Iguazú Falls

By Kathleen Kemsley, © 2021

I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls in my life.  Tall ones, wide ones, powerful and awe-inspiring ones: some of the best are Yosemite, Niagara, Juneau Falls in Alaska and Basaseachik in Mexico.  But all those waterfalls take a back seat to Iguazú Falls on the Argentina-Brazil border.  As the Prince song says, “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

I built the whole itinerary for our trip to Argentina around Iguazú Falls.  From Buenos Aires, we could either ride a bus for 20 hours to get there, or take a two-hour flight.  My niece, who had lived in Argentina for a few months when she was in her twenties, had braved the bus ride.  When I asked for her advice, she heartily recommended flying in to the jungle, rather than doing an all-nighter on a bumpy, noisy bus. 

So I booked the four of us on a flight to Puerto Iguazú, on the Paraná River, and reserved a three-night stay at the Iguazú Jungle Lodge.  In preparation for the journey, I had seen pictures of the falls, studied maps, and read about them (“One of the planet’s most awe-inspiring sights,” according to the Lonely Planet guidebook). I was so excited to experience the place in person that I hardly slept that night.  The next morning, we boarded a van for the half-hour ride to the entrance of Iguazú National Park. 

The Iguazú Falls did not disappoint.  We hiked first toward the Lower Trail, following the route backwards from most of the other people, so that the Rio Iguazú was on our left.  When we came around a corner, suddenly, there was the panorama of the falls.  Stunning, overpowering, thundering with millions of gallons of water.  Seized with awe and gratitude to witness this wonder of the world, my eyes flooded with tears as I stared at the view. 

We went around alongside the river, stopping frequently as every mirador gave a different vantage on the massive falls.  The lower loop path ventured quite close to the bottom of the falls, so that a visitor could be cooled off by the spray.  After completing the lower loop, we then moved to the upper loop, joining a “conga line,” as the guidebook called it, of people walking on a narrow trail along the top of the falls.  We leaned over the guard rails and shouted to each other over the roar of water. 

Finally, we rode a little train out to the end of the line, then walked another half mile to reach the climax of the day: Garganta del Diablo, or the Devil’s Throat.  Here, an enormously powerful waterfall plunged off a cliff below the viewing platform.  The sound of water crashing was deafening; the mist was so thick that I could not see to the bottom of the fall. 

The question that immediately came to my mind was, has anyone ever fallen in to the water here?  I was able to ask someone at the park later, and they assured me that yes, quite a few people have gone in, and most were never heard from again. 

As I explored all the pathways around the falls I wondered: how did these falls get here?  The geological explanation was pretty straightforward.  An ancient lava flow ended abruptly here, so the Rio Iguazú ran off the edge of the lava, plunged down to the sedimentary layer, then flowed into the Rio Paraná, another river draining the jungle interior. 

The local indigenous people had a more colorful story, which involved an angry god and a brave young warrior pursuing a beautiful maiden.  The maidens in these tales are always beautiful, with long black hair cascading like, well, a waterfall.  In this case her name was Naipur.  When her lover spirited her away from the jealous god in a canoe, the god caused the riverbed to collapse.  The canoe plunged over the falls, and Naipur was turned into a rock. 

The falls were located on the border between Argentina and Brazil.  Theoretically, it was possible to visit both sides of the falls.  You had to plan ahead to get a visa, required for Americans to enter Brazil.  People also flew over the falls in helicopters, kayaked in the churning Rio Iguazú, and rode in motorboats to the base of the falls – and even motored behind them.  But I did not feel the urge to partake in these adrenalin-fueled jaunts.  I was perfectly happy to stay on the ground and feel the spray of the falls close-up on the Argentine side. 

Iguazú Falls National Park was set in a jungle – overgrown, steamy, humid, and full of plant and animal life.  Along the trail we spotted toucans, capuchin monkeys, and coatis.  The pesky raccoon-like coatis looked cute, but became aggressive if food was offered.  We watched as other tourists tried to feed some coatis a cracker, only to get scratched as the animals fought over the snack.  

It took a full day to walk all the loops of the park, but one full day was not quite enough for me to get my fill.  So I talked my friends into returning for a second day.  It helped that the park service discounted your entrance fee by 50 percent if you came back two days in a row.  The second day, we got there quite early in the morning, before the hoards of tour busses showed up, so that we could walk the metal grate and stone paths around the lower loop by ourselves, minus the crowds. 

At one point when no one was looking, I put some of my late husband’s ashes into one of the falls.  He would have loved to see these falls.  Now, he is a part of them. 

It’s always hard to tell from reading a guide book or looking at a website, exactly what kind of a hotel you are selecting.  But the Iguazú Jungle Lodge turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  Located on a spur road away from the center of the town of Puerto Iguazú, the lodge consisted of a bunch of wooden cabin-like apartments arranged in a circular pattern.  In the center of the circle was a big pool, a game room, and a five-star restaurant.  Each “family style apartment” had a living room, a/c that sort of worked, a bathroom with jacuzzi that really didn’t work, a refrigerator, and a porch with a peek-a-boo view of the Rio Paraná.  Quiet, secluded, and safe, for $65 per person per night.

During an early morning run through the town, I noticed plenty of lodging choices, from cheap hostels to extravagant hotels much fancier than ours.  There wasn’t much to the town other than the lodging and a scattering of restaurants.  Colorful murals decorated the building walls.  Small parks with green grass and towering trees dotted the quiet streets.  A group of young people gathered in one park to drink wine, while music blared from their car – it appeared this was one of those towns stuck in the hinterlands where all the kids couldn’t wait to move to Buenos Aires.  If not for the tourists arriving to see the falls, the town would probably not even exist. 

Oh, but the falls were so incredibly stunning.  It was definitely worth the effort and expense to make a detour from Buenos Aires to the tropical northern border of Argentina.  I was awed, inspired, astounded…name your adjective.  Dazzled.  Overwhelmed.  Changed.  Humbled by the power of Iguazú Falls.

Australian Wildlife Sanctuaries

By Kathleen Kemsley © 2021

The impulse to preserve its unique wildlife is evident all over Australia – rescue sanctuaries and protected grounds are everywhere.  The iconic native species of the country include koala bears and kangaroos and lizards and emus and platipuses and crocodiles and many more.  In Australia, there seems to be a rescue center for all of them.  I visited two, curious to see how these strange creatures are faring with the (so far) fairly slight impact of human beings to their world. 

The Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary in Agnes Water, Queensland, only charged ten dollars to get in – very reasonable for a couple hours of close encounters with kangaroos.  The people who ran the sanctuary, Denise and Gary, began by rescuing joeys (baby kangaroos) when the mother was killed by a car on the highway.  Vehicle versus kangaroo accidents were apparently quite common in the rural areas of Queensland.  The joeys could survive for a maximum of a day or two after their mother (and source of food) has died, so rescuers got in the habit of cruising the roads looking for roadkill, then checking the pocket to see if a baby had survived.

When the joeys were brought to the sanctuary, they were bottle fed by hand.  It takes about four years for them to grow up, according to Gary.  They are free to go at any time – there are no fences around the Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary – and all eventually wander off into the bush to live out their lives in the wild.  But many of them return as adults from time to time, often with a joey of their own in tow, for a free meal. 

A large portion of the population of Australia, surprisingly, looks at kangaroos as pests.  There is a move afoot in the country, said Gary, to eradicate kangaroos and replace them with cows, because people want more meat.  Kangaroo meat, while edible, is not as sought after as beef. The group of about ten of us visitors listened patiently to Gary’s spiel about the sanctuary, as well as some editorial comments about how bad our diet is, and how what we eat causes cancer, and if everyone ate like a kangaroo (a vegetarian, alkaline diet) we’d never get cancer. 

Finally, lecture completed, he handed us slices of raw sweet potatoes and allowed us to feed the kangaroos by hand.  The creatures, most of them half-grown adolescents, showed no fear at all.  I was able to pet several of them, as they patiently waited for another bite of potato.  I left feeling a great affinity to these gentle and friendly creatures.

