Friday, November 23, 2012

Easter Island, Chile

With a weeks' vacation during the thanksgiving break, decided to jump to Easter Island, Chile for 4 days. Thoughts on the locale:

1) Easter Island is not a tropical vacation paradise. In fact, it's very much the opposite. Although isolated from the rest of the world by geography, at one point in time Easter Island was flourishing with people - enough to chop down most of the vegetation on the island and fish its shores to near extinction. This, combined with the intense sun (and little shelter from the lack of trees), barren volcanic landscape, lack of beaches (2 beaches, one ~50m wide, one ~500m, ~1hr drive from the main town), and jagged volcanic coast (read: death upon entry at 99% of spots) makes Easter Island a very barren place.

2) However, Easter Island not being a tropical vacation paradise is part of its appeal. Even with the Moais being world-famous, for it's size (60+ sq miles) it's surprisingly underpopulated with tourists considering the lack of flights into and out of the island. It retains its laid back atmosphere; nobody locks anything and safety is not a concern, renting a car is as simple as paying for keys, and everything is slow paced. 

3) 4 days is sufficient to see the island in its entirety. There are just not that many historical sites on the island, and one can easily cover all the bases in 4 days, or arguably 2 if kept to schedule. However...

4) You need a car to travel around the island. The island is small, but not that small; those that advocate hiking along the entirety of the island are asking for skin cancer. Car rental, however, is cheap - 25000 CLP/day - and effortless, though seems that most cars on the island are manual. 

 5) If you're coming here for tropical things like surfing, drinking, or snorkeling, forget it. See point 1 about the beaches and the whole death upon entry thing.

The island is definitely worth a visit, though exactly how far out of one's way to get here is an open question. Seems to be a good stopping off point via Tahiti or Chile/Peru. Don't spend more than 4 days here, however, unless one wants to go crazy. Try to go to the quarry Rano Raraku early morning (hours are 0900-1600) for good photos, since you can only go once! Stock up on supplies on the mainland; everything, including water, really is expensive; really fresh produce grown on the island can be bought in the central area (by the Banco Estado) at mornings. And it gets dark at 9!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Denied Entry into Equatorial Guinea

Due to its insular nature of Equatorial Guinea, it can be notoriously hard to find information online, especially of the Mainland area. However, a quick glance of the map shows that Equatorial Guinea is a very convenient transit country from Cameroon (Yaoundé/Douala) to Gabon (Libreville), as there are routes on the coast. This, along with the country’s Spanish-influenced past and the visa-free policies for Americans, makes Equatorial Guinea a relatively attractive country to visit. From Cameroon, there are two entry points – Rio Campo and Kye-Ossi / Ebebiyin.

However, Thorn Tree searches show the Rio Campo border to be frequently (and unpredictably) closed – also, past Kirbe the road goes to a dirt path, making travel difficult. Furthermore, if you get in through Rio Campo the road from there to Bata is notorious for checkpoints and bribery, according to local NGO sources.

The other entrance from Kye-Ossi / Ebebiyin is the main entrance for the mainland. However, when I visited there were only a trickle of people flowing through. Getting stamped out of Cameroon is easy enough (though customs will try to bribe you), but entering Equatorial Guinea is another story. While some Chinese construction workers (with visas) were let through, I was denied entry based on two excuses:

  1. Americans do not need visas only for air travel to Malabo, not via ground. This one seemed to be a fake initial excuse, as they moved on from it after 10 minutes of contesting their claim.
  2. I am Chinese (descent), therefore Chinese and not American (despite the American passport), therefore require a visa. This was an interesting argument – after waiting an hour for the (unhelpful) border guard to call Malabo and pleading my case, the guards stood firm.

I called the American Embassy to see what help could be provided, but they said there was indeed precedent for such decisions – in two years, I was the second American of non-Caucasian descent to be denied entry on the second argument (the other was Cameroonian-American). This was a problem that could not be solved with a bribe, as the head border guard made very clear. Also, having an American consulate ambassador was unhelpful, as no Equatorial Guineans were willing to talk on the phone.

