Has living in the 2020s got you feeling like you are in over your head?
The storms of the pandemic, economic uncertainty, climate change, and political extremism are whipping up all of the waters around us. Some of you may be worried that those waves may capsize you. I took this picture kayaking in Southeast Alaska a long time ago. I never thought about its metaphorical value at the time.
Just like then, when life threatens to capsize you, one must KEEP PADDLING! Praying might not hurt either, but the situation DEFINITELY requires action on your part. Keep breathing, assess the situation around you and keep that paddle moving so you can safely get to shore.
When paddling, it is safest to paddle straight into the wind to keep from getting capsized. Even if the closest shoreline is to your left or right, it pays to paddle mostly into the wind and slowly crab the boat sideways toward the shore. That way you will see the waves coming at you and will not be blindsided by a sneaker wave. It may seem like it will take longer to get to safety that way, but it is the safest method in the long run. Similarly in life, it is best practice to understand and anticipate those forces that are working against you.
At some point, if you don’t succumb to your fears, you will finally get to the safety of the shoreline. The storm that you are experiencing in life will eventually blow over; hopefully it will not be measured in geologic time. You will come out of it on the other end with renewed confidence. You might even feel like you can walk on water, like I did in the picture below. But beware, our feet leak badly. So don’t attempt to do it, even if you feel like you could.
Stay strong, stay focused, keep paddling….and be humble!
Alphabet Adventures started during the start of the pandemic, when people were locked down. Folks listed places they’ve been, going through the alphabet. I’m posting this a little later than most, but have read many other folks who have done it and enjoy reading where they have been. Each letter has one place with a short blurb, but some of these I have posted about previously. For those readers new to this blog, I have added links to the longer story of some of these places (in green text). Man, it sure was hard to decide which place to use for each letter. Some great places didn’t make the cut.
All of these places are more than just a checklist on the alphabet. All have had an impact on my life and each are worthy of a post of their own, with many that I haven’t written about yet. This makes we want to weave the whole alphabet into one continuous story someday, instead of just a checklist, which will really take a lot of time. I hope you enjoy this geographical journey as you virtually travel around the world with us!
A is for Argentina
Argentina slightly beat out Andorra to represent the letter A. Argentina is such a large and diverse place, it is hard to only use one picture to represent it. This one is from Patagonia in the south of the country. From penguins on a desert beach at Punta Tombo, to the expansive Pampas, to the rugged mountain cordillera, and from the sculptured forest near El Bolson, Argentina is chock full of unique and beautiful landscapes. I recently made a post about traveling the Famous Ruta 40 from north Argentina’s Epic Road Trip: La Ruta Cuarenta – (Route 40)
B is for Bolivia
A very diverse landlocked country, I visited the Altiplano over a decade ago and sat in Butch Cassidy’s grave in San Vincente. The high altitude, salt flats, Aymara culture and unique flora and fauna make Bolivia one of my favorite countries. I wrote a post a couple of years ago about my wonderful guide for a trip to the Salar de Uyuni and a climb of the 19,667′ volcano Licancabur. The letter B was a tough choice for me, as I also wanted to highlight my time in Barcelona, Catalunya. For the longer version, click on the following link Bernardo: Hombre de Bolivia
C is for Cape Town, RSA or Condega, Nicaragua
Hard to choose amongst the many C places I’ve been to. Condega, Nicaragua is Bend’s sister city, but I chose Cape Town, RSA, as it is one of the most beautiful settings in the world. This view is from the top of Table Mountain. We also drove to the Cape of Good Hope at the end of Africa, just a couple of hours to the south. Besides being set in a beautiful location, Cape Town is a cosmopolitan city with many cultures. Afterwards, we took a group camping trip from here through Namibia and Botswana and ending in Zimbabwe.
D is for Dead Vlei, Namibia
Dead Vlei is a landscape that looks like Salvador Dali designed it. 800 years ago, the shifting sand dunes cut off what little moisture drained into this former swamp, cutting off the water source for these trees. Since Namibia is such a dry desert, the dead trees do not rot like they would in other climes, so they just stand out starkly, like petrified ghosts against the high dunes in the background. I actually saw an ostrich running here across the dunes, but he was too fast for me to shoot his picture! The United Nations of Namibia
E is for Estonia
All of the Baltic States have their charms, but Estonia stands out among them. I got to pedal a bicycle from Parnu on the mainland through the western islands about 5 years ago. The capital of Tallinn has a charming old medieval walled city. The roads are good and lightly trafficked, and there is a lot of nature to explore. The Happy Isles of Western Estonia
F is for Frenchglen, Oregon
Frenchglen, Oregon (pop. 11) sits at the edge of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon. It made national news in January of 2016 when a group of armed protesters blockaded the refuge and took it over. The historic Frenchglen Hotel caters to birders who visit the refuge to view neotropical migrants during the Spring and Fall migrations. They have great meals served there family style. I used to make at least one pilgrimage a year to the Frenchglen and the Malheur Refuge. A friend and I biked across Oregon over a decade ago and stopped in Frenchglen on our way home. The post of this trip was uploaded in January of 2021 B.R.O.A.D. (Bike Riding Oregon Across the Desert)
G is for Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
This is the place that I fell in love with sea kayaking, as we paddled the whole East Arm of the Bay in three decades ago. After that, I became a guide for Alaska Discovery and then opened my own business (GreatLand Guides) and ran it until 2000. I’ve posted numerous stories on Alaska, of which I’ve created a whole category for on this website. Just four years after our trip, I found that the Muir Glacier had melted back another 4 miles. Go see it and enjoy the abundant wildlife and majestic landscapes. You don’t have to paddle, but can take a day tour from Gustavus, Alaska. Some folks just see it as part of an Alaskan cruise, but I would recommend a smaller boat to really enjoy all the park has to offer.
H is for Havana, Cuba
During the Obama administration there was legal person-to-person travel to Cuba if you applied through a special program. Independent travel was illegal then and still is. Now you can’t even legally go at all, which is a damn shame. Every other country in the world besides the USA travels there freely. Although it is poor, Havana has a lot of culture and history to explore and Havana will be your base from which to explore the rest of Cuba. This picture is of the fort across the bay, which I took from the Malecon (sea wall). I hope Americans (myself included) will be able to go back in my lifetime!
I is for Iceland
Lying in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean over two diverging ocean plates, Iceland is the “Land of Fire and Ice”. We drove the ring road around the island for about 900 miles of awesome coastline. The picture below is of Gulfoss (Golden Falls) in the interior near the southwest part of the island. Melting snows and abundant rainfall at this latitude make for a year round thundering cascade. The volcanic landscape and the geologic faults at right angles make Gulfoss one of the most interesting waterfalls not only of Iceland, but maybe of the whole world.
J is for Juneau, Alaska
Juneau was my home for 3 Winters and many more summers. It is Alaska’s capital city. You can only get there by boat or plane from somewhere else. The Tongass National Forest dominates the panhandle and surrounds all of the communities of Southeast Alaska. Combine deep, glacially carved fjords, abundant wildlife, and majestic mountains with a rich cultural history and you will have a place as special as Juneau.
K is for Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania
What can I say about this experience except…WOW! We did this trip just a few short years ago, and am glad we made it, as I don’t think I would reach the top today. The porters were great. The moment at the top felt ethereal in the thin air and we got a glimpse of what little glacier remains on the south side of the mountain. For the full story, see Mt. Kilimanjaro: The Lemosho Route
L is for Liechtenstein
Liechtenstein is a double landlocked micro-state wedged in between Austria and Switzerland. It is one of only two double landlocked countries in the world, the other being Uzbekistan. That means the counties that surround it are also landlocked countries. My claim to fame is that I’ve been to both of them. Liechtenstein is only 16 miles across and it is aligned with the Swiss federation and they use the Swiss Franc as their currency. You will also have to go through customs and immigration if you are coming in from the Austria and the European Union.
M is for Montenegro
Montenegro is one of the newer countries in the world, having declared independence from Serbia in 2006. For a small country, it has amazing diversity, from a beautiful coastline to the high Dinaric Alps. The hiking and kayaking there are great. It also has the deepest gorge in Europe. I may have a post about this area before the end of this year.
N is for New Zealand
About the same size as the state of California, New Zealand also has some of the most diverse landscapes and ecosystems of any place in the world of that size. From tropical beaches to deeply fjorded coastlines, to the Southern Alps of the South Island or the volcanoes of the North Island, New Zealand has something for everyone. I had a hard time choosing one picture, but settled on the one of the Pancake Rocks on the West Coast of the South Island where the waves would come crashing into the sedimentary rocks and spray us through some of the many blowholes in the eroded rock. Just the sounds itself were exhilarating.
O is for Okavango Delta, Botswana
Picture the Florida Everglades with Hippos, Elephants and Zebras. Now surround that with a dry desert and you have the Okavango Delta. We’ve never experienced such rich sunsets as those in Africa, and those of the delta were some of the best in all of Africa. We paddled a Mokoro (canoe from hollowed out log) in the shallow water and stayed away from the deeper parts where the hippos hang out. It’s the only place in the world I can think of that you will see domestic cattle next to elephants, giraffe, and zebra.
P is for the Pyrenees Mountains, near Panticosa, Spain
The Pyrenees Mountains are high mountains that separate Spain from France. The micro-country of Andorra is also located here. The language is Catalan in the East and Basque in the Western part, but most people are multi-lingual who live here. Our first experience in these mountains was to walk from the spa town of Panticosa up to the divide, where we first set foot in the country of France. There was no-one at the top of the mountain to check our passports!
Q is forQuepos, Costa Rica
Quepos is located on the West Coast of Costa Rica and it the town you will likely make your base for exploring Manuel Antonio National Park. The park is chock full of wildlife, and the white-faced Capuchin monkeys will come out of the trees to accost you in hopes of being stealing food out of your backpack. Don’t be tempted to sleep on the beach as I did, unless you want iguanas running across your chest at night. Stay in one of the many motels in the area. But be sure to come out to see the sun set over the Pacific Ocean when you are there. Quepos narrowly beat out Quito, Ecuador; Queenstown, Maryland; and Queenstown, New Zealand to represent the letter Q.
R is for Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
A jewel of a beach town that I’ve known since childhood, Rehoboth Beach has now been discovered by the rest of the world. Although much more crowded than it used to be, it still has a charm about it. Forty years after planning a bicycle trip from my boyhood home in New Jersey to Rehoboth, we finally made the trip with a couple of high school friends a few years ago. The picture below is of a gift shop on Baltimore Avenue about a block from the beach, that once was the home of my great Aunt. I spent many nights in Auntie Coe’s warm home that she shared with her feline friends, when I was a young boy. She also had a talking Myna bird that would scream “I Can’t See” when you put a cover over its cage at night! Rehoboth was almost beaten out by Reine, Norway in the Lofoten Islands to represent the letter R. Although Reine is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to, it couldn’t compete against a loquacious Myna bird and my Auntie Coe!
S is for Skellig Michael, Ireland
Nine miles off of the coast of Ireland lies Skellig Michael, a 1,500 year old monastery where Irish monks hid out during the time of the Viking raids on Ireland’s coastline. We were here before Luke Skywalker was, as it was featured in the Star Wars Film, “The Last Jedi”. While we had no trouble in booking a trip at that time, you should book well ahead, as the rest of the world knows about this special place after the Star Wars movie was filmed there in 2015. Skellig Michael- Before Luke Skywalker was there
T is for Tikal National Park, Peten, Guatemala
Tikal was an ancient Mayan city in the heart of the jungle in the Peten region of Northern Guatemala. It is one of the most important archaeological sites left by the Mayan civilization and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Howler Monkeys scream from the treetops as you walk through the ruins. The Mayans performed human sacrifices on the temple that you see behind us in the picture below. Their civilization lasted from about 700 B.C. to about 900 A.D and the architecture shows a highly complex civilization.