In subsequent travels in Australia, I learned that the Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary in Agnes Water is far from the only kangaroo rescue operation.  In fact, nearly every town of any size has a kangaroo sanctuary.  Some invite visitors, while others are strictly private.  But the practice of caring for the most iconic of creatures in Australia proved to be something of a common career path. 

In Alice Springs, in the red desert of central Australia, I encountered a different type of sanctuary.  There, the kangaroos (a giant species called red kangaroo which is taller and outweighs most grown men) seem to be holding their own.  But the creatures which needed protection more were the reptiles. 

Australia being an island nation, it has fostered the development of many unique species, a la Galapagos, and most of them had not evolved to fear humans.  The Alice Springs Reptile Center, located on the edge of town next to a couple other history museums, was built in 2000 to showcase the native reptile species of Northern Territories. 

Its star attraction was a ten-foot-long saltwater crocodile named “Terry.”  He was visible from above, or through a window that looked under the surface of the pond where he lived.  He seemed a little lonely all by himself in there, but I guess he got company when he was fed a couple times a day. 

The rest of the center was dedicated to displays both indoors and outdoors of some 60 species of reptiles.  They included frogs, geckos, lizards, snakes, turtles, skinks, and some very strange creatures called goannas and taipans.  There were also several species of dragons, truly throwbacks to the days when dinosaurs ruled the earth. 

After walking around looking at all the creatures – at least, those who wanted to be seen – I followed a handful of other people into a room off the main building where a demonstration was about to begin.  I walked in thinking that I’d never want to actually handle a snake or a dragon.  But once the naturalist started his spiel, I got caught up in it. 

He first pulled out a lizard, then a skink, then finally a dragon.  We passed the creatures down the line of benches gingerly, taking selfies with the strange cold-blooded animals and staring into their faces to try to discern what they were thinking.  The animals did not seem to mind being handled.  They did not bite, nor attempt to run away.  I suspect they knew they had a good gig at the Alice Springs Reptile Center; life was easy, and all they had to do was stare into everyone’s cameras. 

The Reptile Center put on three of these demos each day, plus extra shows for school groups.  In addition, they offered reptile removal services for homeowners; training courses for commercial businesses including the mining industry, and opportunities to photograph their many residents for film, television, and still photographs.  Knowing that they were competing with cuter species such as kangaroos and koalas in a country enamored of its endemic wildlife, they seemed to try a little harder to please the visitor.  I left with some great close-up pictures of strange reptiles, and a little better understanding of the wide variety of species lurking in the hot red desert of central Australia.   

Day trips in Ecuador

By Kathleen Kemsley © 2021

Ecuador packs a staggering variety of geography into a small area – the whole country is slightly bigger than Colorado.  In one-day trips from the centrally located capital of Quito, a traveler can visit volcanoes, cloud forests, indigenous villages high in the mountains, and hot springs. 

Quito sits at 9,000 feet elevation but its location, right on the equator, makes for a springlike climate year-round, with warm days, cool nights, and periodic rain clouds rolling in from the Andes.  My first foray beyond the city took me northwest, on a winding road that curved down lower on the mountain slopes to Mindo, a small town set in a cloud forest paradise.  Mindo was famous for birdwatching, butterflies, and chocolate tasting, as well as opportunities for “adventure sports” like ziplining, hiking, and river running. I signed on for a one-day action-packed trip that tried to cover as many of those bases as possible. 

Our group, consisting of three women visitors, two male guides and one driver, departed the city early in the morning, zooming without pause past the Mitad del Mundo monument and tourist trap that marked the equator.  It took the better part of two hours to cover the twisting mountain road to Mindo.  First thing, we boarded a rickety looking tarabita (cable car) spanning a deep, green canyon.  Once across, the two guides led us on a hike (more like a jog) down this steep muddy trail to the bottom of the canyon.  Fortunately, walking sticks were available for the taking at the start of the hike; otherwise my knees would have never survived the steep downhill trek.  As it was, I lagged at the rear by the time we reached the canyon bottom.  There, we briefly looked at a couple of minor waterfalls, snapped a picture, then turned around to head back up.    

No time to dip into the clear water below the falls.  “Quickly, quickly,” urged the guides, “we have a lot on the schedule today.”  I did better than the other two women on the uphill portion of the hike.  The Australian had just flown in to Quito the day before and was not acclimatized.  And the woman from Argentina, a smoker, gasped for breath on the steep return climb. 

The trip description was perhaps purposely vague about what all was included, but it turned out all the activities except the cost of lunch were included in one $60 price, a screaming deal.  Once safely back across the canyon on the tarabita, off we went to the zipline.  The Australian begged off, but the Argentine woman and I both opted for the shorter course, which consisted of three ziplines, connected by a couple short but steep climbs.  Fun it was, but not really necessary to my enjoyment of the Mindo experience.  Seen one zipline, seen them all.      

The next stop was a butterfly farm, where we strolled through a covered garden full of the photogenic, iridescent blue morphos and other colorful residents.  Finally, stomach growling, I gratefully followed the guides into a simple restaurant.  We all sat together at a picnic bench and were served the set plate almuerzo – potato soup, chicken, rice, lentils, salad, tamarind juice, and fresh fruit for dessert – all for $3.00.  Finally, we ran back to the van in a downpour and drove to a chocolate farm.  There, under a metal roof while the rain drummed down, we received instruction about how chocolate is made, including (of course) an opportunity to taste several varieties.  I purchased locally made bars of 50% chocolate, for myself and for friends back home.  Altogether they crammed a lot into one day – we didn’t get back to Quito until after dark – and I thought I’d like to someday return to stay in Mindo for a more leisurely visit of a few days.  The day trip was at least a good introduction to some of the possibilities in the cloud forest north of the city.

The next day trip I joined was a jaunt to Otavalo, an indigenous village northeast of the city.  There was only one other person on this trip with me – Robert, a Canadian guy who seemed to have a mental checklist upon which he was ticking off the boxes of must-sees.  A bird rescue center was the first stop.  There, the guide pointed out owls, hawks, eagles, falcons, and condors as we walked past their cages.  Robert lagged behind, shooting video of the bird and repeating a pithy version of what the guide just said – “This is the grey hawk, found from Columbia to Chile, hunts at night.”     

Next we went to the home of an ancient woman who fed us lunch before giving a demonstration of spinning, dyeing, and weaving alpaca fur.  I felt pressured to purchase something after her demo, but fortunately found a tablecloth on her shelves that matched the colors in my living room, so I parted with $25 to buy it. 

Finally, we were taken down to the market and turned loose.  I was disappointed to find that Wednesday was not a prime market day.  About half of the booths were staffed with bored-looking locals, who called out half-heartedly to me to look at their sweaters, leather goods, and jewelry.  They had the exact same products as the mercado I had walked through in Quito, and their prices were same.  I guessed that all of the goods came from the same factory, probably somewhere in Peru.  Nevertheless, I bought a couple little things, earrings and a gourd and a belt, mostly out of pity for the poor vendors, who didn’t have much hope of making rent that day from the handful of tourists wandering through the marketplace.  When I got back to the van, there was Robert filming the rug he bought, while narrating, “This is a rug made of cotton, the dye is made from berries, I paid twenty dollars for it.” I wondered who back home in Edmonton he could strongarm into watching what was developing into a spectacularly boring video. 

I did not return from the day trip to Otavalo, wishing to spend more time there.  If I had gone on market day, and perhaps not with a tour guide but on my own, it might have seemed livelier and more authentic.  The sole highlight of the Otavalo trip for me was the chance to study and photograph a condor close up at the bird rescue center.

On another day, I boarded another van with yet another motley group of travelers – there were six of us from the USA, Chile and Switzerland – for a day trip to visit some volcanoes.  After a quick stop for breakfast at a dairy farm south of Quito, we made a beeline for Cotapaxi National Park.  It took a long time to actually reach the base of 13,000 foot Cotapaxi Volcano after we sighted it on the horizon.  Snow topped, belching smoke, the volcano up close looked dangerous.  We were told it last erupted less than four years earlier, closing the national park for a year while ash rained down as far away as Quito.  The group took a leisurely walk around a lake near the volcano, where spring flowers bloomed and strange looking birds flitted near the water.  The visit to Cotapaxi was mellow, but overlain with a slight thrill of knowing that, if this obviously still active volcano decided to erupt again, anything within 100 miles would be flattened.  The guide told us that lava flowing from its peak moved at 35 miles per hour – faster than we could run, or even drive on the rocky, rough dirt access road. 

