Yodeling Vagabond Biking and Hiking in Zion National Park

story and photos by Brian Leibold
Zion National Park in UtahLast month I wrote here about yodeling in Yellowstone during an epic bike trip from Montana to Arizona. Toward the end of this adventure, I spent a weekend alone in what would become one of my favorite places in the world: Zion National Park.

As I biked on the long winding road down into the canyon, I was struck dumb in the shadow of the setting sun. Zion is indescribable, but I will attempt to describe it. It is ineffable because that’s a word too. The sheer cliffs rise up threateningly and gorgeously on both sides of the echoing canyon like that girl or guy that you’ve always been in love with from the moment you first saw her and who is so attractive that you find it difficult to speak in his/her (because I’m gender neutral) presence: intimidating but undeniably stunning.
Zion immediately made me feel like I was on some kind of nature speed, lighting a passionate fire that so often waits impatiently to be sparked and left blazing on a heaven-on-earthly grill and, once burning, is loath to be put out.
Vagabonding Tip #1: Find something that lights your fire. Then burn baby burn and scorch the earth lusting to quench your fiery desire.
Zion National Park, UtahSo I was wide awake and euphoric and raring to go with lightning speed, and like a keen owl in the balmy Utahan night my eyes were sharp and focused and trained completely on the present moment.
And here, in my manic state of elevation, I biked headlong down the spectacular canyon glorying in all these buttes and monoliths because those are apparently words. These rock formations in Zion beckon urgently to all who are born to boldly boulder, and immense mountains call climbers breathlessly sans lungs to climb higher to elevate our lives, and rolling rivers swerve alluringly through narrow slot canyons away from the sun.
My first day in Zion I did two hikes, the 8-mile Observation Point hike and the 6-mile Angels Landing hike. I was a solo venturing yodeling vagabond at this point, as my cousin and I had gone different routes a week earlier.
Words of Wisdom #1: If no one wants to vagabond with you, go alone! Being alone on the road is highly superior to being clustered and flustered in claustrophobic cities where finding any time at all to be alone is difficult.
Zion National Park, UtahWhen I was in Zion, words—even words of wisdom–were not forthcoming. How does one describe the indescribable? How does one express the ineffable because that’s a word too? What does one say in such a place? I had not acquired the courage to speak to the stunning woman who dared me to approach her overawing beauty and I approached and we neared closer but I spoke not.
On my way up to Observation Point, I traversed through slot canyons which provided discrete sneak peeks through narrow windows, portholes to paradise, hinting at the magnificence that would become vividly clear upon reaching the top. Then there was a curvy section that looked out to the east and then to the west in a cyclical wondrous fashion as I winded my way to the top.
At the Point, the other hikers and I all competed for Zion’s attention and she like an eternally beautiful always vigorous spinster chose no lover but stirred the spirits of all men and women who exulted in her spacious canyon. She made youthful the old and she made bold the faint-hearted; she never spurned her admirers’ advances but spurred on the souls of restless vagabond wanderers who had searched ceaselessly to see her and delight in her delights for days and decades alike and she did this with a mysterious majestic air of constant slight amusement, laughing inwardly at the magnetic effect that she had on all.
Zion National ParkAnd then I descended Observation Point and began to hike up Angels Landing, where messengers would surely come down from on high and pronounce Zion as the unmistakable heaven on earth and all comers would enter into the gates where the angels land and where spirits of sojourners soar with just-realized wings to new elevations.
The hike began in earnest and the angelic views took shape at a point where the steepness increased and a rope was needed to hold onto. I took my time here and enjoyed the journey. For the vagabond, it is all about the journey. In the words of the Grateful Dead
—Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there.
Fun Definitely Disputable Fact Which Is Not A Fact At All But An Opinion #1: The Grateful Dead is the best band to listen to while vagabonding on the road.
Agree or disagree with this statement as you see fit. Say I am unquestionably correct or that I am disgracefully mistaken. My view on the matter has been stated with conviction and I hold steadfast to it.
zion national park, UtahAnd with the Grateful Dead playing in my head, I dreamed peaceful daydreams on the angel’s throne.
The next morning, I arose early.
Although the previous day had been incredible and I had climbed two hikes considered the best in the park by some, I wanted to earn the beauty that I was witnessing by allowing the all-powerful Zion to put my physical abilities to the test. And Pride Rock provided that opportunity. Pride Rock was simply a mountain that had a rock that looked to me like Pride Rock from Lion King.
Vagabonding Tip #2: Pride Rock is an unknown unmarked hike. You won’t find it in any guides or handbooks. Do the established hikes at places like Zion. Even with the crowds, they are absolutely worth it. But also go off and climb your own mountain. And choose a cool fitting name for it.
I knew that Pride Rock would be a noble competitor. I would describe the climb as very difficult bouldering. When I needed some limb to grasp hold of in precarious points of the climb, Pride Rock offered not his hand to hold; when I needed to climb on his back, he carried me not; when I needed energy for the last final push, he gifted no such burst and I was forced to find it inside myself.
Zion Pride RockBut finally, though Pride Rock put me full to the test and did not help me at any point and was an altogether stubborn but beautiful bastard, I finally made it to the top where I zanily unrestrainedly exulted to no one in madcap yodels, which were insane enough to do any traveling minstrel proud.
And then Pride Rock and I shook hands with the utmost mutual respect and we sat together and watched the sun set slowly to the west, pleading with the tyrant of time to stop and stand still and soliciting the sun to do the same and stay motionless for a time in the sky and fall not.
But time went on as it does, and the sun went down as day turned to night, and I rode back for my last night in paradise. Then the next day I biked up the canyon back onto the road.

Brian Leibold is a student of life and a yodeling vagabond. You can find his work at his blog at BMLontheroad.blogspot.com and maybe even back here at Vagobond.

Yodeling Vagabonds Bike Yellowstone

Story and Photos by Brian Leibold
yellowstone Bike TripDo you own a bike? If not, get one! If yes, do you know how to ride it? If no, learn how! (And question the wisdom in owning a bike and not knowing how to ride it). Now that everybody has a bike and knows how to ride it how about you…
Go on a bike tour! But first read this. Then go, man! Maybe train some to prepare and perhaps learn how to fix a flat tire. Then take off, man, ride on! Actually I would strongly suggest purchasing panniers or a trailer to carry supplies first. Then definitely take off, my fellow vagabond, get, ready, set, go! But don’t leave without first of course deciding where you want to take off. Then by all means, what are you waiting for, you nomadic rascal, go! But I would suggest taking your time and thinking about it first. There’s no rush. It’s not a bike race, it is a bike tour (not to be confused with the Tour de France or similar tours of that racing nature.
Yellowstone River Falls—Words of Wisdom #1: Do not confuse “bike tour” with “bike race.”It is not a race. On a similar but at the same time different note, the words “It is not a race” could also be applied to life. That could be a book, Life: A Tour, Not a Race. Or something.
Some might not know what a bike tour is. It is self-explanatory. A bike tour is when you have your bike, you put all the stuff you need for however long you may be touring, whether it is for a weekend or a year, and then you go! Some people just start from where their bike is, while others ship their bike to another place and go from there (I shipped mine to Montana).

