We took a day trip from Sofia to visit the Rila Monastery, which is located about two hours away in the Rila Mountains southwest of the capital of Bulgaria. The monastery was first founded in the 10th century and gets its name, as does the mountainous region, from the hermit Ivan of Rila who founded it. Although the monastery bears some resemblance to the fortified churches that we saw in Romania a few years back, it did not serve the same purpose as the mountains were fortification enough. The Rila Monastery is considered to be one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural sites and therefore does attract a fair number of visitors every year.
The main church of the monastery was built in the middle of the 19th century and is still in use today. The paintings on the exterior walls are quite dramatic and tell a variety of biblical stories. Next to the main church is the clock tower, which is more of a fortress tower than an actual clock tower, but it is quite dramatic to see as it looks over the entire monastery complex. Surrounding the church in the walls are the quarters where the monks of the monastery would live and work when not at the church for prayers. There are only two gated entrances to the Rila Monastery, one near the parking area where visitors arrive and the other that leads to a small village with a restaurant that is on the opposite side of the main entrance.
When visiting Sofia, taking a day trip to the Rila Monastery is certainly worthwhile and can be combined with a wine tasting in the same region. For those who enjoy hiking, there are also several hiking trails in the area and many local people visit the mountains simply to enjoy the natural surroundings and beautiful scenery. Just like visiting any other religious site, dressing appropriately is always recommended and women should have their knees and shoulders covered. We definitely enjoyed our time at the monastery as well as lunch at a local restaurant on the river in a village along the road to and from the monastery.
Ecuador is such a wonderful country in South America with so many different places to see and explore. It is a country made up of three distinct ecosystems from the coast, the peaks of the Andes Mountains, and the dense Amazon Rainforest. Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is centrally located, making it the perfect location to start any adventure. Ideally, any visit to Ecuador would last for at least two weeks, but if you don’t have that much time, you’re going to have make some difficult decisions. During our trip, we made sure to make the most of our time there, but we had to decide whether we wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands or spend time in the Amazon Rainforest as we didn’t have time to do both. For an ideal trip to Ecuador, here are the top places to see during your time there.
Quito – The city of Quito has a wonderful, old-world feel that will almost make you feel as if you are in Europe. There is the Basilica del Voto Nacional, San Francisco Church and Monastery, and an old town area that is very walkable. Even if you are heading the coast or the rainforest to see the wildlife, you should certainly allocate several days to spend in Quito.
Napo Wildlife Center – For an experience in the Amazon Rainforest that you will never forget, staying at the eco-lodges of the Napo Wildlife Center cannot be beat. From giant river otters, hundreds of birds, monkeys, sloths, caiman, and more, there is so much to see during time in the jungle. Also, visiting an indigenous village as well as seeing hundreds of parrots at the parrot clay licks is extremely impressive. You will need to spend at least four to five days in order to really make the most of your time in the Amazon.
The Equator – Going to the middle of the earth is a fascinating experience and the Intiñan Museum at the true equator has a variety of interesting science experiments. It is fun for adults and children alike. There is also a very interesting museum, La Mitad del Mundo, that is at the location previously thought to be the equator and it can be seen during the same trip to the real equator.
Laguna Quilotoa – Visiting this lake in the crater of a dormant volcano is one of the most spectacular sights within Ecuador. It is certainly worth taking the time to hike down to the lake itself or you can ride a donkey down and back up if you want as it is quite steep. You can also kayak out onto the sulfur lake, but you can’t go swimming.
The Teleferico – Located on the outskirts of Quito, the Teleferico is a cable car that will take you up the side of the Pichincha Volcano with amazing views of the city. There also several hiking trails after the cable car drops you off at the viewing station. It is at a very high elevation, so it is wise to pace yourself if you do decide to go hiking. It is certainly worth the effort as the views are absolutely amazing.
Cotopaxi Volcano – Hiking on an active volcano may not be on everyone’s bucket list, but is certainly a very interesting experience. At this time, you can only climb to the mid-station on the side of the volcano due to the fact that it is an active volcano and the risk for an eruption remains high. There is also a park with nature trails located at the base of the volcano that is certainly worth taking the time to hike as well.
The Galapagos Islands – Unfortunately we had to choose between spending time in the Amazon or going to the Galapagos Islands, so we’ll have to return at a later time to see the amazing wildlife that is there. The tour company that we used provided us an interesting article on the animals of the Galapagos that certainly has us wanting to return.
When we first decided to go to Ecuador, we were surprised at how little we actually had seen or read about this fascinating country. There is certainly an abundance of things to see in Ecuador and we used Quito as our home base for our time there. From an abundance of wildlife and dramatic scenery to the historic city of Quito, Ecuador definitely has something for everyone and is a gem of South America.
When you go hiking in the mountains of Colorado, you expect the hikes to be fairly strenuous. Unless you’re going on a relatively short hike, there is most likely going to be a significant change in elevation. After all, you’re in the mountains and if you’re going to go hiking, it isn’t going to be flat. With that said, some hikes are harder than others. We’ve hiked to top of Pikes Peak, which is a 12 mile (19 kilometer) hike one-way to the summit and an elevation gain of over 8,000 feet (or 2,500 meters) as well as hiked on trails with ledges that were only as wide as our feet. We’re definitely not rock climbers, but from time to time you have to do some boulder scrambling in order to reach some of the more remote locations when hiking.
The hike that we took during one of our trips to Breckenridge, Colorado, was one of those hikes. The interesting thing about hiking when you have to scale some rocks or go on the edge of some steep cliffs is that it is usually more unnerving going down than it is going up. When you’re going up the mountain, your focus is on the trail ahead of you and the reaching the top of whatever you’re scaling. When you’re heading down, you tend to see how steep things really are and that makes it a little bit more scary.
We almost turned around a couple of times during the hike, but the payoff at the end was worth the effort. As is often the case when you hike in Colorado, the views at the peak or the end of a trail are absolutely spectacular. This particular hike brought us to a gorgeous pond where we sat and ate a brief lunch while we watched the mountain goats relax on the boulders above us. It was just the two of us and nature, and it was one of the most tranquil and relaxing experiences that we’ve had hiking. Perhaps it was due to the lack of oxygen and exhaustion, but the beauty around us was almost euphoric.
Unfortunately all hikes must end and eventually you have to work your way back down and back to reality and to civilization. On our way back down, when we reached the spot where we had climbed up several boulders along a very steep cliff, we scooted ourselves down as opposed to walking, not wanting to tumble down into the ravine. Hearts pounding, once we were down from the boulders, it was back to a normal hike and we were able to once again enjoy that beauty that surrounded us. There truly isn’t anything like hiking in the mountains and totally immersing oneself in nature.