Isle Royale

We’re back! In a time of disease & uncertainty, we found a way to add a National Park to our list. This time we voyaged out to Isle Royale National Park in Upper Michigan.

Rock Harbor Side

Eric A spent a few months trying to put some longer road trips together, to no avail. With Covid- 19 hanging in the air, to cross state lines park to park & get the experience we’d prefer, it just wasn’t happening. After some thinking & a month’s worth of planning, we picked the Isle.

We already knew the park wasn’t visited all that often. They offer a much shorter season than most parks, April until November, but in 2020, the season was even shorter then that. Unlike some of the more popular parks, it’s not easy to get to. Most people don’t want to put the effort into the planning so fewer people visit.

Eric A on the Seaplane

When it comes to getting there, you can ferry from the Houghton Visitor Center in Houghton. Michigan, or fly by sea plane from either Hancock, Michigan or Grand Marais, Minnesota. This year however, Isle Royale is only offering entrance by sea plane or personally owned boats only, due to the virus. So we went with the obvious choice, the seaplane!

Isle Royale Seaplanes

Isle Royale Seaplanes, is a husband & wife owned business that transports people by plane over to Isle Royale during the season. We found them pretty early on, mostly because they have the only license to do so. They were really informative & the price was more than reasonable for one of the best experiences you could ask for.

When you decide to start planning your trip, you need to start by figuring out what your goal is. Do you want to hike the entirety of the park from one end to the other (45.98 miles) or just pick a side & do some day hikes? No matter which you choose, you have to pick the side you want to start or end up on. You can pick the Rock Harbor side or the other side, Windigo, we chose Rock Harbor. Typically with a normal season, the island offers lodging, camping & restaurants; they also have a great little mock REI at the Rock Harbor store where you can buy camp fuel, some clothing & camp gear, food & beer. This year however, the lodging & restaurant were not open. Also for anyone choosing to visit during Covid, you have to pre- order your cooking fuel through the Isle Royale Sea Plane website, & they’ll have it at the visitor center you choose when you arrive.

This park is slightly different than most when it comes to camping, because it’s pretty much a back packer’s park. When you show up, unless it’s by personal water craft, you’re left to carry your gear to the campsite of your choice. Something you should also know, about your gear at this park though, is you need significantly less. Most, if not all of the campsites marked on the map have small makeshift cabins on them, which are first come first serve & you can’t stay more than three nights. Now these aren’t your grandpa’s cabins… or maybe they are! The cabins are more or less 3 walls with a roof & a bug screen on the front. What is great though, is if you plan right, you really don’t need a tent, sleeping pads & bags are really all you need. That being said, we only did day hikes, that might not be the case if you’re hiking the entire island. Finally, something you will need to bring with if you don’t have one, is a water filter. We stayed mostly on Lake Superior, so all we did was filter our water, boil it in the Jetboil, move it back into our water bottles & let it float in the lake until it got cold again. You don’t necessarily need step two but if you like to use iodine pills & didn’t bring any, the boiling will do the exact same job. For any other questions, we spent about 3 weeks talking to the rangers at the Houghton Visitor Center (over the phone) & they were very helpful. Another resource for camping is the park newspaper, The Greenstone. The paper has charts on it that show you distances between campsites & whether or not they allow fires.

Dock at Daisy Farm

We spent our first two nights on the island at Daisy Farm. It’s usually boat traffic heavy with a lot of people & little space, but with the visitation of the park so low this season, we had no problem getting a cabin & getting comfortable.

We were hell bent on seeing moose while we were there. This was supposed to be a good year to see them with so few people on the island. We were recommended the Greenstone Triangle to head out & see if we could find one. Moose typically eat in the morning & at night & spend the hotter parts of the day resting & trying to stay cool. We headed out in the morning to see if we’d have any luck… we didn’t. We saw red squirrels & a wood pecker but no moose. As a matter of fact, the entire 3 days we were on the island we never saw one. Aside from the afore mentioned animals, we saw a bunch of merganser, butterflies, beavers, & otters. There’s more to Isle Royale than just moose & wolves & we were happy to see it.

The entirety of the outskirts of the park lies on Lake Superior. However, there’s also plenty of places to hike inland. That said, you should be ready for thick marsh & tree growth. We packed bug spray galore & treated our clothes. Whitney A wore a mosquito net & it helped. This wasn’t their heavy mosquito season but the black flies were nasty & went off on a biting frenzy, make sure you’re physically & mentally prepared for that.

The treks are tough & weather can change at any moment, but we highly recommend this to anyone who loves wildlife & anyone who truly wants to get away from car camping. The seaplane ride over, should you choose to take it, will blow your mind. Make Isle Royale your next pandemic vacation & you won’t be disappointed!

As most of you know at this point, Whitney A & I usually have an early December Christmas with our family & spend our holiday in a National Park somewhere. This year we decided to spend ours with the likes of Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, & four of America’s most important president’s, including Theodore Roosevelt, spread out over three parks between North & South Dakota. The parks were Badlands, Wind Cave, & Theodore Roosevelt National Parks.

Badlands, a 1939 national monument was solidified as a National Park in 1978 & is home to over 1,200 Bison & has also been the setting for Hollywood Blockbusters “Dances with Wolves,” & Michael Bay’s “Armageddon.” Wind Cave is the U.S’ sixth oldest park, established in 1903 by Theodore Roosevelt to preserve the caves & wildlife that lies within it. Wind Cave was one of many parks founded by Roosevelt. A couple others being Crater Lake in Oregon & Mesa Verde in Colorado. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, was dedicated in 1978 to the 26th president of the United States by then President Harry S. Truman.

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Whit & I flew into Rapid City, South Dakota the night before Christmas. We spent our first night, before we hit the road at the Fairfield Inn. Normally I wouldn’t mention something like this, but the hotel has a waterpark inside & it ended up being a blast. One of the water slides rips through the hotel bar & uses a glass tube enclosure so you can watch riders zip by as your enjoy a White Claw & the Packers getting smoked by the 49ers in the NFC title game.

The next day we decided to head out to Badlands first, because the Ben Reifel Visitor Center had open hours on Christmas Eve day. Along the way we stopped in the small town of Interior for a beer at the Wagon Wheel Bar. It was the only thing open this time of year & the bartender made sure to let us know that if we needed any help she lived just down the street.

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We were greeted by smiling rangers at the visitor center happy to see us in our Christmas sweater, snowman outfit combination. They told us to take Badlands Loop Road up to the Sage Creek campground for some easy winter camping. What they didn’t tell us is what we might see along the way.

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Rams Badlands National Park

As we trucked along, we came around a big bend & right there were 5 big horned rams, an animal I never thought I’d see up close. We were cautious at first, taking photos at a distance. I had brought with my 70mm – 200mm zoom lens & as I got a little more comfortable, was able to stand right in front of them on the opposite side of the street & get some great shots. Something any new wildlife photographer, including myself needs to remember, is no matter how comfortable you feel or the animal appears, they’re still wild. They need space, so make sure your come prepared for that. Bring long lenses. Don’t show up with wide lenses & try to get within petting distance. There are very few shots that can’t be achieved with a longer lens.

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The rams were just the appetizer. We had hoped at some point that we would see buffalo. I talked to a few park rangers before we came to see what the chances were & they said it was more than likely. What they didn’t say is how there’s buffalo everywhere. Between Wind Cave & Badlands we saw hundreds.

We were going nuts after seeing both rams & bison on our first day but we knew the sun was going down so we headed over to set up camp at the Sage Creek campgrounds. We got there & right away I didn’t want to sleep in an established space. The campgrounds are flat & exposed to anyone that may drive by. Perfect for a family party setting in the middle of summer, but not what we were looking for during the parks slow season. Instead we headed off to the side of the campgrounds, to a creek near some tall hills & set up camp there.

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Our Camp to the side of Sage Creek Campground

At one point during the evening Whitney A & I were playing “Go Fish” in her tent & heard something just outside. Right away Whitney crapped her pants & began to wimper, on the other hand I was fearless, stoic as you might expect, but that quickly changed & I too thought we were about to be mauled by the wolves we had heard howling earlier in the distance. Turns out it was just some brush rubbing around outside the tent & we carried on having a few drinks, laughing & telling stories. Now for any of you that have been camping somewhere desolate, the most amazing thing is how a sound a half mile away can sound like a hoard of banshees getting ready to tear your camp apart & eat your friends & family. Nope, it was just a tumbleweed rolling across the desert sands. Shrug…

Mount Rushmore in December was under construction & closed on Christmas Day but that didn’t stop us from stopping by. I have the opinion that most monuments you can see on a postcard are probably equally as exciting in person as they are on paper. For example, when I was in Paris, I was very underwhelmed with the Eiffel Tower. Now that might be because I’m American & that isn’t my heritage but on the contrary, Mount Rushmore is unreal.

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Mount Rushmore Keystone South Dakota

Carved into Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills, Keystone, South Dakota. Historian Doane Robinson, in 1923, originally suggested the idea of carving four of the United States most notable presidents as a way to promote tourism in South Dakota. In 1924 he recruited Danish – American sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, his son Lincoln & approximately 400 workers to complete the task. The project’s execution took place over 14 years from 1927 to 1941 using drilling & dynamite to carve the faces of the presidents. Originally the project was supposed to consist of the president’s heads down to their waists, however, in 1941, Gutzon died of an embolism in early March & Lincoln tried to continue the project but quickly ran out of funds, leaving only the four heads we see today.

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I knew in advance going to Wind Cave that the elevator was down & nowhere close to being fixed. We wouldn’t get to see the inside of the cave but the rangers bragged that this was a great park, cave or no cave. What a huge surprise that this would be one of my favorite parks. It’s loaded with Bison & beautiful trails & wouldn’t you know it, the weather ended up being perfect the day we went.

Camping was relatively easy at Wid Cave, mostly because we decided it was too cold to sleep outside & we knew we’d want to move fast in the morning.

It was a 5 1/2 hour drive up to Theodore Roosevelt through Deadwood & Sturgis South Dakota. If you’re into Wild West History, Deadwood is a must. Stop at No. 10 Saloon to see the chair Wild Bill Hickok was shot in or Seth Bullock’s Hotel. For me the best part was visiting Mt. Moriah Cemetery & seeing the graves of Wild Bill & Calamity Jane.

About an hour & fifteen minutes South of Theodore Roosevelt is the town of Amidon, North Dakota. Home to a whopping 25 people in 2019 & there’s a bar, maybe the greatest bar. Mo’s Bunker Bar is owned by a husband & wife who got tired of drinking alone on their couch & wanted to extend an invite to people to drink with them. Funny thing about meeting the owner of the bar the night we were there, is that he’s also the mayor of Amidon. A minimum 13 people said to themselves “This is our guy!” & if I lived in Amidon, he’d have my vote too. They were gracious hosts, allowed dogs in the building & over all a great idea that opens them up to an endless amount of possibilities.

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Theodore Roosevelt was the last stop on our trip. It’s composed of two units, the North & South, & is home to upwards around 170 wild horses, hoodoo rocks, & petrified trees. It’s easy to see why Roosevelt loved it so much & now we do too.

Great Basin

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President Ronald Reagan declared Great Basin National Park an official National Park in 1986, the same year the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, Mike Tyson won his first title, Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” was released as the years highest grossing movie, & yours truly, Eric A was born. Great Basin, home of the Lehman Caves, founded by Absalom Lehman in the mid 1880s, was home to America Indians for over thousands of years. Currently, farmers, ranchers, mormons & sheep headers call it home, & for three days over Labor Day 2019, so did we.

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Nick

A lot of National Parks are near smaller novelty towns that usually house seasonal bars, gift shops & what not. The small town of Baker, Nevada, which sits right at the entrance to Great Basin has Kerouac’s, a great little diner with a full bar, opened by Kate Claeys & Jake Cerese. Kate has a lot of experience in the dining including running the dining hall at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, which was great because we were only about 2 1/2 months from going to Antarctica ourselves. We also made good friends with their bartender Nick who coincidentally was also from Chicago & makes one heck of a cocktail.

After spending out first night drinking at Kerouac’s we decided to spend the night in the Lehman Caves Visitor Center parking lot, in our rental car. This ended up being the perfect situation. We were able to get up in the morning & brush our teeth the next day & we were exactly where we needed to be for our cave tour that morning.

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Lehman Cave Tour

Whitney & I have been to other caves, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, & Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, but what made this one special is that I finally brought camera gear that would allow us to get a useable shot inside of a cave! I now bring with a Sony A7sii with a series of lenses, varying from wide to tight, an Olympus OM2 with a similar lens package, & two 6 inch Quasar tubes that have 4 different f- stops of light in both daylight & tungsten temperatures. I cannot stress enough how great these tubes are. You’re not allowed to have flashes most of the time, so to be able to pull one of these little guys out of my pocket like a 6 shooter is essential. Other people taking IPhone photos always love when you help them out by quickly side lighting them for their photographs.

Lake Teresa

Wheeler Peak at 13,065 feet is the highest point in Great Basin & second highest peak in Nevada. The Alpines Loop Trail is a 2.7 mile loop, giving you views of Lake Stella & Teresa, the poster children for the park. It also has some great lower elevation views of Wheeler Peak, & everyone knows, I like seeing mountains from the bottom! When Whit & I were there, the water level was very low, giving a nice clear view of the rock bed below, & if you happen to be there at a time where there aren’t a lot of people around… even better.

Backwoods camping is very easy in the park, you can pretty much go anywhere, except basically, the three places I just mentioned. If you look at the Great Basin Park Map you’ll see a big purple circle around these three landmarks. The NPS says “Absolutely not,” when it comes to camping up there. Something I just learned from one of the rangers there, was they aren’t only looking out for the safety of the park, but your photos as well. They know this is one of the most photographed places in the park, so they don’t want camp litter scattered about in your memories. Thanks Park Service!

In all, it’s a little bit of a tough park to get to, but it’s totally worth it. I have to say that each time we visit one of the lesser visited parks, I feel special. I know we care & want to experience something the masses usually don’t want to put the effort in to go see, plus the random relationships we make along the way are always an added bonus. Thanks Great Basin!

Arizona

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Tee Pees Petrified Forest National Park

Hello everyone stuck in quarantine out there. I hope you’re all finding some sort of comfort in the madness that is being stuck at home. For me it’s been practicing my wildlife photography at Humboldt Park & starting to catch up on blogging. Here we go!

Last Memorial Day, 2019, Whitney A & I took a couple days & headed to Arizona to visit Saguaro & Petrified Forest National Parks. We were joined by tag alongs, Ali B & Doug B fresh out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Before Whit arrived, Doug, Ali & I drove about 45 minutes outside of Phoenix, AZ to Lost Dutchman State Park.

Recently I’ve been trying to keep up with State parks that are close to our National Park trips. In the past I feel like we’ve missed out on a few things by not doing the research. Two which we didn’t get a chance to go to but are on the list are Monument Valley Arizona & Antelope Canyon AZ.

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The Siphon Draw Trail is the main trail through Lost Dutchman. It starts almost right out of the parking lot. As you head up the trail it’s a relatively easy hike on dirt but as your start the main drag up to the Flat Iron, it becomes 2,700 feet of elevation over broken rocks & minimal trail. We only had time to make it to the bottom of flat iron but it was totally worth it. The views of the park & the surrounding desert are amazing. Worth the drive if you have 4-6 hours to spend here.

After Lost Dutchman, we picked up Whitney at the airport & at Doug’s suggestion went up to Flag Staff, for no other reason than word is it’s a “cool place.” We stopped in for dinner at Beaver Street Brewery & it worked out ten fold. The beer was good, & on Thursday nights they have bingo full of (cheap ass) prizes but if you win the last game they give you a $100.00 gift certificate to the bar. Whit, Ali B, & I each won, Ali B once, Whitney A & myself twice, sorry Doug! No certificate though!

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The next day we drove an hour & forty five minutes to Petrified Forest. The park at first seems like an easy one day visit, however after spending a little time checking out the easy to get to petrified trees near the visitor center, you realize very quickly it’s easy to spend a lot more time there.

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Giant Logs Trail Petrified Forest National Park

The Giant Logs Trail is a breezy .4 mile trail but is the best place to see exactly what you came for. Most of the trees you see at Petrified are Conifer trees that grew over 2 million years ago near water ways, were ripped up & buried in rivers, filled with sediment & as the rivers began to disappear, the trees were uncovered but have now turned to stone. The tree shown in the photo above is their longest chunk of petrified tree in the park.

We decided to camp off the Painted Desert Rim Trail, a 1 mile loop down into one of the most beautiful parts of the park. Camping here looks a little bit like you’re camping on Mars. Broken Mojave rock & giant rock piles line the trail & it’s easy to find a spot with no one else around. For photographers, there’s plenty of chances to get some great night photos.

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Painted Desert Rim Trail Photo By: Doug B

Finally, if you have a chance to stop by the Painted Desert Inn, please do. It’s one of the trail heads for the Painted Desert Trail so it’s not easy to pass up. The Inn was built in the 1920s of petrified wood but after renovations in the 1930s was rebuilt with adobe facades. It acts solely as a museum for Route 66 & Hopi Indian history & you’ll be excited to hear that they give away free ice cream!

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The following day we packed up our camping gear & headed the 5 hours south to Saguaro National Park. The park was originally declared a National Park by Herbert Hoover in 1933. It’s a two sided park divided by Tuscon, Arizona, a college town reminiscent of a small Portland, Oregon. The parks main feature is it’s giant Saguaro Cactus’ that pepper the park. These giant cactuses can live as old as 150 – 200 years old & can grow 40 – 60 feet tall, weighing up to 3200 – 4800 pounds.

Camping here is easy & plentiful but make sure you come at the right time of year to avoid the blistering desert heat. We chose May as our time to visit because the temperatures are still relatively easy going & our other choice was September which is Tarantula mating season & Whitney A wasn’t having that.

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Wasson Peak Trail Saguaro West

The next day we were getting ready at Red Hills Visitor Center & Doug B got a tip from one of the employees there that we should hike the Wasson Peak Trail into the Hugh Norris/ Sendero Esperanza Loop. I didn’t really have a plan for hiking when we got here, though what we were told was the West side of the park has more cacti & elevation & the East side is the opposite. The Wasson Peak Trail was exactly what we were looking for, gradual elevation, not too hot that day, & lots to see. My only mistake was wearing Chacos, as the end of the trail becomes long lengths of small gravel & loose dirt that uncomfortably fills your sandals, my recommendation is closed toed hiking boots.

Wasson Peak wrapped up our Memorial Day park trip & I have to say, two more great parks on another lucky weather weekend!

Something that isn’t said enough to people who visit the parks, please pay respects to your rangers. Along the way, Whitney & I have had a chance to build some really great relationships with these people & it means a lot. We’ve had rangers go above & beyond the call of duty, from transporting us by boat in a time of need in Voyageurs, to keeping the Florida parks open last Christmas during the Government shutdown. Follow the rules when you’re in the park, be respectful & maintain a clean environment so everyone can enjoy just as you did. Try to call the Park superintendents when you get back from a visit just to let them know what a great job their team did. Being a ranger is a tough job both in the field & on the political docket, so let them know you are grateful.

It was 2017 shortly after our trip to Iceland when I decided that I wanted to rival Eric’s national parks goal. I was reminiscing on our trip to Iceland desperate for another adventure when it hit me: “I want to visit the 7 continents before I turn 30.” For those of you who know me you know that I am neurotic when it comes to travel planning. Within 10 seconds of deciding on this goal I was on Google searching “how to travel to Antarctica.” Insert Adventure Life Travel; I completed a general inquiry form and waited anxiously for a reply.