U is for Uzbekistan
During the Timurid Empire, what is now Uzbekistan used to be the center of the world. The Silk Road ran through here. Highlights include the Registan in Samarkand, which you can see in the picture below. I could’ve chosen Uruguay or Utah to represent the letter U, but Uzbekistan is a place that is even more UNIQUE! There are parallels between the history of Uzbekistan and my career as a geographer which I outlined in a post last year. Building a Bridge to Nowhere: My Career as an American Geographer
V is for Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and Zambia
Victoria Falls is referred to as “the smoke that thunders.” It lies on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, where the Zambezi river cuts through a deep gorge (could’ve used any of these for the Z letter). There is a high bridge one can walk over to the Zambian side, or do bungee jumping from the bridge. We chose to walk to Zambia and take pictures of the younger, less sane members of our group as they leaped off the bridge with just a rope tied to their ankles. Kids these days!
W is for Walvis Bay, Namibia
Walvis Bay is a port city on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. It has one of the few harbors on the whole coast and is a mecca for flamingos as well as cargo ships. Walvis Bay beat out the likes of Wagontire, Oregon; Wanaka, New Zealand; Willimantic, Connecticut; and Washington, D.C. to represent the letter W.
X is for Xunantunich, Belize
X has to be one of the hardest letters to be able to complete the Alphabet Adventures challenge, unless of course you have spent a lot of time in China (which I have not), where most of the geographic names that start with X are found.
Xunantunich is a Mayan ruin in the western part of Belize, near San Ignacio. It is only about a mile from the main road linking Belize and Guatemala. We visited some ruins near San Ignacio with a guide, but I don’t remember taking the small ferry across the river to see it, since it was such a long time ago when we were there. Therefore, I can’t with 100% certainty that I have fulfilled visiting a place that starts with an X. I did drive close to Xenia, Ohio near Dayton. I THINK I’ve been to Xunantunich, but if not, then just try to sue me for only getting 25 letters of the alphabet!
Y is for Yachats, Oregon
We love all of the Oregon Coast, but Yachats on the Central Coast is our favorite place to hang out. It is small, quaint, and friendly. We stay at the Overleaf Lodge when we go and visit the beautiful natural features nearby such as Cape Perpetua, and Heceta Head Lighthouse. We try to make it over there once per year to smell the salt air and walk along the beaches and coastal trails. Highlights of Oregon’s Central Coast
Z is for Zanzibar
I first saw the beaches and electric blue waters of Zanzibar from 29,000 feet while flying from Dubai to Cape Town. Little did I know that I would be there on the ground a couple of years later. After the hustle and bustle of its largest city of Stone Town, where you can visit Freddy Mercury’s house and get lost in a maze of alleys, the tranquil beaches of Zanzibar’s coast are places where life moves very slowly. That was just what we needed at the time. It also has a lot of Muslim influence, given its proximity to the Arabian peninsula by sea. We really enjoyed our time there after the Kilimanjaro climb, which allowed Zanzibar to squeak out a narrow victory over Zion National Park in Utah to represent the last letter of our alphabet.
I hope you all enjoyed this Alphabet Adventures sojourn as much as I did reminiscing about these special places. But all places are much more valuable than being just a part of a checklist or a bucket list. The places and the people that we met in all of these locales are instrumental in shaping who we are. They also influence our perspectives about the world that we live in. The Alphabet Adventure is just a method for us to remember and appreciate some of them. Maybe I’ll do another one in a few years to recognize the silver and bronze medalists, knowing that some REAL SPECIAL places that are not well known may never, ever be published by me in order to protect them.
Argentina’s Route 40 is one of the world’s epic road trips. It travels nearly the entire length from North to South in this large South American country. Traversing through remote deserts, to lush wine country with charming small towns, to wildernesses with glacially carved mountains, a trip down Ruta 40 has it all. Where else could you see glaciers, red rock deserts, ancient archaeological pictograph sites, taste vintage wines, trace Butch Cassidy’s footsteps, see a sculptured forest, experience Welsh culture in a South American setting, traverse through desolate valleys and visit thriving towns all on the same road? Nowhere else but La Ruta 40!
Ruta 40 is one of the longer road trips in the world. At 5,000 kilometers long, it is longer than America’s Famous Route 66 which goes from Chicago to Los Angeles. Since its orientation trends from North to South, Ruta 40 covers different latitudes, which correlate with different climate zones. That make for quite varied ecosystems along the way. The road starts in the south near Rio Gallegos on the Atlantic Ocean and ends at La Quiaca near the Bolivian border in the northern province of Jujuy (pronounced “hoo- hwee’). The road has been decades in the making, and there are parts that are well paved and others that are gravel. There are plans to pave it all sometime in the future, similar to the plans of the Alaska Highway through Canada in North America. The low point is near sea level on the coast, but the high point in Salta Province climbs to a lung-busting altitude of 16, 200′ at Abra del Acay.
There is no right way to travel the route, so we will start in the north and continue southward, which is the way I experienced it. The elevation at La Quiaca in Jujuy province at the start of our trip is 11, 344.
THE FAR NORTH
In the far North, you will encounter high mountains, as Ruta 40 runs just east of the Cordillera of the Andes Mountains. This is the latitude of the subtropical high pressure area where there is little rainfall, and desert like conditions. The landscape seems lunar in appearance. Nonetheless, there are well preserved pre-Colombian ruins in the area.
A long way away from the town of Cafayate, we found this old man gathering wood to bring back to his home near town. We offered him a bottle of cold water, which he was really thankful for. Nights get cold in the desert with clear skies, and one has to travel far and wide to find scarce wood for fuel. Life is not easy in these parts.
In high altitude, dry areas of Bolivia and Northern Argentina, one also might spot a Vizcacha. It is a strange looking animal, as if a rabbit, a squirrel, and a possum had a three-way, with the resulting offspring being a Vizcacha. Actually they are of the rodent family, similar to the chinchilla.
The town of Cafayate (not to be confused with the of El Calafate in Patagonia), is a good sized town that has some wineries and is a good place to stage day trips to the surrounding region. One can also reach Cafayate on a day trip from the much larger town of Salta. You won’t want to miss the Quebrada de Cafayate, with its unique geological features.
Another popular day trip excursion in this part of the world is a ride on el Tren a las Nubes (Train to the clouds). It is a full day excursion from the city of Salta, where you will take a coach to San Antonio de las Cobres and then board the train at an altitude of over 12,300′. The ride takes you ever higher and crosses the very high Polvorilla Aqueduct. You will not likely see any clouds in this desert environment, but if there were enough moisture in the air, you would be high enough to be in cloud.
Further south, you will go through the center of wine country in the Mendoza region. Most of the Argentine wines you find in your grocery stores or bottle shops at home will come from this region of Argentina.
The map below shows only the southern portion of Ruta 40 through Patagonia. The further south you travel, the more remote it gets.
Much further south from the desert north, and further south from the Mendoza Wine district, the central part of Ruta 40 passes through the relatively moist Lake Districts near San Carlos de Bariloche. Bariloche is a heavily touristed town, full of chocolate shops, and located on the shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake, in Rio Negro province. It is a ski town in the winter and a center for trekking and adventure travel in the summer and a magnet for other tourists. Its alpine style architecture gives it a hint of Swiss charm at the foot of the Andes. There is also a road link over the mountains to Chile from here. You could imagine yourself being in Austria, if only they spoke Spanish in Austria!
Our next stop heading south is at the charming little town of El Bolson, at the end of Rio Negro Province. Cerro Piltriquitron is the mountain in the background in the picture below, and where the famous Bosque Tallado (Sculptured Forest) is located. I wrote a post on that location earlier this year. El Bosque Tallado: The Sculptured Forest
Heading south into Chubut province there will be a road off to the right of Ruta 40 which goes to Cholila, the site of the cabin of the famous outlaw Butch Cassidy. I really wanted to visit there, but the bus service only went to Cholila once a week and the timing didn’t work out. But being a fan of Butch and having visited his hideouts of Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming, Robbers Roost in Utah, and his grave site in Bolivia, I still feel like I have hit the Butch Cassidy trifecta.
You might also want to make a stop in Trevelin, where you will experience Welsh culture in Patagonia. Stop at a Welsh Tea House and you might think you are in Cardiff, until you look out the window and see the Andes in the distance. These tea houses look and taste like Cardiff, but the sounds of Spanish mixed with Welsh architecture, dress and gastronomy will blow your mind!
The bus I was riding stopped at the town of Esquel for the night and we found lodging there. One of the attractions of Esquel is that it is home to “La Trochita”, a famous narrow gauge steam engine train. For those interested, I would recommend author Paul Theroux’s book “The Old Patagonian Express” about train travel in this remote region.
THE FAR SOUTH (PATAGONIA)
South of Esquel, the country is wild and sparsely inhabited. You pass through sagebrush valleys with the majestic snow capped peaks of the high Andes in view to the west. A day of riding the bus will put you in the hamlet of Perito Moreno where you will find a cafe and lodging for the night. The bus will not leave until late the next day to give passengers time for an optional morning excursion to the Cueva de las Manos (the cave of hands), which is a world famous archaeological site of hands painted by indigenous peoples over 13,000 years ago.
Any trip through sparsely populated lands will have to have a safe stopping place for a night’s rest. Nestled near the shores of Lake Cardiel about 240 miles south of Perito Moreno you will find the Estancia Siberia, a welcome outpost of civilization in the midst of the Patagonian wilderness. Our bus stopped here for the an evening meal and then for the night.
Ruta 40 gets close to the Cordillera near the far south. The jagged peaks of Cerro Torre and Mt. Fitzroy are some of the most iconic mountain landscapes you will ever experience. The harsh winter weather and the rugged glaciers have sculpted this landscape over the eons of time. Usually the mountains are shrouded in clouds, but it was absolutely gorgeous the day that I was there.
One might also spot a guanaco on the side of the road in the far south. The guanaco in the picture below didn’t seem too concerned with me getting so close to him.
I got off of the bus in El Chalten, and then caught another bus to Chile, so I did not finish all Argentina’s epic Ruta 40. But if you would like to quickly travel the route from south to north, I found a good you tube video for you.
The you tube video below is narrated in SPANISH, but even for those of you who are not fluent in Spanish, you can still get a good feel of what this magical route has to offer. The trip starts in the south of the country, passes by the Glaciers, and travels all the way up to the deserts in the north. May your geographical journey be an epic one!
Mt. Kilimanjaro….the highest point on the African Continent. The summit is located at a lung busting altitude of 19,341 feet. It is located in Northern Tanzania, about 4 degrees below the equator. Kilimanjaro is also the highest free-standing mountain above sea level in the world. It is also the highest volcano in Africa and in the Eastern hemisphere. We chose to take the eight day Lemosho Route, 6.5 days up and 1.5 to descend. The Lemosho Route has several advantages over other possible routes to climb the mountain. We went with the company “Climb Kili” and stayed in Arusha at their compound before we embarked on our journey.
It is interesting to note that the border of Tanzania has a mostly straight line, with a dog leg around Kilimanjaro which keeps the mountain entirely in Tanzania. These lines were drawn by European Powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884, and had no input from African peoples. The original straight line left the German territory of Tanganyika without the mountain. A popular fictional story has the German Kaiser complaining that the original line gave both high mountains (Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya) to the British and Queen Victoria redrew the line to give the Kaiser a mountain for his birthday. More likely was that a negotiation gave the mountain to Germany, but kept the important port city of Mombasa in British hands on the Kenyan side of the border.
Kilimanjaro is a magnet for climbers and adventure travelers from around the world and is a very important source of foreign exchange via tourism for the country of Tanzania. There are several routes you can take up the mountain. We chose the 8 day Lemosho Route not only because it is one of the most scenic routes up the mountain, but it has much less foot traffic than the popular Macheme or Marangu routes. The longer 44 mile route from the west also allows for more days of acclimatization to the altitude, making for a higher likelihood of a successful summit.
Our hike started at the Londorosi Gate, where we checked in with the national park. Having a set of porters made the trip much more manageable, as we only had to carry a light pack of no more than 15 kilos, while the porters carried the camping gear and food. They even carried a toilet for us to use at camp. We’ve never carried one of those on a backpack trip before! It falls to the least senior member of the staff to be the one to carry it on the expedition. All of the porters started our their careers in this way.
