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Author Archives: Zach

Mt. Whitney, TO THE TOP!!!

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The view UP from Whitney Portal

We had been trying to get a permit to hike to the top of Mt. Whitney for years.  This year we finally won the lottery and got the chance to hike to the highest point in the lower 48 states.  We picked up the permit the day before at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center then drove up to Whitney Portal where we would camp for the night.  It was an amazing campground with huge boulders and even bigger rock walls.  The area was always full, but a nearby stream of icy mountain water blocked out the sounds of other people.  We packed our big backpacks, ready to wake up early and adventure upwards.

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The morning came fast; the adrenaline had already kicked in making for anxious sleep.  We packed everything we wouldn’t be carrying into the car then, after putting our extra food into a bear box, we started up Whitney Trail.  There were lots of hikers, mainly very friendly people.  The trail wove its way up a steep canyon and eventually leveled out to high lakes with constantly flowing water.  There were many creek crossings where we had to rock-hop through deep, streaming water.  We were especially glad for our trekking poles at those times!  Soon we were among the snow piles, still melting from the hard winter.  We saw chipmunks and very fat marmots, waiting to score a snack off an abandoned backpack.  It was only six miles to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet so we made it around 1pm, the summit above us and cold lake beside us.  We set up our tent and got water to filter.  With our boots off we spent the afternoon lounging, hydrating, and reading.  We felt strong and had great feelings about making it to the top.

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Energy Gu Cheers!

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At Trail Camp

The alarm went off at 5 and we were out at 5:30.  Dawn was already creeping over the horizon, so we left our headlamps at Trail Camp and started up the infamous 99 Switchbacks. There was running water over some of the paths and when you took your feet from the water to the rocks your feet would become instant ice-skates. Good thing it wasn’t any colder.  We wore hats and gloves; it was cold but the air was still and since we were well trained we powered up the switchbacks as I sang “99 Beers On The Wall…” in my head, to surprising accuracy. We thought the name “99 Switchbacks” was a joke.  Nope, there are really 99 of them.  Hikers going up were in all shapes, mostly doing pretty well, but a few seemed to be struggling with altitude sickness. We finished the ‘backs and entered another area called the Pinnacles, I think. This was the stage where you merge with the John Muir Trail hikers to summit for the finish of their weeks-long adventure. The trail zig-zagged behind the peaks with some amazing views of the inner Sierras and nice drop-offs to the opposite side toward camp. Carrie thought that it looked like an ancient castle, long worn down by weather. The final section was up the back of the peak, sometimes jumping rocks and following a new path near the end as the old was still snowpacked. Up, up, up until finally around 9:30am, the peak of the Stone House, more than 100 years old, inched over the horizon and then the world was below us and a cliff of nightmares and we had made it!!!!!!! 14, 496 feet, the highest peak in the lower 48 states!  Everyone was overjoyed, we kissed and sat near the edge and soaked in the moment. We signed our names in the register with everyone else and didn’t linger, it was a long way down.

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Sunrise view from the 99 Switchbacks

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Going through The Pinnacles

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Looking west over the John Muir Trail into Sequoia National Park

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We made it!

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Back at Trail Camp we packed our tent and were out of there by 1pm.  The way down was easy but we took it slow, avoiding injury.  We felt accomplished, the world was ours!

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Enjoying some flowers on our way down

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Transitioning to Dirtbag Life

It felt weird to be back in Arizona. Not our home for six years but the comfort remained as we checked out all our old favorite spots. We hiked to our favorite swimming hole, which was still as beautiful as ever, water a perfect way to cool off in the middle of a seven-mile, 90-degree hike. Nearing the end, we witnessed a teenage couple— the guy foolishly hiking into a deep part of the canyon to get water, cursing back up at his girlfriend for not following him down. They showed up at the swimming hole about an hour later. Apparently on the edge of death, the miserable looking boy pulls out a small battery-powered fan, his girlfriend using his precious water to wash sand off her butt. I never did see them get into the water.

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Smile!!!!

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The Crack

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Hiking is fun!

On the way back we drove through Sedona and up Oak Creek Canyon. The views in this region are unbeatable! We had forgotten what an amazing place this is.

