I joined Glenn and Michele last week on another segment of their extended, six-month travels (Glenn and Michele’s Most Excellent Adventure™) – this time flying up to Churchill, Canada, to stay at a small remote lodge along the Hudson Bay and go out on guided walks to see and hug polar bears! Well, not so much hugging really. (But they do look so huggable!)
Click through for the full gallery of photos and video clips from the trip.
We stayed three nights at Dymond Lake Lodge, one of three small “eco-lodges” operated by Churchill Wild, looking for polar bears and other wildlife during the day and enjoying the wonderful meals and the stars and the aurora borealis at night. We lucked out with weather. At this time of year we should have encountered daytime highs no greater than the teens or single digits (in Fahrenheit) even before any wind chill (as in seriously cold, the primary reason Darlene didn’t join us), but we lucked out with temps way up in the mid-20’s! Yes, below freezing, but really relatively balmy! Just ask the polar bears!
Speaking of which, we were able to see lots of bears and even watch an unusual encounter between two different mama bears and their cubs. The guides are very good at approaching and reading the bears’ behavior and working to keep the experience safe for everyone, including the bears.
After several amazing days of walking out amongst the bears, we returned to Churchill for an afternoon of dog-sledding with Bluesky Expeditions and then a full day on an arctic tundra safari with Frontiers North Adventures in one of their massive custom-built “tundra buggies”.
Michele wrote a great detailed post about our Churchill trip in her blog:
Mike & Nanci hosted a Halloween party at their place in San Jose this year. Mike showed he was practicing to be a member of the Blue Man Group and Nanci tried to make rain as El Nino but it was more of a dribble. I showed up as an Arabian desert prince with my lovely genie-of-the-lamp, Darlene.
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As an add-on for our trip to Chile’s Atacama Desert, we all wanted to be sure to get to see the amazing Uyuni Salt Flats in nearby Bolivia. As it worked out, we were able to join up with BikeHike’s trial run of their new Bolivia adventure trip by taking a guided, three-day, 4×4 road trip from Chile over the Altiplano to the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. Darlene was also able to finagle a little additional time off from work to join us on this portion of Glenn and Michele’s Most Excellent Adventure™.
Click through for the full gallery of photos and videos from the trip.
Across the Altiplano: Glenn, Michele and I started out in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, and were driven up to the Altiplano and dropped off at the tiny, remote little border control building on the southwest Chilean/Bolivian border. After successfully negotiating Michele and Glenn’s Bolivian visas (mostly about producing absolutely pristine US dollars for the visa fee), we were loaded into the apparently defacto standard Altiplano vehicle: a Toyota 4×4 Land Cruiser. Over the next couple of days, we navigated a maze of dirt roads in the high altitude (15,000 ft) visiting a series of color-coded lagoons (red, green, white, etc) and a few miscellaneous sights and landmarks. We overnighted in both a hotel made of stone and one made of salt and got to try our hand at herding llamas to pasture as well as trying to fire a slingshot without injuring ourselves. We also spent the better part of two days criss-crossing the Uyuni Salt Flats and they proved to be as vast and amazing to behold as suggested in the photographs we’d seen before.
More of the Uyuni Salt Flats: After this initial introduction to Bolivia, we were deposited in the town of Uyuni in time to join Darlene and the rest of the BikeHike group flying in from La Paz. Over the next couple of days, we would explore much of the area on bikes, starting with a tour of the mining ghost town of Pulcayo. We biked back down to Uyuni, mostly following the route of the old mining railroad bed. We biked across a few chunks of the salt flats itself – which proved quite daunting due to the vast, unchanging scenery. We stayed overnight in a more rudimentary building made of salt on the slopes of the volcano Tunupa and enjoyed a ride out for sunset and stargazing on the salt flats. On our second day, we visited a cave containing desiccated mummies and continued on to the island of Incahuasi, in the middle of the flats and home to hundreds of cacti.
