Green had never been such a complex yet vague idea. Seafoam, ivy, sage, spruce. Sharp needles, crosshatched blades, overhanging branches. As I wound through the wild coastal grasses of the Great Ocean Trail, parts of the trail rode the ridge high, performing optical reveals when emerging from a burrowed, cored-out meadow’s nest. The wind pushed and shoved in all manners of direction giving me a drunken gait as I ran.
Glenaire-Melba Gully bellowed dark alleyways of green canopy, knotted branches of broomstick trees twisting into gray scribble atop a glistening meadow. I could have been a superhero who could brandish the wrath of a tornado by the looks of how many flies hived & swirled around my limbs as I dug along. At Princetown, 72” reeds shot out of the Gellibrand River like whiskers.
As the light diminished from the sky, the clouds vanished along with it. Filling its space was the whooshing of the tide - a deep, voluptuous breath during wintertime. The birds sung their glory bells, tapped their 80’s keyboard keys, clinked champagne glasses - tink, tink. One periodically gurgled in glory as if it was downing salt water with a raw throat. A faint mist began to set - smudging the tops of the eucalyptus.
I leapt out of the door at sunrise the next morning for more of the Great Ocean Trail and within a few minutes time I was sticker than a cinnamon bun. After breakfast, I angled down to the Glenaire Campgrounds where brambling red gum trees stacked neatly near the river’s shore. Coffee in hand, I wondered if the koalas would be obvious enough to spot. I surveyed for knappy balls of fur in the trees. After only a few minutes I spotted a pineyed furball coiled in a metronoming branch. The wind pulled the limbs for feet in either direction but this did not concern the marsupial from following my step and gaze.
// Up Binns Road was a slippery track through gargantuan beeches & ferns that put the palms of Santa Monica to shame. Beams of light emphasized the towering bohemeths. The road dropped down into a redwood forest with a suspicious lack of green underbelly - devoid of all but the carmelized needles that had piled year over year. A few steps away, a river scrambled over sharp green lichen and capsized timber that was gradually assuming a new shade of green.
Lake Elizabeth sounds like a pleasant, convivial spot where one would picnic on crustless sandwiches while wearing straw hats. In actuality, it feels like a trapdoor into purgatory - dark, mysterious. An erie timelessness engrossed the area, recalling Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil. Topless, dagger-like trees jutted from a murky lightless pond. Crawling ivy enmeshed with a mischievous purple flower seemed an innocuous highlight meant to distract.
As the story goes, Lake Elizabeth was created a century ago after a year when the rains never stopped. The water led to a mudslide, blocking off the waterflow and creating this mysterious home to the coy platypus.
A sign announced ‘beach’ at the banks of a sludgy, immobile green river surrounded by jagged rocks. The path led down to the banks of the whiskey colored water, shards of decapitated white beeches stood erect in the middle. Black cockatoos whistled in the trees, everything else was noticeably still.
As soon as I had begun to let my guard down, and get used to this evil lair, I turned the corner and nearly stumbled into a gigantic black & red snake at my feet. I nervously turned on my heels to make my way out, cataloguing each branch and dutifully playing the game ‘snake or stick’? An echo emerged and the sound of the trees creaking like rusty hinges of wooden doors filled the void.
I shambled out back towards the town of Forest trying to shake off the abnormal air and headed back towards the ocean.
If you go, practicalities:
Coffee & eats:
Other places to check out:
The journey was windier than I could have possibly imagined. The road leapt over mountainsides, through chalky gray rivers swirling with metallic reflections of the sky. Emblazoned, minted. As we traversed Sur Lipez, the water diminished, reminisces of the last rain gashed into the rivers edge. A drawbridge spanned sandpaper. Windowless mudhuts dotted the hillside. The only variance from the muted terra firma was the shimmer from the corrugated steel roofs and the darkness of an impending storm.
Remote outposts, destinations for mere minutes, inferred generations of life.
Some were narrow passageways between rows of connected camel row-houses, where squatting old ladies retreated like turtles into their rainbow woolen ponchos. Tiled public squares freckled with energetic children wreaking havoc on a brood of hens. Teenagers lazied on abandoned metal sheets jutting from the ground burning holes with their universal bored stare.
Other villages were mere dots on a map, an analogy for the particles of dust that swept and stained everything - not a color besides blackening bananas in sight.