The next day we hiked a section of Bill Williams Mountain, starting at the ranger station east of town.  The hike has some pretty nature and I enjoyed finding four types of wild mushrooms nestled beneath the pinion pines. The grasshoppers buzzed around the woods, their sounds always startling and interrupting the tranquility. We didn’t finish the hike, which round-trip totals seven miles, because we have done it a few times before and we had been hiking a good deal.

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Our third day we got up at dawn and drove to the Grand Canyon. We hiked along the rim until there were less crowds with selfie sticks and climbed over the edge to a nice place to hang our feet over. In the distance we spotted two California Condors which we had never been lucky enough to see before. They circled through the sky, catching air streams, and eventually cruised right in front of us. The sound of their feathers rippling through the wind was mesmerizing, wings stiff like a hang-glider. Easily the coolest birds I’ve seen in the wild.

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Day four we finally got some climbing in. We went bouldering at a place called Priest Draw off of Lake Mary Road in Flagstaff.  The Draw is famous among the climbing community and we were excited to check it out again, having last been there in 2011. We sent some of the easier problems, leaving the classic cave problems for the pros. It was a great spot to spend the morning with our pup Toby who loved tramping around in the woods. We planned to go across the street to The Pit, a sport climbing area, but it started to rain as we entered the parking lot so we went to Flagstaff to a gear shop. We needed just a few more things for our coming Mount Whitney trek.

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Our Prius has been carrying us everywhere and we are calling it the “Rock Crawler” now.  Every day seems to bring about some new dirt road for us to conquer.  We are decked out with gear and a new solar panel/battery bank.  Wish us luck as we head to hike Mount Whitney!

Foodies in Mexico City

After regulated Cuba, it was strange to jump into a city fueled by capitalism.  The streets were full of delicious things to eat and there were way more than four different vegetables.  We found a hostel (Hostel Home) in the Roma district close to a metro station.  Our layover was for about 30 hours so we had time to see some new things.  Four years before we had flown into Mexico City from Tijuana for a long weekend, we had checked out the most famous tourist sites in the city and the pyramids of Teotihuacan on that trip.  This time we would just eat and do a lot of walking through the city.  Making your way though the neighborhoods you never knew what you will come upon.  Maybe such wonderful things as the most delicious gorditas ever right around the corner from the hostel!

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One of my favorite spots I’ve ever eaten.  I will find you again someday!

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A gordita with potatoes, nopales, grilled onions, y muchas salsas deliciosas!

There was a large political demonstration in a neighborhood park nearby.  Every few minutes there was canon fire in response to the speeches that echoed through all of the downtown area.  We got as close as a few blocks, then our ears couldn’t take the explosions.  All the locals saw it as pretty normal.

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Political graffiti of the Mexican President.

There were some very good vegetarian options in the city.  We found a super busy vegan taco cart called Por Siempre.  We got some “pastor” tacos with some kind of homemade fake meat and grilled pineapple.  The flavors were strong and delicious; the texture perfect!  The best part was the toppings bar with salsas, potatoes, beans, and grilled onions and such.  The cart blared metal music and had a spot to park your bicycle– super hip.

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Por Siempre Vegan Tacos

Another place we ate was called Vege Taco in the Coyoacan neighborhood.  This small restaurant had a three course lunch option of salad, soup, tacos, and a healthy drink for around 100 pesos ($5).

Coyoacan is a beautiful, artsy neighborhood with an amazing crafts market.  There was something new and exciting around every corner and I couldn’t taste half the things that I wanted.  It would take years to do a proper eating tour.  We also found the same amazing coffee roastery we went to last time, Cafe El Jarocho.

Back in the Roma area we found another taco restaurant (we walk a bunch then eat a bunch) and had second lunch.  This is when I officially decided that pineapple was a very underrated taco topping.

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Later on we stumbled into a bar in the Roma after walking a long ways.

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I’m pretty sure the skulls where real.  Couldn’t convince myself otherwise.

 

Trinidad: Buildings and Beaches

Trinidad, Cuba is a small colonial city on the south coast of the island, about a four hour drive from Havana.  Nestled on a hillside overlooking the Caribbean, Trinidad offers pristine examples of colonial architecture.  The buildings were painted in all different bright colors and the streets where cobblestone.  This was our favorite city for live music as you could literally hear three or four bands from any spot you stood at in the touristic area.