Ultimately given the lack of traffic in the area and high suspicion of foreigners, I’d imagine other Americans of non-Caucasian descent will have the same problems. If you need to enter Equatorial Guinea by land, be sure to have contacts on the ground – not only will this help your entry case, but you will be able to avoid (some) bribery on the road to Bata.

For those able to enter, some information that may be of use:

  • The road to Bata has 7-8 checkpoints as of August 2011. Each checkpoint demands from 0 to 5,000 CFA, with 3,000 to 5,000 CFA being the normal payment. This information came from a Cameroonian and a Chinese group – if you have contacts in the country or are American, the bribes may be lower or non-existent (if you believe the rumor that Americans are not allowed to be bribed)
  • The road is newly paved.
  • When I was there on Thursday afternoon, many of the border guards, on both the Cameroonian and Equatorial Guinean side were drunk. Most also had AK-47’s. It is probably best to travel weekday mornings, and I would avoid Saturday at all cost.
  • If you are trying to transit to Gabon through Cogo, it should take 8-10hrs total transport time.
  • For best results, speak only English (even if you know Spanish or French). It'll force a translator.

A Beginner’s Guide to Taxi / Public Transport in Yaoundé, Cameroon

At first, utilizing the public transport in Yaoundé (or any other Central African country) can be daunting – in Yaoundé at least, the non-African system of minibuses is non-existent, to be replaced by “shared taxis” or “combis.” These taxis make up half of the traffic of Yaoundé, and consist of up to (6) passengers (excluding the driver), each going to different destinations along a variably-set route.

To begin, there are three ways to take the taxis. The default way is by “combi” – where a trip costs 200CFA around town (the distances vary, but seem to be around 3km). In this setup, you stand on the side of the street, and wait for a taxi to approach (it may or may not honk to indicate it is free). Then, through the window you shout your destination, proposed cost, and number of passengers. The taxi driver will then honk or motion to indicate it is acceptable, or drive away otherwise. You ultimately are paying for one seat in the taxi. When you reach your destination, you can stop the cab by saying “C’est bon” and pay on the way out.

Then, the format is: “(location) (proposed cost) (passenger number)”, for example “Hôtel des Villes” or “Casino Supermarché, trois sont,” or “L’ambassade de Chine, trois sont, deux place.” For 200CFA taxi rides and for just one person, don’t include the cost or “place” designation per the first example. Also, for more than one seat it is assumed the fare quoted is per person. The place is generally an accepted landmark. Negotiation doesn’t occur, except for drivers asking “Combien?” occasionally to default 200CFA requests; however, the majority of taxi owners will not try to rip you off. That said, not having change is an endemic problem in taxis; even if you have a 500CFA coin for a 200CFA taxi, before entering it is imperative to say “J’ai __ franc s’il vous plait” to imply you need change at the end of the ride.

The system is a free market – you will have to increase your proposed offer above 200CFA (to 300CFA+) if:
  • You’re traveling further than 3km
  • You’re traveling during weekday rush hours or late-late night
  • You’ve gone through 10+ taxis and all won’t take you, or many ask “Combien?”
  • You’re going to a significantly off-the-main-road location
  • You only have 1 person
  • You speak absolutely no French or look completely oblivious
The above list is additive. The easiest way is just to go through taxis and increase your offer as you go. Also, keep in mind if you’re going to a new destination empty taxis are easiest to secure but may need a higher proposal to “set the route” to your destination.

Finally, a tricky aspect is the informal routing of taxis. You have to stand on the side of the road where the most common route is, but even then there are ideal places to stand to go to certain sections of town, and ideal “interchanges” to switch from taxi to taxi. This knowledge is something that takes weeks in the city to pick up (seeing the same routes being utilized on your journeys into and out of the city). An additional gem of knowledge is the 100CFA taxi, reserved for short (500m-1km) rides; foreigners rarely get this rate, but you can try by proposing “cent franc” at the flag-down.