Fast forward a day or two and I was on the phone with Mary, a trip adviser, having a funny conversation about traveling to Antarctica 4 years from then. Apparently I was one of two extremes planning that far in advance, but she was pleased that I wasn’t the other extreme, calling a month in advance with the hopes of making it on a ship. We chatted for awhile, she sent me a catalog, I called Eric A, and suddenly I didn’t want to wait 4 years to visit Antarctica.

Climate change, my excitement, and Mary’s support had us signed up for a 13 day cruise setting sail in November of 2019.

As luck would have it, 21 months into our anxious waiting period, we were out setting up a back country camp site in Petrified Forest National Park when I got a dreaded email from Franny, our trip coordinator. Our trip had been cancelled due to the Russian Government pulling all of it’s ships from the 2019/2020 Antarctic season. With no service to reply I was left sitting by our campsite in tears and disbelief.

The following week was a lot of back and forth with Franny, One Ocean Expeditions, and a new potential cruise option, Quark Expeditions. By some miracle, Quark Expeditions was able to get us on a cruise departing on the same date as our original trip, with the same excursion options, AND they upgraded us to a twin private room!

Describing the experience of visiting Antarctica is practically impossible so the intent of this blog post is to help it’s readers understand how to plan a trip of their own to Antarctica, how to prepare, and what to expect.

Some of our first sights of land

Planning/Expedition Options

For most people, the first obvious question when planning a trip to Antarctica is “how can I visit Antarctica?” The answer is pretty simple, either work in research or on a base, go as a guide, or join an expedition ship. In reality, if you are reading this you probably aren’t a scientist or researcher which means you will likely be looking for expedition options.

There are several polar adventure options out there. As you read, we ended up on a Quark Expeditions ship, and we are elated that we did, however, Quark is one of several expedition companies that are a part of IAATO or the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. Members of IAATO work closely together to ensure a safe, isolated, and environmentally friendly experience to all passenger aboard their ships. Because of this, it is highly unlikely your ship will ever cross paths with another ship, adding to the isolated and remote experience of visiting Antarctica.

For a full list of operators in the IAATO click here.

Getting There

There are three major places to depart from for a trip to the 7th Continent: Port of Bluff, New Zealand, Ushuaia, Argentina, or by private charter from Cape Town, South Africa.

Ushuaia, Argentina is the most common and most economical option available. Depending on where you are coming from this usually entails several connecting flights typically with a stopover in Buenos Aires before continuing onto the southern most city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina.

When to Go

The Antarctic season starts in early November and ends in March. When to go depends on what you are hoping to see and experience.

Those looking for pristine, untouched landscapes and leopard seal mating will want to opt for an early November cruise like we did. Typically more adventure or excursion options are available at this time of year.

If you are hoping to see baby penguins then you will want to head down south toward the end of December leading into January.

January-March offers peak whale watching. Now this doesn’t mean you won’t see whales during the other months it just means you will see a heck of a lot more of them during these months.

Excursion Options

Every ship offers different excursion options so this is something to keep in mind when deciding on a trip and provider. Below is a list of the most commonly offered adventure options. Keep in mind these activities are usually an additional cost and have limited availability. We were 2 of 16 kayakers aboard a 199 passenger ship, and we felt extremely lucky to have had the chance to kayak every day. Plan ahead to secure your spot!

Kayaking, Stand-Up Paddling Boarding, Mountaineering, Snowshoeing, Cross Country Skiing, Camping, and Snowboarding.

All activities are weather dependent. We attempted to camp 4 different nights and weather prohibited us from doing so.

Accommodation

Another common question I get about our trip is about the ship. As someone who has never been on cruise before, I can’t speak to how this compares other than to say that we did not have any water slides, movie theaters, or ice skating rinks. We did, however, have a comfortable, spacious twin room, wonderful hotel service/staff, a juice bar, full dining hall, gym, spa, outdoor heated salt-water pool, and two lounge rooms.

The main lounge room offered a fully stocked cash bar that I frequented often.

In terms of food, expect to gain weight on your trip. They feed you every chance they get, the food is surprisingly good, and there were new menu options daily.

Duration

Cruise duration vary anywhere from 8-21 days, but most commonly are between 10-14 days in length.

The duration of your trip will determine potential stops in South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, and the South Shetland Islands en route to Antarctica.

Keep in mind that 2-3 days of your trip will be spent traversing the infamous Drake Passage on both ends.

The Dreaded Drake Passage

The Drake is a “right of passage” to the most desolate place on earth and offers the world’s roughest waters. During our trip we experience a 5/10 on the way down and a 6.5/10 on the journey back when it comes to Drake “ratings.” Whether you get sick or not will depend on the person.

I experience motion sickness when I do not take medication but with medication was fine. I will tell you that when I woke up at 6:00 AM after our first night, sliding out of my bed as things shot off our desk into the door on the other side of the room, I instantly heard echoes of people getting sick down the hall. Take the medicine people.

I had absolutely no issues managing the Drake simply by taking Meclizine every 6 hours or so, and I was also drinking plenty of wine.

Other suggested medication options are Dramamine or Motion Sickness Patches.

Note that the boat is rocking quite a bit so even if you don’t get sick you will definitely want to practice caution when navigating aboard as several people on our boat fell causing minor injuries. You definitely don’t want to break a bone en route to Antarctica.

Packing List

Packing for Antarctica isn’t really as hard as you think it would be especially if you are someone coming from colder winter climates.

November-March is Antarctica’s “summer” so you will be experiencing temperatures ranging from 20-40 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.

Most ships provide a parka to borrow or keep so you can already count out that big coat you wanted to pack. Below is my suggestion of what to pack. I brought my Patagonia MLC and a small day pack, and I still feel like I overpacked.

1 pair waterproof pants

2 pair waterproof gloves

2 pair glove liners

2-4 fleece long sleeved base layer tops

2-4 fleece base layer leggings

1 wool hat

2 wool buffs

1-2 fleece mid layer jackets/sweatshirts

1 light weight puff jacket

2 on-board casual light weight outfits

1 “dressier” outfit for farewell dinner

gym clothes optional

binoculars

camera equipment

waterproof day pack or trash bag liner for day pack

ski goggles for the windy snowy days

waterproof smart phone case

Cost

Traveling to Antarctica can be very manageable if you plan ahead which was one of our motivations when planning the trip two years in advance, but plan on spending anywhere from $8,000-20,000 depending on the duration of your cruise and type of cruise ship.

For those flexible back-packers out there, you can travel down to Ushuaia last minute and often times find deals for 50% off or better but bare in mind options are limited and adventure options may already be completely booked. Our friend, the Fabulous Ed Gay, was able to get on-board our boat for $5,000 and secure a spot cross country skiing.

Operators and third party companies like Adventure Life Travel offer options to make monthly payments toward the overall cost. They also offer Black Friday and Christmas deals so now is a good time to shop for Antarctic cruises.

Colombia, a 9 Day Itinerary

In the last several years Colombia has risen to the top of many traveler’s destination wish lists, as it did mine. Being one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, second only to Brazil, and offering art, history, and culture in cities like Bogota, Medellin, and Cartageña, it’s easy to understand why. Pair this interest with close friends that are tied to the coffee industry, and this trip was a no-brainier. Josh, Colleen, Steve, and I spent 9 days in this beautiful country. Below is our 9 day itinerary planned based on personal research.

Itinerary: Days 1-2, Bogota

Getting to Bogota

Most major airlines offer direct flights to and from Bogota via most major cities in the U.S. We flew Avianca round trip from Chicago to Bogota. Tickets run anywhere from $200-500 round trip depending on when you book and who you book with. If you are looking for a budget flight, and you are willing to take minor risks, Spirit Airlines consistently advertises $200 flights round trip into Bogota and Cartageña. Avianca is a Star Alliance Airline, offers in-flight movies, meals, and free booze so it did the trick for us. The Customs process was very simple, quick, and there are no visa requirements for U.S. citizens as of 2019. Once you arrive, Uber is cheap and simple to use. You are looking at $10-15 to get you to the La Candelaria District. We landed around 5:30 AM, and we were at our hostel by 6:15 AM including the time it took to go through customs.

Where to Stay in Bogota

There are several popular areas of Bogota to stay in but two of the most popular are Zona Rosa and La Candelaria. Zona Rosa offers luxury hotels, some of the top restaurants in Bogota, and great night life. La Candelaria is budget friendly and more popular for it’s history and street art. I made the executive decision for our group to stay in La Candelaria, but there are a lot of wonderful options in both of these neighborhoods whether you are looking for hostels, AirBnb, boutique, or luxury hotels.

We stayed with Selina La Candelaria Bogota. It was within walking distance of most major sites, featured a beautiful courtyard, bar, private rooms, and updated decor. One thing to note; the walls were incredibly thin. If you are not a sound sleeper this is probably not the place for you. We could hear distinct conversations from the room next door and music from the bar played late into the night. Privates ran from $40-60/night. There were several dorm options as well.

Note: Selina has a “chain” of hostels across South America so if you stay with them frequently you can get discounts.

What to do in Bogota

With two days to get a taste of Bogota we opted for some of the more popular things to do with a splash of spontaneity. Anyone visiting Bogota should definitely take the time to visit Mount Monserrate. Your options are to take the tram car or hike up. Budget 40-60 minutes one way if you plan to hike it, or about 30-45 minutes each way, including wait time, if you plan to take the tram. We took the tram car, but from my understanding, most of the hike is paved, though steep. Once you arrive, take some time to explore, enjoy the views, and a glass of wine at one of the restaurants.

We also spent an afternoon with Bogota Graffiti Tour, exploring the beautiful street art of Bogota. The guides are knowledgeable, accommodating, and speak fluent English.

The remainder of our time in Bogota included watching the Super Bowl at The Pub, having a phenomenal dinner at Black Bear Bogota (recommended by a friend of Josh’s), and drinking pints at Bogota Beer Company.

Itinerary: Days 3-6,The Coffee Region

Getting to the Coffee Region

We navigated all of Colombia via cheap one way flights. Viva Colombia and Avianca offer daily flights between Bogota, Pereira, Medellin, and Cartageña for $30-80 including a checked bag. Once again we opted Avianca and made our way to the closest city to the popular Coffee Region towns, Pereira. I arranged a driver to meet us at the airport and transfer us to our boutique hotel in between the towns of Salento and Filandia. The drive took about an hour winding through the narrow streets of the area that get jammed up due to only having room for one car but still allowing two way traffic. The private transfer ran us $30 which is expensive for Colombia but totally worth it.

There are overnight bus options from Medellin and Bogota but for the sake of time and comfort we opted for the flight.

Where to Stay in the Coffee Region

The most popular towns in the Coffee Region are Salento and Filandia, Salento being the more touristy of the two. We stayed at a beautiful boutique farm stay in between the two towns called Hotel Reserva Monarca. The hotel offers beautiful views of the valley, on-site hiking, and home-cooked meals fresh from their garden. The hotel staff were incredibly accommodating, and they arranged a driver whenever we wished to go into town. At night enjoy the hot tub with a few drinks and a peaceful thunderstorm or two.

What to do in the Coffee Region

With the way our flights worked out we spent four wonderful days in the coffee region and it was by far our favorite stop.

Salento offers a beautiful town square, plenty of shopping, and restaurants. I recommend taking the staircase at the end of the main block of shops for a panoramic view of the town.

Filandia is a quieter version of Salento with amazing patio bars, more shopping, and greatrestaurants. We spent an afternoon at La Calle taking cover from the rain and cuddling with the many cats wandering around the patio bar. The staff of the restaurant next door served us, because La Calle was closed for the day, but the owner was still happy to have us. As the afternoon went on we found our way inside the bar next door and did some shopping at their gift shop. We wrapped up our day with dinner at Helena Adentro; a tapas style restaurant with signature cocktails. They boast being one of the most popular restaurants in Colombia and across South America.

Hiking the Cocora Valley is a must do when in the Coffee Region. We hired a driver from our hotel to drop us off at the start of the hike. You can also pick up an old fashioned jeep in Salento starting as early as 6:00 AM for a whopping $.50-$1.

When you arrive at the start of the hike you have two options: left or right. The common route is to take the road to the left which leads you straight to the famous wax palms and takes less time. Plan on 2-5 hours for the entire hike depending on your fitness level and factoring in the extra hike to the humming birds if you add that on. The path is very well marked and there are plenty of other people out there so there is no need to worry about getting turned around or lost.

On our last day we signed up for a coffee tour of Finca El Ocaso Salento. The tour was recommended by our hotel, and we found it enjoyable. You start by touring the property, learn how to pick quality coffee beans, and finish with an educational tasting.

Itinerary: Days 7-9, Cartageña

Getting to Cartageña

Similar to our arrival in the coffee region, we arranged a private transfer back to the Pereira airport to make our way to Cartageña. Another cheap one way flight had us at our hotel in Cartageña by 10:00 PM on a Thursday night. Just like Bogota, Uber is available and easy to use in Cartageña.

Where to Stay in Cartageña

Cartageña is the Miami of Colombia which means there are thousands of options for accommodation. We stayed with Casa La Cartujita located in the Old Town. The hotel was modern, quaint, and centrally located offering a pool and patio to enjoy in the evenings and complimentary breakfast in the mornings.

What to do in Cartageña

Unlike the Coffee Region, we found Cartageña to be our least favorite stop. The old town is beautiful, but it is the “Disneyland” of Colombia in my opinion. Plan to see a lot of tourists, stray animals in poor conditions, and street vendors berating you with offers for cocaine. Because of this, we rented a boat 2 of the 3 days we were in Cartageña. We booked through Boats4U. They offer a full day tour with a flexible itinerary to visit the Rosario Islands at your leisure. We stocked up at a local market for the BYOB policy. They provided the ice and “bartender.” A full day of snorkeling, drinks, and a wonderful lunch at Hotel Baru made it an easy decision to book for a second day with the same crew.

Note: Do not stop at Playa Blanca. It is dirty, overridden with tourists scams, and animals in the worst condition you could imagine.

Every evening we found ourselves at the bar at Alma. The hotel and restaurant are top tanked in Cartageña, the drinks are fantastic, and the bartenders are a riot. Hindsight, we definitely would have liked to spend at least one night if not our entire stay at Alma. Our final night of the trip we managed to get a last-minute reservation for dinner but definitely plan ahead if you want to dine here, and you should!

The it the biggest, widest, highest volume waterfall in the world? One of the Natural Wonders of the World? A quick google of Iguazu Falls will return a lot of lofty claims, none of which were fact-checked in the writing of this post. One claim we will get behind – the Falls are enormous. And enormously pretty. And should be experienced from BOTH Argentina and Brazil. Here’s how to do exactly that, in one long weekend.

Disclaimer: In this 100% biased opinion of how to tackle a trip to Iguazu Falls, I based myself on the Argentinian side in the town of Puerto Iguazu. Here’s why:
1. I speak some Spanish, zero Portuguese.
2. I was coming from and returning to Buenos Aires.
3. If you’ve read either of the 1 or 2 other posts about Argentina, you know if is a beautiful, magical place full of wonderful people and amazing landscapes, so why not
?

Getting to Puerto Iguazu from Buenos Aires:
Aerolineas Argentinas, LATAM, and Norwegian all offer nonstop service from AEP (Buenos Aires domestic airport, located closer to the city center) to IGR. Tickets run ~$120-150 USD if booked a week + out. LATAM also flys EZE to IGR. If you’re coming from/returning to stay in the city of Buenos Aires, AEP is the way to go. EZE is a longer taxi ride from the city (still only $25 USD), but is good for if you’re hopping off or onto an international flight.
There is a bus option from Buenos Aires, however, the bus ride is 17+ hours and more expensive than flying… If buses are your thing, Rio Uruguay, Crucero del Norte, Via Bariloche, Tigre Iguazu and others will get you there.

Getting from IGR into Puerto Iguazu:
It’s about a 30-minute car ride from IGR to the town of Puerto Iguazu. There are taxis and minibuses available from arrivals. You pay $180 ARS (~$3 USD) for the minibus at the booth inside the airport, and they take credit cards. A taxi into the city will run ~$15 USD, cash. Both the minibus and taxi will deliver you right to the door of your accommodation. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the unnecessary amount of speed bumps and “Cruce de los Animales” signs.

Where to stay in Puerto Iguazu:
Both Nomads Hostel Iguazu ($14/bed) and Tucan Hostel ($12/bed) are located <5 minutes’ walk from both the bus station and the main city center. I opted for Nomads and found it comfortable and reasonably social despite visiting in the off-season.

How to do the falls:
Ideally if you’ve made the trek up to Puerto Iguazu or Foz do Iguacu you’ve given yourself at least a day and a half to spend (we can confirm that 3 days is too much to spend here). You can spend an entire day from park open to park close wandering around the park on the Argentinian side. The Brazilian side will take you an hour, two if you walk really slow – Plenty of time to make it back to the airport for an afternoon flight if need be.

Rio Uruguay buses has services from Puerto Iguazu to both the Brazilian and Argentinian parks, running every 30-60 (peak season v. off-peak) minutes for a return ticket price of $360 ARS ($6USD). If you aren’t looking to spend $10USD for a side of fries, pack a lunch with you on both of your ventures.

Parque Nacional Iguazu (Argentina): The bus service to the Argentinian side begins at 7:30AM, getting you to the park right at their stated open time of 8AM, which can actually mean closer to 8:15/8:30. As soon as they open, most of the line will rush to get train tickets to the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), the super high water flow, guaranteed to get wet portion of the day. If you follow suit, you’re going to end up soaking wet on a wood platform over the roaring falls shoulder-to-shoulder with 10, 100-person Chinese tour groups during the coldest part of your day. Not to mention the morning light on the Devil’s Throat is detrimental to your photos. Instead, walk as far into the back of the park as possible, and enjoy some peace and quiet along the Lower (Inferior) Circuit. Despite its name, the “inferior” circuit was easily my favorite of the park. You’re looking up at the falls, compared to the view looking down at them that you get from the Upper (Superior) Circuit. If you’re looking to see rainbows, sleep in and aim to get to the park around lunchtime. On a sunny day, the afternoon lighting will guarantee you dozens of rainbow views from both the upper and lower circuits.

Parque Nacional do Iguaçu (Brazil): The bus service to the Brazilian side begins at 8:30AM getting you to the park entrance right around park open at 9AM after a brief stop at the border crossing. This is your chance to rack up 2 bonus passport stamps in a matter of a couple of hours! If you’re traveling in the off-season, make sure the bus driver knows that you need to stop at the border, or they may not stop which could complicate your entry back into Argentina or onwards elsewhere. After the border crossing, you’ll be the second stop, after Parque de los Aves (the bird park – also highly praised, but not reviewed here). When you get off the bus there are machines where you can buy your park entry tickets with card, then you hop on another bus for a ~10-minute ride down to the entry to the falls walk. Unlike the Argentinian side, there is not much walking to do here. The entire walk through the Brazilian park, with very leisurely photo stops will take you an hour, hour-and-a-half, max. The Brazilian side is set on the northeastern side of the falls, so the morning, as close to sun rise as their late opening time allows, is peak photo time.