“Death Road” Ride: Upon our return to La Paz, we had an early start to go ride mountain bikes down along Bolivia’s infamous “world’s most dangerous road”. They’ve since built a new, modern, paved highway to bypass the route but it was once very treacherous for being a dirt road cut into very steep mountainsides and forcing buses and other large vehicles to try to squeak by each other. This route now makes for a gorgeous and easy downhill bike ride packed full of wonderful mountain vistas. Unfortunately, we had to do the ride with one of several large tour groups and so you have to do things on their terms. You’re forced to keep to a schedule that at times is pushing you forward (despite the desire to stop and enjoy the stupendous views) or making you wait (for organized photo portrait stops, despite the fact that everyone has cameras of their own, or while the staff clean and prep the bikes at the end of the ride, etc). Amusingly, you’re also required to wear full downhill racing body armor and full face helmets despite a route that consists of first a paved highway and then a well-used dirt road and a gentle downhill slope. Actually, the full face helmet was dangerous for how much it limited your ability to see around you. I suspect the armor is both to drum up the “Death Road” adventure marketing as well as for insurance purposes – not that body armor would do you much good if you managed to ride off a several hundred-meter precipice! Anyway, I think this excursion would be a lot more fun with your own group, going at your own pace and with normal biking gear.
Amazon Jungle and Grassland: After La Paz, we were on to the Amazon jungle, starting with a river boat cruise to our jungle lodge in Madidi National Park. Along the way, we stopped off at a farm where among other things they grow sugar cane. We were able to put a little labor into squeezing out a bucket of sugar cane juice for everyone to sample, with a touch of lime. From our jungle lodge, we set out to hike to our overnight campsite, near a macaw nesting area. Besides lots of spiders and ants, our guides were able to scare up a pack of wild boar. I was a little anxious about overnighting in the Amazon as I’m very not keen on large creepy-crawlies and have already had my share in other tropic rainforests like Costa Rica and Australia. As it turns out, at least this part of the Amazon was no more intense in terms of bugs and it was fine. I do wish we could have spent a more leisurely time moving through the jungle though and seeing and learning about the rainforest (as I have enjoyed on other such hikes), instead of in the apparent rush we often seemed to be in. I wasn’t even really able to pause to take any decent pictures along the trail. We did enjoy a leisurely return trip to the lodge, floating down the river in the afternoon rain on a log raft constructed on the beach. That night we went for a short jungle walk to see what we could find after dark.
The following day saw us return to town by river boat and then take an extended drive to get to a second lodge in the swampy grasslands of Pampas del Yacuma. First we were greeted by not-so-friendly caiman and turtles but then by a super-friendly and ever-curious coati at the lodge. We ventured out again on a pair of boats to follow the river and see the many birds, caiman and capybara along the river… before the skies opened up for serious afternoon downpour. (At least our boat didn’t pussyfoot it back to the lodge to get any silly rain gear.) That night Glenn and I went out again with our guides Ishmael and Jorgen to see all the creepy eyes of the caiman reflecting back at us in the dark. Plus we managed to catch several Amazon trout by expertly letting them leap into our boat. On our fourth and last Amazon day, we went hiking in a plantation to hoot at howler monkeys in the trees and to catch meat-hungry piranha by the river side. The tricky part seemed to be removing the hook from the menacing jaws of those little fish.
Our Last Day: After returning to the cool, high altitude of La Paz from the Amazon basin, we enjoyed a home-cooked meal at the home of a local resident while Glenn kept careful watch over a clearly demonically-possessed children’s doll. On our last day, Michele suggested a hiking destination for us all in the Andes: the glacier-laced Mount Condoriri. The drive out there proved adventurous in itself, including trying to find a suitable box lunch among the raw meats and stacks of junk food in the street-side market. We ended up hiking to an alpine lake at the base of the mountain and it proved to be a nice finish to a great little trip.
Recommendations: Our 4×4 excursion from San Pedro de Atacama over to the Uyuni Salt Flats was not particularly exceptional and I have no reason to recommend them (actually it seemed our driver was more knowledgeable and trying harder than our English-speaking guide). For the rest of the trip, the BikeHike tour of Bolivia including the Uyuni Salt Flats and the Amazon jungle, this trip was very enjoyable despite being their trial run to shake out the “bugs” and find improvements to-be-made. Definitely worth checking out. But I want to call out special attention to Ishmael and the folks at Mashaquipe EcoTours for their splendid staff and lodges in the Bolivian Amazon basin as well as their efforts to benefit local indigenous families. Lastly, thanks again to Trish and Jorgen for helping us (me, Darlene, Glenn and Michele) enjoy another great adventure!
