40 Years in 40 Seconds
On my second trip to the “Isla del Encanto” I ventured much deeper than the 1st. The trip I took on February 2011 helped make this trip the excellent journey it became. I was given a mandatory time off for years end holidays totaling 11 days. I wanted to utilize the time to travel beyond Florida. This is usually not a good time to travel for a few reasons. The cost of flights and hotels are usually higher. There is also a higher volume of tourists in this season. The places I would want to explore in North America are too cold or dangerous to enjoy too. Puerto Rico is an obvious choice for climate reasons. The clincher for me was a Round Trip flight for $280. The hotel costs were mostly overpriced however. I departed on December 25, 2012 and returned on New Years Eve in time to head to DT MIA for the festivities.
My mind set entering in this venture was one of acceptance and even a tad of resignation. Since I had already seen the flaws found on PR; namely the condition of a lot of its structure, I was not put off by it on this return trip. When I would see a beer bottle atop a coral while I was snorkeling I did not fixate on the trashy conditions. Instead I rejoiced in finding this beautiful beach with few people around. I rather have an amazing place with some trash yet have full access and freedom than a crowded clean place with a bunch of rigid rules.
Another factor that helped make this journey a memorable one is that I was more prepared to navigate to my destination points. I researched the places I planed to see thoroughly and programmed them into my GPS accurately with specific coordinates. The web site called Puerto Rico Day Trips was very helpful to plan my itinerary. I spent the 1st 3 nights in San Juan. I had to find street parking each time I arrived to the hotel which sometimes took like 20 minutes. I thought the room itself quaint but cozy. There was no problem with noisy guests only the coquís which chirped all night long. This area has a bad reputation for its crime. By necessity I had to walk the back streets at night with my equipment. There are police officers stationed on corners all about the region.
On the topic of equipment, this trip was extra special for this reason as well. Last time around I was lugging around a dedicated still image camera, video camcorder and tripod. Now I was using my new GH3 (Hybrid) along with 4 lenses and tripod to achieve a much higher output quality. No more switching cameras for video and stills. I did need to change the lenses of course. My camera backpack organizes all my equipment and allows me attached the heavy tripod so I could be hands free. This feature alone allowed me to get images I could not achieve otherwise. The many cases that I had to do some scrambling needing both hands allowed me to access places like caves or waterfalls. This was my first time traveling with this new set up. I had extensive practice prior to this for local events though. I was using an ultra wide lens which allowed me to make some dramatic images of beachscapes or from within a cave where space is limited. The speed of the camera when going from taking stills to video is revolutionary.
I start the official day 1 (where I started the 1st time to PR) in El Yunque Rain Forest. I revisited the secret waterfall I discovered and found it all to myself again. In contrast I did the hike to La Mina Waterfall and there was more people than water it seemed. I did not bother taking a picture. I basically did this steep 3 mile hike for my health only. I visited the Rio Espiritu Santo on the seldom visited west side of the park. I found a charming green pool next to a tall yet slim cascade where I took a refreshing dip. There was no one in this slice of paradise while I was there. Later I visited my mother’s cousin Bichara and his wife Ada at their home which was a 10 minute drive from my hotel room. They showed me photos of their vacations to places like Argentina. I enjoyed the asparagus cream, humus and broiled plantains Bichara offered me. I took some humus with me which I ate with crackers for lunch the next day.
On day 3 I was to venture to the west side of the island to stay a couple of nights. On my way I met up with Pedro Casanova. Originally a local and now on vacation, Pedro introduced me to some beautiful beaches. The 1st stop was a cove with a small entrance for open ocean waves to sneak in. The coast’s edge was lined with rock shelves. I snorkeled the coast and was surprised by the variety of colorful fish and coral. The 2nd spot took a short hike to reach. It was also a cove but had the extra feature of a beach cave of sorts. After I drop of Pedro I went to a waterfall called Gozalandia. It is not easy to find this place. It is deep in a mountainous neighborhood that takes many twists and turns ups and downs to arrive at an inconspicuous trail head. I parked in a man’s gated front yard for $5. I could have parked for free somewhere else but I liked the idea of supporting people like this. The man was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey but moved to PR when he was 10 years old. The hike to this waterfall was not long or difficult. This place is a jewel but gets crowded. There is access to the base of the falls. I got a very good refreshing here. People jump of a cliff into the pool. They also have a rope to swing and jump into the pool with. I did try it at the insistence of a fellow American tourist.
I was then headed to the hotel in Aguadilla when I see and hear a band and colorfully arrayed dancers jamming at a shopping plaza. I pulled up and was preparing my camera equipment, but before I finished setting up they stopped and jumped into a party bus to leave. As I was a few miles down the road I see a similar spectacle. It was another party crew. This time I was moving with more haste to prepare my camera and bumped my head with the car’s trunk’s lid. I was told by a local that this “Paranda” organization has 8 buses which tour this region of the island during this time of year. Most of the participants had good cheer but some wore sour countenances when they saw me recording them. I still do not know exactly why they reacted this way.
Okay I was having a very good day filled with variety and surprises. I was thinking that I would just wind down at the beach for the sunset. I arrived at Crash Boat Beach and inspected the calm blue water. It was windy but offshore which is the prevailing wind here. The beach was crowded and I was just meandering among the people when I spotted something interesting. This man had a crew of pelicans and a sole Bobbi bird surrounding him as he walked. I turned my lens on him and he with perfect English turned to address me. He said “If you buy a bracelet from me which costs $1 I will pose the birds so you may take the pictures you want”. I choose a pink bracelet. He strapped it on my wrist and we proceeded to set up our shooting of the birds. He calls these birds my individual names. They all are highly trainable. He has magnificent Frigate birds which have very large wing spans come from flying over the ocean swoop to where he has a morsel on a stick held up. The Frigate comes with a lot of velocity as he snatches the morsel away. While this is going on, the sunset was dynamically picturesque. I then saw a young man balancing on a tight rope which was tied in between Palm Trees. I spent time with him and his aspiring film making friend. He did other gymnastic feats so I may capture it on the memory card.