How to Entertain yourself the rest of the time:

You’ll spend ~6 and ~2 hours each day traveling to and experiencing the falls but need something to fill the other 10-14 hours of daylight. Enter long walks along the river and Tacopado’s all day everyday 2-for-1 happy hour. For walks in town, we recommend walking along the Iguazu River stopping jut short of the Tres Banderas monument before heading back into town. The Tres Banderas (3 flags) monument marks the point where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. From a historical and photography standpoint, it is not very impressive, and gave off some not great safety vibes. While I’ve never felt legitimately unsafe in Argentina, making the circle around this monument, I took my strides a little longer, and held my backpack a little tighter.  

When you’re done with your walk, head to Tacopado for 2-for-1 cocktails and cheap Tex-Mex. Your two cocktails will run you $4USD for offerings like margaritas, caipirinhas, and fresh fruit daquairis. The passion fruit daiquiri is worth all the cals for one of your two drink choices. The food is decent, big and will get you out the door for under $6, so less than $10 total for your two drinks and sustenance, great for a budget evening. For your splurge evening ($15 USD/person with wine!), head to Mama Pasta for amazing handmade pastas and sauces that you mix and match yourself. We can 100% vouch for the carbonara and the pesto, but the $10 restaurant bottles of Malbec could probably make us vouch for anything they offered.

After last years Christmas trip in Utah, JustTwoBros decided to warm it up in bright, sunny Florida. I (Eric A) started planning this December, 2018 trip in January, 2018. Early, I know, but it ended up paying off. Christmas time tends to be a busy time for Everglades, Biscayne & Dry Tortugas based on the location & holiday. IMG_0043

     The trip started in Homestead, Florida at Everglades National Park, home of Alligators, Great Egrets & an assortment of other swamp land animals. Our tour guide Josh, through Tour the Everglades educated us on the glades during a short, windy, kayaking trip through his “Floridean Backyard” the swamps. 

The Hooseville Hostel, is a local hostel in Homestead Florida. Almost seemingly misplaced, the infrastructure houses local workers, people passing through trying to start anew somewhere else, & a couple of travel bums from Chicago. The place has history or at least that’s the way it seems when you see it for the first time. However, don’t be dissuaded. It holds one of the coolest back patio/ garden common areas of all time. Brushed in old wooden art, a tungsten clad gazebo in the middle & various items that almost seem as if they came from a playground for hippies. If you’re near the Everglades, you need to spend a night here.

Day 2 brought on a scare & a rage only the Incredible Hulk could almost contain. Our President, Donald Trump shut down the Government, & for those of you who don’t know, that includes National Parks. We were really distraught, but we powered forward with our next & probably most adventurous activity yet. We met up with Chris Gillette, Animal Rescue & Alligator trainer of “Everglades Outpost.” Whit found out last second after a joke email I sent her about swimming with gators, that it was actually possible. Casper is an alligator Chris has been with for over 10 years & he also happens to be the guy you get to swim with. I have to say, I know it sounds scary but after spending 45 minutes in the pool with him… all alligators are puppies & I want one! Jokes aside, Casper is a wild but tolerant gator that Chris has years of experience working with. This was a no contact, educational experience. We learned about “nuisance” gators and gained a greater appreciation for the animal. #AFedGatorisaDeadGator

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Later on in the day, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that park volunteers decided to stay & work, in spite of the shut down. Such a great group of people including a newbie volunteer named Jimmy that took us under his wing & hooked us up with a last minute slough slogging tour. Our wonderful guide Dan took us out into the swamps with another family… I don’t want to hang on this too long, but this family was terrible. They did everything wrong from the beginning, from asking too many questions as the sun was going down on the hike, fighting with each other, making Dan take a bunch of pictures of them at multiple angles while we stood by & watched. Eventually it was too much for both of us & we left. Don’t let that deter you though, if you want to experience the glades first hand, this is the way to do it.

We wrapped it up in Everglades & headed out to Biscayne National Park, a two key national park off the shore of Eastern Florida. It was a cloudy day & the volunteer boating company had just stopped giving boat rides out to Elliot Key but after having a discussion with the captain decided they would work with us & bring us out.

As we waited for the guys to load the boat another helper, Hans, helped us try on flippers that we could use out on the island & for our “Morning Jones/ Snorkeling” Tour the next day. You’ll never guess what a special moment this was when, no joke, the family from the slogging tour, that caused us to leave shows up! Immediately the dad starts questioning Hans about his families tour, which thankfully was not ours. To our surprise, Hans shut them down & sent them upstairs to wait until the gift shop opened & THEIR tour guide arrived. As we walked down the dock together, he turns & says “So that’s the family from the swamp tour!” No kidding, we died laughing. Apparently Dan, our other guide, had called his buddies in Biscayne & warned him that they had ruined our time & to take care of us. We were whole again.

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Elliot Key turned out to be quite the blessing in disguise. As we came to find out, no one was there. We had the whole place to ourselves. You rarely, if at all, get the chance to appreciate a moment like this in a National Park. We pitched our tents, hung our hammocks in the trees & went snorkeling.

There weren’t any facilities on the key, so all we could do is pray for number 1’s only. We were also bound to what food & water we had brought with, which happened to be enough for dinner that night & breakfast the next morning. Our phones were dying & there wasn’t much service. Next the GoPro died & then the Rebel. But just in the knick of time, our savior, Park Ranger Jerry shows up, talks to us a little, realizes were cool & turns the power on in one section of the park building so we can charge up our electronics for the next day. That, ladies & gentleman was a Christmas Eve Christmas Miracle.

DCIM100GOPROG0050307.JPGWe woke up early Christmas morning, ate & packed up camp. The boat comes  to pick us up for our tour. It’s windy, as it always seemed to be.  Although, according to everyone I talked to on the phone in January, December was their biggest tourism month. Skies grey & waters choppy, we head out to Morning Jones. A little bay south of the key where you can paddle board & watch as some of the ocean creatures come to feed on small fish. We saw jellyfish, Nurse Sharks & Stingrays. Our guide & captain, Harold, from the Biscayne National Park Institute, shamed Eric A in paddle boarding. Some may now know me as noodle legs.

Afterwards Harold had intended to take us to a bay where it was less windy, to snorkel, but I happened to inquire about where we would have gone if it wasn’t windy & low n’ behold, we’re now in the middle of a reef in the Atlantic. Wind blowing through our hair, Whitney’s, not mine, we jumped in. About 6 to 8 feet down are clown fish, parrot fish & an assortment of other salt water fish blowing around in the waves. A last minute save after a simple question, “Where would we have gone,” allowed me to see my first reef.

Key West, oh how we couldn’t wait to see you. Florida, you are every bit what memes make fun of you for. Mullets, Walmarts & creepy hole in the wall bars galore, we were ready for a touristy tropical feel on the gulf.

We headed down late in the evening, the day after Christmas, even in the dark it’s an easy drive. One road takes you all the way from Homestead to Key West. We find parking & head for our safe place, the bar. Corey, our bartender was a girl from Hawaii, who moved to Florida to be with her boyfriend, now Fiancee who’s in the coast guard. We spent most the evening talking smack & telling stories with them. Not a bad way to rediscover civilization.

Later that evening, after we’d had enough we headed back to our “hotel” as we knew it, our car. For those of you who’ve never been to Key West before, during the holidays, it’s very hard to find anywhere that will let you spend a single night there. Tourism is such a cash cow, it’s usually 3 days or more. Our only solution was to camp in the car in a parking garage.

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4 hours later, & 3 or 4 days of no showering, we were on a boat to Dry Tortugas National
Park
. An old Civil War Era fort in the Gulf of Mexico, now a National Monument & Park of the United States. Home to 1000’s maybe a lot more, I’m not sure, Hermit crabs. There is nothing like setting up camp & watching all the neighbors (crabs) come by to say hello.

In the gift shop, Whitney A meets a couple from the East Coast, that has been stranded in their friends sail boat until the wind subsided. So what else does one do? They invite a few fellow islanders out for drinks & a game of spoons. Kim (the boat captain), Roger (the first mate), & Susan (Muscle Queen of the Sea) were great hosts. The kept us laughing all night long & Kim made sure we got back safe.

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We ended up meeting up the next day walking down the shore. All five of us, minus our friend from the park, went looking for conch shells. There’s a ton scattered all over, in trees, in piles on the ground, stacked up as if it were a tribute to some sea bearing God. At one point Whitney finds a Hermit crab with a hole- y worn out shell, finds another one about his, this crab identifies as male, size & gets him to move into a new home! Who does that?

When it’s all said & done, & Florida craziness subsides, there is an allure. From swamp creatures, annoying families from Pittsburgh, to friends on sail boats, take the time to plan your visit & enjoy every second of it.

 

 

 

 

Finding myself briefly unemployed for a month in January, I was looking for a destination that I was comfortable with traveling alone to, that was reasonably cheap to fly to on two weeks notice, and that would scratch my itch for glaciers, mountains and trekking. That put me in South America and the Andes, where I found a reasonable (given the short notice) flight to Santiago. While we focused on Chilean Patagonia in our trip to Chile and Argentina last year, I chose to spend my time this trip in Central Chile and the Rivers and Lakes Districts, leaving Northern Chile for another trip. The destinations for this trip, in order were: Valparaíso > Pucón > Puerto Varas > San Carlos de Bariloche (Argentina) > Santiago.

Three weeks isn’t a long time by backpacking standards, but it meant I could spend between 2-6 nights in each location, which made the hours spent on transfers between places worthwhile. I started the trip with a fully planned itinerary, accommodations and transfers booked, and a spreadsheet of links to travel blogs and ideas of what I wanted to do each day. On day three I cancelled nearly all of my plans (flexible booking is worth the extra $1/night on booking.com and hostelworld.com) and went with a loose itinerary. I am an extreme planner and it was hard for me to abandon the certainty of my plans, but it led me to make many of the best decisions of my trip… It began with some shit weather in Temuco (it’s not a town worthy of sticking around more than a few hours), prompting me to abandon my plans to visit Parque Nacional Conguillio and hop on a bus to Pucón a day early. After falling in love with Pucón, I extended my stay there from 3 nights to 6, meaning something would have to slide from the rest of the trip. Rather than cut my time in Puerto Varas short, I skipped my previously booked $30 flight back to Santiago and stuck around. With nothing forcing me to Santiago, I hopped on a bus across the border from Puerto Varas to Bariloche, Argentina – completely forgetting that I had neither the correct power adapters nor the credit/debit card notifications set-up to support that venture… both easily fixable following the period of brief panic that ensued in the ATM line.

Through the challenges and the triumphs, this trip re-instated my confidence in solo travelling and has fundamentally changed the way I view trip planning [for trips > 2 weeks].

Valparaíso

Spending day 1 in Valparaíso was an instantaneous cultural reminder that you are, in fact, in South America. I hopped off the bus from Santiago and attempted to find my hostel amidst the chaos of the daily street markets, all the while praying that my clearly gringa appearance didn’t make me a target for Valpo’s notorious thieves. Once inside my hostel I felt more secure, but noticed right off that none of the other travelers were from English speaking countries. While my Spanish can get me by, it is far from conversational, and I immediately wondered if I’d be able to befriend fellow backpackers in a country where the general population doesn’t speak your language. After a day spent wandering the streets alone and in silence I came back to the hostel at dusk feeling alone and distant.

When I returned I saw what would become my two Bulgarian roommates checking in (in English!). I awkwardly invited myself to dinner with them, and they tolerated speaking English with me. We hung out the rest of my time in Valpo, and from that point on in my trip, solo travel evolved back into the social, backpacker culture I remembered from solo traveling in Europe, Canada and Australia.

Valpo has a reputation as a city that everyone who visits falls in love with and stay longer than planned. I’d heard it referred to as the “Cinque Terre of Chile”, but San Francisco resonated more with me – first because of the hills, and second because there was poop everywhere, a result of Valpo’s very healthy street dog population. After two and a half days here, the chaos and dirtiness wore me down, and I was itching to abandon the city for something more quaint and outdoorsy.

How to get there: By bus from Santiago: Uber or take the metro to the Pajaritos stop, adjacent to Bus Terminal Pajaritos. From Pajaritos, you can catch a bus to Valparaíso on Pullman (~$7000CLP) or a variety of other bus companies about every 20 minutes. By bus from SCLFrom the Santiago airport, you can make it to the colorful coastal city of Valparaíso (Valpo) in ~2 hours. Two bus companies TurBus and Centropuerto offer services to and from the airport to Bus Terminal Pajaritos (~$750CLP). Having done the bus ride twice, I can say it isn’t scenic enough to warrant staying awake when coming off a red-eye.

Where to Stay: Valparaíso has a crazy large number of hostel offerings making Hostel World a bit overwhelming. You make a trade-off between proximity to the bus station and proximity to the main tourist attractions. Here are two hostels I liked – one in each area: La Joya Hostel (dorm bed $18USD): La Joya is super-convenient to the bus station and has a great rooftop and chic, minimalist décor. You’ll have to brave the walk through all of the street markets carrying all of your bags to the hostel. This can get dicey given Valpo’s reputation as a heavy theft/crime area. I didn’t personally experience any theft/pick-pocketing, but was informed, alert and carried my backpack more like a shoulder bag. The location means it isn’t always as packed as other hostels, making meeting people more difficult. It’s got a good breakfast and is a good value hostel overall. Planeta Lindo (dorm bed $15USD): This hostel is in prime real estate in the Cerro Alegre / Cerro Concepcion area. The location boosts the price a little bit, but you make up for that in atmosphere, as it is one of the more social hostels in Valpo – better for solo travelers. It’s about a 25-minute walk from the bus station, but good news – it’s 2019 and Valpo has Uber! I’d recommend this one over La Joya for ease of meeting friends to roam around with.

What to do: Guided or Self-guided Walking Tour: Walking around is the best way to get to know Valpo. Valpo is known for it’s street art (broken down into legal murals, illegal graffiti, and illegal and effortless tagging), which can be found on the side of nearly every building, staircase, or broken down structure in the city.  Some of the more famous pieces can be found in the Cerro Concepcion tourist area. I followed the pre-made Google map on Lauren on Location’s blog and found the “We are not Hippies, We are Happies” and piano stairs amongst others. Tours 4 Tips Free Walking Tours: After walking around solo the first day, I jumped in on a Tours 4 Tips (T4T) free walking tour with my two Bulgarian software engineer hostel mates. They offer a 3PM tour of Valparaíso Highlights and a 10AM tour for Valparaíso “off the beaten path.” We did the 10AM and found it to be a good time for people who don’t typically enjoy tours. Our guide Camillo shared a wealth of both historical and current political controversies and provided some great recommendations for other activities after the tour. Watch the Sea LionsThe sea lions of Valparaíso put San Francisco’s small, lazy beasts to shame. These guys are vocal and energetic, fighting for positions on an abandoned pier. To find the pier follow Ave Argentina (near the bus terminal) to the coast and walk along the coastal boardwalk for about 100 feet. You’ll hear them before you see them. Viña del MarViña is Valpo’s neighbor to the north. It is a touristy little beach town with significantly more (and nicer) beachfront than Valpo. The beaches are always crowded in the summertime and loaded with people selling every possible souvenir tourists will buy. My recommendation – walk along the sidewalk near the waterfront, grab a skewer of chocolate covered strawberries, and hop on the mini bus 30 minutes further north to Concón. Concón: If you continue north on the mini bus from Viña, you’ll stumble upon Concón, a not super developed town characterized by huge sand dunes. Run to the jumbo (supermarket) across the street from the bus stop to grab some snacks and beer and head over to the dunes. If you want to sand-board or sand-sled, rentals are available hourly for a couple thousand pesos. If speeding downhill and getting sand in every crevice of your body isn’t for you, just trudge up to the top of the dunes and sip your beer while catching the sunset from the best viewpoint in town. Ride the Funicular elevatorsThe funiculars are a happy alternative to climbing hills or stairs when you’ve had enough for the day. They are cheap and unique and definitely worth a ride. Although you can see many of them throughout the city heading up it’s 40+ hills, only 7 are still operational. “This is Chile” provides information on operational funiculars (acensores) and where to find them. Party until the sun comes up (if that’s your thing): Not much intel on this area since I have a strict 10pm bedtime at home which was already stretched by not eating dinner until 11pm each night in Valpo. If you are on the hunt for late nights in the discos, Valpo is for you!

Where to eat/drink: Fauna: Fauna is great for amazing views, amazing food and a good selection of different types of entrees / price points. Highlights from our group were the provoleta and the lemonade with mint + ginger.  Lupita & SanchoIf you find yourself in a pinch on a Sunday night (when all restaurants close before normal Valpo dinner time) Lupita & Sancho will come to the rescue with late night Mexican food. It’s not the greatest Mexican in the world, but the Micheladas are spicy and it’ll get you through until morning. Cocina Puerto: Some hostel friends and I went to Cocina Puerto as a default after not being able to get in to it’s next-door neighbor (Samsara) and were pleasantly surprised. The fresh seafood was awesome and prices were reasonable for Chile. SamsaraWe were recommended Samsara by a local and each time we tried to eat there they were already booked up or closed – which I take as a sign of a good place. They do take reservations so make one day before or early on the day of if you want to get in.

Pucón

Pucón gets the reputation as the “Queenstown, NZ” of South America, which based on my limited perception on what Queenstown may be, seems entirely accurate.  It’s a gorgeously scenic town set on lake Villarica, overlooked by the hulking Volcán Villarica. After abandoning my visit to Parque Nacional Conguillio and an over-priced evening at Ecohostel Temuco (quick review: expensive, not great location, showers to dirty to use, no common living spaces), I called Chili Kiwi to reserve a bed a day early, walked over to the JAC bus terminal and hopped on the 7:40 AM bus to Pucón.

I got to Chili Kiwi just as the owner was giving the daily 10:30 AM English language overview of the town, the hostel, and activities/excursions around. Many of my recommendations come by way of what was recommended to me by James (the Kiwi of Chili Kiwi). His reviews were brutally honest and his tastes generally appealed to the more fit, adventurous travelers at the hostel.

I had planned on spending 3 nights in Pucón, but it turned into 6 and I could have spent more there. Two of the days incorporated the excursions for hydro-speeding (river boarding) and climbing Volcán Villarica. The others were filled with trips to Parque Nacional Huerquehue, local bus rides to hot springs, and trail runs along the beaches. Pucón is a pretty common stop along the Chile backpacker circuit. From there, everyone I met was either headed north back to Santiago or south to Puerto Varas and Patagonia. After my extended stay in Pucón, I traveled to Puerto Varas with 5 of the friends I met at Chili kiwi, and eventually followed two more of them to Bariloche, Argentina.  

How to get there: By busAs a popular tourist destination, Pucón is easily accessible by bus from Santiago (~8 hrs), Valparaíso (~10 hrs), Temuco (2 hrs), Puerto Montt (~5 hrs), Puerto Varas (~5 hrs), and many other cities. Bus tickets can be bought ahead of time on busbud.com, reccorido.cl, or on the individual bus companies website. You can also buy tickets from the kiosks at the bus terminals in each city. Even in the high season, I found as long as you purchased your bus tickets 1-2 days out you were always able to get a seat. By planeIf you find yourself in Valpo or Santiago and don’t want to deal with an all-day or overnight bus, you can fly (Sky airlines or JetSmart ~$30 booked in advance) to Temuco and catch a 2-hour bus from there.

Where to stay: Chili Kiwi LakefrontChili Kiwi ranks in my top two hostels ever (shout out to the other contender- Flutterby House in Uvita, Costa Rica). The hostel is a compound of rustic-looking wooden buildings comprising numerous dorms, 3 kitchens, camper vans, hobbit huts, tree houses and plenty of indoor and outdoor hangout space. They have a bar for hostel residents-only that offers 3 local craft beers on tap for $2,000-2,500CLP, about half of what you pay in town.