The altitude at the start of the hike here was 7,742 feet. While the cost of a guided hike is high, most of that money goes to the National Park. One can climb without porters, but the cost for a foreign traveler climbing independently is almost as high as a guided hike. Therefore, the vast majority of visitors to Kilimanjaro National Park opt for a guided hike. It sure was nice not to have to climb such a massive mountain with fully laden backpacks!
The hike starts at about 7,700 feet in elevation, leaving almost 12,000 feet to reach the summit. Actually, there is much more climbing than that, as the route goes up and down quite a bit on the traverse around the south side of the mountain. The trail starts out in rain forest, and hikers will experience several more ecosystems as you climb higher and higher. The first day we saw many different species of monkeys in the rain forest, including Blue Monkeys and black and white Colobus Monkeys.
As you climb higher, the temperatures get colder and you will move into another ecosystem, the Heath Moorlands. We leave the monkeys behind, but have greater visibility as the trees thin out. There’s quite a bit of up and down before we finally top out at the Shira Plateau, which is a volcanic landscape.
Once we hit the Shira Plateau, the trail levels out a bit and you can see the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance, where the summit is obscured by clouds. We are now at about 11,600 to 12,000 feet in elevation. Hiking distances are short each day to allow your body to acclimate to the lack of oxygen and to have ample time in camp to rest.
As seen from the picture below, it can get quite windy up on the Plateau. We slept in the geodesic dome tents. The big green tent was the mess tent where we ate our meals. We only had three climbers in our group, but there are usually 4 staff members for each paid client.
The porters work hard for very little money. Tipping is the custom at the end of the trip, but it is always nice to show your appreciation during the climb. At the end of this second day, I pulled out a bag of lollipops from my pack and passed them around to all of the porters. They were so happy that they burst out into a song of thanksgiving in the picture below. Little things do make a difference, and I was just as happy to lessen the weight of my pack by a pound and a half! The clouds began to clear and we had a great view of the mountain in the background.
This isn’t the only time that our porters busted out in song. I had seen some you tube videos of other climbers posting about their hikes. Ahead of time, I studied some Swahili. When they started singing “Jambo Bwana”, I joined in with them in the song. They were impressed that I could sing the song in Swahili with them, even though I didn’t know the meaning of all of the words. But it did show respect for their culture by an outsider.
From here, the trail undulates up and down over the plateau and occasionally we find a patch of bushes which shield us from the wind. It was nice to hike just behind this happy girl!
For the next few days we will be walking through volcanic landscapes which resemble a desert. Once we reach Lava Tower at 15,190′, we merge with other routes on the mountain and the foot traffic picks up quite a bit. But for now, we enjoy the relative solitude.
Past Lava Tower, the mountain looms large ahead of us. However, we will continue to walk around the base on the south side and summit from the Eastern side which is at the far end of the picture below. From here on out, we will see multitudes of people from other groups who are climbing the mountain from a few other routes. The closer we get to the mountain, the more foreboding it looks.
On day four, we had to traverse the Barranco Wall, a steep 257 meter scramble to the top, and then down again to the Karanga Camp, which lies at an elevation of about 13,100 feet. Here we found the last water source before the summit. Besides being steep, the path was narrow. Bottlenecks formed when one somewhat corpulent climber had trouble scrambling up the trail. Beth, who was immediately behind her, had to use two hands to push her butt to get her up one of the slopes. No extra charge for that!
Each day, one of our porters like Benson would bring our meals to the mess tent.
The mountain looks invitingly close from here, but it is still a couple of days before we will make the final approach to the summit. A steady stream of helicopters flew over, rescuing injured climbers and staff. That added to our angst about the final day of climbing.
The night at Karanga camp was magical, as we found ourselves above the clouds, with a wonderful view of Mt. Meru poking up through the clouds in the distance. It felt other-worldly.
The guides woke us up at 11PM to have a meal and we put on our headlamps and started the summit attempt around midnight with our head lamps. The sliver of the moon would soon set, so we hiked in total darkness. We could only see a few feet in front of us and we climbed slowly, ever upward. My blood oxygen level measured a low 80% as we started the climb. We would have to stop every few minutes and try to suck in as much oxygen as we could before continuing to trudge upward. Beth felt like her legs weighed 300 pounds each. When we paused to look below, we could see a procession of headlamps below and they were gaining ground on us. Finally, we reached Stella Point, at the lip of the crater. From here, we put on our crampons to continue the one mile walk around the rim of the crater. The hard part was over. Now to make one last push to reach the rooftop of Africa!
The temperature was a chilly -9 degrees Celsius and the wind was blowing hard. We put our heads down and trudged through the fog. There was a lot of ice on the trail when we went there a few years ago. We did pass a set of shrinking glaciers near the summit, which are predicted to be gone in about a decade. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached our goal of the summit. Other climbers had beaten us to the summit, so we had to stand in line for a while to wait and then take a picture at the summit sign. The sign is placed at Uhuru Peak, which is the highest portion of the summit cone of Kibo, the highest of the three cones on the mountain. The cone is more than 15 miles wide at the Saddle Plateau altitude.
But this day was less than half way over. After spending only about 5 minutes enjoying the accomplishment, we headed back downhill. We descended more than 10,000 feet that afternoon, making for a long 19.5 hour day of hiking. Back in the forest again by afternoon, we encountered a muddy, rutted trail. Our knees were on fire, but we continued down until finally reaching the last camp of the trip. Benson brought us dinner that night, but we were too tired to eat very much.
The next day was a short day of hiking to reach the end, where we had a celebratory drink with our support staff.
Most of the porters chose to drink soda pop, but a few of them had a beer with us. Of course, we chose the Kilimanjaro brand of beer.
In conclusion, most anyone with a moderate fitness level can climb Africa’s highest peak with the help of good support staff. The climb is not overly technical, but you will have to endure bone chilling nights and very hot days. Beth ended up shivering a full ten pounds off her body during the eight day hike. But one can remedy that with a week of eating when you get back to civilization. Fortunately, having scheduled a longer eight day trip allowed us shorter days of walking (except for the summit day) and allowed us to acclimatize to the altitude. In retrospect, we were grateful to have chosen to hike the Lemosho route and booked our trip with Climb Kili. Their clients have about a 90% success rate of reaching Africa’s highest peak.
Thank you readers, for taking this Geographical Journey with us. If you decide to tackle this expedition personally and not just virtually, you should do it before the glaciers are all gone!
You might not first think of Latvia when mentioning a serene canoe trip through a national park which ends at a centuries old historic village.
But that’s what you’ll get when paddling the Gauja River through the National park of the same name.
After completing a solo bicycle trip through the Happy Isles of Western Estonia (The Happy Isles of Western Estonia), I rented a car in Tallinn and headed East and then south to explore the other side of Estonia and venture into Latvia. After exploring Lahemaa National Park in the northeast part of Estonia, I headed south and found a hostel in the college town of Tartu. Estonia is a compact country with a very good road system. Tartu is considered to be the intellectual capital of the country and there were tons of students during finals week walking about on the banks of the Emajogi River which runs through town.
The hostel that I stayed at had a nice second floor patio where you could enjoy a night time refreshment while overlooking the city, or enjoy your cup of coffee in the morning.
A young German man named Jonathan was managing the place for the summer. Having also lived in Colombia in the past, his Spanish was excellent and we hit it off, speaking Spanish as our lingua Franca. He invited two other guests from the hostel to go out and have a beer in town. This time, we switched to English as our lingua Franca, as the ladies didn’t speak Spanish.
The following morning, I got back behind the wheel and headed for the Latvia border. Just before crossing into Latvia you will come up on Suur Munamagi, the highest elevation point of Estonia. Having been covered by Ice sheets during the last Ice Age, there is not a lot of topography in the country of Estonia. But I took the opportunity anyway, to check off another country high point off my bucket list.
After the equivalent of climbing about five flights of stairs, I got to the high point and found a tower erected on top of it. I climbed to the second floor of the tower, but eschewed the 5 Euro fare to take the elevator further upward. NATURAL high points count. I can truly say, it was a harder hike than to the high point in Delaware!
The first time I was in the Baltic States in 2013, all three countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) all had their own currencies. Today, they are part of the European Union and all have adopted the Euro as their currency. The border patrol building was now closed and unmanned, and access was easy. However, the language abruptly changed. The Latvian language did not resemble the Estonian language one bit.
I had read and researched Gauja National Park ahead of time and found the Zagarkains campground near the town of Cesis. I could park the car on the banks of the river, and could rent a canoe the following day. For the sum of only 5E, I could pitch a tent next to the river and chill out until tomorrow’s paddle.
The canoe rental was affordable and I paid extra for a drop off up river, so that I would not have to paddle upstream. The following morning, a high school kid came with a truck and loaded the boat and dropped me off about 9 miles upriver. I hope he wasn’t late for class that day! I had a lovely paddle of four hours through the bucolic countryside.
Besides seeing lots of bird life, a few outcrops of Sandstone cliffs made this a very scenic paddle.
The water seemed like a pane of glass, reflecting the sky above, but upon closer inspection, the current was moving at a couple of knots. A knot refers to a nautical mile, which is 1.16 statute miles. With a current behind me, all I had to do was use the paddle mostly as a rudder for steering, leaving me time to sit back and enjoy, eat a snack and snap pictures.
When I saw that I was approaching a bridge over the river, I knew that the campground would be on the left bank soon after passing under the bridge. Time to turn in the canoe and check out the nearby town of Cesis.
Gauja National park is home to about 150 bird species and close to 50 mammal species. The national park also has cultural resources and not just biological ones. Just outside of the town of Cesis is the hillfort on Riekstu hill, which was built by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in the early 1200s. It was destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times, as this area of the world has an interesting history of being on the front lines of many expanding empires.
After returning the canoe and checking out the Castle at Cesis, I headed to the town of Sigulda, which is only about 25 miles from Cesis. There I found a nice cozy and affordable lodging for the night for less than 30E. Eastern Europe is so much more affordable than Western Europe!
Sigulda sits on a picturesque stretch of the Gauja River valley and has been called the “Switzerland of Vidzeme (a region of Latvia). It is home to the largest cave in the Baltic Republics and is a popular spot for bobsledding and luge in the Winter. There is a town festival in May when the cherry trees blossom. The town is compact enough to walk and has all the amenities that you might need, but still small and quaint enough to to have a personable feel to it. After a good meal and a , I got a good night’s rest and was refreshed for the next day.
A short three miles away from Sigulda is the Turaida museum reserve, which also merits a visit for its cultural significance. Entrance Fee is 6E in summer and about half that in the Winter months. Parking is limited, so you may have to pay to park in the town lot in town near the Reserve and make the few minutes walk to the reserve.
The grounds of the Turaida Museum Reserve covers more than 43 Hectares and is situated in the historical center of Turaida. It reveals historical events that took place over a thousand years ago. According to entergauja.com, the word “Turaida” is translated from the ancient Livonian language to mean “God’s Garden”. The reserve is open from 0900-2000 every day of the summer and from 1000-1700 in the Winter. Area sights include the Turaida Castle, a sculpture garden, a wooden church, and several other Manor buildings depicting the life of the people and their folklore.
Small world, but as I was walking around the premises, I ran into Tyler and Melanie from Canada, who stayed at the same hostel that I did in Tallinn, Estonia, just days ago. They were on a one year sojourn around the world, starting in the Baltic countries.
On the way out of town, I stopped at the Sigulda bobsleigh, luge and skeleton track, which was built in 1986. Located just over 50 kilometers from the capital city of Riga, it has become the training center for Latvian winter sport athletes. It was closed at the time I was there, but I would have loved to visit here in the Winter months, not only to see others train, but to take a turn on it myself. The track length is 1200 meters and has 16 turns. Riding a bobsled course is something that I’ve always wanted to do. Now that would be quite a geographical journey!
The drive back to Tallinn was a pleasant trip, with the Gulf of Riga in view on the left side of the road. The trip takes a little less that four hours, so I had time to stop in Parnu, Estonia one last time and relive the bicycle trip again, before heading north to Tallinn to drop off the car.
