Frontier Towns

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Aguas Calientes

The evening streets are chaotic. Filled with people, there is not a car in sight. Music blasts out of the open doors and windows of bars. Incredibly aggressive restaurant hosts push menus at your face as you walk by. Everyone wears rugged, hiking and trekking clothes. Many are seriously not clean. This is Aguas Calientes, Peru, the gateway to Machu Picchu.

Inaccessible except by train, which isn’t all that reliable, or by foot via the Inca Trail, Aguas Calientes is a true frontier town. Myself, I’m a mall kind of girl. I live fifteen minutes from anything I could ever need. Convenience is the name of the game. For some reason, though, I love frontier towns. They’re just so different; vibrant, exciting, colorful and unique. The difficulty of getting to them is part of the adventure. Aguas Calientes, Peru; Ushuaia, Argentina; Talkeetna, Alaska; Myvatn, Iceland and other places like them, are some of my favorite stops in our travels.

Aguas Calientes stands out because of how remote it is, how hard it is to get to, and the kind of people who frequent it. The atmosphere is one of relief to have arrived and anticipation of what is to come. Machu Picchu sits high above the town, visible from the window of our little Inn. The imposing mountains are part of the town, closing it in, making it seem even smaller than it actually is. The trekkers who have just arrived from the Inca Trail seem to make their way directly to a bar to celebrate. We ride the train, as our daughter, Rachel, is a bit young for a three-day hike. The train may be easier, but it sure isn’t seamless! The tracks are covered in debris from a recent rock slide so they pack the train passengers into vans to drive beyond the slide. Only, there are no roads. We bump through fields, along streams and even on the tracks. It takes forever and is nausea-inducing. It feels like paradise when Rafael, Rachel and I finally board the train.

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Machu Picchu

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The thing about frontier towns is that they’re there for a reason. Something amazing is nearby. Machu Picchu is an experience of a lifetime. The beauty, the history and the way the sun hits the ruins, makes it almost otherworldly. In Ushuaia, you have the southernmost city in the world, “El Fin del Mundo,” an amazing National Park, and the last port before Antarctica. Talkeetna, a picturesque, fun town, is the staging area for those who are climbing Denali, and a great place to float down the river.  Myvatn has natural hot spas, set in a stark volcanic landscape, far from the crowds of the Blue Lagoon in the south. These towns attract people who are looking for something amazing. And they find it.

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Myvatn hot springs

When we travel, we try to experience as much of a place as we can; its food and drink, music and dance, wildlife and scenery. There are new experiences to be had everywhere, from big cities like Buenos Aires to small islands like Santa Cruz, Galapagos. For us, it’s all about finding out what is unique about a place and then experiencing it. Frontier towns are a great way to do this. They offer up a unique and interesting view of a people and place. Go the extra mile (or hundred) and see for yourselves!

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Myvatn

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Myvatn

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Ushuaia

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The southernmost post office in the world!

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penguins live outside Ushuaia

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overlooking town

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hiking in the National Park

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climbing the glacier above town

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Talkeetna. Ready to float.

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the view on the river

Can I do this adventure?

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most difficult.

Courage Level: 2 Most of these towns are easy enough to get to if you’re willing to drive. Aguas Calientes is the only one you will need to have a bit of fortitude to reach. Anyone can do it, though!

Fitness Level: 2 Again, only Aguas Calientes will make you work a bit. The rest you just need to be willing to drive!

More info?

When we flew into Lima, Peru, we stayed overnight at the airport hotel and then flew out the next morning to Cusco. From there, we were picked up at the airport by a driver from El Albergue Inn, located in a Sacred Valley town called Ollantaytambo. We spent a couple nights there, acclimating to the altitude and enjoying this amazing Incan town. The Inn was just perfect – wonderful people, beautiful room and grounds and delicious food. We walked everywhere we wanted to go. Here is the link: http://www.elalbergue.com/en/

In Aguas Calientes we stayed at the Rupa Wasi Eco Lodge. We loved it there. It is set on a hill, away from the craziness of town, but close enough to walk to everything. It’s rustic, but everything there is! They have a high quality restaurant, with some tasty passion fruit offerings. http://rupawasi.net/ingles/index.html

In Iceland, you will find that once you leave Reykjavik, there are not a lot of choices in where to stay. As you get as far northeast as Myvatn, the options are down to one or two. We chose Skutustadir Farm. The rooms are clean and comfortable, the views are spectacular and breakfast is tasty. http://skutustadir.is/en/

