Diving Sipadan Malaysia
This video was taken three years ago by a fellow diver – Philipp Heinle – during a few days of incredible diving on Sipadan, Malaysia. I’m the diver sans wetsuit.
This video was taken three years ago by a fellow diver – Philipp Heinle – during a few days of incredible diving on Sipadan, Malaysia. I’m the diver sans wetsuit.
Date of Visit: March 2017
Recently I flew to the Philippine island of Palawan to do some diving and snorkeling in the stunningly beautiful turquoise waters which surround the town of El Nido.
Getting to Palawan is very easy, thanks to frequent air connections from Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport by Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific Air and Philippines Air Asia. These airlines fly multiple times a day into the Puerto Princesa airport, which is located downtown in the provincial capital of the same name. At the time of my visit, a big, new, modern terminal was under construction.
One thing that surprised me about Palawan is just how long the island is – stretching 450 km between the islands of Mindoro (to the north) and Borneo (to the south). Reaching El Nido (250 km to the north) requires a 5 hour mini-bus transfer from Puerto Princesa. There are lots of private operators running buses along the route so competition is fierce, buses run often and a ticket will cost you no more than 600 peso’s (US$12).
Little El Nido is one busy tourist town. Rampant development has converted this (once quiet) fishing village into one big backpacker hostel with a few upmarket ‘flashpacker’ places in between. The streets of El Nido are packed with guest houses and I had no problem getting a room as a ‘walk in’.
If you wish to overnight in Puerto Princesa, you are spoilt for choice. I stayed at the newly opened, immaculately clean, well-run and very friendly Casa Belina – they’ll provide free airport transfers if you request it.
There are many operators in El Nido selling the same four island hopping/ snorkeling packages – package A, B, C & D. You can view the different packages here. Due to a lot of competition – prices are kept low, with a typical day out costing just P1,200 (US$24). Included in this are boat transfers around the islands of the national park, drinking water, lunch and snorkeling equipment.
If you wish to dive, you’ll find a good choice of dive shops along the main street adjacent to the beach. I chose to dive with Palawan Divers who offered three dives (including boat transfers, all equipment and a buffet lunch) for under US$100. We also had a professional underwater photographer join us for the day so I’ve been able to include some images from the dives below.
The waters around El Nido are part of the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area – the largest marine sanctuary in the Philippines. Divers & snorkelers are required to pay P200 (US$4) to enter the waters of the park but are rewarded with an abundance of marine life and a vast array of corals.
A highlight of the day was swimming over a huge field of cabbage corals at South Miniloc. This coral garden was first discovered by Jacques Cousteau in the 1970’s. The fields are home to large schools of yellow snapper.
As a marine protected area, the reserve counts 447 species of coral, 5 species of marine turtles, 888 species of fish and 1700 species of crustaceans – in other words – it’s a diver’s dream!
Other blogs from the region – Video: Diving Sipadan
Date of Visit: 14/07/2017 – 25/07/2017
I’ve just completed a twelve day trip to Panama, my 4th visit to this dynamic Central American destination. For years the government has focused on building bigger and better infrastructure and the good news for travelers is that (due to it’s efforts) accessing Panama has never been easier. The route network of Copa Airlines’ (the national carrier) continues to grow and today, the airline provides frequent connections to most major cities in the Americas (and to some European cities) from their hub at Tocumen airport in Panama City.
All of this increased aviation activity has resulted in Tocumen airport becoming the busiest in Central America – a true regional hub. It has also meant that the existing terminal is operating beyond capacity. To remedy this, a new Norman Forster designed terminal is currently being built. This is due to open later this year and will solidify Panama City’s regional ‘hub’ status.
Once on the ground, there are many attractions which make Panama appealing to tourists. Panama City offers a wealth of history and is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.
The city was founded by the Spanish in 1519, who were led by local Indians on the short crossing from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish then used the crossing to transport their treasures from their new world Pacific-coast colonies in Central and South America back to Spain via the Atlantic.
Today, the beautiful old town (Casco Antiguo) is my favourite place to spend time in the city. This UNESCO listed heritage site is slowly being renovated one building at a time, so with each return visit there’s always something new to explore.
The narrow cobbled streets (hopefully one day they’ll make them traffic-free) are lined with historic churches and lead into quiet, leafy squares. Everywhere there are bars, cafes, restaurants, shops and artist studios – a great place to meander, sight-see, relax and pick up a souvenir or two. In between the renovated properties are old abandoned properties (their stone facades propped up by support beams) which await renovation. It’s all very photogenic.
