Yogi B Bear Aware

Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park.

Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park.

Wouldn’t you know it, we are back in the USA again, where we saw the New Year in. We seem to have spent quite a bit of time here over this past year but more on that another time, for now I shall pick up from where I last left off….

It’s National Park time, starting off with Glacier National Park in Montana.

The biggest and apparently best thing about Glacier is the Going-to-the-Sun Rd – I say apparently as our timing to visit was completely off. Whilst we were able to hike and explore some of this spectacular park and definitely did experience its ‘wow’ factor, I do fear we missed out on the best part as the most scenic section of the road was closed due to there still being a lot of snow up there.

Having doubts about continuing!

Having doubts about continuing!

We had a bit of a moan about it, not quite understanding the closure as down below there wasn’t a single sign of snow. So I had a fabulous idea – why don’t we just hike up high for some views? Turns out they weren’t kidding about the snow, after a couple of hours of steady uphill climbing our hike ground to a halt when the snow became too deep (hip height) to continue walking and we could no longer fathom where the path was. I think we’ll have to revisit one day.

One of the highlights of this National Park trip was the wildlife and for hiking in particular, this meant bears. Springtime, which is when we were there, is when they are coming out of hibernation and it was quite likely that we would run into one. Carrying bear spray and making sure to make noise are two pieces of sound advice hikers are given and rules we obeyed. We took some time to practice rapidly removing the spray from our belts as well as tying our travel bell to us so we merrily ding-a-linged along on our hikes because we did indeed see bears in the following four weeks.

Bison grazing at Yellowstone.

Just your average day at Yellowstone.

Our next stop could quite easily have been the destination to poetically end our travels with. Yellowstone National Park is a place we have wanted to visit since 2010 after watching the three-part BBC documentary about the different seasons in the park. The wildlife and geothermal activity of the world’s first National Park intrigued us and I can tell you that it lived up to and even surpassed all expectations. It is a little known fact that Yellowstone was indeed our inspiration to get out and explore this big, wide world whilst it was still easy enough for us to do.

The park is a huge 8,987 square km or 3,472 square miles and we had ten action packed days in which to discover these vast and varied kilometres.

Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs.

Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs.

We began up north in the Mammoth Hot Springs area. The main attraction here are the travertine terraces formed over hundreds of years of hot water bubbling up from the earth, cooling and depositing calcium carbonate. Miles of boardwalks have been built so that one can easily observe every area of these impressive organic carvings that are unique to this area of the park.

Two bison fighting.

Bison doing their thing.

Looking back on our first day in Yellowstone gives us a laugh. We spotted three bison in a field so stopped the car in excitement to get out and run down to have a closer look – what rookies! There is absolutely no shortage of Bison to be seen in Yellowstone, in fact like all the animals in the park, it is their territory and bison traffic jams are a daily occurrence here. A herd of Bison will decide to walk along the road and there is no stopping these huge, dangerous beasts, it’s actually quite alarming when they head straight towards your car as if they are looking for a fight.

First black bear.

First black bear.

Our first day also brought with it our first black bear sighting – oh what a thrill! We were fortunate enough to have quite a few black and grizzly bear sightings in our time, cubs too. One always knows if there’s been a bear sighting by the random congregation of cars parked on the side of the road where they normally shouldn’t be. Then there’s the interesting breed of wildlife photographers who line themselves up along the road, dress themselves and their long camera lenses in camouflage gear, have walkie talkies to communicate with each other and the Rangers and will sit in the one spot for as long as it takes in the hope that an animal appears.

Agrizzly and her cub running.

And they are moving our way.

It was a time like this that we had one of our most memorable bear experiences. A grizzly and her cub had been spotted quite a distance off, walking along the river. She was moving rapidly (as opposed to how they are more often observed, grazing slowly) and it wasn’t long before she turned her sights to the direction of all us humans checking them out through our various lenses. I had a fantastic view through my binoculars as they started charging towards us. A little alarmed, I had to keep peering up to check just how close she was getting. Panic then set amongst everyone as the Rangers began yelling at the tops of their voices, ‘everyone get to your cars NOW.’ When I no longer required my ‘bins’ to see every detail of the two bears charging in our direction I thought it probably intelligent that we too head to our car, in fact I became quite nervous as it was very high drama with everyone running to get to the safety of their vehicles. Michael however, along with a couple of other photographers, decided that the advice to never run from a bear was one he would always obey, especially given that in this situation it meant he’d capture a cool bear shot. Thankfully the bears simply wanted to cross the road and not attack any people, but talk about an adrenaline rush.

