Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2012

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities from the past year on the road including SCUBA diving with hammerhead sharks in Costa Rica and perfecting the art of doing nothing on a (nearly) deserted beach in Panama. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2012 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are. Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2012. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2013 (or 2014, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2012 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama

…drove 8,349 miles

…spent $2,608 on fuel

…made seven overland border crossings

We did manage to spend some time outside of our truck doing and seeing exciting things. In no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2012

Best adventure of the year: SCUBA diving with dozens of sharks including scalloped hammerheads, tiger sharks, reef sharks and all kinds of rays with Undersea Hunter off Cocos Island in Costa  Rica. Find out more about this adventure and what it feels like to be 100 feet (33 meters) underwater surrounded by sharks in the Cocos Island feature we did for the Sunday travel section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

SCUBA diving with Hammerhead sharks - Cocos Island

A hammerhead making a quick underwater u-turn as it spots Eric clinging to a rock while diving in the waters around Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Roesch de Bedout.

 

Best extreme tubing: There’s a reason they give you a life vest, helmet and elbow guards when you go tubing with Blue River Resort & Hot Springs at the base of Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. This trip down the Rio Azul (which really is an incredible shade of blue) is no lazy float. Best to think of it as white water rafting without the raft.

Best (nearly) deserted beach bumming: Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama (below) will take your breath away with truly golden sand (and not the icky sticky kind), Caribbean blue water, shockingly powerful waves, chairs and hammocks and just a handful of visitors. Add in the recently opened Playa Bluff Lodge directly opposite the beach with US$1.50 icy cold Panama beers, a restaurant and even stylish rooms (US$95 including breakfast) and it’s really, really hard to leave. Totally worth the 5.5 mile (9 km) bike or taxi ride from Bocas town.

Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro

 

Best all-around rafting trip: The Pacuare River in Costa Rica is a glorious combination of peaceful floats (ample time to appreciate the densely-jungled riverbanks and steep hillsides) punctuated with plenty of white-knuckle moments over exciting stretches of white water. Book your Pacuare River rafting trip with RiosTropicales and your time off the river is just as spectacular thanks to an amazingly rustic yet comfy river lodge they’ve built for their guests.

Best adventure we never thought we’d have: While SCUBA diving with sharks around Cocos Island we got an unexpected bonus with the chance to dive to 300 feet below the surface of the ocean in Undersea Hunter’s DeepSee submersible. You know how they say it’s another world down there? They’re right.

DeepSee submarine under the surface - Cocos Island

 

Best perseverance-pays-off animal encounter: We’ve been trying to see whale sharks for years and either our timing is all wrong for spotting these seasonal giants or our timing is right but our luck sucks, as was the case when we spent three days diving at the right time in the right place in Belize but we still didn’t see a single whale shark. This is why we returned to Mexico for three days in 2012 just to try to see whale sharks. And it worked. Not only did we finally get in the water with whales sharks we snorkeled around with more than 100 of the giants as they cruised by feeding on plankton with their VW-Beetle-swallowing mouths agape.

Swimming with Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

 

Best swimming hole: Ojo de Agua on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua where two bucks gets you access to chairs, tables, benches, hammocks and sun or shade (you choose) around roomy, crystal clear, refreshingly cold, spring-fed pools. The bottoms have been left natural but the sides have been built up in stone and concrete to create depth. There’s even a rope swing and a few enterprising vendors selling snacks and cold beer.

Best adventure activity we’d never heard of: Topless Sport Fishing in Costa Rica. And, no, we didn’t do it.

Find out which one of these adventures made the 25 Epic Adventures by Travel Bloggers in 2012 list as compiled by TravelingCanuck.com.

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Rock Show – Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park in Utah was founded on December 18, 1971. On the 41st anniversary of the park’s founding, here are some Parkiversary travel memories from our most recent road trip visit to Capitol Reef where we were reminded just how gloriously varied the rock show is in this part of the United States.

Capitol reef National Park sign

Fittingly, the sign for Capitol Reef National Park is made from some of the area’s stunning rock.

 

Capitol reef National Park, Utah

Rocks in a pleasing palette of shapes and colors are the hallmark of Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.

 

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah red rock Country

Different types of rocks mix and mingle in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah creating a unique natural beauty.

Capitol Reef National Park really does have a reef

The main attraction (and namesake) of Capitol Reef National Park is an enormous spine of sandstone that acts like a barrier, or reef which is what olde timey travelers called any geographical barrier that got in their way.

Capitol Reef, Utah

This section of undulating rock forms part of the “reef” from which Capitol Reef National Park gets its name.

 

Capitol reef National Park scenic highway 12

Our truck dwarfed by yet another breathtaking rock formation in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park.

 

Capitol reef National Park scenic highway 12

Part of Scenic Highway 12–one of the most beautiful stretches of road in this part of the United States and a great way to access Capitol Reef National Park.

As we drove through the park we were amazed at how the rocky terrain changed like neighborhoods in a city—now red Navajo sandstone walls, now beige flat stretches, now pure white pitted pillars, now grey sandy humps.

Sometimes the changes snuck up on us in gradual stages as we drove. Sometimes the change was sudden, like someone flipped a geological switch and the backdrop around us flipped to something totally different.