On day 4, I return to Cabo Rojo. I enjoyed it even more this time around. The sea cliffs with their golden color and turquoise ocean crashing waves impressed me with delight. The sky was clear. The birds were abundant and varied. I saw a bright orange bird at the onset to my walk here. I roamed the cliffs with no one around except large iguanas. The view of the beach called Sucia from the cliffs is one of my favorite scenes I have seen in person. I then travel deep into the interior of the island thru expansive twists and turns, ups and downs to reach a waterfall called Salto Curet. I found a charming river on my way that compelled me to stop and take a dip in. The river banks had a variety of colorful flowers and large bamboos growing there. I again had this slice of paradise to myself. I think should I have hiked up the river away from the road and go deeper in the jungle and camp there, I would not encounter another human being for a long time.
This island is very appealing to me because of facts like this. There are places that are mini wonders that are not difficult to access and are not exploited. There are some places that are exploited of course but even these places are not ruined by this. When I went to Cave Ventana there were thousands of people going to and from. The Shell Gas Station people decided to charge entrance to it though they obviously do not own the property. I don’t mind paying them the $3 though. I did not like that I was fined $100 for parking in a so called green space. I said to the lady officer who issue the ticket that there is no sign whatsoever concerning no parking. The same day I parked by a sidewalk with a yellow line in Old San Juan. I basically invited another ticket and was slightly disappointed that the fine was only $50 and not $100.
The mountain cave opens up to a view of surrounding mountains and a big river running thru the valley. Even with the hordes of people (mainly locals) this place is amazing. I would like to see this place early in the morning with no people one day though.
So after a long drive that ended on a unpaved road I set out to the Salto Curet Falls. It is necessary to hike within the river to reach the falls. I did the hike with my non water hiking shoes knowing that it would be their last trek. Just like in Costa Rica I left my shoes behind. This is one of the most impressive waterfalls on the Island I think especially concerning water volume. A local told me that the water volume was optimal that day. This local happens to be a US born Caucasian lady that moved to the mountains of this island. She creates artistic glass. A girl from this group told me that there is more waterfalls that occur above the main falls. They described this place as awesome. They said there are 2 cascades and great pools to dip in. I was given instruction of how to get up there. To reach this place I would need to do some near vertical climbing using roots, plants and rocks. I started the adventure under a canopy of jungle plants and trees traversing a steadily climbing mountain stream. This place was amazing but I soon came to the conclusion that this was beyond what I was willing to do at the time. My heavy equipment (backpack with camera, lenses and tripod) would have made it dangerous especially for the way down. I did jump in the main pool of the main waterfall and swim against the current to reach its base.
I had originally booked 1 night in Aguadilla and the following night in Mayaguez. After I saw and liked the Aguadilla hotel, I wisely decided to cancel the Mayaguez room and extend the stay at Aguadilla. So I leave Aguadilla predawn on Day 5 to enjoy the Coast of Isabella. This is one of my favorite places on the whole island. I love the variation of the vast rocky coast mixed with coves and blue water. I finish this day by revisiting the San Cristobal Fort in Old San Juan to enjoy the wide open field surrounded by the ocean on one side and the bay on the other. The parade of kites during sunset is quite the sight.
My departing flight was scheduled for 2pm, so I decide to visit the Indian Beach Cave in the morining which I went to on 2011. This time no one was at the parking lot (which is someone’s front yard). There is a $2 fee I would have paid otherwise. This time I could climb the ladder into the sea cave area because I could strap all my equipment to my backpack. There were abundant bats flying all about. There are petro glyphs found here too. Some ocean water makes it way to this area forming a blue whirlpool. This was a fitting end to my journey.
The weather was ideal for the tropics. It was not too hot any of the days. I saw clear blue skies most of the days. The clouds during some of the sunsets were great compliments to the big sky. The people I met were interesting and easy to get along with. They were also willing to share key information of their Island. My semi resigned mind set helped make this one of the best trips I have taken. I was not expecting things to go so well as they did. Love does not require the object being loved to be perfect.
Living the Dream
It was a lofty dream of mine for a couple of years to visit the Canadian Rockies. This dream was fulfilled late August 2012. I planned a 4 day trip relatively free of the ambitious and extensive driving routes that is typical of my trips. I mainly stayed on 3 main roads the entire trip while visiting 4 National Parks which all bordered each other. This was the 1st trip in which the majority of the time I did not need my GPS or atlas. The city of Calgary felt just like another US city. One of the main differences is that signs are bilingual (English and French). I really did not need Canadian Currency as credit cards are accepted everywhere I went. I found the people to be pleasant. The general structure and transit system is logical and well organized. To put it plainly this was my easiest trip (logistic wise) that yielded the most reward.
My first stop of the trip was at Lake Louise followed by Moraine Lake. I speak with a fellow photographer while by the Moraine’s lake shore and he proceeds to tell me that the best view of the lake is obtained from the top of a high heap of boulders. He tells me that I would need to scramble up the steep incline to get there. I did not question this as I just read someone’s blog days earlier that lives in the region saying the same thing. What is more I saw someone carefully coming down the boulder heap moment after. I decide to make the climb with my tripod and backpack full of photo equipment. The1st thing I do was attempt to cross some logs that are over an outlet stream. I carefully step on the 1st log trying to keep my balance. The 3rd log sunk a bit under my weight almost wetting a portion of my hiking shoes. The next log I stepped on completely sunk underneath me as I plunge into the cold water up to my stomach. I manage to keep my tripod and camera lifted up to avoid it from getting wet. My back pack got wet but the contents stayed dry. I got a few scratches as a result though. My only sweater and real hiking shoes were now soaked. I undress and redress in the parking lot in the chilly morning as if I meant to take a dip in the lake.