A strange alagam of diligence, exertion and tedium extended everywhere. A fence marked by rocky cairns extended for a mile. Road hazards were recognizable by strewn rocks or metal abruptly positioned in a lane. Road maintenance was done by the hands of leathered, shrinking men in whose vests had nearly lost their reflective sheen. One man pushed, rolled, scooted a boulder across the nadir of a winding valley, valantly entrusting oncoming drivers to anticipate and react to sudden hazards in the road.
On top of a snow-speckled mountain, the wind smacked like waves and we came to an abrupt stop. At each unsuspecting town or approachment to a random site of interest, there was always a kid and a man to pay. Their scattered system of tolls. Donde vas?
That was a good question. Where were we going? Yes, there was an itinerary that we had, places to be by the end of each day. Towns were supposedly our end destinations. The dusty, ragged frontier of Tupiza. It’s colors faded like an old shoe, all of its white yellowed, smelling of everything it’s been through. Sol de Manana, a town spaced between two smooth volcanoes whispering a bitter wind between the quiet streets. The gigantic palms of Villa Abecia shading the bodegas peddling mapley sweet wine, it’s streets echoing the crackle of parrillas and the squeaking of one little boy’s bike. But these were simply the cornerstones to the pocked dirt roads atop endless mountain-passes in the clouds.
Over the years, I have come to shun a constant travelers proverb. It seemed to emit from tongues like the greeting ‘How are you?’. Yet I found myself reflecting over the hundreds of miles/hours as I stared into the endless valleys, watching the shadows of the various peaks play out on the hillsides.
No other expedition had the saying ‘It’s more about the journey than the destination’ been more applicable than that of Bolivia.
If you go, practicalities:
THE ROADS: If you want to be able to take in the scenery and get through the long distances each day without wanting to scream, I highly recommend hiring a driver.
Highly recommended stays:
// Circling the roundabout for the fifth time, my patience began to wane. The backpackers that I had seen walking from the bus stop on the main highway had almost made it to their destination. I knew were they were heading. The one hostel in town, the Ginger Monkey, where I had originally planned on staying but decided last minute against for seclusions sake. I cursed myself, if I had stayed there I would be drinking wine by now! Finally, I parked at the one restaurant and desperately waited for a passersby. Two little old ladies, each draped in floral prints (red poppies and yellow daffodils), shuffled on their evening stroll up the solitary road with a panoramic view of the High Tatras to their right. I attempted my best Slovak pronunciation. An instant click of comprehension and she was off pointing and motioning. ‘Obviously it’s up that side gravel alley behind these abandoned buildings’, she implied.
Relieved, I pulled up to the lodge - reminiscent of a kitsch wooden lodge you’d find in the Appalachians, adorned with all types of multicolored windmills and objects. The owners were gathered inside talking loudly, inattentive to the tv that blared out the open doors. I excitedly put off dinner to share wine with a supposedly English-speaking Slovak. ‘What time does the restaurant close?’ He assured ‘10pm’. Since the options were abounding, I was hankering to get his local take on hikes. But, surprisingly, his were identical to the English blogs that I had read: ‘Zelené pleso’. Only when he repeated the directions to the trailhead did I realize what little English he spoke. At that minute, I dashed down to the restaurant.
The place was as dark as a medieval tavern, one obviously drunk couple remained, their heads swaying to & fro while they attempted to gaze in each others’ eyes. I begged for bread. The waitress replied that they only had frozen loaves. I could try the restaurant in the next town over - 20 minutes away. She must have seen the desperation in my eyes, she rushed back to the kitchen and returned with the drunk couples discarded bread basket. I was overjoyed.
// I knew from the start that I was going on the wrong hike. None of the names matched up - not the chata, nor the medley of hikes stacked on the posts. But, I reasoned, I signed up for this hike. One I didn’t read about in countless blogs - it felt more adventurous, more mine.
Ahead, a Slovak man ferociously trekked through the forest with his poles swinging, it appearing to be his morning routine. The trail overlooked a stream rushing with winter’s water, sprouting wreaths of yellow flowers. I soon reached a chalet hunkered in the one nook the mountain had to offer. Every hike in Slovakia has a beer chalet waiting to reward you.