Bikig through Yellowstone— Money Saving Tip #1: It is cheaper to ride a bike that you already have than to purchase a bike that you don’t have to go on a bike tour. Also you don’t really need a great expensive road bike to go on a tour, just a bike that is dependable.
—Money Saving Tip #2: Most bike shops will ship your bike to another bike shop for cheaper than it would be to ship it on the plane. So do that.

biking through yellowstoneLast fall, I took off time from college and joined my cousin for a leg of his bike trip. His was an adventurous epic that began in Washington (state) and just recently finished in Washington D.C.
(On The Res, his blog about his trip). I would bike over 2000 miles and explore the states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Arizona (BML ON THE ROAD, my blog).
It surprised me a little just how easy it was to get accustomed to being on a bike for 6 or more hours a day and putting in as many as 100 miles a day. If I can do it, having very little biking experience, so can you! So go! But finish reading this first.
The first distinctly memorable place Richard and I biked to was Yellowstone, the first National Park in the country. Yellowstone is made for bikers and hikers. While cars have to wait for scenic overlooks in order to stop, where hundreds of other cars create hungry horrid mobs of mass pulsing humanity, the biker hiker community is able to avoid the mobs by stopping at unofficial points to explore off-road.
old faithful in Yellowstone ParkAnd so the first place in Yellowstone we biked was famous Old Faithful, which was not off-road but needed to be seen and so we saw it. We experienced the spouting, spurting, springing, old-in-years-but-still-with-youthful-raw-get-up-and-go-energy, timeless geyser that is Old Faithful, uncontrollable in its pure natural wondrous power exploding out of the ground phenomenally and perpetually, with a sort of violent vigor like a surreptitiously but supernaturally strong Samson shaking and bursting up towards the surface, longing for the open air, to be freed from the shackles and constraints which held it down in the discolored volcanic ground.

—Fun Fact #1: Yellowstone is the world’s largest active volcano.
In that way, the geyser was sort of like some vagabonds who live in the way they do in order to escape from the shackles and constraints of modern day society and by traveling and seeing and experiencing new places and meeting new and wonderful people, they set themselves free.

Yellowstone natural bridge—Fun Fact #2: I just compared Old Faithful in Yellowstone to vagabonding.

We explored Yellowstone for many days, and it never failed to drop our jaws with its geysers and raging rivers twisting with snaky sinewy vigor through the eternal Eden and peaks and mountains and just the general heart-warming wondrous naturalistic beauty of the place. Beauty can be found most everywhere in America if one searches hard enough for it, from big, industrial, neon-brightened cities to small, lonely ghost towns that lay neglected and forgotten off never-ending highways in the western night. But in Yellowstone the traveling vagabond is able to experience a land that is preserved to look like the earth did back before all the skyscrapers and the endless development and the constant construction, and even before there were houses or railroads, and back to an even earlier era still when men and women perhaps lived in caves, or just out in the wild under the stars, reveling in the natural glory of the land around them.

Here is a list of hotels in or near Yellowstone in case you don’t want to sleep in a tent for some reason.

waterfalls in YellowstoneAnd so with our ancestors of yore in their graves or wherever their spirits may lie, we paid our respects to our possibly-cave-dwelling vagabond ancestors by exulting excitedly in the land around us as the sun slapped our sweaty brows as we biked up to precarious peaks and the wind whipped us with a frenzied rush of bursting gusts as we heehawed and yodeled all the long way down.
We would go on to many National Parks on the bike tour, including Grand Teton immediately following Yellowstone, Zion and Bryce Canyon both in Southern Utah, Grand Canyon, and lesser known but no less wonderful in their own way parks such as Craters of the Moon and City of Rocks in Idaho. And at every park, especially when the tourists and sun-setters (those who see only the sunset and then promptly leave) were scarce, I would feel that sensational sensation of experiencing land in its original state.
And so if you wish to live the life of a vagabond biker, I would suggest that you get your bike out of the dusty dark depths of the back of the garage, put some stuff you need on the bike, get on the bike yourself, and go! First maybe see if any of your friends want to go with you. Then take off, man, go! First, though, of course say goodbye to your loved ones, and tell them you love them, and give them a handshake or naw, be demonstrative! Pretend you’re going for the handshake but then give them a big old hug! Maybe even get a little emotional. Then go! Ride onwards, westwards, southwards, eastwards, upwards, downwards, any wards! Jump in the air and fly like an exotic vagabond bird, a nomadic eagle with wings spread!
Words of Wisdom #2: Ride out onto the road! It is open ahead.
Brian Leibold is a student of life and a yodeling vagabond. You can find his work at his blog at BMLontheroad.blogspot.com and maybe even back here at Vagobond.

6 Southeast Asia Water Adventures – #3 is my favorite!

Exclusive for Vagobond by Melissa Ruttanai Photos by Neil Friedman.

In mainland Southeast Asia, adrenaline junkies and nature lovers will discover full-throttle water sport adventures. Without mandatory deposit fees equivalent to mortgage down payments, visitors trek, snorkel, raft and kayak in pristine waters. For those seeking beaches, grottos, and limestone landscapes, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam have become prime destinations. In Southeast Asia, adventure begins where the tides meet the shore. Here are 6 Southeast Asia Water Adventures.

Kayaking in Southern Thailand’s Angthong National Marine Park

Inland Sea, ThailandFor Hollywood filmmakers, billionaires, and broke college students, the Gulf of Thailand remains a draw for many waterborne adventure seekers. Northwest of famous Koh Samui Island, Angthong National Marine Park is an archipelago of 42 limestone islands carved by tide and wind. While camping is allowed with a permit, many visitors arrange tours out of Koh Samui that include swimming island lagoons, trekking trough the mountain, and eating at a local village. During the day, explore small coves and sandy beaches. Snorkel with tropical fish and survey Koh Wua Talap, the largest island in the chain, or Koh Mae Koh that boasts a green-blue inland sea called, Talay Nai. Glide kayaks across the Koh Mae’s bay and relax to the delicate sound of your paddle dipping into gentle waters while high promontories loom like grey-green sea monsters.


Boating through Vietnam’s Halong Bay

With a UNESCO World Heritage seal of approval, Halong Bay sits on the northern ridge of a limestone chain that sweeps up from the Gulf of Thailand and Angthong National Marine Park. Here, the karsts cluster into a mystical array of gray stone, verdant brush, and boats with iconic colonial sails and rudders. Meaning “dragon descending”, Halong Bay includes 2000 islands and over 600 square miles of the Tonkin Gulf, offering visitors dozens of beaches, grottos, and caves to explore. With its high salinity, bathers can jump right from the ship into waters so buoyant there’s hardly any exertion necessary. Stretching across the water surface, visitors can drift all day among spiraling crags. Visit floating houses lashed together into small villages. Or tether broadside to local fisherman, selling giant prawns and squirming squid straight from their nets. After a day caving, pull into Cat Ba Island, a favorite retreat for Hanoians escaping the city.

 


Sailing through Daily Life on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

Tonle SapSix miles south of famous Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Tonle Sap continues to play a vital role in the life of local Cambodians. Fed by the Mekong River during the wet season, Tonle Sap remains a major waterway for commerce and transportation. Every day, ferries carry commuters and cargo across the lake on their way to and from Battambong. For US$5, travelers can gaze through a window of life on the lake, witnessing how families live in boathouses, cooking, reading, and raising children in narrow canals. Children attend floating schools on large boats with open windows and basketball courts enclosed by high fences. Families visit floating hospitals, teetering gently in the wake. Women buy fresh fish and produce from vendors rowing along peacefully.


White Water Rafting in Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang RiverLaos’ religious and cultural capital, Luang Prabang is a town known for Buddhist temples, daily markets, and a laidback pace of life. At sunrise, monks and novices traverse the UNESCO World Heritage streets. At sunset, fishing boats shift back and forth in the wake of speedboats heading to China. On one side of the town, the Mekong River skims along, a wide boulevard of fertile silt and dependable currents. On the other, Nom Khan River sweeps in from the east, offering visitors white water rafting and kayaking for any skill level. From town, tours can be arranged with door to riverside transport included. On their second day in Luang Prabang, travelers could find themselves clad in helmet and life vest, digging hard into rushing currents. Guides lead rafters through crashing white waters and ominous rocks creating whirlpools. In the reeds, Lao children play in the shallows, making the peace sign as they splash each other. Along the river, mountains as diverse as the wildlife press up against the shoreline. Stilted houses perch on slopes growing tea. Birds cut across black rock cliffs. And women plod up and down terraced vegetable patches.

Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

Tubing in LaosIn the 1970’s, backpackers looked around for a convenient stopover during trips between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the capital. From this necessity, Vang Vieng burst onto the scene, offering accommodations, meals, and more recently, tubing. On the riverside, two companies rent out massive inner tubes and drop travelers off upstream for a day of lazing on the river, listening to birds, and losing all thought to mountain peaks. From these humble beginnings, the tubing trend has become the main activity in town. On the river, bars jut out from the tree line, pulsing with Bob Marley tunes and hawking cheap mixed drinks. Bars feature ziplines, mudslides, and tug-of-war pits to keep patrons docked at their shores. On the river, meet other travelers and become inspired by how many consecutive days they’ve tubed the river. Back in town, relax on triangular pillows, enjoy the mountain air, and recharge for another day on the river.

Swimming with Elephants in Pai, Thailand

Elephants in ThailandSitting on the highway route between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, the little town of Pai is a major stop along the traveler’s path in northern Thailand. Here, artists absorb nature’s inspiration and Thais retreat from the bustle of metropolitan life. While there’s plenty to do on foot and motorbike, a popular activity in Pai is elephant trekking. Hotel staff can make tour reservations. In the morning, a guide escorts you to the elephant camps. The world grows quiet on the outskirts of Pai. Elephants eat bananas and throw grass into the air. The elephant trainer called a mahout helps trekkers mount the pachyderms and settle onto a thick blanket. No saddles here, riders spend the day bareback in the sun as the elephants walk through the forest. At the river, elephants suck water up their trunks, spray a cold drink into their mouths, and save just enough to splash up at their riders. Once the mahout gives a command, the elephants shake. The riders hold on tight only to be flicked like flees off the elephant’s back. Up into the air and down into the river, the riders splash, getting their cold drink too.

Aruba Adventures

aruba adventuresAruba is a gorgeous island where you can spend entire days (or weeks) lounging on the beach staring into the crystal clear ocean. Just because you can be a total bum in Aruba does not mean you have to (or that it is best way to maximize your vacation).

The rolling hills and open seas also make Aruba the perfect location for adventures and outdoor challenges.

On Land
Aruba adventuresArikok National Park is made up of three different geological configurations which result in unique wildlife and rock formations. Aruba lava, quartz diorite and limestone formations have influenced the land development in the park. Hard core hikers will enjoy challenging themselves on the over 20 miles of trails throughout the rugged terrain.

aruba hikingThe majority of Aruba may be flat and sandy, but interestingly enough Aruba is also filled with unique hills and colossal boulders. Ayo and Casibari are both excellent rock climbing locations with challenging hills juxtaposed with unbelievable views. If rock climbing isn’t your thing, you can also hike through the boulders on the walking trails developed by the Aruba government.

In the Water
deep sea fishing in ArubaDeep sea fishing takes place a few miles offshore. You will be rocked by the strong ocean waves and may swallow some salt spray during your experience. However, you may hardly notice these things because you are so intently focused on reeling in an 80 pound fish at the other end of your pole. You don’t need to have fishing experience if you go with a tour, because they will provide you with a skilled captain and first mate.

Aruba Scuba DivingThe entire south coast of Aruba Is covered in coral reefs, making it the Caribbean wreck-diving capital. Planes, abandoned cargo ships and tugboats are some of the wrecks divers can explore while snorkeling in Aruba’s water. Over eleven wrecks can easily be reached by divers, and there are over 20 sites designated for diving in Aruba. The bright and unique reefs paired with the wrecks are both magnificent and fascinating.

Difficult waves, flat water locations, 15-knot trade winds year round and widespread shallows make Aruba one of the top five locations in the entire world for windsurfing. Because there are so many windsurfing locations in Aruba, anyone ranging from someone with no experience to a skilled windsurfer will enjoy and be challenged by the experience.

 

Backwater Adventures in the Peruvian Amazon Part 1

Exclusive for Vagobond by Matthew Barker

The Peruvian Amazon that most visitors get to witness is not the wilderness it once was. Iquitos, the one-time frontier town in the first rubber boom has bloomed into a small metropolis; the river as busy with traffic as a highway, luxury jungle lodges stretching for hundreds of kilometres into the once virgin jungle.

Backwater Adventure in the AmazonMeanwhile in the south, Puerto Maldonado, the most popular access point to the jungle, has transformed from a small logging town into a chaotic outpost of mass tourism. Five-star jungle retreats, luxury spas, global cuisine and a chance to witness a small, tamed parcel of the rainforest without getting your feet wet.

Fortunately for the more adventurous travellers, there are still a few chances to get up close and personal with the real and undomesticated jungle.

Amazon DolphinsFollowing the road east to its final conclusion, the last stop before the river finally takes over is the town of Pucallpa. From here I set off into the jungle with my guide Achiles on his narrow riverboat. We were heading deep into the Amazon for five days to visit Achiles’ friend Don Luis in the village of Nueva Utuquinia, roughly halfway between Pucallpa and the Brazilian border.

Tourism is a barely developed industry in this stretch of the central Amazon; there are no five star lodges in sight, I would be hanging my own mosquito net in abandoned riverside huts and if we wanted to eat anything other than the rice and eggs we had brought with us, we would have to go fishing first.

Matthew Barker is based in Peru where he is writing about his life. 

Biking and Drinking in Argentina’s Mendoza Wine Country

By Melissa Ruttanai

biking in MendozaMendoza was made for wine and traveling winelovers. With street grid construction and verdant parks, this city steeped in viticulture offers great walking boulevards, outdoor cafes, and of course, wine at every corner. Visitors cannot walk 200 feet without passing a wineshop or restaurant with a display case. Even the fountain at Plaza Independencia is tinted red so that spouts shoot water up into the Argentine sky resembling sparkling wine rosé. At most restaurants, a wine list includes most of the vintners in the area and prices them starting at 40 pesos (US$10) for a 750ml bottle. In town, Vines of Mendoza presents a formal tasting room for tourists looking to sip their way through the regions wares. While here, most visitors will be compelled to see at least one winery. Some perhaps via the 200 peso (US$50) tours offered at high end hotels. But for more adventurous, DYI wine lovers, head over to the circuit of Bikes and Wines.

Bikes and Wines in Maipu, Mendoza
A cluster of wineries are located off the main drag in Maipu, a small town in Mendoza province. Each are a few minutes bike ride from each other. Alongside parking lots for cars, visitors will find designated bike racks and even VIP signs for Bikes and Wines. Truck drivers seem more lenient toward 2-wheeled traffic, giving them wider berth than their counterparts in Buenos Aires.

When you come off the bus ramp, employees from rival bike companies will offer you flyers. Take them and feel free to browse. When Neil and I visited, we preferred bikes with baskets so we could carry all our goodies. Each shop offers a full day rental for around 25 Argentine pesos (US$8). They provide a map for the day and when you return, there are refreshments. We were really surprised with our rentals with Orange Bike. They offered us a 10 peso discount for the day and when we returned for our snacks we expected some potato chips and a thimble-full of wine. The workers set up a table with three types of snacks and a full bottle of red wine. In the shade and with music in the background, Neil and I relaxed, chatting with the other travelers on the patio. The owner Mario is a jovial man, making sure all was well and introducing us to other bikers on the wine trail. At the end of our day, he and his assistant walked us to the gate, sending us off with a kiss on the cheek. Crossing the street, we waited no more than 10 minutes for the return bus back to Mendoza.

Wine tour in ArgentinaWineries and Other Sites in Maipu
Wineries of all shapes and sizes dot the landscape around Maipu. There are artesian shops and hi-tech ultra modern behemoths as well. Trapiche is one of the biggest producers of wine, exporting to the US, Canada, and Russia. But as you pedal around the countryside, enjoying the green vines stretching on either side of the road, smaller vineyards will post signs if they are open for visitors and tastings. So you can weave in and out of these orchards all day. One of the best aspects of this self-guided tour is that their is no set itinerary.