When I got to the airport to return back home, I took this picture of Air Force two at the adjacent gate. Estonia is a NATO member, and there was a joint meeting between the U.S. and Estonia about the amount of Russian troops doing “Military Exercises” just across the border. This was prior to the Ukraine invasion, but Estonia is always nervous about its large aggressive neighbor.
I would recommend visiting ANY of the Baltic states, as there is a lot packed into a small area. Whether you travel by car, boat, bike, train or on foot, there is lots to see and experience, both in the cities and in nature.
Other posts related to this general region that might interest you are…..
Sometimes, when life gets you down, you just have to get high. Real high. Naturally. A change in altitude can give you a lift in attitude!
We recently traveled to Tennessee for a wedding and allowed a few extra days on the front end to climb a couple more state high points, one in Kentucky and the other in Virginia.
Snafus in cross country travel with inept airlines and a prepaid car rental to an agency that had no rental cars left nearly squashed our plans. That whole fiasco is a story in itself, but we’ll leave all of the bad news for another day. When we FINALLY got to Johnson City, Tennessee and paid again for a second rental car from another company, we felt the need to get high. No, not the type of high many might associate with Appalachia. We didn’t take any methamphetamines, fentanyl, or any other illegal substances. We got high the natural way….we hiked uphill to two different state high points until there was no more uphill to climb.
Had we arrived when we were supposed to, we would have headed straight for Mt. Rogers, the high point of Virginia, which is the longer hike. But not wanting to finish that hike in the dark, we headed first for Black Mountain, Kentucky. It is right on the border of Virginia and Kentucky. It is near where all of the disastrous flooding in Eastern Kentucky recently took place, but far enough uphill that we could drive there with no problems. Roads were closed and flooded out just 30 miles from where we climbed.
Wednesday, August 3rd was the only day that week that was forecast to have clear skies. We had a pleasant drive of under two hours from Tri-Cities Airport in Tennessee into SW Virginia. At Big Stone Gap, VA we took the paved road uphill toward the state line. Exactly between the “Welcome to Kentucky” sign and the “Welcome to Virginia” sign on the opposite side of the road lies the dirt logging road that takes you toward the summit of Black Mountain.
We chose to drive the 1.1 miles of dirt road to get us nearer to the summit. We pulled off to the side to let a logging truck pass us coming downhill. Near the top there is a radio tower and a place to pull the car over to get off of the road. It is a short 1/10 of a mile up the trail to the summit of Black Mountain, which is still mostly in trees. The name Black Mountain comes from the bituminous coal that is mined at its base.
Black Mountain was Mick’s 38th state high point and Beth’s 19th. Near the summit marker, there was an open clearing with a bunch of wildflowers. Myriads of several species of butterflies fluttered about. With no expansive views from the summit, we didn’t tarry long there, but drove back into Virginia to get a hotel closer to Mt. Rogers, VA, as we would need to have an early start to that hike the next day.
Due to some roads still being flooded, we couldn’t take a direct route to the other high point, but had to double back into Tennessee, but first passed through Appalachia, Virginia on the way. Once in Tennessee, we connected with Interstate 81 which brought us back again into SW Virginia. About an hour north, we stopped in the town of Marion and got a hotel for the night.
After an early breakfast, we passed Hungry Mother State Park, near Marion, VA. Had we had more time, I would have loved to check out a place with such a unique name. But we had a mountain calling us and we made the 1.5 hour drive to Grayson Highlands State Park, where the trail from Massie Gap to Mt. Rogers begins.
Besides being the most scenic route to Virginia’s highest mountain, Grayson Highlands has other attractions for visitors. Access to the Appalachian Trail and other nearby mountains with scenic vistas makes it imperative to get to Massie Gap early enough to secure a parking spot. We got there early enough to park the car close to the trail head and begin our hike.
There was a change in the weather from yesterday. Low clouds blanketed the valleys and there was a layer of higher clouds a few thousand feet above us. Rain was forecast for the afternoon. The humidity was very high, but at least the clouds mostly blocked out the direct sun, making the heat somewhat less oppressive.
The trail begins at a marked gate and immediately starts to climb, albeit gently. There are a lot of open meadows to cross, while some of the trail is in the trees.
After about a half mile, hikers will intersect with the Appalachian Trail and follow the white blazes for the next three to four miles. The trail is very rocky and you need to watch your step so as not to trip. The A.T. traverses 2,150 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia at the southern terminus all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Any thru-hikers have long since passed through this section of trail. There are bear boxes for backpackers to store their food while camping, but we saw no sign of bears along the trail. But we did see other wildlife.
Grayson Highlands is known for its abundance of “wild” ponies. They are accustomed to seeing hikers and are not startled by your presence, but don’t be tempted to reach out and pet them! The picture below is just one of many encounters we had with these animals. They were introduced here in the 1970s and they do a good job of grazing and keeping the meadows open.
After a few miles of ups and downs, we finally spot the top of Mt. Rogers in the distance, framed by a notch in the rocks in the trail.
As we approach the Thomas Knob shelter, Mount Rogers summit comes into full view. The summit catches more moisture and the trees take over the apex of the mountain. The mountain is named for William Barton Rogers, who became the first state geologist of Virginia in the 1840s.
The trail now leaves the Appalachian Trail and the last 1/2 mile is on the Mount Rogers spur trail.
The transition from mixed deciduous forest to Spruce/Hemlock forest is very abrupt. It’s like we left Virginia and entered a Pacific Northwest Forest in less than 100 yards. The trail to the top is now marked in blue blazes.
At 5,729 feet in elevation, Mount Rogers has terrain and habitat features uncommon to other parts of the state and the East Coast. It holds a biologically diverse variety of plants and animals typical of much more northern areas of the continent. Why are things so unique and different from Black Mountain, which is not that far away as the crow flies? The answer is in the Geology.
The rocks in the Mt. Rogers area contain a mixture of sedimentary and volcanic rocks, the majority of which are made of mostly of Rhyolite. Kentucky rocks are mostly made up of limestone. These rocks erode at much different rates, with the Ridge and Valley and Blue Ridge provinces of Virginia having rocks much more resistant to erosion, leaving outcrops of higher elevations. Kentucky is known for Karst Caves, while Virginia has the higher mountains. The biological diversity is due to the variety of elevations and slope aspects which are zones of several different micro-climates which act as a refugia for plants after the retreat of Pleistocene glaciers. For those interested, I would recommend reading E.Lucy Braun’s book “The Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America”, first printed in 1950.
When we reached the top, we found two other hikers at the summit. They were fellow adventurers who had a You Tube channel. We chatted with them for a few minutes, and took a picture of the USGS marker at the top of the mountain. We didn’t mind a bit that we weren’t the only ones getting high that day! State high point #39…..CHECK!
Our original plan was to summit both high points in one day and then possibly drive to the SC/NC border and summit the high point of South Carolina (Sassafras Mountain), but that hill will have to wait for another year. We had a rehearsal dinner to get to back in Tennessee and a rental car to return, so we retraced our steps back towards Massie Gap.
On the way back, we again passed the Thomas Knob Shelter. This time, two ponies blocked the path. We had to wait a minute for them to give us enough room to pass behind them without the threat of being kicked.
As the meadows opened up we saw some more ponies grazing. The overall distance of the hike was about 9 miles, but the rocky trail made it seem much longer.
At one point, while we were in the trees, we ran into a longhorn cow. I thought it was a bull at first, but then saw an udder when checking under the hood. Even so, the long horns made it disconcerting to see such a large animal in the middle of the trail with nowhere to go. I picked up two rocks and banged them together. That annoyed her enough to head on up the trail, where she took the first exit off of the trail.
Closer to the car, we ran into several day hikers. Most were just out for a short stroll to see the ponies. Very few were there for a Mt. Rogers summit.
The route back to Tennessee took us through Damascus, Virginia next to the Virginia Creeper trail, a world class 35 mile long Rails-to-Trails bike route from Abington to Whitetop, Virginia which passes near the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. Damascus might be the lowest elevation on that trail, but it is a center of recreation and tourism for Southwest Virginia. An example of having to bike low to get a high. We had our “Conversion on the Road to Damascus” moment, and would like to come back in the future when my arm heals well enough to ride a bike again.
Getting high naturally for two days in a row was enough to take the sting out of cross country air travel in the summer of 2022. With our emotions soaring from the Appalachian highs, we could now attend our nephew’s wedding without the sanguine feelings we had a few days before. Dear readers, we enjoy virtually traveling with you anywhere, but if you read this post to the end, we want to especially thank you for getting “high” with us in Kentucky and in Virginia!
Sometimes you meet the most interesting people in the most unexpected places. If you don’t look carefully, you may also miss something that is really important. I’ve found that to be true in many places that I’ve traveled to. Therefore, Bolivia should be no different. But is WAS different, mostly because of a very special person I met there.
I glance backwards at the door of the Hotel Mitru Annex. I look up the staircase leading to the second floor and take a moment to be grateful for such a restful refuge from days of hard traveling. It was by far, the best six dollar hotel I have EVER stayed at! Fortified by a hearty breakfast, I close the front door and hoist up my heavy backpack for the three block walk through downtown Tupiza.
The air is cool and crisp. Although the climate is noticeably warmer than the frigid Altiplano region of Bolivia, I have to remind myself that I am still nearly nine thousand feet above sea level. After one block of walking with the pack, my heart is already beating faster than that of a parakeet being chased by a cat. Is is solely a function of altitude, or due to the anxiety of what I will encounter in the next week? I am early for my appointment, so I slow my pace.
Strolling down Avenida Avaroa, I cross the street and make the left turn onto Calle “Las Chichas”, the Spanish name for a fermented drink. I did not see much evidence of chichas this early in the morning, but I did spot a couple of Cholitas, Amerindian women in bowler hats who were sweeping the streets and sidewalks. Shopkeepers are already out and preparing to open their stores for another day of sales.
Dirt of all colors is everywhere—brown, red, gray and white. I can see these same colors in the sedimentary layers of rock that surround this desert valley. On the side of the street are a few parked cars, although rarely do you see one driving down the road. A cowboy rides his horse down the middle of the street, passing me in the opposite direction. If one were to remove the few parked cars from this scene, you would have a hard time guessing what year it was. Tupiza, after all, is the town where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid pulled their final bank heist. This fact is one of the reasons which brought me to this out-of-the-way sleepy little town.
On my left is the pastry cafe where I met two Canadian girls two days ago. We tried unsuccessfully to put a group trip together to the Uyuni Salt flats. I wanted to climb a high volcano on the trip and they were just interested in a jeep ride. Sometimes it takes a couple of days to find like-minded travelers to put together a group trip to split the cost of the excursion. Today however, I was on my way to fulfilling my dream, with a group of French tourists who were waiting for me another block and a half away at the Tupiza Tours office. I wondered if the Canadian girls had any luck in finding someone to put a group tour together.
There is a blue Toyota Land Rover parked by the curb just outside of the Tupiza Tours office. A short, stocky Indian man is standing on the roof and shuffling tarps. There is also another white van parked outside. I wonder if either one of these vehicles is the one we will be riding in. I step inside the office and meet the group of French tourists I will be climbing a high volcano with. There are three men and one woman, all in their twenties, speaking French to one another. We had not met each other yet, but had inquired independently at the agency, so we knew about each others’ plans and agreed to do a group trip.
I don’t speak French, so when I dropped my backpack, I introduced myself to the group in Spanish. The young woman named Dorothee responds in nearly perfect Spanish—a great sign! We begin to have a conversation, when her husband Hugo interjects in English. “Maybe we should agree to speak English among ourselves”, he says. It seems that three of the four French tourists speak English pretty fluently and only Dorothee speaks Spanish well. It seems that our lingua franca will be English and Dorothee and I will use Spanish when talking to our guides.
I lobby them to take an extra side trip to San Vincente, to the site of Butch Cassidy’s grave. It costs an extra $25 to make the side trip there. Only one of the Frenchmen, Christophe, has ever heard of Butch Cassidy. I agree to pay the whole $25 fee myself if they don’t mind the side trip, but they agree to split it five ways, making it only an extra $5 per person. The only caveat is that I have to tell them the history and the stories of the famous American bank robber who fled to South America to escape the law, only to become an infamous bank robber in Bolivia.