I almost left this destination when instinct told me to walk around these boulders. I then found out to my surprise that there are steps to reach the top of the boulders to obtain the famous and grand view of the beautiful blue Moraine Lake surrounded by multiple high peaked mountains. Okay so the baptism was not necessary but it sure was funny. It did take half the trip (2 days to dry out my real hiking shoes). Fortunately my “water shoes” worked for hiking but I did have sore feet from stepping on rocks with these relatively thin shoes.
I then go to see Takakkaw Falls (one of the tallest in Canada). It was a thrilling experience to hike up near the steep base of this massive outpouring of water and mist. The sunshine was illuminating the flowing mist in what I describe as poetry in motion.
It is now the middle of the day and I am feeling exhilarated about my trip so far. I was looking for a secluded section of river for a quick “shower” because the cabin where I would spend that night has no shower or electricity. I finally find a near perfect spot, but it was a silty glacier feed river. It took me about 20 seconds to take this “shower”. I had reserved a room at the Mosquito Creek Inn for $26 in a shared dorm of over 10 people because there were no private rooms available when I did the booking. I was very happy to find out after my inquiry that there was indeed a private room available for me. I had only slept for 4 hours the night before. The flight to Calgary via Houston was delayed about an hour causing me almost to miss my connecting flight. I had run from terminal to terminal which was quite a distance. I arrive at the connecting gate with time to spare to my relief. After all this I needed some deep rest. I had peace and quite in my little private cabin room with a comfortable bed. The heater did not work so I got cold in the middle of the night. The best thing about this hostel was the location. It was a few minutes drive from beautiful lakes like Bow and Peyto.
The high temperature on the 1st day was about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The highs for day 2 and 3 were in the lower 50’s and night time temps were in the 20’s. A cold front came through bringing scattered rain and snow in the higher peaks. This weather system was the cause for some spectacular sights which amplified the dramatic landscapes. In the morning of day 2 I stopped at a river crossing to behold the changing deep contrasts of dark layered clouds with intermittent morning light shinning through. I then arrive at the trail head for Saskatchewan Glacier and hear some groovy tunes coming from the car that just pulled in. I mentioned my admiration for the tunes to the driver which lead into a conversation. James is a very dedicated hiker / backpacker from Santa Barbara California (one of my favorite towns). We were both born in the bay area near SF. He has seen some of the most incredible wilderness sights in the world by means of long hikes. In this venture of Canada he was to complete over 60 hiking miles. I joined him for 3 of those miles to see the glacier.
Traveling up and the following day down the Icefield Parkway impressed me as one of the most scenic drives available in the world. It is the constancy of massive mountains peaks, glaciers and cascades that was awe-inspiring for me.
At first I was not particularly impressed with the Jasper area. This 1st impression was totally replaced as I spent the evening and following morning exploring. The mountains that seemed ordinary a few hours prior took on a whole new character when a part of the cold front was passing by. The mixture of sunlight and sheets of snow falling created a spectacle the likes I had yet to see. There were numerous snow-bows (not rainbows) appearing almost simultaneously within viewing distances. As I was reluctantly leaving Jasper right before sunset to my hotel for the night, I kept looking back. I decided to take a side road that yielded some decent views of the sky and distant mountain ranges. There was a certain quality (aura) to the light that I have never seen before. It looked like the trees were glowing or emanating light. I felt that this had something to do with being so far north of the equator (farthest for me). Even after the sun set a special glow remained combining with rainbow colors, vermilion clouds, patches of blue sky, deep black of moving storm clouds along with powerful rumbles of thunder.
The following morning in Jasper I enjoyed seeing rich layers of fog floating on lakes and mountain peaks. I drove from location to location seeing how the quickly changing light would play on the fog in vast varieties. At one lake I stood next to the still waters as I watched the thick fog illuminated by direct sunlight. My pure reaction to such a scene and peaceful feeling was to lift my hands to worship of the Creator.
I stop along the Icefield Parkway on my return trip to see a tall mountain cascade named Bridal Veil Falls. I then speak with a couple from Houston that said there is a secret waterfall about 1km’s hike away opposite. The secret waterfall is on the opposite side of the valley to Bridal Veil. I decided to do the impromptu hike. I approached the side of this powerful waterfall shooting out of a mountain. The path became very muddy and slippery. I had made it to the cliff just a few feet away from the roaring falls, but I suddenly realized how precarious a position I had placed myself in. Prior to this I did not want to muddy my hiking shoes (after a 2 day drying period), but now I thought it more important to make all my steps carefully and deliberately. After I made it safely from the muddy cliff, a nervous energy was buzzing in me.
I return to my same private cabin room from day 1. It remained the way I left it. No one stayed in it the night before. This day I would not jump in a river for a “shower” because the cold front had cooled the air a lot. Day 4 was mainly clear blue skies and a little warmer by mid day. This allowed me to see the mountain in yet another light. I returned to Moraine and Louise lakes as in day 1. I reversed the order though. I 1st went to Moraine and it was even more attractive then day 1. The water was calmer this time. I visit the Kootenay National park and return for my 3rd time in the trip to Bow Lake and Peyto Lake. This time the sun was fully shining on the lakes causing the blue water to show forth.
I saw a few bears by the roadside on separate occasions with the assistance of a few hundred fellow tourists that jam up the road to see them. On the last occasion I was standing about 80 km away from a black bear that was feeding on berries. I felt a tap on my shoulder and I turned to see and hear a tall Park Ranger ordering me back to my vehicle. It was the 1st ranger I saw in the whole trip. As I was driving away I saw that he shot a flare to scare the bear away to the tourists’ dismay.
