día al aire, en lugar de metidos en atracciones de pago que se llevan mucho en la isla.

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Singapore - CBD

walk around Singapore CBD

Pasamos el último día en Singapore recorriendo nuestros propios pasos por el CBD (Central Business DIstrict) que habíamos explorado durante nuestro primer día. Es extraña, la confianza que confieren cinco días en una ciudad, en ese momento en el que empiezas a ser capaz de orientarte sin mirar el mapa constantemente y recuerdas, lo diferente que eran estas mismas calles bajo la lluvia. El epicentro del distrito financiero de hoy en día, empezó como puerto principal de la isla, hace casi 200 años. Un cambio de actividad pero no de relevancia, ya que en torno a ambos gira tanto la economía como los businessmen de la ciudad.

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Singapore - Artscience Museum

Singapore artscience museum

Entre todos los edificios de Singapore, esta flor de loto gigante terminó por convertirse en nuestro favorito - de hecho creo que en el fondo, entramos a ver la exposición del Large Hadron Collider, simplemente para observar el edificio desde dentro.  Una muestra más de que merece la pena ser diferente, sin tener miedo a resaltar. Ser una flor... En un mundo de rascacielos.

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Singapore - 1 Altitude

Singapore rooftop bar and restaurant 1 altitude

From the windows of our penthouse in Tokyo, I used to fall asleep while watching the skyscrapers heartbeat. Guess I'm a plain sucker for metropolis. That's the only logical explanation on why those signs of life in the concrete jungle have always amazed me so much, that I miss them a lot since they are no longer part of my daily environment. Sucker or not, if visiting a big city offers an opportunity to dine among the clouds, so why not give it a shot?

Our friends and local residents advised us to drop by 1-Altitude, an über cool and highest rooftop bar in Singapore - much much higher than the terrace of Marina Bay Sands that we just visited in the previous post - for some drinks after dinner. We checked the restaurant - because all these terraces come along fancy dining - but Stellar's description seemed a bit too stellar for our pocket.

There is one key lesson from Japan - learnt after my friend Natuski, an expert on the cool bars in town - that I will share with you at no charge: All fancy bars / rooftops / terraces / whatever always have a finger food menu, which can double as dinner for those of you who rather spend money on bags than on food. 1 Altitude bar does have a finger food menu as well, so here's the perfect plan:
- Make sure to arrive before 22 (after that you have to pay entrance)
- Secure a table with a nice sunset view
- Seat back, to enjoy drinks and bites

I strongly advise you to do this the last day, so you can recognize all the places you walked past from this very special angle.
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Singapore - Marina Bay Sands Observation Deck

Marina Bay Sands rooftop bar
Make a guess, where are we going?

This is the world's most expensive standalone casino (it just costed S$8 billion). The resort is designed by Moshe Safdie, initially inspired by card decks. Maybe that's why it's hollow in the inside? Marina Bay Sands has three 55-story hotel towers, which are connected by a 1 hectare roof terrace, Sands SkyPark.

Many come to Marina Bay Sands skypark, ready to pay S$23 (15 EURO) for the view on one side. My recommendation to those of you visiting during daytime (i.e. when no dresscode applies) is to go back into the main building and get in the elevator that goes directly to the bar. You can buy a drink for the same (or even less) money and enjoy a broader angle, with less tourists and more celebrities. I visited Ku De Ta back in 2014, during night time. So coming back with Enrique, specially under a shining sun, had been in my plans ever since.

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Singapore - Sentosa

Sentosa island, Singapore

Sentosa is the resort island of Singapore. Visited by 20 million of people every year these days, Sentosa started as a very strategic island as it protected the passage into Keppel Harbour. In fact, during WWII Sentosa island was a British military fortress. Where we have a sheltered beach that hosts huge dance music festivals, the British set up artillery guns. However, all the preparations in Fort Siloso were not enough agains the Japanese, as they eventually invaded and captured Singapore from the north, after having done the same to Malaya (aka Peninsular Malaysia).

25 years later, in 1974, the Singapore Cable Car system was built, linking Sentosa to Mount Faber. A series of attractions were subsequently opened for visitors including Fort Siloso, Surrender Chamber wax museum, Musical Fountain, and the Underwater World. The causeway bridge was opened in 1992 connecting Sentosa to the mainland and in 2011, the Sentosa Boardwalk - that we crossed to get there - was inaugurated. Despite the large resort area, multiple hotels, amusement parks and stores, 70% of the island is still covered by secondary rainforest, the habitat of monitor lizards, monkeys, peacocks, parrots as well as other native fauna and flora. The construction of Resorts World Sentosa has kept environmental impact to a minimum.

Even if you feel "too old" for amusement parks, Sentosa offers a pleasant (free) walk to spend half a day without getting bored.

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