Capitol reef National Park

Different types of rocks mix and mingle in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah creating a unique natural beauty.

 

Capitol reef National Park

Different types of rocks mix and mingle in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah creating a unique natural beauty.

Go ahead and pick the fruit

The park is home to the remnants of cabins, schools and farms left behind by the area’s first white settlers who managed to find a way into the region. Weirdly, park visitors are allowed to pick the fruit that the settler’s old orchards still produce each season.

There was no fruit around when we visited so we focused on the park’s scenic drive along a mostly paved road past pockmarked sandstone formations, side canyons and run offs. The road saves the really dramatic scenery for the last unpaved miles and then dead-ends at Capitol Gorge, a pass through the imposing sandstone walls which Native American tribes and early settlers used like a road.

Beware of the chukars

The walls of Capitol Gorge still hold onto Indian petroglyphs and inscriptions from settlers who passed through in 1911. The gorge is also home to some more recent arrivals: strange birds called chukars that look like enormous quail but without the floppy head piece and with a hooked magenta beak and magenta colored legs.

Inscriptions from settlers passing through Capitol reef National Park in 1911

Inscriptions from settlers passing through the area of Utah now known as Capital Reef National Park in 1911 can still be seen.

We know all of that because the things are nearly tame. As we walked through the gorge a flock of a half dozen chukars walked right up to us, like dogs, and when we sat down on the ground they happily pecked and scratched all around us. We were charmed until a ranger told us that the chukars are an invasive species that’s slowly but surely pushing the native quail out.

Invasive Chukar Partridge in Capitol reef National Park, Utah

Do not be fooled by the charming friendliness of the chukars in Capitol Reef National Park. They are an invasive species that’s slowly wiping out the indigenous quail.

 TIP

Scenic Highway 12 is one of the most, well, scenic stretches of road in this part of the United States and a fantastic way to access Capitol Reef National Park. Just drive it.

 

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Cliffs and Condors – Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park in Utah packs a lot in—from canyoneering to one of the most nerve-rattling hikes in the national park system to abundant wildlife including endangered California condors. On November 19 this national park,Utah’s first, celebrates the 93rd anniversary of its founding. Here are some Happy Parkiversary memories from our most recent visit to Zion.

Zion National Park - Fall Colors

Rugged gorges and gentle streams are a hallmark of Zion National Park in Utah.

Zion National Park

This panorama really shows the variety of rock types and formations in Zion National Park.

Evening view from our campsite in Watchman Campground - Zion National Park

Our moonrise view from the Watchman Campground in Utah’s Zion National Park.

Zion River - Zion National Park

The Zion River as it meanders through Zion National Park.

Pick a trail, any trail

We were hoping it would be warm enough to hike The Narrows which requires some canyoneering through water but after setting up camp in the roomy Watchman Campground, we decided that the temperatures were already too cold for The Narrows (though other, heartier, souls were attempting it outfitted in insulated hip waders).

Zion National Park - Slot Canyon hiking to Observation Point

Karen on the trail up, up, up to Observation Point in Zion National Park.

Instead, we focused on some of the park’s other trails like Angels Landing which requires traversing a narrow spine of rock that’s enough to turn some folks back. We’d braved that route on a previous trip to the park.

Zion National Park - Zion Canyon from Observation Point

View of Zion Valley from Observation Point. Angels Landing on ridge in right foreground

Instead,we hiked up to Observation Point along a trail which gains 2,000 feet (600 meters) in four miles (six kilometers) of switchbacks pretty much straight uphill through a range of terrain, including some brief slot canyons and plenty of red rock. It all culminates in a great viewpoint over the park.The scenery along this hike was so gorgeous that before we knew it we were at the top munching on trail mix and enjoying the view.

Zion National Park - view from Observation Point Trail - Angels Landing pinnacle in center and entrance to narrows is on right side

The view from Observation Point, your reward after 2,000 foot elevation gain during a four mile hike pretty much straight uphill.

Zion National Park - view from Observation Point Trail of Zion canyon

The view of Zion National Park from Observation Point.

Zion National Park - Slot Canyon on Observation Point trail

Slot canyons along the trail up to Observation Point in Zion National Park.

Are those condors?

Suddenly, another hiker up at Observation Point looked to the sky and hollered “condors.” We are skeptical. California condors are endangered and famously hard to spot. But a quick check through binoculars revealed the enormous bird’s tell-tale wing markings and an identification number clamped to each animal’s wing.

Zion National Park - California Condors

A pair of endangered California Condors spotted in the sky above Observation Point in Zion National Park.

For the next 15 minutes we watched three California condors slowly circle and swirl above us, ultimately getting so low that we could see their markings without binoculars. We’ve read that condors are so comfortable with humans because they’ve learned that mammals, like us, often leave food behind. We wondered if these birds were hoping for some leftover trail mix.

Then, as quickly as they appeared, the huge birds were gone. Vanished. As if they were never there. All of the hikers at Observation Point looked at each other as if to confirm that we’d all just seen what we thought we saw. Energized by our condor sighting, we covered the trail back down in record time, almost like we’re flying ourselves.