Each winery will have prices for tours and tastings. They are mutually exclusive of each other. So, while you may think a simple tasting should be less expensive than a full tour, this is not always the case. At Trapiche, a tour costs 35 pesos for video, walk-through of the winemaking buildings, and 3-4 tastings. Their tasting menu is by the glass, starting at 50 pesos for three samples and a souvenir glass.

If you have time, stop at the Beer Garden located off Mitre Street. It is a simple outdoor seating area with three choices of microbrewed beer. Their menu includes 6 empanadas and 2x 500ml beers for 55 pesos (about US$14). The veggie versions taste like fresh pizza bites. Nearby is another artesian shop called Historia and Sabores offering homemade chocolates and liqueurs extracted from regional fruits and cocoa. There is outdoor seating for tasting breaks and shade as well as a bathroom.

How to Get There
Argentine Bike and Wine TourFrom Mendoza City, catch a Line 10 Bus to Maipu. This line has several routes, of which #170 and #173 will take you to the right place. All bus stops are numbered with the lines, so you can just queue up. Ask the bus driver if he goes to Bikes and Wines. They all know it and will drop you off at the appropriate spot where all the bike companies are located. You pay all fares in coins, so make sure you have enough for a round trip. The ride is 30 minutes and takes you through Godoy Cruz for most of it.

Mendoza is 1040km from Buenos Aires and 155 km from Santiago. Neil and I took a daytime bus through the Andeans from Santiago. A 7-hour ride, the route covers some of the prettiest parts of the the mountain chain. Between Mendoza and Buenos Aires, several bus companies service the long 14-hour trip. Whether you take Cata, FlechaBus, or any other, know that service levels are all the same. In fact all the buses are owned by the same company. That said, book early to lock in lower fares and then sit back to first class, cross-country service that begins with Mendocino sparkling wine.

Best Hotel in the World- Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipu, India

by Nishant Churuthi

What is the world’s nicest hotel? There may be some argument about it, but guest writer Nishant Churuthi is pretty sure he has found the best hotel in the world.  

There are many ways by which a hotel can be judged, and one of the more popular ways is by rating hotels with stars, ranging from one star, which means that the hotel is simply a tourist hotel, to 5 stars, which means the hotel is a super luxury one. Though there is no single global classification, the most agreed upon rating is the star system.

Also, though officially there are no hotels in the world rated higher than 5, every now and then we see a hotel advertising to be a 7 star one. There is no way to check the authenticity of such claims, apart from visiting the hotel yourself and seeing if it really deserves such a rating. All said, however, every now and then we come across such a hotel that you would think deserves more than even 7 stars.

Udaivilas Udaipur8 stars? Maybe, but it’s not official. One such hotel that its visitors have constantly placed in the “above 5 stars” category is the Oberoi Udaivilas, located int he beautiful city of Udaipur, Rajasthan, India.

The city of Udaipur is one of the most beautiful ones in India, and was voted the best city in the world by Travel + Leisure, USA in its 2009 Readers’ Poll. It is a city of lakes and palaces. Not just normal palaces. Magnificent ones. Reflecting the true glory of the place, the Oberoi Udaivilas is indeed a majestic hotel, and does justice to its praise of deserving 8 stars. At first glance, the hotel itself seems to be a palace. Every inch of the hotel showcases the rich Indian tradition, and the courtyards, fountains, pools and gardens all bear testimony.

Once you enter the hotel, you no longer will believe that this hotel actually exists in the 21st century, it’s so surreal. best hotel in the worldEach and every thing, right from the hand painted domes, to the intricately carved doorways, has been crafted with love and perfection that leaves no doubt in your mind regarding the royalness of the place.

The hotel is accessed by traveling by boat through Lake Pichola, and the ride itself will leave you spellbound. Each visitor is then treated to the ceremonial welcome at the entrance. The Oberoi Uaivilas has rooms to suit all needs. Rooms that open to private pools are available. All rooms feature exquisite decorations and the glory of the erstwhile kingdoms of India is regaled in its entire splendor at the Oberoi Udaivilas.

All kinds of international cuisines are available, and the specialty is the traditional local Rajasthan cuisine, which is prepared by the best chefs in the country.

The hotel has its own luxurious spa, which overlooks the Lake and is a heaven in itself. World class trained therapists provide your body with all the relaxation it needs and you are sure to feel exhilarated and rejuvenated to the fullest.

With impeccable service, the Oberoi Udaivilas truly puts the phrase “there’s never too much luxury”, to the ultimate test. If there is heaven on earth, this is it and we should all get the chance to stay there, at least once in a lifetime.

Nishant Churuthi is a writer and scholar in Udaipur, India. He enjoys spending time with his family, writing, and seeing the many splendors which his country offers.

 

Palampur, India – Kangra Tea and Lord Shiva’s House

Srishti Jha introduces Vagobond readers to the beauty and wonders of Palampur, India.

I had a wonderful trip to Palampur last month. I went with my friends and two teachers from my college in Delhi.

The picturesque valley of Palampur is located in the Kangra region of Himachal Pradesh, a hilly state in India. Palampur is a famous hill town and once constituted a section of Jalandhara kingdom.

This beautiful hill town is very famous for its Kangra tea. The major attraction of Palampur recognized throughout the world is the famous Kangra tea. Kangra tea is herbal and known for its distinctive flavor.

Our trip covered Palampur and the Kangra Valley, places near Palampur, the tea estates, and Mcleod Ganj.

Our flight left us at Gaggal airport early in the morning. Gaggal is 35 kilometers away from Palampur. From there, we took a bus to Palampur. This journey was breathtaking as we could view beautiful snow covered mountains on both sides of the road. On the way, we also visited the famous Buddha waterfall. It is a very thin streak below the rocks, however in the rainy season, the Buddha waterfall swells and roars like thunder.Palampur, India
After reaching our hotel, we enjoyed local dishes for breakfast and were rejuvenated with new energy. From there, we took a bus to reach the Kangra Tea factory where we saw the entire process of making tea.

After the tea factory, we visited a famous artist’s house in Andretta. His name was Shobah Singh and his paintings beautifully depict mesmerizing scenes of the Dhouladhar mountain range.

Lord Shiva's PlaceWe went to Baijnath Temple, which has archaeological as well as religious importance. It is believed that Ravana, a character of the famous epic Ramayana worshiped Lord Shiva in this temple. Baijnath temple is considered to be is one of the ‘Twelve ‘Jyotirlingams’ [Lord Shiva’s place] & the Shivratri Festival is celebrated here.

It was evening by the time we finished visiting the temple and so we returned to the hotel to rest. The next day, we started toward Taragarh Palace. Muslims used this place to propagate Islamic principles and in 1933, the ‘Nawab of Bhavalpur’ had built a palace there, which is called Alhilal.

The palace was used as warehouse until 1949 and then it was converted into Motel Taragarh Palace after India’s independence.

Palampur, IndiaWe also went to Bir, while returning from Palampur. It is a unique place for paragliding. There are many Buddhist monasteries. Beautiful Tibetan handicrafts were available near monasteries. I bought a small purse and few mementos to cherish the memory of this wonderful trip.

Srishti Jha inherited the passion of writing and lives in Delhi. Srishti writes “I want to tell people to love nature and do not spoil it. I love traveling and writing. I love adventure sports too. Whenever I am free, I go for a tour. Next year I am planning a trip to South India and Shirdi in Maharashtra. Shirdi is a religious place and the famous Sai Temple is located there.

 

Meeting Artisans in the Fez Medina

Fez Medina Fes MoroccoMeeting the Artisans of Fez, Morocco was one of the highlights of my time in Morocco. Much has been written about the Fez, Medina – I’ve even written some of it.  In a nutshell, the Fez Medina is a UNESCO world heritage site, the largest inhabited car-free urban area in the world, the best example of a living medieval Muslim city and a place where you can stay in some amazing hotels,  guest houses, dars and riads.

