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My visit to the Crazy town of Vank

A crazy town in an unrecognized country that’s Vank. The crazy thing about this town laying in a valley surrounded by the Caucasian mountains and forest, is all the random objects that are put there by a former Russian-Armenian oligarch Levon Hayrapetyan who’s motivation it was to invest in the town of his birthplace. The man died a few years back and since then the town is also slowly dyeing. He wanted to attract tourists to Vank, for example to the Eclectica Titanic looking hotel that he build, which is now becoming more of a ruin. Not many people stay at the hotel anymore, the water reservoir next to the boat representing a river or the sea as you will, is now just completely dry. The terrace on the first floor has a swimming pool but not filled with water. Besides the hotel there are some statues in town like the flying donkeys, a big pirate ship, a replica of Michelangelo, some cars on poles , a Volga toilet, American eagle or maybe its the eagle of the emblem of Nagorno-Karabakh, a crocodile in a pond, a big Lion head that used to roar cause there was a sensor when you passed by that made the lion roar, but now its broken. Also the Azeri licence plate wall is pretty unique, cause now everybody in Nagorno-Karabakh drives with Armenian licence plates.
You don’t expect to see all these wacky stuff in a little mountain town in the middle of nowhere in Nagorno-Karabakh aka Artsakh. However for backpackers it’s a nice place to hang out.

Eclectica hotel

the front of the boat hotel

only half of the water reservoir with the small waterfall is left

where did the water go ?

The empty siwmming pool

Inside the nose of the boat

The bar with aquarium in the common room

Me in the mirror of the common room

The toilet with the Volga car on top = Volga toilet

Cars on poles

The Crocodile in the pond up close

The crocodile in the pond

The Eagle of Vank

Michelangelo statue

Me in front of the Azeri licence plates wall

The licence plates wall

Flying donkeys

The Pirate ship of Vank

The Lion of Vank

Me standing on the lions claw

The flags of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh on the wall of a school in Vank

Weird statues at the kids playground in school

The other place worth seeing is the 13th century Gandzasar Monastery with its old graveyard in front of it.
It’s the most important Monastery in Nagorno-Karabakh from what I’ve heard.

 

The Gandzasar Monastery with the old graveyard

The town of Vank seen from the Monastery on a misty afternoon

 

It’s up hill and from here you can see the town of Vank down in the valley. If you visit Vank, it’s easy to check out the Monastery aswell as it’s about 3km away.
There is no entry fee to visit the monastery. Just outside the complex there is a museum with some old religious books, only here a small entry fee aplies. I took a picture from outside cause inside it was not allowed to take pictures of these old books.

Gandzasar church

The courtyard of the Monastery

 

Gandzasar courtyard

The old wooden door of the Gandzasar church

The altar inside

The Museum

Gandzasar book museum

 

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Welcome to Stepanakert the capital of Artsakh

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Artsakh what ? If you never heard of it then just relax don’t worry about it cause you might have already heard about Nagorno-Karabakh a disputed region in the Caucasus, a region claimed by Azerbaijan and Armenia. Armenia is controlling the region of Nagorno-Karabakh which nowadays looks like an Armenia enclave in Azerbaijan but really it has an independent status, just not recognized internationally just like the other breakaway republics like Transnistria and Abkhazia.
In the 90ies there was the war for Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Armenians won. They control it now and you can travel to almost the whole country of Nagorno Karabakh except to Agdam a city very near the border area with Azerbaijan.
I didn’t go to Agdam because I heard that taxi drivers who took curious tourists there got arrested and had o pay fines, the tourist go free after leaving their names for identification for whatever reason. There are already travelbloggers who have been there anyway and pictures of Agdam got on the Internet, so with a little research you will see that the place isn’t that great to walk around since the whole town of Agdam is destroyed, besides the Armenian army and some Azeri snipers there isn’t anybody there. Sometimes incidents happen, the last one was a year ago. Other than that it’s calm. I wont be writing too much about this place since I have not visited it only know the info from others and from what I have read about it. I will stick to the places I visited which is what my travelblog stands for (The places I visited).

My Nagorno Karabakh journey started in the capital Stepanakert.