The next morning we made a quick breakfast and headed out to the Emerald Pools Trail which threads together three different natural pools. On a sunny day, the pools each exhibit a different brilliant color. In the gathering grayness on the morning we were there, however, the colors were not quite apparent but it was a pleasant walk nonetheless.

Zion National Park - Court of the Patriarchs

Formations called the Court of the Patriarchs in Utah’s Zion National Park.

Zion National Park - Rock formations on the Zion - Mount Carmel Highwway

Rock formations along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway through Zion National Park in Utah.

Panorama of Kolob Canyon area of Zion National Park

A panorama of the Kolob Canyon area of Zion National Park.

TIPS

Not into camping? No problem. Opened by a former Zion National Park shuttle bus driver, the Cable Mountain Lodge in Springdale, just a stone’s throw from the south entrance of the park, has 50 rooms ($89-$139) some featuring jetted tubs, fireplaces and full kitchens. All rooms have in-your-face views of Cable Mountain.

Don’t Miss: Zion Canyon Giant Screen Theater located next to Cable Mountain Lodge. It’s the largest 3-D screen in Utah and one of the largest in the world measuring 60 feet (18 meters) high and 82 feet (24 meters) across.

To ease traffic congestion and protect the environment Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to personal vehicles from April through October. During this time all visitors must explore the heart of the park on board free, propane-powered park shuttle buses. If you want to the freedom of exploring the park in your own vehicle, like we did, plan accordingly.

 

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Never was a Park More Misnamed – Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The truth is, there’s nothing bad about the land in Badlands National Park in South Dakota, at least not for us since we didn’t have to walk across the arid, sun-baked, rattlesnake addled expanse as the original Native American inhabitants who named it did. This 240,000 acre (97,125 hectare) park, full of buttes, eroded stone spires and mixed grass prairies, was founded on November 10, 1978 and is like a cross between Bryce Canyon National Park and Cappadocia, Turkey. It’s also the only US National Park we know of where you just might have to share the campground with a herd of buffalo.

Badlands National Park sign - South Dakota

Welcome to Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Badlands National Park - The Castes Mountains

This elegantly eroded area in Badlands National Park in South Dakota is called The Castle for a reason.

Badlands National Park -canyons geological formations

Dramatic, daunting canyons like this helped earn Badlands National Park its name but they’re now part of the geographical wow factor of this park.

Badlands National Park - eroded hills geological formations

Walking through this topography would be, um, bad. But appreciating it during a visit to Badlands National Park in South Dakota is good.

All roads lead to Wall Drug

Even though we dipped off the interstate and traveled on back roads toward Badlands National Park, we still encountered 53 billboards for Wall Drug, perhaps the most aggressively advertised roadside attraction on earth. Somehow we manage to resist the allure of “free water” and more cheap souvenirs than you can throw a jackalope at.

Back roads in Badlands

Developed areas of Badlands National Park cover a compact area with one main paved road that will take you all the way through the park and past a bunch of short, boardwalk trails in one long day. But the real action takes place on Creek Rim Road, a dirt loop that gets you back to where the animals really hang out.

We saw North American pronghorn sheep, big horn sheep (with babies), white-tail deer (with babies) and more squeaking, scampering prairie dogs then we will bore you with at this time.

Badlands National Park - North American Pronghorn

North American Pronghorn sheep in Badlands National Park.

Badlands National Park - Baby Bighorn Sheep

Baby bighorn sheep eat their way through Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Joining the herd in Badlands National Park

After glimpsing some buffalo in a dip off to the left, we turned down a side road in search of a better vantage point. What we discovered was a camping area completely occupied by a huge herd of slowly grazing buffalo. The animals, munched, snorted, and kicked up dust as they traveled slowly past the porta-potty and a few people’s tents. In that instant we decided we had to join the herd and camp at the Sage Creek Campground for the night.

Badlands National Park - Buffalo in campground

Camping with buffalo in Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

However, Sage Creek is a back country campground which meant no water and we didn’t have enough with us in the truck. With fingers crossed we drove back to the ranger station and asked if we could fill up some containers at a tap there. Easy.

Back at the campground, the buffalo continued to mill around as we set up camp. As the sun set, the herd wandered away from our cozy, new home and we were left alone in a not so bad land.

Badlands National Park - Buffalo

A huge buffalo takes a break as we set up camp nearby in Badlands National Park.

Badlands National Park - Herd of Buffalo

A herd of buffalo shares space with us in the Sage Creek Campground in Badlands National Park.

Badlands National Park - Beware of Rattlesnake

Rattlesnakes are just one reason Native Americans considered the badlands to be so bad. We saw one ourselves, just off a trail to an overlook in the park.

Badlands National Park - erosion geology

Dramatic, daunting topography like this helped earn Badlands National Park its name but they’re now part of the geographical wow factor of this park.

Badlands National Park - melting hills geology

Topography like this helped earn Badlands National Park its name but it’s now part of the geographical wow factor for visitors.