Click through for the full gallery of photos and videos from our trip.
Michele has also posted several stories and pictures from the trip on her blog:
Glenn and Michele are in the middle of a six-month travel adventure (starting in South America) and I was able to fly down and join them in northern Chile at the end of September to get to see some of the Atacama Desert region. We were able to make arrangements through BikeHike for nine days of guided activities and exploration surrounding the little oasis/tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama, including hiking, biking, horseback riding and several days of trekking.
Click here for the full gallery of photos from our trip.
This is the world’s driest desert (in the sense of how little rain ever falls) and it may also be the world’s oldest desert, the region having been hyper-arid for many millions of years. While it may almost never receive any rain, water does reach the basin from surrounding mountain sources though it all eventually evaporates, leaving behind salt and mineral deposits. There’s still plenty of wildlife and the area is known for its varied and gorgeous geological formations, resting up against the immense Andes mountains.
Some of the highlights of the trip:
- Horseback riding and later hiking and sand surfing in “Death Valley”, a beautiful area of red rock and sand dunes which apparently picked up a name mistook from the French priest who tried to name it Valley of Mars (“marte” not “muerte”, in French).
- Hiking up the Gatchi Gorge to bathe in the hot springs and source of the river Puritama.
- Trekking from the town of San Pedro de Atacama (7900 ft) up to the high wetlands of Machaca (13,000 ft) over three days and 42 miles, climbing up from desert terrain through river canyon lands to mountain villages and terraces.
- Biking and walking out among the salt flats and lagoons in the Atacama.
- Hiking up the little mountain of Zoquete (16,000 ft) above the high altitude El Tatio Geysers
- Enjoying the magnificent night sky of stars from such a high and dry landscape. The Atacama area is known as a prime astronomical viewing area for its clear, dry skies and high altitude and there are numerous observatories in the surrounding mountains.
If you’re interested in booking a similar tour, ours was actually put together by BikeHike, whom we’ve done trips with in the past, but they don’t actually offer this region any more. However, even though our itinerary was customized for us to add a variety of activities, very similar itineraries (including the multi-day trekking and the overnight in the indigenous village of Rio Grande) are actually widely available from numerous tour operators over the web: Chimu Adventures, KE Adventure Travel, Cascada Travel, Amazon Adventures and others. Despite this, we didn’t really encounter a lot of other tourists – and none at all during the trekking portion. I believe we were there at the very start of the tourist season though.
Thanks again to Yasu and the rest of the crew for a wonderful little adventure!
Michele has also posted a couple of times about the trip in her blog:
Well, “almost summer” anyway: Iceland (and most of the North Atlantic) experienced the coldest summer in decades this year – this after one of the warmest and wettest summers ever last year. So while we remained bundled up from the cold, wind and rain, Darlene and I had a fantastic time. It’s a very beautiful place and full of so many places to see and experience that even with 19 days in Iceland we were still forced to skip so much. Iceland is definitely a wonderful and easy place to visit. The hardest part is having to pick what not to see (and trying to pronounce or even just copy down the Icelandic place names). I tried to book lodging to give us multiple days to stay and explore in each area and we consciously left off whole large areas of the country but even so it wasn’t enough: we still felt like we didn’t have enough time in any given area. Gotta go back! And yes, I’d like to see it in winter too.
Click through here for my full gallery of pictures and videos from the trip. Here are just a few highlights from our trip though:
This is an incredibly colorful (and popular) mountain area to explore in the highlands. Many will set out to do the two-to-four day Landmannalaugar backpacking route to Þórsmörk (I’d like to someday) but we just enjoyed a day of hiking some of the nearby trails through this colorful terrain, followed by dipping in the natural hot springs there. This was also our first taste of the many rough, gravel roads (including river crossings) that are needed to access many parts of the country.
