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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!

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San Jacinto and Idyllwild, California

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Idyllwild town monument

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.

Anza Borrego Getaway

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

Sintra – A Town of Castles

Sintra, Portugal is located to the west of Lisboa, a short train ride out of the busy capital.  It is a magical mountaintop on the edge of a national park that is the home to many castles built by many conquerers.  Romans, Moors, and Christian crusaders fought many battles and all occupied the space for a time before Portuguese kings began to use the town as a weekend retreat, (Wikipedia Sintra will explain the complicated history better than me.)  Now it is one of the most touristy places in Portugal but well worth fighting the crowds to see.  From perfect castles to ruins of ancient fortresses to cobblestone hikes through thick forests, Sintra has a lot for everyone.  We didn’t actually go inside any of the castles because they are expensive and we would rather just take pictures and walk around the outside.

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Quant old houses with the Moorish Castle visible on top of the hill

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The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (like everywhere else in Europe, it seems) and has many nice restaurants and cafes.  We brought some food for a picnic because everything in Sintra is overpriced.

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Hiking to the Moorish Castle at the top of the mountain.

6We enjoyed the hike to the top.  There were amazing views and it felt like we had escaped the city life for at least a short time.

Part of the Moorish Castle

We continued along the trail to Pena National Palace.  They made you pay like 15 Euros before we could even see anything, so here is a picture that I stole from the internets.

Pena National Palace

If we had a little bit more cash to spare, we definitely would have gone inside the palace.  As it was, we felt more like hiking and enjoying some nature anyway.  Sintra was a very good escape from the big city!

 

Zion National Park–Heaven on Earth?

“Hot sand on toes, cold sand in sleeping bags.  I’ve come to know that memories were the best things you ever had.” -Ben Howard

Horseshoe Bend, Grand Canyon

Horseshoe Bend, Grand Canyon

 

After dropping our dog off in Arizona to be kindly taken care of by her grandparents for the next two months, we headed off on a long meandering path to Burning Man!  The first stop was Horseshoe Bend, a crazy geological formation near the eastern end of the Grand Canyon.  It’s only a mile off the lonely highway but it’s still surprising to see so many tourists and hear so many foreign languages being spoken in this crazy desolate area.  The short walk down to the overlooks is totally worth it if you don’t mind your stomach turning a bit!   No guard rails here, as in most of the canyon.  With more than a 1000 foot straight drop off in most places, I wouldn’t recommend cliff jumping either.

After seeing the bend we crossed Lake Mead into Utah.  Since it was Friday and we hadn’t made a reservation, we were assuming Zion National Park would be full and we’d just find a campsite outside the park.  But, lo and behold, luck was on our side and we pulled up to the gate just in time to nab the last campsite in the park, over at Watchman Campground.

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After setting up our tent next to some way-too-tame deer and a little fawn, we hiked the Watchman Trail, along the Virgin River and up a small bluff.  I remember tubing in this river when I was a young girl.  Warped memories from when I was really small plus the western drought in recent years made it seem significantly less “rapid” than I remembered, haAfter a good night’s sleep, we set off the next morning on the trail to Angel’s Landing, one of the most popular and strenuous hikes in the park.  We were repeatedly warned of the difficulty-steep grades and sheer dropoffs and do not attempt if you’re not a confident hiker!  Call us crazy, but as relatively-well-seasoned hikers, we didn’t think much of it.  Granted, the trail was a lot of steep switchbacks, really tough on the thighs!  The trail was really wide though so the “sheer dropoff” wasn’t quite as dangerous as they made it sound.  Or so we thought!  It wasn’t until we got ourselves almost 2000 feet up to the last section of trail that we got our rude awakening.  I’m not sure “trail” is even the right term for the last climb up Angel’s Landing!  It’s literally a skinny outcropping of slanted rock layers, with a chain bolted along the side for you to desperately cling to, while you place your feet into crazy contorted positions, precisely one after another, trying to ignore the sheer drop to your right!  Ahh!  Oh, and there’s only “one lane” for all hikers, so sometimes you’re practically climbing over the top of people or bear hugging them so they can pass or you can pass them.  They needed some traffic control up there!