Grand Prismatic Spring.

Grand Prismatic Spring.

Yellowstone’s geothermal area is nothing short of spectacular. The fact that it is the world’s largest geyser field certainly helps. Once accustomed to the strong, sulphurous smell we were blown away by the vibrant coloured algae that accompanies the gurgling mud pots, steaming vents and roaring geysers.

Geyser.

Blowing off a little steam.

The Yellowstone geyser gazer crowd was another eye opener for us. They too have walkie talkies to communicate with each other, get about carrying their own fold up chairs and will sit for hours waiting for an eruption. Granted, it is pretty astonishing to see these enormous bursts and we found ourselves running about in order to catch the ones that are a little more predictable.

Victoria pointing to the height of the snow on Beartooth Highway.

The snow got THIS high.

Whilst we lucked out on the Road-to-the Sun Rd in Glacier, we were reimbursed by way of one of the USA’s most scenic drives that had just opened for the season – Beartooth Highway. The 64 mile stretch of road is just outside the North East entrance of Yellowstone and is full of breathtaking views that accompany the hairpin turns.

Victoria at the highest point of Beartooth Highway.

Flying at the very top of the pass.

Our finale for this section of our travels was Grand Teton National Park. Given its proximity to Yellowstone we were surprised by how different it actually is. The regal granite peaks that seem to come out of nowhere from the valley floor along with the winding Snake River as the foreground for this amazing scene, made such an impression on us that we have been back twice more since. The nearby, lively little mountain town of Jackson Hole, with its Wild West vibe has also been a factor in our attraction to this area.

Grand Teton National Park from Snake River outlook.

Grand Teton National Park from Snake River outlook.

Bears, bison, elk, pronghorns, and deer are in abundance here too but what the Tetons have over Yellowstone are the moose. I was desperate to see a moose but we just didn’t seem to be having any luck. On our second to last day however, whilst on a remote hike we happened upon a moose grazing in the bushes, it was only a metre or two away from us. In awe, we quietly observed it for a good twenty minutes. Thankfully at the time we were completely ignorant to the fact that these are very aggressive animals and in fact many people fear them more than bears.

A moose.

So there you are Mr Moose.

 

Departing the Tetons we felt a real sense of accomplishment. All the animals and scenery had been experienced, we could easily end our travels should we wish. Hmmm????

Strung Out in Seattle

Alki Beach view across the waters to downtown Seattle.

Alki Beach view across the waters to downtown Seattle.

We’ve definitely been MIA on the blog front. What can I say, adventures and that funny old thing called work have all overshadowed the blogging and photo processing operation. I’ve procrastinated over how I should approach this blog and it only seems right to fill you in on places visited and adventures had after departing Mexico back in late April this year. Funny thing is that we are currently back in Mexico having almost been around the world since we were last here.

Planning a second USA road trip from the shores of Mexico, a definite botanical garden theme seemed to be emerging for the first section so that’s what we ended up with and like most of our experiences in The States we weren’t disappointed.

First on the agenda was Seattle with the intention of driving up to Skagit Valley for the Tulip Festival. However, the early spring they had this year meant we were too late for the tulips so we opted to stay in the Emerald City a little longer and explore.

Seattle skyline with the famed Space Needle - taken from Kerry Park.

Seattle skyline with the famed Space Needle – taken from Kerry Park.

I have forever been a huge fan of the TV show ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ which is based in Seattle and though they don’t film the show in the city, what I did get a thrill to see in person was the famed Seattle skyline which features in the show’s opening credits.

I couldn’t tell you that we’d been to Seattle without mentioning the coffee culture. Nationally known for its coffee, the world centre of coffee roasting and the home of Starbucks are all traits that contribute to it being the hub of caffeine consumption. So what better place or excuse could we have had to go searching for the ultimate cup of coffee?