Other ways to get a taxi include a “depot”, where you rent out the whole car for a fixed rate (1000-1500CFA for regular trips, 2000CFA for longer ones such as Bastos (North) -Southern Bus Terminals). You can also hire a taxi by the hour at 3000CFA, which can be useful for running errands. Although the shared taxi system is a challenge at first, it becomes a blessing in disguise for getting you to the exact place at a wonderfully affordable cost!

Places to go around Bastos and the UCLA IRTC Apartments, Yaoundé

Bastos, located north of city center, is the ex-pat and diplomatic hub of Yaoundé, Cameroon. Most ex-pats will stay around this area. If you are staying at the UCLA IRTC Apartments (for researchers of any speciality, 11,000 CFA/night if space is available – highly recommended!), the following can be a good resource.


To get home, instruct a taxi to go to “L’ambassade de Chine” – it will either take the route from Rue Bastos, or a valley coming from a Carrefour on the route to Mont Febe.


Dovy Supermarche. A 10 minute walk from the apartment on Rue Bastos towards the city center. Has most of everything necessary, although most products are at European prices plus some (check for the non-imported goods). Decent fruit and vegetable selection, though more expensive (and of worse quality) than other places. Like any store in Yaoundé, bring empty beer or soda glass bottles to avoid paying a deposit (of 125CFA). Taxi: Dovy (Bastos), 100CFA.

Mahima Supermarche. Really convenient if you are by Centre Pasteur or going towards Centre-Ville – slightly cheaper than Dovy/Casino, and has a large selection of Indian spices and goods.

Casino Supermarche. In centre-ville, convenient to the Central Market and the Hilton-area. Nicest supermarket of the three with an expansive selection, but also the most expensive. Taxi: Casino, 200-300CFA.


Note: many ATMs do not take Visa cards, and almost none take Mastercard. Withdrawal limit is 200,000CFA/transaction.

ATMs by “L’hotel des Villes.” This is the closest reliable bank cluster with Visa ATMs (le guichet automatique). Taxi: “L’hotel des Villes” or “British Council,” 200CFA.

ATM across from the Hilton, SGBC. This ATM is to my knowledge the only Mastercard-accepting ATM machine in Yaounde.

ATM within the Hilton. Taxi: Hilton, 200-300CFA.

BICAC ATM by Casino and Centre Culturel Francais. Taxi: ”Centre Culturel Francais,” 200-300CFA.


Most will be street food or equivalent.

Corner Shack. As described above, 1 minute from the IRTC. 2-egg omelet with sausage and vegetables on a sandwich bun for breakfast, lunch, or dinner! 500CFA.

Outside Corner Shack. There are ladies that stand outside with food during lunch hours, though selection seems to vary and the quality when I tried it was sub-par. 500CFA.

Grilled Fish Lady. Coming outside the gate, turn right and an immediate right up the dirt hill, 30s from the IRTC. During lunch, a lady sells grilled fish for variable prices, but a regular-sized full fish should cost 1000CFA (+ additions 100CFA). Takes 20 minutes to cook, but bring your own plate if you wish. 600-1200CFA.

Baguette sandwich variations on the route to Rue Bastos. On the way to Rue Bastos from L’ambassade de Chine, there are many ladies selling spaghetti, avocado, or meatball sandwiches for lunch only; just tell them the amount of bread, meatballs and/or spaghetti you’d like. 100-500CFA.

Dovy Supermarche Patisserie. They sell deli “hamburgers” that can be a quick lunch when paired with their chocolate croissants. 500-1000CFA.

Spaghetti Omelets. Located all around town, but in Bastos you can find them right past Dovy on the way to city center for breakfast or lunch. 10 minutes from IRTC. It’s exactly what it sounds! 500CFA.

Grilled Pork Schwarma or Sandwiches. Located at Carrefour Bastos across from Expresso House, operating only at night, and extremely popular with locals. The front schwarma grill goes for 500CFA; the back for 900CFA for 4 brochettes. 15 min from the IRTC. 500-900CFA.

JC Chicken. Located across from Dovy (taxi drivers will know this place’s name), has a ¼ roast chicken and fries, excellently done, for 1200CFA any time of day. If you prefer it drier, go across the street next to Dovy, 1100CFA. 10 min from IRTC.