What to do: Climb Volcán VillaricaTons of people come to Pucón for the sole purpose of climbing Volcán Villarica. You have to do it with a tour group unless you are a qualified guide with the gear and the ability to convince CONAF (the Chilean park service) that you can safely and competently climb alone. Many agencies in town offer tours ranging from $75,000-120,000CLP. Chili Kiwi offers an exclusive tour with their own guides for $80,000CLP. Included in that price are the transport, park fees, insurance, guides, and all the gear you need to climb up and slide (yes slide, or glissade, on your butt hundreds of feet at a time) down the mountain. The guided climb caters to the slowest member of the tour, which was frustrating as you move slowly and take breaks so often you get cold and sun burnt. However, once you reach the top the sweeping views make you forget you were once one in an army of ants marching to the top of the volcano. On a clear day you can see for miles in all directions, and sometimes you can even see magma bubbling inside the crater of the volcano. Overall assessment – if you’ve never climbed a volcano, this is a good (& easy) opportunity, but if you’ve climbed one before, opt instead to summit one of the peaks in the surrounding national parks for sweeping views that include Volcán Villarica. Hike in Sanctuario El Cañi: Sanctuario El Cañi is a slightly shorter bus ride than Huerquehue, but the time is traded off in a slightly longer hike for similar views. The main hike offers stunning views of Volcán Villarica on a clear day. To get to Sanctuario El Cañi, hop on the local bus towards Los Pazones and get off at the stop for Cañi ($2,000CLP each way). Hike in Parque Nacional Huerquehue: Parque Nacional Huerquehue offers two main hiking routes and variations that offer different views of the volcano and surrounding mountains and lakes. Sendero Los Lagos: The shortest and easiest hike, the Sendero Los Lagos, treks through forest with minimal elevation gain to a loop of three lakes – Lago Chico, Lago Verde, and Lago el Toro. There are two miradors along the way offering views of Volcán Villarica set over Lago Tinquilca. Also along the way are short out and back paths to view two waterfalls (saltos). The waterfalls are nice, but less impressive than most others in South/Central America – I would skip the detours if short on hiking time. Mirador Villarica – extension of Sendero Los Lagos: On the day of our second attempt to hike the Sendero San Sebastian we found it closed once more. In an effort to salvage the gorgeous weather day, we began on the only open trail – Sendero Los Lagos. The Los Lagos loop is generally very crowded in the summer time, but as soon as you break off that path, the people disappear. The trek gets substantially harder as you work your way through the forest and eventually out of the national park before beginning the steep ascent to Mirador Villarica. The trail falls off and you find yourself ascending through rock, volcanic sand and shrubs. The mirador is at the summit of an unnamed mountain with amazing views of the three surrounding volcanoes – Villarica, Quetrupillan, and Sollipulli. Sendero San Sebastian: The Sendero San Sebastian was closed for the duration of my time in Pucón due to snow/ice (in the peak of summer!), but is at the top of my list for my return to Pucón. This trek summits Cerro San Sebastian for amazing views of Volcán Villarica from high above the tree line. Beware the weather in the park even in the high season. You gain significant elevation on the bus ride up, and we found ourselves caught in a blizzard in the height of summer. Come prepared with layers and head down from the mountains if the weather doesn’t cooperate. To get to Parque Nacional Huerquehue, take the local bus in the direction Huerquehue. In high season, buses leave Pucón at 08:30 and 13:30 and return from the national park at 14:10, 17:10 and 19:30. Hydro speedingCombine boogie boarding and white water rafting and you get hydro speeding. This was a great rainy day activity, and something you don’t generally see in the US. You’re given a wet suit, some flippers, and a board and taught to turn and roll in the river before setting off into the rapids (class 1-3). Several tour agencies in town offer this activity – Chili Kiwi also has an exclusive deal here. The guides were awesome, but beware the trip photo scam. Each person in our group of 12 forked over $2,000CLP for an email with a link to the trip photos that never came. Sailing: Off Limits Sailing Co. offers small boat sailing from the harbor just beside Chili Kiwi Lakefront. The small boats (5 people) run $22,000CLP each for two hours. The cool thing about this was the skipper was as hands on or off as you wanted – you could learn to sail, or just ride along for the booze cruise watching the sunset over Volcán Villarica. Hot Springs: Termas Geometricas are the boujee, well-known hot springs in the Pucón area. A quick Google search can identify that they are lovely and priced as such. Between the 2-hour bus ride each-way and the $36,000CLP price tag, some friends and I opted to explore Termas Los Pazones instead. A 1-hour bus ride from town and $12,000CLP total price tag ($4,000CLP in buses, $8,000CLP in entry) left us more than satisfied. These termas were still quite nice, having 7 pools of varying temperatures and were mostly populated by locals rather than tourists. Go to the beach: Playa Grande, the public beach on the north side of Pucón, is a great spot on a sunny day. Lago Villarica is refreshing and a necessary reprieve after torching your feet on the black (mostly rock) sand. Watch the Pucón Iron man!: If you happen to be in Pucón in mid-January and need some personal fitness inspiration…

Where to eat/drink: Latitude 39: I’m slightly embarrassed to say I came here three times on my 7-day stint in Pucón. They’re reasonably priced and well known for their burgers (& a kick ass Thai chicken wrap) that really hit the spot after a long day climbing Volcán Villarica or trekking in Parque Nacional Huerquehue. If you come early enough beers are 2 for 1 during happy hour. Cassis: The highlight of Cassis for me was definitely the dessert. They have tons of amazing crepe and ice cream desserts that are enough calories to constitute a full meal. If eating sweets-for-dinner isn’t your thing, the lomo a la pobre was also awesome – and a good check box for traditional Chilean cuisine. Don’t skip the cerveza here – they have a variety of craft beers served in giant goblets. Trawen: For the closest thing you’ll get to a full English breakfast (confirmed by two Brits), Trawen hits the spot. Desserts were also great here. Ecole: This is supposedly the best vegan restaurant in town, located inside a hostel of the same name. I can’t personally vouch for Ecole, but have heard great things. Beanies & Bikinis: If you want to party into the early morning to loud music that’s a blend of trap, house and pop while drinking 2 for $5,000CLP Pisco Sours Beanies & Bikinis is for you! If you’re staying at Chili Kiwi, there will be no shortage of friends to drink with until the music becomes bearable.

Puerto Varas

The town of Puerto Varas (PV) is a bit more touristy – lots of higher end hotels and restaurants – but shares a similar volcanic-lake-side setting to Pucón. I found the town of Puerto Varas best enjoyed from a 1-hour bus ride away in Petrohué. On a clear day, Petrohué is a volcanic wonderland with landscapes reminiscent of Iceland in the summertime (without the Scandinavian prices). I spent the two full days I had in town making the journey to Petrohué for amazing views of Volcán Osorno, which is often visible from Petrohué even on what appears to be a cloudy day in Puerto Varas.

The one thing about Petrohué that seems to have been missed in every travel blog I read on the area is that while January is ideal visiting weather, it’s also tábano season. Tábanos are HUGE Andean horse flies that swarm the Lakes Districts of Chile and Argentina each January to live a brief ~20 day life. It wasn’t uncommon to have 5-10 of the little assholes buzzing around you at any given time. The CONAF office in Parque Nacional Vincent Perez Rosales has a notice about them for the month of January that indicates that swatting and flailing your arms around like a crazy person only attracts more. While this is probably true, that requires entirely more self control than I have. If not a fan of horse flies, consider postponing your PV travels to February/early-March.

How to get there: By bus: Puerto Varas is easily accessible by bus from Santiago (~13 hrs), Valparaíso (~15 hrs), Temuco (7 hrs), Pucón (~5 hrs) and most easily Puerto Montt (~20 min), among other cities. Bus tickets can be bought ahead of time on busbud.com, reccorido.cl, or on the individual bus companies website. You can also buy tickets from the kiosks at the bus terminals in whatever city you’re in. Even in the high season, I found as long as you purchased your bus tickets 1-2 days out you were always able to get a seat. Beware – PV has individual bus terminals for each company scattered around the city rather than a single, central terminal. If leaving on a different bus company than you arrived, make sure you have your new terminal mapped out and give yourself plenty of time to get lost or follow incorrect directions. By planeThere is a small airport in Puerto Montt that has daily flights arriving in from Santiago and Punta Arenas. The national flights are generally cheap when booked in advance (check Sky, JetSmart and LATAM) and take significantly less time than travel by bus. Once you land at the airport in Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas is a quick 20-minute minibus ride via the frequent local buses.

What to do: Visit Parque Nacional Vincent Perez Rosales: Take the bus from Downtown Puerto Varas to the last stop in Petrohué ($2000CLP). Once in Petrohué, walk along the lake front and then make your way towards the CONAF office to register for some trekking – no fee here. The Desolation Pass Trek offers stunning views of Volcán Osorno as well as a few other nearby mountains and an amazing volcanic landscape for the entirety. I did this trek as a trail run with my Seattlite running partner that I picked up in Pucón. #1 reason to do the trek as a trail run: tábanos. It may have been a misconception, but they definitely seemed less interested in landing on us when we were moving quicker, or we just got out of the high tábano concentration areas faster – either way a win in my book. We finished up the trail run in about 4 hours, but the CONAF office will advise you to allow 6-8 if walking. Bear in mind that the last bus from Petrohué back to PV in the summer is at 18:30, and since there isn’t really a town in Petrohué, hitch-hiking opportunities are slim to none.  Saltos del Petrohué: The Saltos del Petrohué can be reached by getting off the bus from PV one stop before the termination in Petrohué ($1800CLP each way).  Once off the bus, you are shuttled through a CONAF office where foreigners pay a $4000CLP entrance fee. From the CONAF office to the falls viewpoint is maybe a 10 minute walk if you drag it out. While the view is lovely, because it is so accessible, you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of other humans, regardless of the time of day you make it there. On my next trip, I would trade the time and money spent getting to the Saltos del Petrohué for another day hiking around Petrohué along the Desolation Pass trail system.  Go to the beach: About ten minutes walk east from the city center you find yourself wandering on a road along the beach/lake front of Lake Llanquihue. It’s black volcanic sand, so it gets warm, but the water is the perfect temperature to cool off on a summer day in PV. Oh, and the views of Volcán Osorno and Cerro Tronador on a clear day are tough to beat. And its 100% free! Recommend this as a first day activity as you’ll likely to get to town around noon and won’t have quite enough time to explore Vincent Perez Rosales National Park in time for the last bus out. Ferry to Peulla + hiking near Cerro Tronador: I didn’t have enough clear days in PV to make it all the way to Peulla, but the hiking there, near Cerro Tronador was recommended to me as beautiful. It’s a bit more effort (and $$$) to get there, having to first take the bus from PV to Petrohué, then from Petrohué taking the Cruce Los Andes ferry to Peulla. Go on the Cruce Los Andes cruise from Puerto Varas to BarilocheWhile this cruise sounded lovely in theory, the price tag – $300USD each way – deterred me. You can get slightly lesser, but still stunning views on the $20USD bus ride to Bariloche – just make sure to sit in a right-side window seat traveling PV > Bariloche and a left-side window seat for the return to maximize the views!

What to eat/drink: Most of my meals were either cooked at the hostel or trail food from the grocery store, however, I was recommended some great spots to share (& hit on my next trip to PV!). Casa ValdesRecommended to me as “the best seafood I’ve ever had.” Donde El GorditoRecommended to me for re-tracing Anthony Bourdain’s culinary travel footsteps – trying the Caldillo de Congrio. Mesa Tropera: Recommended for amazing sunset views, solid pizza, and tar tare de pulpo.

Bariloche

While I was in Pucón, I heard many of my southbound friends talking about hopping over the border to Bariloche post-Puerto Varas. I had no intention of going to Argentina on this trip, but was a bit surprised that Bariloche hadn’t been on my trekking radar. A few hours into my stay in Puerto Varas I decided that I would skip my $30 SKY Airlines flight back to Santiago and opt instead for a bonus day in PV followed by a bus journey the next day to Bariloche.

I developed a reputation while on our Just Two Bros (& Steve & Ali B) Iceland trip for sleeping through incredible views on car rides. The 6-7 hour bus ride from PV to Bariloche tested me. The first 3 hours or so are views of Chile that don’t compare to what you’ve already seen coming from Pucón/PV/ Petrohué. After the border crossing on the Argentinian side, things start to get more interesting. The views were good enough to keep me fighting to stay awake. You climb up through a mountain range with a lookout that is incredibly reminiscent of Black Tusk in Garibaldi Providential Park and then descend among the series of intertwined lakes and mountains to the northwest of Bariloche. Views from the right side of the bus were spectacular for the last 1.5 hours of the drive.

Bariloche is a well known trekking and skiing destination and some of the easier day hikes can get crowded during the month of January. Parque Nacional Nahuel Hupai is crazy beautiful and well worth spending multiple days in. This was my favorite trekking destination of the trip, and the jagged peaks and alpine lakes were a refreshing change of scenery from the large cone volcanoes of the Chilean lakes district. I found the terrain in the park similar to south/southwest Colorado in the US, but with some crazy volcanic landscapes thrown in. From the highest point on national park’s circuit you can see all of the volcanic peaks of the Argentinean and Chilean Lakes Districts – including Osorno even after driving for 6 hours from Puerto Varas!

The trekking in Bariloche can be a bit more technical than the hikes around Pucón and Puerto Varas, which can get a bit dicey when you’re trying to swat the aforementioned tábanos while needing to be using your hands. In an effort to not fall to my death, I attempted to ignore them and eventually was successful. I killed upwards of 40 on an 8-hour hike one day, letting them land and then slapping myself as hard as possible. In retrospect, I think I prefer the mice we dealt with in Patagonia – at least they didn’t make me a danger to myself on the trail.

How to get there: By busMy recommended bus course to Bariloche is via Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt. The bus ride is ~6 hours, including the two border crossings, and is extremely scenic. Get a window seat on the right side of the bus for the trip to Bariloche from Chile and a left side window seat for the trip back into Chile. The buses are readily available from multiple companies and I had no issues booking a seat only one day out. Note – there are no overnight buses from Chile to Bariloche (or the reverse) due to the border crossings – Remember to throw out any agricultural products on the return bus to Chile… From the bus station, you can either grab a SUBE card from the kiosk, then waiting for one of the multiple lines that travel from the terminal to the city center, or you can hop in a taxi for 170-200 Argentinian pesos, the equivalent of $4USD (worth it with your bags in my opinion). By planeYou can get to Bariloche in 2.5 hours by plane from Buenos Aires. The airport is ~20 minutes from town by bus or taxi. Getting around town by busBariloche utilizes a metro card system (SUBE card) for its local bus system. Buses from the city center can get you pretty much anywhere and run 25-50 Argentinian pesos. The SUBE card costs 90 pesos initially to purchase and then funds can be added to the card in cash at any local kiosks (look like little convenience stores). The schedule (horario) for each of the bus lines is generally on time and easily found on the Bariloche transportation webpage.

Where to stay: Bariloche hostels were in short supply and generally more expensive than the other regions that I visited on this trip. Hostel Like QuijoteThis hostel was a short 5 minute walk from the grocery store, beer triangle and city center. Rooms were small and showers were a little weak, but not a bad overall hostel. The combined dining room/lounge area was generally full of friendly people and it was easy to make friends between the lounge, kitchen and dorms. Breakfast (cereal, toast and jam) was included but didn’t begin until 8, which is basically a sunk cost if you’re taking the early bus to trek in the surrounding areas. Hospedaje Penthouse 1004: No personal experience here, but I regretted not staying here when, a week following my trip, the Hostel World 2019 HOSCARS named it the best hostel in Argentina. 

What to do: Trek in Parque Nacional Nahuel HupaiNahuel Hupai National Park is stunning, and like all national parks in Argentina – completely FREE to trek and camp. Sendero Refugio Frey: The Refugio Frey hike is one of the most popular day hikes in the Nahuel Hupai circuit – it’s a pretty easy climb, non-technical and only about 12 km each way. The trek can be started from either Catedral (line 55 bus from Bariloche) or Lago Gutierrez (line 50 from Bariloche). Starting at Catedral is a bit easier as the bus takes you up a size-able portion of the initial climb, but for a change of scenery (& because the line 50 buses come much more often than the line 55), we opted to go out from Lago Gutierrez and back via Catedral. The trail from Lago Gutierrez is a steady climb through a predominantly wooded area prior to combining with the trail from Catedral and continuing through the forest a ways. From Catedral, the hike is fairly flat, but sunny and exposed. The trails meet at what claims to be ~2 hours from Refugio Frey, but we found all of the time estimates to be significant over-estimates. The trek up to Frey can be done in about 2.5 to 3 hours versus the 4 hours stated on maps, and down in about half that. The laguna at the top is gorgeous, but you will be far from alone. Many people camp there and combining the campers with the day hikers, the laguna is packed at mid-day with people stopping for lunch or a swim in Laguna Towers. Look closely at the towers for climbers, as Frey is known for being a climbers paradise in the summertime. Sendero Frey – Jakob: From Frey, you can continue along the Sendero Frey – Jakob towards Laguna Schmoll and eventually Refugio Jakob. We finished up our Frey day hike at Schmoll, which is distance wise only about a mile from Refugio Frey. You walk along Laguna Towers for about a half-mile before climbing directly up into another alpine lake basin to view Laguna Schmoll. Adds about an hour and a half to the Frey day hike, but a worthwhile add-on, particularly if you do Frey in 3 hours or less. Refugio Jakob was one of the few refugios I missed on this trip, but I will be back to make my way up there as part of the complete circuit! Sendero Refugio Italia + Laguna Negra: The trek up to Laguna Negra was claimed by my hostel to be one of the more difficult treks, but I found it to be fairly quick and easy, and entirely non-technical. The trek is decent mileage, but the meat of it is very clear dirt path through the forest. I made it from bus stop (line 10 from city center to Colonia Suiza) to the laguna + refugio in 2.5 hours when the estimated time up was 5 hours. From the laguna you can either head back down to the bus stop in Colonia Suiza, or you can continue on and tack on the much more technical and completely empty trail up the backside of Cerro Lopez, down to Refugio Lopez, then returning back to Colonia Suiza via the Sendero Cerro Lopez. I will admit that doing this full Colonia Suiza circuit in one day is ambitious, but if you’re feeling fit, it is doable. Bus to bus time for me totaled just less than 8 hours, completed with plenty of remaining daylight in the summer season. From Laguna Negra the trail becomes less path and more trail-markers/route finding. It’s a moderate climb up a combination of loose dirt and boulder field to a pass just below the summit of Cerro Bailey Willis. From the pass you get your first taste of the incredible panoramic views to come, including Cerro Tronador and Volcán Osorno off in the distance. Then you head up a flat rock boulder field to the summit of Cerro Bailey Willis and then laterally along the ridge to the next pass where you descend into the valley separating you from Cerro Lopez. The trail through the valley becomes difficult to follow – maps.me was a bit deceptive here indicating multiple slightly off-course trails – but as you approach the loose scree that makes up the backside of Cerro Lopez, the red painted trail markers become more frequent and the route up the mountain is straightforward to follow. The views from the summit are 360 degrees of insanity, well worth the ½ mile of loose scree. Climbing down from Cerro Lopez on the refugio side was a dream. Its solid rock, with streams and glaciers flowing through – hands are necessary, but a super fun and easy to follow descent. Refugio Lopez is crawling with humans in the summer, but has an incredible pool overlooking the town of Bariloche and the surrounding mountains/lakes. From Lopez it is a quick-hour back down to the main road to Colonia Suiza and 2 km along the road to get back to the line 10 pick-up, and the Berlina Cerveceria Artesenal. Sendero Cerro Lopez: The more common (and significantly shorter) route to the summit of Cerro Lopez if to begin at the trail head for the Sendero Cerro Lopez, about 2 km up the road from the Colonia Suiza bus stop. It’s a quick and easy 1-2 hour climb up a dirt path to the refugio. The climb up to the summit from the Refugio Lopez side of the mountain is tough – a steep hands-on climb up solid rock – but definitely the favorable direction to summit from. The general consensus I found among the Colonia Suiza circuit hikers was that the direction beginning at Lopez and ending at Laguna Negra was more favorable in order to avoid the climb up Lopez in the loose scree. If you don’t have time or confidence in your route-finding abilities to do the full Colonia Suiza circuit, the day hike up to Cerro Lopez is a great option for panoramic mountain and volcano views. Full Refugio Circuit: The full refugio circuit begins with Frey and continues on to Jakob, Italiano (Laguna Negra), and finally Lopez. Doing this in 5 days, 4 nights, with a pack wouldn’t be super draining, but would maximize your time for enjoying the vistas, adding on short day hikes, and catching the stunning views at all different types of lighting throughout the day. I will absolutely be doing this on my next trip to Bariloche.

