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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Doing the James Bond slide…an Ice Cave Adventure in Iceland

Rachel peers into the very small opening to the cave and turns to the guide. “I don’t think I’ll fit. What if I get stuck?” she says. The hole is about 15 by 36 inches. The only way to get through is to lie on your stomach and pull yourself straight in and down. The guide assures us we will all fit, and we won’t disappear into the dark once inside. I do as he says and slither through. On the inside, I see a huge column made of blue ice. I made it inside the ice cave of Lofthellir, near Myvatn, Iceland and it is so cool (no pun intended.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Getting to this point is part of the adventure. Rafael, our 11-year-old daughter Rachel, and I start the ice cave tour with about 45 minutes of extremely rough driving in a 4×4 van. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe should have put our helmets on for the ride; we could have saved our heads from crashing into the windows!  The ride takes us around Hverfell Volcano to the base of Mount Hvannfell. Once there, we walk for 25 minutes across a black lava field, carrying our big boots for the ice cave.  The lava field is 7000 years old and full of black hills and small craters.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first sight of the cave is a big hole in the ground. We climb down 20 feet by ladder and crowd around the little hole we need to squeeze through to enter the cave. Once we are all in, we start our exploration. We climb up an ice mound with the help of the studs on our boots, and into a narrow opening that gets smaller as we crawl. Eventually, it gets so small that we lie down and do the James Bond slide and roll, as though we are being chased by bad guys! We slide into a new room with beautiful blue and white ice stalactites and stalagmites. Some are huge, while others look like you could push them over, if you aren’t careful. We are! The next room we get into by either climbing down a cliff with the help of a rope or sliding on our bums. I climb but Rafael and Rachel slide, which leaves them very wet for the rest of the trip!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Continuing through the cave brings us one beautiful and unique vision after the other. We have toured a lot of caves, but never one made all of ice. The colors, the size of some of the formations, and just the fact that it is all ice make this such a great place. We emerge back into the sun thrilled with our adventure and ready for more!

Can I do this adventure?

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

Courage level: 3 If you have claustrophobia, this trip will be impossible. If not, once you get past the idea that the roof may be only inches from your head, you should be fine. If you like caving, this is a great one to add to your list.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fitness level: 3 The walk across the lava requires sure footing. If walking is difficult, this will be a tough tour. Inside the cave, you need to be able to roll, climb and slide. Someone in reasonable condition can do it.

Do I need special gear?

The tour company will provide a helmet and boots. You need warm clothing, preferably waterproof. I had on some Athleta pants that are warm and waterproof. Rachel and Rafael just got wet, which isn’t that fun. Wear a hat that can fit under a helmet.

We use our Olympus Stylus Tough camera. It’s waterproof and shock proof. You need something like this or your camera will be ruined. I kept my camera on my wrist and let it get wet and banged around, but then it was easily accessible for photo-taking.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Any other info?

We did our tour with Saga Travel. The guide was nice, friendly and knowledgeable. The tour ran on time and covered what the brochure said it would. I would definitely recommend them.

http://www.sagatravel.is/en/photo-gallery/cave-lofthellir-tour-photos

Finding accommodations outside of Reykjavik was a little challenging. Lake Myvatn had a couple hotels and guest houses. We stayed at Skutustadir Farm. Although not luxurious, the rooms were clean and well-kept and breakfast was included. The location was great, right near the lake. Their website doesn’t tell you anything; you need to email them. You can see the buildings in the photo, though. The rooms were in the smaller building to the right.

http://www.skutustadir.com/

There were a couple restaurants that we liked in Myvatn:

Vogafjos Café (the Cow Shed Café) All ingredients were local and you could watch the cows through the large window. Everything tasted great! https://www.vogafjos.net/en/page/local_food100_7456

The restaurant at the Gigur Hotel.  Myvatn is known for its trout, so that is a good bet anywhere. We came here for the views, and we were not disappointed. We could see the lake, snowcapped mountains and volcano cones – not a sight I see every day! 100_7727 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

