I can not begin to imagine how and when, but I have fallen into a love affair with Armenia. You know how it is in fairy tales? It comes as a dream, and then suddenly, it is real! Whatever the reason is and however it started, I am so glad that when I joined the solo travel bandwagon, I did it in this beautiful country. Yes, solo in a foreign country and I survived!
Armenia as part of the Caucasus Region boasts of breathtaking mountain views, historical monasteries, a very rich culture, lovely people, and a city to love. Having lived most of my life in Asia (The Philippines) and moved to the Middle East (Dubai) six years ago, the combination of European and Asian ambiance is totally new and revitalizing to me. Somehow, I have romanticized the idea of walking in the streets of Yerevan (capital city) in a chilly April weather, clad in my backpack and just absorbing the interesting sights along the way.
Yerevan streets are almost empty in early mornings.
My hostel is along Mashtots Avenue, which is a perfect spot and is just 18 minutes away from the Republic Square, the heart of Yerevan.
If you are planning a trip to Armenia sooner or later, here is a walk through of my adventure, with travel guide and tips along the way which you might find handy.
Do your research. Believe me, this is vital in every country that you are about to visit. Reading blog posts about Armenia, which more likely will reveal travel guides on visa information, weather, flights, accommodation, and everything else you are curious of, will save you a lot of unwanted stress. I did my research three months before my travel because at times, I am an organized freak and I was very excited to say the least. It also helped a lot that I have friends who have traveled to Armenia and an Armenian colleague (lovely!) who fed me with firsthand and reliable information about the country. There are lots of nice reads online too. Google is my best friend when it comes to that and Youtube has interesting documentary videos. I also realized that the more I read about Armenia, the more I was mesmerized by its beauty. That was like my stress-reliever after a hard day’s work.
Keep a Travel Journal. I like to organize things and so a travel journal made me keep track of my itinerary, budget, checklist and gave me a good excuse to be creative again!
Check for airfare and accommodation that fit your budget. My first consideration on pushing on with this travel was the budget. This may not be a problem to some but I always want to keep my finances intact–to have the time of my life while traveling and still have something to live by when I come back. It pays to look out for cheap ticket fares online (I use Cleartrip to compare prices) and searched for good hostels/hotels via Booking.com. There are package tours which are really cheap for airfare and hotel accommodation combined so you might want to check on those too. Always read your chosen accommodation’s reviews as it will give you 80% of what you are going to experience once you are there. Honestly, if you are looking for an adventure, you will be out all day so a clean room with a comfortable bed is all you need.
I booked my flight with Fly Dubai three months before my travel (it was even cheaper a week before I booked) and stayed in Domino Yerevan Hostel and Tours. The Hostel owner, Mr. Arthur, and his staff are a lovely bunch. Mr. Arthur loves to offer his homemade wine to his guests and I must say that the Cherry Wine best suits my taste buds!
Make an itinerary. This is probably the most exhausting part, but you must make one anyhow. After thorough research, I realized that it was difficult to squeeze all the amazing sights in Armenia in just five days. For an ideal travel, I think a week in Armenia would be lovely as that will give you two days in Yerevan, four days in the outskirts, and a day to just wander, relax and catch up. Three to five days is a fair, good enough length of stay in Armenia as long as you know what you’re after. I am the type that would “conquer it all” and so in five days, by God’s grace, I was able to reach as many places as I can. I would come home at 10pm (thankfully, Yerevan is safe) sleep late, and wake up early, still able and excited. I guess that is what Armenia makes of you – a gentle conqueror.
Plan your tours. Yerevan can be explored on foot. Come on, stretch out those legs! For other destinations, you may take a taxi. Usually, if it is just within Yerevan, they won’t charge you more than AMD1,000. There are also regular group tours outside of Yerevan, which is way cheaper than going for a private tour. Check out Viator.com, Hyur Service, Envoy Tours and Domino Yerevan Hostel and Tours for their daily tour schedule.
Make a packing checklist and double or triple check it. This is where I half failed. I made a packing checklist but my aging brain (ouch!) managed to leave my engagement ring, lotion, and sunscreen in Dubai. Nevertheless, my super excited aura did not let this mishap ruin my trip. My mantra, “Nothing will go wrong if you don’t allow it” worked. So as to make sure that you don’t forget any essentials, only tick items off your checklist when they are already physically inside your luggage or carry-on. Also, make sure to pack clothes appropriate for the weather. I was constantly checking the weather forecast in Yerevan through Accuweather and it gave me a good idea to pack layered clothing because. true enough, it was still chilly in Armenia during my stay.
