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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Penguins…the Stars of the Show

My heart starts to pound in excitement as our raft eases closer to the island. The breeze has died down and the temperature is a comfortable 50 degrees F. The sun is trying to come out from behind the gray and white clouds that fill the sky. We don’t really care what the weather is. We have traveled so far and we are finally here! The zodiac raft cuts its engine and glides very slowly to shore. The sight before us is as delightful as we’d hoped. We are in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, and we are here to see penguins!Picture 033

Martillo Island, where we have pulled ashore, is home to thousands of Magellanic and Gentoo penguins. The Magellanic penguins are all over the beach and are curious about our boat. We quietly disembark and walk with our guide. We don’t get too close as we don’t want to disturb them. We would rather see and photograph happy penguins than angry ones! Picture 039They are small, maybe a little over two feet tall, and have black fur with white markings that circle their faces and cover their stomachs. Too cute! After spending a few minutes on the beach, we walk inland where we see the Gentoo penguins sitting on their nests. The males and females take turns incubating the eggs in the nest. We can’t tell the difference; they all look the same to us!

We peek into the burrows in the sand and grass to see the nests of the Magellanic penguins. They do a better job than the Gentoo of hiding their eggs from the Skua, a marine bird that feeds on them. Our guide tells us that the week before there were two leopard seals who came to the island from Antarctica, which is unusual. I’m glad we missed that, as the seals made a meal out of many of the penguins before moving on. Not something I want to see!Picture 061

The views around us are amazing, snow-capped mountains, green grass, the blue-gray ocean and the adorable penguins. It is worth the effort to get here to experience this.

Can I do this adventure?

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

Courage Level: 1 This is an easy trip, nothing to be afraid of!

Fitness Level: 1 This is not physically taxing, as long as you can walk around mildly hilly terrain.

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Do I need special gear?

If you have a good camera, bring it. It won’t get wet and the photo opportunities are amazing. Wear layers as the weather can change to chilly without warning. We went in November and the weather was fine.

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There are a lot of tour groups that take visitors out to the Beagle Channel. Look for the ones that have permission to walk on the penguin’s island. Only two agencies will have permission at a time, and it changes. All the agencies have kiosks in downtown Ushuaia. Take the time to visit them all, until you find what you are looking for.

We stayed at the Tango B&B in Ushuaia. The rooms are very basic, but there are ensuite bathrooms, and a continental breakfast. A good reason to stay there is for the tango lesson and accordion concert that you are treated to one night (if you stay more than 3 nights.) The guests can learn how to do the tango while sipping wine and enjoying each other. The innkeeper, Raul, even helped us with renting a car for a few days so that we could easily explore the area.  http://www.tangobyb.com.ar/index.php

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