Nearly down, I ran into a shirtless man starring at the trail pole. ‘You are alone?’ Well, there is no denying it. We are in the middle of the woods. I asked why he was so shocked. His frightening reply, ‘Sometimes it’s good, man and woman being alone. Sometimes not so good.’ Broken English can have wondrous implications.
It was a breezy hike that I decided was to be the warm up before Zelene pleso, I was craving more of a reward than beer. 5 minutes away was the unmistakable trailhead for Zelene pleso. Cars lined a dedicated parking area, a large wooden map showed the path. Along the way, several crews of men were constructing new bridges - pulling the timber from the forest, halving the logs and sawing them into place. Dust & shards of wood flying through the air, none of them sporting eyewear or protective gear of any kind. I passed a dipshit wearing a ‘Budafuckingpest’ shirt, one earphone dangling out of his ear. I wondered if the construction guys would give him a go on the saw.
// The trail wound through the lush, bright green forest and emerged in a col-de-sac of limestone peaks spotted with snow. The lake an emerald green, reflecting the surrounding foliage. A barrage of tourists had schlepped their photography gear up and were manically snapping photo after photo of the lake as the clouds rearranged its overhead lighting. I tried to sit in seclusion and reflect myself, but each time feet would find their way to me. I had to keep myself from snatching at their ankles.
After a dozen miles, the chalet was definitely calling me. I counted my euros, and realized the parking fee had dissolved my chances of beer. Defeated, I began to turn back when I heard a manly roar, ‘Colorado!’. It was the group of Slovak men I had seen hiking in the low Tatras a few days earlier. They summoned me over for beer and tripe-stomach soup.
If you go:
- Stay in Štefanová and hike the Veľký Rozsutec loop (it is technical at the top). It is an amazing quaint town in the middle of Mala Fatra that has unlimited hikes. I could have stayed here for 5 days alone. I highly recommend Penzion Sagan.
- Make sure you pick up groceries & wine before heading into the High Tatras.
- Stay in the new building at Hotel Nad Przełomem in Sromowce Niżne, Poland. Kayak the Dunajec, hike Trzy Korony, you can bike along a river trail forever. Pieniny was amazingly underrated.
// Mt. Rushmore Road had a new median: rows of bumbling motorbikes. Each with the heft of an antibiotic, force-fed cow. And the same went for their owners, who were parading around like Macaque monkeys in their cheek-perforated leather pants. One of every two bikers tramping around was grossly overweight and the same statistic was applicable to the quantity of bored, stupefied facial expressions on the passersby as they peered into Rattlesnake Jakes, Full Throttle Saloon, and Dakota Leather Outlet.
Cabo San Lucas t-shirt vendors had made the journey north for the month of August, and left behind their beachcombing, shot-sipping and sunburnt gregarious customers for, well, the same. Only this time their patrons digressed to hair metal instead of chicano rap.
They had reassembled their hawker stands with banners loudly pronouncing their menu del dia: Sleeveless Denim, and Gun Pocket Vests (which pictured a sinister pocket knife emblazoned with the American flag).
Two Polaris mules pulled up and parked, three more inches and they would have made it inside. The drivers were clad in fuzzy house slippers and carried themselves with the implied attitude associated. As the man picked over the merch, he revealed the ink show on his arms: a hollowed skull bedazzled in a headdress next to a PBR. Thirty minutes later I would see them processing behind a skinny Indian boy carrying a wicker replica of a motorcycle.
The absurdity of Custer was soon to be trampled by the Crazy Horse Memorial - yet another monstrous human defection on the granite walls of the Black Hills. This memorial seemed even more outrageous and hypocritical than Mt. Rushmore as it ran contrary to the Native American tenant of good stewardship of natural resources.
// All night long, sleep was interrupted by the rumbling of motorbikes on their pilgrimage. I awoke the next day with an annoyance and desire of flight similar to how one feels at the end of a soured relationship. I had to get out and take refuge somewhere where the sound would not carry or a knife fight would be imminent. The strangeness had also reached another level as an 8 y.o. child had been running through the campground at the break of dawn wielding an axe shouting ‘DIE’. I peered at the map and headed to the nearest trail system and body of water, Sylvan Lake.
After a nice respite, it was finally time to head west towards the Badlands.