Talkeetna, Alaska had more options for lodging. We stayed at the Denali Fireside Cabins, which was perfect for us. We had room to spread out and relax and the location was great. We even got takeout and ate in the cabin as it was so nice! http://www.denalifireside.com/

Ushuaia, Argentina also has a lot of options for lodging, many with a high price tag, as it is the jumping off point for travel to Antarctica. We chose something that was family friendly and affordable for the five nights we were there. The Tango Bed and Breakfast was great. The room was small, but ensuite. The breakfasts were good and, best of all, there was a tango night! The owner plays the accordion and teaches guests who stay for more than three nights how to tango. There is also plentiful wine! http://www.tangobyb.com.ar/index.php

 

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Beneath the Volcano

After a summer off, I am finally back to writing. I dedicate this story to our friend Virginia Maxwell, who was taken from us far too soon. We love her and miss her.virginia

 

We walk along the jungle path, the greenery closing in around us. Birds call and insects buzz. Reaching a large, dark hole in the ground, we begin our descent into the longest and deepest lava tube in the world. The air is immediately cooler, dropping about 20 degrees to the low 60’s (Fahrenheit,) which makes me glad I have on a sweatshirt. As we slowly move away from the cave opening, the sunlight disappears. Only flashlights and headlamps penetrate the inky blackness. This is the Kazamura lava tube on the Big Island of Hawaii, and it is unlike any cave we have ever seen.

misc 112Over the years, we have toured a lot of different kinds of caves.  From Iceland to Tennessee, Puerto Rico to Texas, we have explored caves. We even went deep into a coal mine in Nova Scotia, which is basically a man-made cave. The Kazamura cave is different from them all. The stalactites and stalagmites were made from flowing lava, not water. That changes everything!misc 116

The cave rests beneath Kilauea Iki, which is still a very active volcano. An eruption 700 years ago started the slow process of creating the cave system. We see amazing sights as we walk through with our guide. There are “lava roses,” which are rare. They are formed when lava from a tube below fills up and then oozes through a small opening in the floor. As it bubbles up it creates a rose-like shape. There are also lava straws that hang from the ceiling; lava ripples along the floor, where a rock fell into a pool of lava; and lavafalls along the walls. Many of the formations are chocolate brown in color and look almost shiny, which is caused by minerals and the way the lava cools. It’s all really beautiful and different.misc 117

Our guide tells us that two creatures live here in the deep: an albino spider and an albino cricket. They feed on the minerals in the water. Of course, just after hearing about the bugs that could be surrounding us, our guide has us turn out our lights so that we can experience true darkness. That is always an amazing experience, leaving  you a little breathless and profoundly glad that there are always back-up flashlights! Rachel, age 8, is beyond happy to have the lights back on.misc 063

We end our tour back where we started; in the jungle. The air is warm and the sun is shining. It’s time to explore the volcano from the outside. We are heading off to hike the Kilauea Iki trail into the big crater. Can’t wait!

Can I do this adventure?

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most difficult.

Courage Level: 2 The only issue is if you are seriously afraid of the dark or claustrophobic. If you are, caving may not be for you!

Fitness Level: 1 This is an easy, one-hour tour. The guide will go at your speed.misc 055

More info?

There were only the three of us on our tour, which was great. Tours are run by Kilauea Caverns of Fire http://www.kilaueacavernsoffire.com/  You have to call and make an appointment. We did the one hour tour, which is perfect for anyone with kids.

We stayed at the Kahi Malu Guest Cottage in Volcano Village while we were exploring Volcano National Park. With two bedrooms, it’s great for a family. There is also a kitchen so you can save on dining if you want.  https://www.volcanogallery.com/lodging/KahiMalu.htm

 

 

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Over the Edge in Zion

The cool air blows my hair into my face as I push off the canyon wall with my feet. The rope sliding through my hand, I land back on the rock with a small jolt. Relaxing back into the harness, gravity takes control and I “sit” to look around. The slot canyon is surrounded on all sides by red rock walls.  These canyons are narrow, and made by the wear of water running through them. IMG_1826The canyon floor is dirt, about 40 yards long and 2 to 5 yards wide. I see a small path that must lead to our next rappel. Gripping the rope behind me to control my descent, I take off again for the bottom of the wall, 100 feet below me. A few more big jumps and I’m down. That is so much fun! Rafael, Rachel and I are canyoneering and repelling in Zion National Park, Utah and we love it!