My last hike of the trip was an exploration of Johnston Canyon. The hike traverses alongside a slot canyon with numerous waterfalls along the way. It was an apropos conclusion to a great excursion in the Majestic Canadian Rockies.
Hurricane Isaac or Houston We Have a Problem
Before I went on this journey, there was a storm brewing in the Atlantic. The initial report stated that it may affect Florida. Once I started my adventure in the Rockies I had completely forgot about it. The morning of my departure from Canada an attendant at the airport said to me that the Hurricane was to make a direct hit to South Florida within the day and that my flight from Houston to Miami would be canceled. I mentally prepared to stay a night or 2 in a Houston Hotel. I made peace with this fact but was not happy about it for obvious reasons. This would cause the added expense of hotel and possibly a car rental to my trip. I would be missing work thus adding to the accumulated tasks I already had from 3 business days. The city of Houston looked like a very dull place to be stuck in. There seemed little appeal as far as exploration was concerned. Once the flight from Calgary made it to Houston I casually strolled to the connecting gate for Miami just to obtain the cancelation news and expected reschedule. To my great surprise the sign at the gate read “On Time”. I asked the attendant if that was real. She said that the plane and crew were there and it should be accurate. As I was boarding the plane, a couple was exiting voicing some nervous complaints. A flight attendant at the front of the plane was crying while she was speaking on the phone. She felt that her life was in danger if she stayed on the flight.
I noticed that there were few people on the flight and no one in the back section where I was to be seated. A male flight attendant then matter of factly said as he blocked the aisle “I am sorry sir but we are closed”. I looked at him seriously for a moment when he proceeded to say “just kidding”. After the recent turn of events things had a surreal feel to them. The captain then announced that they will attempt to land in MIA in spite of the inclemental weather. Should the winds and rain be severe they would circle the airport until a favorable window of opportunity. He said that the plane had plenty of fuel to do this and if there was no opportunity they would land in Tampa. He warned that the ride would have strong turbulence toward the end and if we felt queasy about it we were free to get off the plane now. Once the plane was over the Everglades the turbulence began. After about 20 minutes of moderate turbulence the captain landed the plane safely as the passengers applauded. The same flight attendant that was in tears now welcomed us to Miami with a sigh of relief apologetic for her former display. This was one of the last flights that made it to MIA that afternoon before strong winds and rain came. I thought it an interesting finish to what I think was my best trip out of 25 in the last 4 years.
My trip to the Appalachian Mountains late May 2012 was my best out of 6 trips to this region in the past 4 years. The timing was good for a few reasons. There was recent rain in the region prior to my visit so the trees, flowers and waterfalls were enlivened. During my 3 and half day venture the weather was very good. The 1st day’s temperature reached up to the middle 90’s but toward late day on elevations above 4000 feet it cooled down to the middle 60’s. The skies were mainly clear, but the ever present haze / smoke of the Smoky’s prevailed. This is a very unattractive feature of this area. No one gives a satisfactory answer to its cause. I ask “is it pollution?” They say no. I once heard that the trees produce the smoke. The other days did not get as hot yet had plenty of sunshine. When the rain did come at the end of day 3 and some of day 4 it was not unwelcome.
I start the journey at Tallulah State Park to slide down a waterfall into a river pool. The hike though not long is challenging due to the need for rock scrambling in several places. There are also very long and steep stair cases one must contend with. Once the bottom of the stairway is reached you need to cross a river in front of the powerful Hurricane Falls. Even with my water shoes I had to be very careful not to slip while I am carrying all my photographic equipment. I make it to the rock slide after stopping to admire another waterfall named Oceana. The day was already warm and after the hike I was ready to get in the pools and rushing streams found near the rock slide. It was very enjoyable and refreshing going from pool to pool and feeling the strong surge of the mini waterfalls. I was the first one to arrive so I had this place to my self for a good while.
I did get a little banged up in this area though. One example is when I launched from within a pool to swim across it and I got stabbed by the edge of a submerged rock that I did not see. When I finally go down the rock slide on my 1st attempt I scrapped and bruised by wrist against a rock shelf. When I return up the rock face next to the rock slide from the 2nd slide I slip and fall on my face on a wet area about 20 feet above the pool. I then quickly slide all the way back down to the pool. I got cut above my right eye and had a bruise for a few days. Needless to say I was very fortunate that I was not badly hurt as I was over a mile away from the trail head. The climb back up the stairs did wear on me though. Not a great start to the trip.
After a long drive (while icing my injuries) to the hotel in the tourist trap known as Pigeon Forge I wash up and rest a little trying to minimize the incident’s mental and physical impact on me. I arrive at a pleasant wooded area alongside a river to meander and just absorb fine nature. This was one of my main aims of the trip. I just wanted to find some peace among nature. Here I converse with an interesting tall slender man who was resting along his journey. He was backpacking a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
Later I travel up to Clingman’s Dome which is the highest elevation in Tennessee and it was actually chilly. I saw the smoky sunset from a very good overlook with 40 of my closest friends.
One of the other main purposes of my trip was to see bears. The hot spot known as Cades Cove yielded no views of this animal even though I did the driving loop 3 times from the onset of the morning. My consolation prize was a beautiful dawn draped with elegant layers of fog on the hilly valley with deer found all over. I later go to a semi hid falls I discovered the year before. This time I went with all my photo equipment. This was unnerving because I had to cross a swift river up to waist high over slippery rocks. I enjoyed getting totally immersed under and behind the strength of the waterfall. The waterfalls of this region have the added appeal of an ideal water temperature from late spring to early fall. I hung out with a group of Indians at this place. I mean Indians from India not the Cherokee Tribe. These guys I hung with (like most of the Indian Tourist) have an incredible zeal. They act like these places are one big playground (and they actually are). They are loud and giddy regardless of the situation. They love taking portraits of each in abundance. They pose in the most unlikely of places (like in front of a restroom etc.) Once you crack the code they are actually likable. I did get upset at them last summer when they held up traffic in Cades Cove due to their antics.
