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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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