Uncle Donald’s. When you almost hit Carrerfour Nongkak from Bastos, look left right before entering the Carrefour. Sells actual schwarmas for lunch/dinner 1200CFA, + fries for 500CFA. Delicious, but be sure to take it to go (drinks are outrageously expensive and service horrible) – and go across the street, a (unlicensed bar) which has beers for 500-600CFA – you’ll recognize it by the arcade machines inside. You’re more than likely to see Peace Corps at night, or drum up conversation with the locals!

Carrerfour Nongkak. There is a variety of street and budget stall food options for lunch or dinner surrounding this Carrefour, which is one of the hotspots of Yaounde in general. 30 min from the IRTC, or take a 200CFA taxi.

Centre Pasteur de Cameroun. Outside Centre Pasteur, there is a wonderful row of stalls that sell breakfast and lunch, either grilled fish or local Cameroonian fare (1 stall does chicken, fish, or steak with tomato sauce and rice/plantains/foufou for 1200CFA, which is highly recommended). It is also accessible from Mahima supermarket but harder to find. Taxi 300CFA.


Restaurant “La Barack” – The closest nice restaurant from IRTC, but nice is an understatement – the food deserves to be in the “top-range” category, especially French dishes using crème-fraishe (Cameroonian dishes not reviewed). The ambiance is great, with cheap beer and a projector showing music videos to boot! Find it on Rue Bastos, immediately after passing the Nigerian Embassy but before Dovy – it’ll be down a small dirt path on your left (opposite the road to go to La Salsa). Entrees 2000-4000CFA, Large Beer 800CFA.

Chez Patrick – Another wonderful choice, past Carrefour Bastos and next to JC Chicken Prestige (after passing it going towards city center, look to the right down the street for a shack on your left) – great ambiance and delicious local Cameroonian fare for great prices. Entrees 1500-2500CFA, Large beer 1000CFA.

JC Chicken Prestige – The exact same as JC Chicken, except more expensive x4 (you’re buying the “Prestige”. Skip this.

Bunker Nightclub – Located on Carrefour Nongkak, a hotspot for upper-class Cameroonians going out for grilled fish (or roast chicken). You *must* choose and bargain your fish – by doing so, you can get 3 large fish for under 10,000CFA; by not, a small and not-very-fresh (at all) fish for 4500CFA.

Pizza Roma – Pizza on Carrefour Bastos. Unknown entrée.

Expresso House – on Carrefour Bastos. Unknown entrée.

Options around Carrefour L’Interdance. This Carrefour is located close to Casino supermarket, though it is hard to find (it is named after a pharmacy) – but taxis will know the location (200-300CFA from IRTC). Round the Carrefour are a spattering of Cameroonian-owned French restaurants, of which one we tried (the street directly left of the Pharmacy, on the left side of the street on the Carrefour) was excellent for lunch. Entrees 3000CFA+.

Food-high end

L’Orient Rouge. Can’t miss this option right outside of the branchoff from the L’ambassade de Chine road and Rue Bastos. It has a nice ambiance but (very) bad Chinese food. 4000CFA+.

Chinese Restaurant across from Gothe Institute. 8 minutes from IRTC, once exiting onto Rue Bastos turn right instead of left – 200m down the street on the right is the Gothe Institute, and across the street is this 4-character Chinese restaurant. It has fairly good food (get Cantonese specialties, the owner is Cantonese), but is expensive. You get a 500-1000CFA/entrée discount off the menu if you’re Chinese. 4000CFA+.

La Salsa. Going towards city center on Rue Bastos, past the Nigerian Embassy but before Dovy turn right at the sign and walk a couple of minutes. Colleague reviews say it has wonderful salads and fresh options. 5000CFA+.

La Taniere. Very hard to spot, but it’s down a small road on the way to Carrefour Nongkak, past Chez Wou and around a nice wine store on the right – it may be better to get a taxi straight to the destination. 20+ min from IRTC. It’s open for dinner, and has *wonderful* live music playing in a night-club-like decorated area, with fairly good Cameroon food to boot. Entrees 4000-5000CFA, Large Beer 1500CFA.