IMG_1804 - CopyOur adventure starts with a scramble up the rocks, searching for hand and foot holds. The red rock is fairly smooth, making the climbs a little bit challenging. At the top, our guide teaches us everything we need to know to enjoy our day rappelling. We practice the techniques on a small, 50 foot wall until we are confident. Then the fun really starts. Squeezing through a narrow crevice in the slot canyon, we look out at the amazing view of rocks, canyon and bright blue sky. Rachel, attached to the anchor on the wall, leans way out to see the bottom of the cliff we are on. I love her courage. You have to trust the equipment! She scurries over the side and disappears from sight, rappelling the wall. Our guide takes us to higher and higher rappels because we are enjoying them so much.IMG_1806

Our last climb takes us to a slot canyon where we have choices on how to descend. If we go down low, we could walk and climb over the rocks on the canyon floor. Rafael and Rachel choose this route. The guide shows me another way, which is to use my back and feet to slowly inch my way across. Using the strength in my legs, I push them against the rock and lean my back against the wall. I’m high enough off the ground that it is a little harrowing when I get tired about three quarters of the way through. Pushing on, I make it to the other side and feel a great sense of accomplishment!IMG_1838

After this adventure is done, we walk out with our guide to our car. After such an amazing morning, we are ready to conquer some difficult trails for the afternoon. Angels Landing, here we come!

 

Can I do this adventure?

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most difficult

Courage Level: 4 This is not for someone afraid of heights. The key is to trust that the equipment will hold you. If you do not think that you can manage that, this may not be a great way to spend your day!

Fitness Level: 3 Canyoneering is not that physically taxing (unless you decide to go through the last slot canyon the way I did!) My Mother, who is in her seventies, managed to do this adventure with some minor assistance from the guide.

Do I need special gear?IMG_1829

As always, a shock proof camera is great for a trip like this. We use our Olympus Tough, which I often carry around my wrist, letting it bang into the rocks.

Our trip was in November, which is a great time because there are fewer people in the Park, and it is not too warm to do hiking and other strenuous activities. Just wear layers, because you will heat up as you are climbing and cool off when you are rappelling.

We have collapsible water bottles that we refill. They’re great for travel and you are not hurting the environment with single use water bottles. Make sure you have enough water with you, as well as a snack.

Any more info?

IMG_1796We used Zion Adventure Company. They are located right in town, not far from the Park entrance. They were very professional, knowledgeable and friendly. I would recommend them. We did the half day canyoneering package. If we had known how much Rachel would love it, we would have gone for the whole day. Next time! http://www.zionadventures.com/courses-trips/zion-park-tours/trips/

We stayed at the Red Rock Inn B&B Cottages. This is a great place to stay, in walking distance to everything in town and close to the Park entrance. Breakfast is delivered to your door in a picnic basket. It was delicious and different every day.  http://www.redrockinn.com/default.htm

Angels Landing is an amazing hike. If you are looking for a challenge, this is it!  http://www.utah.com/nationalparks/zion/angels_landing.htm

 

 

 

Hey Bear, Ho Bear…an Alaskan Adventure

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We hike up the switchback trail alone. My husband Rafael, our 8-year-old daughter Rachel, and I leave the Park Ranger guide with the other travelers down at the bottom. They’re too slow! We know where we’re going. We make the hairpin turn and come to an abrupt stop. On the trail, fewer than 30 feet in front of us, is a mother brown bear and her cub.  She startles us, but fortunately for us, we don’t startle her. Rachel has been singing the bear song – “Hey bear, ho bear. What you gonna do? I’m here, you’re there. I’m just passing through. Hey bear, ho bear. It’s such a lovely day. This is your land, I understand, so I’ll be on my way!”

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We are in the incredible Katmai National Park in Alaska, home to many brown bears (also called grizzly bears.) We wait for the bear to move along, which she does. As we wait, our guide catches up to us. She doesn’t have a gun; she has no intention of hurting the animal. Here, we are the trespassers. The Park Rangers gave us our lesson about bear safety when a float plane landed us on the beach at this magical place. This included the bear song. Make noise. You don’t want to surprise a bear.

We keep singing and hiking. When there is a break in the trees, I see the fantastic view of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. A volcanic eruption in 1912 created ash deposits as high as 700 feet. The wind blew the ash into columns, cliffs and beautiful formations that solidified over the years.327

We make another turn as we head back up the trail away from the valley, and the bear is standing there again. Her cub stands close to her, leaning against her leg, watching us. The mother is unconcerned. She eats the vegetation on the ground and rubs against a tree trunk. The guide unclips her bear spray, which can be unleashed from 50 feet away, just in case. We wait some more. The bear starts in our direction and we all back up without turning around. She goes off the trail and heads down. She’ll probably meet up with the trail again at the next switchback. Bears are not dumb, like us they would rather follow a trail than bushwhack, too!