Badlands National Park grasslands

A breathtaking mix of landscapes is just one reason to visit Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Badlands National Park - The Castles

On the road through Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

 

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Photo of the Day: Desert Beauty, Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park in California celebrates its 18th birthday today! It, along with Death Valley, was inscribed as a national park on this day in 1994 as part of the California Desert Protection Act. Located in both the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert, this beautiful park is named after a rare type of yucca plant, as seen in our photo of the day, below. We have no idea who Joshua is…

Joshua Tree National Park, California  Anniversary

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In the Water with Whale Sharks – Cancun, Mexico

We’ve been trying to get in the water with whale sharks for years. Our most recent attempt in Belize earned us a fabulous underwater dolphin adventure, but exactly zero whale sharks. This is surprising since whales sharks, as their name would imply, are some of the largest creatures in the sea. They’re members of the shark family and the “whale” part of their name comes from their size. They’ve been measured at 45 feet (14 meters) long and more than 46,000 pounds (21,000 kilos), though scientists believe these filter feeders (they only eat tiny krill and the occasional small fish) can get much, much bigger.

Whale sharks: nomadic giants in the world’s largest swimming pool

The problem is that, despite their size, whale sharks are shy and they’re seasonal, only showing up in certain places at certain times of the year when their tiny food source is plentiful. However, every year between June and August hundreds show up in the waters around Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox near Cancun, Mexico. Isla Mujeres even hosts an annual Whale Shark Festival. In May nearby Isla Holbox also hosts an extended whale shark festival. 

We left Cancun and traveled to a spot in the ocean pretty much between these two islands, high hopes in tow.

Whales sharks: worth throwing up for

A handful of tour operators in Cancun have licenses to take small groups of snorkelers out to the open ocean where whale sharks congregate during certain period, drawn to high concentrations of food in the warm Caribbean water. We went as guests of Solo Buceo

After a choppy, seasickness-inducing, one and a half hour boat ride we arrived at the feeding grounds. How did we know? The surface of the water was cross-crossed and broken by hundreds of fins. They call this “the boil” and, if you squinted, it really did look like the water was boiling. Every once in a while the massive oval that is a whale shark’s mouth would break the surface of the water. Their gaping maws were big enough to take in a compact car. Or a snorkeler.

Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Small snorkeler with massive whale shark in the waters between Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox off Cancun in Mexico. Photo courtesy of Solo Buceo.

We pushed that last thought out of our minds as we scrambled to get our masks and fins on so we could jump into the water. Once in the water it hit us: we were surrounded by hungry animals the size of buses and we were in their watery world. Our captain, Anselmo, estimated there were nearly 200 whale sharks in the vicinity. Being among them was everything we’d dreamed it would be, and plenty more.  

Whale sharks: even bigger in person

Despite having imagined being face to face with a whale shark many times the reality proved more shocking than we anticipated. A few expletives were shouted through our snorkels until we got used to being sandwiched  between two of these massive creatures as they cruised along near the surface with their five-foot-wide mouths open, filtering food in a kind of grazing frenzy.

They didn’t seem to mind our presence, but they also didn’t make many concessions to us. Intent on feeding, they swam wherever the food was. If a snorkeler was also there, well then he or she should really watch out.  Many whale sharks came close enough for us to feel the swoosh of their meter-long tails as they passed. 

Get a feel for it in our video below and do not miss seeing Eric get totally blind-sided by a whale shark at one minute and 22 seconds into this footage.

 

Adding to the adrenaline was the fact that there was only about 20 feet (six meters) of visibility in the water which was all clouded up with the krill the whale sharks had come to gorge on. Many times a whale shark would be rising silently through the murky water below us and we would have no idea it was there until it was practically right under us.

Whale sharks: controversial contact

Swimming with Whale Sharks Cancun, Mexico

It’s a good thing whale sharks are filter feeders. Photo courtesy of Solo Buceo.

As whale shark tours gain in popularity, conservationists worry about potential harmful side effects of so much contact with so many humans and their boats. During our own encounter with whale sharks the water was often uncomfortably full of snorkelers. By the time we left the area at least 20 boats had amassed in a very small area and the human and boat traffic was changing the behavior of the whales sharks which dispersed into looser and looser groups as the crowd thickened.

The effect of humans and boats on whale sharks is being studied in places like the island of Utila in Honduras where we visited the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center and learned a lot. The lecture was fun and free and there were even with bar specials.  

Even more controversial is the practice of hand feeding small shrimp to whale sharks to make them rise to the surface where tourists can see them more easily. Boat captains have been doing that in the Philippines since the 1980s but the baiting of whale sharks was outlawed in August of 2012 after biologists raised concerns that the hand feeding was turning the whale sharks into dependent beggars.  

 

TIPS

The ride out to “the boil” and sitting around parked on the surface of the water are both choppy experiences and some of the people on our boat became so seasick they couldn’t snorkel. Take medication if this is a problem for you. And book the earliest boat possible since the sea is generally calmer in the morning.

Read more about our snorkeling adventure with whale sharks in our piece for TravelandEscape.ca, the website for Canada’s travel channel.

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Catching Up With One That Got Away – Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz, Mexico

During the course of our Trans-Americas Journey road trip we spent 18 months driving in Mexico, covering nearly 25,000 miles and telling you all about it in more than 250 posts about travel in Mexico. And yet some parts of the country eluded even us, including the Los Tuxtlas region of southern Veracruz state. With its witches and waterfalls, this region is one that got away.

When we attempted to visit the Los Tuxtlas area Mother Nature got in the way in the form of devastating floods which created water so high that the army stopped our truck and sent us right back to Veracruz City. We consoled ourselves by watching Veracruz’s soccer team, the Tiburones (Spanish for Sharks), lose to the team from Cancun while drinking enormous cups of beer and going slightly deaf.