Chez Wou. On the route to Carrefour Nongkak on Rue Bastos. Unknown entrée and quality.

Café de Yaoundé. Located further away from Bastos, closer to city center – taxi drivers will know where to go, however. This is the expat go-to place for Italian, and from an Italian friend it is also as authentic as you’ll get on the continent – wonderful food and wonderful ambiance. Though, the day we went all 10 tables were filled with expats. 200-300CFA taxi from IRTC, 5000CFA+.

"Grilled Fish Lady"

“La Barack”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Kruger National Park, South Africa

Kruger National Park is an easily accessible "safari reserve" located in the eastern half of the country, near the borders of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland. It is also extremely rich in wildlife, and a great starting point for first-time safari-goers, with facilities that put comparable National Parks in the United States to shame. While on my three-day trip there, I saw 4 of the "Big-Five" - lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. The chances of seeing the "Big-Five", especially in the southern part of the reserve, seem to be high.

The schedule for most short organized tours to Kruger, from Johannesburg, is a three-day safari trip, with only one day spent in the park and no overnight accommodations in the park. However, the cheapest of these organized tours was ~$600 USD p.p, which for what is offered (camping accommodation, "private reserve" stays, etc...) I found extraordinarily expensive. A better alternative is to self-drive (rent a car) to the park; indeed, this is what most South Africans do.

To self-drive, you'll need to rent a car in Johannesburg, or rent a car in Nelspruit after finding your way there (either via bus or flight). Given the near-impossible nature of traversing Johannesburg without a car, the former seems to be more viable. See earlier Johannesburg post for details.

You will also need to book accommodation in the park at rest camps (and pay for your conservation fee to guarantee your spot, especially in high seasons). This part can be challenging to do with only few days' notice, but there were a few family cottages and huts available with 1 days' notice in the Southern section of the park for R1375 (for 6 ppl). Despite the capacity restrictions stated on the website, the rest camps are so large that nobody will check to see how many you have per unit; and the cottages can easily sleep double or triple the accommodation capacity. Those with kitchens come fully equipped with pots, pans, silverware, a burner, sinks, fridges, and microwaves. Bookings can be done at Note that if you pay a conservation fee and stay overnight, your conservation fee is still valid the next day; so technically you can stay almost 48hrs on one fee of R180.

Once inside the park, one can also choose between different activities, such as a bush walk, bush barbeque, or night/afternoon drive. They seemed not too popular, and rates vary between rest camps (for the former and latter activities, R200-350). We chose to do the morning bush walk and night drive; although both were moderately interesting, I would not repeat either activity for the price - most of the wildlife we saw was from driving around the park, stopping where others did.

On the way back to Johannesburg, the tours will take you to Blyde River Canyon, easily accessible out of Kruger Gate; if it is cloudy, however, do not go! - you will not see anything.

With a car split among 3, the cost for 3 days including car rental, gas, housing, tours, etc... came out to $350. This included the expensive morning walks and night drives ($100 pp), and fairly expensive housing for 1 day ($100 pp). By using hut accommodation or splitting a cottage among more people and by avoiding the in-park walks and drives, one can do this trip for a mind-boggling $150 pp, which is an amazing cost for an African safari.


A yawning lion - 5-ft away from the photographer

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Paris or London? And other logistical considerations

For a short five day trip, is it worth going to Paris, London, or both cities? Although they both have things to offer, I found that Paris easily wins the battle based on its enormous amounts of attractions, cheaper cost of living and admissions fares for said attractions, and overall fast-paced liveliness. I’d imagine in the summer, the lines may change that impression, but at least for the winter Paris seems to be the place to go, or to heavily weight your short trip.