After signing the paperwork and paying for the excursion (cash only), we are instructed to go outside and take our belongings to the Blue Land Rover. The squatty, bow-legged Indian man is still perched atop the vehicle. He is wearing an orange and blue vest over a dilapidated beige sweater with numerous holes in the sleeves. He bent his head down keeping his gaze fixed on the roof of the vehicle. He is wearing a tight-fitting baseball hat pulled down over his forehead, which keeps his face in the shadows. One by one I hand him up our backpacks. He was not one for much conversation, but appeared to be efficient and hard-working. When I handed him up the last piece of our luggage, he stood up straight to stretch out his back muscles, and the sun highlighted his face. That was the first time I saw that he had one eye missing. It was hard to tell how old he was, as his face was very weathered and his hand were calloused. His jeans looked as if they had been washed and then hung out to dry during a dust storm. He, like many of his fellow countrymen, is a product of living in a poor, land-locked South American country, and in a harsh physical environment. I’m sure that he would have some interesting stories to tell, but I doubted that I would get to know him, since he was just there to load the stuff on the vehicle. He folded all of the tarps over our packs and tied everything securely to the roof rack. As he was tying the last of the water jars and spare gasoline cans, he told us that we would not be leaving just yet, as we were still waiting for the cook to arrive.
A few minutes later, a young woman arrives, hurrying down the street carrying a box in her hands. She was our cook; her name was Delfina (meaning dolphin in English). All of the rest of the food had been already secured on the roof of the Land Rover, but Delfina had gone out to get some last minute fresh food from a local store. We were now ready to go, except that the driver was nowhere in sight. Such things are to be expected in a place like Bolivia, so we sat on the curb and waited.
The one-eyed man climbed off of the roof of the vehicle. Immediately he and Delfina started fussing at each other. He was scolding her for being late and holding up the foreign tourists. He admonished her that Europeans and North Americans had different mindsets on time than did South Americans, and that keeping a departure time was important to tourists. She did not take well to his complaining and had a few choice words for him. The French people were now discussing something among themselves and did not get involved in the conversation. Perhaps Delfina and the one-eyed man thought that the foreigners could not understand their arguments in Spanish, but they were wrong about this. I thought it best to intervene before the argument became too heated.
“Relax”, I said in Spanish. “Besides, we are still waiting for the driver to show up.”
Surprised that a gringo tourist was speaking to her in her native tongue, Delfina pointed to the one-eyed man and looked straight at me. “He IS here”, she replied in Spanish. “HE is your driver!”
The one-eyed man introduces himself to the group as the driver and guide for our 5-day trip through the Bolivian outback and across the Uyuni Salt Flats. Dorothee and I interpret for the rest of the group. The man’s name is Bernardo. I didn’t exactly understand what the French tourists were discussing among themselves at the time, but from their tone of voice and body language, it seemed like they were nervous about the prospect of placing our safety in the hands of Bernardo and Delfina for the next week. We will be traveling over rough, remote mountain roads through some of the most desolate country on this continent and we will be totally dependent on an old Land Rover driven by a one-eyed man who is accompanied by a teenage cook who is not happy about being here.
Pausing momentarily, I gaze into Bernardo’s eye, trying to gauge his emotional state. I sense some uneasiness on his part too. Was that he doubted himself, or was there some other reason? I try to empathize with him and put myself in his shoes. I used to be a wilderness guide in Alaska, so I tried to look at the situation from his vantage point.
I imagine myself as Bernardo. I have just spent the morning doing hard labor and I just meet five foreigners who speak another language than my own. They have all come from far away exotic places that I could only dream of but will never be able to visit. I was born into poverty in Bolivia, so I will never be able to be like them and afford to hire someone else to provide for my needs. The foreigners have each other on the trip, while I have to spend time away from my family. Their customs are different than mine. They also have money and I do not. As far as I can tell, they have no disabilities either. I have to spend the next five days with them, ensuring their safety and making sure they have an enjoyable experience. I will be driving a vehicle that I hope will not break down and leave us all stranded in the middle of nowhere. If I need their assistance, will I be able to count on them to come through for the whole group? Will they even care about me as a person, or just view me as poor hired help? Also, I am not happy about the young girl the business decided on sending along as a cook for the group. She is the only one that speaks my language as his/her first language, so I’m not sure how much conversation I will have on this trip. These are the things I imagined were running through his head at the start of the trip.
After contemplating things from Bernardo’s perspective, I decided to forego any preconceived judgements about him, and give him the opportunity to prove himself. Bernardo might just turn out to be the kind of person that you underestimated at first glance, but would come to appreciate more fully the more you got to know him. Over the next week, we would share some memorable experiences, and I would come to truly appreciate the uniqueness of his character.
The Land Rover had a capacity for eight people; a driver and seven passengers. Delfina sat in the front passenger seat, and there were two rows behind the driver, with room for three passengers in each row. Christophe and Philippe sat in the back row, and Dorothee, Hugo and I sat in the middle row. The geography of our seating allowed for the segregation of languages, with two interpreters nudged between them. The front row spoke Spanish. The back row spoke French among themselves. The middle row, acting as interpreters spoke English, French and Spanish….whatever was needed between as a go-between for communication in the vehicle. It felt like a United Nations summit.
We headed out and at the edge of town we pulled up to a police checkpoint. This is common practice in Bolivia and many other countries around the world. Anyone traveling by road has to register with the police. It seems like a lot of resources are spent in this poor country on staffing roadblocks, but some of this money comes from the USA in their efforts in the “War on Drugs”. Usually, police are routinely checking for insurance papers and registration, but often times require a bribe for motorists to pass. We get through the roadblock unscathed and immediately start heading up a steep dirt road into the outback. The scenery of the desert landscape is dramatic.
After driving about 20 miles and gaining more than 1000 feet in elevation, we pull off to the side of the road and take in the expansive view. A sinuous, dry arroyo lay in the base of the canyon hundreds of feet below. Cliffs of jagged rock fins rise steeply from the valley floor on both sides of the arroyo. The fins are the result of wind and water erosion on the highly jointed sedimentary rock. Different color bands are present in the rock that has not yet been eroded, while the arroyo consists of deposited sediment from the eroded cliffs carried by ephemeral streams, which are dry this time of year. The myriad of side canyons offer multitudes of hiding places for outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I could picture them heading through this very canyon on horseback after they pulled their last bank heist in Tupiza. I recounted some of the history of these two outlaws to the rest of the group….some in English and some in Spanish. Dorothee and Hugo then translated what I said into French for the back row.
I turned toward Bernardo. “Have you ever been to the Southwest of the United States?”, I asked. He replied, “No, I’ve never been outside of Bolivia.”
“Take another look at this landscape, because this is what the state of Utah looks like.”
Bernardo was the kind of Bolivian who was interested in the rest of the world, even if he knew he would likely never travel out of his home country. I told him about Butch’s hideout in Hole-In-The-Wall, Wyoming and of the other hideout in Utah called “Robber’s Roost.” He smiled, pleased with his vicarious vacation to the Southwest of the USA.
An hour later we stopped at another viewpoint, where we saw a species of barrel cactus which could survive the cold temperatures at high altitudes. They resembled the Saguaro cacti of the Sonora Desert. “Do you know what this place reminds me of?”, I asked Bernardo. “This is just what the state of Arizona and the province of Sonora in Mexico looks like.”
“Now I’m feeling like I’m on vacation too”, he replied.
We got back in the vehicle and headed towards San Vincente, the supposed place where Butch Cassidy and Sundance met their fateful end during a shootout with the Bolivian army. The road became rougher and we had to hold onto the grab handles near the ceiling of the Land Rover to brace ourselves. The steep road had no guardrails on the sides of it. I was beginning to think that bringing a bicycle helmet on the trip might have been a good idea. Bernardo said that this is a particularly bad section of the road, and the reason why the company charged extra for the side trip.
“How do you say ‘bad road’ in English?”, he asked me in Spanish.
I told him how, but he had a hard time pronouncing the r. “Bad load”, he said, struggling with the English r as much as English speakers have trouble with the Spanish “rr” double r.
I reminded him to keep his eye on the road and that I’d be happy to help him with his English lessons when we were done driving. Bernardo was however, the kind of driver who could navigate a perilous road and multi-task.
About half an hour later, we finished climbing and the road leveled out a bit. Suddenly Bernardo let out a shout. He screamed “ñandú!”, and sped up the vehicle. Just ahead were two ostriches running down the road. I hadn’t realized before that South America had indigenous species of ostriches. I had only associated this bird with Australia. Looking at this flat desert landscape with ostriches running through it, one could easily picture themselves in the middle of the Australian Outback. We followed the birds for about a kilometer as the curiously continued to run away from us straight down the road, with the Land Rover in hot pursuit.
“Have you ever been to Australia?”, I asked him.
“No, I have spent my whole life in Bolivia, except for a few recent trips to Utah and Arizona.” Bernardo had a quick wit about him.
“Take in this view and remember it”, I told him. “Because this is like being in the Outback of Australia!”
“I didn’t think I could see so much of the rest of the world within my own country,” he exclaimed.
Later, we finally approached the village of San Vincente. It was nothing like I had pictured it. We had climbed to an elevation of almost 14,000 feet, and the land was barren of any vegetation. The “village” was simply a silver mine consisting of a few long one-story buildings, surrounded by slag heaps of mine tailings. Very few people were present, presumably because most of them were underground at the time. Having seen the 1969 Movie starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, I expected San Vincente to be more of a town. That movie was filmed in Mexico, and not Bolivia. There was no true town square as you would find in most Latin American towns. A cemetery was on the edge of town was the only thing that resembled other Latin American towns. So, that’s where we headed, to find the graves of Butch and Sundance.
A crude wall made of stones and dried mud surrounded the cemetery. Since the ground at this elevation was frozen most of the year and was difficult to dig into, everyone was buried in above-ground tombs. Burial practices included building small brick walls about two feet high and long enough to fit the body in, and then covering the tops with stone and placing crosses on top, made of either stone or iron. Very few graves had names on them. I walked around looking for any clues as to which ones might be the graves of Butch or Sundance.
Bernardo was having some “down time” outside of the walls of the cemetery. Since he was the only other person around, I went outside to ask him which ones belonged to the outlaws. He motioned to the large open sepulcher near the middle of the cemetery. It was the only open and uncovered grave-site. Bernardo explained that several years earlier, forensic anthropologists from the United States came down to do some DNA testing on the remains to see if it could possibly be that of Butch Cassidy, since there were unconfirmed rumors that the outlaws had been seen in Montana years after they were supposedly killed in Bolivia. DNA tests confirmed that the body was that of a man of Anglo-European descent, but the results were not 100% conclusive that it was Butch Cassidy. So, the legend continues, although most people believe that he was killed in the shootout in 1908 and these were his remains.
I told Christophe and Hugo about my visits to Butch’s hideout in Wyoming, and how my friends back home went to many places associated with the Hole-in-the-Wall gang. Christophe took a picture of me sitting in Butch’s grave, which I would share with my friends back home to “one up them”. They had teased me about missing a trip to Robber’s Roost in Utah. I don’t think either of them will ever make a trip to Bolivia, so a picture in Butch’s grave should keep me ahead of the curve. Two years later, I would also pass by Butch and Sundance’s cabin in Cholila, Argentina.
The sun is getting lower in the sky and the temperature is dropping fast. Bernardo rounds us up and we head out toward the village of San Antonio de Lipez, where we will spend the night. The town consists of a few ramshackle adobe brick one-story houses and one beautiful white washed church on the other side of the street. The Frenchmen decide to go down to visit the church and take some pictures of kids playing in the street, while I decided to take a stroll and climb the small hill behind the town. Delfina announces that dinner will be ready in half an hour, so I don’t go far.
Almost immediately after beginning to walk, my heart is pounding. The lack of oxygen at this altitude is debilitating. I start to worry that I might not be able to climb the volcano we plan to hike in a few days. I pause to rest several times as I climb the minuscule hill behind the town. Once I make the top, I head back down, so as not to be late for dinner.