Rappelling the Waterfall

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStanding at the bottom of the 80 ft. waterfall I just rappelled, I turn to look up at our 12-year-old daughter Rachel, who is about to make her descent. I know my husband Rafael is up there giving her last-minute pointers. The spray from the falls hits me in the face and chest, so I move back a bit and stand in a sunny spot to warm up. I’m in a shady canyon where it is remarkably cool for a tropical rain forest. I see Rachel as she leans her body out, her feet firmly planted on the slippery rock. She slowly lets the rope out and inches her feet down the rock face, picking up speed as she goes. I lose sight of her as she goes behind an outcropping of rocks, when suddenly she is here.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA “Great job, Rachel,” I yell, over the roar of the waterfall. In seconds she is down, standing in the water next to me. “That was awesome,” she says. I have to agree. We are in the San Salvador rain forest of Puerto Rico on a hiking, rappelling and zip lining adventure, and we are having a blast.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rafael’s family lives in Puerto Rico, so we come here a lot. We are always trying something different. The great thing about Puerto Rico is that there are so many things to try! Today we are hiking and scrambling up river rocks in the beautiful and secluded mountains of Caguas, former home of the Taino Indians. River hiking is so much fun; we don’t worry about overheating! Sometimes we have to use ropes to pull ourselves up steep rocks. Other times we rely on our rock climbing skills. We hike through water up to our knees, then switch to dry land for a while.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we climb to another beautiful area, we are rewarded with a break. There are small waterfalls surrounding us as the people in our group take seats on rocks, enjoy a snack and snap pictures. Everyone is in a great mood, just enjoying the scenery.

After we do the big rappel, we are on the downhill part of our journey. This goes much faster because we get to do it by zip line! Five of them, one 400 feet long. It’s fun, especially as you pick up lots of speed! Poor Rachel doesn’t weigh enough to make hers go fast – she actually has to pull herself to the end on one of them. This is where a little weight is a good thing!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Once we reach the bottom again, we change out of our wet clothes and enjoy a traditional Puerto Rican meal prepared by the family who owns the land we are enjoying. It’s late for lunch and we have worked up an appetite. We all gather around and devour the delicious fish, rice and beans. This is a great way to end a fantastic adventure!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Can I do this adventure?

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

Courage Level: 3 – We rock climb so rappelling is not scary for us, but judging by the other people in the group, it takes a lot of courage to go over the edge of that waterfall! Everyone was very encouraging, though, so people could take their time. It’s all about trusting the equipment. That’s really why we don’t get nervous, even Rachel. We have experience with climbing equipment and trust it won’t break.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fitness Level: 3 – You need to be in reasonably good shape to do this tour. You don’t need to be a super athlete, but you will be belaying up rocks, hiking in rivers and basically moving uphill at a steady pace for a couple hours.

What do I need to bring?

Wear a bathing suit and light, quick drying clothes.  Do not wear jeans or cotton pants; they will just weigh you down when they get wet. Wear shorts (or capris) that are long enough that the climbing harness will be on the clothing, not your skin, because you will be wearing it for most of the day. You might want a long sleeved shirt for after your rappel. It’s shady in the canyon and being cold is not fun.

You can bring a small backpack with snacks, water and your long-sleeved shirt, if you are bringing it. We only brought one pack, which Rafael and I took turns carrying. The van will stop at Walgreens as a last stop if you need to buy something to eat. Bring a waterproof bag if you need anything like a phone or wallet. You will be very wet. (You can keep things in their van, but if you feel better having them with you, they need to keep dry!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Wear lace-up sneakers, light-weight hiking shoes or water shoes. They need to be sturdy enough that you won’t be turning your ankles as you traverse the river rocks. We have light–weight travel hiking boots, and we set them out in the sun the next day and they dried. You might not want to plan this adventure for the day before you get on a plane or you will have very wet shoes to take home!

This was a perfect adventure for our Olympus Stylus Tough shockproof and waterproof camera. I carried it down the waterfall with it around my wrist, banging against the rocks the whole way. Then I stood in the water taking pictures. It was great because I never worried about it. I actually carried it like that all day, so I would have it handy when I wanted to take a photo. If you have a camera like that, take it with you!

Any more useful info?

We used Eco-Quest for our tour guide. They were great. Our guides were knowledgeable, friendly and concerned with safety. I liked that they worked with locals in terms of providing lunch for us.

http://ecoquestpr.com/ecoa.html