Otherwise, airfare to Europe can be surprisingly cheap during Winter and Spring season (late December non-withstanding), even during Thanksgiving holiday. I ended up using STA Travel/StudentUniverse to buy discount one way tickets to London, at $235 o/w nonstop from Los Angeles on Virgin Atlantic. These are usually mileage accruing. For the return, a non-stop flight using 20,000k American Airlines miles + $80 taxes/fees from Paris on Air Tahiti Nui fit the bill. In general, it seems that one-way tickets to European destinations are particularly cheap on Student discount sites; then, for the return one can match off-season one-way fares back through OneWorld (American), or Star Alliance (United). Be sure to call to obtain best partner availability. Also, look into returning from Spain rather than France or England, as taxes can range from $30 in Spain to $150 from London).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Paris, France

During the 2010 Thanksgiving holiday, Paris was the second destination, where three days were spent. If one rushes, a lot of Paris can be seen in three days; though in hindsight, it may be worth taking the city in slowly (although this is also a budgetary drain), doing what the guidebooks say - sitting at a café and watching the city go by while sipping espresso (to which Starbucks does not hold a candle).

Despite being a large metropolitan area, Paris proper is a wonderfully manageable and organized city. It is broken up into arrondisements; for general reference, your (tourist-geared) trip will most likely focus on the Northwest, West, Southwest, and South portions of the city. For accommodations, we choose to live at the Best Western Rivy-Gauche (13e, highly recommended). The strategy for finding hotels through Kayak + Tripadvisor still works well; again, like London it may be worthwhile to book outside the city if late-night nightlife isn’t an issue (the Metro closes around midnight) – also, don’t be afraid of using the RER as it is just as convenient and at times faster than the Metro lines!

To use the Metro, one can buy a carnet of 10 tickets for 12, which may be the most economical choice if your travels remain in the City proper (most will). However, if you are in a rush to see the city and it is cold, the all-day pass is a better deal (as with the case with our trip) - despite Paris being highly walk-able, the walks are less than pleasant in winter weather. Metro to metro transfer is not allowed, but Metro to RER to Metro is within 2 hours; so depending on your planning, you can cleverly get by using one carnet for multiple trips as the RER and Metro intermingle throughout the area. At night, jumping the turnstiles (by going in with someone else) seemed extremely common (1 of 2 people at an unmanned station), though a local friend says beware of ticket-checkers.

During my time there, tourist attractions I went to included the Catacombs, Eiffel Tower, Graveyard, Notre Dame, Champs d’Elysses, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Sacre Coeur/Montmatre, and the Sunday Bastille Market. I found the catacombs extremely worthwhile and one of the highlights of the trip, although it is not high on many guide books’ recommendations. The Eiffel Tower is a brisque walk up two observation desks; it is worth seeing at day and at night from afar (Westwards is the best picture opportunity). Although the graveyard is interesting – check out Oscar Wilde’s tomb – it is a bit of a jaunt East. Notre Dame, on the other hand, is on the Ile-de-France and is a must-see (free!) architectural masterpiece. Arc the Triomphe, Champs d’Elysses, and the Louvre can be done conveniently in one stretch. The Louvre has occasional evening hours (till 9pm) where admission is significantly reduced (free for under 26, 6€ otherwise) and is worth going to then; although the collection is vast, other than the Mona Lisa it houses no classical Impressionist work. For Impressionist pieces we went to the Musee d’Orsay, which also has cheaper late afternoon hours, though check their website for details. Finally, I found Sacre Coeur and the Moulin Rouge area including Montmatre fairly unremarkable.

Being Paris, food options are wide and varied, although restaurants within the city proper are tough for backpacking budgets. We dined at restaurants in the 13e Chinatown, which although are relatively cheap for Paris (10€ p/p) are fairly sub-par in quality (compared to Los Angeles). Otherwise, meals were mainly self-catering from Carrefour and local patisseries (especially in the Latin Quarter) – the quality of the cheese makes up for the stingy food options. The Sunday Bastille Market comes highly, highly recommended! The quality of the food present at the market, even in the middle of winter, puts any (even Californian) market to shame. Hard cheeses (if you can’t poke it) are oaky for bringing back to the States; others, including cured meats, are no-go. Also, the nightlife in the Latin Quarter is impressive, but extremely expensive – expect to pay Hollywood prices for drinks, though the novelty factor of post-binding crepes instead of In-and-Out makes it worthwhile.

For departures through Charles de Gaulle Airport, leave ample time to arrive and to catch your flight, as the airport is huge and hectic.