Beheld on the drive west:
// Everything is gargantuan in South Dakota, the road signs, the parking lots, the baby blue sky. And then, at once, the vastness becomes meticulously fine-tuned. The Badlands is its own space, with its own canon. The sky grays, colors fade into a matte, dusty palette. The crusty earth exposed, frothing up, writhing. Soft yet stolid. Hints of green swaths providing the only depth perception.
If you go:
Horse Thief Lake Campground
Sylvan Lake - Cathedral Spires Trail
Sage Creek Campground - Badlands (enter from the east side of the park)
Castle Trail - Badlands' longest trail, it's easy to complete all the trails in one day/ one attempt
Two days went by without seeing another soul. I slept to complete silence and perpetual daylight in a cabin sprouting turf. I hiked deep into forests worthy of Midsummer's Night Dream, picked distant mountain tops and found my way to the top. Then I arrived at the edge of Lake Bessvatnet to a slammed parking lot.
The night before, Marcel the Belgian had arrived and we spent the night drinking bottles of wine and discussing our route. We scoffed, mocking the herds who had taken the typical route written in guide books and travel blogs. We knew they were at the other end, simultaneously staggering in queues up the trail like the start of an oversold marathon. They had taken the boat to Memurubu, the tiny compound along the end of the trail, to start their hike and stroll to a finish at their cars in Gjendesheim. We chose the opposite and figured we would use the boat only as a scapegoat on the way back.
The purples, yellows, and pinks that sprouted along the trail were a mental softening. We made our way up the well-maintained ramp and the views became astounding in no time. We reached the apex in little more than an hour. Only when we were dangling our feet over the edge, taking in the lines of peaks that flooded the sky, did the herds start to ascend, snapping photos of their formulaic poses. Hands on knees. Ducklipped selfies. Friends forever arms intertwined. ‘I was just sitting there on the edge and this stranger took a photo of my back as I postulated on life.’ We had inadvertently chosen to reap the reward before the work and now we had to swim against the current.
The first step was to avoid stepping on hands or laughing as we descended from the mountaintop. Thus we had to avoid looking into the wide eyes of the struggling, cringing zombies with their outstretched hands, wearing shirts declaring their sporty superiority. Or inadvertently kicking a small dog over the edge. Or kid. The second step was to determine our route back. The night before, in our wine-induced arrogance and haze, we had planned to summit a second ridge to complete the loop back.
If we were to take that ridge, we’d be hiking well into midnight. I sped up, cursing myself for relaxing at the top. I caught up to two hikers in front of us – two of the mere six that had chosen the same direction. All had massive packs, obviously staying overnight in Memurubu. Do you know the time of the last boat? The blonde one pointed: ‘That is it’.
The sky continued darkening, provoking an internal sense of urgency. Even though we had hours of time, It had been sunny for ten days straight and it felt like dusk. When the black roofs of Memurubu were in sight, a Norwegian crispy whisked by. I thought I would ask as once last hopeful, desperate measure. ‘I believe another boat at 5:30 was added.’ It was 5:12.
I ran down the path on the spare energy reserves and slid into the dock. I reread the schedule, checked my watch. Reread the schedule, glared into the distance of the lake. Yes, a 5:30 boat was added. Starting next week.
We we’re lucky, though. there was an alternate trail out following the water. It was a 10 mile stroll comparatively.
// When I resumed thought or sensation in my limbs, I thought of the truly hopeless and destitute roaming the cracked earth, desiring merely a sip of water. Or the true adventurers - the hikers that made these journeys without. Then I would think of me. Me with my gortex, sunscreen, Camelback, Salomon runners with the tire soles, my shelf-stable prebaked bread and croakies. Croakies! Fucking croakies!
The absurdity and embarrassment of croakies consumed my thoughts for several bends. When the end was in sight, we sat along the shore to sip a Pilsner and stare at the still-dusky sky. In that moment, the fabled boat sped by to dock for the night.
If you go:
Sweet nearby Airbnb
We we’re in a time crunch. The storm had maniacally thrown remnants of ancient trees onto the road, blocking the only route to Cochamo. Highway 65 stitched along the Estuaria Reloncavi fjord and, on its left, a wall of ancient trees towered. Row boats bobbed, a lone cow stood motionless, stranded by high tide on a sliver of land in the bay. One goofy orange-clad attendant stood pushing around the limbs, either meticulously or lazily, I could not determine.