Delfina prepared a tasty soup and there is a hearty salad to go with it. We all agreed that this was a good first day and the group seems to be getting along well. As I turn out my headlamp at bedtime, I try not to dwell on the anxiety of climbing the volcano in a few days. I remind myself that where I am sleeping is already at a higher altitude than the top of Mt. Rainier, and a few more days at this altitude will help my oxygen-starved body acclimate to high elevations.
Suddenly, the sound of a cock crowing wakes us up. Bernardo is already up and about. We can hear the hiss of the stove and realize that Delfina will soon have hot water for coffee and tea. For breakfast, we will have Locro, a Bolivian soup, made up of meats, lentils, and quinoa. After my obligatory first cup of morning coffee, I switch to drinking coca leaf tea. Bernardo explains that drinking it will help alleviate “El Soroche” (altitude sickness). The coca leaf is part of the culture of the people who inhabit the Altiplano. Most chew the leaf, which has the effect of a mild stimulant, similar to drinking a cup of strong black coffee. Many people also use the leaf for tea, which besides alleviating El Soroche, combats hunger pangs as well. The taste is somewhat bitter, so the Frenchmen drink the tea with sugar and llama milk, while I take mine plain–the way I do with all of the coffees and teas I drink. If this works as well as Bernardo says it does, not only will I learn to like it, it just may help get me up the Licancabur Volcano in a few days. The local people have a saying about coca…”La hoja de la coca no es una droga”, which translates in English to “The LEAF of the coca is not a drug.” This saying hopes to combat the idea that chewing coca leaf is not the same as consuming cocaine. One should not equate them as being the same thing. How do you think that the popular soft drink “Coca Cola” got its name? The original recipe had coca leaf in it.
After breakfast, we head out through landscapes seemingly more and more desolate, with high, barren mountains rising on both sides of the road. The tops of these mountains approach twenty thousand feet above sea level. Bernardo turns to me and asks a question. “Mick, we’ve already been to Utah, Arizona, and Australia. What does this place look like to you?”
I gazed around and replied, “This looks like Bolivia to me!”
Twenty minutes later the road began to drop a bit in elevation. Just ahead, at a bend in the road lay the remains of a former town. As we stopped to explore this Ghost Town, the only remaining residents we found were Vizcacha; a strange Andean rodent. Imagine that if a rabbit, a squirrel and a chinchilla had a three-way, the offspring would resemble a Vizcacha. They have the face and ears of a rabbit, but have a long bushy tail. As we snapped a few pictures of the “town”, it seemed like the ghosts of the people who drowned in a freak flash flood decades ago were still wandering around this place.
Further down the road, Bernardo stopped at a small monument on the side of the road, which marked the road’s high elevation point. I took his picture next to the sign, which read 4,855 m.s.n.m (meters above sea level). That measurement equates to an elevation of 15,928 feet above sea level. This is about 1,500 feet higher than the tallest mountain in the lower 48 USA. It is also higher than Mount Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. This elevation was a personal record for all of us, even though we would be attempting to climb nearly 4,000 feet higher in a few days.
Bernardo seemed uneasy being the subject of the picture, although he did let us take a picture of him. He positioned himself so that the brim of his baseball hat would keep his face in the shadows. Behind him, the thin line of the road seemed to go on forever; crossing dry salt lakes and traversing low, barren hills until it disappeared into the horizon.
” At this moment you are higher than anyone in my country”, I told Bernardo.
Bernardo sheepishly smiled. “All men are created equal. I am not above anyone else simply because of my elevation.” Bernardo was definitely not arrogant or self-absorbed. His statement revealed much about the humility of his character.
The dangerous climbs and steep roadside cliffs were now mostly behind us. We would spend the rest of the day covering huge distances to get us to the base of the Licancabur Volcano (elev. 5,960 meters—-19,668 feet), which we are scheduled to climb tomorrow. Licancabur means “People from Above”, in the old Atacama dialect. We would encounter many different sights during this long drive to the base of the volcano. all of us needed as many diversions as possibly to ward off the impending feeling of doom of climbing such a high mountain.
Later in the day, we stopped at a checkpoint marking the entrance to the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. We got out to stretch our legs as Bernardo went inside to complete the obligatory paperwork and pay the park entrance fees. The national reserve, established in 1953, takes its name from a Bolivian War hero from the 1800s. This reserve is one of the most important biologically protected areas in the country. According to Conservation International, it is part of the Tropical Andes biodiversity region. This region extends from the highlands of Western Venezuela down the spine of the Andes Mountains through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Western Bolivia and into the northern reaches of Chile and Argentina. The variety of altitudes and slope aspects has led to the evolution of an amazing diversity of micro-habitats and species diversity. Conservation International lists the Tropical Andes region as one of the most diverse eco-regions on planet earth. What appeared to be lifeless and barren to us at first glance actually is home to 190 species of flora, and unique fauna which have adapted to the extreme living conditions in the region. The reserve is home to nearly 80 species of birds. Out of six species of flamingo that exist in the world, three of them are only found here, and they are found here in large numbers. The endangered vicuna and the Andean Cat also live here, but are found nowhere else on the planet.
Bernardo whistles loudly for us to come back and get ready to ride again. He knows that we are feeling a bit cramped and that we still have a long ride ahead of us, so he does his best to keep our minds of the discomfort of the road (that’s what guides do). So, he asks us to solve a riddle.”
“Name something that is as big as God and as bad as the Devil”, he says. “Besides, rich people don’t want it and poor people already have it.”
We all brainstormed what would meet that criteria, but could not come up with an answer that would satisfy all of the clues.
“NOTHING”, is the answer, he said. “Poor people have nothing; Rich people don’t want nothing, and nothing is as big as God nor as bad as the devil.”
Bernardo’s tactic worked. Soon, we were all telling jokes or coming up with our own riddles. Again, it felt like a U.N. conference in the Land Rover, with riddles and jokes being discussed in three languages.
Even Delfina, who was normally quiet and shy except for the times she was fussing with Bernardo, participated in the conversation.
“I have a riddle for you that should be easy”, she said. “I bet you can’t remember what my name is.”
I played along. “Hmmmm, let me think. I know that it is something that swims in the sea”, I replied. “Is it Foca? (Seal)……..no wait a minute….how about Tiburon?(Shark)
Bernardo laughed so hard he had tears in his eye. “Trucha!, Trucha!”, he repeated. Delfina glared.
Not wanting this to end badly, I pleaded for one last guess. “How about Delfina?”
Delfina’s smile was as wide as if she resembled her namesake, the bottle-nosed dolphin. She just wanted to know that she was acknowledged.
We continued to share stories, riddles, personal histories, etc. and laughed at the missed translations, while we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. The miles passed by easily….we were starting to become friends. A little while later, Bernardo pulled up to a small roadside shack, which lay adjacent to a pool of water.
It was a glorious hot spring! The waters were clear and only a few feet deep. The site had been enhanced by the building of a small retaining concrete wall at ground level. There was a small outlet on the opposite side of the pool from the source of the spring, which fanned out into a couple of rivulets. These rivulets, in turn, fed warm waters toward a small shallow lake about half a mile away from us. We could barely make out the outlines of pink flamingos sifting through the shallow waters of the distant lake. It was sort of an idyllic place where your troubles melted away and washed downhill into the desert flats. The hot water washed away the residue of our formerly dust-caked skin. Water in any desert is a precious resource. How much better is HOT water? It was hard to say which was better…..being submerged up to our necks in hot water, or standing up in the dry desert air and feeling the effects of evaporation through the recently opened pores of our skin. The experience was both cleaning and rejuvenating! Bernardo and Delfina patiently waited for us on the sidelines. We invited them in, but they declined.
We could have stayed there for the duration of the trip and been satisfied, but we had a “schedule” to keep. Bernardo, playing the role of adult in the family, had to round up the “kids” and move on. It was getting later in the afternoon.
Reluctantly, we climbed back into the dusty Land Rover and continued on the journey. Another short stop down the road gave us views of more flamingos in small ponds. Another stop was near the “Dali Desert”, as the appropriately named surreal landscape where differential erosion of the landscape left behind a series of “Sculptures” behind. The more resistant rock stood up above the sand, which was the less resistant already eroded material. Coming here late in the afternoon only enhanced the surrealism of the landscape, as the shadows of the rock outcrops created an “Artful” scene.
A few minutes after our photo stop at the Dali Desert, a huge conical shaped mountain came into view toward the horizon. Even though it was further away than the high mountains around us, it still seemed to tower over the others. It got very quiet in the vehicle. In a moment, Bernardo would confirm what we all feared to be true.
“There is Licancabur”, he said. “Tomorrow, you will be on top of that mountain. I secretly hoped that I would, but had some lingering doubts. I think the Frenchmen did too.
The climb we did the next day is a story in itself. It was exhilarating, excruciating, ethereal, exhausting, expeditionary, exotic….all of the superlatives (both positive and negative) wrapped up in one experience. However, that is another story to be told on another day. This story is about Bernardo.
Bernardo said that he would like to climb the mountain someday, but that he had work to do on the vehicle and that he needed some rest before driving again, so he stayed behind. He was there, faithfully, at the trail-head, waving to us as we descended toward him.
“How was your day?,” I asked him. “I hope you haven’t spent the whole day working.”
“Well, after I did a full inspection of the vehicle, I wrote down all of the English words that you taught me, and I’ve been practicing,” he replied.
I switched to English and addressed him. “Well, how’s that been working for you? Are you ready for a conversation in English?”, I asked him.
Bernardo stood there speechless. The few moments of silence seemed like it was much longer. Finally, he replied in his native tongue. ” I guess I will need to know more than just the names of things before I can talk English. Will you help me write down phrases in my notebook?”
“Of course I will. However, let’s do it after dinner and not while we are driving. Then, I’ll help you learn English phrases.”
After packing our stuff into the Land Rover, Bernardo hit the road with reckless abandon. We were speeding across the dirt roads of the Altiplano, heading in a northerly direction. Now that I was getting to know him, I could visualize his thought processes. I saw his speeding as a method for us to arrive earlier, so that he could get more time with me to study English.
Later, Bernardo pulled off the main road and headed down a rutted path. “Where are you taking us?”, I asked.
“I’m going to show you the Geyser Basin”, he replied.
“Bernardo, do you want to know what the English word is for Geiser?”
“Don’t tell me, it’s probably Geiser too”, he replied.
“Actually, it is. We just spell it differently. We spell it G-E-Y-S-E-R”
“I didn’t know that is was an English word. Lot’s of our words are similar”, he noted.
“Actually it isn’t an English word. It is a word that comes from the Islenska language, the language of the country of Iceland. As a matter of fact, there was no word in English for this geological phenomenon, because geysers are very rare. There weren’t any geysers in lands that the English settled. Then, as Americans were moving westward, they came across the largest basin of geothermal activity in the world, in the present day state of Wyoming. Today, the United States made the area a National Park- it’s called Yellowstone National Park. When the first explorers saw fountains of hot water and steam shooting up in the air, they did not know what to call them. When they reported what they had found, it sounded like a similar place in Iceland, which had these phenomenon located near the town of Geysir. Therefore, the English language pilfered an Icelandic word and brought it into their own language.
“Now I can add Wyoming and Iceland to the places I’ve been to”, joked Bernardo. “Also, when I get home, I can tell my family I can speak in two new languages!”
Late that afternoon, we pulled into the “hotel”, a makeshift adobe walled structure with six filthy mattresses to each “room”, located near the shores of Laguna Colorada, a red-colored lake in the desert. After a meal and before we turned in for the night, Bernardo led us on a field trip down to the water’s edge, where flamingos were wading and feasting on brine shrimp. His explanation of the ecosystem showed that he had a bit of scientist in him. He continually impressed us with his knowledge.
When we got back to the “hotel”, Bernardo spoke. ” I know you all have had a long day climbing the mountain and traveling. I see that you are tired. We can wait until tomorrow night to continue our English lessons.” Here he was again putting the group’s needs before his own.
