Monday, November 25, 2013

My Journey to the End of the World

(Trip Date: January, 2013)

Situated at the southern tip of South America, just a thousand kilometers away from the icy land of Antarctica, lies Ushuaia…also knows as The End of the World. Ushuaia is in the Patagonia region of Argentina, right along the Chilean border, and is known as the most southernmost city in the world. 

As we emerged from the small airport we were greeted by strong winds, sunny skies and giant, snowcapped mountains. We spent our first evening walking through the city, checking out the shops and enjoying some of the delicious seafood that Patagonia has to offer. The city is beautiful, situated right on the ocean, surrounded by mountains and crisp, fresh air. We were there during the southern hemisphere’s summertime, which meant long days, cool temparatures and unpredictable weather.

The next day was a day I had been waiting forever for…visiting the penguins! It was an hour long boat ride along the rough waters of the Beagle Channel and included a stop at Bird’s Island, where hundreds of penguin-look-a-like birds cover a giant rock shared with sea lions, plus a quick stop at the famous Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse. My excitement was overwhelming as our boat approached Penguin Island, coming to a halt as it reached land, and the penguins came waddling up to our boat to inspect the new visitors in their home. We went out onto the cold and insanely windy deck of our boat to enjoy the view of the penguins, taking photo after photo of the cute pudgy black and white creatures. Hundreds of penguins covered the island, rolling around the ground, diving into the frigid ocean and waddling around from group to group.  Two King Penguins stood in the distance watching us suspiciously and keeping an eye over their clan of adorable creatures. It was all I had imagined and more!

The next day we took a bus to Tierra del Fuego National Park and hiked through the forest. It was the first time I’ve ever done a hike in a lush forest wearing a coat, scarf and toque! Situated by a lake and surrounded by mountains, the scenery is stunning every way you turn your head. Through the maze of trees and along the sandy beaches we journeyed, enjoying the sites of the Patagonian forest and silence of the quiet land. There were many different types of plants, ones we had never seen before at our end of the world, accompanied by the sounds of new creatures mixed in with the roar of harsh winds.

Traveling to the End of the World was truly a unique experience. It’s a rare opportunity to venture across the hemispheres, through the harsh climates, and experience a land so foreign and far away.  With its rich history, rustic land, distinctive creatures, delicious seafood and stunning scenery, Ushuaia is a place I’m so thrilled to say I’ve visited and land I’ll never forget. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Icicles and Berries in El Calafate

(Trip date: January, 2013)

As our plane flew over the snow capped mountains on our way to El Calafate in the Patagonia region of Argentina, my heart skipped a beat at the site before my eyes. I had always wanted to visit Patagonia, to travel to the end of the earth and see how nature presented itself in a totally different environment so far away from the rest of the world. The mountain range grew bigger and more majestic as we finally touched down and the adventure I’ve been waiting for finally began.

The town of El Calafate is very small, there’s one main road lined with restaurants, shops, hotels and travel agencies. We got there in the evening and went straight to the travel agencies to book our tours for the next couple of days and learned a very valuable lesson I’d like to share with anybody who is going to El Calafate: book your tours way in advance!!!! All the hiking tours to the Perito Moreno Glacier, the main reason everybody comes to El Calafate, were all booked solid for two straight days! Terrified that we were going to miss out on the amazing experience we travelled so far to see, we ended up paying for a private driver to take us to the glacier and fortunately there were a couple of spots left on the hike itself. However it wasn’t just the Perito Moreno Glacier hike that was booked, all the other hiking tours were booked up as well. We had wanted to see El Chaltan and missed out on that too.
We ended up spending our first day in El Calafate checking out the town, walking along the main road, doing some shopping, enjoying some wine and local cuisine. The food in El Calafate is amazing and I had some of the best meals I’ve ever had. I don’t eat red meat but had some of the best chicken ever! Check out Rick’s, it’s one of the best restaurants in El Calafate. You can also find amazing chocolate, decadent ice cream, the best jam and delicious pizza around town!

The next day we were picked up by our private driver who was awesome, he barely spoke any English but he made sure he showed us all the well known stops along the way, including a stop to show us the Calafate berry, which is where the name “El Calafate” came from and is commonly used to make jam. An hour and a half drive later we were at our final destination and boarded the boat that took us to the glacier. The scenery was spectacular as we glided alongside the glacier, so massive and majestic in its beauty. Once we were off the boat, we met with our group, ate our lunch, and made our way over to the glacier…with many photo stops along the way, of course!
After being fitted with our crampons, we started our hike up the glacier. It was a little scary at first, but after getting used to the crampons (“trust the crampons” as our guide would say!), it turned out to be a fairly easy hike surrounded by the most breathtaking scenery. Every direction looked like a postcard. The snow-capped mountains in the distance hovering over the pristine lake, surrounded by rolling hills of various terrain, the contrast of brown rock formations against the icy blue glacier. We walked up and down the path of the glacier, digging our crampons into the soft, icy ground, stopping every few minutes to take in the scenery and snap photos. The sun was shining, our skin was warm, the air was fresh… top it off with a glass of ice cold whisky at the end! It was truly a magical experience that I will never forget.