The directions per Refugio Cochamo denoted the entrance closed at 4:00 pm. It was 3:51 and we were dodging buses and babies in a Versa on a gravel road. At 3:58 we pulled up to the parking area, rushing with impending doom to get to the trailhead. The lot and sandwich steward assured us that the trail would remain open until 8pm. How foolish to think that there were actual time restrictions imposed in South America.
We prepared our sacks and stuffs, opting for more than necessary - denoting the distance of the hike and not the elements and obstacles that existed along the way. It was amateaur packing at best. Cloth napsacks weighed down with inessential rubbish. My shoulders shrugged at ear-level while my arms hung - lifeless pendulums. The first hour was gruelling for what was normally such an easy trail. The rain from the days prior packed the crevasse with feet of mud. It was hard to adjust to the weight of the packs. Footwork wasn’t trustworthy, balance faulty.
During the 3 miles of mud-tunnelled Viet Cong canals, we encountered, at a minimum: 30 high lunge steps, 50 pole vault body- thrusting swing arounds, thousands of Satanic horseflies, 20 rolling log river crossings (with false sense of safety), 15 false checkpoints and 100 minutes of cattle-crossing planks.
In return for our miserable existence, we reaped a river-bed lined with smooth, bleached logs, clear to the depths, a valley cradled by sculpted granite trickling with linear waterfalls, a sublime palpa filled with an idyllic commune, and the sole satisfaction of seclusion from the leeches of modern society.
// The light slowly made its way to my eyes. The short night had finally fallen near 10:20 and speckled the sky with glistening sequins and smocks of blackness. I had awoken during the night, convinced it was time for morning but was mistaken. For when day lasts for over a dozen hours, day becomes the norm.
The dorm’s window that had earlier framed the gargantuan granite kings of Anfiteatro and Laguna displayed a dense fog – a disappearing act. I lay relieved, for if the granite was too wet the route to the top would be foolhardy to attempt. A reprieve from testing my courage, a cop-out. Only after studying the map and evaluating alternative trails did I realize that it would be foolhardy not to attempt the Acro Iris. A regret that would last infinitely.
// The Arco Iris did not offer an introduction, it began in the crux of the plot. The earth ascended straight to the sky, aligned with the trunks of the Alerces. Bamboo shot out of the mountainside, flimsy and silly compared to the thousand-year old Alerces that dominated the sky (whose roots had sprouted ‘new’ trees older than all the trees in Louisiana combined). We climbed for hours until we reached a slab of wet granite. A deteriorated rope lapped with the streaming water that ran down the center, the route up. There was no margin for error, we were on the edge.
If you go:
Refugio Cochamo - Book in advance and plan on delays getting there. They offer pricey meals each day and if you're vegetarian you will be eating a lot of rice. Warm showers! Bring insect repellent and a towel. Booze too.
Arco Iris - The trail became impossible, unkempt and in rough condition from the elements. No one that day was able to summit but the views were still worthwhile. Check out the trail description here.
Rental car - we found Seelman to be fairly priced and flexible.
In and around:
Volcano Osorno - Amazing place to ride or run. Plan at least a few hours, if not a whole day and night in Petrohue. The beaches may seem like a great idea but you will be harassed by gigantic horse flies.
It began with a drive in the dark. For the first time in a day the streets were empty. So we ran the lights. All of them. We passed by self-declared luxury housing developments with delusions of grandeur: Dreamland, Time Square, English Gardens. Frumpy, deteriorating housing complexes beside an ‘American FastCook’ and numerous windows shouting ‘PIZZA!’.
We arrived at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in one third of the time than the journey the day prior. On the prop plane, I fell asleep immediately and dreamt that the old man in a newsboy cap declared ‘We will be there in one mile!’ and I raised my fist in solidarity.
I awoke two hours later with a burdening sense that the propeller out my window would be hovering in the depthless white clouds forever. At the brink of hopelessness, the sky opened up to a smooth suede mountain range engraved with a silverback river.
// For days we passed over mountains – passing on barely visible paths into valleys formed by ancient glaciers, over white sand and cracking earth, wading through rivers that met the sideview mirrors. The sun which beamed from the blue sky was no match for the Siberian wind. Winter crept in during the night, engulfing the surrounding land – forming a circle of white. Our plot of land was left untouched, like a lone tree that survived a tornado’s path. Inside our spackled dwelling, the pelts of four wolves hung from a wall layered with crooked vinyl flooring. A stack of bananas, fried donuts, smokey dense air. A stubble-haired man held his shotgun nonchalantly as if it were a titled tea cup. He kills wolves as a hobby during the winter, a bounty hunter to the “neighboring” families during winter (read: 10 miles away on roadless terrain).