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Plaza Mayor

Our second day in Trinidad we rented bikes from our casa particular (15 CUC for two mountain bikes for the day) and set off on another adventure.  We were headed to Playa Ancón located about 15km from the city.  It was an easy, flat ride so in no time we rolled through the small fishing village of La Boca and along the coast towards the beaches.  We passed trees of tamarind and swarms of dragonflies and the weather was perfect.  The asphalt road was potholed and sandy the whole way, so bikes were perfect for the journey.  Playa Ancón is the most idyllic beach on Cuba’s southern shore, though it’s popularity pales in comparison to the northern Veradero-area beaches. The beach had beautiful white sand and the water was the exact postcard-perfect blue that we all idealize.  This was our only beach day of the trip because well, we live at the beach in San Diego, California.

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Fishing beach at the Rio Guarabo river mouth in La Boca

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Playa Ancón

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Viñales – Enchanted Land of Tobacco

Havana was great and all, but after spending four nights in the the busy big city we were ready for some country time.  Our señora in our casa particular arranged for a taxi to grab us in the morning for the ride east.  The shared cabs only cost about 10% more than the Viazul buses and get you there way faster with their door-to-door services.  We were picked up by an old blue 1950s Buick – a wobbly, feel-the-springs-in-the-seat, smell-the-exhaust-in-the-cabin, but still-watch-music-videos-on-the-dashboard kind of taxi.  No seat belts in Cuba, but the AC worked somehow.  We rode with a pair of students from New York, who were on a whirlwind tour of the country.  Outside the city we felt like we had gone back in time.  Horse-drawn carriages and tropical farms of bananas and sugar cane.  Everything was green and lush and it was hard to believe that there wasn’t an abundance of all foods on the island.  We were headed for Viñales, the land of the worlds finest tobacco.

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Rain storms over Viñales, Cuba

After about a three hour drive we arrived at our new casa, a cute pink house run by Cary and Anay, a mother and daughter.  Like all the houses in Viñales, it had rocking chairs on the front porch, from which you could lounge and people-watch the day away.

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Viñales, Cuba

Day two we rented bicycles and headed out into the countryside of Parque Nacional Viñales.  The grand moros (rocky hills) were all around us.  Instead of the mountains raising from the earth, underground rivers had caused the valley floor to fall creating the dramatic landscape.

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The Cuban countryside

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Riding bikes past La Cueva El Palenque

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Transportation

A few miles outside of town we came to La Cueva del Indio, one of a series of many caves in the area.  The cave tour is accessible through a restaurant and costs 5 CUC.  The caves had a nice walking path through them that led to a boat ride down an underground river.  It was nice except for a super-obnoxious family in front of us.  Seriously, who yells in caves and moves precariously-balanced rocks around trying to find a lens cap?

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The underground river at la Cueva del Indio in Viñales, Cuba.

Once back in town we headed down a side street to the edge of the village where we were found an organic tobacco farm.  We took a tour (in Spanish) where they explained the growing, drying, fermenting, and rolling processes of Cuba’s famous cigars.  They also explained the difference between organic and chemical tobacco production.  At the end we tried some of the organic Monte Cristos dipped in local honey.

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Organic tobacco drying house

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Traditional tobacco drying house

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Fields of tobacco

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Telling us about Monte Cristos, Che’s favorite cigars!

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Rolling a cigar.  They use four leaves and honey to hold it all together.

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Packs of cigars in banana leaf packs

We only had the bikes for one day so headed out again in the other direction to the strange and epic Mural de la Prehistoria, a strange giant painting on the cliffside.  Apparently it took several painters many years to complete.

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Mural de la Prehistoria

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On day three we decided to go for a hike.  We walked past the turn off for the Mural then after about one more kilometer took a right turn and headed towards Los Aquaticos, a village on the hillside.  The Lonely Planet had some general directions but we asked some farmers along the way, brushing off several dudes who wanted to guide us up there.  The views were fantastic along the way and we felt at peace amongst the country animals and fields.

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Carrie’s new bestie!

At the top there was a small blue ranch house with a view of the valley.  They sold delicious  coffee grown on site that you could sip while enjoying the scenery.  A cute pig snuggled up to Carrie.