The Artisans of Fez, Morocco

I was fortunate in being able to take part in something that hasn’t been so extensively written about.  I joined my friend Jessica Stephens (aka ‘The Jess’) on a medina tour that was focused on not only observing but also interacting with, talking to and getting up close and personal with the artisans who do their work and make their home in the Fez medina.

The usual medina tour goes something like this (and it’s good, don’t get me wrong)

“Here is the medina, here is a potters shop, here is the Quarawine Mosque, here is an old funduq, here is an old medrassa, and here are the famous tanneries from five floors up, now we will go to my uncles rug shop…” 

Depending on how much you’ve paid your guide, you will get various levels of sales, various levels of information, and various levels of bullshit (How do you know when a guide is lying? Their lips are moving!)

This tour was different.  Jess and I met with her clients at a cafe in Bathha which sits on the edge of the Fez medina and is very tourist friendly. They were nice, interesting people from Seattle who have traveled all over the world and lived in Vietnam, India, Malaysia and probably a few other places.  One way to tell if a tour is interesting at a glance is to look at who is going on it.  This one was looking tops from the beginning.

Jess went over the details with a map and asked them about anything in particular they wanted to see.  He wanted to see  the tanning process up close and she wanted to just enjoy the architecture since she’s an architect.  I particularly liked Jess’s warnings at the beginning 1) This isn’t a shopping tour so they shouldn’t buy a bunch of things on the way – the guide could take them back later if they desired 2) Don’t walk into an artisanal and just start snapping photos, instead talk with people, let them explain what they do and then – after all of that – take some photos if they want 3) Don’t be afraid to ask questions and interact with people and 4) Watch out for the donkeys (okay, I added that last one myself)

Once the briefing was done we headed down to the not so tourist friendly (but still safe and cool) Bab Rcaif, where we met with the licensed Moroccan medina guide.  Here’s a side note – Jess pays her extra not to take visitors to any of the shops that most guides get commission from when tourists buy things. That’s not only cool for the guests, it’s also cool for the guide because Jess tries to compensate her for the commissions.  There’s a lot of talk about sustainability and fair trade these days, but this is the real deal in action.

Our first stop was to the dyeing street inside the medina. This is an entire derb (small street or alleyway) dedicated to the art of dyeing clothing and material.  We were able to stop and ask questions along the way from the dyers and they showed us the process of the vats, using wool and also aloe vera silk harvested from the mountains.

This old man was the shop steward in one of the dyeries…the map of lines on his face speaks of the travels of Ibn Battuta and more. Here’s something else nice, rather than the guide simply telling us everything – she allowed the artisans themselves to speak and then translated. This might seem like a small thing but it made a huge difference in terms of trust and authenticity.

From there we crossed over the river and went through the metal working and mirror shops.  All along the way, Jess was giving the artisans, the workers and the kids copies of the photos she had snapped on previous expeditions. It’s something that brought smiles of delight to the old and young and made all of us welcome guests along the way.

The metal working area opened up into the Attarine Square – one of the oldest squares in the medina and our lovely guide told us about the history of the migrations from Tunisia and from Andalucia and how they set up on different sides of the river and had a fierce rivalry which caused Fez to become the shining light of the times – home of the first university (The Quarayine University) and also I learned something I hadn’t known – there are 365 mosques in the Fez medina and that is why it is the spiritual capital of Morocco ( of course the guide’s lips were moving as she said it, so you might want to count).

We paused to explore a bit of the square and see the famous library though since it is still a place where students study, we weren’t allowed to go inside. Still, magnificent…

Down another narrow winding passageway and we came across a fellow who works exclusively with bone and horn. He showed us how he heats the bone and horn make it flexible and then he is able to cut around it and create beautiful shapes that can be carved and polished.

Now we were heading to the area where a recent scandal shook the medina. I hadn’t been in town for more than a few days and already I’d heard about it from three different sources. Here is the scandal and the very unfair way it turned out:

A fashion magazine of some sort came and booked a tour with their models of the famous Fessi tanneries.  When they got there, they apparently bribed someone to be allowed to go down in the thick of things despite the fact that they were using an illegal guide and technically aren’t supposed to go down there. Once down there, the models stood in the center and stripped nude! Now, this might not seem so scandalous but remember, this is a conservative Muslim country and these guys working there are among the conservative working class – it was shocking! As a result, the models and the photographers were escorted out but the manager of the tanneries and the guide were both jailed and charged 4000 dirham – which is a huge fine here.  Anyway, we had proper permission and we all kept our clothes on.

Even clothed, the tanneries were still amazingly interesting. I’d always wanted to get down into the pits and see the process and it was incredibly fascinating.  The process goes a bit like this – skins are brought, thrown into the limestone pits (filled with pigeon shit and lime) and soaked for a few days. After this they are thrown onto a huge electric wheel that scapes them along the floor and gets the hair loose. Next a man scrapes the hair from the hides. After that, they are thrown in another pit with more chemical agents. Following that they move to the dying vats (the brown ones) and then they go to be dried, scraped and softened, and finally made into your shoes or bag.

I probably don’t need to say this, but the smell is something you can simply not imagine. It is awful throughout. The guys in the pits looked at us suspiciously as we wandered through, probably wondering if we would take our clothes off or at least ‘Why the hell do they want to come down here?” We walked through the entire process and then blissfully, left the tanneries to head to the carpet weaving area. The weavers rooms didn’t smell bad at all, but then, after the tannery, nothing really could!

The weaver spoke excellent English and gave an demonstration of how to make material. We found out that for silk and cloth, it is generally men who do the weaving but for rugs, that is up to the women (like the women weavers I met in the collective in Rbat al Khair a few months ago).  The scarves and textiles were gorgeous and in a variety of colors but most striking was a deep cobalt blue. The dyes used to be all natural but these days (we had found out on the dyer street- most of them are chemical dyes).

After this we took a car from Rceif to the artisanal  school commissioned by the King of Morocco. In the school we met a master zelij (mosaic tile) craftsman, teaching four apprentices his craft with a massive piece.  We also had the chance to meet and talk with a Moroccan slipper maker and to see a number of the workshops where master artisans are teaching their craft to pupils.  Among the skills being passed on are the making of the oud and Moroccan fiddles, stone work, glass, tile, ceramics, wood working, and much more.

Finally, withe the tour of the artisans of the Fes Medina complete, we all sat down for lunch and took a good rest. This was an awesome tour – I hope that more tours like this that  1) respect the local people 2) interact with the culture 3) create an appreciation for the arts and handicrafts of places – continue to show up.

To book this tour for yourself, you can contact Jessica at her site  Artisanal Affairs to arrange it all for you. She also has a lot more information, some videos of the artisans and a whole lot more at http://www.culturevulturesfez.org

South America for Adrenaline Junkies

Backpackers heading to South America are in for a treat. Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and La Paz are some of the world’s most famous and intriguing cities. And the beaches; everyone goes for the beaches. But the life of a backpacker is more than sightseeing and sunning yourself on the beach; any trip has to be the adventure of a lifetime.

So, there’s bungee jumping, skydiving, and snowboarding in New Zealand and Australia; but what does South America have to offer? Here’s what.

Mountain biking the death road, Bolivia

Riding the Deathroad in Boliva cc image by Wanderlass on Flickr
You may be a mountain biking specialist, knowing all there is to know about Shimano shoes and Specialized bikes, but that won’t necessarily prepare you for cycling the death road in Bolivia. Don’t worry you won’t just be grabbing any old rusty bike and taking your chances on your own; it’s one of the biggest attractions in the country. That doesn’t make it any less scary though!