What to eat/drink: Bariloche has a thriving craft beer scene, and in my post-hike crash, I limited my eating out to snacks at whatever cerveceria my victory beer was coming from. Most of the local breweries have multiple taprooms in and around town, with a convenient cluster in what is called the beer triangle, near the city center bus stop. Manush CerveceriaManush had great beer and happy hour prices until 8 (or 8:30 if sitting at the bar). 60 Argentinian pesos, ~$1.5USD, gets you a pint of craft beer – the kolsh is the best I’ve had of the style – accompanied by some peanuts. Blest CerveceriaI preferred Manush to Blest for my taste and the variety of offerings, but Blest had 8-10 taps that would appeal more to IPA style beer drinkers. For snacks, I continued to embrace my love of the provoleta and found it very tasty here as well. Berlina Cerveceria (Colonia Suiza): I didn’t make it back to Colonia Suiza with enough time to grab a post-hike beer but that would be the ideal end to the Laguna Negra or Cerro Lopez (or whole loop) treks. The bus stop is next door so I got a taste of the atmosphere, despite missing out on the beer, which was amazing on a Saturday – packed and upbeat with a live band and food truck.

Santiago

Santiago is a huge city with great public transportation infrastructure. It can feel overwhelming, however, if you don’t have a direction to which neighborhoods you’d like to explore. I generally prefer small, outdoorsy towns to cities when traveling, so I found 2 full days in Santiago to be plenty. This gave me the opportunity to do one of the free walking tours with T4T, enough meals to try each of the local delicacies and enough time to take a walk up to Cerro San Cristobal – a rite of passage for visitors to the city.

My preferences when exploring Santiago were generally to avoid the large crowds at Plaza del Armas in favor or strolling through Barrio Providencia or Bellavista. These, quieter, less crowded parts of town offered amazing street art, better prices (on everything), cute shops and tons of restaurants and nightlife. After a couple of days of pretty intense hiking in Bariloche, a South American paced stroll through Barrio Bellavista was exactly what I needed.

How to get there: Santiago is one of the easiest cities in South America to get to – buses and planes available from literally everywhere.

Where to stay: Hostal ProvidenciaHostal Providencia is a giant hostel in the Providencia region of Santiago. It had convenient metro access, felt safe and was a short walk from my favorite neighborhood in Santiago, Barrio Bellavista. Facilities were good, numerous and clean, with awesome included breakfast, but no AC. The drawback of it being so huge is that it is actually harder to meet people. Utilize Tours 4 Tips! Plaza de Armas HostalA definite recommendation from one of my T4T friends – One of the rare Santiago hostels with AC (despite it being 95+ F in the summer) and an amazing rooftop overlooking Plaza de Armas.

What to do: Tours 4 Tips free walking tours: I hopped off my night bus in Santiago, dropped my bags at my hostel, and made a beeline for the 10 AM Tours 4 Tips “off the beaten path” tour of Santiago. This tour focused on the Santiago markets and cemeteries rather than the Highlights tour, which focuses more on the main plazas and tourist areas. While extremely touristy, I’ve always found T4T to be informative, different from what I would explore on my own, and a great way to meet people (particularly people that also speak English). I spent the rest of my first day in Santiago with my new Dutch and Australian friends that I met on my tour. In between stops we planned out what would be the basic white girls last night in Santiago – a trip up Cerro San Cristobal (initially meeting at a Starbucks) followed by completos, lomo a la pobre, terremotos, and pisco sours. Cerro San Cristobal + FunicularCerro San Cristobal is the famous hill in Santiago with the Christ the Redeemer statue and 360 view of the city – assuming a non-smoggy day. Google images photos suggest that these days exist, but I didn’t encounter any. Regardless, it is worthwhile to take a journey to the top of the hill. Central Fish and Fruit/Vegetable MarketsThese giant markets put Seattle’s Pike Place to shame – they span multiple blocks in all directions. The fruit/veg market will shock you with how cheaply you can buy avocados and fresh cherries. Stop into one of the restaurants along the perimeter of the seafood market for a crazy fresh seafood lunch (the restaurants in the middle will speak better English and cost twice as much). Wander around BellavistaThis was the best neighborhood I found for simply walking around. At lunchtime/early evening the patios of the abundance bars/restaurants lining the streets liven up with people. This neighborhood also encompasses, in my opinion, the greatest street art in Santiago. Souvenir Shop in the markets between the Santa Lucia and Universidad Catolica Metro StopsThis street market takes up a couple of blocks and sells every Chilean souvenir you could possibly think of. If you opted not to tote souvenirs along with you for the entirety of your backpacking trip, this is a great one-stop shop before flying back home from Santiago.

What to eat/drink: Piojera: Piojera is a restaurant and [mostly] bar located right off the Puente Cal y Conto metro stop. Their claim to fame is the “Terremoto” a traditional Chilean drink meaning earthquake – partially because Chile is the most Seismically impacted country in the world, and partially because after your first terremoto, the floor starts to shake… The drink is essentially a float of pineapple ice cream, grenadine, and Pipeño – a sweet fermented wine. They are sickeningly sweet and surprisingly strong – a rite of passage on a trip through Santiago. Piojera does not claim a food menu, but when three small girls claimed to need sustenance to combat the terremotos our server obliged with a giant platter of lomo a la pobre (translation = poor mans steak – a generous portion of French fries, grilled onions and steak, topped with two fried eggs). Chipe LibreChipe Libre was recommended by my Bulgarian friends from Valparaíso as a place for Pisco flights and strong Pisco cocktails and it delivered. The cocktails were strong, intricate, and ran about $8USD for the caliber cocktail that would cost $20 in NYC. CompletosYou can’t leave Chile without trying a completo at least once. It’s a hot dog smothered in tomatoes, avocado and mayo. A Chilean friend in Pocono made me one for dinner one evening, and the combination is surprisingly tasty. You can find them being sold by street vendors and almost any restaurant in tourist districts. 

I came to Chile with a few places to check off my list and left with a new list, more than double in length. You could take a year to travel the length of this amazing country and still not experience it all. Here’s to hoping I can make it back for the third year in a row in 2020!

Just Two Bros|Asia 2018

Our most recent #JustTwoBrosTravel endeavor took us to Vietnam and Japan. As a friendly reminder, Eric, and I set two goals in recent years that we are tackling one pay check at a time. Goal one: Eric wants to visit the 59 National Parks* before he turns 40 (2026). Goal 2: Whitney wants to step foot on all 7 continents before she turns 30 (2021).

*Yes we know that the St. Louis Arch was recently made a National Park; no we will not be acknowledging it.

2018 was the year of Asia for us so I spent the end of 2017 figuring out where we should go. My searches turned me toward Vietnam. There were a couple of factors that lead me to this decision. One-I saw pictures of the Sapa Valley and fell in love. Two-Vietnam seemed like a lesser traveled to destination than say, Thailand, Indonesia, or Cambodia. Once I picked Vietnam is was a matter of figuring out where to go. Like many countries in Asia, Vietnam has a ton to offer in terms of places to visit, but their travel infrastructure is not great. After what seemed like an endless amount of research and 27 thousand different itinerary options I settled on northern Vietnam, and we started in Hanoi. For us it’s more about mountains and lakes than beaches and ocean. Starting off in Hanoi allowed us to see the Sapa region, Bai Tu Long Bay (very near Ha Long Bay but much less traveled), and Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park in a total of 16 days. Below is a breakdown of what we did, who we met, and how we got there.

Day 1/2: Traveling to Hanoi via Japan

Our flight departed Chicago O’hare a little after noon on a Thursday. Add in a 3 hour layover in Tokyo, and we landed in Hanoi on Friday at 10:45 PM. In total we spent 19 hours on a plane. Asia is far folks. Jet lagged and anxious we dropped our bags off at Paradise Boutique Hotel and hit the lively streets of Hanoi. Our first night took us to some weird night club/tattoo parlor that was full of students and expats. We soon learned that Nitrous balloons are a thing in Vietnam as club staff walked around handing them out to anyone that would take one. Our night ended around 3:00 AM.

Accommodation Review: Paradise Boutique hotel was a great one night stopover in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Town. They acted as our stop off point in between other destinations, they booked train tickets for us, and they secured us taxis. The staff were incredibly friendly and welcoming. That being said, if you will be in Hanoi for more than 12 hours I highly recommend finding a more mainstream hotel. The rooms at Paradise Boutique Hotel are tiny, warm, and offer no view of the city. When we arrived, the floor our room was on was so hot I could barely breathe. We had a AC unit that we turned on when we arrived that made the room barely tolerable for our one night stay.

Day 3: Hanoi to Sapa via Lào Cai

Steve, and I woke up fairly early around 8:30 AM. Jet lag and exhaustion hit Steve in a bad way leaving him with a nauseating sinus headache. Being the good girlfriend that I am I walked across the hall and asked Eric if he wanted to go walk around since Steve was being lame. Eric, and I set out to wander around and see whatever there was to see in Hanoi. Truthfully, there isn’t much (that interested us). We grabbed coffee, walked out on the famous bridge, and then found a hotel that let us pay to use their pool. It was 92 degrees out with a 100% humidity. Esteban eventually joined us as he started feeling better.

That evening we boarded our overnight sleeper train for Lào Cai. If you are looking to get to the Sapa region this is one of several options to get you there. Personally I think it’s the best option unless you are looking to book a private transfer which can get really pricey. Our train departed around 9:45 PM, and we had a four bunk private room equipped with free WiFi. There was an attendant on board that offered us beer and coffee service. She also filled out her own review and made us sign it stating she did a great job which was pretty amusing. The ride there was slow and bumpy, but we were able to sleep a good portion of the night arriving in  Lào Cai around 6:30 AM.

Day 4: Sapa

I arranged a transfer in advance from  Lào Cai to our hotel so they were waiting when we arrived at the station. The trip took around 45 minutes. We checked into Aira Boutique Hotel and started our first “real” day of vacation.  Today we walked around the main Sapa town, had drinks, and did a bit of shopping. Our plan for the evening was to eat at the hotels restaurant and go out to sing karaoke. I made it until roughly about 7:30 PM and the jet lag overtook me. Eric and Steve headed out into town, failed to find an open karaoke bar, and settled at a patio bar on the main strip where they met Mohamed. I woke up around 12:00 AM completely disoriented and confused but managed to meet them out. Bars stay open based on business so the owner kept the little pub open for us until around 3:00 AM. We learned that Mohamed  had recently left his family in Qatar (originally from Sudan) and planned to travel Asia for the indefinite future.

Day 5: Sapa

Steve, and I took advantage of the amazing spa on site and started our morning with a lovely couples massage. Later in the day we all ventured to Cat Cat Village in the rain. This was probably one of our favorite days of the trip. Cat Cat was a remote village in the jungle that you stumble on by walking through winding cobble stone steps through local farmland and shops. The village is out of this world. We spent some time at Cat Cat Riverside Cafe which we HIGHLY recommend. Duke the owner was incredibly welcoming, his English was excellent, and his family included several adorable dogs that stole the show. He made us local food and cocktails and spent some time telling us about how he had come to settle in Cat Cat. We truly enjoyed our time.

vietnam 7In the evening Eric decided to go for a massage so Steve, and I planned a date night in town. After about an hour Eric texted us that the manager of the hotel restaurant, Tuan, wanted to take us out for drinks with his friends. We headed over to a hole in the wall eatery with a group of guys that didn’t speak English. Tuan translated the entire conversation which lead to good old fashioned arm and thumb wrestling. We took down around 10 mini kegs before the owner of the restaurant  got antsy. After, we headed back to Aira Boutique Hotel to play pool and have some beverages. Hands down one of the best nights of our trip.

Day 6: Sapa

After a whirlwind of fun the night before we slept in a bit before arranging a scooter tour through the mountains. Originally the plan was to summit Mt Fansipan, but due to the weather and pure laziness we opted for the scooter tour instead. Our guide took us through local villages where we learned about the various culture and tradition specific to each one. Taking a scooter up and down winding, mountain roads in the rain was a fun but scary adventure. We had trucks whizzing by within inches of our scooters, locals moving their bull from one grazing area to the other blocking the road, and chickens/dogs/pigs crossing on a regular basis. It made for quite the cultural experience.This evening resulted in another night out on the town for dinner and drinks before bed.

Day 7: Sapa to Bai Tu Long Bay via Hanoi

We had so much fun riding scooters that we decided to rent them again, this time without a guide. We drove for hours through villages and up to Silver Waterfall before returning to the hotel. Since it was our last day we spent some time with the hotel staff that we’d grown fond of before taking a private shuttle to catch our overnight train back in Lào Cai. At some point during conversation we mentioned to Tuan that we were interested in local rice wine so he arranged to have us stop off before the train to pick up some “good local rice wine-not the stuff from the tourist shops.” After some pretty difficult goodbyes we bid farewell to Sapa. As promised our driver, Vo, made a pit stop to get us local rice wine. He disappeared down an ally and returned around 15 minutes later with a petrol can of rice wine. Yes, a petrol can. That puppy is sitting in our liquor cabinet at home as we speak. Thanks US Customs for letting us bring it home! Now back to Hanoi to pick up our cruise transfer.

Accommodation Review: Aira Boutique Hotel is THE place to stay in Sapa. I’ll start with the facilities; Aira Boutique offers on-site dining, a gym, a kids play room, an outdoor pool, and, a high end spa. The spa is affordable enough that Steve, and I actually got a second massage during our stay. Make sure to request a front-facing room so you can sit out on your balcony with a bottle of wine and enjoy the gorgeous views. Now let’s talk staff. Based on the above paragraphs it’s easy to understand how much we loved the staff at Aira Boutique. We started as guests and left, teary eyed, feeling like family. If you are looking for a high end hotel at a reasonable price Aira Boutique is the place for you.

Day 8: Bai Tu Long Bay

The overnight train pulled up to Hanoi around 6:00 AM giving us some time to shower and eat breakfast at Paradise Boutique Hotel before our next shuttle. Around 9:00 AM we were off to Bai Tu Long Bay for our 3 day, 2 night cruise. We booked with Indochina Junk Boats, the only company allowed access on Bai Tu Long Bay. Along the ride we had two stops. One included a water puppet show in Yen Duc Village. Once we boarded the ship there was a short briefing by our guide, Long, and then the fun began. We kicked off our trip with fruity drinks and kayaking through a cave. Dinner this evening was roughly about fifteen courses and was some of the best food we had on the entire trip. Each meal was family style so we got to know the other people on the boat. Our night cap included drinking and squid fishing with some of the boat staff.

Day 9: Bai Tu Long Bay

Day two of the cruise included kayaking and a beach bonfire. Again, some of the best food of our trip. This is the day we really started to get to know everyone on the boat. In the afternoon we played cards with Charleigh, a spunky eight year old who strategically won every game by changing the rules in favor of her as we played. She was there with her mom Abby who sat back laughing clearly having seen this charade before. The evening entailed another amazing family-style dinner and more card games. This time with Mark and Lucy, a couple from Bathe, England. A few fun facts about Mark and Lucy: Mark loves Lucy’s cats, and Mark is a BIG fan of the Great British Bake Off- a show that he was watching when he first messaged Lucy to ask her out on a date.

Accommodation Review: Indochina Junk Boat is a great option for anyone looking for a more off-the-beaten path version of Ha Long Bay. The cruise offers the same picturesque views and gorgeous green water without the crowds and party boats. The smaller boats offer a more inclusive vibe allowing everyone to get to know each other. Our guide, Long, was hysterical and knowledgeable, and the rest of the crew were great too. The dinners were top notch, and the drinks flowed freely our entire trip. Plus there are plenty of cruise options to choose from; highly recommend. 

Day 10: Bai Tu Long Bay to Hanoi and then on to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park

Wrapping up the cruise with brunch and beautiful views we jumped back on the shuttle and headed into Hanoi. Today was Steve’s last day so we grabbed a quick bite, and he headed to the airport to catch a red eye flight home.

After saying goodbye to Steve, Eric, and I headed to the train station to catch our overnight bus to Phong Nha National Park. For those considering an overnight bus, don’t. Just don’t do it. We drove around Hanoi for about three hours while the driver tried to figure out who should and shouldn’t be on the bus. The bus itself hosted three rows of “bunk bed” like seats with aisles so narrow you practically had to turn sideways to move down them. Once we secured two spots in the back I looked over and the person next to me had their feet protruding into the aisle black with filth from walking around on the streets. The ride was bumpy, long, and uncomfortable. I felt like it might not ever end. Needless to say, it did. We made it to Phong Nha around 5:30 in the morning and a gentleman at Gecko Hostel allowed us to use their facilities while we waited for our Oxalis Tour to start at 8:00 AM. I think it’s important to mention that Eric, and I booked our tours separately. We were both meant to tour Hang Va, however, we realized that Eric booked the Hang En tour by accident. Oxalis was unable to accommodate a change on short notice, because they set up the camps days in advance, so we were stuck on our own. This ended up being great, because we experienced totally different parts of the Son Doong Cave system, and I didn’t have to hang out with Eric.

Day 11: Phong Nha Ke Bang

During our separate briefings I learned about all of the animals that could potentially eat me during the tour which was a lot of fun. Post briefing we signed waivers, geared up, and headed out into the jungle. My group was six people total. Eric’s was quite a bit larger. We hiked 30 minutes into the jungle before stopping off at our first cave. This is where we had lunch and our first taste of caving with Von. It turns out he is the company photographer so he set up lighting for every picture he took of us which I greatly appreciated. The photos that resulted were a clear sign that Von has spent a lot of time photographing the Son Doong cave system. We had the chance to jump in a cave pool and swim around for awhile before heading farther into the jungle to our camp. Our camp was outside, because Hang Va’s entrance is too steep to allow for a campsite. Lucky for Eric, he slept inside Hang En which I was pretty jealous of. In the afternoon we spent time learning how to clip in and safely enter the cave followed by more swimming. Dinner was prepared by an our camp wardens, another shockingly good meal, before we indulged in rice wine, beer, and travel stories.