So we were thrilled when we were invited to attend the recent Adventure Travel Mexico (ATMEX) conference in Veracruz (put on by the Adventure Travel Trade Association) and take part in a pre-conference trip through the Los Tuxtlas region of the state. This time for sure!

A tour van is like kryptonite to us

As fans of our little road trip know, we’re all about independent adventure travel. We’re used to having the freedom of our own vehicle with just the two of us inside it so we can go where we want when we want. We can count the number of times we’ve been on a guided, group trip on half a hand. We haven’t been on a tour bus in years. We consider three people a crowd.

Our trip through Los Tuxtlas was being hosted by a local tour operator called Totonal. It involved a tour bus, multiple guides and 10 other people. We braced ourselves. Happily, the van, the guides and even all those other people turned out to be terrific–outdone only by the satisfaction of finally getting to see some of the Los Tuxtlas area.

Lazing on Sontecomapan Lagoon

Even when the Los Tuxtas region isn’t experiencing destructive and deadly flooding the area is still wet, wet, wet with hundreds of miles of rivers and streams plus sprawling lakes and coastline.

One of the main watery attractions is Sontecomapan Lagoon which dumps into the Gulf of Mexico. The presence of fresh and salt water attracts birds and marine life that like both. Turtles nest on area beaches while freshwater birds and fish thrive in the lagoon.

Sunset  Laguna Sontecomapan, Veracruz Mexico

A lone fisherman on Sontecompan Lagoon in Veracruz state, Mexico.

Nestled on the shores of Sontecomapan Lagoon is Los Amigos, a collection of dorm rooms and private stand-alone cabins for couples or families, all with lake views and hammocks (from 210 pesos/US$18 per person and all rates include full breakfast).

The only way to reach Los Amigos is by boat (US$45 round trip for the whole boat) which gave us a chance to check out the mangroves and bird life on the lake before pulling up to the Los Amigos dock where managers Valentina and Antonio greeted us with a refreshing mixture of coconut water and lychee juice garnished with a slice of star fruit, all from their land.

Los Amigos Hotel Laguna Sontecomapan, Veracruz Mexico

Los Amigos, an eco haven with rooms and terrific food on the shores of Sontecomapan Lagoon in Veracruz state, Mexico.

Back in the late ’80s Valentina’s father, Don Juan Vega, had an early-adopter epiphany when he decided that he wanted to have the most beautiful ranch in the area and realized that the clear-cutting he was doing in order to create cattle pastures was not getting him any closer to his goal. So he started re-foresting his land with native trees and plants.Tens of thousands of them have been planted on his hilly hunk of land.

Today, the forested slopes show very few signs of their previous incarnation as denuded grazing land. Today it truly is a beautiful ranch. While many of Don Juan’s neighbors still graze cattle, more and more ranches are re-foresting. This, coupled with the fact that much of the Los Tuxtlas area is set aside as the Biósfera Los Tuxtlas, is very, very good news for the local flora and fauna.

Fisherman boat Laguna Sontecomapan - Veracruz, Mexico

Sontecomapan Lagoon is full of freshwater fish but because it spills into the Gulf of Mexico salt water fishing is also possible.

A kayaking tour of the lake had been planned after we arrived at Los Amigos, but the siren song of the hammock on the porch of our private, simple, comfortable cabin with a view got the better of us and we didn’t emerge until it was time for dinner. The food at Los Amigos is worth leaving your hammock for. Ingredients, mostly grown on their permaculture farm, are lovingly turned into delicious reasonably-priced dishes in an open air kitchen.

The next morning, after freshly brewed coffee, we took a boat tour of the lake spotting kingfishers, Caracaras, parakeets, parrots and a cuckoo before returning for breakfast featuring farm fresh eggs and hand made tortillas. Then it was back on the tour bus…

Beach Laguna Sontecomapan - Veracruz, Mexico

This beach stretches out along the Gulf of Mexico near where Sontecomapan Lagoon spills into it.

Sand Dollars Gulf of Mexico Veracruz, Mexico

Area beaches were full of sand dollars.

 

Our own private waterfalls

All that water gets into Sontecomapan Lagoon somehow–often by tumbling down a mountain. A loose network of community tourism projects, a specialty of Totonal, has been set up to provide food, accommodation and access to some spectacular waterfalls that you’ll have all to yourself.

El Salto de Eyipantla waterfall - San Andres Tuxla, Veracruz Mexico

This is El Slato de Eyipantla waterfall outside of San Andrés Tuxtla, a bustling warm up for the deserted waterfalls we were about to visit.

Near the village of Miguel Hidalgo a local family welcomed us with fortifying homemade sopes (extra-thick tortillas topped with sauce and cheese and beans) and then we hit the trail to Cascada Cola de Caballo (Horse Tail Waterfall). An easy, well-defined trail took us past two fantastic swimming holes, but they were just appetizers.

Sopes, Mexico

Delicious homemade sopes.

Cola de Caballo waterfall - Miguel Hidalgo, Veracruz mexico

Horse Tail Waterfall lives up to its name.