Outside of the old town is the new town – a modern, bustling city – complete with shopping malls, soaring high-rise office towers, traffic-clogged streets and fancy hotels.
The new town is made up of different districts, including the financial district. Construction cranes are a permanent feature on the Panama skyline as new buildings pop-up at a frenzied pace.
Outside of the city, there are a plethora of travel options. Top of most visitors’ bucket list is a trip to the Panama Canal locks. There are three sets of locks between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The closest to the capital (Miraflores locks) can be visited on an easy half-day trip. Here you’ll get to watch ships pass through the old historic locks, while the newer, larger locks are out or sight in the distance and not open to the public. However, if you visit the Gatun Lake locks (Caribbean coast) you will be able to see the mega-sized ships passing through the new locks (opened in 2016).
After the canal, you can spend your time relaxing on the Caribbean coast; sailing around the beautiful San Blas islands; exploring old Spanish coastal forts; diving/ snorkeling or heading to the other side of the country to spend time meandering along the Pacific coast.
Once you’ve had enough of sun, sand and beach you can venture into the central highlands, where you’ll find lush, green rainforests clinging to the sides of extinct volcanoes. It’s on the slopes of these volcanoes where you’ll find cafe fincas (coffee farms) growing the famous Geisha coffee bean (US$260/ kg), which Panama is famous for. A great base for exploring the highlands is the town of Boquete, which you can read more about in my blog – Bird Watching in Panama.
My favourite place to explore dining options is the old town, where there’s always a new restaurant/ cafe opening somewhere. On this trip I returned to my favourite old town cafe – Super Gourmet – which is especially good for breakfast and lunch. It’s owned by a friendly and informative American (Blaine) and it’s one place where you can try a cup of the famous Geisha cafe. I especially recommend a slice of their lemon pie while you sip on of their amazing Panamanian coffees.
My favourite bar in the old town is the newly opened The Strangers Club. The bar is part of a group of hipster cocktail bars, known as the ‘Employee Only’ bars which span the globe from New York City to Macau, Singapore, London and Miami. The cocktails, food and service are all amazing. If you are looking for a special night out then this is the venue.
As for accommodation, Panama City offers the traveler two very different options – you can stay in a beautifully renovated guest house/ hotel in the old town or in a modern, high-rise hotel in the new town. Many of the new hotels are located along the bay front, where – thanks to a 5 km long footpath/ cycle way – you can join locals in the evening to exercise/ promenade. My pick of the modern bay front hotels is the Hard Rock Hotel, which combines 5-star accommodation with a themed experience (like staying at the Rock ‘n’ Roll hall of fame) and offers an amazing breakfast.
The old town offers wonderful shopping from upmarket boutiques, artist studio’s to cheap and cheery souvenir stalls. In the new town you’ll find the biggest and best shopping mall in Panama – the sprawling Albrook mall. This is popular with visitors from throughout the region who come here to shop in stores not available in their home countries (and at reasonably cheap prices). Also worth checking out is the Multicentro mall (in front of the Hard Rock Hotel) and the larger Multiplaza Pacific mall (more upscale with lots of branded shops), which is a short taxi ride from the Hard Rock.
Other blogs from the region – Feature: Panama Bird Watching
Date of Review: 26th of April 2016
I’m temporarily residing in Cali, Colombia. Each day I go to my local market to buy some of the fresh fruit, which grows in abundance here. There is always a large variety of fruit, some of it truly exotic. I was curious to try all of these and thought sharing the tasting results in a blog would be a good idea.
Due to the topography of the country, Colombia is perfect for growing all types of produce, from tropical fruits on the hot, humid coastal plains to cooler climate fruits high up in the Andes mountain range to really exotic stuff in the hot and steamy Amazon basin. No matter what the required growing condition Colombia can provide it.
It was all very delicious and something I will repeat again elsewhere. Without further ado, here are the fruits in question.
English Name: Yellow Dragon Fruit
Spanish Name: Pitahaya Amarilla
Texture: Soft, leathery but firm skin/ soft and mushy fruit inside (like a kiwifruit)
Taste: Mild sweetness, slightly tart aroma, very much like a kiwifruit
Origin: The cactus this fruit grows on is native to Mexico. The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.