After this I found another neat spot in Smoky Mountain National Park where people jump off a 20 foot cliff into a deep part of a river. God willing I will do this one day. A guy climbed a tall tree next to the river that well over 50 feet high and jumped into the river.
Another novelty I stumbled upon in this place was a man (so tattooed it looked like he was wearing a shirt) with a make shift boat made out of branches going down the river. What a sight.
At the end of the day I go to an excellent stretch of the southern Blue Ridge Parkway. I had hours before sunset so I needed a good hide out so to speak in the mean time. I found a very neat trail to concentrate on. I had my Elmarit macro lens on my camera so I decided that I would look for subject matter that matched the lens. I found a fascinating world of insects, flowers and such off this trail. I ended up naming the trail the Elmarit after the lens.
The sunset was not smoky this night. It was very nice with various colors on the strewn out clouds. I passed the time in conversation with a lady named Kathy. She is an avid follower of moon phases.
The following morning on another part of the Blue Ridge I find myself traveling thru thick clouds that covered the mountain range. Sometimes the visibility distance was just a few feet. I set out on a lonesome hike to see Crabtree Falls. This was the most scenic waterfall of the trip. The hike did drain me so I forfeited my plan for another hike (Lineville Falls) that would require much more driving also.
I then go to Triple Falls in the southern part of North Carolina. I ran into Kathy on the trial whom I met the night before by coincidence. This place is phenomenal with its massive waterfalls in succession. I lingered just exploring the interesting features found here. A scene from the film Last of the Mohicans was shot here.
I am now driving to my next hotel in Dillard, Georgia when I took a spontaneous side trip to Glenn Falls. The hike goes along side a river visiting a few falls along the way. The main one I saw was an awesome 60 foot waterfall. I was able to approach the base of this waterfall.
I then make it to my hotel which I previously stayed in for a night on the winter of 2008. Like then there was almost nobody in the hotel. For over an hour I was the only one in the entire hotel building. This gave me the liberty to nap with the door open. I love this place because it has a balcony with views of the north Georgia mountains. After I was plenty refreshed, I go to Black Rock State Park (which is Georgia’s highest park). It is a very interesting place. I revisited the next morning under thick clouds which shrouded the mountain. I did not find a suitable place to see the sunset from here so I go back to an overlook near the hotel. Around this time the outer bands of Tropical Storm Beryl were affecting the area. On my way to the overlook I stop by a ranch. I saw a wonderful sight of dark clouds and green sun lit hill in foreground. As I was admiring the unfolding scene a couple of friendly equines approached me. I petted one as we exchanged a knowing stare. Storm cells were visible as the setting sun cast golden hues on dark clouds. The unfolding drama persisted for about 1 hour from this overlook. The rain came during the middle of the night.
Stone Mountain Relief
I had a few hours before my scheduled flight from Hartsfield Jackson International, so I go to Stone Mountain before any tourists arrived to casually stroll around. I have been here 2 previous times. My first trip here was in late 2008. My first look at this grand monument sparked more explorations of this kind. I now saw the monolith in a different way though. After over 20 exploration trips ($20k estimated spent) all over the western US, PR and CR, this place now has the same feeling of a Disney Land exhibition. I do not mean it in a derogatory way. It is just for the sake of perspective.
For someone from South Florida’s flat and relatively featureless terrain, the Southern Appalachians are an excellent place to visit for its wide open mountain vistas and plentiful accessible waterfalls.
I aimed to revisit California early April 2012 as a sequel of sorts to 2011’s “Californian Charm” Trip. In this venture the itinerary was similar but I reversed the order of the planned route. Last year my last destination in the venture was the lofty Crystal Cathedral. This year my 1st destination was a comparably humble yet elegant glass chapel named Wayfarers located on a sea cliff. I spent a colorful sunset on a sea cliff in Palo Verdes. It was a good start to the trip on this Good Friday.
The following day I visit the famous Huntington Beach Pier for an interesting sunrise. I revisit the surf spot The Wedge (last year the waves were pumping) and now it was flat. I went to Dana Point (last year the waves were really good) and now it was near flat. I head to my hotel in the desert ahead of schedule and revisit Red Rock State Park on the way. Last year it was chilly and windy with fast moving clouds. This time the wind was calm and air was hot with no clouds.
The Eastern Sierra Nevada
It is now day 3 and I find myself at the foothills of Mt Whitney for sunrise. I explored the Alabama Hills in 2010 near this Mountain and found curious rock formations, arches and wild flowers. This time I did not find the interesting rock formations in this system of rock mazes or any wild flowers. The Sierras experienced a very dry winter. When I drove Highway 395 in 2010 as part of the “Transcendent Southwest” trip, the mountains were full of snow and some foothills had fields of flowers. The absence of this deep snow on the mountains made it lack luster. Though the day was sunny it was hazy. The road to June Lake Loop was closed due to snow in 2010 and the 1st lake was completely frozen. Now the road was open and there was no ice on the lakes. I saw skiers and snow boarders up close in the Mammoth area. I return to the Alabama Hills for sunset and go on a hike described as 15 minutes round trip to see a rock arch. After briskly walking for 20 minutes I still did not reach the arch nor did I see any signs of it. The sun already went below the mountains so I turned around.
