We woke up at the crack of dawn without getting much sleep because we were so excited to finally put our backpacks back on and do some adventuring!
I feel like I’m finally doing what I am meant to do again! It’s been a long year and half of helping other people travel (my job is Assistant Manager at a hostel), feeling a little bit more bored by the routine of it every day. I’m happiest when I have a light pack on my back and a plane ticket in my hand!
There is now a pedestrian bridge (Cross Border Express) from the San Diego side of the border into the Tijuana International Airport. The cost is $15 per person, but it’s super convenient as opposed to crossing on foot and having to take a Mexican taxi to the airport. I slip in and out of sleep on the flight from Tijuana to Chihuahua, catching glimpses of the turquoise-blue passage over the Sea of Cortez, then dry, craggy, cardboard-brown mountains jutting violently out of the flat, barren desert.
Chihuahua at first glance seems like the Wild West of Mexico. Lots of men wearing owboy hats and giant belt buckles, very few gringos. We had to use an ATM to withdraw pesos because there was not even a “casa de cambio” in the airport.
Chihuahua is close to Juarez and the landscape reminded me of the scary, violent scenes from “Sicario” as we rode into town on a taxi. I think it’s much safer, although not very touristy. Our friend from here warned us to stay in the main tourist town of the Copper Canyon (Cañon del Cobre), Creel, and not spend any nights in the small villages, as that’s where we could get kidnapped. Creepy.
Our taxi quickly dropped us off at the office of Autotransportes Turisticos de Noroeste. The ticket saleslady said something about our trip being slow but our Spanish was not up to par enough to understand why at that moment. On the bus, the city ended quickly and we rolled through open desert with mountains in the near distance. About an hour outside the city at the first toll plaza we saw the protest. People and trucks were blocking the highway in both directions. Apparently the price of fuel had been raised 20% overnight and everyone was mad. We had to wait about an hour before they let our bus through. The bus was slow and we had to wait at another roadblock; the mountains got bigger and trees started replacing the cacti as we got higher. It looked a lot like northern Arizona.
After roughly seven hours (should have only taken 4.5) we rolled into Creel, a cold and sleepy town after dark. Hotel Temescal was welcoming and warm, with super-cute Chihuahua pups to play with! Some authentic food at Restaurante Veronica was exactly what we needed. Zach got “El Norteño”, a cast-iron skilled of beef, cheese, and veggies, a traditional local dish.
We dropped into bed early, happy to have made it through our first big travel day and ready for more adventures!
From our campsite we looked down over the dusty towns of the Inland Empire, imagining their residents choking in the thick layer of smog that was ever present. But the air on the mountain was clean and as the sun set over the desert below, the stars shown brightly down on the lights of the towns, like scars strewn across the desolate landscape. We went to bed early as we sometimes do when camping, not having brought firewood and wanting to wake early to hike the peak. We left the cover off the tent so we could fall asleep under the stars in the brisk mountain air. Peaceful dreams came fast.
We stayed at the Marion Mountain Campground. There were only a few other people staying there, all quiet and keeping to themselves. We picked site number 8 because it overlooked the valley. It wasn’t a very shady spot and didn’t have trees for our hammock, but the view was worth it.
We made some breakfast in the morning and decided NOT to go on the 12 mile round trip hike to the summit of San Jacinto Peak. The weather man was predicting possibilities of rain and being caught on a giant mountain in a thunderstorm is not one of our favorite things to do. So we went to the ranger station in Idyllwild town and they recommended the Deer Springs Trail to Suicide Rock, a more manageable hike to some white rocks overlooking town.
The hike was moderate and peaceful, with only us on the trail. Lizards of various sizes ran away as we made our way upwards, there were also birds and chipmunks scurrying about. Once at the top there was indeed a few perfect places to off yourself.
I climbed to the highest rock over looking the biggest drop and looked down on the town of Idyllwild, hidden beneath me in the pines. The iconic Tahquitz Rock was across the valley. We ate some snacks and took some Go-Pro shots. We started back down with a lot of morning left and were down the hill before noon, glad that we didn’t do the big hike.
Our car took us back to town where we grabbed some tasty sandwiches at Idyllwild Bake Shop & Brew. There were lots of interesting people walking around; climbers, outdoors people, Asian tourists, old hippies. We checked out a few of the smalls stores. They had few customers but very friendly shopkeepers. We especially liked the pet shop where the owner told us that Idyllwild was the most dog-friendly town in America and gave us a magnet of Mayor Max, the golden retriever. We were tired from hiking and wanted to take our boots off, so we headed back to camp and relaxed for the rest of the day. The city life had destroyed our connection with nature, so we were happy to take it back for a day.
We needed to get out of town and breathe some open air for a couple nights, so we settled on a hastily-researched camping getaway in Anza Borrego State Desert Park. Boy, did it deliver! The stars our first night out there were shining brighter than any I’ve seen anywhere else in California! Breathtaking!
We camped at Tamarisk Campground, which had spacious spots, clean bathrooms, and water spigots, basically everything you need for a good campout! The temperature dropped to around 50 F at night so the campfire was much needed! We spent the next day driving around the massive park getting our bearings. We didn’t do too much hiking because we had the dogs with us. They weren’t allowed on many trails and it was too hot to leave them in the car in the middle of the day. We’ll definitely have to come back to explore the Mud Caves and do the famous Palm Oasis hike.