After the hike, we made our way back to the port and our driver took us to the “balconies”. We had no idea what this was and thought he was crazy when he told us we would need 2 hours here! We definitely should have trusted him more as this turned out to be another incredible experience! We walked along the several boardwalks that take you to several “balconies” overlooking the Perito Moreno Glacier giving us a totally different view of the glacier – from actually being on the glacier to admiring it from afar. The view is absolutely spectacular as you get a panoramic view of the glacier, yet somehow feel so close. But the most amazing part of this experience was listening and watching parts of the glacier fall off! The roaring sound was like thunder breaking the silence as the warm sun broke gigantic pieces of ice off the glacier and sent them crashing into the ocean. 

Our one magical day touring the Perito Moreno Glacier was worth traveling to the other end of the world for. It was everything I had thought it would be, and more! The beautiful and contrasting landscapes, eerily quiet with every breath of fresh air, so majestic, raw and untouched, enhanced by the sparkling blue icicles shining off the glacier. It may seem like a cold site, but it can’t help but warm your soul.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

It’s Hard to Get Tired in Buenos Aires!

(Trip date: December/January, 2012/13)

I had never heard anybody say anything bad about Buenos Aires and now I know why! The city is amazing, full of life and colour and energy and a vibrancy that is truly contagious. The people are incredibly friendly, the food is delicious and there’s so much to do you never want to stop exploring.
We spent our first evening in Buenos Aires just like the locals do. We took a long walk through the city enjoying the warm summer night air and ended up in Puerto Madero, an area of the city with restaurants and shops lining the waterfront. We walked up and down the strip admiring the array of restaurants and enjoying the company of people out on a Saturday night –out for a stroll, sitting on patios, eating ice cream, families gathering, couples hand-in-hand. We quickly adapted to the Argentinean way of life and had dinner at 11pm, a typical dinner of fresh breads, salad, grilled meat, dessert and of course – wine! I loved watching all the friends and families making an event out of dinner, watching the food being passed around, the continuous flow of wine, the conversation and laughter filling the air. I was immediately addicted to Argentina!

Fortunately we were in Buenos Aires on a Sunday as there is an amazing craft market that is only opened on Sundays in San Telmo – the old part of the city and the area we were staying in. We walked through the market, stopping at many booths to admire the jewelry, clothing, antiques, paintings and many other unique crafts and got to enjoy watching tango dancers in the street. The day market turned into a night market as the sun went down and we came across a group of drummers in the street, surrounded by crowds of dancers enjoying the infectious beat as the pulsating rhythm filled the air. We also made sure we enjoyed some famous Argentinean pizza, many empanadas, grilled meats (steak for Bev, chicken for me!) and alfajores – yum!

A trip to Buenos Aires is not complete without a shopping trip to Palermo Soho – where the vibrant colours and Bohemian culture embrace you, Caminito in La Boca – famous for the origin of tango dancing and brightly coloured buildings, and the Recoleta Cemetery – a fascinating city of vaults, tombs and mausoleums. The cemetery is part eerie and part beautiful and you feel a sense of mystery while walking up and down the pathways peering inside the vaults to get a sense of closeness to those who are buried inside. Many of the vaults are covered in cobwebs illustrating how long they have gone untouched and some of them are mysteriously empty sending a chill up your spine!

We also took a tango lesson and saw a live tango show, rode one of the oldest trains in Buenos Aires and visited Casa Rosada (the Pink Palace) in Plaza de Mayo. Just walking through the streets is a treat, admiring the colonial architecture and taking in the culture of a city where old meets new. It’s a combination of beautiful, old buildings contrasting with cool, modern skyscrapers. Every turn brings you to a different site, through the winding cobblestone streets and along the paved highways. It’s a city where Europe meets South America. It’s a city that never sleeps. It’s a city where the colours shine, the people laugh, and the energy takes over your soul.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Enchanting Iguazu Falls

(Trip date: December, 2012) 