Descending 3,400m from a high mountain pass near La Paz to the tropical lowlands of Coroico, the North Yungas Road is said to be the most dangerous in the world. Prior to the new road being constructed in 2006, the narrow unpaved highway was responsible for hundreds of deaths every year, with cars and busses toppling over the cliff sides at the rate of one each week. Nowadays you can throw on your cycle clothing, jump on the back of a bike and ride hard with one of the many tour companies offering trips.

Sea kayaking the Patagonia, Chile

This is a haven for extreme sports junkies, with climbing one of the biggest draws here. Coming in a close second is sea kayaking. Travellers will find hundreds or glacial lakes and crystal clear waters traversing the Andean Mountain Range and the fjords. The scenery is awe-inspiring. Get yourself on a tour (ranging from 2-9 days) as much of the lakes are un-spoilt, so a guide is essential.

Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru

Sandboarding Instructions in Peru ccImage by Palegoldenrod on FlickrWhen you mention getting on a board in South America, snowboarding in Argentina probably springs to mind; but for those heading to Peru there’s the chance of some adrenaline fuelled action without the snow. Sandboarding in the large dunes found in this spot 5 hours outside Lima is the perfect alternative for those winter sports lovers dying for their fix. It’s not as fast, but it’s still cool.

Piranha fishing in the Amazon, Brazil

OK this one may not involve throwing yourself down a sand dune or pushing your body to the limit, but piranha fishing is still pretty damn scary. Your guide will take you out in a boat on the Amazon while you drop a line for these feisty fish.

Other favourites include ziplining in Ecuador, Bungee jumping in Brazil, kitesurfing on the Brazilian coast and canyoning in Mexico. What will you choose? 

A Magnificent Galapagos Cruise

By Melissa Ruttanai exclusive for Vagobond

Galapagos Cruise“There is no predation here.” My guide Rafael Pesantes swept his arm across the landscape on our Galapagos Cruise. “Animals are not aggressive because there is no need to fight.” On the beach, sea lions lounged on organic, white sand, soaking up the equatorial sun. Iguanas clustered near by. Red crabs scuttled across black rocks. In the Galapagos Islands, everything was peaceful and quiet. As I made my way along the marked path, blue-footed boobies barely opened an eye to question my presence on their nesting grounds. Animals live in diverse communities, accustomed to each other and the occasional curious human prowling through the brush. And so, I got close, real close to the wildlife.

Yellow land iguanas moseyed past me on a path. Giant tortoises mashed grass in their ancient jowls. At night on the boat, I witnessed sharks, sea lions, and pelicans swim to our ship, drawn by the white lights off the bow. Baby albatross chicks cocked their heads at me focused on my camera and red-breasted frigates puffed out their chests, enticing females around them. The Galapagos is the perfect place for tight portraits of wildlife. With a 200 mm lens, I was able to zoom in for detailed shots.

But the best scenery was underwater.

Scuba in the Galapagos“Snorkeling here is a good way to see how you handle the water.” Rafael leaned over the side of the dinghy, called a panga. To the right, a black rock promontory rose from the ocean waters. Ten-foot waves slapped against it, spraying white water halfway up the precipice. “Just be careful of those rocks.” He shrugged, and one by one people around me plunged into the choppy tide.

Even with a life vest, I was tossed against the waves. In my head, Rafael’s words rattled around: be careful of those rocks. Water swelled and dripped into my mask, slid down my air tube, and pooled in my mouthpiece. I’m a terrible snorkeler and harbor a fear of drowning as well.

But I’m also a decent actor. I kept up with the group, followed the guide into the waves, and forced sweet smiles as we saw multi-colored fish and neon coral. After twenty minutes, four swimmers called it quits and signaled the panga. Seeing my opportunity to retreat with honor, I allotted myself two more minutes before joining them.

“Come! Follow me!” Rafael said as the others obeyed and my husband encouraged me to swim on. The panga remained where it was, with four swimmers lounging in the sun. As I spotted the guide, I saw that he was leading us directly toward the rocks. I hesitated, still contemplating my escape. But then I heard: “This is amazing! It’s my favorite place!” Rafael pointed. Past the jetty of rocks, a black cave emerged from the surf.

Underwater GalapagosI hesitated. I locked up and leaned into my life vest. I’ve snorkeled in a cave before and didn’t like the claustrophobic memories. Other snorkelers moved into the mouth of the cave, swallowed by darkness. Then, Rafael was beside me. “Give me your hand.” I trusted his smile and clutched his palm. Together, we cut across the water and entered the darkness.

My eyes adjusted. Green rocks lined the cheeks of the cave. Waves pummeled stonewalls like thunderous applause. But when I submerged my head, everything muted. Underneath the surface, thousands of fish fed on the stone floor, swirling in the current and clustering in a knot of yellow tails and blue fins. Rafael released my hand. Unafraid, I floated atop the tide and swam with the fish in their underwater world.

Visiting the Galapagos
Visitors to the islands have two options: a multi-day cruise of the Galapagos Islands or an island-hopping trip.

Prices vary greatly depending on the service level you choose. The cheapest cruises, a four day trip on a tourist-class boat, start at around $1,300. Diving, sailing or luxury cruises can cost many times that.

Although most people arrange their Galapagos cruises in advance, it is also possible to arrange a flight from Quito or Guayaquil to the Galapagos and organize your trip once you arrive.

AK-47s and the Smoke that Thunders – Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls

Exclusive for Vagobond by Carl Grooms

Vctoria Falls, Zimbabwe © 2011 Carlton Grooms
© 2011 Carlton Grooms

You feel the rumble in the earth before you hear it. You see wisps of mist rise high into the sky as if a forest fire has commenced. As you draw closer your ears begin to pick up the roar, you feel it in your soul. The locals call it the Smoke that Thunders. You have arrived at Victoria Falls, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.

The falls are a UNESCO World Heritage site that straddles the boarders of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Here the Zambezi river drops almost 400 feet across a 1 mile wide face into a remarkably small cut in the earth, making it the largest falls in the world. The attraction is part of two national park systems. Mosi-ao-Tunya (translated to the Smoke that Thunders) National Park in Zambia and Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe.

I awoke before the sun, on my first day. Eager to capture the falls in good light from the Zimbabwe side, I hired a taxi to fetch me and get me to the entry prior to opening. The silence enveloped us as we sat in the dark, waiting. I began to question my safety. Alone, with a strange driver, holding over $15,000 in camera gear could prove to be a poor idea. Young men walking past, AK-47’s on their shoulders, interrupted the silence. They were on their way to relieve the night shift guarding the border and bridge to Zambia. I’m starting to imagine the headlines that the western press will print when they find my body later today. Undeterred I await the arrival of the park attendant to let me in.

The Zimbabwe side of the falls is far more developed than the Zambian side. However, with the political strife and humanitarian crimes being brought upon the population by Robert Mugabe, their leader (in no sense of the word), hotel occupancy is low. The Zambia side has record occupancy and capital investment in facilities is up. An argument could be made that the falls are just as beautiful from that the other side, but I want to photograph them coming straight at me. So I’ve come to Zimbabwe.

Victoria Falls at Sunrise
Victoria Falls at Sunrise © 2011 Carlton Grooms

This is the second journey of my life to this region of the world. I grew up in Lusaka, Zambia 450 miles and a 12 hour drive north, in the mid-80’s. This was during the civil war that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe and during apartheid in South Africa. The ‘freedom’ fighter, Robert Mugabe lived in exile in my Lusaka neighborhood. Too bad he survived to release so much human tragedy upon his people. When I lived here the first time, we couldn’t come to the falls because of the war. Today, my first, I’ve come to photograph for my book, “Portraits of Our World”. The book is meant to build schools for the poor children in this region of Africa. The perceived risk sitting on this border today is worth it.