Skógafoss and the Fimmvörðuháls Trail
This is a gorgeous waterfall to begin with, particularly how it falls on to a flat plain, and even though Iceland is covered with incredible waterfalls, the trail that starts here covers the most fantastic series of waterfalls I’ve ever encountered. It’s not just the sheer number (as in dozens) of falls that you see along the trail, but the incredible heights, splendor, variety and ferocity of the various falls that tumble down this beautiful gorge that lead up to where the two glacial ice caps (Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull) meet at Fimmvörðuháls Pass. Many people will hike this trail up and over the pass to Þórsmörk (or all the way to or from Landmannalaugar) but if nothing else, you’ve got to at least spend a day hiking as far as the bridge crossing (as we did). While there’s an overnight hut at the top of the pass, they say you can do the one-way hike to Þórsmörk in 10 hours or so but I don’t see how it can be done so quickly if you try to take in all the incredible views along the way.
Askja (Vatnajökull National Park)
This was to be our deepest adventure into the highlands of Iceland. Askja is a large volcanic caldera (and crater lake) in the remote central highlands and part of the vast Vatnajökull National Park of volcanic formations, glaciers, lava fields, and the largest ice cap in Europe. (Notably, this was the area that the Apollo space program used to train their astronauts in geology.) This excursion was potentially going to be trouble for our little Subaru Outback due to some potentially deep river crossings. As it turned out, the cold weather played in our favor and the river in question was not running too strong (and the weather clear), so we were good to go on our own rather than needing to sign up with a tour operator and their monster trucks/busses. We camped out at the base of Herðubreið but, once again, there was much more to see here than we had allotted time for and I would love to come back and explore more of the area.
This lake region is filled with tons of different geologic formations: geothermal areas, volcanic cones, lava formations, caves and lava tubes, etc. The name Mývatn means (“the lake of midges”) and oh boy, we can attest that there are a bajillion of them along the water. I know we short-changed this popular area, having only a day left to hit up the some of the many sites before having to head on to Akureyri. We did get to see the fissure and water-filled cave Grjótagjá, the tephra crater Hverfell, the lava formations of Dimmuborgir and walk around Höfði to see some of the lava pillars in the lake (and the aforementioned bajillion black flies). Lots more to see, like the Lofthellir cave and its ice sculptures but it would be a half-day tour just for that.
Herring Era Museum (Siglufjörður)
This sounds ridiculous, but the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður (on the northern coast) is a really wonderful experience. We almost blew it off. I mean, come on, “Herring Era Museum”? But it’s really well done. You get to explore several buildings from the “glory days” of Iceland’s herring fisheries from the early 20th century, including the living and working quarters. Every room is furnished and filled with personal belongings as well as tools and equipment as it would have been at the time – and not behind glass: most of it is just laying out open and unprotected. It’s deservedly won several museum awards. It really feels like walking into the past. You can pull out a suitcase from under a bunk bed and find it filled with clothing and mementos. It’s quite the experience! There’s another building housing a couple of fishing boats “docked” to a pier that’s staged and lighted and feels more like you’re on a movie set than in a museum. And of course, you can climb aboard and explore below deck or on the bridge.
The centerpiece is the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is the glacier-capped, volcanic mountain of Snæfellsjökull and the peninsula is surrounded in fjords, more cool geologic features, and rugged mountains and coastline. The hike between Arnarstapi to Hellnar was wonderful in particular (with a fantastic cafe at the turnaround in Hellnar…. oh, that skyr cake!!) We also checked out the Vatnshellir lava tube, the Sönghellir “song cave”, the impressive and intriguing cleft in the cliff Rauðfeldsgjá and made a driving tour of the northern coastal towns on the peninsula. We spied on a seal colony in twilight, tested our strength with the old fisherman’s lifting stones and tried hiking up to the glacier itself but the road was still closed due to snow and the visibility too poor to go very far without a trail to follow. After three nights at a guesthouse on the peninsula, there was still much we were unable to get to see or explore.