Day 12: Phong Nha Ke Bang

Today we entered Hang Va to explore it’s entirety. The caving took around 3 hours round-trip. We bouldered through small passage ways, swam through pools in the cave, climbed, and took a “shower” under a waterfall while bats flew all around us. Again, our wonderful guide took time to capture amazing photos of every person on the tour. By the time we managed to find out way back to daylight it was time for a quick lunch before hiking back to the main road. During our briefing it was brought to everyone’s attention that the hike out would be different than the hike in; it would entail walking down what was nicknamed “leech road.” Apparently this is so the tour doesn’t repeat the same route or something along those lines. Participants find some strange exhilaration being able to say they walked through brush full of leeches. NOPE. I opted to have one of the guides take me back the way we came while everyone else went down leech road. I am all about facing fears, but I can’t quite wrap my mind around purposely allowing a leech to bite me for no reason whatsoever. Meanwhile Eric’s group was miles out somewhere in the jungle hiking a much farther distance. They wouldn’t arrive back to the town until several hours later than our group.

This evening we  checked into Chay Lap Farm Stay where we would stay the remainder of our time in Vietnam. First stop, post check-in, was the pool bar where we learned that the hotel staff have English classes in the evening and invite hotel guests to come practice conversation. Eric, and I opted in, and took class with Mo, the instructor and hotel manager, and 2 students. The students spent time introducing themselves, talking about the farm stay, and their personal interests. They had each prepared a little speech to give, and then we had relaxed conversation and laughed at the awkwardness when we couldn’t understand each other.

Day 13: Phong Nha Ke Bang

Waking up the weather was pretty gloomy so we grabbed breakfast at the hotel restaurant, and then asked the front desk to get us rental scooters. We headed into town and farther on to drive through different parts of the national park. Mid-day we stopped off at Dark Cave to see what Vietnam’s longest zip line was all about. The concept of the zip line is that you go in a swimsuit, zip line over a large lake, and then paddle your way back in a raft after swimming in the Dark Cave. We opted out of swimming in the cave and paddled back to find two amazing mini zip line courses. We spent the next two hours laughing our asses off dropping into the water on the mini lines. Later in the day we ended up back in town where we met up with Kyle and Amanda, a couple from San Francisco who had been on Eric’s tour. They lead us to a hidden gem of Phong Nha called Momma D’s Rooftop Lounge. Momma D is a Canadian expat that moved to Phong Nha for a lifestyle change a little over seven years ago. She is an absolute blast to hang out with. The lounge has a specialty cocktail list that is to die for and supports a local pizza shop by ordering their pizzas into the restaurant. A couple of specialty cocktails later we constructed a plan to go back to Chay Lap with Kyle and Amanda, convince Mo to come out with us, and meet back up with Momma D at the only late night bar in Phong Nha town. Andy’s Disco Bar is a hodge-podge, eclectic, night club, owned by a local who goes by “Andy.” Our night was filled with a Vietnamese DJ, pool, beer pong, Nitrous balloons, and stripper poles.

Day 14: Phong Nha Ke Bang to Hanoi

A little hungover but not wanting to miss our last day we got up, grabbed some scooters, and headed toward the Duck Stop and Pub with Cold Beer, otherwise know as the greatest day of my life. Momma D had told us about it the night prior along with the story of how it came to be. The Pub with Cold Beer is a pub owned by a local family a few miles down a gravel “road.” If you decide to brave the last couple of miles to get there, prepare for a workout. It’s like playing a game of land mines. It came to be years ago when a traveler braved the road to see the beautiful views at the end and stopped at a local families home that was advertising cold beer. For anyone that has been to Vietnam you will know that cold beer means luke warm at best. Intrigued and thirsty the man walked up and bought one. To his surprise it was ice cold. He immediately told the family that if they would promise him to always keep ice cold beer in stock that he would bring tourist groups to them on a regular basis. A few years into this deal things got busier and the pub grew into a full bar. The traveler encouraged the family to start taking tourists on a tour of their farm thus the Duck Stop was born. The Duck Stop, God’s greatest gift to this earth, is a family run operation with 5 year old children smarter than most adults. The second you pull up on your scooter the kids are handing you a beer, clearing a table, and telling you which tour you will be doing. The whole tour entails an amazing interaction in their duck enclosure where you get a duck massage and play “duck master” running around the enclosure with duck food and quacking. Afterward you are meant to go swim in the river with their rescued buffalo. Due to poor weather conditions we did the duck portion and had to jump onto our scooters and head back to Chay Lap in the pouring rain. Sadly we missed out on the Pub with Cold Beer.

We stopped by the bar to stay goodbye to our favorite bar tenders but were heartbroken to find out that Hung had already gone home for the day. As our shuttle driver was pulling onto the main strip in town we looked behind us, and Hung rode up on his motorcycle. The staff at Chay Lap let him know that we wanted to say goodbye so he came to meet us for a beer before we left (insert more tears). Back onto an overnight bus to Hanoi.

Day 15: Hanoi

We arrived in Hanoi around 7:00 AM the next day. For those of you wondering about the bus ride back, it sucked slightly less. After stopping off at Paradise Boutique to drop our bags we went to wonder the crazy streets of Hanoi for one last day. Throughout this wandering I got my chicken tattoo located directly across from Peesh. I call him Mantiev. We bid farewell to Vietnam and we were off to Japan.

Day 16: Traveling home via Tokyo

What do you do with a 10 hour layover in Tokyo? MariKAR. Thank you for stopping by JustTwoBrosTravel, and please enjoy this nice video before you leave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#JustTwoBrosTravel wannabes Ali B and DougBee took a trip to Patagonia this spring (fall) and we are stoked to share it all. Read on for all the good, the bad, the views and the critters that this region has to offer!

DSC_0558Patagonian summers run from November through early March and are definitely the most popular time to visit the region. But, if you can brave the clouds and cold temps of autumn in Patagonia, you’ll be rewarded with the drop-dead views of the fiery trees against harsh snow-capped peaks.

Trip Length

We wound up in Patagonia in autumn by chance due to a hectic work schedule occupying all of the southern hemisphere summer, but we absolutely recommend it. You can get a pretty good taste of both Argentinean and Chilean Patagonia in two weeks, but the more time you have to spend, the better the opportunity you’ll have to catch some of the iconic views.

Getting There and Around

 To get to Chilean Patagonia, you fly into Punta Arenas (PUQ) through Santiago. There are frequent buses that run from the airport into the city of Punta Arenas, ~25 min, which was by far the biggest city we encountered in Patagonia. We spent an afternoon and evening there before our flight out and that was more than enough time to see all there was to see. Alternatively, there are buses running straight from PUQ to Puerto Natales – the Gateway to Torres Del Paine – that take ~2 hours. We took Bus Sur because you could buy tickets in advance, but there are other options available at the airport.

For Argentinean Patagonia, it is better to fly into the El Calafate Airport (FTE) through Buenos Aires. Once there, make your way over to the bus station, and you will find booths for various bus companies that can get you to Torres Del Paine (only Always Glaciars), Perito Moreno Glacier, and El Chalten. We used Chalten Travel to get to El Chalten, but found ourselves wandering around El Calafate for four hours waiting out the lag between the 13:00 and 18:00 bus services.

Buses between the two major hiking destinations of Torres Del Paine National Park and Parque Nacional Los Glaciares are non-existent. Buses between Puerto Natales and El Calafate, however, are readily available, and from there you can reach TDP and El Chalten.

Notes about flights:

  • If you’re planning to hit both Chile and Argentina in one trip, we recommend looking at multi city flights into one country and out of another. The bus trip from Punta Arenas to El Calafate takes an entire day that is better spent hiking in the mountains.
  • Travelers flying to PUQ from the US have a good chance of flying through Lima, where the runways close at night – so beware of delays getting out. We spent a lovely night in the airport lounge there – courtesy of Chase Priority Pass. The good news – free booze and more comfortable chairs. The bad news – they wake you up every two hours to check back in even when there is no line to get in.

Notes about buses:

  • For summer, we read in our research that it was recommended to book buses in advance. We did not find this to be necessary in April. Each bus we took had a few extra seats available. The problem with booking bus tickets in advance is that the schedules aren’t always perfect, and sometimes you wind up waiting more time for your scheduled bus than if you could just hop on a bus with another company.
  • The buses between Puerto Natales and El Calafate took a couple of hours less than listed on the ticket. I suppose they build in some fat for border crossings, but we arrived at each bus station a couple of hours early and then were forced to wait for our pre-booked bus. If you get stranded in El Calafate, La Zorra was a nearby tap house with a good beer selection, strong WiFi, and tasty French fries.
  • Bus companies take random days off of routes mid-week at certain times of year. We had to adjust our travel plans to accommodate the fact that buses from Puerto Natales to El Calafate don’t run on Thursdays in April.

Places to Stay

Punta Arenas – We stayed at Hostel Keoken before our flight home. It was clean and the old gentleman who ran it was friendly, but it was very quiet. We don’t recommend it for solo travelers looking to meet pals to go out with.

Puerto Natales – We tried out Refugio Hoshken and Hostel Melinda on the front and back ends of our time in Chile. Refugio Hoshken was friendly and young, and had amazing fresh bread at breakfast. It wasn’t ridiculously well-kept, and we had issues sleeping because our windows didn’t shut, but flapped all night in the roaring Patagonian winds. Hostel Melinda was advertised on booking.com as a hostel but was really a private room in a cluttered elderly couple’s home. Melinda and her husband were friendly enough, but the place was dirty and outdated enough that we would advise against it. While trying to escape our quarters at Hostel Melinda, we stopped in for a drink at Wild Hostel and were immediately disappointed we weren’t sleeping there. For around the same price, Wild offered amenities more inline with the HI hostels we were used to staying at.

El Calafate – We stayed at Del Glaciar Libertador Hostel and Suites in El Calafate. We booked day of, and it was empty in mid-April, but was clean, friendly, had good breakfast and was right by our favorite late night bar, La Zorra (was packed when we left at 1AM on a Wednesday). There are a few other places right near the bus station that looked clean and updated, but they put you a good walk away from any kind of food or nightlife.

El Chalten – Rancho Grande. Rancho Grande. Rancho Grande. Thou shalt stay here if traveling to El Chalten. Rancho (owned by HI) is amazing. It is cheap (like 5-star hotel quality bed and a clean private bath for $60). The staff is friendly. It’s packed year round with tons of solo and group travelers. They have a 24 hour bar and restaurant. The drawback is that it is on the opposite side of town from the bus station (granted you can walk the entire length of the town in 15 minutes) and that in busy season you definitely need an advanced reservation, especially for the private rooms. Being on the far side of town puts it right next to the Senda A Fitz Roy for the hike to Laguna de Los Tres. There are a couple of other hostels that we passed along the main drag between the bus station and Rancho Grande for spillover during busy season, but these were damn near abandoned in April.

Notes about hostels:

  • We never felt unsafe at any of the places that we stayed, nor really anywhere in Patagonia.
  • Many of the hostels, particularly in Chile, were cash only.
  • The difference in cost between a dorm bed and a private room was minimal almost everywhere we went, so if you’re traveling with a SO or just want your own bathroom, splurge a little.
  • Be careful with sites like Booking and Hostel World for this region. A lot of the listings were private rooms in people’s homes. We recommend booking places established enough to have their own web pages or hostels owned by the HI group.
  • If you stay at the same hostel before and after a circuit hike, you can leave non-essentials locked up at the hostel to decrease your pack weight.

The Hikes

We completed the W-Trek in Torres Del Paine (would have liked to do the full O-Circuit, but it closes each year for winter on March 31), the Huemel Circuit in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, and shorter hikes to views of the Cuerno del Paine, Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy. In general, we preferred the hiking in Argentina to Chile as the increased difficulty of terrain and campsite conditions deterred the hoards of people who flock to Torres Del Paine.

The W-Trek

The W-Trek is one of the most famous and well-known hikes in the world. There are some amazing views, just know that you will be sharing them with some guided tour groups, glampers, and a thousand of your closest friends. Doing the circuit requires advance booking either a bunk in the refugios along the trek or reserving a campsite. If you’ve got the gear and are willing to haul it, you can save quite a bit of money here. The refugios run about 5-10X the cost of camping.

The W can be hiked in either direction, beginning at either the Torres or Glacier Grey. We recommend beginning at Grey, to give your self more time on the back-end of the hike to catch a glimpse of the Torres. To get to the Grey campsite, you can either take the Lago Grey Ferry, which leave from Hotel Lago Grey, or you can take the Pudeto Catamaran to Paine Grande and hike up to the Grey Campsite from there. To get to each of these departure points, you’ll need to take the bus or a private transfer from Puerto Natales to Torres Del Paine, which drops you at the Laguna Amarga stop. Then you hop on a separate shuttle from there. The buses from PN to TDP can usually be booked in advance, but the Amarga to Pudeto bus tickets cannot ahead of time. We were traveling to the park on Easter Sunday and weren’t able to find a bus scheduled that day before we got to town so we booked a private transfer that was overpriced, but took only about 1.5 hours to get to the park.

Our transfer picked us up around 6:30, which got us to the park right when they opened at 8AM. The positive side to this was that we didn’t have to wait in lines at the park entrance, which we heard could be horrible later in the day. The negative was that basically our entire drive to the park was in the dark, which took away from the views and also thrust a bunch of nocturnal South American rabbits into our driving path. So our W-Trek began with the grand omen of our driver nailing a giant rabbit with our van, on Easter Sunday. Clearly off to a good start.

Once into the park it was about a 15 minute drive to the Pudeto bus stop. We recommend getting to Pudeto a couple of hours before the catamaran leaves to hike to the Mirador Cuernos. The Cuerno often takes the back seat to the Torres as the most iconic mountain in Torres Del Paine, but it was one of our favorite parts views. Bonus, if you get there early, you’ll find yourself with a private beach along the lake at the base of the Cuerno. The moody weather the morning we were there made it even more breathtaking.

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If you need to shave a day off of your time at Torres del Paine, we found day 1 was the best place to do it. We started at Pudeto and took the Catamaran to Paine Grande. This got us there around noon, and we were able to set up our camp for the night and head up to glacier grey carrying only our daypacks. This leg of the hike was very low difficulty (especially with just a day pack), and while the views were nice, they were the least impressive of the trip. There are a couple of viewpoints overlooking glacier grey that may be great on a clear day, but don’t offer much on a foggy day like we had. One of the downfalls of TDP and being required to reserve campsites in advance is that if you have bad weather and miss a view you won’t be able to see it until your next trip to Patagonia. There are a couple of hanging bridges a little past the Grey campsite that offer great photo-ops of the glacier in good weather.

Paine Grande was the windiest, most exposed campsite we experienced in Torres Del Paine. Almost every campsite that we came upon was strewn with large rocks that previous campers had used to weight down their tents. Use these. It would be a huge bummer to have your tent ripped to smithereens by the wind on day 1 of a trek. The Paine Grande campsite has a kitchen shared by the campers and refugio users that we used as a haven to cook and dry out clothes after a rainy day of hiking. Oriented facing the east, Paine Grande was also the best campsite for sunrise views in the morning.

DSC_0087-2We packed up and made breakfast around sunrise each morning to get out ahead of the guided trekking groups. I would strongly recommend this since there are some narrow points on the trail that make it hard to pass. From Paine Grande, you walk along Lago Pehoe for a little ways before getting back into the trees. Throughout the overcast morning that we fought on this day of the trek, we were rewarded views of single and double rainbows reaching over the lake.

DSC_0142The walk from Paine Grande to the next camp can range from 2.5-5 hours depending on which campsite you choose. You’ll encounter Italiano first, followed by Frances, and finally Cuernos. We had pre-booked at Frances, but recommend Italiano over either of the latter options as it prevents you from having to back track 1-4 hours to get into Valle Frances after dropping your bags at camp. Frances was ~30 minutes walk past the base of Valle Frances and Cuernos was 1.5-2 hours past. The hike through Valle Frances to Mirador Britanico was significantly steeper than the hike up to Grey, and was our first experience with the intense Patagonian winds. Mirador Britanico is the center tip of the W, and the highest point on the Trek, which also makes it a likely point to experience weather. We were torn between pressing on and turning back for the entirety of our hike up to Britanico, and eventually continued on to the top to find our selves socked in by storm clouds. This was a huge disappointment to us – photos of this valley on a clear day are perhaps the most impressive of the entire trek.

We trudged back down to camp amidst a rainstorm and finally found ourselves back at Frances to set-up around dusk to set up camp. Setting up here proved a little more difficult that Paine Grande since all of the tent camping spots were atop wooden platforms. We recommend bringing extra rope/stakes for this, as you’ll need to get creative with how you tie down your tent. Luckily, you’re on a side of the mountain sheltered from the wind, but it is still good to weight down your tent ropes and fly with any large rocks that you can find.

Frances did not have a sheltered kitchen for campers to use, but there is a covered area the size of a pop-up tent where they prefer that you cook. It did however, have some of the nicest restrooms we encountered along the W. There were quite a few showers (which we can’t comment on because who wastes time showering on a 4-day trek) and ample space to hang wet clothes to dry out. Overnight drying of our hiking boots and clothes became a common theme during our time in TDP. Frances was the first campsite where we saw mention of mice, so we avoided eating on our tent platform, and we didn’t have any issues with them.

The next morning, we kicked off around sunrise again to begin our longest full backpack hike of the trek, from Frances to Central. We finally got a sunny day, and enjoyed sweeping views of the turquoise Lago Nordenskjold for almost the entire day. Compared to the pack hiking of the previous day, this leg of the trek was generally longer and had more elevation gain/loss. We were still able to get to Central by about 2PM with a scenic lunch stop at a high point overlooking the lake.

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The alternative to camping at Central is to either camp or stay at Refugio Chileno. Camping at Chileno will cost you a bonus 2-3 hours up a steep slope carrying your pack in addition to $96 per tent camper per night compared to $8 per night at Central. The reward, however, is being only about a 1.5-hour hike from your camp to the Torres, which buys you an extra couple of hours of sleep if you’re trying to catch the Torres at sunrise. With our normal 5AM workweek alarms, we decided two hours of our sleep wasn’t worth the extra $180 and set a 4AM alarm to catch the sunrise.

DSC_0330Getting to Central early gave us a couple of options for how we wanted to spend our afternoon. We discussed making an attempt at the Torres, but with the afternoon cloud cover rolling in, and our ambition to hit it early the next morning for sunrise, we decided to just hang around camp instead. We did some crossword puzzles, made some more progress on the $11 fifth of scotch we had carried with us from Puerto Natales and turned in early.

IMG_0138The next morning we woke up a little before 4AM and backtracked the end of our prior day’s hike to pick up the trail to the Torres. Despite our experience with the rabbits on our first morning, we hadn’t thought much about what types of wildlife we would encounter this early in the morning. First was a coyote, which we were able to avoid by going off path 50 feet or so in a big field. Our next encounter was with a more aggressive fox which we were finally able to scare from our path by throwing some big rocks. In these first couple of pre-daylight hours, we did not encounter any other humans. Apparently no one else staying at Central was ambitious enough to make the sunrise haul. After about two hours of climbing we got to Chileno, where we found a few other humans ready to tackle the sunrise hike. The trail to the Torres was roped off until after dawn, but we could see numerous headlamps bobbing up and down in the distance so we risked it and went under. The last 1.5-2 hours of hiking was decently steep, but was really only difficult because of the lack of visibility. When we got up to the base of the Torres we saw 8-10 other people who had beat us up there. We found a quiet spot and made coffee and oatmeal while we waited for the sunrise.