Perhaps the idea that this trip is allegedly risky is the point. I do not believe it is. The people of Zimbabwe are very warm and hospitable. They are often delighted to have you. The preponderance of the crime that occurs in this region is related to economics, motivated by the need to eat and feed one’s family. The Mugabe regime itself will not hassle you, as you bring hard currency and commerce. The hotels are at low capacity, meaning great rates. Now is a good time to visit.

The Vic Falls lookout area is not all that large. Big enough only to face the main body of the falls, it is easily walked carrying whatever gear you decide to bring. In reality you will be left surprised that there isn’t more too it. As you pay your small entry fee and move through the gates you are greeted with a spectacular rain forest made possible by the water spray of the falls. You will see mahogany trees, ferns, palms and various vines that you cannot see anywhere else in the area.

The Smoke That Thunders
The Smoke That thunders © 2011 Carlton Grooms

As you emerge on the other side your senses are inundated. The roar resonates at a bass level that you feel in your bones. Depending on the wind and time of year, you may not be able to readily see the falls because of the great mist it generates. The resulting, and always present, rainbow serves as the crowning jewel. Keep moving along the face and you will eventually find the perfect spot.

For the true adventurer you can hire a helicopter to fly up over the falls. We did this and were able to capture the most amazing images as you can see here. Don’t spend your entire time behind the camera. It is too easy to be caught up in capturing your surroundings and forget to actually enjoy the experience yourself.

There are a number of things you can do in the area to further enjoy the destination when you are done with the falls. White water rafting on the Zambezi is very popular. The river is very violent be forewarned. Don’t miss the chance to sample wild game meat. My favorite is the The Boma Restaurant, located at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. The $50 charge per person is worth it. Note that Zimbabwe no longer has it’s own currency. They rely on the US Dollar, South African Rand, Botswana Pula and the Euro instead.

In order to more fully appreciate my adventure I departed Zimbabwe via the bridge over the Zambezi to cross into Zambia. With loaded backpacks, together with my wife and children (11 and 12 at the time) we made the crossing. After stamping our passports upon departure, the border guard let us across the barrier.

Vctoria Falls Zimbabwe
Victoria Falls Aerial Shot of Bridge © 2011 Carlton Grooms

We crossed the bridge, a one mile long no man’s land between the countries. We had a surreal feeling as we walked towards the Zambian side, their armed border guards looking on. We were readily welcomed, cleared through and on our way.

Traveling is a matter of pushing all your senses beyond the daily norm. New people and cultures, new food, new smells, even new fears. Sometimes the fears are unfounded which allows you to open your eyes a little wider and gather the courage to head off to another life changing destination that is mistakenly avoided by the masses. Sometimes your new reality simply serves to open your mind to the world you live in daily. Either way, a journey to Victoria Falls can be much more than simply visiting the Smoke that Thunders.

Carlton GroomsCarl Grooms is the editor of the island focused travel blog, Coastlines & Tan Lines. He produced his latest book, “Portraits of Our World” after a one year trip around the world. He is the founder of Conch Republic Bikinis, as well as a former Naval Aviator. Carl led the business development of all Hong Kong Disney hotels and restaurants for Walt Disney Attractions. At last count Carl has visited 52 countries. He has run with the Bulls in Pamplona, braved the highest bungee jump in the world in South Africa and is an ultra-marathon runner. He holds an MBA from the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania.

Five Far Out Wildlife Retreats in Costa Rica

Exclusive for Vagobond by Melissa Ruttanai

In recent years, Costa Rica has emerged as a premiere destination for wildlife lovers and ecotourism. People pull their kids out of school early to vacation here. Celebrities hoard beachfront property like marbles in a shooting out. Though some places may have become “gringo-cized”, Costa Rica maintains its mission to preserve the biodiversity on which its reputation is built. No matter where travelers disembark, a wildlife retreat is never far.

Monteverde Cloud Forest

monteverde costa ricaCalled bosque nuboso, Monteverde Cloud Forest stretches over 35,000 acres in northern Costa Rica and is home to over 1200 species of wildlife, including all 6 cat species: jaguars, ocelots, pumas, oncillas, margays, and jaguarundis. In all the woodlands of the world, only 1% hold the cloud forests designation. Existing in Panama, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Costa Rica, these ecosystems sit above the regular rainforest. Mist and fog roll through the vegetation, settling on leaves, and hydro-fueling the biosphere. The coating of fog prevents the sun from drying the forest and the entire area blooms in emerald hues.

Visitors to Monteverde come for nature and adrenaline. Birding is a leading activity. Tours can be arranged from any hotel. Nature hikes range from well-marked easy trails no longer than .2 miles (.3 km) to challenging trails over a mile long that traverse several elevations of the cloud forest. For the lionhearted, zip lining and repelling are also available.

Tortuguero National Park

iguana in Costa RicaMeaning Turtle Catcher, Tortuguero National Park is dedicated to the preservation of its various turtle-residents. Sitting on the northern Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is serviced by a village of the same name, where tours and boats help travelers access the park. The admission fee at the gate is $7. But it’s advised to hire a guide or join a tour group. At 8am, visitors cross the narrow waterways and enter Tortuguero. No camping is allowed in the park. However, you can set up camp by the administration offices and the ranger station for $2 per day.

While fishing and kayaking are big draws here, turtle nesting is the main attraction. Between July and October, Green Sea and Hawksbill turtles come ashore during the waning moon while Leatherbacks prefer the February to April season. Called arribados or the great arrival, the mother turtles come ashore, lay their eggs, and slip back into the sea to the sighs of international tourists. Admission at night is prohibited without a guide. Make arrangements well beforehand and please remember that you are a guest. Shield your camera’s flash, and do not touch or interfere with the arribados.

Rincon de la Vieja National Park

basilisk lizard in costa ricaThe largest of 5 volcanoes, the Rincon de la Vieja sits on the northern Pacific side of Costa Rica. Still active but deemed calm, the Rincon reaches a height of 1895 meters. The national park surrounding the volcano encompasses over 14,000 hectares. Hikers who’ve a penchant for heights can climb the Pacific flank of the cordillera between February and April when the weather is drier. At the summit, you’ll be able to see the Guanacaste Plain, Nicoya Peninsula, and Lake Nicaragua on a clear day.

Nature seekers can walk the moderate trails surrounding the park headquarters. These trails intersect with more difficult trails to Las Pailas. In the 50 hectares surrounding this area, hikers can find thermal springs, waterfalls, vapor geysers, and coldwater pools. Along the paths, wildlife burgeons with quetzals, toucanets, eagles, howler monkeys, and sloths. Guides are recommended since cloud coverage often obscures trail blazes and markers.

Manuel Antonio National Park

costa rica wildlifeOne of the smaller national parks, Manuel Antonio National Park ranks among the most popular in Costa Rica. The park contains 1700 acres of land and over 135,000 acres of marine reserve. Before Christopher Columbus, ancient societies lived here. Along the shore, you can still see the remains of their turtle traps. Now, the primary and secondary forest is home to species ranging from squirrel monkeys and capuchin to sloths, hawks, and kingfishers.

Whitewater rafting and sport fishing are core activities in the park as well as snorkeling and kayaking. Besides hiking, visitors can arrange for canopy, horseback, and bicycling tours. Many head to the mangroves for day-long explorations. But keep in mind that only 600 visitors are allowed admission during the week, 800 on weekends and holidays. On Mondays, Manuel Antonio is closed. Park rangers often state that if the quota is met at 9:15am. They close the gates at 9:15.

Marino Ballena National Park

Nestled on the southern Pacific coastline, Marino Bellena is a small national park, teeming with wildlife that often roam free from the flood of tourists that other ecosystems must endure. South of San Jose, Marino Bellena boasts 9 miles of white-gold sands, quiet mangroves and the largest coral reef on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Officially, a $7 admission fee is required upon entering but the gate is often unmanned, reflecting the relaxed and more remote feel of the park.