Starbucks' Willy Wonka coffee roastery.

Starbucks’ Willy Wonka coffee roastery.

I can’t give you a conclusive result on where the ultimate cup of coffee can be had, however I can advise that if you find yourself in Seattle do go visit the Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room up on Capitol Hill. It is far from what one thinks of when the name Starbucks is mentioned – no traditional green to be seen anywhere. Instead it is an aesthetically very cool place to hang out feeling a bit like a Willy Wonka’s coffee world. Only high-end coffee beans are on offer here. The coffee is brewed using a wide variety of methods, all of which the highly caffeinated, ‘superstar’ baristas will tell you ALL about. Their enthusiasm was contagious and before we knew it, our faces had gone numb – perhaps one needs to work up to that amount of caffeine consumption in such a short space of time.

We aren’t fans of Starbucks – no seriously – BUT we did also walk in and out of the original store simply because it’s located at the fun, fish throwing, flower-filled and famed Pike Place Market. Quite a few hours were spent perusing the market which is another part of Seattle’s identity and has a bit of a Covent Garden vibe to it, having been around for decades.

Arriving into Victoria BC harbour.

Arriving into Victoria BC harbour.

Next on the itinerary was a ferry ride across to Vancouver Island, specifically the town of Victoria (hey, I had to visit a place named after me). It was the first time either of us had stepped foot on Canadian soil so that was special in itself.

Here we stayed with some very dear friends we’ve met on our travels which was one highlight, the other was the spectacular Butchart Gardens. These colourful, perfectly manicured and breathtaking gardens are a real treat for the eyes AND finally we got to see tulips, tulips and more tulips.

The Sunken Garden at Butchart Gardens.

The Sunken Garden at Butchart Gardens.

A little hiking was also done on Vancouver Island. We were so curious about the name, so spent a day on the Juan de Fuca (yep, you’ve said it correctly) Trail, which offers very rugged and beautiful panoramic views that reminded us a bit of New Zealand.

The next port of call, once back on USA soil, was the unique, funky and very hipster city of Portland. Talk about a town with lots to offer. Everyone here seems to do things in their own way with incredible thought and detail put into whatever it may be; from doughnuts to card making, bookstores to fashion, coffee to tattoo parlours….and the list goes on. Just don’t get too freaked out by the equally impressive large presence of homeless people that’s part of the scene too.

The Steel Bridge of Portland OR.

The Steel Bridge of Portland OR.

The Willamette River slices through the city so in true Portland style they have beautiful, one-of-a-kind bridges to link the two sides together.

Cultured Cavegirl.

Cultured Cavegirl.

Portland is definitely the land of food carts – choices abound. Rows and rows of food trucks line the squares of downtown Portland. Once we discovered our favourite cart – ‘Cultured Caveman’- was a five minute walk from our hotel we could happily have set up residence in Portland.

Promise this isn't a Guiness.

Promise this isn’t a Guiness.

Never tried nitrate coffee? Go to Stumptown Coffee in Portland and get served up a cold coffee that looks like a glass of Guinness and will blow your mind if you’re a fan of coffee.

Now, getting back to that garden theme…

Smack bang in the middle of Portland is a little area of tranquility – the impressive Lan Su Chinese Garden. They say it’s the most authentic Chinese Garden outside of China and we were certainly impressed. Walking through the doors we felt transported to a world of Chinese culture, history, art and tradition. Their traditional Chinese teahouse is also rather special. A huge selection of Chinese teas are served in classical styles with each tea being served in a vessel that matches its category and unique character.

Lan Su Chinese Gardens.

Lan Su Chinese Gardens.

Keeping to the Asian theme, Portland also boasts a superb Japanese Garden. I really wasn’t kidding about Portlandians and their attention to detail; this garden is said to be the most authentic in the world (yes that does include Japan). Comprising of five different garden styles and influenced by Shinto, Buddhist and Taoist philosophies the desired impact of the gardens is to get a sense of peace, harmony and tranquility through the various compositions of stone, water and plants. The aesthetics and individual energies of each of the gardens is quite something to experience and left us with a strong desire to go adventuring in Japan.

Flat Garden.