Rearrange of Schedule
The trip itself was about to turn around too. The forecast called for 2 storm systems back to back to hit California causing 4 days of rain. It had not rained in southern California that winter for 4 days in a row. The rain was to arrive 1 day faster than a previous forecast causing me to agonize and eventually reorganize my plans. I cancelled my trip to Death Valley which was forecasted to reach near 100 degrees. At this point things felt dry, dusty and too warm at times. With that in mind, Death Valley was not very appealing. I wanted rain in the desert not on the coast. I cancelled my hotel reservation in Bakersfield and made one in Monterey. I woke up at about 3:30 am to drive over 5 hours to the coast to arrive one day early to see Big Sur Coast before the rains came. This was my priority in this trip. Last year this portion of Highway 1 was closed due to excessive rains causing mud and boulder slides destroying parts of the road. In my trip of April 2011 it was closed and even during my trip to Yosemite in late May 2011 it was still closed. Just a day before my arrival for this trip the road was closed for other repairs and had just reopened, but I thought the rain would soon ruin the experience if I did not make this sacrifice.
Reward for Sacrifice
As I drove from the high foothills thru the valley as the dawn broke, I surprisingly was not falling asleep at the wheel. I had good musical companionship to help me press on. Now I was rising from the great valley to the coastal mountains and I finally reach a high point on the road that allows views of the coast from many miles away. It was an excellent and welcome sight to see sun lit green hills in the foreground and distant fog and cloud layers covering the coast beneath. The day ended up being hazy but a very enjoyable exploration experience for me as I meandered up Big Sur. Along this drive there are multiple places of interests to explore. I thought I might be dragging along after the long journey but adrenaline kept me up all day till I reached windy Monterey. This was the best day of the trip so far. I thought that the rest of the trip might be a joyless march to the inevitable.
And The Rain Came Down
The following morning the rain was present as forecasted yet I had 2 pleasant hikes in the morning. The 1st hike in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park took me alongside a pleasant river early in the morning with no one around. I hiked up a mountain surrounded by coastal Redwood trees. Everything was damp as a persistent light rain fell. There was a fresh feeling in the air among the plants, trees and birds with views of other nearby mountains adorned with passing clouds. The 2nd hike was even better. It was in Lime Kiln State Park where I would take a relatively short hike to a good looking 80 foot cascade. On the way to the falls I did not encounter another person. This place was quieter than the other place. At this point the rain had stopped. At the cascade I felt the liberty to linger more than usual. I scrambled and jumped from rock to rock to reach the base of the falls. The flow was coming down good and strong. This is a great place to get soaked on a warm day.
I arrive at Morro Bay where I had reserved a 2 night stay. I canceled the 2nd night due to the anticipation of rain. I sat in my car in Montana de Oro State Park overlooking sea cliffs in the constant rain as I reviewed weather forecasts in various areas and alternative trips to places like Mohave Desert. It was the most depressing time of the trip as it rained continuously into the night.
I did not hastily head to the desert the next morning though. The hotel was only a few block from the enormous Morro Rock so I went there pre-dawn. I was on the bay side when I noticed the dark clouds starting to scatter as the dawn approached. This was creating a very compelling scene. I watched sea otters floating and moving with the current and swell lines in the bay. I saw numerous sea birds of various species floating or flying around. I saw nearby mountains with attractive layers of clouds on them. I was thinking that this scene with interesting light would soon be over, but instead it got better. I go over to the ocean side and saw good medium sized sets of waves rolling to the beach with light wind. Many surfers were already in the water and others were arriving. I speak with one of them whose name is Bodie Snow. Though he recently did a month long surf trip to Maui he was stoked to go surf in the cold water on the relatively small waves.
I became very grateful that I did not leave this place prematurely.
I then go back to the Montana de Oro which even in the rain the day before I could tell was an interesting place. As I enter this park a group of people wave me down and alert me that a big tree fell during the storm blocking the road into the park. I went to a nearby beach trying to make the most of it. About 30 minutes later I decide to see the fallen tree for myself and to my pleasant surprise a work crew had already efficiently removed the large tree from the road. The coast within this park is very interesting due to its rocky shore line where wave were crashing strong, tide pools and sea caves. There was also a decent display of various wild flowers along the Bluff Trail hike. I return to Morro Rock for sunset and to my surprise the weather was mostly clear. The surf was still rolling as the colors in the sky displayed interesting contrasts and textures. I return to the same hotel in which I cancelled the 2nd night to re-reserve. I asked for my original room, but was told it was given to a nurse who would stay for over 2 weeks. After meeting her I discovered that she is originally from my current city Miami. This was an even better day than day 4 and the day with the least amount of driving.
Day 7 was mostly a non event. I went to a 100 ft cascade that was literately just a trickle over a wall of moss. The woods were comfortable and cozy this morning though. I then embarked on what was to be a 2.5 mile round trip hike to 80 ft Tangerine Falls in Santa Barbara.
Even though a couple of ladies explained to me how to get to the falls as I was well into the hike, I was perplexed by all the various trails that forked from the supposed main trail. There are drain pipes all along the creek which is very unsightly. What made matters worse was the need for scrambling, creek crossings and hiking up steep moist terrain as I lugged all my camera gear. At one point (just like in Bama Hills) I gave up and turned around never even snapping one picture.
Things improved when I visited the famous surf spot south of Santa Barbara know as Rincon Point. The wind was causing some texture on the waves but overall still okay conditions. The potential for long rides at this point break is very good. The rest of the day was overcast and ugly. At this point I tried to end the trip a day early because of the forecast of 100% rain so I called the airline but was informed I would have to pay an expensive penalty for changing flights.