Continuing on to the south, we exited the Pan-American Highway and drove up the side of a mountain to the lofty height of 14,000 feet to visit another volcano – not an active one this time, but one long dead.  The extinct Quilotoa volcano, filled with blue-green sulphur water, looked other-worldly floating in the rarified air.  It seemed a million miles away from the 21st century up there, yet little Inca ladies in their black bowler hats pulled smart phones out of the folds of their long skirts.  Teenagers walking on the street dressed normally in jeans and down jackets.  You could just tell that they desperately wanted to get out of the hinterlands and dreamed of moving to the big city of Quito. 

We had a nearly inedible lunch at someone’s house in the village of Quilotoa.  For once I wished I was a vegetarian, as was the couple from California, because the mystery meat (mutton?) they served the rest of us was too tough to eat.  It didn’t go to waste, though.  The guide collected all the uneaten meat at the end of the lunch (I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t eat it).  Then, on the way back down the mountain, we pulled to the shoulder in several places where stray dogs lurked, and gave each of them a bone to chew on.  The whole trip to both volcanoes made for an extremely long day – about 14 hours – but it was worth it to experience the remote volcanoes that formed the backbone of the Andes.   

The last trip I took from Quito was by far the least demanding.  No death marches down a canyon, no poor indigenes begging for money, no smoking volcanoes threatening to erupt.  Another active volcano, called Antisana, was involved, but we didn’t bother stopping to look at it.  Instead, our small group drove directly to Papallacta Hot Springs Resort.  The hot springs, heated by the volcano, emptied into a dozen pools scattered around the beautifully landscaped grounds of the resort.  A small restaurant offered sustenance.  Individual steam rooms provided opportunity to breathe in the heat.

I missed most of what the guide said on the one-hour ride up to the resort.  By this time tired of listening to various guides’ renditions of Ecuadorian history and geography, I had chosen to listen to music instead.  But once set loose for a lovely six hour stay at the resort, I soaked in volcano-heated water until my skin pruned.  Since it was a Monday, the resort was not crowded.  In fact, our group of ten people was the only people there for most of the afternoon.  It was the most relaxed day of my entire two weeks in Quito, a perfect ending to the time spent in this spectacular compact country high in the mountains at the middle of the world. 

Uruguay, Part 2

By Kathleen Kemsley, © 2021

Let’s go to Uruguay!  Says no one, ever.  But in January 2017, four of us took the Buquebus (pronounced Bookie Boose) ferry across from Buenos Aires to Uruguay for a few days of exploration. 

After departing Rocha, we drove to Punta Diablo, the last town before the Brazilian border.  Vicki had picked out a rental house while we were still in the states.  On the computer it looked palatial.  In the flesh, the house, set back six blocks from the beach, had one normal-sized loft bedroom which was adequate for her and Jon.  A tiny back room was barely big enough for two twin beds, and a living room contained only two chairs.  Obviously, it was an all-right place for a couple with little kids.  But there was not room for both me and Bruce, the two singles. 

I got onto booking.com to find Bruce a nice hotel where they served dinner and he could walk onto a balcony overlooking the ocean.  Then I told Vicki that I’d try the kid’s room at the rental house for one night, before deciding whether to switch to different lodging.  The room had no a/c, only a small fan that barely moved the air.  No screens on the windows.  Sweating in the heat of the summer night, I lay awake, gradually becoming aware of a persistent buzz.  Mosquitoes had entered the house through the front door earlier, and now, in the dark, they swarmed me in the stuffy bedroom and attacked.

Sleep became out of the question.  Turning on the overhead light, I started swatting mosquitoes with a magazine.   Hit and miss.  Hit and kill.  Taking a break, I’d sit down to read a few pages, then get up to hunt again.  Standing on the bed, I hung by one hand from the closet shelf, swatting and missing and swatting some more.  At one point around 3:00 a.m., I googled the newly identified Zika Virus, then stressed out about contracting it.  Thus I passed a whole sleepless night in panic and paranoia.  I was going to die in Uruguay. 

First thing the next morning, I got back on the booking.com website and snagged a studio apartment down the beach from Bruce, where I could make sandwiches on the cheap, away from mosquito hell.  My room had what they called a “peek-a-boo” ocean view – in other words, you could see a little bit of blue water between the buildings.  Hidden at the end of a dead end street, the complex stood solidly just before the beach rolled back into vacant sand dunes and rock promontories. In the distance, I noticed a lighthouse perched on the point.

That afternoon, I walked down to Bruce’s hotel.  He invited me into his well-appointed room complete with art on the walls and a hot tub next to the king size bed.  Bruce seemed to be embarrassed by the hot tub.  “I won’t use it,” he said.

“Well then, could I use it?” I asked him, only half kidding.

“Help yourself,” he said.  “I’ll be sitting out on the balcony, reading.” 

I went back to my room and fetched my bathing suit.  After a relaxing soak in Bruce’s hot tub, I accompanied him to dinner at the restaurant downstairs.  We ordered roast pork loin with peaches and apples, fall-apart tender and delicious.   

Over dinner, we cast about for commonalities.  He read history books; I preferred mystery novels.  He enjoyed listening to jazz, while I was strictly a rock’n’roll gal.  His perfect vacation in Mexico had been a week in an all-inclusive resort at Playa del Carmen.  Mine was driving around the Yucatan in a camper van.  But we found ourselves in perfect agreement about the basics: politics, religion, and the need for a beach day tomorrow in Uruguay. 

Early the next morning, alone, I left my room and walked south half a mile down the deserted beach to get a closer look at the lighthouse at Palmar Point.  There was no gate or barrier, so I entered the courtyard.  Two dogs burst out of the structure barking madly.  They seemed friendly, if loud.

A man emerged from the building where he apparently lived as caretaker.    He misinterpreted my question about the lighthouse as a request for a tour of his living quarters.  I followed him through several dark rooms, but when we got back to the bedroom, a finger of trepidation came over me.  Hastily I backed out the door, mumbling something about looking at the sea view.  He followed me to the jutting land at the front of the building, where I took a couple photos before realizing that we were completely invisible to anyone on shore or down the beach.

The lecherous lighthouse keeper indicated for me to turn my camera around for a selfie, then put an arm around my waist. I froze and pushed away.  For an old guy with no teeth, he was surprisingly strong.  We fought briefly before I spun and fled.  He followed me for some distance, but I was younger and faster.  I escaped over a sand dune, uninjured but certainly more aware of the potential for danger when I went wandering alone in a foreign country.

Later that morning, I met up with my travel companions for a drive north from Punta Diablo.  We walked around the Fortress of Santa Teresa, a restored eighteenth century structure originally built by the Spanish to repel Portuguese Brazilian aggression.  Situated on a high point of land looking out to sea both north and south, the fort was backed by a swamp prohibiting enemies to approach from land.  After Uruguay gained independence from Argentina in 1852, the fort was used for a time as a prison before being abandoned to free ranging cattle and bats. 

In the 1940s the Uruguayan government invested in its restoration.  We spent a couple hours walking around the pentagon-shaped fortress walls which were four or more feet thick.  At least 20 cannons mounted at the corners demonstrated the strength of the fortress’s protection.  Inner rooms were furnished to show living conditions for the 300 soldiers who staffed the fort.   

Between the fortress and the Brazilian border lay a beautiful empty beach.  Remembering the harrowing trip to the lighthouse earlier, I stuck close to my friends as we walked barefoot over several miles of clean, empty shoreline.  The whole length of beach was designated a national park, protecting whales, dolphins, and sea turtles in the waters off shore, while cormorants and other sea birds flocked along the edge of the sea. 

We did get our beach time in the summer sun at Santa Teresa.  A little too much, as it turned out.  The strong rays not far from the Tropic of Capricorn caused a bright sunburn to blaze on my shoulders at the end of the day.  Jon, who had forgotten to put sunscreen on his legs, received second degree burns to his ankles and calves, resulting in several painful days of salving blisters. 