Flat Garden.

Strolling Pond Garden.

Strolling Pond Garden.

Multnomah Falls.

Multnomah Falls.

Setting the tone for the second half of our road trip, which was far less caffeine focused and more National Parks orientated, on our way out of Portland we visited the roaringly magnificent Multnomah Falls. The magnitude and power of this 611-foot-tall, two tiered cascade of icy water is phenomenal.

I shall conclude the first chapter there and with it wish everyone a very Merry Christmas from the shores of Mexico but very soon to be, snowy mountains of Sun Valley and Jackson Hole.

Moment of pause whilst decorating this huge Christmas tree....MERRY CHRISTMAS from Mexico x

Moment of pause whilst decorating this huge Christmas tree….MERRY CHRISTMAS from Mexico x

What SUP Mexico?

And the band played for our return to Sayulita.

It has been a while between blogs, so here we are again. Currently road tripping in the USA and having a grand adventure however nomadic life isn’t always lived at a hundred miles an hour so let me share with you our relatively laid back days in Mexico where we returned to Sayulita to live for four months way back in mid-December.

As keen as we were to explore new territory in Costa Rica or Nicaragua, because of either rental prices, logistics or safety, neither of those places felt right for us. Craving a feeling of familiarity and homeliness as well as sunshine and breathing in the air at sea level, we felt our community of friends in Sayulita calling our names. So we gave in and are so happy we did!

Picture of dancing horses in Sayulita

Sayulita Days celebration. A typical Mexican celebration with dancing horses who are disturbingly given beer to quench their thirst.

Nothing too much about the little surf town had changed in a year, besides it growing in popularity and the company that supplies the wifi not being able to keep up with it all. However our time there did have some added highlights to it.

picture of Victoria with SUP board

Just to be clear, I wasn’t afraid of jumping in the water ;).

After Michael’s burst eardrum and middle ear infection led to us giving up on the body boarding and surfing idea last time, we decided to try our hand at Stand Up Paddle boarding or SUP as it is more commonly referred to. What fun we had once the discovery was made! Many afternoons were spent trying to perfect our technique and seeing who could arrive back at shore without having fallen in.

Picture of whales

Check it out!

We couldn’t miss out on another opportunity for whale watching though this time chose our experience a little more wisely, going out with an experienced local skipper who knew the waters and whales well. The Humpback whales acrobatics and spouting, breeding and calving activities were spectacular on that particular day! Our expert skipper was also able to get us so alarmingly close to the giant mammals that we were able to see the tubercles on their heads and barnacles on their flippers – IN DETAIL.

Picture of a whale

This one rocked the boat it was so close.

Shaking things up a little, we decided to visit some friends in San Miguel de Allende and experience another side of Mexico.

Picture of San Miguel de Allende

The streets of San Miguel de Allende.

A little different to what people tend to think of when Mexico comes to mind, San Miguel de Allende has no beaches but is a mountain city of cobblestone streets and beautiful courtyards in central Mexico.
This charming and authentic Mexican colonial town is filled with colour and has a wonderfully rich, vibrant and creative vibe. It’s easy to explore by foot and is such fun as every narrow, cobblestoned street and alley is lined with all kinds of inviting shops, art galleries and churches. Saturating the senses even more is the sun-washed hues of all the large wooden doors of homes, behind which hide some rather exquisite courtyards. The façade of all the well-preserved Colonial and Spanish buildings in town is very important, so much so that Starbucks isn’t allowed to have their traditional green sign as their shop signage.

picture of Mexican textiles

Textiles at Aurora.

Worth a mention is the art and design centre called Aurora where we spent a whole afternoon roaming this former textile factory which is a white maze filled with beautiful art and furniture by both local and international artists.

Picture of two Cavalier King Charles spaniels

Who could say no to these two faces?

At times, life throws random opportunities at you. Falling in love with some friend’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel dogs and being asked to look after them for three weeks in their heavenly waterfront home would be one of these moments and the perfect end to our time in Sayulita. We often see our fellow nomads report on fabulous housesitting gigs they get along the way but I’ve gotta say I think we may have trumped the lot with this one. It felt as if we were the only two people (and dogs) living in a small, luxury hotel. Certainly made up for the weeks spent camping in the freezing cold in Peru!