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Royal Palms

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The view from Los Aquaticos

You could hike up farther but it was growing late in the afternoon and we were satisfied with our adventure.   After eating dinner we took a nap then went out late to the government-run dance hall.  Every town had at least one of these places with a salsa band and bar and lots of people.  We really need to learn some moves!  Until we do, it’s still fun to watch everyone boogie down.  Viñales was an all-around great time, with lots of nature and fun nightlife!

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Let’s salsa!

Enjoying Havana

We had been trying to go to Cuba for awhile.  We had the whole plan set to go before we were officially allowed to, but easing of the restrictions made it easier for us.  Our flight from Mexico City set down after dark and we had our visas and passports and we couldn’t wait to get out there exploring.  They took our picture at customs then we waiting in the muggy airport for a long while waiting for our luggage.  Everything was painted USSR red and the women customs agents wore tight khaki army skirts along with fishnet tights and heels.  The agents led basset hounds around the airport, making people drop their bags while the dogs circled them.  The form we signed made it very clear we were not to bring drugs, guns, or pornography into the country.  Our taxi driver was waiting for us with our name on a sign.  She would take us to our casa particular in Centro Habana.  First we had to change money.  Cuban locals use the peso, while foreigners have to change their cash into Cuban Convertible Pesos which equal $1 or 24 local pesos.  They charge 10% to exchange dollars so it was cheaper for us to bring Euros and trade them for CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos).  All the local shops use pesos while tourist areas only take CUC so after you get the CUC you can trade a little bit to pesos to spend on snacks and ice cream and such.  It was confusing and redundant, like many things we would find in Cuba.

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Our taxi was a red ’50s Chevy with the inside refurbished and a big TV screen that played loud reggaeton music videos.  It was awesome.  In Cuba travelers have two options for accommodation: government-run hotels or private “casas particulares” which are rooms in private family homes.  Kind of like AirBNB, the casas are much more affordable and friendly than the overpriced, stark government hotels!  In Havana we stayed in a fifth floor apartment in the center, with a nice lady whose Spanish was understandable.

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Breakfast at our casa particular

The first thing I noticed in Cuba was the lack of billboards.  The only thing resembling advertising was political propaganda.  There’s about a 50/50 ratio of old/new cars in the city.  The stores had dim lighting and the shelves were sparsely stocked with dusty goods.  No Coca Cola!  Only a national soda brand.

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View from our bedroom window in central Havana

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In Havana it seems like everyone is always out and about, living their lives outside.  Every building is a different color and in a different state of disrepair or renovation.  The cars were the same, with the freshly-painted old classics always full of tourists driving loops around the city.  As we walked through Habana Vieja (Old Havana), enchanting live music flowed from almost every cafe, even at lunchtime.

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Surprisingly, we were never really hassled; we just had a lot of friendly people want to know where we were from.  We walked and walked, seeing the old castles and fortifications that kept the pirates out.

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Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro

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Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana

It was super hot on our first day in the city (high 80s) but the sea breeze coming off the Malecón (sea wall) helped a bit.  The Malecón is where everyone gathers at night to hang out, drink beer and rum, and see and be seen.  On our second night the wind picked up and sent waves over the wall in dramatic fashion, closing the road and sending careless tourists running for dry ground.

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West of the Malecón lies the Vedado neighborhood.  Newer than Havana Vieja, Vedado is home to the large hotels, sprawling residential areas, and the city’s best nightlife.

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We found a Beatles themed rock club called Amarillo Submarino where they had a great rock ‘n’ roll cover band.  It used to be illegal to play all English music, but times have changed in Cuba.

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Our favorite spot in Vedado was the Coppelia ice cream shop.  The place is shaped like a giant space ship and was opened in the ’60s right after the revolution.  Always busy, you have to wait in a long line where they have a one in-one out policy.  They try to usher foreigners into a separate area, but do not be led off course because the locals’ area is the real deal!  Once inside you will be ushered into one of four rooms, seated at shared tables and served whatever ice cream flavors they feel like at the time.  Each room has different flavors, so cross your fingers when getting seated.  Oh, and the scoops are one peso each, or about 4 cents.  Since the ice cream is so cheap, everyone orders at least 1o scoops apiece!  On the best night we got a choice of mint or chocolate mint flavors, on the worst the choice was between guava, banana or plantain.  It’s also a great place to people watch and witness the redundancies of the communist workforce.  There are bored bouncers in several different locations, servers, scoopers, bussers, water pourers.  It takes a simple ice cream shop to a crazy level of complexity.  Never did it stop being strange.