After 10 minutes of walking the trail delivered us to the base of the waterfall itself. The long, thin, straight waterfall lived up to its name. A rocky perch provides a good diving point into the deep pool below the falls and a natural smooth rock slide connects the upper pool with a calmer swimming hole below. 

After a cool dip in the crystal clear water we went into the village of Miguel Hidalgo for lunch at a community tourism project that includes six surprisingly well-appointed rooms (electricity, private bathrooms) and a basic outdoor kitchen that turned out a fabulous meal which included bean soup spiked with fennel, terrific hand made tortillas and succulent chicken cooked in banana leaves. Fully fed, we hit the trail (briefly) again, this time to check out Apompal crater lake.

El Apompal crater lake tour - Miguel Hidalgo, Veracruz Mexico

A local guide explaining the wonders of the jungle, like that crazy vine, during a short hike near the village of Miguel Hidalgo in Veracruz state, Mexico.

Even more impressive than the lake, which locals claim rarely changes its water level, is the amazingly well-constructed and well-placed bird watching tower nearby. We climbed the stairs (no swaying!) and immediately spotted toucans. 

In the village of Benito Juarez another eco-tourism project, the lakeside Cabinas y Cascadas Encantada, was the starting point of a well-made trail past five waterfalls (about 1.5 hours for the loop). The view of Lake Catemaco from the open air restaurant was only topped by the view from most of the cabins further up the hillside (150 pesos per person all with private cold water bathroom). The best room in the house is #9 which has corner windows and a particularly good vantage point on the lake.

Cascada Arcoiris - Benito Juarez Veracruz

Cascada Arco Iris near Benito Juarez in Veracruz state, Mexico.

Waterfall - Benito Juarez, Veracruz, Mexico

Another waterfall you'll have to yourself near Benito Juarez. Someone cleverly cut foot holds in the tree trunk in the pool to create an easy jumping off point.

Waterfall - Benito Juarez, Veracruz, Mexico

Yet another private waterfall near Benito Juarez in Veracruz state, Mexico.

 

Island of the (creepy) macaques in Lake Catemaco

Water is also a major attraction in Catemaco, a small city that’s popular with Mexican travelers which means it feels festive and hasn’t become entirely tourist priced yet.

Catemeco church plaza veracruz, Mexico

The church and main plaza in Catemaco, Veracruz.

Catemaco is anchored by Lake Catemaco which is dotted with green islands. If the lake looks slightly familiar to you that’s because many movies (including parts of Apocalypto and Medicine Man) have been shot on and around the lake, many of them on the lakeside property of Reserva Ecológica Nanciyaga.

 Lake Catemaco - Veracruz, Mexico

Lake Catemaco which has been used as a set during filming of two movies you've probably seen.

Most of the islands in Lake Catemaco are gorgeous and lush and peaceful as you slip past them in small boats. However, we found the lake’s famous Monkey Island a bit creepy. The tiny island is inhabited by a band of macaque monkeys which were allegedly left there by a research facility in the 1970s. As we drifted past the fat, mottled monkeys our imaginations ran wild trying to figure out exactly what sort of terrible lab experiment had befallen them. Shiver.

Monkey Island -  Lake Catemaco - Veracruz, Mexico

We were creeped out by the macaques that are marooned on Monkey Island in Lake Catemaco.

Boat Lake Catemalco, Veracruz, Mexico

Just one of the festive boats waiting to take you on a tour of Lake Catemaco.

 

Witch hunting

Luckily, Catemaco has other attractions. Like witches! Over the years, the town has become famous for its brujos, a Spanish word that means witch. Every March the town hosts a “witch festival.” But the word brujo also means “alternative healer” and that’s a much more apt (though less sexy) definition of the brujos of Catemaco who are more likely to be leading purification ceremonies than riding broomsticks.

Brujo witch Catemaco - Veracruz, Mexico

Catemaco is famous for its brujos--a Spanish word that means witch or alternative healer--and they milk it for all it's worth.

Brujo witch store Catemaco - Veracruz, Mexico

Virtually every market in Mexico has at least one stall selling lotions and potions that claim to do everything from attract love and money to repel back luck and loud mouths. Catemaco, famous for its "witches" and alternative healers, is certainly no exception.

We rubbed shoulders with some of those alternative healers while taking part in a traditional temazcal ceremony behind the Playa Azul hotel. Marisol, owner of Totonal, is well-versed in local traditions and she defines temazcal as “a steam bath with chants and herbal cleanses that make us come back to life symbolically. The way in which the temazcal room is built and its profound meaning recreate the mother womb. It is a place for reconciliation and interacting with the elements of the earth.”

Our temazcal, which is a type of sweat lodge which dates back to pre-hispanic times, started with a massage during which volcanic mud was applied to our skin then aloe was worked into our hair. Next, we assembled in a small round area like a tiny ampitheater where members of a local family, brujos all, chanted, sang and purified each of us with smoke and bundles of herbs.