Snow Storm on the Mountains
I wake up at my leisure for the 1st time of the trip on day 8. This day I had planned to take a boat ride to Anacapa Island which is part of Channel Islands National Park. I see that the radar shows abundant snow is was currently falling on the high places of Los Padres National Forest which is an hour’s drive from where I was. I make a relative b line for the mountains. Once I started the steep incline in elevation in the Ford Taurus it went from heavy rain to sleet at about 3000 ft above sea level. At this point the road was very icy and the car was constantly sliding though I was only going about 15 mph. I would then be hearing strong thunder booming and echoing in the mountain range though my windows were up. There were very few cars I saw during the whole time I was on this road. Twice while I was parked on the side I was asked if I was okay. The first time it was a lady who stopped and showed me the okay sign as an inquiry and the other was a man in a snow-plower who did the same.
As I persisted driving up the steep mountain road I pass the 4000 feet above the sea level mark and the temperature was about 33 degrees. The sleet turned into an abundant falling snow and it was accumulating rapidly. The sight was extraordinary especially because the snow was decorating the fascinating rock formations found on these mountains. At one point the temperature was 36 degrees and still snowing. I had seen this place on a clear day in 2011, and now I saw it in a completely different attitude. In 2011 the sun was shining as I immersed myself in a rushing creek with small cascades. This time the creek was completely muddy from all the run off. Later I saw Malibu Beach which is normally a clean blue now it was dark brown because of mud run off from the rivers. It was a very good way to finish the exploration part of the trip.
I had to deal with some logistic issues though to actually finish the trip. As I was backing the car up in a gas station during some rain I lightly hit a car that came seemingly out of nowhere. This caused a minor scuff on the bumper of the Taurus. I then park the car in a very narrow spot in the Travelodge parking lot in the rain. I had reserved and pre paid but the front desk did not have my reservation for some reason. After nearly an hour in the lobby dealing with reception and the booking agency, I decided to leave. As I drive to a Motel 6 a mile away the car’s tire goes flat. Regarding the hotel, I paid $10 less than Travelodge and was in my room in a matter of minutes. The hotel was much quieter than Travelodge too. I then resolved the tire issue with my AAA as the rain stopped and the day actually cleared. The Motel 6 parking was spacious allowing for the mechanic to change the tire comfortably as opposed to Travelodge’s cramped lot. I was grateful that it was the last mile of the journey that I had gotten the flat. Expedia (the booking agency for Travelodge) not only refunded the price of the hotel but granted me a $50 coupon to use with them.
I traveled over 1,900 miles at 28 MPG in that Taurus. Gas prices were as low as $4.15 a gallon and up to $4.80. I experienced from as low as 28 degree air up to 83. I experienced drought like conditions to abundant rain. I went as low as sea level to over 8000 feet above with views of over14, 000 ft peaks. These high contrasts were also typical of the exposures I took. The challenging light made for time consuming editing with many below average shots. I took well over 2,000 pictures and deleted over 1400 of them not to mention the video clips. There were times that I felt joy, excitement, peace, awe or contentment. There were other times I felt anxious, frustrated or depressed. Overall this trip was successful especially for the sake of adventure.
It took a lot of preparation for me to undertake this trip to Central America. International travel has a lot of red tape involved. It was a gamble to travel to this region at the supposed transition of the rainy season. I have been attracted to Costa Rica for quite a few years. I initially was fascinated by the famous ocean waves, and then by the rich volcanic landscape and wildlife. Thrusting myself into this endeavor I bite the bullet, but it bites me harder.
Day 1 I drive in vain to the gate of Poas National Park to see the crater lake. It was about 3pm and they basically turned me away as it was too late. The Park closes at 3:30pm. What is also frustrating is that all these places open at 8am when the sunrises at 5am. The park hours are more like business hours. It does not consider that the best ambiance happens during sunrise and sunset when these places happen to be closed. In short I estimate that the natural wonders are operated as the epitome of the “Tourist Trap”. You are told the entrance to the park is $10 and the parking is $3. The $13 is not unreasonable, but the packaging is manipulative. You park near a beach, and a self proclaimed security says that there is no charge to park, but that if you want him to protect your car to pay him $2. Again the $2 is not the issue but the manipulation. In one place the attendant told me upon my asking that there is no charge to park the car but it is $10 to enter the trail. As I entered the trail I behold landscape workers on the trail thus killing any feeling of adventure. This was a common theme in the trip. Add the fact that the main feature Arenal Volcano Mountain was being clocked in rain clouds. I left moment’s later feeling ripped off. That feeling would remain thru my travels.
In all the 1500 km that I drove I did not encounter a “scenic drive” in the true sense of the phrase. The country seems rigged to rip off tourist by alluring them to a restaurant or hotel as they advertise that their property affords the best view of the beach or volcano or whatever. I did not see one designated pull out for scenic value that wasn’t attached to some gimmick. There are actually almost no pull outs whatsoever on any road. No rest for the weary traveler that endures the mental strain of the video game. The game while driving is to avoid the pot hole as you swerve to miss hitting the dog that wants to bite the tires of the car. The game intensifies when people come at you from all angles as do the cars of all types. For variety you will see cows on the road or more frequently large tractors going 10 KMPH. All this is to be expected in a Latin American country unfortunately.
The region is naturally phenomenal yet the wonders are usually cheapened into a Side Show attraction. What deforestation, mineral extractions, dams etc did not do to destroy nature, the heavy exploitation aimed at tourist did to minimize its appeal to the lover of blessed wilderness. You are bombarded with advertisements for canopy tours, zip line adventures, hot springs (10 in one town alone), surf schools (10 in one small town), night hiking tour, wild life guides, boat rides, canoe rentals, bike rentals etc. The marriage of natural wonder and commercialization is a bad one. Most of this is done in a distasteful and dishonest way.