English Name: Naranjilla (translates from Spanish as ‘Small Orange’)
Spanish Name: Naranjilla (Ecuador & Panama)/ Lulo (Colombia)
Texture: Gritty skin, feels like sandpaper / soft, mushy, translucent pulp inside
Taste: Slightly tart citrus taste – like a lime
Origin: The plant this fruit grows on is native to northwestern South America (Colombia, Ecuador)
English Name: Tamarillo or Tree tomato
Spanish Name: Tomate de árbol
Texture: Just like a regular tomato/ soft fruit inside which peels away easily from the skin.
Taste: Slightly acidic like a combination of passionfruit and tomato.
Origin: The tree this fruit grows on is native to the Andes region (Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile). The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.
English Name: Banana passionfruit
Spanish Name: Curuba
Texture: A member of the passionfruit family, the skin is soft, just like a banana. The fruit is orange in colour with black seeds and scoops out just like a passionfruit.
Taste: Tastes sweet
Origin: The vine this fruit grows on is native to the Andes region (Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile). The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.
Local usage: Used in juice, normally with milk – like a smoothie
English Name: Yellow-skin watermelon
Spanish Name: Sandia Amarilla
Texture: Same as a regular watermelon
Taste: Similar to a regular watermelon but slightly more subtle in flavour
Origin: Hybrid watermelon developed in Asia
English Name: Guava
Spanish Name: Goiaba
Texture: Soft smooth skin/ firm pink pulp with numerous hard seeds
Taste: A little sweet and a little tart
Origin: The tree this fruit grows on is native to Mexico, Central America and northern South America. The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.
English Name: Star Fruit
Spanish Name: Carambola
Texture: Thin, smooth, waxy skin/ crunchy, juicy, fruit.
Taste: Tart, sour, slightly acidic
Origin: The tree this fruit grows on is native to southeast Asia and the Indian sub-continent. The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.
English Name: Granadilla
Spanish Name: Granadilla
Texture: A member of the passionfruit family, the skin is hard and slippery/ fruit consists of black seeds surrounded by a gooey, transparent pulp (just like a passionfruit).
Taste: Soft, sweet taste
Origin: The vine this fruit grows on is native to the Andes region (Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia). The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.
English Name: Cherimoya or Custard Apple
Spanish Name: Chirimoya
Texture: Hard outer flesh/ soft, creamy fruit with large black seeds
Taste: A mellow sweet taste/ like a cross between pineapple and banana
Origin: The shrub this fruit grows on is native to the Andes region (Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia). The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.
English Name: Cape gooseberry/ Goldenberry (USA)
Spanish Name: Uchuva
Texture: Feels like a cherry tomato/ soft, mushy fruit with small seeds inside
Taste: Has a sweet, mildly tart flavor
Origin: The plant this fruit grows on is native to Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.
English Name: Yellow passionfruit
Spanish Name: Maracuya amarilla
Texture: Same as a regular purple passionfruit (but much larger) with a hard, slippery skin / fruit consists of black seeds surrounded by a gooey, yellow pulp
Taste: As tart as a regular passionfruit
Origin: The vine this fruit grows on is native to the Amazon region of Brazil. The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.
Date Visited: March 2016
A break from the Caribbean Island blogs…
Recently I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful Panamanian town of Boquete.
Boquete lies 60km from the border with Costa Rica in the Panamanian highlands at an elevation of 1,200 metres. Because of this the town has a mild climate and has become a favoured retirement location for North Americans.
The town is also popular with tourists due to the variety of activities on offer in the area. You can climb a volcano, raft, hike, swim in hot springs and so much more.
Boquete is a major coffee growing region so the cafes here sell exceptional coffee.
The highlands around Boquete are lush and green due to the constantly changing weather, which sweeps in from the Caribbean sea, moving over the mountains onto the Pacific Ocean. The forests in the area are an excellent place for bird watching.
Located 5km up a steep hill behind Boquete, Finca Lerida (elevation: 1600m) was first established by a Norwegian engineer who had worked on the Panama Canal and was looking for a place with fresh, clean air to spend his retirement. He established the Finca with his wife in 1924.
Today the Finca is a luxury hotel with a restaurant and coffee shop. It’s surrounded by lush, well tended gardens, which attract a variety of birds.
The estate is primarily a coffee plantation and you can see the beans being processed next to the coffee shop. The Finca is famous for growing the “Geisha” bean. At US$260 per kilo, this is the most expensive coffee in the world.