In fact, we all wondered in Bernardo did really ever get any sleep. He was always still awake when we went to bed and was always up by the time we woke up. He rarely ate with us, as he was always tending to some chore. Where did he get his energy?
Bernardo was also good at solving problems on the fly, which is essential when you are in remote places far from outside assistance. Once, when we were out on the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, we came across another Land Rover. It was from another tour company and its hood was up. What a horrible place to be stranded! There was nothing but salt flats in all directions for at least 20 miles. Depending on which way you went, you might have to walk for close to 100 miles before reaching help.
The driver of the vehicle did not have a chain with him. Bernardo pulled out one long, rubber strap which was about 30 feet long.
The driver of the other vehicle lamented that the strap was too thin to pull that much weight and that it was pointless to try to use it.
With astonishing deftness and speed, Bernardo doubled over the strap a couple of times and then twisted the shortened strands and affixed them to the bumper of each vehicle. We then pulled that vehicle, with all of its passengers nearly 20 miles until we came to the next night’s hotel. It was a hotel made entirely of salt blocks. If Bolivia had a TV version of the show “MacGyver”, Bernardo would be the star of that show.
Several groups from other companies were also staying at the salt hotel. Most of the drivers hung out together, away from their guests. Some were separated from their guests by either a language barrier or a social class barrier. Bernardo was the exception.
In the commons room, Delfina and the other cooks served up tasty meals, while guests chatted with each other in German, English, French and Dutch. After dinner, Bernardo pulled out his notebook, as we stayed up late and worked on his English lessons. In the meantime, we discussed an eclectic assortment of topics; the etymology of words, physical geography, cross-cultural communication differences, and the world at large. I shared with him that I too, used to guide tourists through dangerous lands. We talked as peers and as friends. We shared stories of trips we had taken and memories of people we had met along the way.
I took Bernardo’s notebook and made three columns; one for Spanish, one for English and the other for the phonetic pronunciation of the words. This way, Bernardo would not have to worry as much about pronunciation by just trying to read the word. We filled up page after page of the phrases that he wanted to learn to communicate with his future guests. I wrote down some of the strange rules of English for him so he would understand the differences in the structure of the language (placement of adjectives before nouns in English). In between chatting among friends, we continued the lessons. We didn’t realize how long we had been there until we looked up and realized that everyone else had already gone to bed.
“Go sleep?”, Bernardo asked (in English, no less!)
“Si, tengo sueno”, I replied. (yes, I’m sleepy)
“Pues, hasta manana”, said Bernardo. (Well, until tomorrow then!)
I tiptoed down the hall of the salt hotel, hoping not to wake anyone. I went into the room where my four French roommates were already comfortably asleep. The air was extremely chilly. I pulled back the piles of heavy blankets (we’ll need them tonight!) and saw that my “mattress” was also made of blocks of salt. It seems that you put one blanket over the salt blocks to cushion the blow, and use the other pulled over you to keep you warm. As I fall asleep, I hope that Bernardo is not up too much longer continuing to study. If only every teacher could have such motivated students! I drifted off to sleep with visions of red lakes, flamingos, vizcachas, and the beautiful Andes.
We all awoke with a jolt. “Lezz Go!” someone was shouting at us. “Okay yous…..Lezz Go!”
Dorothee’s eyes opened wide in disbelief! The voice sounds like Bernardo’s but he was speaking to us in English! Were we still dreaming? Although Bernardo was outside of our door and out of view, I could picture him grinning about his shocking the tourists.
“We’ll be right there”, Dorothee replied in English. No answer.
We hurriedly packed our bags and got dressed while it was still dark. The sun was not jet up, but the sky was getting light in the East. Bernardo was already outside tying up the gear on the roof of the Land Rover. He explained (in Spanish now) that we’d have to hurry to catch sunrise out on the Salar, which would be the best time to take pictures.
Bernardo perched himself up on the roof as we handed our gear up to him so that he could safely secure it. I don’t know how he did it, but each night we would pull out our gear after a long, dusty drive in the desert, and our packs would be clean and relatively dirt-free. Racing against the rising sun, we packed in record time. Bernardo tied down the ropes faster than a cowboy could rope a steer at the rodeo. In record time, we sped out onto the Salar.
We stopped a few miles out onto the Salar. The top of the sun was about to peek its head over the horizon. We piled out of the car and lay face down on the frozen salt flat, in order to get an ant’s eye view of the rising sun and to watch our giant shadows stretch miles to the horizon once the sun came up.
It was fun to see our miles long shadows move on the Salar as we danced around. “You are all giants among men”, Bernardo joked. We danced, shadow-boxed and acted like children again, chuckling at seeing our huge shadows. Soon, the sun rose higher and our long shadows shrank like snowmen on a warm spring day.
Bernardo’s playful childlike side came out now.
“Give me your cameras. Now that the sun is higher, we can play a new game. I can create funny pictures, making you look either big or small.” We each handed him our cameras. For the next 45 minutes, Bernardo barked out directions on where we should position ourselves. On the Salar, there is nothing to give the viewer any depth perception, so by moving himself or others forward and backward, each person can take on a different size. A professional photographer shooting supermodels wouldn’t work any harder than Bernardo did, but I doubt that they had as much fun as he did. He chuckled every time he got the shot he wanted.
Bernardo proved to be a gifted photographer, even though he was too poor to ever own his own camera. How many more surprises could he reveal to us, had we had unlimited time to spend with him? Like the peeling back of layers of an onion, he continually revealed something new with each layer pulled back.
Another special place he showed us was the Incahuasi island in the middle of the Salar. It was a biological island surrounded on all sides by the expanse of the salt flat. On the island, barrel cactus, which resembled Saguaro, rose all over the island. Vizcacha roamed here. How they got here and survive on this lonely outcrop, one can only imagine.
On the way toward the town of Uyuni, we stopped at the edge of the Salar and saw men working in the sun piling up salt for export. They only make the equivalent of about $1 for a full day’s work. Talk about toiling in the Salt Mines!
On the way to Uyuni, we stopped by a little village with a half-constructed church made of what else?….Salt blocks! Outside was a llama tethered to a pole. We stopped for a brief rest and Dorothee wanted to pet the llama, but the animal was too skittish.
“Let me show you a trick”, Bernardo told her. “The llama is a coca addict.” He handed her a bag of coca leaves. “Keep the bag in your left pocket and pull them out slowly with your right hand and feed the llama. Just make sure you keep him out of your left pocket.”
Dorothee did as instructed. She and the llama became fast “friends” and she did not burn through her supply of coca too quickly either. We had adequate time to take photos of the encounter.
Parting ways after a bonding experience is always a difficult thing. Upon arrival at Uyuni, we checked into our last hotel and invited Bernardo out for drinks and a meal (our treat). Saying goodbye is not like saying “see you later”. We all lived thousands of miles away from each other. The likelihood of a reunion in the future was slim.
“Mick, the next time you come down to visit, you’ll have to bring your wife with you”, Bernardo said. He knew I usually travel to new places instead of visiting familiar ones when I had a chance to travel abroad.
I replied, “She doesn’t speak Spanish like I do, so you’d better be fluent in English by the time I come back. If not, I’ll have to bill you for translation services”, I joked.
“Not only will I have notebooks full of English phrases by the time your return, but I will be reading books in English by then. Also, I will get an Atlas and learn about the world, so that when someone from a far-away place comes on a trip with me, I can speak with them about their country.” I fully believed that not only was he capable of doing that, but that he would follow through, as best he could.
Even though we both secretly suspected that we would not see each other again in this lifetime, leaving the slight possibility open would give us a reason to better ourselves as individuals, so that we could be proud of one another when we saw each other again. Isn’t that what friends do for one another? An old proverb states, “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
Friends also are honest with each other. We did not want to part without anything left unsaid.
“Mick, I want to thank you for teaching me about the world and for spending time with me and helping me learn some English. Most of all I want to thank you for treating me as an equal human being. Most of my clients do not do that, even though most are nice people. I needed to tell you this in case you take too long to come back. I might not be working for Tupiza Tours by then.”
“Bernardo, I also want to thank you for all that you have shown me. You are truly a unique and amazing person. If I come back to Bolivia and see that you are no longer working for Tupiza Tours, then I will make sure I find you, wherever you might be. Bolivia is a special place, but even more so because you taught me so much about it. And, I made a special friend there too.”
As Bernardo drove away, we waved to one another for the last time. Although there were no streaks of tears running down anyone’s faces, I’m pretty sure that there were three eyes moist with emotion. I can personally account for two of them.
Since I met Bernardo, I am less apt to make snap judgments about other people. In addition, I think my French climbing partners would agree that our excursion with Bernardo changed the way we view the world and the people in it. Our first impressions of him were far wrong. Later in the trip, Hugo confided in me that the group was considering asking for a refund and cancellation of the trip when they first encountered Bernardo and Delfina arguing in the street at the beginning of the trip. By the end of the trip, we all agreed that it was one of the most memorable experiences of our lifetimes. Some of that had to do with the climb of Licancabur volcano; some had to do with the ethereal landscape of the Bolivian Altiplano. Most of all it was a factor of getting to know an extraordinary individual from another culture, and learning more about ourselves in the process.
I’ve spent many memorable nights in hotels, but none can compare to the night that I stayed at the infamous Hotel Real (Royal Hotel) in Alajuela, many, many moons ago. In retrospect, one should NEVER ask a law enforcement officer for directions to a notorious whore house that is the center of illegal drug activity and crime for the whole city. Especially so, if you are a foreigner in a strange land. I should have gotten a clue from the look on his face when I asked him for directions. But I was blissfully unaware of all of that at the time.
I learned FOUR valuable lessons that night.
While walking towards downtown Alajuela, Costa Rica looking for the Royal Hotel (What’s in a name?), I had an image in my head of a palatial old colonial structure near a beautiful central plaza. Man, how wrong I was about that!
Have you ever been alone in a foreign country and feared for your own safety? Did you think that once you got to the safety of your hotel that your fears would melt away, only to find out that your hotel ended up being the most dangerous place to be at? Then, what should you do?
I asked a few people along the way on the 3 km walk into town, for directions to the Hotel Real, but nobody seemed to know much about it. Several had never even heard of it. That seemed odd to me at the time. That should have been a big clue that something was amiss. But what would an old married couple on an evening stroll know about the location of drug houses or prostitution rings?
Then, I spotted the law enforcement officer. Surely, he could tell me how to find the hotel. The Policeman’s eyes became wide with astonishment when I asked him the first time. He stared at me intently. I thought that maybe my North American accent of my Spanish was confusing to him. So I repeated my question.
“Puede Usted decirme donde esta el Hotel Real?” I repeated, enunciating clearly. I then told him that the airline booked the hotel for me since they lost my luggage. That fact seemed to calm him a little bit, but not much. His steely gaze pierced right through my soul. Then he turned and pointed in the direction of the hotel and said that it was about two blocks away and then I would have to make a right turn.
I thanked him and went on my way. When I glanced back, he was still staring intently in my direction.
I had started the walk into town from Juan Santamaria Airport outside of San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. The airlines do NOT deliver lost luggage in Central America, so I would have to come back to the airport to claim it when it arrived on tomorrow’s flight. Since San Jose is not near the airport, I inquired about local hotels. The representative at the service desk phoned several hotels, but it seemed that all were booked full. I was not sure if I should stay and sleep at the airport or not. Just then, one of the airline representative’s colleagues suggested to try phoning El Hotel Real.
“Great….they have a room”, he told me as he was on the line with the hotel. It was only the equivalent of $7 USD for the night. That sounded like a bargain upgrade from sleeping at the airport, so I said YES.
“They are asking if you ONLY want the room”, he informed me. I thought that was a strange question. This should have been the first clue that something was a bit off.
“Yes, just the room for one night”, I replied.
The reaction of the policeman had given me a sense of uneasiness. As I turned the corner, I spotted the sign to the hotel. The building was a dilapidated three story building with crumbling stucco. Maybe at one time back in the 18th century it could have been considered to be upscale, but it looked like it hadn’t been updated in the last 200 years. Lots of pedestrians were circulating around the street outside. The sun was setting.