We drove all the way back across Uruguay from Punta Diablo in one long day.  Before boarding the Buquebus back to Buenos Aires, we spent a morning wandering in the old town of Colonia del Sacramento, where Jon had spent some of his teenage years.  He scarcely recognized the town.  Run down and neglected back in Jon’s day, the historic quarter had since been restored and was designated a World Heritage Site in the 1990s.  We walked on cobblestone streets built by the Portuguese in the 1700s, and photographed churches returned to their former glory.  From the top of the sea wall, you could almost see across the Rio Plata to Argentina, 30 miles away.

All too soon, it was time to leave the picturesque colony by the sea, and ride the ferry back to Buenos Aires.  Would I recommend for an Argentine visitor to take a side trip to Uruguay?  Yes, definitely.  It is a mellow country, easy to travel around, with gorgeous historical buildings and unspoiled beaches.  Just watch out for the killer mosquitoes, the strong sunlight, and one lecherous lighthouse keeper. 

Tulum Revisited

By Kathleen Kemsley © 2021

As a general rule, I do not visit the same place twice.  The world offers so many incredibly varied destinations, that why would you return to any place for a second look?  But I’ve learned to “never say never,” and so, in 2016 I made the decision to return to Tulum. 

The perpetuating factor was that I had arranged to meet a small group of friends in Cancun as a launch point for an exploration of Cuba.  The trip to Cuba itself was only a week long.  After coming all the way to Cancun, I thought about what else could I do while I was there. 

In 2007, my husband and I had taken a long camping trip along the Ruta Maya, four months and 4000 miles, through Yucatan, Belize, and Guatemala.  During that marathon drive, we spent a night at a campground near Tulum, visiting the photogenic Mayan ruins at the edge of the Caribbean Sea.  At the time, the town of Tulum – small, sleepy, and traditional – seemed like an attractive place to spend more time.  But we moved on to the towering pyramids at Coba the next day, then continued south to the border of Belize. 

So, with some time to spare before the Cuba trip, I decided to return and explore Tulum further.  My friend and I met at the airport and flew into Cancun late one night.  We negotiated with the Super Shuttle people to get a ride for $20 from the airport to Hotel Encanto, a cheap B&B (minus the breakfast) in a residential section of Cancun, far from the over-touristy beach resort area.  At $36.00 the lodging was a good value which included a/c and a fan, a tiny bathroom and a pool.  My friend wasted no time plunging into the pool.  In the morning I crept out the gate and went walking in the quiet neighborhood, stopping at OXXO to get coffee.  Upon returning, we loaded up and took a taxi to the bus station. 

We had some time before the next southbound bus, so ignoring the Subway and other chain restaurants inside the station, we went outside and ordered a couple of tacos from a street vendor.  I walked across the street for a large cup of freshly squeezed jugo naranja, which I shared.  Then we boarded the bus. 

Three hours later, we arrived at the Hotel Pacha Tulum.  The room that I had reserved online had two beds as I had requested, however they were pushed together.  I quickly moved as much space as I could between them (about 6”) because I had already discovered that my friend’s snoring was loud enough to disturb my sleep.  Thank goodness, I brought heavy duty ear plugs. 

The next day we caught a collectivo (small public bus) that carried us the three miles to the Tulum ruins.  As I recalled from my previous visit, the ruins on the Caribbean coast were not anywhere near as stunning as other Mayan ruins elsewhere on the Yucatan.  They had not been a ceremonial center for the Mayan civilization, as Uxmal and Chichen Itza had been; and the low, grey and black buildings lacked the majesty of the pyramids and grand palaces of other Mayan cities.  Instead Tulum housed the remains of some kind of coastal lookout complex.  Walled ramparts surrounding the site on three sides, defending the settlement from any attackers.  The Tulum ruins contained an observatory where ancient inhabitants (with a well-documented knowledge of astronomy) could chart the seasons and keep the calendars.  There were some small temples and a palace of sorts.  The main attraction of the Tulum ruins, besides their photogenic location at the edge of the Caribbean Sea, was their proximity to the heavily touristed areas of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. 

We had not managed to arrive at the ruins early enough.  At mid-morning, the site was already overrun with masses of humanity milling around.  After taking a cursory walkabout and snapping a few photographs of iguanas reclining on the ancient walls of the seaside site, we departed by foot and walked south on the beach until we had escaped most of the crowds.  We bought lunch at a beachside restaurant, then went swimming in a turquoise Caribbean.  I was a little self-conscious about taking my clothes off, imagining everyone was looking at my less-than-perfect fifty-something-year-old body in a bikini.  But then, I looked around and realized that all the women on the beach wore bikinis, even the fat mammas and grandmas.  No one really cared.

Back at the Hotel Pacha Tulum, at the front desk clerk’s suggestion, we signed up for tomorrow’s day trip to the Sian Ka’an Biological Preserve.  Designated a World Heritage site in 1987, the 1.2 million acre preserve protected miles of untouched coastline, jungle, marshland, and islands.  It was rumored that the jungle hid hundreds of unexplored Mayan ruin sites; the area was also home to monkeys, foxes, pumas, caimans, ocelots, raccoons, and tons of birds.  

The cost of $125 each seemed a bit steep, but it turned out to be a full day trip, rich with eco-friendly activities.  We boarded a boat to cruise the mangroves along the shore where we spied crocodiles, then to the deeper water offshore for dolphins and sea tortoises.  At one point, we stopped for a swim in waist-deep crystal clear turquoise water with dazzling white sand under our feet.  Eventually, the boat carried us to a remote outpost within the mangroves for a huge lunch of fish, rice, salad, fruit, beverages, and dessert.    

Over lunch, I befriended a garrulous woman from British Columbia.  She hardly shut up all the way through lunch and talked a blue streak in the van riding back to the hotel.  My travel partner later opined that she was flaky.  She was a nurse who spoke at least 4 languages, and had traveled the world by herself…hardly flaky in my eyes.  But my friend also thought the boat driver speeded recklessly, while my urge was to tip the guy extra because he spiced up a long, uneventful ride back to land from the restaurant. 

The next morning we rented bicycles, pathetic one-speeds that had seen better days in the 1980s.  The cost was 80 pesos per day, or about five dollars, not a bad deal, but also not a means of traveling in style.  I suggested we ride to Gran Cenote, down the highway away from town, because traffic was light and we could get used to the bikes. 

Cenotes are deep water holes that occur naturally in the limestone all over the Yucatan.  The Mayans treated them with reverence, as they provided the most dependable source of fresh water in the riverless region.  The Mayans also occasionally used cenotes as a receptacle for sacrificial religious items to bribe Chac, the Rain God.  I had visited several cenotes on the previous trip to Yucatan, but there are literally hundreds of them dotting the peninsula, some well-marked and some kept secret. 

Gran Cenote was a 15 minute bicycle ride west of our hotel.  After using the changing rooms at the surface, we followed a steep stairway down into the hole.  Plunging into cool clear water, we swam around the edge of the huge limestone cavern.  Giant ferns drooped over the water; moss and vines hung from the ceiling.  A shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom of the underground cavern.  Tiny fish shared the swimming hole with us.  How did they get in there? I wondered.  Fortunately there were only a couple other people in the water – we had departed early in the day – and so it was a quiet, stirring and inspirational experience. 

Returning to town when the crowds began to arrive at the cenote, we bicycled down the main street of Tulum.  The last time I had been there, no tourist infrastructure existed in Tulum Pueblo; it was a sleepy Mexican village with nothing to attract visitors.  In the ensuing ten years, things had changed quickly.  Main Street in Tulum was now dotted with backpacker hostels, bars, and tourist-themed restaurants, complete with touters standing outside holding a menu and calling to passersby in English to “come look, good food, cold beer, almost free.” 

We opted for a non-tourist restaurant in the old style of small Mexican towns everywhere.  Sitting at a rickety table outside on the patio, we were served a roasted half chicken, along with a pile of home-made tortillas and condiments: cabbage, tomato, pico de gallo, several types of salsa, cilantro, and lime.  The whole meal cost us two dollars each.  At some distance down the street, I could hear the blast of music playing in a “disco bar.”