330We give a small sigh of relief. We have conflicting thoughts. It’s nice not worrying about the bear, it’s great seeing her, but we really don’t want her to go. We continue our climb until we get to a small clearing. We stop to enjoy the views. The sun is shining. The lupines color the hills in purple. We are covered in bug spray, so the infamous Alaskan mosquitoes, aka giant, aren’t too bad. The not-too-warm temperature is perfect for a hike. We grab a drink of water. No snacks are allowed as that would tempt bears to come too close to you and your backpack – not even gum!362

Suddenly six gray wolves trot across the clearing right in from of us. They are maybe twenty yards away, watching us while they move past. Gone as quickly as they appear, our Guide is jubilant at the rare sighting. Most everyone is fumbling for their cameras, in shock. Rachel is fast, though. She got a picture!

We continue our hike back to the top and return to Brooks Lodge, a collection of small, rustic cabins and a common dining room for meals. There we will see lots more bears at the river catching salmon. But that’s another story……

Can I do this adventure?

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most challenging:

Courage Level: 2 – Everything, from the float plane to the bears, is more exciting than scary. Yes, being on a trail with a huge bear can be intimidating, but you actually get used to it quickly here! The cabins for sleeping are very secure and the Park Rangers give very detailed information about safety. There has never been a bear attack in Katmai National Park.

Fitness Level: 2 – As long as you are capable of hiking, this trip will be pleasurable. You don’t have to worry about overheating or high altitudes. My parents did this same trip in their 70’s (they are very active) and they loved it.

Do I need special gear?263

Brooks Lodge gives you a list of things to bring. This is a “pack light” kind of trip. Your bag is weighed before getting on the float plane and it can’t weigh too much.

As with everywhere in Alaska, it’s all about layers for clothes. A base layer of wicking fabric, maybe short sleeve like you would wear to the gym. Then a light-weight but warmer layer on top. My husband likes fleece. I have a thin down jacket from North Face I like. We have very cheap poncho style rain gear that fold very small.  We take them everywhere when we travel because we can fit 3 of them in a day pack with lots of other gear. They can also fit over backpacks to keep them dry and if you sit down they can cover your legs. They cost about $5 at Wal-Mart and have been all over the world with us.

Hiking boots are a must. We all have different brands with no particular loyalty.457

Bring binoculars, whichever ones you have that are small enough to carry around, but powerful.

You need bug spray with Deet. You can spray it on your clothes. We had socks and pants with bug spray built in. These are expensive items, but if you are going to be traveling to places with lots of bugs, it’s worth it. We used them in the Amazon as well. Also, bring a hat and a mosquito net for your head. On hikes or when at the falls watching the bears, it keeps bugs from flying around your face, which is annoying! You can get these things at REI, EMS, LL Bean and many other stores.

For a camera, we use the Stylus Tough by Olympus. We use it because it is shock proof and water proof. We do not want to worry about a camera or lug around a huge camera bag. We are on our trips for the experience, not photography. This is not the camera for a real photographer. It’s point and shoot, which is why we like it. We are always moving too fast for anything else. It takes great memory photos, though!

Any more info I need?

To get to Katmai National Park, you take a float plane to Brooks Lodge. The flight goes from Anchorage to Salmon (in a bigger plane) and then on to Katmai in the small float plane. That, in and of itself is an adventure!  http://www.katmailand.com/lodging/brooks.html

Before you get to Brooks Lodge:237

If, like us, you are spending a fair amount of time in Alaska exploring (and you should!) then you need a place to stay in Anchorage. You also need a place to store the rest of your bags. We stayed at two places that were nice. They are owned by the same people, and both are bed and breakfasts, which is what we prefer. The first was early on in our trip. http://www.alaska-wildflower-inn.com/index.html  It was very nice, great location, delicious food.

The second place, http://www.arcticfoxinn.com/  we stayed at the night before and the night after our trip to Katmai. Our room was more like an apartment, but it also included breakfast. It was a slightly longer walk, but was still close enough to downtown. The food was really good here as well. We got to eat reindeer sausage, which was cool! We were able to leave our bags there while in Katmai. You can read about both places on TripAdvisor.

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Katmai, Alaska

Katmai, Alaska