The sunrise at the Torres is famous for creating an intense amber glow on the granite towers, which unfortunately wasn’t the case on this day. The view was still well worth the wake-up, and we were thrilled with our decision to do the sunrise hike when the clouds began rolling in on our hike back down.

IMG_0145The hike back down felt like a totally different trek actually being able to see.
The Valle Torres had some of the most spectacular fall colors of our entire trip.

We got back to our camp at Central, broke down our tent and discovered that for the first time all trip, we had been “moused”. Throughout Torres del Paine, and any frequented campsites in the region, they warn of mice, but we had been lucky enough to this point not to encounter any. Luckily, we had slept with our packs outside of the tent, so they were not snuggling up to us. Our backpacker meals were not so fortunate. The little guys chewed a hole into every single Mountain House brand backpacker meal we had brought with us (they could not chew through Backpackers Pantry’s thicker bags, so go with those!). This meant also chewing holes in the pack that contained the Mountain House meals. And our water filter. And trekking pole handles. And bladder mouthpieces. From here we took every effort to keep them out of our food and our stuff, and despite this they became increasingly more present…

W-Trek –> Puerto Natales –> El Calafate –> El Chalten

Starting around lunch, buses run each hour from the Torres Hotel/Central campsite to the Laguna Amarga entrance to the park. From there you can hop on a bus back to Puerto Natales. We didn’t pre-book, but were able to hop on a fairly crowded Bus Sur bus. Be sure to have cash for paying for buses as you hop on.

We got back to Puerto Natales and celebrated the end of an overall successful trek with some Cerveza Austral and pizza at Mesita Grande. After a celebratory meal, we embarked on an adventure to purchase more backpacker meals to replace those that had been moused. This was a depressing venture. We had noticed things in Chile being pricey, especially when compared to other places in South America, but backpacker meals ran about $17 here. We had read that options in El Chalten would be limited so we sucked it up and re-stocked.

The next morning we caught a 7AM Bus Sur bus to El Calafate. The bus was scheduled to run from 7AM to 2PM, but ended up getting us to El Calafate around 12:30, even with the Chile to Argentina border crossing (which was very much no big deal). The buses from El Calafate to El Chalten run at 1PM and 6PM, and we had pre-booked tickets for the 6PM anticipating a 2PM arrival in El Calafate. Thinking it would be no big deal to change ticket times to the 1PM bus, we went to the counter and were quickly shot down. Annoyed, but knowing we now had a few hours to kill, we walked into town, grabbed a beer at La Zorra and indulged in some free WiFi. El Calafate was also a good place to stock up on Argentinian pesos and grocery supplies. We splurged on some Milka chocolate covered Oreos and Vat 69 ($12USD) scotch that served as pick me ups in the low points of the trek to come.

We got on our 6PM El Chalten Travel bus from El Calafate to El Chalten and got in around 9PM. On the drive in we caught our first glimpse of Fitz Roy looking out over his kingdom. We didn’t know at that time that it would be one of only two times we saw this shy mountain over the next 9 days.

El Chalten

Rancho Grande hostel is a 15 min walk from the bus station in El Chalten. The staff was amazing and the beer was cheap so we grabbed a drink at the 24-hr restaurant attached to the hostel and worked out our plan for the coming days before falling into the most comfortable sleeping arrangements of the trip.

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We had a relaxing first morning in El Chalten after making the call that we wouldn’t begin the Huemel Circuit until the next day based on the weather. We opted instead for the light hike to Laguna Torre – which on a rare clear day offers the best up close view of Cerro Torre. Apparently this shy mountain doesn’t come out to play much in the fall because we made it the entire trip without seeing it. This hike was very easy and because of that is often packed with tourists. With no Cerro Torre, you’re basically just hiking to a mud-colored lagoon. You do get to see a lot of icebergs, which is a plus, but probably not worth the time on anything but a bluebird day. We were back from the 8-mile round trip hike before 11AM after starting around 8AM. Highlight of the morning was running into one of our favorite WA-state based Instagram photographers @moonmountainman who had just finished up the Huemel Circuit.

We spent the rest of the afternoon getting our ducks in a row to start the Huemel the next morning. This involved registering for our free permits with the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares Ranger Office – you should do this the day before you want to leave because the office doesn’t open until 9 or 10AM. The fact that you have to provide your health insurance information and whether or not you have “helicopter coverage” should probably deter the less than prepared from doing this trek. In order to receive your permit you also must bring a climbing harness, length of rope, and 1 steel + 1 aluminum carabiner with you to the ranger station. We rented them from an outdoors shop in town for ~$45USD each for four days. These are required for the trek since there are a couple of stream crossings in which a Tyrolean Traverse (zip-line type cable/pulley system) is necessary to get across. These were intimidating to read about in other travel blogs, but were some of the most fun and challenging portions of the trek.

Having done everything we could to prepare for beginning the trek in the morning, we did what #JustTwoBros do best, and found a bar. Actually quite a few bars. Because they all have a happy hour. El Chalten loves Happy Hour. Our favorite was La Vineria, which had cocktail and beer deals in addition to wine, as well as HUGE charcuterie platters for the equivalent of $10USD. We also frequented Bourbon Bar (so American it was basically America) for strong late night cocktails on the walk back to Rancho Grande. For dinners in El Chalten your options are limited in the spring/winter/fall. We spent a couple of meals at Ahonikenk which featured cheap pizza, schnitzel, crispy french fries and pinguinos of cheap red wine (that’s wine by the liter poured from the mouth of a penguin shaped carafe). Ali B loves schnitzel and DougBee loves cheap food in large quantities so everyone won. One thing to watch out for at these and any other establishments in El Chalten – many places are cash only, and if they aren’t cash only, their credit card machine is probably broken, so they are cash only.

The Huemel Circuit

Quick insight on this trek – it’s called the “Huemel Circuit” because it literally walks in a circle around Cerro Huemel, a large not-so-famous but still very pretty mountain in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Cerro Huemel is named after a small Andean deer (the huemel) that we, and many others before us, managed to go our whole trip without seeing.

DSC_0545We got up before daybreak (daylight hours in April are ~8AM-7PM) to make our way towards the trailhead for the Huemel Circuit, which happens to be at the visitor center where you receive your permit. From there you start climbing, giving an initial view overlooking El Chalten before heading into some woods. Day 1 of the trek takes you from El Chalten to Laguna Toro with an optional stop at Loma del Pligue Tumbado along the way. Loma roughly translates into “pretty hill” and on a clear day, this pretty hill offers some pretty unbeatable views of Fitz Roy.

The detour probably added 2-3 hours to our first day overall, but it was absolutely worth it. Side note for people not doing the Huemel, Loma del Pligue Tumbado can be done as a day hike in ~6 hours or faster without a pack. On our hike up to Loma the clouds started to clear, and we camped out for an hour or so at the top until the shy mountain finally revealed itself. After descending back to the Huemel Circuit trail, we had about three hours of minimal ascent before descending into a valley that housed Laguna Toro. Before the descent, you stumble upon the best view of Cerro Huemel of the entire circuit, just to remind you that you are indeed going to be walking around the hulking beast.

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The descent to Laguna Toro passes quickly despite being able to see the camp in the distance for the last hour or so of the day’s trek. The campsites on the Huemel are a far cry from the boujee accommodations encountered on the W-Trek in Torres del Paine, but they get the job done. There are camping spots built-in to the side of the mountain, sheltered from the wind by piles of rock and branches created by campers over time. We didn’t have any issues with the wind in this portion of the trek. This was the beginning of the end however in DougBee’s tolerance for small rodents. There are mice EVERYWHERE at every campsite throughout the trek. Literally everywhere. And the little bastards don’t wait until you were blissfully unaware in your tent before coming out either. We spent the night constantly waking each other up from one person hearing, seeing, or subliminally feeling a mouse – the most terrifying being seeing a little body and tail crawling between the tent and the rain fly above our faces.

After an exhausting first day and minimal nights sleep (thanks again mice) we embarked on our second day of the trek. From the weather forecasts we checked on our last night at Rancho Grande, we knew we had two nice days ahead of us before temperatures dropped below freezing and snow settled in on the mountain passes. For that reason, we made the difficult and extremely ambitious decision to conquer days 2 and 3 (indisputably the hardest two days of the circuit) in one. While this was necessary in our circumstance, we definitely don’t recommend this course of action particularly in a time of year with less than 12 hours of daylight.

IMG_0268Despite the pressure of knowing we had a long day ahead, this was one of the most amazing days of hiking of our lives. About 30 minutes into the day’s hike, we encountered the first Tyrolean Traverse, crossing a raging canyon stream without touching a drop of water. After that, we were officially awake.

After the crossing, you hike along rock for a little while as some huge glaciers, including one that you’ve got to walk on, come into view. Walking on glaciars without proper gear is terrifying – you can hear the freezing water flowing below you and pieces break off every so often from random locations. We were only on the glacier for an hour or so, but we stayed as close to the edge as possible. We did take the opportunity to fill up all of our water supplies with the most refreshing water we’ve ever drank.

DSC_0630The trail kind of disappears while you’re on the glacier, but picks back up as you inch closer to the climb to Paso del Viento (windy pass – adequately named). The ascent to Paso del Viento is a moderate-to-difficult ascent, made more difficult by having the weight of a toddler on your back and knowing that you have to move quick or you may find yourself lost in the dark that evening. The trail is tough to follow at points in this spot, and there are a few false cairns that have been left by other hikers that got off trail. Take your time and follow the switch-backs and it isn’t too difficult. As you crest the top of the pass the wind hits you like a train at ~40 mph. It’s cold at the pass, but you barely feel it because you’re too enamored with the ice field that just popped into your view.

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Say hello to a 180 degree view of the South Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest sheet of ice in the world. The hike to Paso del Viento via the Huemel is the only way to see more than a small chunk of this magnificent sheet of ice by foot (you can catch a small glimpse from the O-Circuit in Torres del Paine, but this is the best way to truly grasp it vastness). Spend as much time up here as your cold fingers can bear, then remind yourself that you’re going to spend the next 2-3 hours walking alongside this beauty.

In under an hour of hiking from the top of Paso del Viento, you come across what is intended to be the second campsite of the trek. Even if we weren’t planning to hike through to Lago Viedma in our second day, we reached this point around 1PM, so we would likely have continued on to the next camp we passed up, on the approach to Paso Huemel.

From the Paso del Viento campsite, the intensity of the hiking dies down for a couple of hours as you parallel the ice field. The trail is difficult to follow at points as you’re walking through a sort of alpine meadow, but with a mountain on your left and the ice field on your right, it’s hard to set off in the wrong direction.

As you start the slog up to Paso Huemel, soak up your final views of the South Patagonian Ice Field. You’ll pass another campsite, and then about an hour of pretty steep climbing separates you from damn near a 360 view of Lago Viedma and Glaciar Viedma. The start of the climb was the low point for morale on the circuit, as evidenced by the absence of DougBee’s camera for the remainder of the day. Knowing that we had about 3 hours until sundown to make it up more than 1500 feet followed immediately by dropping nearly 3000 feet in less than a mile wasn’t making us feel particularly warm and fuzzy.

DSC_0705The views of the lake were spectacular, but the skinny peninsula that promised our camp for the evening was even more beautiful. This descent is not for the weak-kneed, and our trekking poles quickly became our most valuable possessions for the couple of hours.

After a couple of hours of descent through steep rock and brush we stumbled into camp at dusk. As the only ones there, we had our pick of the ~10 campsites along the beach. There was an absence of small streams near the lake, so we filtered some water from Lago Viedma to cook with and drink the next day. With some backpacking meals (Backpacker’s Pantry you are a mouse-proof god-send) and some Vat 69 in our exhausted bellies, we were about ready to tuck ourselves into bed when another crew joined us at our camp. They were a ~30 year old and his parents of average to below average fitness. The son who spoke English told us of they were on their first night of the circuit, and planned to tackle the 50% grade descent in reverse the next day. We laughed to ourselves, warned of the mice, and went to bed, only to be awaken by some mouse-induced shrieks shortly after.

DSC_0713The final morning of the Huemel was a little disheartening, knowing all of the best views are behind you, but you’ve still got a roughly 15 mile haul back to town. We were dealt some spitting rain for the entirety of the day, but we counted our blessings when we looked back at the mountain and the torrential weather that was definitely happening up there. That poor, naive family hauling it to Paso Huemel.. There is one bout of excitement on the last day when you get to cross the second Tyrolean Traverse. This one is much longer and closer to the stream than the first, but also slightly less necessary, as the stream could have probably been traversed with water no higher than your waist.

IMG_0362The length of this traverse made it more difficult and after DougBee successfully traversed the stream, I battled with the rope getting caught on rocks halting my progress on four separate occasions before I finally made it to the promised side of the stream, broken down from the effort of the last couple of days. Moral of the story, keep your length of rope close up to you and out of the stream where the current will happily lodge it below a boulder and leave you + the 40 pound on your back dangling unable to advance your crossing.

From here, it is a couple of fairly flat, easy miles through fields along the water before you come across a parking lot for a Lago Viedma/Rio Tunel Glaciar boat tour. Right before you reach the lot you find yourself on the inside of a fenced in area, sharing your pasture with a herd of cattle. We walked/ran cautiously go off-trail to avoid walking into the middle of a crazy aggressive bull-fight. In other blog posts, we heard rumors about this parking lot being full of buses and cars to hitch the last few miles back to town in, but we found an empty lot – alas the hike continued. On the bright side, there was a bathroom here – which was something we hadn’t encountered since the ripe hole in the ground at the Laguna Toro campsite on day 1.

The bonus 5 miles through farm fields (fence hopping included!) and along the road had us wiped out by the time that we arrived back at the Rancho Grande by happy hour. Be advised that excessive drinking following a three-day calorie deficit will result in you getting shit faced, ending your night with a personal liter of beer and waking up with a wicked hangover. But hey, we had planned to be finishing the Huemel that morning, so we had a day of no obligations! We further explored everything there is to explore in El Chalten (which took about an hour), sent some post cards to mom and dad, and found some dank dulce de leche pastries at a panaderia on the main drag between the bus station and town.

Chorrillo del Salto day-hike

DSC_0731A 4-mile hike was about all we had in us after our days on the Huemel and the celebration that followed, so we evaluated hiking to Laguna Capri or Chorrillo del Salto. On an overcast day like we had, your odds of catching Fitz Roy at Laguna Capri are next to none, so we settled for the waterfall. It was less impressive than those we had seen in Costa Rica a few months back, but the fall colors enhanced the aesthetic.

Laguna de Los Tres day-hike

On our final day before we began the 3-bus journey back to Punta Arenas to fly back to the US, we were determined to get to Laguna de Los Tres. This is the lake immediately at the base of Fitz Roy that is the scene of countless gorgeous sunrise and reflection instagram posts. The view is an earned one, rewarded after about 8 miles of hiking including a steep climb for the last half mile or so.

The day we had slotted for this hike also happened to be the day of the first snow of the season in El Chalten. Sadly, the weather did not take away from the popularity of the trail, and the fresh snow mixed with hoards of humans made for a long, slippery adventure, particularly on the final ascent up to Laguna de Los Tres.

DSC_0861When we crested the final ridge up to Laguna de Los Tres, we were teased by the slight outline of where Fitz Roy should be looming, not 100 feet in front of us. We waited up top until we could wait no longer (or we would miss our 6PM Chalten Travel bus to El Calafate), but the clouds had moved in to stay. When we finally turned around, we saw blue skies reaching for miles away from our shy mountain friend.

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On our last descent into El Chalten, we were a little bummed that we weren’t able to see as much of Fitz Roy or Cerro Torre as we had hoped, but we were still in awe of the harsh magic that was the contrast of the autumn colors against snow and granite. Our next trip to Argentinian Patagonia will be in the summer to catch Cerro Torre out to play, but there is a definitely case to be made for Patagonia’s autumnal beauty, availability/pricing of accommodations, and lack of  crowds.

Our 2017 Christmas trip took us to the lovely state of Utah. Starting in Salt Lake we planned to head to Canyonlands and work our way through all 5 National parks ending in Las Vegas. With 9 days ahead of us we booked a rental car and took off with no agenda.

Salt Lake City

Highlights: 

  • Stopping at Rite Aid twice, because Whitney A needed all the drugs.
  • Eating the  tastiest food at Red Iguana.

Canyonlands

Days Spent: 3 Days

Districts Visited: Needles and Island in the Sky

Hikes: Druid Arch, Grand View Point, and Mesa Arch

Highlights: 

  • Dope train pics.
  • Cows  everywhere.
  • Playing land mines for hours on the back roads of Island in the Sky.
  • Getting back to the car after the 17 mile hike to see Druid Arch.
  • Being the only people around for miles in the Needles district.
  • Our car camp-site.
  • Mad-libs.

Arches

Days Spent: 1 Day

“Hikes”:  Double Arch, Delicate Arch, Broken Arch, and Window’s Loop

Highlights: 

  • Getting to the park before the Visitor Center opened.
  • Sprinting to Delicate Arch, Coors Lites in tow, to beat the crowds of people starting the hike #nophotobombers.
  • Not having to walk further than a mile to see anything.

Capitol Reef

Days Spent: 2 Days

Hikes: Sulphur Creek

Highlights:

  • Hiking 10 miles in the wrong direction and having to be driven back to our car by a nice lady at the only hotel open for miles.
  • Nothing.

Bryce Canyon

Days Spent: 1.5 Days

Hikes: Fairyland Canyon

Highlights: 

  • Staying in a hotel with a hot tub and pool.
  • Eating warm dinners at that hotel.
  • Having a hike actually go as planned.
  • Dancing on rocks.
  • Drinking Coors-Lite overlooking the canyons.

Zion National Park (Part 2)

Days Spent: 1.5 Days

Hikes: The Narrows

Highlights: 

  • Finally getting to hike the narrows!
  • Hanging out at Zion Brewery.
  • Realizing that Zion refuses to let us go-part 3 coming soon.

Las Vegas

Highlights:

  • The Zip-line on Fremont Street.
  • Neon Boneyard.
  • Drinking a lovely frozen drink out of an asinine leg lamp cup.

This past year I started a new job and with the start of that new job came an extra PTO day that I’ve never been granted in the past: the day after Thanksgiving!!!! Of course as soon as I found out I got this day “for free” I decided to try to go international over the holiday. Though this later got me in trouble with my friends and family (only kinda), I am so happy I decided to take the trip.

Planning this trip started with figuring out an international destination that wasn’t going to break the bank or take 7+ hours to get to considering I only had 4-5 days. Insert Central America. A place I’d never researched or had on my radar. After approximately 5 seconds of scrolling through the Pinterest search “Central America Travel” I stumbled on a photo of Lake Atitlan, and that settled it; I was going to Guatemala. Well, if the flight was affordable, that is. Thankfully I stumbled on a flight for less than $300 and immediately booked it.

I spent a very short time in Guatemala, but 4 days was all it took for me to fall in love with the country, culture, and Central America in general. Leading up to the trip (5 days before my departure to be exact) I received a phone call from my mom that went something like this:


Mom: “Whitney I know that you enjoy travelling, but your Dad, and I have been talking to some well traveled friends, and we all agree that Guatemala is not a good place for you to be going alone.”

Me: “Well Mom the flight is booked, and I am going….what exactly do you/your friends know about Guatemala that worries you about the place?”

Mom: “Well IDK! It just seems like a dangerous place for you to be going.”

