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