Having visited Angel Falls - the world’s tallest waterfall hidden deep in the Venezuelan jungle, and living so close to Niagara Falls - one of the world’s seven wonders surrounded by a mini Las Vegas, I wasn’t sure what to expect when visiting another one of the world’s famous falls: Iguazu Falls.
On our first day in Iguazu Falls we hopped on a bus and headed for the falls on the Brazilian side – the side we were staying on. We grabbed a map and had decided we were going to do a little hike before heading to the main falls, which are at the very end of the park. There is a bus that goes through the park since it’s so big and when we tried to get off to do the hike, the bus driver looked at us like we were insane and practically forced us back to our seats. Huffing and angry we sat back down, not knowing then what we learned later – that it takes an entire day to see all the falls of the park and there is absolutely no time to detour onto other hikes! Thank you Mr. Bus Driver and sorry for the dirty looks!
The park is so lush and green, you can’t help but feel relaxed and peaceful as you stroll up and down the trails. Then you suddenly turn the corner and in front of you are beautiful waterfalls in every direction! You ask yourself “is this the final waterfall view everybody talks about?” and as you walk another few minutes and come across another magnificent view of waterfalls you think to yourself “no way, THIS is way more beautiful than the last scene, this must be it”. And then you just keep doing that until you get to the grand finale and wonder how in the world you thought the first waterfall was so magnificent when this magical scene is right in front of you!
The final waterfall, the main part that everybody comes to Iguazu Falls to see, is beyond amazing. You take an elevator down to the bottom level and walk out onto a little lookout that stands in the middle of the falls and you are surrounded in every direction by the loud roar. You can’t help but feel so small and helpless standing as a little dot amongst one of Mother Nature’s grand treasures.  At the very end of the horseshoe of the waterfall is the Devil’s Throat on the Argentina side – on the agenda for the following day!
We decided to do the famous boat ride everybody talks about and both of us thought it would be something similar to the Maid of the Mist in Niagara Falls – wow, were we ever wrong! And wishing we had listened to the guy at our hostel who told us to wear our bathing suits. If you are reading this and plan to do the boat ride in Iguazu Falls: WEAR YOUR BATHING SUIT! Stepping onto the little raft and being the only tourists who didn’t speak English, we got thrown onto the front of the raft. This sounds more fun, right? Well it is, but also way more wet! We watched as our captains geared up in full waterproof gear from head-to-toe and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into as the boat went straight for one of the falls along the river (not the main falls, there’s way too much pressure to go near them on a boat). We couldn’t stop laughing as our captains took us right under the falls and each time we emerged and I wiped my eyes clean, our boat would turn around and go right back under! We did this about 20 times! Soaked doesn’t even begin to describe how wet we were after this adventure.
The next day we journeyed across the border to the Argentinean side of Iguazu Falls. Four buses, two border crossings and three hours later we made it to the park! The Argentinean side is very similar to the Brazilian side yet somehow has a much different vibe to it. It felt more like an amusement park as we hopped on a train that took us to the end of the park to see the Devil’s Throat. However it also seems to house a wide range of creatures and some of the world’s largest! In just one day in the Argentinean jungle we saw a group of cuatis (a South American raccoon) attack a man’s food bag, the largest ant I’ve ever seen, the world’s largest rat – the Capybara, exotic birds, lizards, mating stick bugs, a huge array of colourful butterflies, spiders the size of my hand a massive black fish that was half as tall as me. It was definitely an eventful trek on the way to see the Devil’s Throat!
We had to walk for about 30 minutes along a bridge in the open water to finally get to the Devil’s Throat. We were fascinated by the waterfalls as we were now standing behind the magnificent falls overlooking the Brazilian side, however we were also getting drenched from the mist. Wanting to save my cameras from the water, we didn’t spend much time here and headed back out onto the bridge. But what a better time for the thunder to roar and the skies to open up to a torrential downpour and lightning storm!? A VERY wet walk along the open waters made sure we were drenched for a second day in a row! Once the sun came out, we took a nice walk along one of the trails and marveled at more of the beautiful waterfalls along the river. Soaking up the sun while marveling at the roaring waters falling through mazes of lush greenery, I felt like I had just experienced magic as the feeling of peace and tranquility took over me.  

Before going to Iguazu Falls I had heard that the Brazilian side was the nicer side and there was no point going to the Argentinean side – my research was unanimous in this advice. But after seeing both sides I disagree with every word of that statement. If you’re going all the way to Iguazu Falls, you MUST see both sides! They are both magnificent and beautiful in very different ways. They are both magical and enchanting as you witness the roar of the falls like a lion protecting his jungle and experience the true power of Mother Nature.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

There Really is Ice in Iceland

(Trip date: July/August, 2012)

“Why would you go to Iceland?” was what everybody said to me when I told them where my next vacation destination was. Why would I not go to Iceland was what I was thinking in my head!  The beautiful and rustic land way up by the Arctic Circle, full of lush greenery and midnight sun, the land of fire and ice….