Langjökull and “Into the Glacier”
This is a new experience, opened in June of 2015, where they’ve dug out a series of lighted passages and chambers into the Langjökull glacier. After being driven up and over the glacier by massive, converted missile carriers, you get to walk down into the man-made tunnel, into the glacier, inside the ice and even see fissures and ice formations from within the glacier. Very cool! When we were there, it had just rained heavily the night before and so water was still dripping and seeping through everywhere in the glacier.
This short little gem-of-a-hike is definitely worth a half-day to enjoy. I’m very happy our host at Hotel Á recommended this to us on our final day as we would have missed it otherwise. It was a great way to cap our trip. Note that there’s a choice of paths to follow up once you reach the river Botnsá. I definitely recommend crossing the river and taking the eastern trail (or righthand side of the river). I think it provides more revealing and thrilling views of the gorge, falls and the valley back to the fjord and car park.
And More to Experience…
A couple of other little surprises to mention are Petra’s amazing stone collection in Stöðvarfjörður in the eastern fjords (and she was quite an interesting character) and the entertaining Settlement Centre presentation in Borgarnes of the Saga of Egil.
I was floored by how frequently and unexpectedly fantastic the meals were throughout the country, even in the smallest villages and most remote guesthouses. Iceland clearly has a disproportionate share of fantastic cooks and chefs scattered around their country to treat their mostly European tourists. It’s like being treated to French cuisine in terms of the care and skill… but also in terms of cost: it’s very easy to go US$60-$100 or more for two people. There is of course cheaper fare in a smattering of fast food, roadside cafeterias but it’s mostly not very appealing. If trying to keep to a smaller budget, I definitely recommend buying groceries and cooking meals yourself.
I wish we could also have gone to the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft in Strandagaldur or toured the western fjords or gone backpacking in the Hornstrandir, etc. Like I said, much to see and experience in Iceland!
Click through here for my full gallery of pictures and videos from the trip.
Darlene and I enjoyed an extended road trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks this summer. While in Yellowstone, we spent most of our time in safari mode, scouting the prime bear and wolf habitats (Lamar and Hayden Valleys) in the mornings and evenings. Our perseverance paid off with many sightings: black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, coyotes, fox, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, beavers, marmots, rabbits, geese, cranes, storks and various other birds and rodents.
We did some day hiking but only on busy, populated trails (like the Canyon trail) since there was only the two of us (a minimum of three are recommended for backcountry trails to avoid bear encounters) and we rode our mountain bikes up the north side of Mount Washburn. After enjoying many days in the north half of the park (Canyon, Hayden Valley, Tower-Roosevelt, Lamar Valley, Norris and Mammoth), I was pretty shocked when we approached the Old Faithful area. It’s so busy and built-up with parking lots and lodges that it felt like going to a theme park, not a national park. The geysers and geothermal pools were wonderful and beautiful to see but we were both anxious to escape back to the quieter areas. If you’re not going to be camping or backpacking, I strongly recommend staying in the Canyon lodge area instead!
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On our return trip from Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, Darlene and I camped overnight on Antelope Island in Utah… and waded out during sunset into the Great Salt Lake.
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This is a fantastic place to visit! The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center is in West Yellowstone, Montana, near the border of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. It’s a non-profit, wildlife rehabilitation and education center specializing in grizzly bears and gray wolves. All the animals at the center were rescued: nuisance bears that would have been killed or wolves born in captivity at other facilities that could not care for them.
The animals are rotated through large enclosures where they can be seen by the public and are given frequent stimulation by hiding food or bones, rearranging habitat features, planting unusual scents for them to discover, stocking trout in the ponds and streams, etc.
Highlights from the Idaho portion of our summer road trip to Yellowstone:
We stayed several days in Boise: biking through town and up on some of the trails above the city, floated the Boise River through town, successfully solved (and escaped) the house in Boise Escape and made a side trip to historic Idaho City. After Boise, we visited the World Center for Birds of Prey, stopped off at Three Island Crossing (Oregon Trail crossing of the Snake River) and camped overnight at Craters of the Moon National Monument. After exploring the lava formations we continued on to Idaho Falls, stopping off for a tour of the world’s first nuclear power plant, Experimental Breeder Reactor #1. Our final leg included the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway and camping near West Yellowstone.