We did check out the awesome visitor’s center, drove to the Ocotillo Sand Dunes, and then ate great cheap Mexican food in the tiny town of Borrego Springs. There were huge rusty animal sculptures all over the town so we had some photography fun with one of those.
The road home took us through Julian, so naturally we had to stop for some famous Julian apple pie! I’m so glad we were able to get out in nature for a couple days. My soul always feels refreshed after some time in the middle of nowhere!
I’ve never been super into Italian food. Maybe it’s because I’ve never really found the good stuff! We CHOWED down in Italy! Italian food is based on simple, fresh ingredients and exquisite craftsmanship. Every restaurant worth its salt makes their own pasta and menus change seasonally. Thank God we walked so much to stave off too much weight gain.
Breakfast every day was cappuccino and “cornettos”, which are Italian croissants filled with Nutella!!! Yummers!
The antipasto was also amazing! Here’s some bruschetta and prosciutto with melon before lunch!
“Suppli” are basically breaded deep-fried risotto balls. I want to eat these every day for the rest of my life!
Cured meats, bread with gorgonzola truffle spread, tapenades, and veggies at the Mercate Centrale in Firenze. Definitely go there for the amazing local food choices!
The most epic meat and cheese board in the world from La Prosciutteria in Roma.
Pasta made from scratch is SO MUCH BETTER than dried boxed pasta. The pasta was really thick and rich! I tried spinach-ricotta ravioli with garlic sage cream, spaghetti a la pesto, and many more!
Last but not least, dessert! Authentic tiramisu is not very sweet with a very strong coffee flavor. This one was pistachio flavored, hence the green color.
Gelato was also a daily occurrence. This one was from Perche No! in Firenze, which I had dreamed of visiting since hearing so much about how good it was from a high school history teacher. He’s now retired and I half expected to run into him there! I can’t wait to go back to Italia with Zach someday and try all the goodies again! Until then, I’m on the hunt for suppli in California!
Climbing Il Duomo di Firenze on top of Santa Maria del Fiore is a must-do in Italy! We stuck it out through a three-hour-long line to get our chance. The good thing about waiting in line with a group is that you can do shifts. A couple of us would hold the place in line while a couple of us would wander off to explore the Piazza del Duomo, drink cappuccino, go to the bathroom, etc. It was still a looooooong and slow-moving line!
The humongous and intricate Gothic cathedral was begun in 1296, and the dome was engineered by Brunelleschi. The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can climb the dome, climb the belltower, or visit the baptistry. The views from the top of the dome over Florence are amazing!
Fresco of “The Last Judgement”
Florence is beautiful! I can’t wait to go back someday and see more of Tuscany!
After a few days in Rome we managed to secure a hotel in Florence (“Firenze”). This was not an easy feat, as it was Holy Week and everyone and their mother was flocking to Italy’s famous cities. But we found a cheap room and made it to the Trenitalia station bright and early, despite staying up waaaaay too late drinking and chitchatting the night before. Hey, you only live once!
On to Tuscany (Toscano). Due to our pathetic condition, we didn’t get to enjoy the scenery on the train ride as much as we’d hoped. By the time we got to Florence it was cold and raining (these SoCal kids are NOT used to that!) and we were desperate for food and a nap. Several pizzas and several hours later, we were back in shape and ready to go look around the slightly wet city. Florence had a lot more varied food options than Rome did, strangely. We stuck to Italian food though; it was just too good! Florence was much smaller and easier to walk around than Rome, but still packed with gorgeous architecture and history!
Basilica di Santa Maria Novella
The (fake) David, by Michelangelo, in the Palazzo Vecchio. The real one was is inside the Academia Museum (Academia di Belle Arti di Firenze), but tickets sell out months in advance and we didn’t think that far ahead.
Perseus killing Medusa.
Battling the Minotaur.
Ponte Vecchio, super old bridge covered in jewelry shops.
Stunning view over Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Tomorrow we’ll get to Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, one of the most famous churches in the world, and climbing it’s beautiful dome!
Our second day in Roma included the necessary trip to the Vatican City (“Vaticano”). Since it was Holy Week, we expected it to be thronged with tourists, and it was. You couldn’t walk five steps without a street vendor trying to hawk you a selfie stick. Lines were long to go into St. Peter’s Basilica (“Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano”), but we survived all the waiting and pushing for a chance to go inside the world’s largest and most famous church. After clearing the ticket booth and two sets of metal detectors, the line of people began filing up a winding staircase inside the Duomo. The church is one of the most famous work’s of Renaissance architecture, designed in large part by Michelangelo. It wasn’t until we made it to the first balcony that we got to view the magnificent ceiling and cupola. Believe it or not, this entire ceiling is not paint, but a mosaic!
After getting up close and personal with the amazing mosaic interior, we continued upwards. The stairs got steeper and narrower, with the outside walls even tilting in on us. I’m not normally a claustrophobic person, but the tight spaces and the slowly plodding line made this trek a little nerve-wracking! I was really glad when we finally got outside at the top!
The view over the rest of the Vatican and out into Rome was stunning!
After taking pictures and buying some postcards from the rooftop gift shop, we headed back down 500+ stairs to go inside the cathedral. So much ornate sculpture and artwork it was overwhelming!
One could easily spend hours navigating the interior of St. Peter’s but by this time our crowd tolerance was wearing thin. We headed outside, past the Swiss Guards, and off to a well-deserved lunch!