During a run at dawn that morning, I had noticed a new subdivision being carved out of the jungle between the town of Tulum and the coast.  The sleepy local village of Tulum that I remembered from the visit in 2007 was quickly disappearing.  It was not exactly a center of mindless partying and consuming vast quantities of alcohol, a la Cancun. At least there was no Señor Frog’s.  Rather, Tulum was reinventing itself as a low-key alternative to Cancun, complete with eco-lodges, yoga resorts, and handfuls of dreadlocked hippie kids populating the hostels. 

As we rode our bicycles along the beach after lunch, we checked on lodging options.  Quickly, we ascertained that the beachfront boutique hotels were way too fancy for our budget.  Some places went for upwards of $500 per night.  Yes, these hotels came complete with white sand beaches and hammocks hanging from palm trees, next to the sparkling Caribbean Sea.  But their gated courtyards and hotel-guests-only restaurants  smacked of exclusivity.  I much preferred a hotel nearer to what I considered the real Mexico.  Our Hotel Pacha Tulum, with its colorful walls, open courtyard, clean but basic bathrooms, and proximity to Tulum’s still somewhat funky main street were infinitely more enjoyable.

Red Center

By Kathleen Kemsley, © 2021

After spending a couple weeks in tropical Queensland along the coast, I escaped the humidity by flying into the red center of Australia.  Having spent at least half my life in the American Southwest, I felt instantly at home in the desert of the Outback.  The rough frontier towns, reptilian wildlife, and intense blue skies were as familiar to me as my own back yard. 

I arrived in Alice Springs in late October, the start of the blazing heat of summer in the big empty in the middle of the island nation.  Many things that appear in the desert prove to be a mirage; my first understanding of Alice Springs was that its name was a double mirage.  The town was named for Alice Todd, wife the telegraph pioneer Sir Charles Todd; but she never set foot in the red center, having stayed safely ensconced in Adelaide.  And the springs?  Not springs at all – there are no springs anywhere nearby – only the Todd River, usually a dry arroyo, only flowing once in awhile during the rainy season. 

So – No Alice, No Springs.  It immediately brought to mind Lake Valley, a backcountry byway in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico.  We always called it No Lake, No Valley, named for wishful thinking rather than anything real.  Alice Springs marked an arbitrary spot in the endless roll of desert sands where enterprising British explorers in the 1870s ran a telegraph line, connecting Darwin to the southern coast, and bisecting the ancient grounds of the local indigenous people who had lived in the desert for millennia.

Walking around the small dusty settlement of Alice Springs, I saw knots of native residents, called Anangu, clustered in the shade of trees along the tourist plaza.  They spoke an unintelligible mumble and grunt of a language and didn’t meet my eyes.  I would learn more about them as I traveled in their world – into the wilderness where the legendary monuments of Kata Tjuda and Uluru rose unbidden into the deep blue sky. 

I joined a small group for transport to the main attractions of the desert.  During the five hour journey on a road straight as a ruler, we made pit stops at a camel ranch and an emu farm.  The camels were most definitely not indigenous to central Australia, but once upon a time, someone imported a few from Africa.  They promptly escaped, multiplied, and spread out into the empty desert, perfectly suited to this harsh land with little water.  Emus. on the other hand, were genuine locals, flightless birds four feet tall, seemingly a little out of step with the modern world, but singularly suited to life in the red center of the country. 

We reached Kata Tjuda in the afternoon.  Actually domed sandstone protrusions, these “mountains” were named the Olgas by explorer Earnest Giles in 1872 to honor some queen of Russia who, like Alice Todd, had never been to the Australian desert.  When the government restored ownership of this area to the aboriginal people in 1985, they reverted to the original name, Kata Tjuda, meaning “many heads.”  Legends about the origins and spiritual symbolism of the area were kept alive by the oral tradition of the native Anangu people, but they did not repeat the stories to us foreign tourists.  Many secrets were kept quiet in the orange folds of rock towering over the emptiness of the red center.

Before dawn the next morning, I caught a ride to the other famous rock extrusion in the area, Uluru.  Again, it had an English name as well as an indigenous name; in this case Ayers Rock was named for the then Chief Secretary of South Australia.  Henry Ayers made his fortune in mining, was chairman of the board of the South Australia Bank, and served on the council for the University of Adelaide.  True to form for this part of the country, there was no evidence in his biography to indicate he ever actually traveled to the monolith that bore his name.   

Uluru rose abruptly out of the flat desert sand.  In the pre-dawn chill, the huge rock outcrop bore an air of mystery and of mythology never spoken in English.  Obviously, the rock belonged not to us latecomers and interlopers, but to a far more ancient people who had dwelled in its shadow, hunting and gathering free of the influence of any other culture for at least ten thousand years. 

In the past century, about one-third of the tourists who visited Uluru climbed to the top of the rock.  The locals never climbed Uluru due to its spiritual significance – the route to the top supposedly crossed a sacred traditional route taken by creator-beings, according to the Anangu people’s legends of origin.  Australian officials finally capitulated and made climbing the rock illegal, but the deadline for closure of the track to the top was still a few months in the future when I was there.  I saw a handful of people head up the steep but well-worn path to the top. 

But, respectful of the wishes of the Aboriginal people, I did not climb the rock.  Instead I walked all the way around it, a distance of about twelve miles, watching as it emerged from darkness into dawn, glowing orange when the first rays of sun struck it.  Tucked within its walls were shrubs, hidden caves, and tiny springs of clear, cold water.  Rainfall flow off the top of the dome traced stripes down the sides of the massive rock, pooling at the base in deep ponds that served as natural water sources for a wide variety of creatures. 

The water, shade, and vegetation surrounding Uluru attracted a lot of creatures besides just tourists.  Resident animals include kangaroos, several species of wallabies, bats, possums, rats, moles, frogs, and 73 species of reptiles including snakes, lizards, and skinks.  I saw a few of the smaller reptiles, but many local creatures shied away from intruders, hanging in the shadows or sleeping underground during the day and emerging in the cover of night. 

Walking around the rock, by myself, I heard wind whistling through gaps in the solid rock face.  Finches, swallows, wrens, and red-capped robins flitted in the brush; the occasional falcon or kestrel soared overhead.  It was easy to imagine the Anangu people creeping through dense brush near the rock, plucking grubs, bush tomatoes, nuts, and the occasional lizard for dinner. For thousands of years, they drew maps on the walls of Uluru to direct others to precious water sources.  They utilized medicinal plants and practiced birth control, to prevent their society from overwhelming the scarce resources of the desert.  Maybe, I mused, these “primitive” people were more advanced in many ways than we seven billion “civilized” people, who have destroyed the natural world, altered the balance of nature, and crowded out so many species to extinction. 

I admired the tenacity of the strange-sounding people who had mysteriously arrived in Australia from the shores of distant Africa so long ago and had figured out how to live quietly and with dignity in the shadow of the powerful red rock extrusions in the desert. 

Of course, I too was an intruder, an alien visitor to this empty land.  But standing at the base of Uluru at dawn, I appreciated the clean, windswept ambiance of the land.  It was difficult to capture its grandeur with a camera lens, and even more difficult to put into words the power emanating from the massive red rocks.  But I could feel it, no question.  And in the moment the sun broke over the horizon, I understood a little of the allure of the place, to the Anangu who had lived in its shadow for so long.  They were the rightful owners; they would continue to be good stewards of this singularly beautiful spot. 

Exploring Quito

By Kathleen Kemsley, (c) 2021

To tour or not to tour, that is the question.  For independent travelers, planning a journey to a foreign country involves decisions.  The most important is, to what extent will you engage in the services of professional tour guides?  Organized tours guarantee that you’ll see the big ticket items, check them off your list.  The downside, of course, is that when some place draws you closer, you’re unable to linger because the guides urge the herd of tourists to keep moving.  The bus is about to leave.     