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The thing is, I am not really scared of heights that much.  Strap me into a harness on a belay system and I’ll hang out off the top of that precipice all day.  But when I know that it’s only my own strength keeping me from falling to my death, that’s when I freak out.  I know I can do it, but I’d wayyyyy rather have a lifeline.  Anyway, we’d come so far, so we kept going to the top, stopping to snap a few pics, all the while our hearts still beating and palms sweating at the thought of having to go back down the same way.  Luckily, we kept our cool and no one went hurtling.  After finishing the sketchy section, we practically ran down the rest of the trail, and finished the whole round trip in 1/2 the time the rangers tell you it takes.  Ha, at least we’ve still got that on them!

The sicko’s tour of Antigua

As you may recall from Zach’s last entry, he was feeling pretty sickish during our time in Parque Nacional El Imposible.  Unfortunately, the day after our epic hike, I woke up with the same bug, and he woke up with the beginnings of a mysterious rash on his hands and feet.  So we were definitely in fine form upon arrival in Antigua, the beginning of our brief stint in Guatemala.

The afternoon we pulled in, I did nothing but lie in bed and feel miserable.  What a lame-o.  The next morning I pulled myself together enough to walk around a tiny bit and take some uninspired picture of the old city.

I think the Spanish really liked the color yellow.

The Cathedral

Every time we went into a church we had to sit down inside to rest.  This picture characterizes how we were feeling:

Blech.

Fortunately by the end of the day I was starting to feel much better.  Not so much for Zach.  His rash had spread to his face and was getting worse.  Stay tuned for his story of how we ended our Antigua visit…

El Salvador’s El Imposible: Snakes, rain, and lots of jungle.

The only way into El Salvador‘s Parque Nacional El Imposible on the south side is a up a rough cobblestone road that winds its way up 14km from the coastal highway into the mountains.  There are several buses per day that make the trip but unless you are right on time, you will probably have better luck just hitching a ride in the back of a pickup.  After waiting about an hour, we were picked up by a nice couple that was also staying at our hostel, so we got super lucky.  The views riding from the back of the truck were amazing with the green hills covered in thick jungle and the ocean far in the distance.  The first night we took it easy and planned to get up at dawn to do a 10km round-trip hike before the midday rains came in.

That night I had a fever and felt all lightheaded and in the morning I was still not feeling 100% but decided to hike anyhow.  However, upon arriving at the park and learning that we were required to hired a guide for $10 on top of our $6 each to enter, we got angry with the system and decided to just rest up instead.  While walking back to the hostel I got all lightheaded again and my fever chills came back.  “Good thing we aren’t hiking!”  I went back to bed planning to sleep all day and hopefully be ready to move on by the next day.

I woke to someone yelling “Buenas dias!”  It was the couple that gave us a ride and they wanted to know if we wanted to go hike with them and share a guide.  After sleeping for a few hours I was feeling much better, so we told them we would come along.  They filled our water bottles with “agua de coco” from freshly cracked coconuts  and pretty soon we were back in the park and ready to hike!  The guide was there and turned out to be as pointless as we thought, as the trail was easy to follow.  By this time the sky was the normal hazy mess it is almost every day recently.  Ahh, the rainy season!

Nearing the midpoint of our hike to the top of Cerro León, we heard a yell in front of us and saw a three-foot-long brown snake slither off into the brush.  The guide said that the coffee-colored snakes are very dangerous.   A little farther ahead we heard another yell as the same guy almost stepped on a tiny stripped snake.  The guide said that this little guy was even more deadly.  Carrie and I were in our Chacos so we were pretty scared of stepping on one at this point!

At the top we were in the clouds so there wasn’t a view.  We had a few snacks then just as we were starting down the sky opened up and rain fell so hard that we were soaked in under a minute.  The trail turned to muddle puddles and waterfalls were forming everywhere.  We had to almost run down because there was a river that we needed to cross and the guide was worried about it swelling too much before we got there.  Thankfully we were able to cross but the water did go up to my knees.  The rain never really gave us a break and once finally back at the starting point we weren’t sure if we had a good time or not.  However, it was a crazy adventure and we both had goofy smiles on our faces for some reason.

Check back later for the story of the jungle rash some plant gave me!