Outside I quickly gave up my attempt not to step in shit while searching for a place to go to the bathroom. Pellets layered the ground as snow does in the surrounding high country.
// We kept driving, scratching our way along the range. Columns of dung remained where families had left their summer properties and retreated for their winter bases. Erie scarecrows dotted the hillside, loose borders speckled the ground around the remaining gers, idling dogs barked - an attempted protection from the roving wolves.
Hundreds of sheep watched patiently, their eyes blank, unwavering. Only the rushing sound of the icy water and occasionally the flap of a bird’s wing broke the silence. Along a river, we spat out watermelon seeds staring at the orange and yellows of one of the few forests. The limbs parted, materializing a border controlman on horseback. He jostled over, asking for our permits to be in the preserve. A surreal, outlandish plot. True travel. The unknown around every corner, no map, no building, no expectations. Wide open earth.
// In the Mongolian countryside there are only two cooking techniques, pan-frying or boiling, and there is only one seasoning: salt. The spread and dishes are invariable, yet expected with anticipation. Bowls of cream, butter, fried bread, dried curds, and a platter of sheep pasta to be washed down with milk tea.
As far as I’m concerned, breakfast without coffee is not breakfast and a cold meal is not a meal in Mongolia. No matter the outside elements - skirting a rocky mountain top, bouncing through the snow, toppling around a wind tunnel - a meal could be prepped. If a yurt was in sight when hunger called, we would drive up to the front door, ask if we could cook, and intrude with five cardboard boxes of food stuffs, pots and pans, a plastic folding table chair set, and a butane stove.
Sometimes we would stay the night - in which case there would inevitably be at least one child, a baby, three adults plus our party of three in the yurt (‘ger’). The combined noises were raucous. If that weren't enough, one night I lay awake grimacing from an overwhelming nauseating smell. I thought of plugging my nose with my earplugs and, if it wasn't for the human symphony, I would have succumbed. Fidgeting, I tried to jam my backpack under the cot but something was preventing it from fitting. I leaned over with my flashlight, buckets of dismembered, skinned sheep. Oh, so that’s the smell. The smell of rotting blood.
If you go:
UB (Ulaanbaatar) :
1 - Naran Tuul: Get seedy in the black market. The sheer amount of Chinese knock-offs is impressive.
2 - Mongolian National Art Gallery: spectacular collection and they have interesting contemporary openings.
3 - Choiijin Lama Temple Museum: Unique art and artifacts, I've never seen anything like it.
4 - Bogs Khan Summer Palace
5 - The Zaisan Monument - climb here at night.
6 - Gandantegchinlen Monastery
Bayan Oogli: Do not spend more than 36 hours here. You'll probably wind up eating at one of the only restaurants, the Turkish joint.
Altai Mountains: The best time to go is before October. Once October hits, the weather is unpredictable and can throw a hatchet in your plans to hike to the Glacier (Tavan Bogd).
The train to Tokyo Metro was packed with silent shirts headed to their desks. Advertisements on train doors aptly positioned at eye level showed an over-enthusiastic gesturing professor. Next to him, an ad for ‘Sweat Jelly.’ Overhead, Arnold Schwarzenegger indicated his military prowess for the latest war scenario game. It was silent the entire journey besides the Nokia noises indicating the train’s arrival & departure. As if the loudness and excessive ads sucked the life out of any normal level of activity. All the passengers’ necks were horizontal, staring at their phone screens. Curious, I took a peek trying to discover what had everyone so enthralled. About 60% were just flipping back-and-forth between the various homescreens. It was a bee’s hive near the top of the escalator at Tokyo Station. In merely a few moments, everyone had neatly compressed into a single file line on the left. This was a revelation of neatness compared to the obviousness of Americans and their sloppy- joe tendencies.