In Quito, my solution to the tour / no tour conundrum was to alternate days.  One day with a group, the next day on my own.  In this way, I got to visit several attractions in the surrounding countryside – traditional Otavalo, tropical Mindo, serene Papallacta Hot Springs, and stunning Cotapaxi volcano.  Yes, I was with a group – but it was a different group each day.  The groups were small, anywhere from two to seven people.  Headphones drowned out the droning sing-song narrative when I tired of listening to the guide.  All I really paid for on each trip was the transportation to the desired location.  Once there, I was free to walk away from the others, and explore on my own.

In between these jaunts outside the city, I reserved unplanned days to wander and explore Quito on my own.  One day, I rode a bus to Plaza Grande, then embarked on a walking tour of historical Old Town.  Along the way, I detoured off course to duck into a museum, where I studied a pictorial display about the devastating terremoto (earthquake) that flattened the city and killed 70,000 people in 1868.  I snuck into a church service for a couple of stealth photos of the ornate 17th century interior.  And I sat at a sidewalk restaurant in the plaza, watching life unfold for the local people: traditionally dressed Andean women selling food or souvenirs, shoe-shine guys touting their business, school children giggling as their teacher herded them into the Palace of the Governor, and old men gossiping as they sat on wooden benches under the trees.

Once in awhile I glanced surreptitiously at my guidebook, but remained conscious of not appearing to be a lost tourist.  Up and down I walked the steep narrow streets, rubbing shoulders with pedestrians who moved twice as fast as me, unbothered by the 9,000 foot elevation of Quito.  After a long jaunt downhill on Venezuela Street, I reached the Basilica de Voto National, a massive church built over several decades starting in 1892. Instead of gargoyles, figures of turtles and iguanas protruded from the building’s façade, providing a uniquely Ecuadorian slant on the church’s Gothic theme.

Another day, I took a taxi to the northwest side of the city to reach the famous TeleferiQo, an aerial tram ride which takes people to a viewpoint called Cruz Loma above the city at 12,000 ft.  While standing in line, I met Jose, a local man who wanted to practice his English, and encouraged me to answer him in Spanish.  Thus we passed the 30 minute wait for the cable car communicating like a couple of three-year-olds.  Mangled grammar and lots of hand waving and laughter.  Once we rode the tram to the top, he took off for a long hike to Volcano Pichincha, while I chose an easier loop walk past a corral of horses for rent, a swing that sailed out over the cliff, and a platform where tourists could take a selfie with the entire city of Quito spread out below.   

Returning to the city, I moved from the hostel to a nicer hotel one block off the Parque Ejido at the center of town.  My new digs, the Hotel Lef, was intended to be my headquarters for about a week in downtown Quito.  You can never really tell by looking in a guidebook or a website, just what a hotel will be like.  Is the neighborhood safe?  Is there anywhere to eat?  In the case of Hotel Lef, I lucked out, as it turned out to be extremely clean, quiet and friendly.  The owner spoke no English, but thanks to the Google Translate app, and my halting Spanish, we managed to communicate.  He even used his personal vehicle one day to run me across town to meet a bus for a day trip to Volcano Cotapaxi. 

Once settled in, I walked to the park.  Since it was Sunday, hundreds of city residents had flocked to the park for a family day.  I walked past hastily erected food booths, studying other people’s plates before deciding on a cheap traditional meal of barbecued chicken, rice, corn, and a huge fruit cup, all for about $1.50.  Andean music drifted across the grass, so after lunch I went to find it.  On a platform near the bathrooms, a dance performance by students of the Intihuasi Dance School was underway.  Dressed in colorful costumes, children as young as seven completed complex steps.  Older couples whirled and spun to traditional pan flute music.  Their exuberance was dizzying and intoxicating.  At the end, they passed a hat through the crowd of onlookers for donations.  I happily threw in a couple dollars.  

Early the next morning, I left my hotel before dawn, clad in running shorts, and covered the distance of one block to Parque Ejido.  In the gathering light, I ran circles around the outside edge of the park, but I was not alone.  Other joggers joined me; also walkers, some with dogs on leashes, followed the perimeter trail.  I passed one section of the park where several homeless people were sleeping in cardboard tents.  No one looked up, and I avoided cutting my eyes into their territory, demarcated with stacked cement blocks and pieces of wood.  Around the far side of the park, vendors had set up carts, offering bowls of traditional rice-based breakfast stew.  Well-dressed young professionals hurried to waiting busses, and the traffic thickened as I rounded the park for the fourth time.  Proud to be able to run (albeit slowly) at 9,000 feet, I enjoyed fitting in with the locals who exercised in the heart of Quito. 

Research before I left home had provided me with the location of an English-speaking chapter of a spiritual group of which I was a long-time member.  When the day arrived, I caught a taxi across town to attend their morning meeting.  Eighteen people eventually showed up – “on Ecuador time,” a few minutes late – and the meeting proceeded to last until noon.  I met Mike, a physician from Ohio; Josh, a computer programmer from Toronto, Canada; Mimi, a teacher who lived in Quito; and Patrick, a retired pilot from York, England. 

After the meeting, we piled into cars and drove to Plaza Foch for a lunch of Indian food and an animated conversation.  Then, Patrick invited me to accompany him and a couple of the others to an outdoor coffee shop on the other side of the plaza, where we sat all afternoon sipping coffee and playing dominoes.  They used three-sided dominoes with numbers from 0 to 5 on each side, which was a variant I had never seen before.  I passed several more hours laughing with my new friends, telling stories about Ecuador, and trying unsuccessfully to outsmart them at this simple but deceptively challenging game. 

On another day I wanted to get to the botanical gardens in Carolina Park.  The easiest option seemed to be hopping onto the red “Quito Bus” which provided jump-on, jump-off access to points of interest in the city.  I rode right through Old Town (having already walked my way through it a few days before), and jumped off at the Virgin of Quito Lookout when the bus made a stop there.  The Virgin, a 130 foot tall aluminum mosaic statue, waved a cool hand at the city. Views from her base north across the sprawling city rimmed by volcanoes were breathtaking.    

Back on the red bus, I rode past the historic (and pricey) Hotel Quito, through the financial district, and finally to Carolina Park.  A huge green oasis in the middle of the city, the park contained bike paths, soccer fields, and a lake where paddleboats were available for rent.  Inside the botanical garden, I walked through sections showcasing the various native habitats encompassed in Ecuador: high altitude grasslands, tropical Amazonian headwaters, palm groves, cloud forest, wetlands, coastal jungles, and desert cactus gardens.  Like Ecuador itself, the botanic gardens fit a lot of variety into a small space.  Inside a greenhouse, I found a spectacular display of at least a hundred different varieties of orchid.  My favorite, the aptly named Dracula orchid, sported fangs and what looked like blood splatter.  

A couple hours later, I caught the next red bus which delivered me (in a roundabout way) back to the Plaza Foch.  I walked through the sprawling mercado maze spread out for several blocks on the way back to my hotel.  The vendors all had similar arts and crafts to sell.  I walked at random, and stopped at the booths of a couple of very friendly but not pushy sellers to look more closely at their wares.  I ended up buying a couple pieces of silver jewelry, a painting, a purse, and a carved gourd.  Though I really didn’t need any of the items, I felt moved to contribute a little to the economy of artisans in Quito. 

After each of these busy days immersed up to my ears in the city of Quito, I was grateful to have a nice quiet room with a comfortable bed to which to retreat.  The Hotel Lef was a great refuge in a central location from which to explore this fascinating and exotic city. 

Uruguay Part 1

Let’s go to Uruguay!  Says no one, ever. But in January 2017, four of us took the Buquebus (pronounced Bookie Boose) ferry across from Buenos Aires to Uruguay for a few days of exploration.  One of our party, Jon, had spent some of his teenage years during the 1960s in Colonia Sacramento, staying with his dad.  What was Jon’s dad doing in Uruguay?  The answer was hazy, something to do with either the U.S. Agency for International Development, or possibly the C.I.A.  Half joking, Jon said that “the revolution started six months after Dad left each country.”

In Uruguay, Jon’s dad married a local woman and had a couple of kids.  Teenage Jon was not well supervised while there; he ran wild, engaging in typical teenage shenanigans.  When he got kicked out of his dad’s house, he returned to the United States and had never been back to Uruguay – until now. 