Apply for a visa. For Filipinos and most nationalities, it is visa-on-arrival. Finally! You can even obtain a visa online. I wanted a sticker on my passport though so I opted to acquire visa upon arrival. Applying online is highly recommended during peak months to avoid long queues. As you arrive at Zvartnots Airport, go where the flow is and either head straight to fill up the visa form (make sure to write legibly bearing in mind your passport details and address in Armenia) or exchange your USD (US Dollar) to AMD (Armenian Dram) first. You may download the XE Currency Converter app for live conversion rates. Remember, you must exchange your AED (Emirati Dirham) to USD before you fly out because they don’t accept AED for conversion. It is also wise to consider exchanging only USD 50-100 at the airport to cover the visa cost (AMD 3000/AED 23/USD 7) for a short stay and exchange the rest in Yerevan where the exchange rate is much higher. There are numerous money changer stalls/shops in the city. A few steps from where I stayed is a 24/7 supermarket called Pak Shuka, where a money changer stall operates. After filling out the visa form and obtaining drams, head next to the visa section, present your passport without the passport holder, pay the visa fee, and marvel at your visa sticker! You are good to explore Armenia. Congratulations!
Arrange your airport transfer. There are taxis in the airport but you may also arrange pick-up and drop-off with your hostel/hotel. You will easily see their representative as he would be beaming at you while holding an A4 paper printed with the name of your accommodation. Feeling like a tourist already? For a planner like me, that is tasty security. The ride from the airport to Yerevan takes approximately 15 minutes. Transportation cost would be around AMD2,000-5,000.
Get connected. Don’t worry about your social media life or access to your emails. You can still be connected even if you didn’t buy a roaming pack. The first minute I arrived at Zvartnots Airport, I immediately checked my phone to see if I have a network signal. Surprise, surprise, there was none! So after I checked in at Domino, I purchased a local sim by Ucom (a mobile network operator and internet service provider) for AMD1,000. It already included voice calls and data. I was then a happy bee to have internet during my entire stay (300mb per day) which is good enough for Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram and Google Maps (very helpful in my walking tours in Yerevan). For the price I paid, it is very cheap, and convenient, too. If you are not keen on buying a local sim, wifi is easily accessible in public places, cafes, restaurants and hostels/hotels.
Gear up your gadgets. Whatever camera you are going to use, make sure that it is fully charged with extra batteries or power bank. You will not resist taking photos and feel free to take a lot! I used my mobile camera, and carried with me a power bank and a selfie stick, which I have not used for its main purpose other than serve as a stand whenever I’m taking timer shots. I am just no good with selfie sticks. Make sure also to bring adapters with rounded pins. The lifeline of your gadgets depends on them.
Meet Locals. Generally, Armenians are kind and helpful people. Many times, I asked for directions and instead of just being pointed to my destination, I ended up being escorted towards them. One taxi driver even accompanied me in my tour of the Genocide Museum and was very apologetic because he doesn’t speak English. Mr. Arthur, on the other hand, fed me with sumptuous Armenian delicacies while on our way to Tatev, all for free! English is quite alien to some but the youngsters are able to converse in the language confidently. They are also the technology-empowered group who would take out their phones and direct you through Google Maps. If you happen to be stared at a lot, don’t freak out. They just see you different but a warm smile always does the trick.
Indulge in local cuisine. I must say that when it comes to food, I am not very adventurous, but since this is my first solo travel, I tried as much degustation as I could have. I wish that I had explored more Armenian food though because they are delicious! Gata, an Armenian sweet bread is perfect for afternoon snack. Their Lavash (traditional Armenian bread made with flour, water, and salt) is made thin to perfection. Wait until you see how much effort and coordination are used to bake this bread and you will appreciate it more. I even brought some with their local cheese (yummy!) back to Dubai along with dried Apricot, Prunes, Grand Candy sweets, and Sujuk/Armenian Snickers (made from walnuts which are strung on long strings and thickly coated in fruit syrup).