The thing i can say about this city is that its way better than I expected, for a country that doesn’t exist and is not recognized they have a very nice capital city with nice shops, bars, cafés, pizza places. Its clean ! Not like in Western Europe where cities like Brussels the capital of my country where it’s dirty. People who want to argue about it save yourself the time and energy I know what I’m talking about, I go to Brussels every day and as a capital of not only Belgium but also Europe they should be ashamed that the streets , parks etc,… are full of dirt. Not like this in the unrecognized capital city Stepanakert of Nagorno Karabakh aka Artsakh.
I came at the Armenia and Nagonro Karabakh border in the late afternoon showed my passport they gave me a paper that I needed to fill in and with another paper in my passport I had to go get my Nagorno Karabakh visa in Stepanakert at the Ministry of Foreign affairs. The visa office is only open until 6pm and I didn’t make it in time, but that’s not a problem you can just go the next day and collect your visa. If you stick this visa into your passport you can’t go to Azerbaijan anymore on that passport cause they will not let you in as they see it as you entered their country illegally. I don’t care anymore about that I have been to Azerbaijan on my old passport about a year ago. So I got the visa in my passport, but you can choose not to if you want to go to Azerbaijan.

Border crossing between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh with the flags of both countries behind me

 

Stepanakert

I just walked around and visited the War Memorial, the museum of the fallen soldiers with a lot of photography on the walls of the Nagorno Karabakh war and weaponry on display.  Checked out the football stadium of Nagorno Karabakh.  I passed the Parliament building and the cathedral. Stepan Shahumyan statue, that’s where the city got its name from. Stepan was a hero to the Armenian people, he was a revolutionary politician from the Caucasus within the Soviet Union.

War Memorial

War Memorial

War Memorial

Outside the War Museum of Fallen Soldiers

Inside the museum

weaponry inside the museum of Fallen soldiers

Picture in the museum of the Military Parade in Stepanakert

War Photography Artsakh war

War photography

bazooka

AK47

knives and pistols

National Assembly building

Parliament building

Cathedral of Stepanakert

Stepan Shahumyan statue

Stepan Shahumyan statue

Me with the Stepan Shahumyan statue

Football stadium of Artsakh with the seats in the colors of the Nagorno Karabakh flag

seats also in the color of the Armenian flag

They just signed a Belgian goalkeeper 🙂

Military propaganda on the buildings

Military propaganda on the buildings

Military propaganda on the buildings

Military propaganda on the buildings

Armenian & Nagorno Karabakh  propaganda

Old Russian car Wolga

 

Little bit outside the city centre I visited the “Tatik Papik” stone Monument which means “we are our mountains” although that’s not  literally translated. Its’ grandma and grandpa and it represents the people who live in the Mountains of Nagorno Karabakh which is obvious since it’s a Mountainous country.

We are our Mountains

Tatik Papik Monument

With the Nagorno-Karabakh flag at a souvenir stand near the Tatik Papik Monument

 

Believe it or not, Nagorno Karabakh also has a non operational airport, the building looks nice but no commercial flights. You can rent a small plane or a helicopter but thats about it. Most of the time not much flying going on there.

Artsakh airport

 

 

 

 

From Khor Verap to Goris and Tatev

Armenia is the land of Monasteries and churches, there are just so many of them and if you are only for a few days in the country like I was, it’s impossible to visit them all.

From the Capital Yerevan I did an excursion with a friend to the Khor Verap. The church of Khor Virap built in th 5th Century is a place of pilgrimage. To the right side of the altar there is a ladder leading down to a pit where according to legends Saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 14 years. He survived it and to the king Tridas the 3rd who imprisoned him that was a miracle and because of that he decided to be Christian just like Saint Gregory and decided that the whole nation of Armenia should be Christian and so Armenia became the first Christian nation in the world.
It’s a great story with no religious violence involved.

Khor Verap church

climbing down the ladder to the pit

Khor Verap Monastery

I also went down into the pit to see it for myself and its crazy that someone could survive for so long in this dark place deep in the underground of a church. Not even thinking how horrible it must have been during the wintertime.

Later that day I got to the town of Goris which is surrounded by mountainous area with limestone spires with caves carved into them. This is the old Goris where people used to live in these caves untill the 18th century which is not that long ago. So it’s not only something that dates back as far as to the medieval times.
You can hike there and maybe some dog from town will follow you from the town centre to the caves. I hiked a bit and passed a graveyard where cows were eating the grass from between the gravestones.

Limestone spires

Cave city of Old Goris

another picture of this superb place

The dog that followed me

the cows on the graveyard

Goris itself was very calm, not many cars as I was walking sometimes in the middle of the street. Its like live stood still.
The reason why I came to Goris was not only to see the caves and different rock formations but also cause its close to get to the Tatev Monastery.
I got there with a driver who had an old lada, and in Goris I saw quite a few lada’s.