It is possible to find isolated spots of beauty on a beach or a forest as I did. This does take considerable effort in most cases though. The region is rigged or set up much better for the resort type vacation than an adventurer. Most of the hotels I stayed on were on great locations in excellent settings and decent rooms for good prices (So Called Low Season).
All these logistics never take up so much space on a travel journal, but these issues tainted the trip. The business affair of a trip should serve the higher purpose of exploration in as a transparent manner as possible, not be the consuming force that it was in Central America for me. I would have probably not harped so much on such topics if the weather related issues did not ruin my essential purposes for going. Add to the fact that clouds blocked views of 2 volcanoes I went to see; the waves were no better than Florida. Costa Rica has great potential for an amazing trip, but I lost badly on my gamble. I was asked to rate my experience from 1 to 10 and I rated it at 3. Tally a traffic ticket to the tune of $600 to the loss. I had a car following me too closely from behind while a work truck abruptly pulled from being parked on the side of the road in front of me. I quickly decided to pass him (double yellow line) as opposed to slam the brakes on a slick road going down hill. Did I prevent an accident? I do not know, but I got fined. This was my most expensive and unfulfilling trip I had been on (and I have been on many). The good moments were few, fleeting and infrequent for a 7 day trek. I would be overlooking the coast from a hill at sea cliffs early in the morning when construction vehicles loudly chug up the road spewing black smoke from the exhaust pipe. Welcome to paradise. I know that one may find a slice a paradise in this region. It will not be easy or cheap to attain it though.
I would have liked to write only of the handiwork of The Creator in this region. That which I saw (apart from bad weather and policy) I totally liked. La Paz Waterfalls and Garden are a worthy visit. The exhibits of native animals are no better than a zoo. The landscape and set up is very good. There are 3 waterfalls consecutive on the river. All of them are impressive and can be visited one after another in short succession. This I found unique. The following day I see the La Fortuna Waterfall under some intermittent rain. At this time (only time in the trip) I venture in the strong currents proceeding from this over 100 ft freefalling waterfall. I could not get very close to where the waterfall was hitting due to this strong current. I ventured to the side of the falls on a slippery rock ledge. It felt like I was in the middle of a tropical storm.
The next day I go to Tenorio / Rio Celeste. I had greatly anticipated visiting this milky blue river and it did not disappoint. The hike to it is difficult at times (steep and slippery) but not overwhelming. There is a stark blue lagoon that I really liked. The water of the lagoon is as clear as milk; meaning the blue color dominates. The place in the river where the clear water becomes blue is unique. The waterfall is found a ways off the main trail down a very steep and slippery (dangerous) stairway of sorts. It is a powerful freefalling waterfall which is also relatively wide. It is dangerous and awesome with the stark blue water at the base of the falls. This place also has hot spring sections. One place (rightly forbidden to enter) one can clearly see the boiling water coming from the river bottom.
For the closing of this day I make it to the Pacific for my first time in the trip. As I was strolling on Playa Ocotal I see tracks of a big dog on the sand. A moment later I hear a guttural howl and expect to see the big dog, but instead I see a group of 3 monkeys above me on the trees. The howler was the Alfa Male. Cool experience. I later find a secluded section at the base of a headland to see a nice sunset. I randomly got a close look at 4 colorful parrots (I am told they are Macaws) I have never seen such colorful birds on the loose. There are a lot of colorful flowers all over, but they are usually road side / farm side and not on the trails or fields. One of the reasons I enjoyed my hotel rooms was because of the garden settings and frequent colorful bird visitors. I saw a lot of humming birds. The country hills and mountains are indeed green with varied plant and tree life, but I prefer the rain forest of the Pacific Northwest or Puerto Rico’s El Yunque. The country is very mountainous all over but there are few impressive peaks. The peaks that do stick out are probably all the classic volcanic cones.
After being directed where to park near the Manuel Antonio National Park I was promptly pressured to hike with a guide for $20 more. He said I would not be able to see much wildlife on my own, but with the guide equipped with scope I would see all kinds of animals. The truth is I would have seen most of the animals on my own, but don’t regret going with my guide Mapacho. He spotted and explained some things that only a guide could. Beyond that it was the fellowship shared with him and a couple of older farmer folk from Kansas that enhanced the hike. I then go to the famous surf spot Jaco and only medium waves (mostly clean) were breaking relatively close to shore. I still enjoyed seeing a couple of local surfers ripping. I spoke with a local after sunset that informed me that I was looking at a Costa Rican Surf Champ ripping. I could easily see that this guy was top notch in his skills. The same kid told me that Jaco gets waves with no swell, and I was looking at a no swell day. He mentioned that waves with a swell will be much larger. Some of the waves I saw were around 4 ft. I wish my local break would be 4ft on a no swell day.
Now I am down to my last full day and ambivalence best describes my frame of mind. I want to see the glories found in the region but I am totally fed up with the systematic exploitation. I travel up a mountain thru thick cloud cover to reach Irazu along with the tourist riding tourist shuttles. For about 30 minutes the weather was interesting. Most of the clouds were below this elevation and only some were passing at ground level. The sun was shinning. I was venturing toward the attraction (the crater). It was windy and chilly but not uncomfortable. I saw a shallow ordinary looking lake called Playa Hermosa thinking it was the crater. I was very unimpressed, but took some mandatory pictures. I meandered to the main path again and found myself at the rim of a huge hole more than 900 ft deep. I was impressed. I then saw to my astonishment the actual crater lake. I was laughing at myself in joy. It was the most stunning site I had seen in the trip. I took it for granted that the sun was illuminating this marvel because a few moments later it was as foggy as a summer morning on the northern Pacific Coast. Soon after came a persistent drizzle that wet my camera equipment. There are no more highlights worth the mention that I can recall.