We crammed into a tiny economica rental car and drove from the ferry dock in Colonia to the end of the road in Uruguay.  It’s not a very big country.  On a map, it’s a grape wedged in between a giant cauliflower (Brazil) and a zucchini (Argentina).  We stopped over for two days in the nation’s capital, Montevideo, where Jon’s half-sister, Karen, lived.  The two of them barely knew each other, as their dad left Uruguay when Karen was five, moving on to another wife and family in Korea.  But Karen cheerfully showed us around the city, narrating some of its history in surprisingly good English, and walked us through an outdoor mercado where we bought some handcrafted jewelry and tee shirts. 

Karen suggested a parrilla (grilled meat) restaurant for dinner.  Dinner was served late in Uruguay – like, way late, 9:00 pm, or later.  I thought I would starve to death before they served us.  Then, as we sat at a picnic table, the waiter brought a lazy susan piled high with all kinds of barbecue – beef cheeks, kidney, blood sausage, spare ribs, and well-done sirloin.  Exotic eating is supposed to be part of the fun of foreign travel, but the organ meats were a struggle to swallow, so I filled up instead on the side dishes of grilled vegetables.  After dinner, we walked to an ice cream parlor on the Rambla (waterfront path) where a double scoop of chocolate gelato rewarded me. 

The next morning at 5:00 I went for a run along the Rambla.  A lovely orange sunrise over the South Atlantic was witnessed only by me and a couple homeless guys curled on benches next to the water.  The rest of the city was sound asleep, having stayed up past midnight the night before.     

Departing the urban area, we drove through countryside as green as Ireland.  Cattle grazed, and fields of corn and alfalfa, groves of apple trees, and grape vineyards lined the roadway.  A couple hours later, we departed the highway at the town of Rocha.  Six miles up a dirt road in the Rocha Mountains (which were really hills, not mountains, to this Rocky Mountain dweller – elevation of only 1400 feet) we arrived at an organic estancia (working ranch) called Caballos de Luz – Horses of Light.     

We passed two days on the farm, riding horses across the rocky hills and nearly starving on vegetarian fare.   The couple who ran the place, Lucy from Austria and Santiago from Brazil, had bonded over their shared love of horses, and spent the past nine years living on 400 acres off the grid.  Lucy told us the small settlement in the region had begun as a commune, but in recent years everyone sort of broke away from each other, and now it was more of a neighborhood. 

They owned a dozen horses, plus they boarded horses for their neighbors, and hosted occasional small groups of travelers.  Growing much of their own food, they utilized solar power and a propane stove.  The huts we stayed in had thatched roofs and no air conditioning.  I walked out onto the back porch of my hut, spreading some clothes to dry, and stepped on a rotten board.  I nearly fell through as it broke off.  One board – overlooked!  I made a mental note to mention it to Santiago, as maintenance obviously proved tough to keep up with in the hinterlands of Uruguay. 

Down a path from my hut was a composting toilet for communal use.  Of course, it was home to a million flies.  I went in to use it and was startled by a frog which jumped neatly out of my way.  As soon as I stepped away, the frog hopped back onto the toilet seat.  The lid was up.  In less than five minutes, I watched the frog expertly catch three flies.  I had to admire his clever adaptation to resources at hand.  He had found the perfect gig on the toilet seat. 

The food they served us was bland, but undoubtably quite healthy.  Salad, breaded eggplant, goat cheese and a loaf of bread with a crust so hard it could have doubled as a football.  The salad dressing was some weird peanut concoction.  No bacon, no potato chips, no chocolate.  The one standout dish was home grown tomatoes in balsamic vinaigrette.  Now I could see why both Lucy and Santiago managed to stay as thin as string beans.  After dinner, in my hut, I secretly munched a bag of pretzels, some dried fruit, and several handfuls of trail mix.  And felt like I might survive until we got to another parrilla restaurant. 

Beyond the huts and down the hill, past the garden, ran what they called a river – creek was more accurate – complete with a swimming hole deep enough for immersion.  Several palm trees leaned over the cool, clear water. A couple flat rocks on shore provided a seat next to, as Lucy described it, the world’s smallest white sand beach. 

Besides dipping in the river and taking hour-long horseback rides into the hills, there was not a lot for a guest to do on the ranch.  I was glad that I had brought a good book to read in the hammock that hung between two trees in the shady front yard. 

During a morning run, I spotted a tiny deer (the size of a dog) disappearing into the tangled brush of an arroyo.  The deer was no doubt heading for the river, the only water for miles around.  Farther up the dirt road, a one-room schoolhouse sported a sign in the yard that translated to, “Pray for Rain.” 

Dry, dusty and hot, at the height of the South American summer, the ranch existed outside the press of civilization.  It was obviously a lot of work, with limited electricity and no hot water or indoor plumbing.  But it was quiet, except for an occasional horse whinny.  To Lucy and Santiago, craving solitude and freedom, Caballos de Luz Ranch was a slice of paradise. 

My stay provided a much-needed break from the stress of travel in a foreign land.  For those couple days, suspended away from civilization, I felt a glimpse of paradise as well.   The only thing was, I was still hungry.  For a stuffed-full carne asada burrito, dripping with cheese and grease, I was willing to keep moving.    

Two Sides of Cuba

By Kathleen Kemsley (c) 2021

Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida, felt like it was on the other side of the world from the ultra-modern United States. Or on a different planet.  There was no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no advertising billboards.  No internet, no smart phones.  The women dressed up in high heels and last year’s fashions if they had them.  But the men, wearing shabby black pants, stood on the sidewalk early in the morning talking in small groups about politics.  They didn’t have cable TV.  Most didn’t have cars or even bicycles. 

Dogs ran loose on the streets, cleaning up any rotten food or scraps they could find.  Cats too ran free, keeping the rodent population low.  No one had a front yard or back yard.  The buildings in the neighborhood where we stayed in Havana had belonged to rich people in the 1950s: wealthy foreigners or the Cubans who had become wealthy in their service.  After those folks were thrown out of the country in 1959, the government redistributed their houses to families.  Free.  The catch was, a house had to be passed on to the kids.  People couldn’t buy or sell them (because they belonged to the government). 

There were, therefore, a couple of unintended results: (a) the families, now into their third generation since the revolution, were crammed into the houses like sardines; and (b) there was very little pride of ownership. Facades crumbled, paint peeled, fences rusted and gates broke.  Sidewalks cracked and heaved to the point of threatening danger to walkers.  Nothing was being maintained because, why should they?  The government was the owner, not the resident.  

The exception was those homes that had in recent years been turned into B&B’s such as the one where my small group of travelers stayed. The family lived on the top floor.  The lower floor, consisting of 5 bedrooms, a dining room, and a small living room, was for guests.  Our quarters were large, well furnished, and air conditioned, with a sparkling tiled bathroom twice the size of my bathroom at home.  On the terrace, they served us a full breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, coffee, and juice, while in the house, the host family ate beans and tortillas.

In Havana we were guided by Rosia, 27, a woman who worked for the government and provided the “official” information about the city and its history, often reading off a printed sheet of “facts.”  She explained that there were two types of peso in Cuba.  Cuban Pesos were rationed to everyone equally regardless of their occupation.  Doctors earned the same as trash collectors.  These pesos were used to purchase staples such as beans, rice, milk, and cheese.  Only Convertible Pesos could be spent on luxuries such as gas, cell phones, and new clothes.  To earn Convertible Pesos, the government allowed people to practice small-scale capitalism, trading goods to tourists, with individual profits carefully accounted for and taxed. 

We went first to the cathedral area, where 1950s cars hauled around tourists.  The engines had been replaced with Russian-made diesel engines and thus kept running long after their original parts wore out.  Since gas cost $5.00/gallon, very few local people had money for a car, other than those who hired them out as taxis. 

Black women dressed in colorful gaudy dresses to simulate Caribbean dance hall floozies of yesteryear, smoking cigars and acting forward with men.  Visitors had to pay them to take a picture.  Other hustlers included a three-piece band that walked up to tourist groups and started blaring “Guantanamera” and then demanding payment; boys on three-wheeled cycles who would pedal overweight tourists across the square; and vendors by the statues whose card tables were piled with books about the revolution. 