Goris

Central square of Goris

not many traffic in the streets besides some old lada’s

one of the nicer houses in Goris with the Eagle of the Roman empire

Once you get to Tatev you will see you not the only tourist there, buy a ticket and go with the longest cableline in the world (6km) up to Tatev which is on top of a mountain plateau overlooking the area. Most people buy a return ticket also. I didn’t cause my friend who was with me on this trip had been before to Tatev and there is a secret way to get out of the Monastery by a hole in the ground that eventually leads you out to a whole in the side wall of the Monastery. Once we got out by this secret passage, we hiked down, crossed a little river and hiked up another small hill back to find our driver and his Lada.

Tatev

Chapel at the Tatev Monastery

old bell at the Tatev Monastery

Tatev Church

view over the area

the hole in the side wall of the Monastery, from here I got out and hiked my way out of the area. Saved me some money on the retour ticket for the cabelline

I got out and this is the view

another closer view after I got out by the secret passage

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Armenia Day in Yerevan

It’s always great to be in a country or city where some festivities and activities are being held. I didn’t know that the 21st of September is Armenia’s Independence day and that on this day I would be in Yerevan and witness the celebrations during the day and at night on Yerevan’s Republic square.
After doing some research it’s the day Armenia got it’s freedom and independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 on the 21st september, 27 years ago.
Early that day I was outside the capital city visiting the Geghard Monastery and the Garni Temple. When I came back to Yerevan I saw that the streets were crowded and someone at the hostel told me it’s Armenia day and festivities were going on in the city. Some roads were cut off from traffic and stages were set up with dj’s and performances by local artists. The most people came to Republic square to listen to music, to play games, to taste the Armenian folklore. Some food stands and tents with local products were present aswell. People wearing traditional clothes from different parts of the country or just the national flag around their body.
Everywhere Armenian flags which is common on Independence days in every country. I remember Albania day a few years ago which I also attended by coincidence, not in Albania but in Pristina the capital of Kosovo.
In the evening music was played and the water fountains where moving to the rhythm of the music just like in Las Vegas at the Bellagio hotel. Spectacular fireworks where the end conclusion of what was and is a great day for all Armenians.

This girl has a traditional Armenian outfit – Armenia Day

Girls in uniform

Girl waving proudly the big Armenian flag in the middle of Republic Square

Concert and other performances on stage

Kids having fun with different activities and games organised for them

Even Transformers on Armenia day doing a dance

Me almost all by myself at the Republic Square in Yerevan , days before Armenia Day

Republic Square very calm few days before Armenia day

This is me in earlier that day at the Garni Temple in Garni

Mountainous landscape in Garni

Geghard Monastery

Geghard

Geghard Monastery

Me at the Geghard Monastery

Inside the Geghard Monastery church

Fireworks at Republic Square

Fireworks at Republic Square

Fireworks at Republic Square

Fountains at Republic Square

Underestimated San José

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After traveling Central America’s countryside and little towns, San José was a very welcome break from it all and the perfect city to end my Central American trip. I stayed 2 days in the city and it was enough to see the main things. Like the National museum with the history of Costa Rica and its butterfly garden.
The teatro nacional of Costa Rica of which its red roof apparently has its origin in Belgium. This Classical Renaissance building has a lobby out of marble with some statues that features artworks by European artists. There is an auditorium where performances are regularly being held.

Teotro Nacional the starting point of the free walking tours in San José

Museo nacional

Butterfly garden

Butterfly eating fruit at the butterfly garden in the museo nacional

The metallic school building Escuela Buenaventura Corrales which also was shipped from Belgium in the late 18 hundreds and put together. The metal plates all have  numbers and letters on them and are put together like a puzzle.

Metallic school

another picture of the metallic school building seen from a nearby park

The reason why I know this is because I did a free walking tour that started at 9 am at the teatro nacional. The guide was a little bit late and apologized for it, instead of a 2 hour tour, it was a 4 hour one which is long but we had several breaks and I really had the feeling I saw everything I needed to see to appreciated this underestimated city.
I guess the guide wanted to make up for the fact he was late, cause normally it’s not that long. It’s the longest free walking tour I have ever done but it was worth it.
There are 2 walking tours and I suggest you go with the guys in the yellow t-shirts as they have a better walking tour then those in the white t-shirts, I know I did both tours.
I read somewhere on the internet on someone elses blog that it’s a boring dangerous city, that’s the biggest bullshit I ever heard. Sorry for my language but San José is a safe city and it’s far from boring, they have some good bars and club where you can go out at night, but make sure you bring your ID with you or you won’t get in. They are pretty strict on that.