The Japanese train system is impressively connected and far-reaching to the point that the trains are taken completely out of contemporary context and placed in atypical, natural scenes. Its tentacles reach into the most remote and seemingly natural, untouched areas. This is a fact that they’re obviously proud of – posters portray the trains as if they’re were movie stars. Their sleek noses overlaid on top of vibrant scenes of their daily journeys. Red-filled maples in Autumn, pink-cherry blossoms exploding in Spring, a rainbow of bright flowers before a snowcapped peak. We selected the one splashed with giant cedars and valleys of dark green mystery. 290 minute runtime.
The train to Tanabe cut through towns overflowing into the ridges and seasides. At Tanabe, I traded the train’s sizeable window seat for the captain’s chair on the bus to Kuyama. The bus jutted besides the following waters and slopes packed with concreate diamonds to hold back the pack mud. Whenever the bus was entering or exiting a one lane road, oncoming traffic halted immediately and let the bus pass. This was done seamlessly and without the anxious looks and erratic motions that typically accompany such waiting in the U.S.
A smell enveloped the bus, a sudden overwhelming eye-watering occurrence. Photographs of the Yunomine Onsen had been picturesque. In reality, however, it was a boiling creek of festering sulfur-emitting gas smack dab in the middle of all of the eateries that existed in the town. Luckily, we had opted to stay in Kuyama Onsen. The proprietor’s son, a delightfully attentive man with an overgrown bowl-cut and unknown age, instructed us to venture to a trail, fiercely elbowing the air while talking.
We ran down in the apparent direction, but no matter. We were cursed with traveler’s doubt and proceeded along our own way. A high-grade slope winded its way into the mountainsides, ferns crowded their way to the sky. Stacks of walking sticks piled at the trailhead with a curtain of shiny, scratched CDs pronouncing their once-esteemed artist. Within 15 minutes we were densely surrounded by an Amazonian landscape. Ancient concrete walls swallowed in algae and moss, water rushing down at constant speed. Tall cedars massacred – their limbs layered the forest floor, asleep on maroon piles of dead leaves. Flies and some vigilant type of biting insect tunneled around us while spiders were continuously misplaced from their homes to my head and shoulders. Their webs dispersing into fragments of floating wisps.
At every bend of the river, the trail was to be rescouted, yet it never seemed impossible to locate– rather the perfect level of discovery. Each new portion of the route complete with the moss-grabbing, feet-tipping, rock-slipping, spider web shakes. After a few miles of high-jumping fallen cedars and skirting the river on mossy rocks, we reached the O Falls. Their cascading water audible to the point that I thought we were nearing a road.
Little did we know this was the intended destination. The way back was sloppy as is usual with any out-and-back trail, the adventure had given way to monotonous routine. Cross the mossy tree bridge, jump stream, find this marker, etc. etc. We emerged from the dense forest and broke into full sprint, running through the wide corridor of the valley along the gray rock-lined river beds, its frosty water dappled with the setting sun. A small cabin perched in the middle of the river’s curve. Covered with sweat and fragments of the forest, we peered into the open door. An old man sat presumably enjoying dinner on his wooden stool. His kitchen filled with covered barrels, papers neatly stacked on the table. Beers? Out came two small glasses and large bottles of Ashita. We saddled up on a square basin overlooking the valley and bruising sky.
Using two tattered English-Japanese dictionaries and primeval noises, we extracted four (seemingly) fully communicated stories. The most entertaining, a tale of the demise of a pack of snorting, gluttonous wild boars that had ventured down from the mountains to feast on his onions only to be killed and cooked on open flames. The meat enjoyed by this cook and enthusiastic avenger.
If you go:
After a beautiful night's sleep on a mattress that sounded like sheet metal and felt like a trash bag stuffed with over-starched towels, I opened the shutters to find a miraculous day waiting for me. Blue skies and birds chirping, I was like Snow White but with a boxed wine hangover. The street was speckled with ravaged garbage bags that had been looted by the homeless for recyclables that they could cash in. It was May, the rainy season, but the sun was pouring in, illuminating the colorful walls of the Candelaria district.
Took a cold shower (not on purpose) and had a hearty breakfast of one medium-sized mediocre apple and four cups of glorious black coffee. The place was practically kicking me out, motioning me to get a move on.
Many described the route to Monserrate as though it was a ramshackle stone path but instead it turned out to be a well-manicured park gleaming with bright plants and a plethora of policemen. Along the way, I passed a milieu of life. A lonely horse galloped up the path with no traces of the owner. Shanties grouped together, their residents displayed their pickings for sell - papaya shoots and pineapple slivers. Women robed in sweats were nearly melting into the ground while old men passed by breathing heavily but at a cruising speed. School children, on their decline, were all flirting with one another — dressed in white shirts and neatly pressed navy pants. I was confounded— they had no traces of sweat. Only when I got to the top did I realize they had taken the funicular up.