Grandma was particularly fastidious about the purification process, visibly willing toxins and bad energy out of each body she focused on. Sadly, her purifications were taking quite a while so another family member grabbed some herbs and took up the slack, including our purifications. We can’t help but feel we’d be just a bit purer if we’d gotten Grandma…

Following our purification we were fit to enter the sacred temazcal structure. Picture an igloo made of adobe with an area in the middle for red-hot rocks and you’ve pretty much got it. Though temazcal structures are traditionally small and low, sometimes requiring participants to sit or lie on the dirt floor, this one was roomy enough to stand up in and stumps had been arranged in a circle for us to sit on.

Before entering the temazcal structure we kneeled at the entrance and asked Mother Earth for permission to go inside. As we all took a seat on a stump as the last of the 40 or so red-hot rocks were carefully added to a pile in the center.  We were instructed to greet and thank each rock. Finally, a heavy blanket was lowered over the door followed by a wood slab to keep light out and heat in.

In the pitch black, steamy space another member of the brujo family sang more songs, lead us in introspective sharings of what we hoped to gain from the temezcal experience and periodically said the magic word: Puerta! Over the course of the next hour or so our brujo guide called out puerta (Spanish for door) four times, each time symbolizing an element. The rush of light and cool air as the door was momentarily opened was a relief but also an intrusion as the “real” world rushed in too.

After the temazcal was concluded we marched our muddy, sweaty selves a short distance and bobbed under the stars in the warm water of Lake Catemaco until we were clean. 

We’ve experienced a temezcal before but this one was much more nuanced and involved and it made us curious to experience an even more authentic temazcal if we ever get the chance.

 

Little known fact about Veracruz: La Bamba, the song made famous by Ritchie Vallens, is based on a folk song written in Veracruz in the 17th century. For more bombs about La Bamba, check out the song sleuthing done by Scott Valor of the surf site Burning Pier who was on this trip through Los Tuxtlas with us. 

High speed La Bamba - Catemalco, Veracruz, Mexico

A band called Son Jorachos belting out a super-fast version of La Bamba, which, we learned is based on a folks song written in Veracruz in the 17th century.

Our thanks, again, to Totonal Tour Company owner Marisol Herrara who helmed our Los Tuxtlas expedition with knowledge, passion, flexibility and flair. Think of her as the anti-guided tour guide.

This was our third pass through Veracruz state and there are still a few things we have yet to  see including the Olmec ruins at Tres Zapotes and the beautiful pueblo magico town of Tlacotalpan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ah, Mexico. Just when you think you’re out she pulls you right back in…

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100 Years of the Calgary Stampede – Calgary, Canada

They call the Calgary Stampede the richest rodeo in the world because it awards a million dollars in prize money. This year marked the 100th anniversary of the annual event (July 6-15, 2012), which got us reminiscing about our visit to the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” when we traveled to the Calgary Stampede early in our Trans-Americas Journey. 

Calgary Stampede - Carnival Ride 100th anniversary

The Calgary Stampede isn't just the world's richest rodeo. It's also a full-on fair with the rides and food to prove it.

In addition to the rodeo events, the Calgary Stampede also features a whole concourse of carnival rides and all manner of fair food including the usual suspects (hello, corn dogs!) plus a local cult favorite called Mini Donuts—basically tiny, tiny donuts that everyone buys and eats by the straight from the bag right before they get on a big, fast, spinning carnival ride. Then there was the beer garden and big-name concerts and ag displays and more. 

Cowboys - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Cowboys commute to work at the Calgary Stampede.

The main attractions, for us, were the classic rodeo events during which we watched dozens of the best cowboys in the world compete for some of that prize money. We were amazed by the athletes both human and non human. Here are some photographic highlights from each

 

Bareback bronc riding

Bareback Riding - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

This amazing athlete leapt about four feet straight up into the air the moment the gate was opened. The cowboy was no slouch either.

Bareback Riding - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Good form...

Bareback Riding fall - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

...and bad form.

 

Bull riding

Bullriding - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

The bulls, mostly bred on the official Calgary Stampede farm, were huge and smart. In other words, very, very dangerous.

Bullriding Fall - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

We have no idea how this cowboy ended up in this position. We can tell you he got up and walked away.

Bullriding chase- Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Some of the bulls were just plain mean, too.

 

Saddle bronc riding

Saddle Bronc - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Bet you didn't think horses could fly.

Saddle Bronc - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

That's one way to dismount...

Saddle Bronc - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Everyone in the stands held their breath, wondering if this horse was going to fall over backward after this dramatic exit from the gates. It did not fall over and it's moves just got more athletic and unbelievable as the ride continued.

 

Tie-down calf roping

Tie down calf roping - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

In this event you need a racehorse with anti-lock brakes.

The goal is to catch, rope and tie down a calf as quickly (well under 10 seconds) and precisely  as possible. These experts make it look easy as you can see in our animated gif, below.

Tie down calf roping motion gif - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary 

Barrel racing

Barrel Racing - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Barrel racing is the only event at the Calgary Stampede in which women compete. Champion June Holeman, above, was 63 when we watched her win the event with this ride.

Barrel Racing competition - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

This barrel racer was narrowly beaten by veteran champion June Holeman during the Calgary Stampede.

 

Steer wrestling

Steer Wrestling competition - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

First leap off a galloping horse then, literally, grab a steer by the horns.

Steer Wrestling - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Cowboys dig their heels into the ground and use them like brakes in order to stop and flip the steer.