On the slopes above the estate are 6km of walking trails, which will take you deep into the highland forests. Here you have a chance – but just a chance – of spotting the elusive Quetzal. I hired a guide (Eddy) and spent several hours with him in search of the Quetzal.
We got lucky! We found a male and female sitting almost side by side in two different trees. Eddy said he had never seen such a thing. They sat for 15mins while I photographed them.
Eddy was very excited, telling me I was very lucky to see such a site. When we returned to the Finca he told all the staff what we had seen. It was a good morning.
After the walk I spent some time in the garden of the Finca photographing hummingbirds and others. A female Scintillant hummingbird had built a nest on a coat rack outside one of the guest rooms and was sitting on two tiny eggs.
If your budget allows, you can splurge and stay in the beautiful rooms at Finca Lerida. Otherwise there are more reasonably priced options down the hill in Boquete from hostels to hotels.
I stayed at hotel La Casa de Abuela, which I would recommend.
There are many hotels/ hostels in town so no need to book in advance, however if you wish to you can find accommodation on booking.com
There is an excellent restaurant onsite at the Finca and you should ensure you try the estate coffee, which is available from the coffee shop.
Being a popular tourist destination Boquete is full of restaurants, cafes and bars. I especially recommend the craft beers sold at the Boquete Brewing Company. They have a help-yourself popcorn machine, which keeps everyone happy.
Some nationalities require visas for Panama – check your visa requirements prior to arrival.
International flights into Panama arrive at Tocumen International Airport. The airport is a major hub for the region, providing daily connections throughout the Americas and beyond.
You can access Panama from Costa Rica crossing the border either on the Caribbean coast from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola or inland on the Panamericana highway from Paso Canoa.
Either way you will need to transit through the city of David where frequent buses do the run up the mountain to Boquete.
Boquete is nice and compact, everything is within walking distance. Taxis and buses are available if required.
Other blogs from the region – Panama Travel Report
Date of Visit: January 2015
Carnival in French Guiana takes place each year between Epiphany in early January and Ash Wednesday in February or March. Every Sunday during this period, there is a parade on the streets of Cayenne, making this the longest running of any carnival in the Caribbean region.
Carnival à la Cayenne is a cultural tradition of the French Guianese Creole, its origin traced to carnival customs long practiced in Europe. It debuted during the beginning of colonization when settlers took part in carnival, forbidding the slaves from participating. Defying the ban, the slaves practiced carnival in clandestine ways, seeing it as a way to regain some freedom.
The ornate handmade masks continue being/ are an integral part of Mardi Gras culture. To this day they symbolise the notion of freedom, of escaping class constraints and social demands. Wearing masks during the festivities lets us all become equal, individuals can mingle with the masses and ultimately everyone can be whoever they’d like, at least for a few weeks.
Hotels are in short supply in Cayenne (and elsewhere in the territory). It’s always best to book in advance using an online agent such as booking.com
I stayed downtown at Hotel Le Dronmi, which I would recommend. The hotel is conveniently located to everything of interest plus it’s on the parade route.
This is a former French colony – need I say more. Lots of good food available in this town.
A great place to chill out and people watch is the terrace at Les Palmistes. This is the quintessential bar/restaurant in Cayenne. Located across from the square of the same name.
Some nationalities require visas for French Guiana – check your requirements prior to arrival.
French Guiana’s main international airport is Cayenne – Félix Eboué Airport, located south of the city centre. There are two flights a day to Paris served by Air France and Air Caraïbes. There are also services to Martinique, Guadeloupe, Paramaribo (Suriname) and Belém (Brazil).
There are no buses to the airport, so your alternatives are to rent a car or take a taxi (€35 to central Cayenne).
From both neighboring countries (Brazil and Suriname), you will need to cross a river by ferry into French Guiana. The border crossings are easy and straight-forward.
From Brazil, you will arrive in Saint-Georges de l’Oyapock from where you can travel by bus to Cayenne. In 2011, a newly built bridge was completed (at a cost of $33 million) linking Brazil and French Guiana, but it is still yet to be opened.
From Suriname you will step off the ferry in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni from where you can take a bus to Iracoubo and transfer to another going to Cayenne.
Public transport is sporadic throughout the country. The best option is to hire a car. This is a French territory so roads are in excellent condition.