On the mountain top, I could see life playing out below. A futbol match — people scurrying about like legos: just color and shape. The Transmilenio snaked through Ave. Carrera 14 — its red street easily identifiable. The dense, wild side of the mountain was quite the contrast to the expansive city that sprawled below.
// Down in the city, I sauntered through the Emerald Street Market. Street vendors announced their offerings with megaphones. Their fast chants resounded making the whole place vibe like a betting window at a racetrack rather than a marketplace. This place was a sight to behold. A man stood playing the drums on his bare stomach next to his juice stand. Next to the drummer, a homeless man with a scholarly suit and lab coat wore his glasses on the tip of his nose, his pleas for change slightly nasally. A store advertised their newest product - 3D sculptures made from the ultrasound of your unborn baby. This seemed rather suitable for a city that legalized prostitution and banned abortion. The traditional Colombian crafts had been replaced with cheap Chinese knockoffs — their vendors too lazy to remove the stickers. Surely it was time for more boxed wine.
If you go (in a nutshell):
La Despensa Calle 70A # 9-95, Bogotá
La Taperia -Carrera 4A # 26d-12 - spectacular food in La Macarena
Abasto_ in Usaquen
Casa de Citas for music/ drinks
- La Calera - best views of the city. Go here at night and buy hot, spiced drinks from the vendors
- Bogota graffiti tour: Where: Plaza de Periodistas
- 10 best contemporary art galleries in Bogota
- La Macarena is home to a collection of funky boutiques
- Cool Crafts // Artesanías de Colombia - The shop carries crafts made in different regions of Colombia. They have rings made from tagua nuts, macramé shawls, black pottery, sisal baskets. El Retiro Shopping Center, Calle 82 No. 11-75
- Museo Botero Home to Fernando Botero's private collection, this colonial mansion displays the work of the Colombian maestro alongside canvases by the likes of Miró and Monet.
Fulano Backpackers (not the hostel mentioned in this post)
Hiking in Africa is like a porcelain shop: don’t touch anything. When you’re walking in the brush – or anywhere near the brush – your senses are heightened. A leaf crinkling 50 m away registers. A blade of grass wiggles – dually noted. The further along the trail you go, the more the thoughts spiral in the caldron. Root or snake? Antelope or mountain cat? Is this the poisonous plant that kills with one fatal scratch? Thank goodness the view points and trail markers still placate, if only for a few heartbeats. Fleetingly gratifying. But the views in Blyde River Canyon surpass simple gratification. The three Rowdavels pleasantly peering down over the monstrous canyon walls - third largest canyon on Earth. Their domes a symbol of safety, comfort.
The trail continued onward, towards the multicolored beach – red, yellows, greens speckled with barely distinguishable sunbathing hippos. Every time the trail dipped out and into a new patch of forest, the noises evolve like a new set. An interlude between the screeching and clamoring of a thousand beetles. A dense circumference of layered commotion – like emerging from the depths of a public pool on a Saturday.
About 85% of the way in, racket up the mountain. Antelope and brown guinea like creatures running my direction. Not a trusting sign. As I continued forward, I fumbled over the entangled roots around my feet as I thought about the leopard sighting the past two days. Defeated, I turned around and headed back. Careful to not to scratch my knee on the potentially poisonous bush.
When the Nature Conservators’ hut was in sight, the sky thundered and opened up. The rain poured down filling the air with freshness. A mammoth kudu strutted across the road and paused, looking up towards the dark clouds that had rolled in.
If you go:
Stay: Blyde River Canyon Lodge - Located in a gated botanical garden on the river, it is a splendid property just outside the Reserve gates. Dine at the lodge - the fantastic traditional meals are made by locals.
Venture: See the Canyon from all angles. Drive into the clouds and witness the magnificent rock formations from the ridge. Hike the canyon. Take a boat trip on the water and engulf yourself in a panoramic view.
Notables: Check out the museum in the reserve. The exhibition provides a great description of the rock formations and how the canyon was formed. Disregard the yellowed photographs that haven't been touched in decades.