Next we were led by the government mouthpiece, Rosia, past a couple tall buildings with giant metal sculpture images of Che and Fidel on their fronts.  Then it was on to an urban park featuring a serene river, with overhanging trees, that was totally trashed.  Again, no pride of ownership. 

Along the way, I asked Rosia whether Havana had any crazy, alcoholic, or homeless people.  ”Very few,” she said.  “The party takes care of everyone, houses everyone, there are none who don’t have somewhere to live.”  The way she said it, sing-song, made her sound like she was quoting directly from a communism pamphlet.  Discussing it later, my friend and I agreed that she was either outright lying, or she had her head in the sand.

We drove a couple hours west of the city the next day to visit the Vinales Valley, a fertile dale lined by dramatic limestone cliffs. There they mostly grew tobacco, along with family-sized (non-commercial) supplies of vegetables, fruits, coffee, chickens, pigs, horses, goats, and sugar cane for making rum.  We went to a cigar and rum house.  One of the owners, whom I thought of as Mr. Guapo, demonstrated how to roll a cigar.  He was swarthy and good looking, with a devil-may-care wicked smile and a laugh on his lips.  The women swooned, and several of them were persuaded to buy a cigar that they probably would never smoke.     

I rode back to Havana in the front seat of a taxi with another Mr. Guapo, a taxi driver named William.  He spoke almost no English, and some of the other women thought he was crude and played his music too loud.  But I indulged in a little flirtation, knowing that it was all a game to Mr. Guapo.      

We departed Havana the next morning bound for Playa Larga.  It took most of the day to get there, due to stopping to search for a rare hummingbird in some guy’s back yard.  I walked through the beach town the next morning, past many small houses that have all been hopefully converted to B & B’s, but looked sadly vacant of tourists. 

Along the road, we stopped at a museum in Giron, where the Bay of Pigs invasion was memorialized with a Russian tank and plane.  They’re very proud to proclaim that they repelled the attempts of the USA back in 1961 overthrow the communist government.  But across the street, at little stands next to the bathrooms, locals sold earrings, baskets, and ceramic figurines.  So much for the revolution and power to the people.  All they really wanted lately was a way to make some extra pesos to spend on new clothes and beer.   

Then it was on to the end of the road in Trinidad.  Late in the evening, I collapsed into a clean bed at Casa Colonial Torrado, vintage 1830 and very nicely preserved.  The next morning, we went to the local artisan market.  There more vendors hawked trinkets.  “Look Lady, you like?” they called plaintively.

I loved the vintage remnants of a bygone era in Cuba.  But the persistence with which destitute residents tried to scrape together a few extra pesos was hard to resist.  Yes, I paid too much for an enamel bracelet.  But perhaps, for those fifty convertible pesos, someone’s daughter might get a new pair of shoes. 

DIY Galapagos

By Kathleen Kemsley © 2020

Galapagos Islands – the name brings to mind two immediate associations: wildlife found nowhere else on earth, and prohibitively expensive travel.  I wanted to see the giant tortoises, blue footed boobies, and land iguanas.  But I didn’t have ten grand to throw at a week long cruise or fancy all-inclusive tour.  My solution was to join a group that provided a land-based tour, including lodging and inter-island transportation, and little else.  The idea was that trip participants could navigate their own adventures, and pay their own way, once they got to the islands. Basically, it was a Do It Yourself Galapagos tour.

The group included ten people, who rather quickly broke into two units. One unit was comprised of a couple from England, a couple from California, and two singles from New York and New Brunswick, who were obviously destined to hook up.  This unit, younger and more energetic, chose to engage in day-long, high energy activities such as a ten mile overland hike to a volcano and a three hour boat ride to glimpse a rare sea horse. 

The other unit consisted of ladies “of a certain age.”  Debs, 58, was a divorced grandmother from England.  I was an American widow a couple years older than Debs.  We two shared lodging accommodations for the duration of the trip.  The third woman, Belinda, also our age, had left her husband behind in Australia and was traveling with her 83 year old mother, Heather.  The four of us immediately became fast friends and companions. 

When we met on San Cristobal Island the first day, the other group booked a day-long boat excursion to Kicker Rock.  We ladies would have been willing to go also, but alas, the total capacity of the boat they engaged was only six.  So I searched my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook to devise an alternate strategy.  The result was a great DIY adventure, traveling around the island on our own. 

We hired Roger, a taxi driver who, for $100, agreed to take the four of us for a day trip to see the island’s terrestrial sights.  Departing from the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the road headed up to Cerro San Joaquin, the highest point on the island at nearly 3,000 feet.  Shrouded in fog, the hills were carpeted in lush grasses and thick brush.  I practiced my Spanish with Roger as we sailed over the top and coasted down the far side.  We came to a stop at Galapaguera, a wildlife preserve.   

There we got a chance to meet the creatures we had traveled thousands of miles to see – giant tortoises.  Entering the fenced parkland, we presently came upon a big group of them milling around on the refuge grounds.  Weighing in at 250 pounds, the giants appeared unfazed by the presence of humans.  A ranger stood nearby to make sure no one touched the creatures. He told us that the oldest tortoises, 150 years old, had become a protected species after early Galapagos explorers nearly exterminated them.  Biologists at the preserve, he said, collected tortoise eggs, incubated them, and protected the babies for about seven years until they were old enough to fend for themselves.  They were then released to the grounds of the preserve to consume about five pounds of plant matter per day, and multiply.

Apparently, it was mating season while we were there.  One big male was seen pursuing a female tortoise across a shallow pond.  As we watched him catch up to her and begin to clamber on top, the ranger said that it can take two hours or more for these creatures to complete the act. To give them some privacy, we moved away and found another gentle giant who posed agreeably in a clearing.  She opened her mouth to show a pink tongue.  “They make me feel young!” said Heather as we old ladies gathered behind the old lady tortoise for a picture.

Once our desire for tortoise photos was sated, we returned to the taxi and proceeded to the next destination.  Chino Beach lay at the end of the road on the southeast corner of the island.  Black lava rocks framed a beautiful little beach with white sugar sand.  Overheated after a downhill walk through a cactus forest in the tropical sun, I ran into the azure water to rejuvenate.  The other three women joined me, along with a fearless sea lion who, surprisingly, appeared to be enjoying some body surfing near us in the waves. 

When we returned to the parking lot an hour later, a little food stand had popped up in the shade of a palm tree.  There I bought a bottle of Aloe juice for two dollars.  It felt strange going down – little beads of slimy aloe sliding down my throat – but it was cold and sweet, just the refreshment I needed. 

On the return to town, we made one last stop at a place called El Junco Lagoon.  There, Roger told us that Magnificent Frigate birds regularly fly to this fresh water lake within a volcano crater, there to wash sea salt off their feathers.  Agreeably, we four trudged up a half mile path lined with ferns and blackberry bushes.  Finches and canaries, showing absolutely no fear of us, flitted nearby.  When we reached the edge of the lagoon, we were disappointed that the fog had returned.  The lake water was visible only in glimpses, as dense clouds of mist drifted through.  But in a moment of wonder, the shrouds of fog parted, just long enough to see one of the big black-and-white Frigate birds splash around in the water at the edge of the lake. 

We arrived back to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno by mid-afternoon.  Leaving the others, I walked by myself along the malecón.  Sea lions laid around by the hundreds in shop alcoves and on beaches and sprawled on the sidewalks.  Bright red crabs contrasted with black rocks that lined the harbor.  Frigate birds patrolled above the port scene, and beyond, the ocean spread out forever. 

As I watched a cruise ship motor in, I felt not a trace of envy toward its high-paying passengers.  Yes, they might be eating gourmet meals, while I had scrounged a couple fried eggs and a heap of mashed plantains for breakfast.  But I was sure my experience on the DIY jaunt around the island was at least as interesting as their guided, scripted, planned excursion.  And maybe better, because my friends and I had experienced the joy of discovery, on our own in the Galapagos.