From December to April, lucky visitors may glimpse humpback whales tossing in the tide as they make their way to traditional mating waters just off the shore. During low tide, the marine life is abuzz, unconcerned about human faces in the waters. Nocturnal visitors in May through August can view mother turtles nesting and laying eggs in the moonlight. Unlike other parks, authorities do not monitor these activities closely. Please be aware of your surroundings, keep your voices down, and shield your camera’s flash.

Since the 1980s, traveling options to these wildlife retreats have exponentially multiplied. Visitors from around the world converge on Costa Rica’s national parks to see animals unique to these biospheres. Accordingly, the travel industry has grown. But, whether you’re flying into Liberia to visit Monteverde or into San Jose for a long stay in Manuel Antonio, please remember to respect the ecosystem and leave the grounds as you found them.

Thanks to its compact size and well developed transport infrastructure, all of these national parks can be accessed with ease. Contact a Costa Rica tours operator for suggestions on itineraries.

Puenting of Life – Bridge Jumping in Peru – Part 2

Exclusive for Vagobond by Sandra Riesco

Jerry offered me a glass and I took it. Almost everybody did and as soon as I drank it my body relaxed, my stupid laughter stopped, I warmed up and began to breathe properly.

Peruvian bridge jumpersSuddenly, it was my turn. I stood holding the rail; I could see the mountains covered in green vegetation for miles. The blue sky was speckled with clouds spreading around as if they were daring the sun to show its face. The only thing in my life at that moment was the idea of jumping into an abyss, like if I were given the opportunity to fly.

The first three steps were crucial. Freddy and the assistant were go to hold me steady. Jerry would be on the other side of the bridge to check me after I had jumped. All I had to do was focus on jumping as if into a swimming pool, stretching my arms as much as I could and literally intend to fly.

The only thing in my mind was then Freddy’s words, he went on motivating me, telling me how easy and amazing this would be. His words were just part of the wind, I couldn’t pay attention anymore. I just held his shoulders and took my first step. Then, not even in a second, I knew there was not going back, just upward.

At the precise moment of jumping from the bridge I didn’t see anything other than the landscape flowing around me. The feeling of pure adrenaline invaded my body, replacing the panic that I had accumulated.

My heart raced briefly but then, just as quickly, I felt an overwhelming sense of sheer calm. Everything was over; I was swinging on the ropes like a little girl, lying on the sky, at 150 meters in the air and without a worry in the world. Someone passed me a rope and pulled me back to the ground. I went up the bridge where everybody was waiting and clapping for me.

 

I sat on a rock next to the other jumpers Miguel, one of them, showed me some photos he had taken. He also told me how he had done this several times before.”No matter how many times you do it, the feeling of fear never goes away.”

One by one, we watched all the participants jumping, each of them at their own pace but without giving up. Before long, a few drops of water announced the possibility of rain. The sun was hiding behind ominous clouds. We had spent hours there and yet it all seemed to have gone in a flash. I felt completely exhausted and absolutely starving, thankful for the snacks I had saved from earlier.

On our journey back we stopped at Barba Blanca, a tiny village hidden among the mountains. There, the locals rushed to our bus to offer drinks and food. We had corn and cheese, fruit, chicken wings and even burgers. After five minutes of devouring anything edible that came into our sight we resumed our journey home.

fishing in Peru sunsetNobody said a word, everybody was sleeping and my body had stopped responding to my commands. I had exhausted my body and my mind, the adrenaline and extremes of the day had flushed my entire system and I felt ready to face anything. I knew I would be able to succeed no matter how difficult it seemed or how high the jump would be.

A Puenting trip can be organized by almost any tour operator but be sure to check for a reliable outfit with a good safety record.

This specialist in South America tour packages offers various adventure activities.

Puenting of Life – Bridge Jumping in Peru – Part 1

Exclusive for Vagobond by Sandra Riesco.

I had spent weeks absorbed with the stress of my son’s diagnosis for attention deficit disorder and transfer to a specialist school. “I need a break,” I was thinking when I decided to sign up to go puenting. Puenting translates literally as “bridging”, the perfect way to describe what I was about to do: jump from a bridge into a 170m deep canyon held only by a 20m rope.

jumping off bridges in PeruI didn’t mind getting up before dawn to reach the meeting point in Lima, Peru’s capital city and gateway to the country’s many adventure destinations. A friend was taking care of my son and I was going to spend a day working off the stress.

We headed out of the chaos of the city and up towards the highlands, in the foothills of the Andes, just two hours away from my downtown home. Stopping for snacks along the way I realized I was too apprehensive to be hungry, so I ended up stashing my biscuits for after the jump.

As the road climbed, the polluted city seemed to fall away from behind us, with mountains and greenery replacing the urban grime.

There were two guides with us, Freddy and Jerry, and eighteen people. Most of them were university students, excited by their impending adrenaline rush. The bus was full of nervous chatter and laughter, conversation occupied by final exams, presidential candidates and the elections, although I expected only as a way to put the fear out of their minds.

But for me, the most terrifying prospect was the perilous road and the steady flow of vehicles racing past us, often no more than inches away from our bus.

jumping off bridges in PeruFinally arriving in one piece, we got off the bus and stood on the bridge looking out over the Autisha canyon. The mountains were overwhelmingly high and incredibly steep. The canyon seemed like an enormous throat ready to swallow us whole as we jumped in. At the bottom, rocks pointed out of the earth in forms that seemed purpose designed to scare us, far above. From this distance, the narrow ribbon of river didn’t even look like it was flowing.

Freddy provided a detailed explanation. Basically, the secret of a successful jump lies on not thinking about it too much. “Great!  “I thought to myself, as if that would work. When they asked for volunteers I raised my hand immediately.  Every muscle in my body had tightened and I noticed myself laughing over every meaningless comment I heard.

One of the assistants helped me into my harness and spoke some encouraging words. “My mind hears you, Italo, but my body doesn’t,” I thought.

Then Freddy and Jerry brought over a sports bag that contained the ropes and the rest of the safety equipment. Plus several bottles of pisco, Peru’s famously potent liquor. “Ok,” said Freddy. “How about some pisco to overcome your fear?”

It sounded like a joke but it was true. I looked at the bottles and looked at Freddy smiling. Then I thought:
“First, I don’t drink pure pisco. Second, why would I drink pisco when doing a sport? Third, ok, who cares if I drink a bit?”

The Most Expensive Resort in the World – Grand Resort Lagonissi

 

Vagabonds are usually looking for the best place at the cheapest price, but here is the other side of the coin!

Going on a vacation is supposed to be a fun time, and since you are indulging yourself, you need to have the best facilities to go with the vacation, and the best people too.

If this is what you desire, then having a look at one of the world’s most expensive resort/hotels will come handy. Staying in such a resort will guarantee your social status rise overnight! One of the world’s most expensive resorts is The Royal Villa at the Grand Resort Lagonissi in Athens, Greece. Apart from the name, this Villa is royal in every other aspect as well.

Consisting of three bedrooms, the Royal Villa has got two pools – one on the inside and the other on the outside, which is heated.Grand Resort Lagonissi Taking the word Royal to the core, you will have the personal assistance of a butler and a pianist, as well as special access to a chef who will take you through the world-class kitchen! The other rooms include a spacious and elegant living room and dining area. The furniture is top class, and only the top brands are preferred here, be it anything. A wide range of candles is provided to help set up the perfect ambience.

The living room of the Royal Villa has got satellite TV, PlayStation and a DVD player set. The business part of it features laptop, fax machine, videophone and printer. The indoor pool also comes with a private gymnasium and work-out area, and access to a private beach and marina comes by default. Stepping out of the Royal Villa, you are greeted with a host of options regarding what to do – spend the entire day with the beach parties, watch the sun rise and set while sipping espresso and wine respectively, or simply go back to the Villa and lie down watching the ocean and the horizons. Ah, in case I forgot to mention, each night at the Royal Villa costs around $50,000 per night.

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