Me: “Okay Mom well we both know I’m going on this trip regardless of this conversation, but just keep in mind you, and Dad also thought Croatia was dangerous before you went.”

Mom: “FINE. You are probably right.”

Fast forward 15 minutes to when I get a call from Eric A:

Eric A: “So Mom called to let me know that her and Dad feel weird about you going to Guatemala.”

Whitney A: “Of course she did.”

Eric A: “Well I just told her to consider that if you die it’ll save her a lot of money on Christmas gifts.”


Needless to say my parents got over it, but I think the above conversation shows how much we fear the unknown. Don’t get me wrong, I understand, that you need to practice a certain level of caution when travelling alone anywhere, Central America included, however, I am a firm believer that if you use your street smarts and show respect to the people, culture, and place that you are going, you will almost always be welcome.

I departed Chicago on Wednesday, November 22nd in the afternoon, and arrived in Guatemala City around 9:00PM. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little nervous. I hadn’t traveled completely solo since I moved to Germany in 2014. I started questioning my confidence with solo travel when I landed at the Guatemala City airport with little to no Spanish skills. I was relying on a message from my hostel in Antigua saying that someone would be waiting outside the airport doors holding a sign with my name on it. After walking out to what seemed like an abandoned parking lot I didn’t see anyone holding a sign with my name on it. I got a little more nervous. What the hell was I going to do if this person didn’t show to drive me to Antigua?! The more I walked around the more nervous I got. Finally I tried calling the hostel, and they assured me someone was coming to get me. He did eventually show up. Insert a major sigh of relief.

The drive to Antigua was smooth and easy, lasting about 45 minutes. Upon arrival in Antigua I checked into my accommodation: Three Monkey’s Hostel. It was a quaint little place with a great rooftop deck and courtyard. The staff were incredibly friendly, helping me find a good late night place to get food and drink.

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I was directed straight to Cafe No Se  where I met an expat from Oregon that spends his summers in Alaska on a fishing charter and his winters in Antigua working various jobs. Between him, the bar owner-an expat from New York, and a local Guatemalan tour guide that I met, my nerves dissipated immediately. Follow my nerves disappearing with Cafe No Se’s famous Grilled Cheesus, and you could say I settled in quite nicely. I learned during my conversations that I totally dropped the ball in planning for this trip and should have planned time to hike Acetanango-an active volcano that people typically hike up later in the afternoon, camp, and then wake up at dawn to watch the sunrise around the surrounding volcanoes.

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I woke up the next morning with about 3 hours to explore Antigua before my shuttle picked me up to head to Lake Atitlan. I  found a small cafe/bakery to eat breakfast and enjoy Guatemalan coffee. After breakfast I walked the streets admiring the architecture and stopped to pet every friendly stray dog I could find.Guat 1 12:00PM arrived, and it was time to return to Three Monkeys Hotel for my shuttle. After about 30 minutes my nerves started coming back, because, once again, my shuttle wasn’t there. When it finally did arrive I realized that this is the reality of scheduled shuttles/cars in Guatemala. The streets are rougher and hillier. Nothing is actually on time, or at least, not usually, and that is okay.

It took around 4.5 hours to get to Panajachel (one of the two towns accessible by land on the lake.) Once I arrived I walked down the street toward the lake to catch a water taxi to Santa Cruz, the village where La Iguana Perdida is. The taxi cost me 20Q, however, I am pretty sure bartering is fairly easy to do. After about 35 minutes on the water enjoying the views we pulled up to the docks, and I could see the line for Thanksgiving Dinner at La Iguana Perdida from the boat. I was immediately overwhelmed by the large expat population. The sense of community was  intimidating at first, but as I settled in and had a drink, I really started to enjoy myself. After dinner, a couple of girls from the states invited me over to play cards. Chelsea, Madison, and Olivia all know each other from a study abroad experience in Costa Rica. After completion of the program Chelsea traveled a bit, and then took an internship in Guatemala. Olivia and Madison were visiting her for a long weekend. We played cards all night, talked all about our travels and experiences, and, after copious amounts of alcohol, joined the rest of the group at the hostel bar to participate in a classic Thanksgiving tradition. We went around the group, 15 people at least, and talked about what we were most thankful for (and took shots of course). Moments like these are the reason that travel is so infectious. To meet a group of people from all over the world and connect within hours of knowing each other is incredible. No judgement, just genuine interest in one another.guat 3

The next day Chelsea, Madison, and Olivia left the lake to head back to Antigua. This meant I was a loner again. I took Chelsea’s advice and walked up the only street in the village to CECAP. CECAP is a vocational educational program in Santa Cruz that was started to introduce new skills to the community to help make it more prosperous. The school sells a lot of hand crafted items from the students, and also offers a rooftop cafe, with BEAUTIFUL views of the lake. I spent a good portion of my day between the cafe and roaming the streets hanging out with the local dogs. guat 5

That evening I sat down for the family style dinner that La Iguana Perdida offers-a dinner that requires you sit with others staying at the hostel to engage in conversation and meet new people. I ended up at a predominantly Australian table with the exception of a lovely woman from the UK. Another night was spent getting to know new people, including Andrew, a pilot from Australia, and his girlfriend. After another night of drinking and conversation, I kidnapped Sox, the local cat that hangs at the hostel, and hung out for a bit before bed.

guat 8My final day was spent out on the water. I took the water taxi from village to village until I arrived in San Juan. San Juan was recommend to me by the girls at the hostel as the best place to find local Guatemalan coffee. I wandered around until it was time to catch my shuttle back in Panajachel. One common theme that I noticed all around the lake was that a lot of the locals have next to nothing, houses made out of cinder block with no real flooring, yet, they were some of the happiest and kindest people I’ve ever encountered. I never once felt unsafe.

A long shuttle back to Guatemala City via Antigua landed me at my hostel, Los Volcanes, at 10:30PM. I online ordered Pizza Hut with the help of my hostel host, stuffed my face, and passed out. Up at 3:30AM, my hostel host drove me over to the airport to catch my flight back to the states.

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4 days is a very short time, and it took a lot of work to get to Lake Antigua, but it was worth it. Since stepping foot on US soil I can’t stop thinking about Central America. The people, the views, the food, the dogs, and let’s face it, the cost. This is a great option for backpackers that don’t want to break the bank.

Until next time, Guatemala.

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Oh the strange places we venture. Us Two Bros decide to head to Carlsbad Caverns & Guadalupe Mountains for our 2017 Labor Day. We flew into El Paso International Airport. In true Texas form you have to fly to the closest airport & drive to the parks. To get to Big Bend you have to fly to Midland, Texas, & drive 2.5 hours South to the park. This time is was El Paso & about 45 minutes to Carlsbad where we started.

Whit got in a little late so we drove to about 15 minutes outside Carlsbad Caverns & stayed at the Rodeway Inn. It’s a hole in the wall, but for you extreme pool fanatics, it does have a water slide. The price isn’t fantastic, most likely, because it’s the closest place to the parks, but the room will get you through the night.

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We started our first whole day in Carlsbad, a park similar to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, but also much different. The Caverns are a little more appealing & exciting when you’re inside them, they have an elevator that goes down into the center or you can enter at the mouth which adds an easy extra mile to the hike. We recommend doing the mouth entrance, Carlsbad isn’t that long of a hike. You can do the Cavern’s in under 3 hours & the surrounding area has some basic trails you can walk though the Caverns are what it’s all about.

Inside they also have a restaurant with some cold cut sandwiches & soft drinks; & get this, they have plumbing. Full blown men & women’s bathrooms. What plumber got the call, ” Hey can you put plumbing in our cave?” It’s kind of amazing.

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Booty Chairs at WCR

Afterwards we ate nachos, burgers, & grilled cheeses at the White City Restaurant. They don’t have a website that I can find, which if you go there you”ll understand, but the food was cheap & delicious.

In Guadalupe, we booked two hikes, The McKittrick Canyon Trail at about 14.8 miles with a 2,000 ft elevation change, & the Guadalupe Point Hike at about 8.5 miles with a 3,000 foot elevation change. We set off for McKittrick… then realized we forgot our camping permit back at the visitor center. We set off for McKittrick again! When you arrive at the trail head, there is a mini ranger’s station with a couple bathrooms, a water fountain & an informational video. We start our hike in the late afternoon, which is always nice in the Southwest, it’s cooler outside & the pictures are so beautiful with the sun going down.  We set up camp in the dark as usual. Now let me say this, the hike up, landscape, greenery & all is very beautiful, a tough hike, but great views. The camp site at the top is very much the opposite. You’re up on one of the highest mountains in the park & you feel like you made a huge trek just to sit in the woods. Really you could do that in Idaho & your knees would hurt a lot less.

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We got up early to watch the sunrise from this great spot we found on the ridge. We snapped a few pics, took in all the scenery, & made our way back to the ranger’s station. The trek going down is even harder than going up. Hiking on broken limestone is tough & unpredictable, so you have to watch where you step. At the bottom we met a ranger named Eli. A very happy go lucky guy who talked to us for a while about all of his favorite spots in El Paso. He also happened to have gone to Ranger school with our savior Zach from our Voyageurs National Park mini trip.

Due to Whitney’s cartilage damaged knees we decided to opt out of the Guadalupe Peak hike. We handed our unused permit to Eli and headed straight for El Paso. We were starving & on the way back to the city, Whitney A found this cool little cafe, Cafe Cardunas, run by someone’s grandmother, who supported Donald Trump & hosted a small Sunday Mass in the back corner of the restaurant converted home. We demolished everything she brought us. As crazy as the political canvas of the restaurant seems, I recommend it. The food was amazing, she made my turkey club with real non- processed turkey! And of course Whit loved her grilled cheese.

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In El Paso, we treated ourselves. We got a room at the Radisson Hotel, & sat poolside with a couple of blue moons, vodka sodas, & rested our weary legs. We also had a couple of Jalapeño burgers, which were perfect.

One regret we had was not bringing our Passports. El Paso sits right on the Juarez Mexico border, & having that extra day, we would’ve went to check it out if possible. Although a small city in Texas, El Paso & it’s nearby National Parks are worth a visit.

Just Two Bros in Iceland

As everyone knows, Iceland has experienced a tourism boom since the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. The Icelandic government worried the country would take a major hit as a result. Instead they responded with a major publicity campaign & in the time since, has jumped from 465,000 tourists in 2009 to an estimated 1.8 million 7 2017 is set to finish around 2.4 million. Whitney A, Steven Samuel Fisher, Ali B, & I contributed to that number.

Over 11 days, we spent 6 days in Reykjavik & 4 days on the Laugavegur Trek.

Whitney A & I flew Canada Air through Toronto International Airport to get to Reykjavik. I’ll make this quick. Air Canada is easily one of the worst flights we’ve ever taken. Every flight was late leaving or arriving, you had to pay for your drinks & the 4 1/2 hour leg of the flight from Toronto to Iceland didn’t have TVs while the 1 1/2 hour flight did. Toronto International is a mess. Their security rules vary from check point to check point & although they have nice bars, the drinks are priced to bankrupt.

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Whit & I got off the plane & met Steve at Keflavik International. The three of us hopped a bus to the Blue Lagoon. Although super touristy, the Lagoon is worth a look. Outdoor health pools are very common in Iceland & the Blue Lagoon is one of the largest. Some nice features are the baggage check for tourists & the swim up bar in the pool. Try Iceland’s homemade beer, Gull, it definitely doesn’t disappoint.iceland 2

Our bus took us & it’s other passengers into Reykjavik & made multiple stops making sure each passenger got exactly where they needed to go. For us that place was Reykjavik Downtown Hostel located on Vesturgata St. in the heart of the action, & would be our home for the next 5 nights. Steve & Whit got a private room & I jumped from a four person room to a 10 person after the first night. That evening we checked out a couple of spots around town & the one that stuck out the most & a place we’d return to later in the trip was the Drunk Rabbit.

Bars in Reykjavik although fun, are very expensive. If you can get to a Vínbúðin, Iceland’s one & only liquor store chain & run by the government, I recommend it. A pint typically runs about 10 króna or about $10 usd, at Vínbúðin the same beer will run you around 3 króna. Also liquor laws allow for open containers in public so grab a couple tall boys & explore.

Iceland 7Don’t let the last paragraph deter you from checking out some of the local bars. Like I said before, the Drunk Rabbit had so much to offer. An Irish pub in the heart of downtown. We happened to meet two traveling Irish folk musicians who were playing for everyone right at their table. We also met Mariana the Slovakian bartender who moved there to be with her sister who was a nurse. She ended up taking care of us the next two times we went.

The next day Whit had an excursion planned with dive.is for us to snorkel Silfra also known as the spot where the North American tectonic plates meet Europe’s. You can also dive the location, but it requires a dry suit certification which we could’t get before we went.

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Fear not, the snorkeling is more than enough to get a good glimpse into the split. Our guides Chris & Bart were funny, knowledgeable & made the trip very easy. They supply all the gear & help you dress. They take you to the water, tell you a couple ridiculous jokes & that’s pretty much it. Once you’re in the water it’s silence & isolation. Your face pierces the water’s surface you can immediately see down into the Earth’s crust. Chris said it’s possible to see over 300 ft down with the naked eye. The other great thing about the excursion is they pick you up & drop you off in the same spot so getting to & from is easy & convenient.

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We spent the rest of the day walking up & down Laugavegur Street. Lebowski bar is a tribute to the Cohen Brother’s timeless cult classic. Bragging 24 different styles of White Russian & some of the coolest Lebowski style decorations. As usual the drinks were pricy but totally worth it if you’re a fan. The owner did a great job showing love for the movie & not letting it slip into the tourist favorite “theme’s for a quick buck.”

ICELAND 9Day 3 began with a Puffin & Whale Watching tour through Whale Safaris.  I’m sure the other tour companies are great but I’m going to preach the good word of W.S. They supply the gear as well as experienced tour guides & boat captains. You have the option to jump on a larger style ship that moves around slowly as you try to catch up & catch a glimpse of the Minky Whales that live near port or a much smaller boat that holds about 12 people & moves around pretty quick. Our captain demonstrated did donuts just outside the harbor. The puffins were a fun feature of the boat tour but beware Puffins may be smaller than they appear… on Google images.Iceland 1

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Our fourth & certainly not least, Ali B arrived that day, adding just a little more pizzaz to our already thriving Iceland Crew. For her first day we went & checked out one of the tallest buildings in the country, Hallgrimskirkja, a church standing at 74.5 meters high. Designed by Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937 although construction didn’t start until 1945 as Iceland was in the middle of war. It was finally completed in 1986. Samúelsson passed away in 1950 long before it’s completion.

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 I recommend checking it out. The structure is beautiful inside & out. Housing the largest organ in the country. It has 5,275 pipes & is pretty cool. Afterwards we went over to another local spot, Dillon’s. Note this pub ye drinkers, as it has a great happy hour deal of two Gull’s or two Vikings for 10 króna. That night we decided to join the Reykjavik Haunted Walking Tour for the price of 25000 Krona. The tour came with a sober Dutch group and their guide Jackie, a lot of childishly funny jokes, and some not so sober Americans (aka us). Alli managed to fall asleep several times during the tour so we sent her ass back to the hostel. Steve Whit & I ended up at Pablo Disco Bar, a Columbian themed dance club modeled in favor of the 70s-80s drug lord.  The club spins mostly music from that time period or at least it did while we were there. The bartenders flip bottles around like Tom Cruise in Cocktail. This is a must for any lovers of dance or fun in general.

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Skaftafell National Park

The next two days were spent in a rental car, exploring the Snæfellsnes Peninsula & Southern sides of Iceland. Each morning before we hit the road we stopped by Cafe Haiti for some fantastic breakfast with a great view and service. The first stop was Skaftafell National Park, although we didn’t have time to walk on the glacier or see the ice cave, we squeezed in a nice little hike & saw our first & certainly not last waterfall. Other points of interest include the Hvalfjörður Fjords, the Black Beach & Skógafoss waterfall in Skógar. All unique & beautiful places to visit. If you want your Instagram to look pro, pop off a couple pics at anyone of these places.

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Arnarstapi

Iceland 6The second day of the excursion we visited an Algae Pool spa in Snæfellsbær called Lýsuhóll geothermal pool. A swimming pool & two hot tubs full of algae set amongst mountains that’s meant to revitalize the skin.  We had lunch in a small oceanside town Helen & visited the Kirkjuffel volcano. You can’t drive up to or hike it anymore as it’s fenced off for reasons I’m unaware of.ICELAND 8

Day 6 said goodbye to Steve & put Whitney A, Ali B, & I on a bus to Landmannalaugar to start the Laugavegur Trail. This was the longest camping/ hiking journey Whit & I had ever done. We went 54.7 kms to Þórsmörk Volcano Huts & added 23.5 kms back to Skógar & finished at the top of the waterfall.

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Be prepared, the weather in Iceland is ever changing.  For the most part we got lucky & had no major weather problems, except Laugavegur day one. We had wind, ice, snow, rain, & when we got to our first camp about 14.4 kms into the hike we were surprised with a couple of rangers telling us we had to move onto the next camp as there was a high powered wind storm ready to tear through the mountains. Another 14 kms & more aggravating weather we finally got to camp #2. This campsite was amazing, it came with a small bar/ restaurant & a friendly German traveler named Raphael who we’d continue to see along the way.

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The first day of hiking made us nervous that we’d get caught in shitty weather again & as a result the three of us went the rest of the 29.9 kms to the Volcano huts. Whitney slipped in mud right on her ass & I quietly laughed in the distance, but it didn’t stop there as Icelandabout 7 seconds later she slipped into a river. Boo to wet boots.

The weather was beautiful at the huts. We calmly set up camp & went into their restaurant/ bar & drank hot chocolate all night. We also decided one more day there wouldn’t be so bad so we stayed the following day too & hung out in the sauna & did a small 4.8 kilometer hike into neighboring mountains.

The last & final day of the hike saw us going 23.5 kms back to Skógar. A beautiful hike covered in rocks, snow, waterfalls, & an absolute pain after having completed the original 54.7 kms, but well worth it. Alli B, and I got to the end & were greeted by Raphael & future friend Roussel, the Brazilian teacher living in England & traveler. Whitney stumbled up about 45 minutes later in a knee brace that a strapping young Aussie man gave to her out on the trail. Camp set-up ensued, and Raphael swooped in to save the day as Whitney and Alli’s tent poles snapped. Burgers and beers followed by a bottle of whiskey to celebrate the trek had us all in our tents asleep by 8:00PM.

If you decide you want to do the trek, be sure to bring with a backpack cover, cash or card, water shoes, & plenty of layers, you will go through them. Anything can happen out there.

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Finally it was time to say goodbye to Laugavegur, so we caught an early bus back to Reykjavik the following day. We stayed at Kex Hostel for our final night. It’s a very cool very hip hostel that gets high praise from us. It’s not too far from downtown & houses it’s own bar & restaurantm, & they allow their guests to leave baggage their as they travel around the country.

Whit & Alli Bizzle got sheep tattoos at a local parlor from a couple American tattoo artists. We also happened to wander into Iceland’s Pride Parade. The city was popping! Our final night we stopped in & saw Mariana at the Drunk Rabbit one last time & headed off to get our dance on at Pablo Disco Bar with our new friend and stupendous dancer Roussel. We danced our asses off, and headed back to get some sleep before an early morning flight.

Iceland left us with no money, great memories, new friends, some sweet new Instagram posts, a couple of sheep tattoos, and Whitney A. in physical therapy for 2 months. Until next time Iceland. Cheers.