 

Chuckwagon races

The biggest adrenaline rush of the entire Calgary Stampede came from a competition which isn’t, technically, a rodeo event. We’d never even heard of chuckwagon races, but we were soon hooked.

Meant to recreate the important duties of traditional chuckwagons—the mobile kitchens which fed the pioneers heading west by covered wagon train—each modern-day chuckwagon racing team includes a smaller, lighter replica of a chuckwagon, a chuckwagon driver, a team of four thoroughbreds to pull the chuckwagon, a team of four outriders on four additional thoroughbreds, and a bunch of bits and pieces that represent the gear used in these mobile kitchens. 

Chuckwagon Racing - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

We'd never even heard of chuckwagon races before we attended the Calgary Stampede. Now we're huge fans of the history and controlled chaos of this event.

At the beginning of each race all four outriders from each chuckwagon team must dismount. One of them throws a barrel into the back of his team’s chuckwagon and another tosses in poles, a tarp and other gear. Then the chuckwagon speeds off as the four outriders re-mount on the gallop so the whole team of five men and 32 horses can fly through a figure eight course before thundering (the ground literally shakes) around an oval racetrack in a frantic bid to beat three other teams doing exactly the same things at exactly the same time. 

Chuckwagon racing is (barely) controlled chaos as 15 men and 96 horses race around the track at the same time. Get a taste of what it looks like in the animated gif, below.

Chuckwagon Racing action - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

If you ask us, chuckwagon racing is the new extreme sport. But you can judge for yourself since we have plenty more action-packed Calgary Stampede Chuckwagon Race Photos.

Chuckwagon Racing Rangeland Derby - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

The ground shakes as teams push to the finish line in the chuckwagon racing event at the Calgary Stampede.

We were so inspired by the whole Calgary Stampede experience that Karen finally gave in to her decades-old desire for a pair of true cowboy boots. Since this is no faddish whim, we headed straight for the Alberta Boot Company. Listen, if they’re good enough to supply boots to the Canadian Mounties, they’re good enough for us. Karen is still wearing her Alberta Boot Company boots more than four years later, by the way. 

Cowboy Boots - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Good luck picking a favorite from the hundreds of handmade styles at the Alberta Boot Company in Calgary.

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Staying Connected in Wild Places: Yeah or No Way?

We know it’s sacrilege to many but we would love to see more access to WiFi and electricity in the wild places we travel to.

Hear us out

Because ours is a working road trip, staying connected on the road with internet access and electricity is necessary in order to meet magazine and newspaper deadlines and to produce this blog which you’re reading right now. If we can’t get internet access and electricity in a park or campground then we’re forced to leave these wonderful places and move to a more expensive, less wonderful motel room somewhere simply so we can complete our work.

Understandably, we are thrilled whenever we’re able to connect in the outdoors. For example, we used our Verizon wireless card to connect to an internet signal and plugged our laptops into the electrical outlets provided in the campground at the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville, Florida. This allowed us to finish and file a feature for Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine right from our picnic table.

After searching nearly every nook and cranny of Crater Lake National Park we finally found a turnout along the Rim Drive where we got a Verizon signal. A couple of times each day we’d park there and call it our office for a while before returning to the trails or heading back to camp. Members of the Friends of Crater Lake organization contacted us after reading our post about Crater Lake to request the exact location of the spot where we’d found a signal so they could get some work done in the park too.

What do you think?

Would greater access to WiFi and electricity in National Parks, State Parks and campgrounds in the US be a good thing or a bad thing?

What extremes have you gone to in order to get an internet connection in a park, campground or other natural area?

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Photo Essay: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge, which spans San Francisco Bay, turns 75 this year. This iconic bridge has inspired poets, film makers, photographers and musicians for decades with its signature color (drably called International Orange), its sweeping suspension design and its ever-changing wardrobe of fog and sun.

Golden gate bridge - Fog

Golden Gate Bridge

Eric has photographed the heck out of the Golden Gate Bridge and the occasion of its 75th birthday seemed like the right time to share a few shots.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

The birthday of such a bridge inspired two very different brand new musical tributes. Mickey Hart, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and former drummer for the Grateful Dead, composed a “musical soundscape based on the real sounds of the bridge.” 

Listen to a live recording of the Mickey Hart Band performing the composition at the Golden Gate Bridge 75th Birthday Celebration at Crissy Field:

Decades ago Hart tried to scale the bridge to record sounds made by the structure which he calls a “giant wind-harp.” He was promptly arrested. Twice. This time things went more smoothly and Hart and his team capture the sounds they were after. Hart performed his composition as part of the Golden Gate Bridge’s birthday bash by playing a 27 foot stainless steel replica of the bridge which was built by engineers at San Francisco’s awesome Exploratorium

Golden Gate Bridge sunset

Golden Gate Bridge

Meanwhile, James Kellaris, a University of California marketing professor and “part-time” musician, won a contest put on by the San Francisco Mandolin Orchestra (who knew there was such a thing?) to compose a birthday song for the bridge.

He composed a mandolin ditty he calls “Chrysopylae Reflections,” referencing the Greek term “chrysopylae” which, according to Kellaris, means “golden gate.” Who are we to argue with a man with a mandolin?

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge Fog

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden gate Bridge panorama

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge - sunset

 

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