Getting a closer look at the stunning view.

Getting a closer look at the stunning view.

Picture of Michael with injured calf

Cane and ice in tow.

From the above, it is clear that we had a wonderful time in Mexico though we do wonder if Michael might be jinxed around the country. In February whilst doing ‘hill sprints’ as part of his exercise regime, Michael tore his calf muscle quite significantly. Fortunately it didn’t require surgery but it did put him out for a month as he wasn’t able to walk for ten days and then needed a walking stick to hobble around for a few weeks.

Picture of Michael on a horse.

Once the calf healed, Michael took up horse riding and is wanting to add it to his list of hobbies. By the way, this is a huge and stunning Friesian if that means anything to you.

So with that relatively brief update I promise that it won’t be too long between drinks where I will fill you in on the road trip extravaganza we are currently on. Lastly, we hope to catch up with some of you when we return to Europe for the summer 😀.

Mist Serious Machu Picchu

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The meditative magic of hiking continued with part two of our Peruvian trekking adventure, where we did a trek that combined three of the most well known features of Peru – Salkantay Mountain, The Classic Inca Trail and of course Machu Picchu.

As with the previous trek the circumstances and terrain here too, has left us with bragging rights for life, however the visually stunning pilgrimage along the Inca Trail is a one of a kind experience. I’d be including the thousands of ladder-like, uneven and jagged stairs we climbed up and down every day in this comment too.

Sunset over Salkantay Mountain

Savagely cold as we camped very close to the holy peak, but ‘vale la pena’ for this sunset.

Photo of an offering at the top of  Incachiriasca pass.

An offering at the top of the Incachiriasca pass.

After spending two days around the holy peak of Salkantay (or savage) Mountain we went over the Incachiriasca Pass – the not so often climbed and highest pass in this trek – to then join up with the treasured, visually stunning Inca Trail. Originally built to be the supply route between Cusco and Machu Picchu, the iconic trail was a bucket list item for me (much to Michael’s chagrin). I wanted the satisfaction of arriving at the final destination on my own two feet, with a feeling of having had a true pilgrimage experience.

Photo of the Inca Trail.

Winding around mountains.

The 42km Incan stone trail feels very atmospheric as it winds around mountains, takes you through the abounding

Michael sitting in the stairs of the Inca Trail.

Lots of stairs!

cloud-forest and subtropical jungle, up and down steep slopes and stairs, through tunnels and past remote Incan structures before rewarding you with the treasure of Machu Picchu.

Before I continue though, allow me to share the disappointing situation we were in on this trek:

Map of the INca trail

Guiding us through the days ahead (or perhaps it should have been the other way around?).

A guide for the trail is mandatory and though I had prepared well in advance for us to go with a guide who specialised in photography, at 4am of the morning of our departure the plans fell through. We ended up with a guide who not only didn’t own a camera, but liked to argue with Michael about best vantage points for photography. You might imagine that didn’t go down so well. She also struggled considerably to keep up with us. A very common scenario was one where we would be waiting a good 20-30mins for her at the top of a peak. In her defence we were far more acclimatised than the average Inca Trail tourist however we were constantly left with a feeling that we ‘got a dud’.

Not a bad place view to wake up to! Our team for the trail on a standard early start.

Not a bad place view to wake up to! Our team for the trail on a standard early start.

Anyway! Back to our final day and grand finale for our hike:

After the steep climb to the Sun Gate, we were supposed to have our first glimpse of the famous Machu Picchu ruins, yet the situation was not text book magic. Our hearts sank with disappointment at the sight of nothing but thick cloud and mist. An hour later though, down at the actual ruins the mist rose, clouds parted and there it was, every bit as spell binding as you might imagine and has been talked about by many others previously.

Mists rising over Machu Picchu

Mists rising and clouds parting.

Built at the height of the Incan Empire, Machu Picchu is a wonderful marriage of creativity and the wildness of nature, though the ruins are still a mystery. Based on the high quality of stonework it is believed the city served as an important religious ceremonial centre as well as royal residence. Still an unexplained piece of the puzzle is why the Incans chose to build it in such a remote location and why they then abandoned it.