The reception was on the second floor. I climbed up the dimly lit stairwell. My olfactory senses detected a faint smell of stale beer and urine. Two ladies were sitting at the reception desk.
“I have a reservation for a room”, I stated, in Spanish.
“Ah yes. The American” they responded. “Do you still ONLY want the room?”, she asked.
I thought to myself….what else might she be referring to?
“Yes, just the room”, I replied with a frown.
With a wry smile, she handed me a metal key attached to a wooden stick. Unlike back in the States, the room had to be paid for in advance, in cash. I paid my $7 in Costa Rican Colones, the local currency. She handed me an old, faded towel that was as soft as 180 grit sandpaper and told me that the showers were at the end of the hall and my room was down the hall on the left.
The room had no window. The door to the room consisted of a wire cage. So much for privacy. In the middle of the room was a bed the size of a cot with a sagging mattress in the middle. The light switch turned on a 30 watt light bulb that was hanging from two frayed wires dropping down from the ceiling. I laid down on top of the bed, not wanting to see what lay under the covers. I rested with my eyes open for a while. It was going to be a long night.
It was getting late and I was hungry. I arose and decided to explore the town and look for a restaurant. I reluctantly surrendered my key to the reception and left the hotel. I would have worried about theft if I had all of my belongings with me, but they would not arrive in the country until tomorrow.
I found what looked like a decent restaurant a few blocks from the hotel, with some open air tables by the street side. When I asked for a seat, one of the waiters said that the kitchen was closing and the chef was going home. However, he said that I could have a bowl of soup or a salad which was already prepared. I agreed and ordered soup, bread and a beer.
When he brought me the food, he commented that there weren’t a lot of tourists who visited Alajuela. I told him about my eventful day.
“Where are you staying the night?”, he asked. When I told him where I was staying, he gasped in astonishment.
“You are in grave danger!”, we warned me. “The Hotel Real is a very dangerous place. Someone was killed there last week. Don’t go back there! Wait here until I get off of work. You can come home and stay at my house. I get off work in about another hour.”
Dead reader, have you felt vulnerable or been afraid for your life in a foreign country? What would you do? My passport and camera were back at the room. Would they be stolen? At some point I would have to eventually go back. And, should I trust that this waiter had the best of intentions?
Time to make a decision. Making the wrong one could have serious consequences.
Rather than wait around another hour until my newfound friend go off work, I decided to return to the hotel. He told me he would come for me when he got off work. Was he really a concerned person who would help me, or someone else who would take advantage of a vulnerable traveler? I hoped it was the former, but now had to think about the latter.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at a shop and bought myself a knife with a sheath. I attached it to my belt and went back to the “Royal Hotel.” It might offer minimal protection during a mugging. I hoped I wasn’t bringing knife to a gun fight.
There were a lot of people in the lounge of the hotel watching a soccer game on TV and drinking. Most of the men had young women sitting in their laps. A picture of a naked woman hung on the wall next to the TV from a calendar that was two years old. The place was a lot noisier than when I left. The woman at the reception desk smirked as she handed me the key to my jail cell. I wondered what devious thoughts were behind that look that she gave me.
I locked myself in the room and lay on the bed with the light on. I opened the folding knife and kept it in my hand by my side. I waited for well over an hour for the waiter to come and ask me to stay at his home, but he never came.
Through the paper thin walls I could hear a couple having sex in the room next to mine. Squeaking springs, banging bedposts and moaning momentarily drowned out the loud talking, drinking and the noise of the TV in the background. Through the wire cage in my front door, I saw people constantly walking by. Were they thinking about breaking in and robbing me? Or did the room next door have a door like mine where they could view a couple having sex? Both of those alternatives were disconcerting.
I don’t know how many hours I stayed awake lying on top of the sheets with the light on and my hand on my knife, while mayhem lurked outside of the room. The night seemed like an eternity as I waited for dawn. But I must have fallen asleep at some point. At some point my eyes opened, and I didn’t hear any more noise. I tiptoed down the hall to the bathroom to relieve my bladder when I noticed that it was beginning to get light outside. Time for my escape!
Gathering what few belongings I had with me, I headed for the stairwell and my escape, only to find a locked metal gate blocking my escape route. Drunks were passed out all over the floor of the steps, on both sides of the metal gate. I was trapped!
The reception desk was empty. I rang the bell and banged on the office door. Finally, a woman emerged, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She grabbed a key to the gate and opened it. I had to step carefully around all of the drunk bodies passed out on the steps. The stairwell had an even more pungent stench than the night before.
Exhilarated to make my escape relatively unscathed, I hastily hiked back to the airport and waited for the morning plane to arrive with my backpack and luggage. I survived the night and would live to see another day!
The moral of this story? Don’t be fooled by a fancy name! If a hotel was really ROYAL, it would cost more than the equivalent of $7 USD and you would not have to pay in advance in Cash. If any hotel ever asks you, dear reader, “what else would you like besides the room?”, then just run (don’t walk) in the other direction. And, if you have a feeling that something just doesn’t seem right, you are probably correct about that!
The four valuable lessons I learned on that fateful night.
When you smell alcohol and urine on the way to the front desk of the hotel you have a reservation for that evening, turn around immediately and walk away.
Whenever you are lost in a foreign country and ask a law enforcement officer for directions and his eyes grow wide and his jaw drops, it’s a clue that you shouldn’t go there.
Never stay in a hotel room that has a wire cage for a door.
Try not to check a bag when flying, but fit all of your stuff in a carry on bag. If I had done that, I would never have had the “Hotel Real Experience.”
Now, if I ever have to take a lie detector test for some reason, and someone asks the question “have you ever spent the night in a whore house?”, I would have to truthfully answer YES. Would it make any difference if I added the fact that it happened at a ROYAL HOTEL? Probably not…..
But, at the same time I would have to insist that they also ask me, “did you pay for anything besides the room?” Thankfully, and truthfully, I can honestly answer “NO”.
When thinking about recreating in Central Oregon, don’t overlook Redmond. Bend gets most of the press, but we recently drove to the town to our north for a weekend hike and were not disappointed. With gas prices being sky high, we are doing much more urban hiking closer to home.
We combined walking the paved Dry Canyon trail and then walked back through downtown and some residential neighborhoods for a good mix of rural, urban and suburban hiking all rolled into one 9 mile hike. Beth and I parked our car at the southwest terminus on Quartz Avenue and headed north. It was a very hot late-June day, and we started the hike mid-morning. The actual paved trail is 3.8 miles each way.
Dry Canyon trail passes through several local parks along the route. One of the parks has a climbing wall next to the soccer fields.
At the busy intersection of the trail and Hwy. 126 (Highland Avenue), the trail passes under the road through a tunnel near American Legion Park. The smooth, asphalt trail is suitable for bikes, in-line skates, skateboards, and wheelchairs as well as a walking path.
Further north, the canyon narrows and takes a couple of sinuous bends. According to interpretive markers on the trail, the sides of the canyon are rimrock basalt which overlays the Deschutes Geologic Formation, which is over 4 million years old. However, the floor of the canyon is from more recent flows from the Newberry Volcano to the south (approx. 75,000 years old). It is thought that the canyon was carved by the Deschutes River, which abandoned this channel about 75,000 years ago when eruptions of viscous lava blocked the river upstream near Bend and diverted it into its present channel. Some of that lava oozed into Dry Canyon to smooth out the bed of the canyon.
There are points where one can access the trail from the roads above. The official trail ends at the sewage treatment plant to the north. You can then turn around and walk back to your car using the path, or take one of the side exits and walk your way back on city streets. We chose to do part of the trail back and take a closer look at the Maple Avenue Bridge.
The Maple Avenue Bridge is 70 feet tall and was constructed in 2007 using three 210 foot arch spans. Since Central Oregon is a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, climbing bolts have been anchored to the underside of one of the arches.
From a distance, the underside of the bridge looks like it has a lot of bird nests built on the underside of the bridge. However, we noticed that all of the “bird nests” were only on ONE section of the bridge, which piqued our interest. It is not likely that nests would only be built on one span. We walked the 100 yards or so, and on closer inspection saw that these “bird’s nests” were hand holds that were placed there by humans, and there were clip-ins so that climbers could practice climbing “negative slope”.
Further south, we climbed up the access stairs to Fir Street and headed back into town. Notice the narrow groove in the side of the stairway, for easily walking your bike up and down the stairs. Lots of folks choose to ride their bikes on the trail instead of walking.
At the top of the stairs you enter an established neighborhood. The house on the corner of Fir and 10th was nicely landscaped, so we snapped a picture to remember it.
It’s interesting to walk in older neighborhoods. Most don’t have sidewalks, but if neighborhood expansion happened at a later date, often the newer regulations called for sidewalks. Curiously, this sidewalk only lasted one block and then we had to walk in the street again. Redmond streets are laid out in a grid pattern, with named streets which run east-west placed in alphabetical order. It’s hard to get lost unless you don’t know your alphabet.
A few blocks of walking east from the Canyon will bring you to 6th street, one of the main North/South roads that brings you through the heart of town. We hung a right turn and headed south into town. The City of Redmond went out of their way to make the roadside visually appealing and welcoming to tourists with banners and flower pots.
Once you enter downtown there are several places that you can go for either shopping or eating. Since we have previously enjoyed lunch and refreshments at General Duffy’s Waterhole on 5th street, we opted to try someplace new.
We first passed by Centennial Park and took a short break and people watched. Kids and families were enjoying the sunny day and playing in the water fountains to beat the heat of a hot day.
We continued walking south on 7th street and stopped by Cascade Lakes Brewing for lunch. It is just north of the Fred Meyer store on 7th street. We found a shady table outside and enjoyed a healthy lunch and a cold brew.
Right next door to Cascade Lakes Brew Pub is Hutch’s Bicycles. We didn’t stop in, but did take a picture of the Dad joke that they had on the company sign board.
A short block north of the Brew Pub and the Bicycle shop is the intersection of Highland Avenue, a busy East-West road. It had good sidewalks and we hiked back west towards the Dry Canyon Trail. Highland is one way street near the middle of town, but turns into a wide four lane road with center turn lanes just a short distance from the downtown core.
Like the rest of Central Oregon, Redmond has grown a lot in the last two decades. Walking lets one take in all of the changes. Bike lanes have been added to Highland Avenue, as have been many new businesses. We enjoyed nice views of Cline Buttes and the Cascade Mountains in the background. New pedestrian friendly crosswalks with signals have been installed recently, making it a hassle free walk. We chose to walk on the south side of the street, where we might occasionally get some shade from trees next to the north- facing sidewalk.
We took a left on the road right before where the trail passes under Highland Avenue. Just a few blocks to the south, we saw a dirt path that would put you back on the Dry Canyon trail.
Just less than another mile and we were back at the southern terminus on Quartz Avenue. There is ample on-street parking to access the trail.
All in all, we walked just over 9 miles for the day, on mostly flat land except for a couple of flights of stairs. You can make this walk as short or long as you like. Redmond also has some mountain bike trails outside of town. Located about 17 miles north of Bend and situated several hundred feet lower in altitude, Redmond’s micro-climate is somewhat drier than Bend’s. If you are flying in from other parts of the country, your plane will be landing in REDMOND! So, if you are recreating in Central Oregon, don’t overlook this small city that has a lot to offer!
Two years ago in July of 2020, I wrote a post at the start of the pandemic which tied together a few things that might seem unrelated at first. Racism, Baseball and Pandemics were all tied around the date of July the 7th. That story was about memoir and descriptions about place in some moments in time.
Places change. They change due to changes in the Physical Environment (climate, earthquakes, fire, etc.), but more often they change as a function of the changing environment of the humans that inhabit those places (economics, demographics, politics, etc.).
Dear reader, even if you read this post two years ago, I invite you to re-read it, along with the additions to it which recounts the change over time during the past two years. The world is way different than it was just two short years ago. If we are all trying to figure out where we are going, it helps to see where we have come from and measure how much progress we have made over time. If you haven’t read it previously, the post now has subtitles categorized by time.