Back to the walking tour

What else did I see ? Statues of former politicians and presidents but also the one of the poor farmers in front of the national bank, some nice public parks, one of them is the national park with the national monument representing the war against the United States of filibuster William Walker in 1856. The Central market where some local food specialities, souvenirs and handicrafts are sold and the big white metropolitan Cathedral in the heart of the city.

statue of the poor farmers

The National Monument

national monument (picture I took on the second day when the sun was out)

Metropolitan Cathedral

Inside the Metropolitan Cathedral

Plaza de la libertad

Temple of music in Morazan park

In San José to my surprise I found a monument of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) it’s near the Morazan park with its temple of music and Angel wings statue.

little monument of SMOM

After the tour ended I headed to the Grand Hotel Costa Rica which is just in front of the national teatre where I started the city tour. It’s a very nice hotel with a big lobby area and great view over the national teatre and the nearby shops.

Grand Hotel lobby

Gran Hotel sitting area

View over the plaza with the teatro nacional

 

Monteverde Costa Rica

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The last country on my Central America trip was Costa Rica and the place I visited was Monteverde. In the green mountain valleys of Costa Rica lays the town of Monteverde, very known for its ecotourism. You can do a walk in the cloud forest reserve during the day with a guide who will give you information about the fauna and flora in the forest.  Take a good rain jacket or poncho with you cause more likely you will get wet during the day. Afterall it’s a rainforest and yes I was glad i took a rain jacket with me when doing this 2 hour walk in the forest.

Monteverde green valley’s of Costa Rica

 

Entering the town of Monteverde

Cloud forest of Monteverde

here I am with my rain jacket on in the rainforest

You can also do a nighttour which gives you more chance to see animals than during the daytime. I did both but during the nighttour I saw more wildlife : various insects, a scorpion, frogs, tarantula and the Costa Rican sloth hanging high up in the tree. There was a snake on a branch, some birds in the distance and hard to make any decent picture with my huawei P8 in the dark as most smartphones once you zoom in, all get blurry.

the red eye frog

Tarantula in the hole

Scorpion

sloth sleeping high up in the tree

 

 

There is a hummingbird garden with different species of these little birds flying all over the place and feeding themselves to the sweet sugar-water stored in these plastic flower shaped bowls. If you put your finger against the plastic feeder, the hummingbird comes to sit on your finger it worked for me twice, really a fun experience. The zooming sound that these little birds make is like a similar to a small engine.

green hummingbirds

I am putting my finger against the little plastic flower where the birds put their beak in to feed themselves and wait for one of the birds to come sit on my finger

The blue hummingbird

hummingbird feeder

In Monteverde as in many other places in Costa Rica you can do adventurous activities like ziplining for example. I didn’t do it cause I had a ziplining experience in Zambia at the Victoria Bridge last may. Anyway you can do this in the rainforest which is a different setting then at the Victoria Falls but maybe for me it was to early go ziplining again.

 

Did you know El Salvadors St Ana Volcano ?

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Central America the home to hundreds of Volcano’s. When staying in Ataco I had to chance to do a Volcano activity, it’s about 60km away and the biggest one in the country. It’s situated in the Cerro Verde National Park and it was about a 1,5 hour hike when I reached the top. This volcano is an active volcano which makes the hike even more exciting. In the centre of the volcano there is a turquoise toxic lake, you can smell the sulphur. It’s a great feeling to stand on top and look down at the crater, it’s perfect for some great photo opportunities, also the area around is stunning for its views. Lake Coatepeque in the distance with some towns around and a smaller volcano on the opposite side. El Salvador has a natural treasure here and for me it was THE highlight of my Central American trip. I am serious about this El Salvador surprised me positively.
I was hiking not by myself but with a group and we were escorted by a policeman, because in the past tourists used to get robbed by hiking the volcano themselves.
It is much safer now and I never felt unsafe in El Salvador during my entire trip.