Michael washing his feet whilst camping.

I wonder if Hiram Bingham III had these little luxuries?

Though the explorer Hiram Bingham III rediscovered the supposed Lost City in 1911, amongst Andean locals it was never really lost. Fortunately, unlike many other Incan sites, Machu Picchu escaped discovery by the invading Spanish Conquistadors.

View from one of the windows at the Temple of the Three Windows, Machu Picchu.

Looking out one the windows from the Temple of the Three Windows.

 

Walking amongst the stonework of the staggering ruins is every bit as awesome as seeing it from afar. From the Stairway of Fountains to the Temples and Plazas within the complex, the mind boggles at the lives of the Incans, their precise engineering and fascinating culture.

 

Machu Picchu

Classic Machu Picchu. If you tilt your head to the right you should be able to make out the face that the mountains behind make and the big nose that is Huayna Picchu.

The infamous peak that stands behind the ruins and creates the rather large nose when the classical picture is turned on its side, is called Huayna Picchu or Young mountain. In order to climb this steep peak to the ancient sight that sits atop it, which was once its own community separate from Machu Picchu, one must book in advance as numbers are limited to 400 people per day. Fortunately we had booked ahead of time and though it felt a little ambitious at the conclusion of our two weeks, balancing on a rock as we sat at the top of the cliff, absorbing this supernatural place with Machu Picchu way below us and the mountains beyond made the extra effort worthwhile.

Victoria standing at the top of Huayna Picchu

High up on Huayna Picchu.

Having made it all this way, it seemed that seeing the ruins once might not be enough, especially if we encountered bad weather on the first day, so we stayed overnight in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes and returned the following day at dawn. We were really glad we did as it simply allowed us to soak up the power of the place a bit more and heck, why not add in another mountain to climb – Machu Picchu mountain – whilst we were at it?!

With only another month in Mexico before we hit the road again for more adventures, we are soaking up beachside living, friends and farmers markets before the temperature dial gets turned down again.

Pachamama

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Sitting here in sunny, warm and comfortable Sayulita, the trials and tribulations of our treks in Peru seem very far away, but here we go. Taking you back to the end of November for our first trek:

Whilst most people think of the Inca Trail when it comes to trekking in Peru, it also has a lot of other mountains and trails to offer. We decided to start off with a hike considered to be not only one of Peru’s, but also one of the world’s best hikes – The Ausangate Trek. We chose to do a more extended version which allowed us to see more diversified and spectacular scenery.

We weren't going missing! This lovely boy adopted us on day two and in return for some food,  kept us very safe the entire trek.

We weren’t going missing! This lovely boy adopted us on day two and in return for some food, kept us very safe the entire trek.

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Incan Immersion

Incan storehouses at Pinkullyuna.

Incan storehouses at Pinkullyuna.

 

Finally getting around to Peruvian adventures. Since the last blog we have been doing a lot of moving about in Central America searching for a place to plant our feet at sea level for a few months after our epic trekking trip. I am happy to say we are now coming to you from sunny Sayulita in Mexico. We are surprised to find ourselves back here but that story is for another time, for now it’s snippets of Peru…

Living in the charming city of Cusco for 2 months gave us a wonderful opportunity to absorb and learn about the Incan Empire as well as allowing time to explore the oft overlooked or rushed through Sacred Valley. Continue reading

Hats off to Cuenca

As promised, I’m going back in time for a very brief telling of life in Cuenca – Ecuador – where we settled ourselves amongst the constant sound of car alarms that seems to be South America, for the best part of three months.

Landing in nearby Loja.

Landing in nearby Loja.

 

Life in Cuenca was very comfortable after we stopped all the huffing and puffing when climbing stairs and being forced to pause mid-sentence for extra breath, all side effects of living up at 2,500m above sea level. This colonial city set in a valley which is supplied by four rushing rivers and surrounded by Andean mountains, is very picturesque. The centre is littered with historical buildings that earn it the listing of a UNESCO World Heritage Trust Site.

A regular Cuencan day with spectacular clouds over the surrounding mountains.

A regular Cuencan day with spectacular clouds over the surrounding mountains.

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