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Coppelia

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We did NOT order enough ice cream on this night

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That’s more like it

Havana is a city of layers, never lacking in character or interesting encounters.  The people are full of life and resiliency, pushing forward despite everyday struggles that are sometimes unbelievable.  I don’t think you could see the same Havana twice with so much change happening at every moment.  It did make us appreciate just how easy we have it, the simplicity of just going out and buying whatever, whenever.  But then again, is that how things are supposed to be?  Is that ability to freely spend really necessary, or is it just a lie created to fill fat pockets?  I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Barrancas del Cobre!

We set up a driver to take us to the Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon) the night before but after waking up early and waiting around for him, we ended up having to call him and wake him up.  Once there he drove us to the center of town where we switched to a different car with a different driver.  This guy was a real Mexican cowboy with white hat and pointy snake skin boots.  He drove fast out of Creel on the road which follows the famous tourist train, El Chepe, into the the deeper parts of the canyon.  The views were magnificent as we passed through small towns of tiny log cabins and indigenous people looking for rides.  This area was home to the Tarahumara (or “Raramuri” as they call themselves) people, famous for trail running (check out the book Born to Run) and the women’s colorful skirts.  Supposedly it is also a hideout for many narcos, as we were advised by our Mexican friend from the area keep to the main road.  We headed for Parque de Aventura Barrancas del Cobre, the adventure park, and stopped about 10km out to check out a mirador (view point).  The view was grand, reminding us of the US southwest with its pines and high desert colors.  There was a family of indigenous people selling pretty jewelry, woven blankets, and baskets made from maguey leaves.

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Up ahead was the park.  We paid 20 pesos each to enter and were left off at the lodge overlooking the canyon.  He was were you found a restaurant/bar, many shops, along with the “adventure” part consisting of a seven-zipline route with hiking, a rappel and ropes course, and the world’s longest zipline that took you three km into a point in the center of the canyon.  From there you rode back to the lodge on a teleferico (cable car).  Edward Abbey would have rolled over in his grave, but this is Mexico and they don’t always have the same ideas about conservation and such.  To our eyes it seemed like the adventure park actually brought many more tourists (hence more money to the area and the locals) to Barrancas del Cobre than would otherwise come.  Hopefully the increase in tourism is helping with conservation.  The ziplines were quite expensive for Mexican standards and few of the locals we asked had actually tried it.  We ended up buying the seven-zipline and rappel course as a package, and were ushered off to get harnessed up.  First up was a 48-meter rappel onto a ledge below, woo!   Next we followed a path which involved climbing rebar steps bolted into the sides of the rock hanging over gaping chasms, then a rope bridge, a Tarzan swing across a chasm, a four-wire bridge, more rebar traversing, a windblown tightrope bridge about 100ft off the ground, then finally up a chimney.  It was way cooler and more thrilling than we imagined, and the guides practiced safe procedures.

 

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Back on top we were told that the zipline wouldn’t start for 45 min so we would have to wait, problem was that we needed to leave with our driver before then.  After expressing our frustration, they agreed to let us do the ZipRider, the world’s long and fastest (2.5 km long and reaching speeds up to 80mph) zipline for the same price, which we were glad to do!  After waiting behind a family of 16 (it went two at a time and took 2.5 min to get to the bottom), and some standard Mexican slowdowns (they had to wait for the cable car to bring the harnesses back up) it was finally our turn.  Here is a video of our ride!

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The view from the end of the Ziprider

Back up top we looked for our driver, who was nowhere to be found.  We got worried cause we were late, but of course he was just later than we were.  We got some delicious gorditas while waiting.  On the drive back to Creel, we stopped at Divisadero, the main train stop with a cliffside hotel and gorgeous view into the canyon.  Back in town we got some chicken soup since it was cold and had a chill night, buying bus tickets and souvenirs, very glad we had came to this place far into the depths of Mexico.

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Crafts market at Divisadero