On one tour, I experienced having lunch in a home in Noratus Village. The Ikra (Armenian dip made with eggplant and tomatoes) is my winner. It is so good with Lavash and also when eaten on its own. So we had fresh vegetables, salads, breads and dips as appetizers and Kofta with Pasta as main dish. How filling is that?!
Meanwhile, in this serene restaurant in Dilijan (sorry, I didn’t get the name), I opted for Beef Kebab with potatoes on the side.
If you want to experience traditional Armenian music while dining, I recommend Pandok Yerevan (Tavern Yerevan). They have four branches in Yerevan: Amiryan, Paronyan, Teryan and Khorenatsi. They tend to be fully booked so it is a must to reserve a table beforehand. I went to their Khorenatsi branch and after being late for an hour (I got lost walking, took a taxi in the end), I still have my table waiting for me and right in front the performing group. Sweet! They have delectable food choices, a great way to reward yourself after tours.
Explore the outskirts. You will never regret it. The drive may be long but the mountain views are amazing. At times, I felt very sleepy but I just couldn’t let the moment pass without basking in Armenia’s beautiful scenery. I have read blogs about how lovely Goris is and it is a good excuse for me to come back.
Learn their culture and tradition. For one, the centuries old monasteries are sights to behold. They are authentic, ancient, and filled with rich history. It is indeed a blessing being able to be inside these structures which have stood the test of time. Here are my favorites:
Khachkar or Armenian cross-stone are everywhere, predominantly in churches and graveyards. It is a carved stone bearing a cross surmounting a rosette or a solar disc as its common feature. The remainder of the stone face is typically filled with elaborate patterns of leaves, grapes, pomegranates, and bands of interlace. Occasionally a khachkar is surmounted by a cornice sometimes containing biblical or saintly figures. Most early khachkars were erected for the salvation of the soul of either a living or a deceased person. Otherwise they were intended to commemorate a military victory, the construction of a church, or as a form of protection from natural disasters. (Wikipedia)
Interestingly, no two Khachkars are alike. Armenians also believe that when you step on a Khachkar, whoever is inside will pull away all your sins.
I even got one on my phone to mark my adventure in Armenia.
Walk around the city. A city to love, that is my personal definition of Yerevan. If I will have the chance to come back, I will definitely take slow walks around the city, sit on a bench in Republic Square, drink coffee, smile at people, and just admire the sights around me. I had a hurried last day so I was only able to visit Vernissage and Genocide Museum. There are more to see like Cafesjian Museum inside Cascade, Echmiadzin, Matenadaran Museum, Armenia History Museum, a show at the Opera Theatre, Ararat Brandy Factory and a lot more. They say that Kond is another interesting place to explore as it is one of the oldest quarters of Yerevan.
Side note: The water in Yerevan is safe to drink. Water fountains in public places are thirst-quenchers after long walks.
Visit the Vernissage. Vernissage is an open-air market in Yerevan that functions only on Saturdays and Sundays. For those looking for gifts and souvenirs, this is the best place to go. I really enjoyed my time going around as the Armenian culture and art are visible everywhere. Gotta love those preserved Pomegranate key chains and fridge magnets. The handmade accessories and carved wooden Armenian letters are precious too. Just make sure to bargain, and bargain hard!
Bring home Armenian wine. I am no expert when it comes to wine–I rarely even drink alcohol, but I liked the white wine from Areni Factory. Unfortunately, they don’t export yet to UAE. It is also worth checking out the wines in supermarkets and the homemade wines in Areni as they really come cheap. Just make sure to pack them well in your check-in luggage. Check with your airlines too how many bottles you are allowed to bring.
Wine tasting in Areni Wine Factory.
Did I already say take a lot of photos? If you are traveling with a group, having photographed is not going to be a problem. As a solo traveler, I had to be creative in my timer shots or just be bold in asking random strangers to take my photo.
Exercise, anybody? Timer shot at the top of Cascade
Surprisingly, going on a group tour was a good way to meet other tourists and learn from them. Meeting seasoned travelers made me realize that at 35, I’m a late-bloomer when it comes to traveling. I wish that I started earlier but hey, God is always on-time and this is my time.
I believe that there is more to discover in Armenia and the stage is now yours. Please share it to the world. The country definitely deserves more attention as a tourist destination.
Here is my dreamy self trying to absorb it all.
I am looking forward to say “Barev Armenia” again soon!