Cerro Verde National Park ticket office

food and drink stands

police escort

First view of the crater

on top of the world (my feeling at that moment)

Sulphur Lake in the crater

the different layers of the stones

View on Lake Coatepeque

View of the smaller volcano

 

 

 

Do you know Ataco ?

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Ataco

Ataco is a town in El Salvador that became very popular for tourists visiting El Salvador because of a great initiative by the government who sponsored it. The people of Ataco, not all of them off course but many started to paint the murals of their houses, the city changed quickly into the street art city of El Salvador. No graffiti but paint.

Ataco what you got ?

school

famous people (to name a few : Chavez,Castro,Mandela,Gandhi,Martin Luther King)

Man painting his house

I really liked walking around this town in search for great mural paintings. Can’t remember how many little streets I’ve done but I got enough pictures of some great Ataco art. There is also an art gallery in Ataco where you can paint yourself and one of the artists will teach you how, before you know it, you will have your own self-made painting and nobody will ever believe you made it cause the result is like if some local artist would have painted it.

art gallery where you can paint your own painting

Inside the art gallery shop

What else is there to do in Ataco, well Ataco itself is a small town good to spend a day , maybe two if you want to relax and take it slow.
There are craft stores, galleries, bars, restaurants, a market, more than one church and a nice park where you can chill.

touristic street with galleries and shops

Painting of the town Ataco

Church Conception de Ataco

Ave Maria Church

Ave Maria

 

 

 

 

 

Suchitoto’s Cornfestival

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Suchitoto my first stop in el Salvador. Suchitoto itself is a small little town looks like Antigua just smaller. After doing a little walking tour around town, I got to this amazing viewpoint over Lake Suchitlan with the mountains in the back it looked like the beginning of the jungle.

view over Lake Suchitlan

I would stay here for 2 days at the Posada Alta Vista and from the rooftop you could see the building that stands out the most in this town, the white church of Santa Lucia. I spend the weekend here saturday and sunday.

rooftop of Posada Alta Vista

Church of Santa Lucia

Sunday the church was packed with people, It was a special day and there was a special mass, much had to do with the corn festival, which is a very important food in El Salvador. The central square was full of food stands with off course drinks made of corn and variety of food made of corn. They sold t-shirt about the corn festival, all this to celebrate the beginning of the harvest of corn. Every year in August this festival takes place in Suchitoto. I didn’t attend the whole festival since in the afternoon I relaxed at a swimming pool at some restaurant not far from the hotel and it was more than welcome after some days of intense travel.

guys with corn festival t-shirts

food stands, serving corn drinks

souvenir stands

church with people standing till the door outside

police on horses patrolling the streets

relaxing at the pool

Santa Lucia church by night

 

 

 

Copan Ruinas

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The next country on my Central American journey would be Honduras. The most dangerous of all the countries is what you hear sometimes.

Honduras football flag in some restaurant in the town of Copan

The border crossing between Guatemala and Honduras went pretty fast, just had to fill in a few forms , give my fingerprints and then got stamped in. Before I forget I did need to pay a fee to enter the country, some kind of tax and you need to pay in local currency which in Honduras is the lempira. So i changed some of my dollars into lempiras. It was only 60 lempiras which is 2,5 Usd.

Street Art of the Copan Ruinas site in Copan

The Town of Copan Ruinas is very small, a peaceful place were tuk tuks were driving around town just like in San Pedro Guatemala. The main plaza with its church and a small archeological museum are the only places you can visit, next to the bars and restaurants.

small streets of Copan Town with tuk tuk driving down hill

The Church of Copan

The Central Plaza

The archeological Maya museum with the Honduras flag on top

The Copan Ruinas are not that big but worth a visit, I already saw bigger Mayan sites in Mexico like Chichen Itza and Uxmal but maybe it’s not right to compare since every Mayan site is nice in it’s own way.

Map of the site at the park entry

Parrot greeting me at the Mayan site

The First and last Maya Emperor

The way they build all this so many decades ago its amazing to see.
I always like to walk around more in these kind of places then in museums.
The thing I liked about these Ruinas as that it’s not full of tourists, even in town there were not so many tourists. Maybe it’s the reputation Honduras has in the outside world, I don’t know but this place deserves more tourists. You have the Ruinas which are surrounded by the green of the jungle for yourself, so great to make pictures without too much other people in the background.

The ball court with the main Pyramid covered by a sail

The amphitheatre

me at the amphitheatre

the pyramid stairs of the main pyramid that was covered by a big sail with the statue of the Maya emperor