As I awoke on the plane just as we were landing, the first thought that came to my head was “are we landing on the moon?”  The land below was like nothing I’d ever seen before, a field of soft green and brown craters - what I later learned were lava fields. From the airport I went straight to my hostel, then off to explore the city of Reykjavik, as I waited for Kat to arrive. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon and all the locals were out and about enjoying the city. When I say it was beautiful, it was about 16 degrees, which is considered a nice summer day in Iceland!

 I walked through the streets, just me and my SLR, admiring the quaint city with its colourful buildings and peaceful lake, soaking up the smell of the ocean and sound of the seagulls. The air doesn’t get much fresher when you’re this far from civilization! Although I was a bit on the cold side coming from summer back home, the people of Reykjavik were all out sitting on the patios and chilling in the lawn chairs scattered throughout the city. I decided to do as the locals do and plopped myself onto a lawn chair and as the warm afternoon sun began to beat down on my skin, I feel into a peaceful nap amongst the many other nappers around me.  
It was an exciting reunion as my friend, Kat, from London, England met me at our hostel later that evening as we hadn’t seen each other in years. We hung out in our awesome hostel bar at Kex Hostel (I highly recommend this hostel), a place that even the locals come to hang out (Russell Crowe made an appearance the week before!) and we were both shocked when we looked at our watches to see that it was 10:30pm but the sun was still high in the sky! Your whole food and sleep clock gets confused in Iceland as the sun barely sets in the summer and you never know when it’s bedtime and when it’s mealtime. But it’s amazing to walk the streets at 10:30pm on any given night of the week and see the sun high in the sky and people out and about like it was just 6pm.
We did the Golden Circle tour, a must-see trip that takes you to the Eldborg Crater – a beautiful blue pool of water deep in the ground, the geysir – where the ground was hot and steaming and a huge geysir shoots water high into the sky every 3-4 minutes, then to the fantastic Gullfoss Falls – where we were lucky enough to see a vibrant rainbow frame the majestic waterfall. The tour gives you a perfect taste of the beautiful and rustic land.
The next day we did a whale watching tour. We were given special suits to keep us warm as we headed out into the choppy ocean to see the famous creatures of the sea. We were very lucky and saw hundreds of whales! Some came close to our boat, some were far away, it was a special site to see these magnificent creatures in their own habitat. Later that day we went to the famous Blue Lagoon spa, where we relaxed and bathed in the hot springs, enjoying the warm waters, steam rooms, massaging waterfall and all the wonderful amenities this place of tranquility has to offer.
We decided to rent a car on our last day and drive to Jökulsárlón, where the ice in Iceland is actually found! It was a stunning drive and a day I will never forget. We drove for five hours each way through some of the most amazing landscapes I have ever seen. The landscape kept changing from green hillsides, to lava fields, to volcanoes, to snowcapped mountains, and then finally to glaciers and icebergs. The land is so rustic and raw and it feels like it’s just you and the land as we saw maybe five cars drive by every hour. There is only ONE stop to get gas (and we almost ran out!) and about TWO restaurants in the small “town” of Vic on the way to Jökulsárlón – so fuel your car and your stomach when you can! We even stopped to see the famous volcano that halted European air traffic in 2010, Eyjafjallajökull - can you pronounce it? I sure can’t! As we rounded the corner approaching Jökulsárlón, we were speechless – from the land of greenery out came the glacier lagoon with its spectacular icebergs jutting out of the water. We took a raft through the lagoon where the icebergs were like skyscrapers in a city of glaciers and snow, each one unique in size and shape.

Iceland is so unique in so many ways. As I browsed through the many shops I realized that there are no name brands! They are all local boutiques, there’s no GAP or H&M or Zara. It’s also the first place I’ve ever been to that has no McDonalds (seriously, not one!) or Starbucks! It’s truly refreshing to see a modern society that is completely uninfluenced by the Western world. As for the food, it consists of a lot of cured, smoked and pickled fish, rye bread (we even had rye ice cream) and meat soups – all served in jars. Oh ya, and you can eat whale and puffin too  - no thanks.
I had never been to a place like Iceland before. I had never felt so connected to a landscape, like the land and I were one. I had never seen the sun shine at midnight. I had never seen lava fields. I had never seen a ground that is hot and steamy yet cold and icy. I had never seen icebergs that change shape every day. So now when people ask me why I went to Iceland, I just show them my pictures and I get a very different response than I did before: “I can’t wait to go to Iceland one day!”